Features March/April 2020

Shifting Messaging for a Customer-Centric Experience

By Danielle Feldman Karr

The “customer-centric” business model has been growing over the past decade as both a popular buzzword and a corporate philosophy. Companies that are successful at customer-centric messaging have a strong focus around building a brand that is inclusive and passionate about the uniqueness of each person that makes up their customer base. When the initial transaction is understood as only the beginning of a long-term relationship between the company and the customer, this relationship becomes the company’s lifeblood—fostering an internal obsession for providing amazing customer experiences. Simply put, a customer-centric approach allows us to be more human in our messaging—and this model does more than make a company feel good.

Forbes writer Blake Morgan reported that brands that embody this customer-centric model bring in, on average, 5.7 times more revenue than their competitors. With messaging playing a large role in the development and fortification of this brand positioning, it is crucial for professional writers today to master the methods needed to achieve this experience-focused content style. Whether you write promotional materials at a tech company, white pages at a medical institution, in-app messages for a retail giant, technical manuals at a research facility, or newsletters for a non-profit, becoming a customer-centric writer means caring about your audience.

Although considering the audience is a foundational writing principle for all professional writers, this gem of a tenet has several facets. Knowing an audience can be different from understanding an audience, and understanding an audience can be different from caring for an audience—with each style having a remarkably different effect on the outcome of materials written. A customer-centric writing style takes on the challenge of caring for the audience. This means writers must not only put themselves in the shoes of their customers, but they must also become aware of their customers’ values, knowledge, and interests. It becomes less about knowing an audience to persuade them and more about knowing an audience to become a better steward of their customer experience. A company-customer relationship that focuses on the customer nurtures a reciprocal bond of loyalty—the company cares for the customer and the customer is devoted to the company. This way of thinking challenges professional writers to have an outside-in (customer-centric) approach instead of an inside-out (company-centered) approach to their audience.

Outside-in vs. Inside-out Messaging Strategy

Traditional messaging starts with internal stakeholders amplifying what they think their product or service offers to the public, but an outside-in approach does the exact opposite. An outside-in messaging strategy listens to the audience and takes in what they are saying—or not saying—regarding the product or service and uses that input to set guidelines for all company messaging. The outside-in lens is possibly the hardest shift for a writer to facilitate in a company, but it can be accomplished through appropriate messaging research. I’ve found that often the audience has different priorities than what the company feels is the most valuable benefit of the product or service.

For example, when I started as a writer at my current smart home company, the ability to customize our technology was viewed by the company as the biggest benefit for potential customers. After circulating some demographic surveys, however, I discovered that a customizable home fell far down on the priority list for people looking into smart home technology; rather, potential customers were looking into technology to find ways to better connect with their home and family. “Customizable” had been the result of a company-centered, inside-out way of thinking, while focusing on connecting to home and family was the result of a customer-centric, outside-in methodology. This shift in awareness around the needs and desires of the customer changed the tone of our messaging to be driven by audience values rather than internal, corporate interests.

Outside-in Messaging is Good for Business

There might be an initial concern with shifting the messaging focus away from internal corporate interests. A customer-centric approach, however, is critical to the success of businesses today. Simon Sinek, a senior organizational consultant, explored why some companies cannot maintain success and attributed TiVo’s fall from the spotlight to its poor marketing. More specifically, TiVo failed to resonate with audiences in a way that was meaningful to their needs and interests. Instead of connecting with the audience’s values, TiVo told audiences what the company wanted them to know, excluding the critical, customer-centric “why” message in each communication.

In contrast, incredibly successful companies like Amazon and Apple use the exact opposite model for their public communications. The success of these customer-centric companies illustrates that content driven by the audience is not content devoid of strategy. Rather, these writers use the audience’s “why” as guidance to create a positive customer experience. The values an audience shares with a company or organization, as well as the values they might develop on their journey with the company, become the core focus of content—weaving customer values into every document.

Essentially, writers who bring a customer-centric methodology to their content say through every document, “We care about what you care about, and here’s why.” These writers, and their companies, maintain their enduring success due, in part, to their extreme focus on maintaining the integrity of the customer experience. Their goal is to delight customers by sharing in their values, and the companies’ communications, innovations, and processes are all developed through methods that center around caring for their audience.

Through applying a customer-centric framework to my own writing and editing practices, I’ve helped companies develop some of their most successful customer experiences regarding content. Surveying audiences for their values, concerns, and information needs helps to develop a more robust and complete picture of them that includes knowledge, interests, and sensitivities. For example, being attentive to an audience’s desires and vulnerabilities informs me of how and what I should promote to our customers. Having accountability for how my content impacts the customer experience influences how I curate information for an audience. Constantly using data, reviews, and other feedback from customers to measure how content affects (or doesn’t affect) my audience allows me to improve my future approaches to content. Insights such as these enable writers to do more than just create successful content and delightful customer experiences; these insights also equip writers with a genuine care for their audience to help writers empathetically navigate the gray areas of professional communications for a more positive customer interaction.

A customer-centric messaging style can be challenging to establish in a company that has long practiced an outside-in style. Every writer, however, can take some steps to begin shifting corporate messaging to a more outside-in approach. Here are three examples of how you can shift your company communication strategy to a more customer-centric framework.

Clear Out the Noise 

My previous example—the company that promoted customizable technology when that was not actually a main audience interest—demonstrates why it is vitally important to take time as a writer to identify the “corporate noise” that persistently creeps into your customer-centric messaging. Like anyone, corporations have egos, and it can sometimes be hard for a company to produce content that “leaves ego at the door” to focus on the customer need.

Internal voices often drown out the needs of the audience, so writers must become seekers, as well as advocates, of the audience’s voice. To be a successful customer-centric writer, you must embrace the customer’s point of view. In this digital age, surveys and focus-group questions are efficient ways to seek out that perspective. These methods provide writers insight into what their audiences find valuable as content and provide a foundation of knowledge that writers can build upon to create messaging that will delight customers.

Another strategy for clearing out noise is to find out the origin and heart of a content request when discussing document strategy and direction with the requester. Even if the content is being driven by an internal voice (e.g., a new product launch), the writer can help keep the document’s focus on the audience’s wants or needs. This ensures the messaging is satisfying an external need rather than an internal assumption, shifting the content away from simply talking at the audience and toward engaging in a conversation with the audience.

Write (and Rewrite) with Care

Last year I watched a YouTube video that I will now forever connect with this principle. The video was of a father trying to teach his toddler son how to make a snow angel. He first showed the child how to make a snow angel by waving his own arms up and down as he stood in front of his son, and the child would mimic him correctly. When he laid his child in the snow, however, his son continued to wave his arms vertically (perpendicular) to the ground instead of parallel to it. After a quick laugh, the father then lovingly took the arms of his son and proceeded to move them for him in the correct motion to make a snow angel until the child understood the action on his own.

This story reminded me of the writer-audience relationship, as it demonstrated the importance of developing and maintaining an ongoing connection to the audience. Composing customer-centric content is never a single act, just as the father in the video did not show his child the proper motion and then walk away. Rather, he stayed by the child and adjusted his own method of information delivery when he realized the message was not resonating with his son. This same process applies to customer-centric writing: Successful content is made and remade from endless cycles of caring writers listening to their audience, writing, listening some more, and then rewriting.

A good example of implementing this principle involves an email rewrite I was assigned. My team had worked with the email and service center teams to research what information was important for new customers following their security system purchase. After learning the top five information requests by customers, we set up an onboarding email campaign that contained all the needed information. We launched the campaign and reviewed the email analytics a month later. Upon examination of the click-through rates of links within the email (i.e. how many people who opened the email actually clicked on the links we provided), we realized that users were not clicking one particular link to an important document.

We revisited what we knew: This document was being requested by new customers daily via phone calls to our service center, so we knew that the information was needed. The email open rate was also high, demonstrating that the neither the email send itself, nor the subject line, were the issue. This led us to the realization that something in the email layout and reading experience must be the problem. The solution we implemented was to separate that document out from the main welcome email and send the document link in a separate email with more direct instructions. After implementing that change, we saw a significant increase in click-throughs and downloads in the new email—as well as a decrease in calls to the service center asking for the document.

Document the Change

Companies with writers who center their messages around the customer can experience a sharp increase in customer lifetime satisfaction and retention. However, these positive effects are directly connected to the authenticity and consistency of the company’s customer-centric attitude. Writers must maintain more than a technical writing standard for this approach to be successful; they must develop and document how to create and maintain this customer-centric approach, so it becomes a repeatable standard of care within the company.

If a writer finds themselves in a company-centered environment, applying this lens change can be difficult. It is extremely important to remember that change often does not happen suddenly, and that documentation of content processes that produce a positive customer experience can help bring about lasting change that will weather turnover and reorgs. I always suggest to writers that after developing a successful customer-centric writing model, they should document their methods and guidelines in a company editorial style guide. While often treated as a simple glossary of terms, an editorial style guide can be an excellent place to record the methods that successfully shaped these new values and principles in order to help guide future document creation. Record the process for effective customer-centric content creation in addition to the technical standards of the company in order to maintain laser-focused messaging centered on the audience.

Start Building a Customer-Centric Style Today

Customer-centric messaging puts the audience’s needs and interests at the center of every content decision—to the benefit of both the customer and the company. Companies successful with this messaging strategy invest heavily in building a culture focused around their customers, and their commitment to delivering great customer experiences is genuine. Becoming a truly customer-centric organization takes time, but you can begin the shift in your company today by:

  • Listening to your audience
  • Asking important questions about the customer, as well as the document itself
  • Using audience feedback and data when reviewing and rewriting content
  • Documenting your processes along the way

DANIELLE FELDMAN KARR (daniellefeldmankarr@gmail.com) is a marketing program manager and senior copywriter at one of the largest smart-home companies in the United States. She has a master’s degree in technical communication from Utah State University and is continuing graduate work at Texas Tech University. She has been previously published in Intercom and Corrigo, as well as Distance Learning.

References

Morgan, Blake. “100 Of the Most Customer-Centric Companies.” Forbes, 30 June 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/blakemorgan/2019/06/30/100-of-the-most-customer-centric-companies/#77e7e0b363c3.

Sinek, Simon. Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. New York, NY: Penguin, 2009.

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