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

Automating customer service empathy a work in progress

Bots and AI tools can help clean up customer service texts, emails and chats -- and make them more consistent. But finding empathy is still mainly the purview of humans.

Empathy for the customer is what separates effective customer service from the ineffective, and in an omnichannel world that increasingly means contact center agents must not only talk with empathy, but write with it, too.

Yet several contact center trends are working against empathetic communications, because customers come in impatient and angry from the start: bots solve simple issues, so agents now field increasingly difficult problems from customers who have exhausted their patience getting past a company's automated call-deflection gatekeepers; and recent labor shortages and supply chain issues, which flood contact center channels with customers irritated by circumstances beyond an agent's control.

Overlay on top of that typical contact center management emphasis on efficiency metrics, which increases pressure on agents to solve problems at first contact with a customer.

Empathetic writing over chat, text, email and social channels is quickly becoming as valuable for contact center agents as projecting empathy over the phone, said Brad Cleveland, co-founder of the International Customer Management Institute. But it isn't necessarily high on management's priority list, even when the pandemic taught many companies harsh lessons about how thin agents could be stretched.

Increasingly, there are elements of writing and speaking in the same interaction with a customer.
Brad Cleveland Co-founder, International Customer Management Institute

"All the channels have slightly different personalities and expectations, so chat's different than text, which is different than a social media channel like Twitter, which is different than a phone conversation," Cleveland said. "Increasingly, there are elements of writing and speaking in the same interaction with a customer. We need people that can communicate across all channels, writing and speaking."

Empathy can be coached

Contact center managers can help agents express empathy with both live coaching and tools such as cut-and-paste lists of empathy statements -- tailored to social, email and chat channels -- that agents can start with to write communications, said professional writing consultant Leslie O'Flahavan, who specializes in customer service.

In onboarding sessions, she said, trainers should have agents practice dealing with difficult, "squeaky-wheel" customers, while companies in regulated industries should tackle difficult topics that frequently come up when a customer asks the company to do something out of compliance. Giving agents methods to express empathy is a great start toward defusing such situations, even if it's what O'Flahavan calls "off-center empathy," such as not necessarily apologizing to a customer but saying things such as "I can certainly understand why you contacted us about this."

Also, she encouraged contact center leaders to "disinvite the lawyers" from customer service strategy development meetings.

"If you let the general counsel in your company talk to your agents, they will say you can never, ever indicate that you're sorry or that the customer's perspective is legitimate," O'Flahavan said. "Empathy helps us meet our customer service goals, it's actually a good tool, it works. The lawyers will bar empathy in a way that will kill your customer service operation."

Grammarly Business
Empathy can start with consistent, well-written communications. Tools such as Grammarly Business, which includes sentiment analysis cross-checked with a company's brand-specific style guidelines, can be a base from which to start.

Empathy is automated -- to a point

It's early days, but companies like Verint, Genesys, AWS and Google are stepping up product development efforts for agent-assist tools that include live sentiment analysis, said Dan Miller, founder of Opus Research. They focus on providing feedback to agent screens during calls and support empathetic responses.

Another tool is Grammarly Business, an enterprise version of the popular student writing checker, which works as a browser extension. Grammarly Business users in marketing and customer service can establish company style guides and set the tone for written communications representing a brand. Agents writing to customers can check their communications in real time before hitting "send." Sentiment analysis can be included in the package.

In the past year, Grammarly has seen increased demand for such automated writing assistance for customer experience teams, said Dorian Stone, head of organizations revenue at Grammarly. A company's customers now have more power over its success or failure, Stone said, and the proliferation of channels through which customers can contact companies has given rise to the need for writing tools that work across all the cloud tools that agents may use in the course of their customer interactions. During the pandemic, he said, the use of those written channels accelerated.

Enshored, a user of Grammarly Business, outsources customer support and sales service for its customers, with employees based in the United States and the Philippines. Everyone in the company from the CEO on down uses it, said Elissa Ennis, Enshored head of client success. The writing assistant plug-in helps employees developing marketing and sales content -- as well as customer service -- not only stay on brand but also check for empathy and tone, she said, and allows people to do better work.

"It ups our ante in terms of empathy, critical thinking skills and flexible problem solving," Ennis said. "[It enables] personalization that you're not going to get from a bot. It's humans doing human work."

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

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