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Is It What You Say or How You Say It?

One of the things I like best about our business is that we’re still writing the book on it.  There’s plenty of room to challenge conventional wisdom and find a better way.

Recently, one of our clients, a national company that already had good Customer Satisfaction (CSAT) scores, said they wanted to move up to best in class with CSAT scores in the 90s.  But when you’re already as good as they were, it’s a lot harder to find and fix what’s wrong, because there really isn’t that much that’s wrong.

We agreed the best way was to move middle scoring agents up to top box status, because that’s the difference between good and great.  The next step was how to do it.

As we began, we discovered something new about call center agent performance – that their success reflected how well they were able to identify and adapt to their callers’ styles.

The easiest part was to categorize callers as either transactional or conversational.  Transactional callers just wanted to get their questions answered.  Sure, they wanted the agent to be cordial, but they weren’t looking for a new best friend – and they didn’t want the call to last any longer than necessary.  Conversational callers liked a softer, friendlier approach.  Yes, they still wanted answers, but they didn’t mind exchanging a few pleasantries along the way.

But after listening to even more calls, I realized there were two other communication modes we hadn’t identified earlier – educational and empathetic.

  • Approximately 20 percent of calls probably fit into the educational bucket.  The agent can (and should) go into teaching mode, but in a respectful way – never patronizing.  If the agent didn’t switch to an educational mode, the caller often had so many random questions that the call wandered all over the place.  So…I realized this wasn’t just a way to resolve the caller’s issues, it was also an effective way to reduce the amount of time spent doing it.
  • Angry and complaining callers are more emotional and often require a more empathetic approach from the agent.  These callers may get frustrated quickly and need to be “talked down” before the issue can be handled constructively.

The most successful agents are those who can adapt their own style to their callers:

  • The first screen is whether callers are transactional or conversational.  Agents often misread the transactional callers and, being one of these myself, I can vouch for the sense of annoyance I have when an agent tries to be overly friendly.
  • Transactional and educational calls are more structured.  Conversational and empathetic calls are more fluid and rely on the agent’s ability to be “human.”
  • After identifying the caller’s style, the agent must adapt quickly.
  • Agents who overdo the empathetic approach begin to sound forced and even scripted.  To do it right, agents just need to be authentically nice human beings.

I also noticed what could be a disconnect between agents adapting to caller styles and how they are evaluated in call center metrics.  We often mark our agents down for interrupting a caller – but they probably need to do that to switch to educational mode and take control of the conversation.  So, we need to make allowances for this when we monitor the calls and evaluate agents.

We’re talking about behavioral nuances, so I wondered if these skills are teachable.  Although there is a certain level of innate ability required, I think training can make a difference:

  • Agents can be trained to be aware of the various caller communication modes.
  • Then they can be trained to listen for cues, including both the caller’s tone and the substance of the call.
  • Our goal is to make the process unconscious as the agent swings seamlessly from one type of communication to another.

Lessons learned?  First, not all industries experience the four types of callers.  Calls in some industries tend to be more nuts and bolts, with far fewer nuances.  But for those that do, we can train agents to adapt to customer communication needs and then we can adjust our metrics to reflect the importance of the process.