Write Away

Electronic mail may seem quick and casual, but it’s far from easy to manage operationally. Considering how many people hate to write or find writing a daunting task, it’s no wonder that providing satisfactory service by e-mail is more of a challenge than many companies anticipated.

First of all, incoming customer e-mail is difficult to work through. Too many customers seeking information or assistance don’t write clearly enough. And unfortunately, the reading and comprehension skills on the receiving end aren’t that much better than the writing skills on the customer side. Given the growing prominence of incoming e-mail, too many operations are still hiring only for listening and speaking skills and not for reading comprehension and writing. Most service reps are drawn from the same labor pool that supplies the fast-food chains, and frequently the job is an entry or re-entry into the workforce. Without targeted training, these reps are likely to see all the points raised as equal in priority and urgency, may pick out only the issues that can be resolved easily, or worst of all, may miss the point completely. In addition, if there is a library of written response materials for reps to draw from, it’s often out of date, relying on distant generations of form letters, fill-in paragraphs, and overly formal or smarmy language.

Say what?

What’s a service operation to do? Start with a thorough analysis of the content and tone of your incoming customer e-mail and rebuild your library of responses.

Then work on performance. Create reading comprehension tests based on selected content from customer correspondence. Use these work samples to screen candidates for employment as well as existing staff before you assign them to correspondence. Also, begin developing e-mail training programs, evaluation procedures, quality assurance, and coaching at least as assiduously as you’ve been training, monitoring, and coaching for phone performance.

You may need to start with management. Although your customer service managers, trainers, and supervisors may demonstrate superior ability at problem solving, soothing angry customers, and developing reps, they’re not necessarily skilled writers themselves.

Personal trainer

I’m generally uncomfortable with the use of off-the-shelf training packages. Most packaged training is too normative, that is, it emphasizes what reps should feel or believe or do without specifying the behaviors and language that will accomplish the desired results. And because generic training doesn’t incorporate enough job-specific detail, it doesn’t sustain rep interest or support more than cursory skill development.

On the other hand, the design and development of training may cost too much for most operations. So I’m glad to report that I’ve come across a training package that will help you do the job. Elements, a program for teaching “writing, service and sales skills for e-mail and text chat,” was designed by Wanda Sitzer and Jill Leigh, cofounders of Initiatives Three, a well-respected consultancy in contact center performance (and a competitor of mine).

Elements consists of three discrete modules: e-writing, e-Nterpretation, and e-Nteraction. Once I got past the distracting titles that emphasize the connection to the electronic world, I was impressed with the depth and thoroughness of the material itself. The training covers the points that you might have thought of or meant to include but never took the time to write down step by step, insight by insight.

In particular, I liked the way the e-Nterpretation module is presented in two sections. “Analysis” looks closely at the possibilities of the customer’s tone, state of mind, desired action, and future action anticipated, as well as the content of the message. “Application” lays out and examines the choices and actions a rep should consider when preparing an e-mail response.

The Application section makes it clear that no software can come up with all the right answers without human intelligence, no matter how extensive or clever your library of response paragraphs. Responsibility for tailoring and personalization must be given to the reps. This is in direct and welcome contrast to the approach in which automated responses are indiscriminately released by an unfeeling, unintuitive system, sometimes offering thanks for an opinion when the customer asks a specific question, sometimes canceling service when there’s a problem needing resolution.

You can log onto a Web-based version of Elements or any of its modules at each workstation for use when time permits, or you can buy an instructor-led package that includes a trainer’s manual, CD-ROM, and permission to print as many sets of rep course materials as you need at no additional charge. You can find both at www.initiatives3.com/traininginitiatives.html.

Stand and deliver

In my experience, most people learn better with guidance in a classroom setting, where training content is reviewed and challenged by a group with multiple experiences and styles. So I prefer the instructor-led package; it provides group, paired, and individual work to ensure that all participants have numerous opportunities to learn and practice a variety of situations. The trainer’s manual is so detailed that no train-the-trainer course is necessary; instructions are complete and comprehensive. The interpretation and writing skills module costs just under $5,000, a very reasonable price considering its quality.

Aside from the e-titling I’ve mentioned, the only other adjustment I’d make would be to use somewhat plainer constructions and word choices; some of the language seemed a bit high-flown for trainees. But the program is complete and clear and covers so much of the waterfront that it can be a valuable tool for improving the performance of reps and e-mail specialists.

Unless your current e-mail communications to customers are consistently sensitive, persuasive, and personal, I suggest you download a sample of Elements. And just a note to other training package developers: I rarely write product reviews, so please don’t send sample mods. Take a look at Elements first, and if you can assure me that your thoroughness and thoughtfulness matches up, we might have something to discuss. If I like your e-mails, of course.

Liz Kislik, president of Liz Kislik Associates, specializes in planning and implementing customer marketing and service efforts that involve people and phones. She can be reached at 99 West Hawthorne Ave., Suite 200, Valley Stream, NY 11580, or by phone at (516) 568-2932.

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