Why are companies so horrible at communicating?

by · July 22, 20148 comments

In the last few months, I’ve had numerous real-life interactions with companies and front-line employees. And one thing is clear: companies suck at communicating in real life. This revelation begs the following question: how can they ever possibly get it right online?

As we sit and watch the latest customer service issue go viral, we all need to sit back and ask where leadership went wrong. Putting the entirety of social media’s fate on the backs of marketers who are trained communicators is a reflection of the lack of trust in our employees who deal with our customers every day, and this is where we should consider correcting course. Every employee is a reflection of our company, whether we like it or not. Perhaps it’s time we show how important they are to our mission, teach them how to build solid relationships with others, have empathy, and communicate in an honest and authentic way.

Our employees lack interpersonal skills

People SkillsWe’ve all dealt with employees that are simply rude. It happens so often that it’s almost not worth mentioning. But what about the employee who never makes eye contact? What about the employee who isn’t 100% present for the conversation and is clearly distracted? What about the employee whose tone makes you feel like you are an annoyance? These subtle things aren’t something that comes up in an annual review. They aren’t something worth writing a bad review about. They simply aren’t big enough to ever hit the radar. But they are big enough to dampen your relationship with your customer. They are something the customer remembers the next time they come back. It’s gotten to the point that customers rave about the employee who smiles, is pleasant, and goes above and beyond to help us. That’s a pretty sad state of affairs because shouldn’t that be the status quo? Unfortunately, it’s not. So customers get excited when your front-line employees reach what used to be the minimum threshold for satisfaction.

Our employees aren’t trained on managing expectations

There is a huge difference in how we feel after that experience if our expectations were managed throughout the process

How many times have you been stuck waiting for a scheduled appointment? Or been transferred multiple times waiting for an answer to your question? It is very rare for the front-line employee to actually explain what is going on, why you are still waiting, or even that they don’t know who has the answer to your question so they are going to try another department. I’m sure we’ve all had an experience where we were inconvenienced by a long wait time or something didn’t go as planned. There is a huge difference in how we feel after that experience if our expectations were managed throughout the process. There is nothing wrong with simply admitting that things are really backed up and you are working as quickly as you can to provide them with service. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that you don’t know the answer to their question and that you are personally going to call around so they can be transferred to the right place the first time. There’s nothing wrong with apologizing, admitting you placed the wrong order for them, and unfortunately it is going to cause a 3-day delay. But it doesn’t happen. Instead, the customer gets put in a defensive stance against an employee that has been trained that the company is always right and we hide our mistakes.

Our front lines hold up a mirror to our entire organization

This starts at the front line, but it travels all the way up the organization. We aren’t fully honest when talking about our products and services. We don’t talk about the things we DON’T do. We talk about all of the things we think we do really well and hide the rest. We aren’t honest when a crisis breaks out because we are terrified of legal liability. We are so trained in lying that we don’t even know how to tell the truth anymore. And guess what, that is exactly what we teach our front-line employees to do. They follow our lead.

When these conversations go online, it shines a big bright light on this lack of training. Now this incompetence is public, and everyone can see it. But it isn’t the employee’s fault. It’s the company’s fault because they don’t have training in place to set the standard for how the company communicates at all levels. And no, a single orientation training session doesn’t cut it. Frankly, this isn’t just about teaching employees how to communicate with customers. It starts with teaching them how to communicate respectfully with everyone, including each other. We can’t assume communication is common knowledge.

Are your online communications coming from a place of truth and authenticity?

When I look at what is happening in social, I have to ask this question because there are a lot of companies in social who communicate like you would expect companies to communicate. They lack authenticity; they lack humility; they lack interpersonal skills; they lack everything that makes us human. They lie, they spin, and they foster a one-sided relationship where they have control. If you are sitting there thinking this is a THEM problem, it’s time to look in the mirror.

  • Are your online communications layered in spin? Take a look at your website. Does the language even make sense to an average Joe? How many lies are on the page? How many half-truths? How many omissions? Chances are, all of this has made its way into your social presence, too.
  • Are your online communications coming from a place of fear and mitigating risk? If every status update has to go through legal, it definitely is. If every word is polished before it’s sent, it definitely is.
  • Is your marketing team your primary social presence? If the majority of the brand’s social interactions come from your marketing team, you are limiting your ability to be responsive in the moment, and it likely means the organization doesn’t trust it’s employees to represent the brand.

The best real-world communicators act like human beings. They don’t spin. They are fallible. They make mistakes and apologize. They genuinely care about the person on the other end of the conversation. The reason companies are so bad at communicating is because their employees haven’t learned how to communicate one-on-one, much less one-to-many.

In the end, we may find that we are still not great at communicating. But at least we’d be human. And isn’t that worth a lot more to our customers than our latest marketing spin?

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About Nichole Kelly

Nichole Kelly

Nichole Kelly is the CEO of Social Media Explorer|SME Digital. She is also the author of How to Measure Social Media. Her team helps companies figure out where social media fits and then helps execute the recommended strategy across the “right” mix of social media channels. Do you want to rock the awesome with your digital marketing strategy? Contact Nichole

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Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://www.TheMarketingSpot.com Jay Ehret

    Companies suck at communicating in real life because they
    are wearing an unnatural persona. When a brand does business, they seem to
    forget they are real people running a business. Instead of communicating
    naturally, they communicate like…a business.

    Yes, I agree that training is a problem, but the bigger
    issue is our unnatural approach to business.

    • Nichole_Kelly

      I totally agree with that Jay. In an effort to speak in the brand voice and to maintain professionalism companies have actually dehumanized the employees who deal with their customers. What a fantastic way to articulate it. I tried, but your words are far better. :) Thanks so much for commenting.

  • Lee

    Thanks Nichole, this is such a good post! I wish I could send it to a few people I know;)

    • Nichole_Kelly

      Thanks Lee! If only there were an anonymous way to make an article pop into someone’s email box. LOL.

  • http://jonpishion.wordpress.com Jon Pishion

    This was a great piece and I think it explains a lot about why a lot of organizations have ineffective communication skills. I believe that if you limit your communications to being handled by marketing personnel or if you restrict any communication outside of the organization to certain people that it creates a climate which support this ineffectiveness. A lot of places view communications with a top-down approach and that only certain people can relate information outside which a think also fosters a climate of employee’s who don’t want to or don’t know how to communicate without having to contact a higher up.

    • Nichole_Kelly

      Agreed Jon. It always amazes me how we hire people to talk on the phone with our customers, email our customers, and even build relationships with our customers but we don’t trust them to make decisions on how to communicate. If our customers are our most important piece of our business, this feels like a misalignment. Thanks so much for commenting.

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