Will COVID-19 make contact centres more human?

1st Jun 2020

The corona crisis has left my mobile phone groaning under the weight of text messages from businesses basically begging me not to call their contact centre. Fair enough: better to leave the lines free for people who’ve got more to worry about than a bit of buffering during a Normal People bingewatch.

But what should I do instead? Most brands are directing me to email or live chat to take up the slack. And that’s where many of them hit a problem.

Most of us don’t write as well as we talk

I’m a writer. And I spend lots of my time hanging out in contact centres around the world, where I frequently witness a peculiar phenomenon. Agents who are brilliant on the phone – warm, witty, empathetic, helpful – suddenly turn into corporate robots the minute they put typing finger to keyboard. Instead of the nice people they really are, they sound cold, process-mad, legalistic.

It’s a tone they’d never take on the phone – because customers would get wound up, and call them out on it. But without that immediate feedback from a customer, it’s not always obvious to an agent that there’s a problem.

And if this aloof approach is wrong at the best of the times, it’s especially unhelpful now. More customers are going to be dealing with really big stuff – bereavement, say, or serious debt – in the aftermath of coronavirus. Officiousness in the face of issues like that is infuriating for customers, and disastrous for the reputation of the businesses those agents represent. Have a thorough read of many a bit of damning customer feedback and you’ll spot that the problem is often not what an agent said, but how they said it. (That’s why sorting out a problem in a helpful, human tone will often persuade a customer to rethink a shocking NPS score.)

So what’s going wrong?

We need to write more like we speak

Most of us have an idea of what ‘proper’ writing is like. Maybe we got that idea from a prim English teacher, or a strict first boss, or even an over-zealous compliance team. We’ve somehow picked up that to be professional, you have to sound formal. So where you might say ‘Our systems are down. Sorry, we know it’s a pain’, too often we write something like ‘We are experiencing technical issues. We would like to apologise for any inconvenience.’ But because no-one really talks like that in real life, it doesn’t sound genuine.

Now I’d say most business writing suffers from this affliction. But it causes a particular problem in relatively ‘new’ forms of communication, like social media and live chat – exactly the channels we’re asking our customers (and agents) to switch to. People expect these channels to be even less formal – in fact linguists have studied them and shown they function much more like conversation than typical writing: we’re taking turns to speak, and using little fragments rather than whole sentences. We even punctuate differently – there’s a study by linguist Gretchen McCulloch that shows readers can find a final full stop rude. (Think about texting your partner and saying, ‘Can we postpone date night?’; it’s the difference between getting the answer ‘Fine’ and ‘Fine.’ You should be able to sniff the passive aggression in the latter.) So writing something formal in these really informal channels just makes you sound, well, weird.

The antidote

That a missing full stop can change how you feel about a message shows all of this is pretty subtle. Take mirroring. It’s something call centre agents are often trained to do, and on one level it makes perfect sense: if your customers are joking around, they’ll like it if you do too.

But how about the opposite? What if your customer’s complaining in a super formal tone? Often it’s not because they’re super formal people, but because they feel powerless against the might of the corporate monster, and they’re trying to assert their status. But if an agent mirrors that tone – when they’ve already got all the power – it’ll turn into an escalating power struggle. The canny thing for the agent to do is drop their status and level out the power dynamic. And in writing, the main way you can signal that is a less ‘official’ tone. Mirroring in that situation is exactly the wrong thing to do.

Give them the power

So how do you get people to change their writing habits? The good news is learning a long list of rules won’t get you very far; our sense of this stuff is pretty instinctive.

Instead, you need to do a few things for your agents. First, raise this all to the level of consciousness. Spend a wee bit of time training them on the impact of different tones. Which isn’t hard – you just have to get them thinking what it’s like when they’re on the receiving end of other businesses’ messages.

And second, you need to give them permission to change. They need to see examples of dead natural conversations on Facebook or live chat – and how well customers respond. They need to see their colleagues who take to this most naturally being praised to the high heavens. You can even give them a few canned responses to get them going – as long as they don’t sound like canned responses.

In short: they need to feel confident to let just as much of themselves into a typed conversation as they would into a spoken one.



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