How to get the message across


Derek Buchanan, CEO of ECS Global Inc, urges companies to recognize the importance of joined-up communications.

“Miscommunication is endless,” said JP Rattie. No, I’d never heard of him either, but he has described, in three words, what happens when words and messages are miscommunicated.

Far from being a simple moment in time that can be fixed there and then, miscommunication travels, and can be hard to stop. Take for example, the hotel that failed to take down its posters advertising a Burns Night supper, days after Burns night had passed.

Aside from me sharing this story with as many people as will listen, I now have to worry about whether this single lapse is just an unfortunate mistake or if it is indicative of their general management of information. Am I being too harsh?

The truth is, we expect companies to be consistent and accurate in their communications with us and we are less and less tolerant of mistakes. They used to say, if you have a good experience, you tell ten people, if you have a bad one, you tell 100; well, how about a million, and any number of companies are still regretting the mistakes they made that caused the victim to create a youtube video downloaded by millions of people all over the world.

Reputations take years to build and they can be destroyed in seconds. While companies that ‘fess up’ to their misdemeanours and publicly apologize will always mitigate the damage more than those who try to tough it out, the truth is, most companies routinely miscommunicate with customers in ways that may not lead to a viral youtube video, but do lead to a slow, even initially unnoticeable erosion of trust and of spend. Customer loyalty can disappear with a bang as well as a whimper.

The irony is that companies have never had more ways to communicate with their customers; social media, newspapers and magazines, advertising hoardings, telephone, catalogues, the Internet, stores and restaurants, smartphones. The irony being, here are new ways to get the message across, but at the same time, more opportunities to get it wrong. The problem is often not the message as it is communicated through one channel, but how it is communicated across channels.

Consumers don’t think in terms of channels; they almost certainly don’t care that the company has worked hard for consistency and accuracy in each and every channel, if they don’t actually deliver. This, I believe, is where the battleground is now – how companies can see themselves through the eyes of their customers and still satisfy the varying requirements of each part of the business that is responsible for different channels.

Interestingly, the obvious candidate for managing the flow of information is the CIO, as he/she has the word information in their title, but it falls to a range of people in the business, a range that is broadening with the growth in the number of channels – a certain recipe for greater miscommunication.

Communications are a senior management issue, backed by technology that is able to manage the dissemination of words and messages, visual and audio, in print and digitally, in ways that make it easy for everyone in the business to deploy. This is well beyond the capabilities of the traditional corporate standards manual, which can impose the standards but is unable to respond to constant changes in market conditions.

Once companies have control of their communications, they will need to ensure compliance by their staff in how they are deployed and managed. “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place,” said the playwright George Bernard Shaw. How common is it for retailers to impose rigorous standards in terms of labeling, promotions and pricing, only to see the individual stores deploy either incorrectly, inconsistently or without due care over the life of the stock, with the result that price tags may be wrong or even missing.

Ultimately, it is the customer who is now in control and they will make decisions not to buy even at the very last minute. For instance, some fashion retailers have discovered that customers will try on a garment in the changing room, find it fits, want to buy it but then dump it once they emerge from the changing room to see a long queue at the checkout.

Communications at this level is a much more demanding science, because it requires an understanding of the customer journey, both in-store and online, and it is not a predictable journey that can be easily mapped, with a route from A to Z. The truth is, the customer now navigates around a supplier in ways that are entirely known to him but often puzzling to the retailer. Added to which, the customer is now communicating in the other direction through social media in an unstructured fashion that can create a deafening white noise of feedback that even the largest and most responsive company can struggle to manage.

I’m the last person to say that the answer to these challenges is simple, but I do recognize that the rewards for companies who get it right are enormous. How else to explain that, in the teeth of a recession, some companies are posting record sales, while others are going out of business. Communications are one of the major differences between these two types of company.