It's been a very busy couple of weeks since I joined a welcome team for a Syrian refugee family that just arrived in Canada. The experience has been really great - for me, anyway - I'm not sure if our new Syrian friends have figured out these crazy, super friendly Canadians are only trying to help! (Can you be too welcoming? Not in Canada!)
The welcome team model is unique to Saint John and from what I hear, it's a model that more towns and cities should consider in their own effort to welcome new Canadians.
There are a lot of challenges to helping a family, who arrive with nothing, to settle into Canadian life (in the middle of winter). And as serious as that sounds, we've had a lot of laughs. Our new friends know as much English as we know Arabic, so communicating is interesting.
Our welcome team includes students, a PR expert, Moms, Dads, business owners, a retiree, musicians, and a scientist - a pretty shifty bunch, I know. Fortunately, it wasn't long before our new friends started to trust us. And with trust came more smiling and laughing. We use charades and a smartphone translation app to chat. We understand each other most of the time. We think.
I ventured down to my favourite beach with my new Syrian friends last weekend. It was sunny and pleasant, by Canadian standards - above freezing with only a slight wind chill. They really enjoyed the stroll and were consumed by their new hobby, the quest for beach glass.
As we were heading for the car, they asked me if we could "see birds". I stopped to look around for birds. No birds. So we pulled out the smartphone and started translating back and forth. The first message said, "Can we go see birds?" No problem, I thought. We saw ducks the weekend before at a local park. They must want to see those birds again. So we piled in the car and headed to the park.
When we pulled into the parking lot beside the duck pond, my Syrian friends couldn't control their laughter. The smartphone came back out, between giggles, and they typed another Arabic message for translation. "We want to go shopping for a bird." Oh, OK. I don't get it. Did they want to buy a bird to eat? I translated that to Arabic and got uproarious laughter. OK. I was stumped.
My next question, typed hastily into the phone, "Do you want to buy a bird for a pet"? Bingo. They wanted a bird in a cage. So we went to the pet store, on a mission. My assumptions had led me on a wild goose chase - so to speak - that afternoon.
And that got me thinking about some of the assumptions we make when we communicate, especially with our customers.
Don't assume people really understand what you mean.
As small business owners, it's so important to communicate clearly to our customers all the time, with signage, in online posts, and in advertising. You are nurturing your client relationships with every email, every social media post. It's part of providing great customer service, which is more important than ever in this age of online communications. Bad news travels so fast. Especially on Facebook!
Want to communicate clearly? Here's how...
1. Listen well. (And take your customer feedback seriously) If you listen carefully, your customers will tell you what they need, how they are feeling about your products and services and how they are being treated by your staff. If you can't be face-to-face with your customers regularly, consider using surveys and polls to help gather important feedback. Because the more you understand your customers, the better you will be at talking to them.
2. Spell it out. Stay away from confusing acronyms when describing your products and services. Put your feet in the shoes of your customers. If you write that your ASM is at the FoH behind the EHD drinking an AHC, your audience may not realize your assistant store manager is out front at the enterprise help desk drinking an at home coffee. Don't CYC (confuse your customers)!
3. Write clearly. It's OK to make writing mistakes SOMETIMES - it happens. But don't make it a habit. You can avoid chronic mistakes by taking the time to re-read your writing. Get a second set of eyes on it, if you can.
4. Say thanks. Remember to thank your customers from time to time - in person and in your marketing messages. Have a contest or draw to show your appreciation. Be creative. It's always a good idea to say thanks. No need for your customers to assume you are thankful for their business. Tell them!
5. Be honest. Especially if you've made a mistake. Being open and authentic in your communications with your customers is the best policy. Always. It builds trust. You're in this for the long haul.
You have an advantage with your customer communications that I don't have with my Syrian friends - your customers probably speak the same language that you do! That's a really big first step in being understood!
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The Small Business Guide
Kim Houlahan is a marketing consultant who loves helping small businesses connect with their customers online.