Take Your Agents To The
BY JILL LEIGH, INITIATIVES THREE INC.
Your interaction center is your most intimate
connection with your customers and prospects. You have
worked hard to develop the strategies and processes
that work for phone-based interactions, but
increasingly, your customers want to connect with you
via e-mail and text chat. Studies have discovered that
most companies have not adjusted their business
practices to accommodate the online channel, and as a
result, their Web interactions are failing.
The most common mistake companies make is to assume
they can replicate their telephone service practices
and people for the online medium. In fact, there are
significant differences between the two, and the way
companies handle these differences can make or break
their support centers.
THE ROLE OF THE NET REP
Net reps are agents who interact with customers via
Internet channels such as e-mail and text chat. One of
their most important roles is to manage customers'
online experiences and build loyalty. Net reps are a
company's brand shepherds, and their interactions with
customers can build Web share, increase revenues made
online and boost customer satisfaction. Building
online relationships is critical, since customers
often require the integration of a human touch with
their electronic contact. Customers do not perceive a
relationship with the medium itself, but rather with
the company as a whole. In other words, it's not the
technology that makes a Web center, it is the people.
The most important step for online success is finding
the right net reps.
PROFILING THE IDEAL CANDIDATE
Traits that make a great net rep are different from
those that make a great phone agent, but companies
tend to think of these employees as interchangeable. A
study we conducted found that 66 percent of companies
use existing phone reps to handle Internet-based
customer interactions. Most of the representatives had
been with their employers for some time, were immersed
in the company culture and were experienced in
delivering good service. They had not, however, been
screened specifically to handle Internet-based
To have a successful Web-based interaction center,
companies must incorporate Web-based activities and
testing into the hiring process. In addition,
organizations must develop a profile of an ideal
candidate to use as a benchmark to find employees who
can handle the demanding technological and written
aspects of the job, as well as those who connect with
the company's essence. Only in that way can they
deliver the desired company message effectively.
There are several traits that differentiate
excellent net reps from their traditional phone rep
peers. This knowledge can be used to effectively build
a company's "ideal candidate" profile.
Technology know-how. Net reps must be well
versed in the use of search tools, browsers and online
technologies that link them with customers. On a
typical day, net reps will handle traditional and
automated e-mail responses, and will call the customer
back while looking at a screen pop of relevant data.
They will find and deliver graphic images and text
documents that help answer a customer's queries. For
advanced centers using VoIP technology, agents need to
understand how to use and be comfortable in that
medium. They may occasionally find themselves
processing these requests simultaneously. It is
important to find people who are comfortable with
technology, want to learn more and can multitask with
ease. Consider your phone agents for net rep
positions, but make sure they pass the technology test
before you move them into the Web interaction center.
Written communication skills. Phone reps can
use inflection of voice to guide them through an
interaction, but net reps often communicate by written
words alone. They must feel comfortable with the
written language -- not only in crafting their own
responses, but in accurately interpreting the true
requests of the customer. Fast and accurate typing,
spelling, grammar and word choice are all essential,
and usually not screened with phone rep candidates.
Comfort with all facets of the written word is an
obvious, but often overlooked, differentiator.
Stress test. Phone reps face stressful
situations, but they generally deal with one customer
at a time. Net reps maintain multiple, simultaneous "conversations."
Make sure your candidates are able to handle the
stress that comes with that kind of activity.
Essence and culture. Often an overlooked
characteristic, finding a rep who embodies your
company's essence is one of the most important factors
for customer interaction center success. Like phone
reps, net reps are your company's front line. It is
worth your time to find agents who fit into your
company culture and embrace your message. Not only
will these agents be more able to communicate your
brand promises, agents who are properly aligned with
the company culture turn over less frequently than
those who aren't a match.
Consider this scenario: if your company has branded
itself as a trustworthy, stable financial partner,
your reps need to be restrained in their
communications with customers. Their spelling and
grammar should be impeccable, and without the use of
many abbreviations or "emoticons" -- those
keystroke-created faces that smile, frown, wink or
laugh -- in their communications. On the other hand,
if your company's aim is to be innovative and hip, or
on the leading edge of style, then by all means,
direct agents to use the latest symbols, abbreviations
and other "netspeak" elements as they are created.
Once you have candidates, remember to run them
through at least one Web-based scenario. You would not
hire phone reps without hearing how they handle
themselves on the telephone; make sure your net rep
candidates can craft responses and communicate with
ease via the online channel.
TIME FOR TRAINING
When you have identified your net reps and have team
leaders in place, it's time to train them to handle
Internet-based interactions for your company.
Traditional training on product line, company history
and policies and escalation procedures are important,
but training created specifically for the online media
is essential. Each step of the customer interaction
process requires its own training.
Understanding a customer's true intent is one of
the most important skills for a net rep, yet it is
often overlooked in online training courses. Gather
information and statistics about your customers'
experiences with your Web site or online interactions,
and use them to develop training for your net reps.
For example, many customers stall in their online
purchasing experience. A traditional salesperson would
never knowingly let a frustrated customer abandon a
shopping cart full of merchandise and leave the store.
Most would approach a customer, determine what was
missing in his or her experience, and do their best to
The same is true for Web interactions. Find out
where your customers are abandoning your site, and
position Web agents to guide them through the tough
spots. Teach your net reps to figure out if customers
want to place orders or are merely seeking more
information on a product. Discover if customers are
trying to express frustration with a negative
experience, or are just undecided about a purchase.
Because net reps are often missing many of the visual
or verbal clues a traditional salesperson could use to
determine the customer's intent, it is important to
train reps to reach out and probe customers' attitudes
Writing. Web communication differs from
traditional letter writing. It is, for all intents, a
new language that is informal, colloquial and often "live,"
so net reps must be able to improvise. Training should
focus on applying your company's style to
interactions, and should incorporate drills, exercises
and quizzes. Content should include ways to write with
brevity, while still communicating all relevant
information. Reps need to be able to craft clear,
concise responses to customers that advance the sale,
provide excellent service and deliver your company's
brand online. If your center allows the use of
abbreviations and emoticons, agents should receive
training on these elements, as well as proper grammar
and other elements of "netiquette."
Sales and service. Whether your customers
contact you to get answers to questions or to purchase
products or services, your reps must be trained to
handle their inquiries. Your net reps should adapt
these skills to provide proper Web-based interactions.
For example, not every browser will actually make a
purchase. Net reps need to be trained in skills to
move the customer beyond browsing to buying. Rather
than rehash data and information that is readily
available on your site, your reps should be asking
both rhetorical and probing questions to invite waves
of communication, which is essential in building
online relationships and selling. This area of a
training curriculum should also include techniques to
upsell and cross-sell, which can significantly boost
the average online order price.
Good net reps also need to provide swift service:
many online customers use the Internet medium because
they perceive it to be faster. A response time that
might be perfectly adequate for a phone message is
perceived as dreadfully slow by an online customer.
Know your customers' response time thresholds, and
make sure your reps know, too. That way, they can time
their responses to ensure customer satisfaction.
Technology. Make sure your reps understand
the technologies they will use on the job. Give them
guided tours of your company Web site, and supply
ample time for them to browse and discover site
nuances on their own. You would not allow a phone rep
to handle live conversations without first knowing how
to use your telephone system. Make sure you offer that
same courtesy to your net reps, and remember that
instead of one system, you will often need to develop
a course that addresses multiple technologies,
including e-mail, VoIP and Web chat tools, as well as
ROLE PLAYING AS A TRAINING TOOL
Role playing (or "e-plays") is an important part of
the training process. Well-crafted e-plays allow your
net reps to have real-life experiences without the
pressure of making mistakes or potentially damaging
customer relationships. It also allows team leaders
and coaches to evaluate net reps on criteria they will
use on a day-to-day basis. Consider the following
A customer is having a hard time ordering a jacket
from a Web site. The order screen says, "click here to
order this item," but the customer wants the jacket in
a different color than what is shown in the photo, and
is reluctant to order.
Customer: "Help! This jacket is supposed
to come in blue, but the picture shows it only in
green. If I click to order, will I get a green
Net rep: "Hi, I'm Lisa with ZipIt.com, and I'll
help you out. First, click on the button that says
ORDER. I'll stay online with U, OK?"
Customer: OK, thx. But won't that mean I'll
get a green jacket?"
Net rep: No, but I see how U might have
thought that. It will take U to the next screen,
where U can pick color and size. Are U ready to
Net rep: "Now U can choose size and color.
BTW, 2nd jacket is 1/2 price this week...R U
Customer: "Oh, good idea! I need a gift for
Net rep: "Anything else I can help you w/?"
Customer: "No thx. I'm all set."
Net rep: "Thx for visiting ZipIt.com, come
again soon. Bye :)"
After the role play, you can discuss the various
skills of the net rep, including understanding the
customer's intent, the use of abbreviations and
emoticons, command of the language, ability to upsell,
and length of time needed to help the customer.
MEASURING AND MONITORING
Every traditional call center has applied measurements
to ensure that each phone representative meets
quality, productivity and results standards while
interacting with customers. The Web interaction center
needs the same level of measurement, but tailored for
online interactions. In our practice, we call them
Netrics. These are the benchmarks upon which each rep
is measured, and they determine areas of strength, as
well as areas that need further training and focus.
Developing your company's unique measurements
depends on the objectives of your interaction center.
Some obvious choices include the number of
interactions handled per rep and the ability to
respond within acceptable time frames. If your center
is a sales outlet, then volume of sales closed,
including upselling and cross-selling, are valid
Yet, to truly evaluate the performance of your net
reps, it is crucial to measure beyond plain numbers.
For example, an important measurement is how well your
net reps support your brand implementation.
Relationship building and affiliation should be
monitored, as well as the reps' ability to build
e-mail "waves" of communication with your customers.
A successful Web interaction center isn't developed
overnight, and it isn't a once-and-done proposition.
It is a continuum that includes continued attention to
and refinement of the key steps: determining the brand
promises and personality that net reps must convey,
finding the people with the skills and personality to
thrive in your online environment, training them how
to deliver and measuring their results. Your business
and your customers deserve nothing less.
Jill Leigh is president of Initiatives
Three, a customer interaction consulting firm
founded on the principle that the call center
intimately connects a business to its customers.
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