In the 1940s and 50s, Abraham Maslow came up with a theory about what motivates humans. Basic needs—food, water, security—come before higher order needs—friendship, accomplishment, creativity. Most days I feel I’m juggling all of these needs: making food, ensuring a safe environment, being friendly, accomplishing something, and being creative. To relax, I shop online.
Online shopping is one of my passions. Even before the lockdown, I would spend time browsing websites for the best deal or the perfectly-sized outfit. Being able to buy online meant that impossible-to-find books would be delivered to our door (a few months later). Mostly, products do arrive (very) quickly and in good condition. I’ve (touch wood) never sent anything back. For me, the main problem with online shopping has been shipping.
Recently I placed (quite a few) orders with John Lewis. One thing I’d been waiting for to come back in stock was a safari baby bath set. (You'll have everything you need at your finger-tips with this useful bath set. The set includes a top and tail bowl, cosy cuddle robe and mitt, thermometer and sponge.) After continuing to search their website, I realised that I could buy most of the items separately, and duly placed the order.
Sadly, this one order was split into four shipments, with four times the packaging and four times the number of delivery numbers. One of the four parcels didn’t arrive.
Now, it’s a busy time for businesses (and nesting mothers preparing for new babies). John Lewis, we’re told, is losing money. Surely for people not in a hurry, an option to wait for items to be consolidated into one parcel—with one invoice and one delivery number—would save money and time for everyone?
I sent an email about the missing parcel—a bath duck thermometer. Now, with an issue such as this, what type of reply is best: one with personal information and opinions, or one that is brief and business-like?
DHL never replied; I received an email almost straight away from John Lewis customer service. The lady responded as a ‘Mother’ about the importance of the temperature of bathwater, immediately refunding the cost of the bath duck and saying that she would add money to cover next day shipping. Sadly, next day shipping at John Lewis is £6.95, which is more than the cost of bath duck, £6. My order had also been enough to qualify for free shipping and because I was happy to wait, I chose that and rather than next-day click and collect. While I was reading this email, I received another confirming the £6 bath duck had been refunded, but no shipping.
The bath duck then arrived the next day. I sent another email to customer service thanking them for being so prompt and asking what to do? The second email said to accept it as a gift because it was late. This email had no personal information. It was efficient and went straight-to-the-point. There were no mistakes and no confusion. The product was only a day late; but I was quite uncomfortable. I replied asking to pay for the duck, since I’d received it, and making suggestions about consolidating parcels to save money and help the environment.
The third email was another personal email. The lady said she also felt passionately about the environment and thanked me for my suggestion about reducing packaging and deliveries. Not so good was she used my first name, and spelled it incorrectly. I didn’t reply to this; I did order again. It came in two packages, delivered on the same day, by two different couriers, with one package gaping open and sloppily taped up in one corner.
So, what style of email communication is best? Quick, efficient emails, written correctly and that save time, or personalised ones that take more time, contain errors, but that possibly generate customer loyalty and repeat business? The question will probably go down to metrics, but mixing communication styles won’t tell businesses which style generates more sales and customer loyalty. Perhaps allowing staff to reply in their own style makes them feel happier, and work more efficiently.
To maintain credibility, however, staff shouldn’t just be telling customers their opinions and ideas, businesses also need to listen to their staff.
Other companies are not only passionate about reducing packaging, they are coming up with solutions. Marks and Spencer replaced plastic with cardboard for bedding I bought recently, and shipped all the products in one package. (I hadn’t emailed them about it.)
Ironically, after I’d bought and received all the items in the bath set, I received an email update from John Lewis telling me that they didn’t know when the product would be back in stock, but that they’d curated similar products, which are available now. The duck thermometer was not listed. (The product reviews for it are terrible.)
As with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—with corporate communication, customers want basic needs fulfilled first, before they move on to friendship and creativity. Airlines such as Finnair, which are illegally keeping thousands of pounds, could send beautifully punctuated and hilarious emails begging me to book again, I would rather stay safe in my own home than risk it; good companies can be friendly, give opinions and small mistakes will be forgiven; the best companies will listen (to customers and staff) and make improvements.