5 common communication problems with customers (and how to solve them)

Read real-world examples from support teams across multiple industries to learn five common communication problems with customers and how you can solve them.

Mercer Smith VP of CX at Appcues
07 August 20207 Min Read

Read real-world examples from support teams across multiple industries to learn five common communication problems with customers and how you can solve them.

Supporting customers can sometimes feel like walking through a minefield. 

This is even more true during challenging times, and 2020 has been a year filled with challenges. Many support teams are dealing with increased support volume, stressed-out customers, and smaller teams. Everyone is feeling the pressure and no one wants to misstep.

In the face of these trials, it’s vital to know how to effectively communicate with your customers. Empathetic communication can defuse tense situations or, better yet, nip customer issues in the bud altogether. 

Below we’ll uncover five common communication problems with customers and how you can solve them. We’ll highlight real-world examples from support teams across multiple industries. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll walk away with creative ideas about how to tackle similar communication problems.

Problem #1 - Unresponsive customers and missing information

Many support teams regularly experience customers reaching out and not providing enough info for them to resolve the issue successfully. Tim Jordan, Support Team Lead at Cars.com, shares about how they’ve successfully solved for these situations:

One of the communication problems we’ve solved at Cars.com is the responsiveness of our customers when we need more info from them. Short and personalized emails have been key.

There are three things we do to ensure a customer responds or takes action when we need them to:

  1. The email clearly lays out the action we need the customer to take in only one or two sentences.

  2. We increase responsiveness by ruthlessly eliminating information that isn’t immediately pertinent. 

  3. The tone is friendly and personalized. This helps the customer feel like they received a warm request from a real human, rather than an automated request. 

We’ve found that following these three principles makes it far more likely that the customer will take action in a timely manner. 

Tim also noted that they’re currently working on preventing these situations altogether through promoting more self-service and pushing more customer requests to standardized forms that help ensure the necessary info is gathered upfront.

Problem #2 - Telling customers no

Sometimes, you just gotta say no. Sometimes customers might ask for features your company can’t or won’t build. While there may be value in a specific request for that customer, if it takes your team away from larger priorities, it’s simply not going to happen.

Many support agents are uncomfortable in these situations, but there are a few simple steps you can take to make these conversations far less awkward:

  1. Set clear expectations. While many brands talk about how important customer feedback is, beware of issuing blanket statements around customer requests. Always be sure to indicate that incoming requests will still be examined and scoped out to make sure they fit in with your overall direction.

  2. Ask investigative questions. Don’t take user requests at face value. Customers make suggestions because they have a need they hope you can solve. Ask questions to dig deep into that area of need, and you may just find that there’s a completely different way to solve for it that’s actually doable.

  3. Don’t give false hope. Sometimes the answer really is no. When that’s the case, make it clear and over-explain why. Rather than simply saying “We won’t be building X at this time,” try something like, “We won’t be building X at this time because we have limited development resources and we’ve decided to focus on Y and Z. We believe these two features will have a bigger overall benefit for customers and align more with our core mission as a company, so our efforts will be focused there.”

Problem #3 - Apologizing to customers

Everyone makes mistakes, companies included. When your brand makes a mistake, whether it’s at the individual customer level or far more public, knowing how to own up and sincerely apologize can be difficult. 

IPSY, a monthly makeup subscription brand, provides a good example of how to apologize to customers well. After provoking public outrage by accidentally including an offensive line in a Pride celebration video, IPSY owned up to their mistake and apologized to their nearly three million Instagram followers: 

insta apology

Owning up to and apologizing for a big mistake like this takes courage, but it often leads to a far greater level of respect and authenticity from your customers. 

Problem #4 - Troubleshooting with non-technical customers

If you’ve ever had to explain to someone what an internet browser is, this one's for you. 

While some people find it hard to believe, there are still plenty of customers out there who are non-technical. Whether it’s due to age, lack of access, language issues, or something else, these users struggle to understand and navigate even software that many of us find intuitive. As such, conversations with non-technical users often prove to be major sources of frustration for customer service agents. 

There are several steps you can take to make these conversations less frustrating and create a better customer experience:

  1. Be patient and empathetic. Non-technical customers often come across as frustrated or upset...because they often are. When a customer struggles to use your product, it can lead to feelings of incompetence or inadequacy. If you’ve ever felt that way, you know exactly how frustrating it can be. How great is it that your support team can be the guides to help lead them towards mastery? Reframing the situation can lead to a greater sense of empathy and compassion for your customers.

  2. Avoid assumptions. Most of your customer base may know what “clear your cookies and cache” means, but phrases like that will sound foreign to a non-technical user. Instead of using jargon or acronyms, opt for metaphors and step-by-step instructions. 

  3. Use a variety of tactics. Tailor your approach to different customers’ learning styles and preferences. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, try implementing different tactics like GIFs, video walk-throughs, bulleted instructions, and more.

A great example of what this looks like in practice is Asana’s knowledge base. While this project management software can do a million different things, from the very first click into their help center even a non-technical user can understand the different help options that exist. By offering everything from courses to video tutorials to a “learn the basics” section, Asana has managed to craft an extremely accessible knowledge base.

Problem #5 - Talkative customers

Some customers just love to chat, don’t they? While in theory, you’d probably love to give every customer as much time as they need, in reality having support agents tied up on long calls or chats can make it difficult for you to staff appropriately and to provide support to other customers in need.

If this scenario sounds familiar, your support team may need training on how to lead and end a call with a customer. A few tips include:

  • Ask direct questions. Open-ended questions give chatty customers the opportunity to go off on tangents. While there are many situations where open-ended questions are valuable - such as when you’re gathering feedback - they’re also a surefire way to drive up your handle time. Instead, ask direct questions that get right to the heart of the issue at hand.

  • Carefully redirect the conversation. Interrupting a customer can be a tricky thing, but your support team should feel empowered to carefully redirect conversations when they’re getting off track. For instance, imagine you work for a pet toy manufacturer. Bob calls in. While you’re pulling up his account and making small talk, he says, “It’s rainy here in Seattle. It’s making my knee act up, it’s never been the same since I got injured playing for football for USC. In fact, that reminds me of the time when…” While Bob’s story may be a fantastic one, it’s probably not pertinent to the issue he’s calling in about. In this situation, an expert support agent should find a moment to step in with something like, “I’m so sorry to hear that your knee is acting up, Bob. I see that you recently ordered our robo-fetch machine, is that what you’re calling in about today?” When done with a warm tone and in a helpful manner, redirecting conversations can have a big impact without negatively affecting your customers.

Customer communication problems are unavoidable — so embrace the potential awkwardness

Effectively communicating with customers is a skill. It’s part science and part art. You’ll never be able to anticipate every single situation your customers will throw at you, but proactively preparing your team to handle common communication problems and solving for them at scale will pay big dividends. 

Written by Mercer Smith VP of CX at Appcues
Last Updated: 12 August 2020