Times have changed. Have your comms?

Right now, any customer could be a vulnerable customer. Automated communications written for a different time have the power to do unseen damage. Today, more than ever, organisations have a responsibility to reduce unintended consequences.
Calum MacLeod

Calum MacLeod

Calum leads complex, impact-focused service design projects for many of our private and public sector clients. He's also a talented musician, and owns more guitars than the rest of Nile put together.

As your customers’ contexts change, so do the unintended consequences of the messages you’re sending. How can businesses help minimise the negative impacts? Photo by Jonty Fairless

At Nile, we’ve built our practice on the principle that whatever business you’re in, you’re in the business of connecting with people. And now more than ever, how you connect with people is important.

During COVID-19, your customers’ context has shifted. Their financial situation, concerns, needs, level of anxiety — even their values — are changing. And that means what they need to hear from you has changed too.

We’ve been speaking to clients and customers over the past few weeks, and we’re already seeing this shift in action. Organisational comms teams are rising to the challenge relatively well with bespoke emails and contact with customers. But, automated communications are at risk of being left behind.

Let’s take banking as an example

In our recent conversations, some of the shifts in customer needs we discovered were;

  • Individuals who previously valued banks ‘telling it to them straight’ are looking for greater reassurance and support.
  • Customers who previously viewed the bank as a passive ‘bucket’ for their money are now engaging with a richer set of offered services — bank-built budgeting tools and spending monitors, for example.
  • Many customers are fully engaging with regular bank communications, and taking more action as a result. For example, exploring payment holiday options.

Changing context changes meaning

When a customer’s context changes, every proposition takes on a different meaning and significance for them. What was designed for one context may now mean something completely different in another.

In this way, context shifts demand a re-examination of services. Think about your communications at the moment. As we all become a little more anxious, a little more vulnerable and a little more uncertain, the unintended consequences of communications become more acute. You may be pushing the same old messages out there but chances are, they’re landing differently.

What might have previously been an annoyance, say, a push notification about an upcoming mortgage payment, might now be a trigger of something more serious.

In this new context, responsible business stewardship demands a rethink of how you talk about your service, what you say, and whom you say it to.

Automated comms risk being forgotten

Comms teams are generally working hard and responding well to the impact of COVID-19, proactively and sensitively reaching out to customers to offer help and guidance in relation to the services they use.

a UK banks' Covid-19 support page. "How we're supporting you."

But proactive, one-off comms are barely half the story. Every day, customers receive automated messages, pop-ups and notifications from services they’ve hired. It’s these quiet, automated communications, often designed for a different time, that risk creating a new kind of stress for customers.

Organisations are already paying the price: insensitive or inappropriate automated messages act as stealthy drivers of traffic to overworked service centres, with customers calling in, confused or concerned.

All of the good work that went into designing and shaping those automated prompts, which were (hopefully) built on solid customer engagement, is lost with a single out of context message.

Let’s return to banking for an example…

During our research, we heard that automated prompts and messages relating to upcoming mortgage payments continued to be sent by some banks. These automated prompts didn’t reference any widely publicised payment holiday options — or worse, haven’t stopped when customers have opted in to the payment holiday system. Customers are left confused or concerned, and more often than not, pick up the phone to get clarity.

It’s not only customers at risk

For businesses, the highest impact of COVID-19 is likely to be in servicing, and the staff who work in these areas. In the short term, as call centres go dark and remote working slows response times, many businesses will see their servicing functions strain under customer pressure.

In the long term, customers will remember brands that made this period unnecessarily difficult, while staff will always associate this period with how it was handled with their employer.

We have a duty to address this

At Nile, we design services and solutions with the core belief that — as designers — we are responsible for the outcomes of the services we create. Intended or not.

Outcomes change as contexts change. And when outcomes shift toward negative, design work starts again.

With the shift in context COVID-19 has brought, designers (and the organisations they work for) need to re-evaluate old designs — especially communications — and redesign for this new context.

It doesn’t have to be time consuming.

Over the last few years, Nile has built a deep speciality in rapid research. Communication challenges are broken in to chunks, analysed, researched and resolved within a week (or in the case of one of our clients, in one day, every Wednesday.)

Remember. It’s a simple message, but worth hitting home once more:

Brands that can build unified touch points, speak with a single voice, and build empathetic communications with customers will come out the other side of this on top.