This content is part of the Essential Guide: Contact center of the future is now

How bad writing, templates and chatbots kill customer service

Leslie O'Flahavan, a writing coach specializing in contact center communications, discusses how humans, AI and bots can work together to provide good customer service.

Contact centers need good writers more than ever to build rapport with customers who reach brands through chat, text, email and social media. Yet companies increasingly automate customer service using  AI-powered bots that serve up mediocre FAQ page content.

That's according to Leslie O'Flahavan, a writing consultant who helps companies develop strategies to provide effective, empathetic customer service through customer service agents and with automation. In this Q&A, O'Flahavan shares chatbot pitfalls to avoid, how technology and customer service will evolve together, and what tasks are best left for humans.

How does one get into the business of being a contact center writing coach?

Leslie O'FlahavanLeslie O'Flahavan

Leslie O'Flahavan: I started a business, E-Write, with a partner in 1996. Our first idea was that we'd help people learn to write better email. Email was so new, and the conversations people have in the workplace by email were so trivial, that there wasn't really a market. We quickly switched to offering web writing training.

Between 1996 and 2000 I came into many, many workplaces as a web writing and an email writing trainer, and what I began to develop was a broader view of how writing is difficult for people in different roles, professions and workplaces. I developed a deep interest in the people with the least training who did the most writing -- there are a few pockets of work where this happens. People who have no training, often no college education, who have to write a lot. One of those types of groups is people who work in contact centers.

Email was definitely in contact centers in the 2000s, but they were still mostly using phone agents. People who had started their careers on the phone couldn't make the transition. And that is how I ended up with this big, deep interest in the writing that frontline customer service agents do in the contact center. I continue to be fascinated with helping them do a better job.

Do you coach communication in general, or do you drill down to 'you need to sound this way on chat, that way on Twitter, and this way on email?'

O'Flahavan: All of those things, and how to write in your organization's brand voice and then how to adjust your writing style for the channel. There are agents who are moving from email to chat to social in a workday or in a work week. For customer service writers, I group writing skills into two broad categories. One is small-picture writing skills where [you] know the rules and are obedient to them: spelling, punctuation, grammar and some other skills that customer service agents need in their work -- for example, accurately quoting the customer's account number or loyalty program level. These kinds of things don't require decision-making, but they require obedience to a rule.

Big-picture writing skills require a lot of decision-making. There are tons of those skills in customer service work, such as adjusting your tone, or the type of writing you do for the channel, or sustaining your company's brand voice, or customizing a template, or expressing empathy, or explaining a procedure or a set of instructions. There's more than one way to do those things correctly. Those writing skills require decision-making and versatility.

What are the obstacles in the way of the typical agent doing a good job?

O'Flahavan: One is that they work in a production environment. We think about agents writing on a conveyor belt of writing; they're answering similar questions in an environment where they're measured by how many they answer. They write one after another, answering similar questions, and the measure of their productivity is how many responses they send.

The second obstacle is that sometimes they rely on employers who give them bad templates to use. It's hard to make a good response if you start with a bad template, an out-of-date template or bureaucratic-sounding templates.

A third is that agents sometimes inherit restrictions on their writing that makes their responses poor. So many companies are really afraid of legal risk. The lawyers say, 'We can't even acknowledge that the customer thought our online form was complicated. In no way should we acknowledge that because that may put us at legal risk.' The agents take a very black-and-white approach to suggestions because of what they're allowed to write. 'Well, the lawyer said I should be careful, so I'm simply not going to customize the first sentence.' There's not a lot of gray area, so they preserve their own chances of success at their job. If the manager says to the agent, 'Don't write "We're sorry,"' they won't. But sometimes the customer needs to hear 'we're sorry.'

What does effective customer service writing look like, regardless of channel?

O'Flahavan: Good written customer communication is built upon careful analytical reading. You read the incoming question or complaint from the customer carefully enough that you understand what they're asking. And you answer questions they didn't know to ask, because you're the expert… 'Can I change the beneficiary on the life insurance policy?' You write back, 'Yes,' but you also write back how, even though they didn't keyboard, 'How do I do it?'

Rapport is this mist-like, magical quality that binds customers to companies and companies to customers.
Leslie O'FlahavanFounder, E-Write

Effective customer service writing uses a positive tone to build rapport. Rapport is this mist-like, magical quality that binds customers to companies and companies to customers. It's how we get customers to accept our answers and move on. If we don't build rapport, customers continue to write back challenge questions. A great answer is spell-check clean; it has good hygiene. A great answer, if it's based on a template of any type, has free text customized with a templated response so the customer doesn't actually perceive it's a template.

That said, what are your feelings about chatbots?

O'Flahavan: I feel that a chatbot is an acceptable way to deliver service, but there are so many absolutely horrible uses of chatbots that create a horrible customer experience. I really care about the people I help write better; they matter a lot to me. So, I am concerned about live human customer service agents' well-being. When chatbots cause customers to have a terrible experience, by the time the customer gets through to a live agent, they're angry. They're angry about the problem and they're angry about the experience and that is a horrible climate for delivering service.

It's not always the case, but it's often the case that most companies have chatbots that are just waiters for FAQ lists: The chatbot is delivering a crap FAQ answer after basically bending the customer to use search terms that enable it to deliver these crap FAQs, so that's a horrible experience.

I don't have anything against chatbots in the abstract. I have a lot of disappointment and anger about the laziness. A company's FAQ page is often poor content quality anyways -- not great self-service content. To automate the delivery of that is heartbreaking. If you're going to do a chatbot, do a good chat. Don't do that.

Contact center managers are being pushed to automate and make everything self-service. At what point is it too much and harmful to the organization? How do contact center managers find that line where they push back on automation?

O'Flahavan: They should ask their frontline people, 'Where are our call deflection, our email deflection practices breaking down?' The frontline agents always know what's not working very well. They always know it because they hear about it all day. Automating to deflect calls is a wonderful initiative, if you do it well, if you put the full effort into doing it.

Just think about it this way: What are your self-service offerings? How broad are your self-service offerings? If you have an FAQ page that's one page, one long scroll, that's just not good. If you think you're deflecting calls, you're really not. But if you have a searchable customer-facing knowledge base with great keyword support under it -- plain language terms [and] the accurate technical terms,  the knowledge is findable, now we're getting somewhere. But it requires effort and intention and maintenance. And if you're honest with yourself about whether your customers really need the help in the form of videos -- not in the form of text -- you offer that resource, deepening the quality of either your self-service options or your automations, make them good quality.

What will the contact center look like in 10 years?

O'Flahavan: I think we will be doing video chat. I think that will be the channel that possibly carries the most volume in the contact center because it's a beautiful channel, it's live, it can create a record, it's interactive, it needn't be long.

I think email will probably be gone in 10 years. I mean, postal mail right now does constitute some tiny portion of the way we deliver customer service, so tiny as to be negligible in most organizations. I think email will probably be in that category. They will see the growth of video and the death of email.

This Q&A has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Don Fluckinger covers enterprise content management, CRM, marketing automation, e-commerce, customer service and enabling technologies for TechTarget.

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