6 bad communication habits that are costing your organization

What planning a wedding taught this journalist about the importance of a communicator’s role.

Being a communicator can be both a blessing and a curse.

It’s a fulfilling career path, but it can be endlessly frustrating to see organizations make mistakes that damage their reputations and risk sales—and not be able to do anything about it (except for your own organization, of course).

I got married last summer. In planning the wedding, I worked with more than a dozen businesses ranging from one-person startups to family-owned businesses to giant agencies. Each vendor had its own approach to communications and customer service, and though most were delightful to work with, others made grave mistakes that cost them my (and probably others’) business.

You know that skimping on communications will eventually hurt a company, but sometimes executives and co-workers outside the communications team need a friendly reminder.

Below are a few pieces of advice that organizations can’t afford to forget:

1. Don’t assume your customer knows as much about your organization/product/industry as you.

Planning a wedding is like beginning a new job in an industry that you know virtually nothing about, yet you are required to pull off a high-stakes project to perfection.

When I walked into my first meetings with florists, photographers, bakers, DJs and stationery designers, I knew barely anything about their industries. I didn’t know which flowers would be in season near my wedding date or how many tiers a cake should have to serve 150 people. Yet, when I walked into many of those appointments, the vendors assumed I knew as much about their crafts as they did.

This led to confusion as to what they would deliver on the day of the wedding, what I was being billed for and how their services would fit into the logistics of the wedding day—all of which caused much more stress than a bride and groom want to handle.

You know how your organization’s product or service works, but potential customers probably don’t. You might even have some employees who don’t fully understand the business. Make sure your website’s About page and any other communication (both external and internal) clearly state what your organization does and how it can solve your customers’ problems. (That means you should avoid jargon.)

There is enough competition in today’s marketplace that people don’t have to stick around to try to make sense of your business. Don’t risk losing them.

2. Set clear expectations.

When I walked into those early vendor meetings, I wanted to see photos of their work so I would know what I would get if I hired them.

Unfortunately, only about half the vendors I met with could show me examples of their work. Very few had a portfolio of clear, professional pictures; most scrambled to pull up blurry snapshots taken on their phones. They had assumed that I would hire them solely because they had good reviews on Yelp, The Knot and other review websites.

Well, I didn’t hire them. How could I trust them to make my wedding day a success if I didn’t know what they were capable of?

This same problem regularly occurs in internal communication.

It doesn’t matter whether your organization is rolling out an initiative, hiring an executive or moving to a different building—if you are implementing any sort of change, tell employees exactly what to expect. Failing to do so will worry workers, launch rumors and, if the rumors go public, potentially lead to severe PR problems.

3. Communicate frequently and consistently.

There is no such thing as too much communication.

In many vendor meetings, I had to work with a different person every time I came in for an appointment. Because of this, I had to waste time going over the same basic information at the beginning of every appointment. (“My wedding date is Aug. 13; I have 150 guests; there are 13 people in the bridal party,” etc.) It was frustrating and inefficient. Additionally, each staff member provided me with conflicting price quotes or descriptions of what I could expect on the wedding day.

Conduct an audit, both internally and externally, to ensure all your communication channels deliver the same messages. Inconsistency only generates stress, chaos and bad feelings.

4. Know your limits.

This tip goes along with setting clear expectations: Don’t promise something you can’t deliver.

When my baker told me she couldn’t guarantee that a six-tier gluten-free cake wouldn’t fall apart given the size and weight of the frosting, I was disappointed. However, when she told me she could bake a four-tier cake that still fulfilled my vision and supply two sheet cakes to make sure there was a piece for everyone, I was ecstatic that she had an alternative solution.

You can’t meet your customers’ or employees’ every need. Be honest about what you can do, and go from there. Sometimes it’s OK, as Tina Fey says, to “Say yes, and you’ll figure it out afterward.” Other times, there is too much on the line. Your organization’s reputation is at stake.

5. Admit your mistakes.

Say you do overpromise and under-deliver. Don’t try to talk your way out of it. You made a mistake, and you have to make it right.

A few months after the wedding, I had a photo shoot to capture some photos that the photographer missed on the big day. I sent my dress to a cleaner so that it would look nice for the shoot. To make a long story short, the cleaner damaged—and shrank—my dress. I was distraught, obviously, but to the cleaner’s credit, he admitted to and apologized for the mistake, and he offered several ideas to try to fix the dress. I might not be visiting him again any time soon, but he was forthcoming enough that I changed my mind about writing a nasty Yelp review.

6. The customer is always right.

This tenet of customer service seems to have fallen out of vogue. I met with photographers who denigrated the types of photos I wanted and florists who refused to accept that I didn’t want “bling” on my bouquet.

Your business would not exist without your customers. Show them the respect they deserve, whether it’s answering customer-service calls or writing content for your blog. Everything your organization does should focus on helping the customer find the information they need. It takes just one unpleasant encounter with a customer to ruin your organization’s reputation.

What other communication mishaps do organizations commit? Please sound off in the comments.

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