Speak To Your Customers In The Right Language

Some time ago, I went to my mail box (yes, remember that old thing?) to collect the usual array of shopping catalogues, bills, and even the odd letter stuffed inside. I noticed a letter from my bank, of which I had been a customer for 15 years. My salary went into this account. I even had a home loan with them.

When I opened the letter, the contents were bewildering. I literally couldn’t understand a word of it. Not one. I studied every inch of it and I dipped back into the envelope to see if I had missed an all important page. But the result was the same. I could not understand a single sentence.

Was I going mad? Had I entered the Twilight Zone? Had I suddenly lost my capacity to read?

It was none of the above. I didn’t understand a word because the entire letter was written in Chinese characters.

Sitting at my kitchen table in Sydney, I turned the pages over and over, expecting to find the English translation somewhere. But there wasn’t a single word of English. This was confounding as the (Australian) bank had managed to write to me in English for the past 15 years.

I had no idea if the letter was informing me about a rise in interest rates. Or if there was a problem with my account. Or if they were about to shut down.

Those responsible for sending the letter must have, in their wisdom, noticed my surname and jumped to the natural conclusion that I must be able to read and write Chinese. I don’t. I’ve never been able to. And, as I subsequently informed them, they would have had better luck at least writing to me in one of the languages I learnt in school – French, German, Greek or Latin. Better still, English would probably have been the best bet.

This is a true story. I couldn’t make it up if I tried.

Consumer communication

It’s also the perfect example of survey results released yesterday by Thunderhead Australia about the attitudes of Australian consumers to their banking and insurance providers. Fifty per cent of respondents believe their providers do not understand their communication preferences.

The survey also reflected another piece of correspondence I received, this time from my health insurance provider. After a few visits to the gynaecologist on a non-serious issue, my health insurance provider started sending me letters which opened with: “Are you thinking of starting a family?” and flowed into suggestions that I might upgrade my insurance based around an impending pregnancy.

I realised because I’m a “certain age” my health fund claims must have triggered a marketing campaign to upsell me to a higher level of insurance based around the concept of pregnancy. I wasn’t thinking of starting a family and I wasn’t about to upgrade my insurance. However, I couldn’t help but think that if the doctor had delivered potentially traumatic news about not being able to have children, those letters would have been nothing short of insensitive.

So it’s no surprise that Thunderhead’s research showed that 52 per cent of consumers felt their providers did not know them at all.

In a world where we try to automate as much as possible, rely on behavioural triggers to optimise our marketing efforts and use complex customer relationship management systems to record data about customers, something’s got to give.

Know thy customer

According to Nick Smith, the vice president of Asia Pacific at Thunderhead, consumers want “generous two-way contextual messaging”. In other words, consumers want to know that you have an understanding of their needs, their history with your business, and they want the opportunity to have a conversation – not just be the recipient of a one-way broadcast.

“Individuals consumers expect you to know about them and expect you to communicate with some relevance,” says Smith.

While the survey was conducted on the banking and insurance industry – largely chosen because this sector interacts with the largest cross section of people – the lessons for small business are important.

While major corporations like banks are often burdened with clunky systems thanks to the huge volume of customers, you are much more nimble as a small business owner. You have more flexibility to customise your marketing to different customers.

Of course, your level of customisation is going to depend on how many customers you have. If you only have a handful, you may rely on a good old-fashioned card system. As your customer base grows, you’ll need to invest in a customer relationship management application that will enable you to record transactions, important information and specific details on customer preferences, sizes, and other requirements.

The key here is to think carefully about your most likely customer segments as early as possible. Consider the type of information you should keep on record about your customers in order for you to serve them better; and work out ways you can target relevant communication to specific customers segments.

And if, for some moronic reason, you decide to send correspondence to your customers written in another language, it might be a good idea to check they can actually read it.