My wife and I are just waking up in a small bed and breakfast in Chimney Rock, North Carolina, which is about four hours away from picking up our 14-year-old son from summer camp. We hope he's had a great time, but since we haven't received a letter since his second day, we really have no idea.
That's not entirely true. If he were miserable, he would have written to complain. In this case, unless he has forgotten our names or mailing address, no news almost certainly is good news: he's having too good a time to bother telling us about it.
With that on my mind, I'd like to talk about another form of missing communication: when we don't hear from our prospects and customers.
People Will Complain
We hear the complaints, sometimes.
"It was broken when it arrived."
"I spent 20 minutes in voicemail hell waiting for customer service."
"You sent me the wrong order."
If we're lucky, these messages arrive via some private medium, like email, phone or help desk. If we're less lucky, our dissatisfied customers broadcast them publicly via Twitter, our Facebook fan page or on their own blogs.
Smart businesses look forward to negative feedback, both as a chance to make things right for the individual customer as well as to illuminate how to improve for the future. A graceful and sincere recovery from a mistake is memorable to consumers because it is so rare.
No News Isn't Always Good News
The complaints are less of a problem than the vast well of silence that characterizes most of our prospects and customers.
While my son may be completely satisfied and therefore sees no urgent need to communicate this state of affairs, our customers' lack of feedback may not indicate such a joyous situation.
Often, our customers don't complain simply because they don't believe they'll be heard or taken seriously: "Why bother? I'll just suck it up and go elsewhere."
Other times, their experience with our product or service is satisfactory, but they can think of lots of ways it could have been better. Unheard, these ideas represent missed opportunities to innovate, improve and establish competitive advantage.
And even customers who love us can become complacent about their experience once they get used to it. Without getting them to commit their positivity to words, we're in danger of being taken for granted.
From First Click to Follow Up
One of the first and most important goals of my PPC campaigns is to start a dialog with my prospects. With the rare exception of branding campaigns, I almost always want to take the searcher from the ad to a landing or sales page that collects contact information and permission to follow up in exchange for something they want.
Once I have an email address, mailing address or phone number, I'm tempted to follow up fast and hard with all the sales copy, testimonials, specs, psychological triggers to buy, etc. that would make any sane person pull out their wallet and give me money in exchange for my fabulous offering.
It's critical to explain our offer and ask for the sale. But if we're doing all the talking, we're missing a big piece of the sales and business development process: listening.
How Not to Ask How We're Doing
There is a lot of "get information from the customer" technology available to us. Lots of survey tools that interact with website visitors, chat boxes, help desks, click-to-call features can enable that communication.
But unless we ask for it properly, we won't hear anything of value.
For example, every couple of months some company or other offers me a $25 Amazon.com gift card to take a customer satisfaction survey. I confess I like doing these. I set a timer and see what kind of hourly rate I can make. If it's less than $500 an hour, I consider that a subpar performance.
Fun for me, but arguably completely useless for the company soliciting my opinions and insights.
Worse, possibly, are the satisfaction surveys that arrive after a service call or visit. "You recently rented a 20x10 storage unit from Rats-R-Us. Please click the button below to tell us all about your experience."
I view emails like these as practice for inbox zero. While I may not be able to decide what to do with the other 79 messages in my inbox, I have no reason to take even a millisecond helping some bean counter in the QA division of a mega-corp produce his next pie chart. Delete!
How to Ask How We're Doing
So if bribery doesn't get thoughtful responses and just asking gets ignored, how do we successfully solicit feedback from prospects and customers?
Here are a few principles:
1. Ask like a person.
When corporations ask us to do stuff, it's easy to ignore them. But when other people ask, we feel a strong urge to help.
One of my autoresponder messages arrives a day after my prospect arrives at my website and signs up to download a free report. It used to be a quite long and formal request for feedback: Was the report helpful? Did the website provide what they were looking for? Did they have additional questions? And it got close to a 0 percent response rate.
A friend looked at the copy and commented, "That doesn't sound like a real email from a real person. What would you write if you had to write it personally each time?"
I didn't even have to think.
"Hey, Howie here. Yesterday you visited my website and downloaded the report. I'm curious -- did you find what you were looking for? If you'll just hit 'Reply,' I'd love to hear from you."
That short paragraph was responsible for the beginning of hundreds of dialogs with prospects, many of whom ended up as customers and clients.
We're hardwired to be polite to other human beings. The scalable technologies of the Internet can be used to facilitate human communication, instead of corporate-speak. Use them that way.
2. Explain why it's important.
When we marketers want our prospects to think something is important, we invoke the WIIFM mantra: "What's in it for me?"
We often act as though we believe people do things only for selfish reasons. But that's not the way humans act. We're always performing kind and generous acts for others.
So you can generate a robust feedback response by explaining how their feedback will help you.
I recently consulted for a food business that delivers prepared healthy meals. We were hungry (ha!) for feedback about which dishes were popular and which ones ended up decorating the compost bucket.
The email with a link to our survey explained that they could really help us improve our menus and recipes by telling us what they liked and didn't like. And the more detail, the better.
Because our customers saw the value to us in their response, many of them put a fair bit of energy into their surveys. And none of them were doing it for a $25 gift card.
3. Respond like a person.
Don't just send an auto-response email thanking them for their feedback. Make the response email personable. Explain how you use their responses. Who sees them? How do they influence policy and production?
And develop a red-flag system that triggers personalized responses. If someone is seriously miserable about something, have a human follow up with them. If someone is elated, follow up with them as well.
Once you have a dialog going, it's surprisingly easy to turn enemies into friends and pleased customers into passionate evangelists.
We just picked up our son. Turns out he didn't receive our letters until three days ago and wondered why we weren't communicating with him. Something instructive about that...