Why customer service is the ultimate weapon in the marketing battle

What you think, what they say and how to close the gap

[Image courtesy of Alan Clark at Flickr Creative Commons]

I’ve been doing a lot of reading recently about customer service for a big project. And what I’ve found out has surprised me, and sometimes amazed me. But before I dive into the detail, let me ask you a simple question: 

Do you provide good customer service? 

Of course you do. The default response to that question is yes. If it were no, you’d either be very honest (you owned up) or very naive (you thought it didn’t make a difference). It’s like asking somebody if they’re a good wife, or husband, or boyfriend, or girlfriend. A knee-jerk yes. 

And yet and yet. One of the surveys I saw said that 88% of companies think they provide good customer service. And customers? Go on – think of a number. Got it? OK, we’ll come back to that later.

That figure wasn’t the only one that caught my eye.

Research company Gartner say that only 5-10% of companies truly have customer care at their core. The rest – and that’s a whopping 90-95% – simply focus on customer care because they have no choice, and because all other differentiators have disappeared. So they’re doing it simply because they have to, not because they want to.

Let me throw some more figures at you, and just think how they relate to your business: 

  • Reducing your customer defection rate by just 5% can boost your sales by between 25% and 125%
  • 70% of buying experiences are based on how customers feel they’re being treated. 
  • A 2% increase in customer retention has the same effect as cutting your costs by 10%. (Read that again, and write it down on a Post-it. Now stick it to your monitor.)
  • 86% of people will pay more (read, write, stick) for customer service, but only 1% of them feel their expectations are met.
  • In 2013, 62% of global customers switched service providers because of poor service.

OK, OK – I’ll stop. You get the picture.

It’s the service, stupid

The takeaway here is: customer service is important, nobody’s getting really right, and everybody better start getting it right soon. 

In fact, that’s the other really big thing I got from my research. By 2020, customer service will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator. So that’s five years at best – and that’s a very short time indeed when you’re running fast just to stand still.

So what’s the answer? Run faster? Do more with less, in that time-worn cliché? Under-promise and over-deliver (ditto)? 


The answer is really simple. Just promise and deliver. You don’t need to aim for excellence, or go the extra mile every time. In any case, when your resources and your time are maxed out, overshooting for all customers is both exhausting and expensive.

So just do a good job. Do what you said you’d do. Because one other finding I saw really caught my attention: research shows that ‘customer delight’ is wasted effort. Exceeding expectations doesn’t have an appreciable effect on customer satisfaction.

As the man said, good enough is good enough. Now stop reading and start doing.

(A paltry 8% of customers say they get good service, by the way. Chilling, isn’t it?)

Want to write great copy? Tell a great story.

Pull them in, make them care, keep them reading. Here’s how…

Just the other day, I was struggling to find a way into a case study I was writing. The facts were compelling enough, and there was a happy ending (there always is with case studies – didn’t you know?) but something was missing.

And then I realised what it was. Involvement.

Involving the reader by connecting with them. And the very best way to connect with somebody is to tell a story, which is exactly what I did. Except here’s the twist: I let somebody else tell it for me. 

I called up my client’s client, and ask them to start at the very beginning. Tell me in your own words, I said, and that was all it took. Quote after quote poured out of their mouth. The story was so engaging, and on such a personal level, that I barely had to write it up. I just interwove facts with the quotes and the story came alive. 

I was reminded of that when I watched a TED talk by Andrew Stanton of Pixar, responsible for Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo and countless other films.

In The Clues to a Great Story, he talks about having a singular goal from the first sentence to the last, and about obeying the greatest story commandment: make me care. (Sound familiar? It’s also the greatest copy commandment.)

He also talks about starting with the ending (which I regularly do with copy) and holding back something (ditto). Along the way, he drops in some great quotes, including “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once your know their story,” and “Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty”. 

His talk is packed full of great advice for anybody who writes anything. And yes, that includes case studies. Enjoy. 

[If you’re reading this in an email, click here to see the talk on]

The easy way never to run out of copy ideas

Think you’ve got nothing to say? Think again.

[Image courtesy of Colleen Lane at Flickr Creative Commons]

The web is a hungry beast and needs constant feeding. Gone are the days when you could optimise your site, publish and forget. In a world where change is the only constant, you can never stand still.

It doesn’t matter how good your content is if it’s not changing. Because other people are busy stoking the fires of their word mill, and cranking out content night and day. 

The trouble is, where do you find a constant supply of ideas? Surely, sooner or later, you’ve said everything you need to? If you’ve reached that point, remember what George Bernard Shaw once said about newspapers: it’s amazing how there’s always enough news on any given day to fill them.

(He also said, “Newspapers are unable, seemingly, to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization”. But let’s leave that to one side for the moment.)

Read all about it

In Shaw’s observation lies a clue to a never-ending stream of material. Everything is newsworthy. You just have to make it interesting enough, and people will read it. 

Which brings us nicely to your content. And everybody else’s. Because I’m sure you’ve had one of those moments when you scratch your head and wonder what you have left to say. Or if what you have to say is even worth saying at all. 

We all have those moments – it’s just that the clever ones don’t pause for thought. They simply think like a journo and find an angle.

It’s what the tutor said several years ago to me at  City University in London when I went on a feature-writing course. Nothing is new, she told us. You just have to make it seem so. 

So how do you do that with your copy? How do you find an angle, make the ordinary seem extraordinary and keep people reading? 

  • Re-purpose existing content. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve done this for clients. In case you’re wondering what re-purpose means, it’s simply a guilt-free alternative to re-use. Which is essentially what you’re doing. I’ve turned a case study into a press release, and vice versa. A report into a blog post. A general-interest news story into a piece about how Company X can help clients deal with just such a situation. The list of possibilities is endless. All it takes is a little imagination. 
  • Copy somebody else. All out of ideas? Simply google few key words or phrases and see what somebody else has written. And when you see it, don’t think OK, it’s been done. They got there first. Yes, they did, but remember, it’s been done by them, with their angle. So take it as a starting point, and turn it into your story, with your angle. Me-too is everywhere – just look at all the EL James wannabes who’ve sprung up – so stop talking (to yourself) and start doing, as IBM once said.
  • Check out the calendar. Just recently, I wrote a piece on internet security and was looking for a ‘hook’, which is what editors want to see in a story. This was for a blog, but the principle is the same. Why this? Why now? What’s the relevance? And for me, the hook was just a little light searching away. It was exactly one year since eBay’s 145m users had their details compromised in a security breach, and had to change their passwords. What better time, I started, to revisit security than on the anniversary… You see how easy it is? Newspapers, websites and magazines are full of features linked to anniversaries: births, deaths, marriages, catastrophes, inventions, battles, treaties. So jump on the date bandwagon, and you’re well on the way to a story.
  • Change your point of view. Remember one of the golden rules of copywriting: it’s not about you, it’s about them. So forget what you think is important, and find out what they’re talking about. Hang out in forums, on Facebook and Twitter. See what’s hot and what’s not for people, then create content that directly addresses what they’re talking about. And here’s the clever bit: when you’ve done so, be sure to publicise your content in the very place where you found the idea in the first place. The people there are a dream audience, and the content is tailored exactly to their needs. But move fast, as hot topics can go cold very quickly.
  • Break it down. Stories are often complex and multi-faceted, and good content can often be submerged in a sea of detail. But there’s a simple solution: instead of overwhelming your reader with one big story, why not break it down into several, bite-sized ones? They get something they can easily read and digest. You get several blog posts (or articles, press releases, emails) instead of one. Two problems solved, and everybody wins. 

With a little thought and ingenuity, you’ll never run out of ideas. As always, it comes down to planning and creative thinking. When it’s all been said before, you simply have to find a new way to say it. Of taking the marketing morsels what you already have and repackaging them as a tasty meal to feed the web beast.

Everybody else does it, so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t too. Especially now that you have the recipe.

5 easy ways to shorten your copy - and make it work better

Boxes, pyramids and vanishing detail

[Image courtesy of Jenni C at Flickr Creative Commons]

As the Twitter revolution has clearly shown, shorter is better. If anybody had told you 10 years ago that we’d all be sending 140-character messages and still including everything we wanted to say, you’d have dismissed them out of hand.

And yet, that’s exactly what’s happened. In the space of a few short years, we’ve all learned to be more concise and to cut out all the extraneous detail. Which proves that when we have to, we can. 

If only web pages, emails and brochures came with a word limit. But they don’t, so we give free rein to our creativity and say everything we have to say. And then some. 

The result is copy that people simply don’t read. Maybe once they would have. But Twitter – plus all the other bite-sized communication out there – has set the expectation. Well, that and all the digital distractions and interruptions we have nowadays. Today, more than ever, you have to get to the point fast

So let me do just that and give you five simple ways to cut down your copy.

  1. Summarise. This is actually cheating, but if it works, who cares? An executive summary at the start of a whitepaper is simply a short version of the document, designed for busy people who like to skim. If they read it, they get the gist without wading through the detail. If they want the detail, they know exactly where to find it.

    And it works not just for whitepapers. You can summarise virtually anything by including the key points in subheadings, bullet points, numbered points, call-out boxes or at-a-glance guides. In a way, it’s the best of both worlds, as you’re catering for the skimmers and delvers.

  2. Hide the detail. Yes, this is also cheating, but (a) you’re busy and (b) it’s easy, so refer to point 1. With this, you simply move the heavy stuff out of sight, so that it’s there but not up-front.

    So your landing page has the bare bones, with an attention-grabbing headline, or an overview. Then allow people to branch out to pages with more detail. They can select the area that interests them, rather than be overwhelmed by superfluous detail.

  3. Write from the top down. If you can’t stop yourself saying absolutely everything (and often, it’s the only way to get all that stuff out of your head) then go on and do it. But try to prioritise as you go. If that’s too much like walking and chewing gum, then just put it all down, then reorganise it so the important stuff comes first.

    Whichever approach you take, the next step is the crucial one: cut from the bottom up. The 80/20 rule applies to virtually anything, and copy is no exception. You can actually get rid of most of it and still get your message across. But you don’t need to be quite so radical: cut it by 50% and you’re well on the way to success. The top-down approach is used by journalists, who are taught to write in an inverted pyramid structure (check out the video at that URL if you’re interested).

  4. Read it out loud. This is an infallible test for all copy. If it sounds wrong, it’s wrong. But more importantly here, if it sounds long… well, you get the picture. If reading it aloud is a chore, that’s a sure sign that you need to cut it down.

    A variation on this is to give it to somebody else to read, aloud or otherwise. Often, when we’re writing something, we lose our objectivity. It’s why so many people come to me with half-finished copy, or barely started copy where they’ve lost their way and can’t see the wood for the trees.

  5. Chase the numbers. Have you ever had to write a Google AdWords advert? I have – in fact it may very well have been responsible for bringing you to my site. AdWords is completely unforgiving when it comes to word count. In fact, it goes beyond that, limiting you to so many characters per heading plus the two lines of your advert. So you have no choice but to bring a razor-sharp focus and endless economy to your ad writing.

    You can do the same thing when you’re writing copy, simply by setting yourself an absolute limit.

    I’ve recently been doing that for blog posts I’ve written for a client. Their CMS limits the number of words, and while the client doesn’t want to exceed that number (they can’t, so they have no choice) the flipside is that they don’t want to undershoot either, and waste valuable words. So I’ve been practising trying to get as close as possible to the limit, saying everything I need to, but without ending too abruptly.

    And you know what? When you want to, you can. All it takes is a little practice. So try chasing the numbers. Impose a limit on yourself, and see if you can hit the target. 

I say it all the time – on this blog, to clients, and to just about anybody who’ll listen: the key to getting people to read what you write is to think like a reader. And that’s easy, because you’re one too. You know you prefer shorter to longer, and that you don’t do detail. 

So keep that in mind when you write, and you’ll rarely go wrong. 

Apple and the art of simplicity

Saying more with less, and cutting your prose to the core

[Image courtesy of TechStage at Flickr Creative Commons]

Following my recent (re-)introduction to the wonderful world of Apple, I’ve become something of a fanboy. From the free iPad I got a few weeks back, I’ve graduated to a (purchased) iPad mini 2 with retina display: a slick, state-of-the-art ‘fondleslab’ if ever there was one.

But what’s really struck me is not the build quality, or the display, or the ease of use – though all three are pretty impressive.

No, it’s the clarity of the message. The instructions are crystal-clear, the language pared-down and precise, and the tone friendly and engaging. From the very first screen (Hola! Hello! it says) the iPad setup and configuration process is like a chat with your best new friend.

We all know the story of Apple design: it’s all about eliminating complexity. So the iPod was a marvel of minimalism, an example that was followed through by the iPhone and iPad. But for me, the interesting thing is that they also eliminated complexity from all their written materials.

As a closet geek, I like to really get to know things inside out. So I’m actually reading all 300-odd pages of the iPad user guide to get the lowdown on all those hidden features that most people never discover.

The manual is a shining example of how to get it right.

Simple language, logical steps, bulleted and numbered points. All of the information is presented in bite-sized chunks, with just enough detail to find out what you need to know. Hyperlinks take you to cross-referenced sections, and screen captures illustrate a feature at exactly the right point.

But here’s the thing: this simplicity is deceptive. I’m sure they started out with lots more detail, and just like the iPod, iPad and iPhone, they designed out the complexity. It’s a lesson we should all learn from. It’s a lesson that some of us already have.

Anker, for example, who produce a range of accessories for Apple products.

Simple is as simple does

I was looking for a second lightning cable, so I could set up a juice point for my iPad downstairs as well as up. But all third-party lightning cables are not equal, it seems. Some are certified by Apple, and others aren’t.

Anker is. And they appear to have taken a leaf out of Apple’s style guide, as I saw as soon as the cable arrived and I took the box out of the wrapping.

Anker: smart just got easier, it said. Already, I was beginning to like these people. Inside, the story got better: we hope you never have the need, but if you do, our service is friendly and hassle free.

I decided I liked them even more. Their goal of making the smart life easier meant starting with affordable, high quality gear and ending with a commitment to 100% user satisfaction, they went on to say. After all, we’re customers too.

Don’t you just love them? Inside the box was a card that said Happy? on one side with a little sun, and Not happy? on the other with a raincloud.

You see what they’re doing here, don’t you? They’re not Apple, and yet they sound like them. They’re riding on the back of the Apple touchy-feely experience, if anything pushing it to a point that Apple hasn’t yet reached. 

They’re doing what lots of clients I speak to would like to do. We’d like to be more like Apple, they say. So what’s stopping you? I say.

The answer, of course, is nothing. Simple language doesn’t cost anything, and simple policies and procedures are easily created, implemented and followed.

What I suspect is holding them back is the thought that you can get too simple. Too pared-down. Too telegraphic. But you know what? You can’t, because that’s what people respond to in this age of reduced attention spans and digital impatience.

Next time you think I wish our brand could be more like Apple (and I suspect most companies have those moments) take a look at your written materials, and see how they could be cut down and made more reader-friendly.

It is possible. Anker have done it, and they’re reaping the rewards. You could too.

All you have to do is take the first bite.