It really is the little things

We live in a world where you can have loo roll delivered on subscription and get approved for a bank account without a phone call. It might feel a bit eerie to use such a human word as “helpful” to describe these largely automated experiences, but that’s exactly what they are.

The humans behind the apps and algorithms have thought very hard about the humans on the other end – busy users with busy lives. They’ve figured out how to get that sign-up or that click on the Order Now button, and if they’ve done it right, they’ve spent a great deal of energy on one huge contributing factor: being helpful.

I’m reminded of a story someone told me when I worked in hospitality – you’ve probably heard it. Picture the scene: a posh hotel (think Claridge’s or the Dorchester or somewhere like that). A patron of a certain age struggles with the menu, moving it closer then further away. The maître d’ spots the trouble, disappears briefly, and reappears with a tray of reading glasses in a range of magnifications. Marvellous.

Such helpfulness isn’t exclusive to such high-end establishments. In a pub called the Bell, just down the road in Stow-on-the-Wold, credit-card sized magnifiers are left discreetly among the various table accoutrements, for the benefit of customers who’ve forgotten their glasses (or are perhaps just in denial). Diners with less-than-perfect eyesight clearly could muddle through, but that storied hotel and the team at the Bell see the value in going that quiet, functional extra mile.

As a creative team, we think about helpfulness a lot. It crops up pretty much everywhere, from brand strategies to email sign-ups, web navigations, how-to animations, visitor maps and event invitations. And this isn’t surprising really, since our purpose as a company is to help others make their mark.

When designing any mechanism that invites someone to take an action – online or offline – it can be easy to focus in on what you need from the transaction. On getting the right data, showcasing your proudest pages, making the logo prominent enough, promoting that new product or highlighting the award you’re up for.

This is understandable. But take the thought further.

The most rewarding interactions your customers have with you are sometimes the least noticeable. They are so good because they’re easy and intuitive. Because they’re built around helping the customer achieve what they need to achieve first and foremost.

This will sound familiar: putting the customer’s needs first is rarely a bad idea. But we’ve all had experiences where we got what we needed more in spite of a helpfulness vacuum than because of helpful service. A truly helpful approach can alter the whole experience. It achieves the kind of stuff a brand is looking to get done, but in a *way* that makes the whole thing more valuable and enjoyable for the customer.

Helpful navigation

When we created design concepts for the Canary Care website, we centred our site plan around the questions that the team gets asked most often – moving away from the brilliant (but complicated) technical wizardry. The result is a navigation that’s clear as day, with “How it works” and “How it helps” tabs that spell out exactly how brilliant the product is, without dwelling on the finer points of bluetooth connectivity. The homepage is a bite-sized introduction, with opportunities to explore more detail, or head straight for the buy button. Read all about the full project here.

Light touch, lots of touchpoints

I love seeing brands make use of social media’s built-in elements to be helpful, like this fit-problem guide in a Facebook carousel from Third Love…

…or Bleach London’s excellent habit of sharing really simple hair colour and makeup demonstrations with Instagram stories. The show-and-tell approach highlights the quality and versatility of their products in candid, accessible and fun videos. They’re not holding anything back, and I love them for it.

Some brands go so far as to be extra, super helpful when there isn’t even a transaction going on – or at least, there appears not to be.

Emily told me about this great example from M&S, which all started with wraps. Emily wanted wraps, so she bought them. Transaction over. Or so you’d think…

“A long term supporter of M&S, I feel their helpfulness is underrated and often trumped by the good things you hear about John Lewis and Waitrose (and I’m an advocate of both, for sure). M&S Food is always an investment for me, but the connected experience is starting to make me go more regularly. Recently, I was trying to be proactive with my lunch ideas, so I bought some wraps. First of all I loved the packaging (fits easily into small cupboards). But there was also al lot of helpful stuff in a really small space. My journey went a bit like this:

Buy the wraps. Get a helpful tip on how to fold a wrap effectively (something I always struggle with)…

…then a recipe idea…and then I got the daily Editor’s Pick email which takes me to a recipe page with even more great inspo. Healthy lunch ideas? Done.”

M&S did all that! Joining up online and offline touchpoints and everything. After they had secured the sale. They’re playing the long game and I like their style.

Success – before AND after

I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate the different post-sales efforts make to brand perception. When it goes badly, oh my, *so* much strife. How many social media posts do you see fuelled by rage at inaccurate or unclear shipping and tracking info, for example? The retailer’s not even involved at that point, but they do get the brunt of the bad will if the delivery process goes awry.

mm* retail correspondent Nic informs me that the brands she has the best experiences with are those that use DPD. If you download the app, you can use the live chat function to resolve issues and make (though I hate the phrase) “in-flight” changes. Here we have goodwill by association: the retailer’s choice to use a helpful, reliable delivery service makes customers feel even better about the purchase, even though the deal appears done and dusted already.

It really, really is the little things. Helpful gestures take a small amount of thought, time and money in the first instance, but they go a long, long way. The little things make it easier for a customer to say yes, and to keep saying yes. And it’s important to say that this looks different in different industries. Retail presents a particular set of pain points that – when smoothed over helpfully – help engender brand loyalty.

For our B2B financial services clients, it’s the same approach to a different set of challenges. Here, helpful means communicating clearly and promptly about responses to legislation, signposting the most relevant recent content from portal homepages or making the registration process as smooth as technologically possible.

Sometimes, a brand being helpful is unnoticeable; forgettable. (Better than being remembered for all the wrong reasons.) In other cases it just makes people want to shout about such a refreshing experience.

Which brings me to a bloke called John

John Espirian is a technical writer, a director of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders and all round good-at-explaining-things dude. I follow him on Twitter and Linkedin, where he describes himself as “relentlessly helpful”.

Dear reader, he is not kidding. From confusable words to Twitter tips and micro Mac how-tos. (And most recently, an entire web page of Linkedin advice, based on his own experience and positive results. All for free.)

Now I’ve never hired John, and it’s unlikely that I’ll ever need to. While we move in similar writerly internet circles, we’ve never even met. But because he’s so brilliant at proving his own concept via helpful social media posts, I tell someone to look him up about once a week. And I can’t be the only one.

If I’m completely honest, it was John’s relentless helpfulness that prompted me to write this post. His output has made me look differently at my own social media presence. I hang out with other copywriters on Twitter. I get positive responses when I now share useful stuff that before would have floated through my brain and off into the ether.

Coming back time and again to John’s feed also made me realise how much work we put into being helpful to our clients, and to our clients’ customers.

Stick with it

The last thought I want to leave you with on helpfulness is that it is indeed along game. Once you commit, you set a bar, and it’s important to keep delivering: the wayfinding in the newly-reopened Tate St. Ives is a great example. The team at CDW started with research, workshops and interviews (grounding their helpfulness in what everyone is trying to get done).

Then – and this is the important bit – they made a temporary system to test it out and refine any sticking points, so they could be confident in the full rollout when the gallery reopened. You can read all about the ins and outs here, but for me what stands out is the testing, the refining. The journey to the most helpful, most effective solution involved inputs, processing, testing and feedback.

We’ve been through the same process creating visitor maps for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Shakespeare’s New Place only opened in August 2016, and since then we’ve adjusted multiple aspects of the map design in response to feedback from operations staff on the front line as well as changing marketing objectives – the latest offering has been really well received.

To sum up. DO think about meeting customer needs. DO think about what your brand and business needs out of the transaction. But DO ALSO put your helpfulness hat on. I reckon it’ll work wonders.

Written by Chloe Marshall

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