Were sometimes so caught up in technology that we forget the people
that ultimately make it work -- these people will make or break the best
CRM solution. So its surprising to me that in our industry, so little
emphasis is placed on training agents to deal with the most prolific type
of electronic customer contact -- e-mail. Where are the training modules
that tutor agents on how to compose concise, targeted e-mail messages to
their customers? Our call center manager hasnt seen any. The editors of
this magazine had a scant few leads. My own Web searches using a panoply
of search engines yielded virtually nothing. So, consider this a call to
action: We need widespread e-mail training.
I last wrote about the lack of training and quality monitoring in
e-mail in a TMCnet.com column this past summer entitled, Dont
Take That Tone (Of E-mail) With Me! A discouraging e-mail customer
support experience was the impetus for my research into why agents
handling e-mail are, by and large, so much less adept at customer
relationship management than their phone-based peers. Is it simply that
e-mail is a new medium, or is it that were more aware of the tone in
which we speak than that in which we write?
The reason why current e-mail service is poor is really irrelevant. In
a January 2000 report, Forrester Research noted that online shoppers look
to e-mail first for customer service -- telephone support comes in second
place. So whether you are training your agents to act as e-mail-only reps
or are using blended agents that handle customer interactions
regardless of media, formal training is a necessity for this frontline of
electronic customer support.
Ben Stephens, a principal with Service
Strategies Corporation, was generous enough to let me in on his ideas
about training for electronic support. SSC offers an Electronic Support
Skills workshop -- one of the rare examples of which I am aware for this
type of curriculum. Stephens said that although some large call centers
have established in-house training programs for handling e-mail
correspondence, he believes call center managers are just now realizing
the need for this specific training. He expects the demand for electronic
support training programs to pick up substantially this year.
If you are interested in creating your own in-house program, Stephens
has some suggestions about what this training should include. Agents
should be given:
- A workshop on basic English writing and usage skills, including
grammar and tenses. This training should also include common errors in
usage such as the difference between there, their and theyre
and the possessive form of it.
- Spelling exercises and a review of common vocabulary used in
support. Specific product and industry vocabulary and jargon should
also be taught.
- A template of what an electronic support response should include,
such as a restatement of the problem, diagnosis, solution, summary and
what should happen next if that solution doesnt work.
- Opportunity to regularly review examples of both good and bad e-mail
- Training in the knowledge base tools and the techniques in directing
customers to self-help.
- A chance to review service goals and metrics.
- The use of mock customer interactions to confirm training combined
with ongoing monitoring to ensure consistent service levels.
- Guidelines for how to prioritize and manage the electronic request
support workload. This would include which customers agents should
respond to first and how much time agents should spend on each support
I asked Stephens what he would say if he could give only one piece of
advice to an e-mail agent. He counsels, Repeat in your response what
your understanding is of the issue. Too many times, we provide great
answers to the wrong question. This is such a basic, yet crucial, point
-- make sure you are providing the support customer is requesting. If you
are not, the remaining pointers about improving e-mail interactions are
Even with training, electronic support wont be a fit for every
agent. Stephens thinks that many, but not most, agents can be trained to
handle e-mail interactions. He suggests that managers may want to consider
adding writing tests to their hiring processes, because good writing
skills also aid in creating reusable knowledge (such as populating your
support knowledge base).
Buy all the electronic support technology your budget will allow. But
dont forget that the best customer relationship management includes
well-trained, knowledgeable agents standing behind your sophisticated
The author may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.