6 communication fails that have happened to all of us (and what to do next time)

Posted by: Anna Murphy /

Whether your communication mishaps have been of the innocent-but-embarrassing variety (like addressing a client by the wrong name) or more serious and problematic, frankly, we’ve all been there.

But in business, communication fails can cost you time, money, and — worst of all — your reputation.

Here are 6 mistakes you’ve probably already made — and 6 ways you can avoid making them again.

1. You both replied to the same person

Awkward! But when life gives you lemons, use those lemons to do a quick litmus test: did you both say basically the same thing?

If not, you need to focus on getting a single source of truth for your organization, so that anyone can quickly find the right answer to any customer’s query at a moment’s notice. Your information, processes, and overall response style should stay consistent no matter who’s replying to a message, so this is a good opportunity to double-check this and ensure everyone is saying the same thing.

Next, you need to make sure that you have a clear process of ownership for each communication channel. Everyone should know who’s responsible for managing which communications. If the Designated Contact Person doesn’t know the answer to something, it’s their responsibility to find it and get back to the customer. All of the faff that that entails — double-triple-quadruple checking the status of something or ensuring a query gets seen by the appropriate person — should happen out of sight of the customer.

It’s like looking at a swan: you see the sleek, graceful bird above the surface, not the frantic paddling that’s going on underwater.

And when you’re in the midst of that frantic paddling, use the right tools to help you make progress, fast. Having shared inboxes allows you to get context for every message and assign owners to tickets so that nothing goes unanswered. (Psst… Teamwork Desk even lets you see when someone else has started replying to the ticket you’re viewing, so you’ll never double-reply again.)

2. You ghosted your customer

We love a good ghost, but not like this. Ghosting is the not-very-nice practice of ignoring all communication, giving the impression that you’ve disappeared into thin air.

Just like real ghosts, it can wreak some serious havoc. Unanswered emails are not only lost opportunities — they can also do major damage to your brand.

The good news is that following the steps above will go a long way to fixing this problem, too. Once everyone knows what they’re responsible for, there’s clear accountability, and if things regularly fall through the cracks, you’ll be better equipped to address it.

If someone is repeatedly failing to respond, for example, you might see that they’re getting significantly more tickets than other agents — or maybe they’re not and it simply shows a lack of attention to detail. Either way, it helps you to pinpoint where things are going wrong, so you can focus on why (and what you need to do to fix it).

But think about other ways you might be accidentally ghosting your customer, too. When they sign up for a free trial or become a client, are you there to guide them on that journey, or are they left to figure things out entirely on their own? Do you support them with resources that will help them to get the most out of what you’re offering, such as ebooks, demos, webinars, and helpdocs? Do they know where to go if they have questions?

Think about your customer’s experience from beginning to end, and make sure they know that you’re with them every step of the way.

3. You spammed your customer

Sometimes, it feels like there’s no winning: not communicating enough is bad, but communicating too much is bad, too. The last thing you want is for your customers to feel like you’re constantly spamming them. What to do?

Don’t be ashamed to contact your customers — but every piece of communication should have a purpose. And most importantly, it should have a purpose for them, not for you.

This can be tricky, because we all know that companies don’t reach out and say hi solely out of the goodness of their hearts. But, even with that in mind, there are still ways of being authentic in your communications and ensuring that they add actual value to your customer’s day.

Every time you send something out, think about what it offers to its recipient. Are you educating them? Informing them? Helping them? Saving them money? Making them think? Making them smile?

When it comes down to it, everything boils down to one simple question: why should they care?

It’s likely that asking yourself that one question before each email, blog post, phone call, or tweet will help you to cut down on any unnecessary communications, and enable you to communicate with clarity and purpose when you do.

(And relatedly: keep an eye on your unsubscribe rates. They might be telling you something.)

4. You’re sending mixed messages

Think about how much communication goes on in your workplace on a daily basis. From tweets to in-product announcements to answers to job interviews to helpdocs, it’s likely that it’s, well, a lot.

Not everyone will think of what they do as a form of communication; some of your employees might not even realize the customer-facing impact of their jobs. Your support agents probably know that everything they say represents the company, but do your recruiters keep it in mind every time they post a job spec on LinkedIn? Or your IT department, when they post incident reports?

Every piece of communication is a reflection on your organization. We’ve already covered how you need to have a single source of truth for the information you’re communicating to your customers (see #1), but just as important as what you say is how you say it. Consistency is essential.

But with such a width and breadth of different communication needs, types, channels, and styles, it’s unlikely that any one individual will be able to serve as the communication gatekeeper for the whole company.

This is where a style guide comes in. Your style guide should cover all the basics of your written communication, including some helpful reminders about where you stand on hot topics such as spelling (-ise or -ize?), grammar (can you dangle your prepositions?), and capitalization (How Do You Feel About Title Case In Your Headings?).

But your style guide should also give you broader guidelines about your organization’s “tone of voice,” and what that actually looks like in practice across all of your communications. What’s your organization’s take on using emojis, for example? GIFs? Do you generally use rather formal language when conversing with clients or are you, like, totes chill?

Having a style guide empowers everyone in your organization to communicate with confidence. If you don’t have a document like this already, don’t panic; you can start building one. If you don’t know where to begin, some companies (like Mailchimp) have even made their style guides freely available for you to use or adapt, as long as you credit them.

Bear in mind that your style guide is just that: a guide. One document will never be able to answer every question, or give an example for every occasion. Store it somewhere where everyone can easily access it, and let it be a living document, open to changes, updates, and a bit of good old fashioned trial and error.

5. You said something stupid

Agh! Of all the communication fails, this is often the one that feels the worst. Whether it was something innocuous but silly or you said something that ended up hurting or upsetting someone, saying something stupid is probably the most relatable and frustrating communication fail of them all.

So how do you backtrack? First things first: assess the damage. Is this a real issue, or one of those occasions where you make a pun on Twitter but nobody likes your tweet and then you feel bad about it for days? If it’s the latter, just be kind to yourself and let it go. (Or: keep trying the same joke until somebody, somewhere, laughs!) When you’re dealing with a large volume of communications, you’re always going to have a few duds, but it’s highly unlikely that they’ll impact the bigger picture.

But there will be other occasions when it’s deeper than that. Maybe you said something that drummed up some negative publicity for your organization, or that you regretted as soon as it left your mouth (or keyboard). In that case, acknowledge your mistake, own up to it, and apologize. (The scale of this will depend on the scale of the issue: it could range from tweet to press release.)

Then analyze the problem. If you already know why your communication upset people, how did it get out in the first place? Do you need to update your style guide with some more specific guidelines so everyone has a clearer picture of what is and isn’t appropriate? Or do you need to have a more stringent vetting process before communications go live?

On the other hand, if you don’t know why whatever was said upset people, listen to the people who were upset and educate yourself about the issue.

Once you know more, hold yourself accountable, and allow others to hold you accountable too. Apologies are a good first port of call, but you need to take action. What steps have you taken to ensure it won’t happen again? Show that you’re committed to doing better. Then do better.

6. You dudn’t prooffread

Just kidding. But seriously — are you proofreading your communications?

We’ve all seen what happens when automation goes bad, {FirstName.LastName}. And to be totally honest, no matter how many times you read, review, and re-read things, fails like that are just going happen.

But thoughtful proofreading and testing can make a world of difference and minimize those incidents. If you’re sending out an email, for example, don’t be tempted to skip the “send a test” stage.

When you’ve got your example copy, make sure to view it in different browsers and in different platforms. Does it do something weird when viewed on mobile or tablet? Does every link go to the right place when you click them? Are you giving your readers the correct information? Is your communication going to the right people? It might seem time-consuming to have to do all of that every time, but it’s time well spent.

In an ideal world, you’ll also be able to take a bit of time between writing and sending so that you have a chance to review your copy with fresh eyes after some time apart. But if you’re working to a tight deadline and that’s not possible (or even if it is!), ask a colleague to review your communication for any typos, broken links, or other issues. Sometimes you’ve seen a piece of text so many times that its errors are hiding in plain sight, so don’t be afraid to call in some backup.

And when something goes wrong — as it annoyingly, inevitably will at some stage — fix what you can, and move on from what you can’t.

How do you avoid communication fails, {FirstName}? Let us know in the comments.


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Anna Murphy
Content marketing specialist

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