April 30, 2022

The secret to customer communication? We asked a psychotherapist, a crisis PR expert and a communications SaaS

What can startups learn about customer communication from a couples counselor? Quite a bit


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Good customer service is key for retaining customers, and the stats back it up; it means an increase in net promoter score (or NPS, which answers "how likely are you to recommend this company to a friend?”) and 89% of consumers saying they’re more likely to make another purchase after a positive customer service experience.

And for fast-growing startups who rely on revenue, traction and standing out in crowded markets to scale, keeping customers happy could mean their business’s life or death.

“If you’re in the tech space, you probably have a competitor that can do something similar,” says Pedro Muller, director of startup innovation at software company Intercom. “But the relationships you build in the service you provide, and how you communicate to your customers and build your relationship with them, that’s something unique to your business — that is harder to copy.”  


So how do you go beyond talking the talk to actually building meaningful customer relationships? We asked a psychotherapist, a PR crisis expert and a customer communication software company for their best tips.  

Making your customer feel heard

You’re a founder focusing on scaling your business — resources are tight, and your customer service team is small. All of a sudden, your product breaks down and you’re flooded with customer complaints. What do you do?

While seeking a fast solution is tempting, not taking the time to first hear a customer complaint out can mean escalating anger. 

Jennie Miller is a UK-based psychotherapist, couples counsellor, trainer, supervisor and author. She tells Sifted that, no matter what the nature of the relationship, listening is key in times of crisis “because it enables us to feel valued, loved and thought of. To feel heard in a crisis is to experience the other seeing our anguish, hurt, frustration. This validates our feelings and experience,” she says. “It can also help to defuse those feelings.”

For Muller, this is particularly relevant for customer service teams because most agents have to deal with crisis situations — after all, you don’t often get customers calling in to tell you how smooth your product is running.

To feel heard in a crisis is to experience the other seeing our anguish, hurt, frustration. This validates our feelings and experience

“Most of the time, the people reaching out to customer service agents, they’re not reaching out to compliment them or say anything nice,” he says. “So they need to be able to work on a crisis mentality and understand how to relate with the customers on a problem and making sure they are heard.” 

Many fast-growing tech companies have managed to get by with no customer service or only automated options as they focus on rushing products to market. But this could result in deadly customer churn.

And while many early-stage companies can’t afford a large customer service team, it’s still important they’re able to deliver personalised support — whether it’s live messaging, interactive product walkthroughs or follow-ups for dropped messages. This means investing in tools that can complement a small human team.

Most of the time, the people reaching out to customer service agents, they’re not reaching out to compliment them or say anything nice

Making a customer feel heard is just step one; the point of customer service is to provide an answer — a shoulder to cry on first, but then an answer.

“The old adage that a problem shared is a problem halved is true,” Miller says. “In being heard and our feelings expressed we can then free up our own thinking and this then helps us to deal/cope with the situation.”


Now focus on actually solving the issue at hand. “You can be there, be present in hearing them, but if you don’t solve their problems, you’re not solving the crisis,” Muller says. “Be able to hear them to ensure you get the right information that you need to provide the help that’s expected."

It’s all about context

Customer support can happen through different channels — from live chat to email and WhatsApp. Being flexible in what you can offer your customers is key to meeting them where and when they’re most comfortable.

“The secret for customer experience is in context,” Muller says, adding that this means communicating to the customer the moment they need a solution, not before or after. 

For example, if a customer sends in a message via your company’s chatbot, you should reply to them via that same channel — don’t send them an email reply four hours later. “As a company, you should just be communicating with users when they need you most, instead of out of context, out of time and in a different channel,” he says. 

Software like Intercom aids this further, as it enables customers to communicate with companies when they need to, using the channel they are most comfortable with. 

The secret for customer experience is in context

“Along the years we evolved to build software to help customers better engage,” says Muller. “The operating system allows businesses to create more personal communication with their customers through different channels: Chatbots, emails, in-product messages, banners, notifications, WhatsApp, SMS…” 

Be proactive

Customer service doesn’t only need to be reactive. For larger, ongoing technical issues, or if your small team can’t react immediately, Miller suggests reaching out and letting the customer pick a time when they’re able and willing to communicate. 

“Ask the person if you can have five or 10 minutes of their time rather than opening up a conversation when they are not really available,” she says. “This might mean you need to be patient and wait but that will be a better outcome than trying to talk to them when they are busy or just trying to get out of the door.”

If a product or service issue is ongoing, or if an issue comes out of the blue and has personal impact — take payment systems being down, for example — being proactive in reaching out to customers is especially important. Tim Toulmin is managing director of Alder, a crisis communications agency that also specialises in reputation management. He tells Sifted that in instances like these, it’s important companies communicate regularly and with clarity about what has happened.

They should remember the four R's: remorse, reassurance, recompense and recovery

“There are numerous different types of crisis that can hit companies and they need different responses… Consumers are most concerned when a crisis affects them personally, ” he says. “Companies must communicate regularly and with clarity about what has happened. They should remember the four R's: remorse, reassurance, recompense and recovery, which is explaining how customers will be compensated or how and when things will return to normal.” 

And using customer service software can help put this into action, Muller says, as it can enable proactive communication through things like product message banners and pop up messages. 

When I want to communicate to my customer and be proactive about a new feature or something that happens that we want to let them know about, we can react,” he says. “We can proactively reach out to them.” 

Remember the human side

For Toulmin, companies often get customer communication wrong when they focus too much on their own business in communications and miss out on the human element. 

Muller agrees: “We believe that all internet business should be personal,” he says. “The coldest message a brand can reply to you is very formal, and that’s not the type of business they are or the type of business they are inside.” 

That’s why Muller says Intercom tries to make customer communications like messaging a friend, by using similar platforms like WhatsApp. 

“Why does that action have to be any different, if it means being unnatural to you or the person on the other side?” he asks. “ We believe in taking the friction out of that bad technology and allowing people to communicate better on a personal level.” 

Intercom for Startups helps qualified startups build better communication with their customer by leveraging our solutions with 95% discount in the first year — sign up here.

And register here for the upcoming Sifted Talks.