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But Can They Write Email to Customers?
Assessing agents' writing skills means more than testing their keyboarding and spelling ability; it means finding out whether they have strong big- and small-picture writing skills.
Posted Jul 28, 2003
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Take a look at these email responses from two different agents, applicants for a position in your customer contact center. Would you give them passing grades? Would you hire them to write email to customers?

Applicant #1, Lily, was asked to write an email to a customer who needed help tracking a package. The customer wrote, "When will my package be delivered and will I receive delivery confirmation?"

Applicant #1's Email Response

From: Lily Ashe
To: Mary L. King
Subject: Re: Question about package delivery date

Hi, Marie -

I call ups and they delivery the package today 02/07/03, so on Moday you will get proved of delivery.

Thanks,

Lily

Applicant #2, John, was asked to write an email to a customer who asked about paying for a college transcript. The customer wrote: "I do not have a credit card to pay the $15 transcript fee. Can I pay by check?"

Applicant #2's Email Response

To: Francis Westerman
From: John
Subject: Re: Paying for Transcript by check

Dear Francis,

Thanks for your inquiry. There are several ways you can pay for your transcript. If you have a credit card, you can request a transcript using our online service. If you want to pay by check, you must then request and complete a paper transcript request form. Please call 800-338-8787 and ask customer service to mail you the transcript request form. You must include a check (or money order) for the full amount due when you send back your completed request form. If you fail to enclose payment, we cannot process your request. Of course, when you pay by credit card, your request will be processed faster.

Sincerely,

John

Would you hire Lily to write email to customers? Would you hire John? Applicant #1, Lily, answers the customer's question about when her package will be delivered, but her email is full of mechanical errors: Marie instead of Mary; Moday instead of Monday; proved instead of proof.

John's email is mechanically correct but he ignores the customer's question by writing "If you have a credit card, you can request a transcript using our online service." The customer has already explained that she doesn't have a credit card. Both of these email responses would make the company look bad and frustrate the customer.

To write effective email to customers, agents need both big-picture thinking skills and small-picture mechanical writing skills. Small-picture writing skills include the ability to spell and punctuate correctly, to choose the correct word (affect or effect?), and to construct strong sentences. Lily lacks small-picture skills. Big picture writing skills include the ability to analyze what the customer is asking, and compose and organize a complete, accurate, and helpful answer. John lacks the big-picture skills.

Assessing agents' writing skills means more than testing their keyboarding and spelling ability; it means finding out whether they have strong big- and small-picture writing skills.

How do you evaluate your agents writing for both types of skills? Here are five strategies for selecting e-agents who can do the job.

1. Closely review an applicant's cover letter and resume.
What is their job-related writing experience? Have they written correspondence before?

The cover letter and resume give an applicant the chance to display big-picture and small-picture writing skills. If the cover letter and resume are well organized and provide good evidence to answer your question, "Why should I hire you?" then the applicant is likely to be able answer customers' email questions. If the cover letter and resume are free of mechanical errors, then you can assume the applicant cares about correctness.

2. Interview applicants about their writing skills.
Ask how much writing they've done in previous jobs. Ask what kind of feedback they've received on their writing from supervisors or from customers. Ask them how much they like writing. An agent who doesn't like writing belongs on the phone. Ask if they think they will enjoy communicating with customers in a one-way fashion, i.e., by email. Will they miss the two-way contact the telephone allows? Writing to customers is difficult work, and requires motivation. Find out whether applicants are motivated to write email before you evaluate how well they write.

3. Have applicants respond to email samples.
To discover whether applicants recognize email-writing problems, ask them to respond to selected email. For example, if you showed applicants the email responses from Lily and John, you would expect them to recognize the spelling problems in Lily's response and John's failure to answer the customer's question. If applicants can't find blatant errors in someone else's email writing it's unlikely they will be able to effectively review their own work.

4. Before hiring, have applicants complete a scenario-based writing assessment.
Provide an authentic customer question and a fact sheet (with product knowledge) and have the prospective employees write an email. Use a checklist to rate the email answer. In devising your checklist, list big- and small-picture skills.
Big picture: Did they answer the question? Did they solve the problem? Was the email organized so the customer could understand and easily read the email?

Small picture: spelling and word usage, punctuation, grammar.

5. Have applicants take a standardized writing assessment test that you develop in-house or purchase.
If you use a writing test as part of the hiring process, be sure the test has the following qualities:

Uses exercises that are work-related not school-related or personal. Choose a test that uses work examples and work language in the test items. For example, use a customer-service email as the subject matter of your example, not a personal letter to a friend.
Assesses applied, not abstract, knowledge. Don't ask applicants to list the four rules for using a semicolon correctly; have them show you they know how to use semicolons correctly by placing them into sentences.
Assesses writing skills, not product knowledge. Be sure your writing test doesn't confuse being able to write effectively about your products with being able to write effectively.

Next Steps: What to Do After Assessing Writing Skills
If you're lucky all your applicants will pass your assessment of writing skills with flying colors. But it's more likely that your assessment will reveal a range of writing abilities, such as applicants with big-picture weaknesses like John; applicants with small-picture weaknesses like Lily, applicants who are great writers, and applicants who can't compose a simple sentence. So what should you do? Hire John? Hire Lily? Or reject them all and start again?

Hire the ones with adequate big-picture skills and invest in training to close any skill gaps. Writing is a teachable skill. But some people will require more teaching than others. And before you can decide on a training program, you have to know what kinds of help new or existing staff will need.

While Lily's mechanical, small-picture errors are easiest to notice, training is effective at improving small-picture writing skills. Mechanical skills are easier to learn in shorter bursts, during downtime in the contact center. Mechanical skills can be taught effectively with self-directed learning tools, such as workbooks or online tutorials. Also, technology (spell-check and grammar programs, etc.) can help find and correct some problems with small-picture skills.

Big-picture skills take more time to teach and warrant a different training approach: in person training and coaching. Teaching big-picture skills means focusing on reading comprehension, problem solving, and organization. Teaching these skills requires interaction, that is, writing practice and feedback.

These assessment strategies will help you find applicants with strong writing skills. By all means hire them. For the ones with marginal skills, consider training them to bring their skills up to par. Assessment should be the start of your hiring decision, not the end. Once you have assessed an applicant's writing skills you can train them and mentor them appropriately so that they can write well to customers.


Leslie O'Flahavan and Marilynne Rudick are partners in E-WRITE, a training and consulting company in Washington, D.C., that specializes in online writing. Professional writers and trainers, O'Flahavan and Rudick are authors of Clear, Correct, Concise Email: A Writing Workbook for Customer Service Agents and the Email Writing Skills Competency Exam.

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