Two decades ago, technology was just beginning to dramatically reshape the customer experience landscape. Call center volumes were starting to grow, and businesses naturally wanted to find ways to keep costs from spiraling too far out of control. Firms first started experimenting with interactive voice response (IVR) systems, which automated part of the process. A new way of connecting computers, the Internet, was also taking shape, making it possible to replace expensive domestic call center agents with less costly foreign employees.
Now technology is once again changing how customers and companies interact, but the focus has shifted away from lowering costs toward improving the customer experience, and the main way that companies are doing that is by expanding the number of channels that customers can use to contact them. While the majority of consumers still use the phone for critical issues, interest in and use of other channels for customer service is growing rapidly. In fact, 43 percent of consumers plan to email more, 31 percent plan to rely more on online tools, and 19 percent want to chat more often, according to a recent study by Zendesk.
For companies, the benefits of offloading interactions from telephone to these other channels are—or at least could be—immense. If done properly, such channels reduce call volumes and costs. Forrester Research found recently that the typical voice interaction costs $6 to $12 compared to just $2.50 to $5 for an email exchange. Other channels are also significantly less expensive than voice interactions.
But with today’s increasingly complex set of communication methods, agents require a much broader set of skills than they did even just a few years ago. Effective responses to customer inquiries demand that agents have strong writing, spelling, and grammar skills. These skills could even be considered critical for modern customer service agents because what they send out to consumers via email, text message, or chat window is just one more extension of the brand, according to Dan Coen, president of Call Center Today, a consulting firm.
Developing strong writers is becoming an ever larger priority for contact center managers, but such work is hard. “Contact center managers are realizing that for agents, speaking to customers is easier than writing to them,” says Donna Fluss, president of DMG Consulting.
The growing number of channels means that businesses need to develop multiple sets of tools, and then have rules in place as to how each channel is handled. “How a firm answers an email question is different from what is done with Twitter,” Fluss adds.
The same ideology applies to the FAQs, knowledge base articles, blogs, forum posts, and other electronic messages that agents might be called upon to compose from time to time. These forms of communications also reflect on the company and brand image, and poor spelling and grammar definitely sends the wrong message. Spelling and grammar mistakes aren’t likely to go unnoticed, and when that happens, the potential to erode a business’s credibility is high. Spell-check features built into word processing and content management programs are helpful, but they aren’t always completely reliable.
So how do companies make sure their contact center employees can adequately serve customers on all of the new text-based channels? First, businesses must recognize that customer interactions are evolving and develop a clear strategy about how to handle the growing number of written interactions. Next, firms must decide what outcomes they want from the various channels. Do they want to lower agent call volumes? Improve service quality? Increase conversion rates? Decrease customer churn?
Companies should also recognize that voice and online interactions are very different and sometimes agents’ skills and experience are not in synch with corporate requirements. “Many agents like to talk but do not like to write,” states Leslie O’Flahavan, president of eWrite, a writing consulting firm.
Equally important is developing listening skills. Chat and email messages are often written quickly and with little editing, so there is bound to be less context than agents would like to see. As a result, employees need to develop the skills to translate a small amount of information into a complete customer request. The process begins with reading critically. Agents must read between the lines and transform customers’ incomplete, often messy writing into a clear set of objectives.
LEARNING HOW TO CHAT
Enterprises need to put best practices in place to help agents help customers. Although chat and email can feel less personal than an actual conversation, good questioning during a chat or an email session can generate the same positive results. To aid in the process, service pros need to mix matter-of-fact questions with open-ended responses that engage customers and uncover the additional information needed to resolve the outstanding issues. For instance, a rep might ask questions like “What result would you like to see?” and “When do you need delivery?”
In addition, spelling and grammar guidelines need to be developed. “I recently had a client do a specific meeting about cleaning up spelling and writing skills with agents because it was being done poorly,” says Call Center Today’s Coen. “It was hurting the brand.”