I was reminded this morning of just how easy it is to inadvertently harm a customer relationship.

The email arrived at just past six o'clock in the morning, and jolted me awake faster than any quad-shot Americano ever has:

From: [name removed]

Date: Thu, May 3, 2018 at 6:13 AM


This alert appeared on my Hireology account page today:

Your account has an outstanding past due balance. Please provide payment by 05/10/2018 or your account will be canceled.

I would like to think that a VALUED CUSTOMER with a long history with Hireology would be given a bit softer message.  Maybe the "powers that be" would appreciate my suggestion below:

Your account has an outstanding past due balance.  We value your business. Please contact our accounting department so we can work with you to resolve the overdue payment. 

.....that is, if you want to show you actually VALUE your customers.  To say your "canned" message to a customer with an exceptional record of payment is an outrage would be an understatement. 

I was simultaneously grateful that our customer took the time to send this email (and not outright cancel his account), and horrified that the language in our app's alert messaging was about as friendly as a hand grenade.

My first action was to call our customer, thank him for this email, and apologize.  My second action was to email our VP of Product to ask him to examine all alert messaging so we never send an abrasive message like this one ever again.

Customer experience experts call these types of messages negative cues, and they can erode brand perception faster than an E. coli outbreak. Negative cues are everywhere--from the "No shirt, no shoes, no service" sign at the restaurant to the "No customers beyond this point" sign in the retail store.

Obsessing about this email from the morning, it didn't take me long to inventory the most common negative cues I see out there, or how they make me feel when I encounter them:

  • "Please wait to be seated" means My time isn't valuable to you, and you'll get around to seating me as  as soon as you're done taking care of more important things.  How about, "It would be our pleasure to seat you"?
  • "No refunds, all sales are final" means You don't trust your merchandise, or your customers. Let's instead say, "We love to bring you the lowest possible prices, so we're unable to provide refunds once items are purchased."
  • "Employees must wash hands before returning to work" means Our employees have poop on their hands. Do you really have to tell your employees to wash their hands after they go to the bathroom?

As a result of this customer's email, I'm hyper-attuned to negative cues in our business. Thanks to our customer's wake-up call, we're going to identify and purge every single negative cue that exists in our product or customer service messaging. Taking it a step further, we're also going to eliminate negative cues from everything we do or say; employee policy handbooks, internal communications, office signage--all of it.

As hard as you're working to build your business, don't let an errant message erode your customers' experience.

What negative cues are you putting in front of your customers and team members every day?

Published on: May 8, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.