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March 2000

Dara Bloom Mirsky E-mail Epiphany: Technology Is Not Enough


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:

  1. 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.
  2. Spelling exercises and a review of common vocabulary used in support. Specific product and industry vocabulary and jargon should also be taught.
  3. 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.
  4. Opportunity to regularly review examples of both good and bad e-mail responses.
  5. Training in the knowledge base tools and the techniques in directing customers to self-help.
  6. A chance to review service goals and metrics.
  7. The use of mock customer interactions to confirm training combined with ongoing monitoring to ensure consistent service levels.
  8. 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 request.

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 moot.

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 software.

The author may be contacted at dbloom@tmcnet.com.

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