Content as Customer Service

Ring bell for service

Your web content is a customer service counter waiting to happen.

When we craft our flashy admissions viewbooks, statement videos and feature stories, we hope they will cultivate “warm fuzzies.” Whether the goal is to get an alumna to donate or a student to apply, tapping that emotional core is critical to influencing behavior. But sometimes, the quickest path to making a connection can be found simply by being helpful.

Good customer service can be our best marketing, and our web content is on the front line of making that happen. If our brand is a promise, as we are wont to say, that promise is kept in the everyday, on-the-ground experiences that comprise the university experience. And content is a huge part of that.

How Can We Help You?

How do we make our web content innately helpful?

  • User-focused: The sweet spot for effective content is where both our goals and user needs are served. The latter, however, often proves more challenging. What are their questions? What are their problems? What are their priorities? These should help shape the substance, presentation and organization of our content.
  • Clear, succinct language: At Podcamp Boston this weekend, in reference to communication and user experience, digital strategist Dave Wieneke remarked: “Simplicity is the good manners of our age.” As polite as you would be to a customer at a service window, you should take similar care in crafting content that is respectful of your users’ time and easy to understand and navigate.
  • Emphasis on information: In a recent On Topic post, Rick highlighted the approach used by SUNY Oswego’s Tim Nekritz in revising his school’s admissions homepage to be less focused on content and more on information. While it can be hard to trim delightful prose about your school, providing relevant information and clear paths to action is often all your users need.
  • Create help content that actually helps: Back in March, Stephen Biernacki at the Educational Marketing Group (EMG) blogged about help and support pages on higher ed websites. While these may be useful, as Rick wrote back in April, FAQ pages and the like often serve as a crutch or catch-all to make up for a largely ineffective web presence. FAQs and other support content should be rooted in real questions and real problems. Ineye Caycedo, also from EMG, blogged in June about the value of video content for customer service, such as screencast walk-throughs of online applications or a video how-to on writing a good admissions essay.

An Organizational Culture of Customer Service

Embracing the potential of web content for customer service may require a shift in organizational culture.

We’ve written a bit here about content strategy as it relates organizational culture. Customer service can be considered in a similar context. Social media channels—by virtue of their real-time, conversational nature—have the potential to be your most prominent customer service platforms. (Biernacki also recently shared some insights on how to use social media to facilitate customer service.) But as 10,000 Words blogged back in June, embracing this potential can often require a shift in organizational culture, empowering employees to use those channels in this fashion.

Author Lisa Early McLeod recently wrote about how customer service plays out offline at Boston University, with every staffer obliged to help visitors seen examining the large map displays on campus.

It was emblematic of their organizational culture and how [BU staff] perceive themselves. … That single pivotal behavior—help people at the sign—ignites a process that makes customers and employees feel cared about and connected, and community forms quickly.

The power of the web for customer service may be in this personal touch. In the wake of the publicity around social media personality Peter Shankman’s free steak—courtesy of Morton’s Steakhouse, who sent a representative to meet Shankman at the airport with a steak dinner after he jokingly tweeted about it—Higher Ed PR blogger Mike Lesczinski observed that such small, personalized gestures might be an increasingly valuable tactic in an organization’s PR toolkit.

For higher ed, Lesczinski sees social media monitoring as a valuable way to uncover issues such as roommate conflicts or sold-out textbooks and proactively work to address them.

Each of these small acts of personalized customer service tactics show that your school is more than bricks-and-mortar; [it is] an institution that listens and cares—and accommodates—its students the best it can.

When a prospective student or a parent is viewing our financial aid website, or an alum is searching for information about reunion weekend, we can’t be there beside them to ask questions and offer suggestions—or give them a steak. But our content can be. Much like customer service is ingrained into employees at BU, we have to bake customer service into our content and imbue it with the “good manners” to solve our community’s problems and address their needs.

Strive For Efficiency

We should strive to provide the same exceptional level of customer service on the phone, in person and online.

I wrote in July about the importance of having alignment between online and offline experiences, and this is particularly critical when it comes to customer service. We should strive to provide the same exceptional level of customer service on the phone, in person and online.

David Meerman Scott, author of “The New Rules of Marketing and PR” (Amazon affiliate link), recently wrote about how efficient the move-in process was for his daughter at Columbia University. This prompted him to consider efficiency as a marketing asset:

Columbia University’s efficiency at check in makes me feel better about paying the bills. It makes me confident that we have chosen a great place for our daughter… People don’t always buy the cheapest or fastest or biggest or most famous. Some might buy the most efficient service.

Similarly, our content should offer an efficient experience. We should give our users the answers they seek as quickly and clearly as possible. The simple act of being helpful can go a long way.

Content on the Clock

When we talk about informing and educating our audiences, our content is what we send out to do the job. Imagine if we could personify our content and sit it at a customer service window. How would we want it to behave? What tone would we want it to use? What information would we want it to prioritize? Truth is, our content sits at that window every day. And its behavior is our responsibility.

How do you employ content as customer service?

Disclaimer: Educational Marketing Group is paying me to give a webinar on Oct. 13. This had no influence on my decision to reference their content in this post.

Homepage image by drewzhrodague/Flickr Creative Commons. Entry image by nathanmac87/Flickr Creative Commons.

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About Georgy Cohen

Georgy Cohen is associate creative director, content strategy, at OHO Interactive in Cambridge, Mass.. Prior to OHO, she worked with a range of higher ed institutions, including stints at Tufts University and Suffolk University and as an independent consultant, on content strategy and digital communication initiatives. Keep going »

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