ONLINE SERVICE: Cultivating super cyber reps

What to look for in your e-mail service reps

When assigning staff to answer queries and solve customer problems via e-mail, think twice before giving your best phone reps the task. Communicating via e-mail requires a different skill set from telephone service.

“Customer service representatives who have a great telephone voice might not be able to perform as well on e-mail,” says Bill Kuipers, a principal of Haskell, NJ-based operations consultancy Spaide, Kuipers & Co. “And the written word carries so much more power than the spoken word.” What’s more, the basics of writing – proper spelling, grammar, and word usage – are not so basic for everyone, he says.

“You should include a writing test in the hiring process so that you have an idea about the written skills of potential employees,” says Valley Stream, NY-based telemarketing consultant Liz Kislik. “Also, have applicants demonstrate that they can write an effective customer service letter.”

Emeryville, CA-based wellness products cataloger SelfCare is a proponent of written tests. “I give a spelling test to review the cyber reps’ skills – and their ability to pay attention,” says Michael Hastings, manager of customer service. SelfCare has eight full-time CSRs and three product specialists, all of whom serve customers via e-mail and phone.

In fact, many believe that literacy is more important than cyber savvy when it comes to hiring e-mail service reps. If you have a bright, enthusiastic individual with good communication skills, you can teach him or her computer skills, Kislik contends. “But teaching adults writing skills and grammar is difficult, especially if they didn’t learn properly in school.”

There’s another skill that’s difficult to teach: what Tena Perrelli, customer contact center manager for Gardener’s Supply Co., refers to as the ability to read between the lines of customers’ correspondence. The three full-time e-mail customer service reps and the e-mail supervisor at the Burlington, VT-based gardening products cataloger are expected to communicate at a collegiate level and “to know which questions to ask in order to pinpoint the customer’s exact needs,” Perrelli says. Otherwise, especially when customers have problems with their orders, “you can have six e-mails going back and forth. In that instance, Internet communication is really inefficient.”

– Before hiring, have candidates take a basic writing, spelling, or editing test.

– Tailor e-mail correspondence to your target audience. It may be appropriate for a cataloger targeting teenage girls to use slang or “emoticons” (such as: 0) in e-mail, but customers of an upscale jewelry marketer would have different expectations.

– Teach good ‘Netiquette. The dos and don’ts of e-mail extend beyond proper grammar. For instance, typing in all capitals is on a par with shouting over the phone.

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