How Can Online Customer Care Feel Personal?
We know from recent customer surveys that a resounding theme exists in responses from consumers who want to do business with companies that care about them. “Don’t treat me like just a number,” they write. Or, “I want to feel like somebody at that company cares about me.”
We also hear that digital interactions such as chat, social media and texting are cheaper and that customers actually want to engage with brands through these avenues. But, how do you deliver an interaction that feels personal without delivering a warm and empathetic human voice on the other end?
Good question. We know that eye contact, warm smiles and an open-armed stance show people in person that we are open to what they have to say and willing to work with them. In a call center environment the visual clues are missing from the conversation, so we teach agents how to enhance verbal connection by ensuring they wait to speak until the customer has finished, being very polite and repeating what they understood the customer’s need to be. We also encourage them to smile while talking, because believe it or not, customers can “hear” a smile (it’s really true, if you didn’t know. Technically, the tone of your voice can change a bit, you can form your words differently because of the shape of your mouth, etc.).
So…then what happens online? What should we be teaching our chat agents and our social agents to ensure that these online interactions feel personal? You can’t see or hear the consumer, there are just these words on the page with few context clues to draw from.
Here are some high-level concepts to share with your reps to ensure they are providing online service that will feel warm, memorable and inviting.
5 Steps to Personal Online Customer Support
- Research: Before an agent ever interacts with a customer online, I recommend that you provide them with data around who your customer is, generally speaking. Usually upon hire, an orientation is given that explains the services your company offers and to whom those services are provided. For example, let’s say you are a computer parts retailer. You provide online chat for your customers in case they have questions about computer parts. your internal market research indicates that your customers are primarily from the U.S. and 60% male between the ages of 21 and 50. Because you are a retailer and not a wholesaler, you know that most of your customers are end user hobbyists and not businesses using your parts to resell to others. Providing this information to your agents before they ever engage with a customer is a great idea, because it helps them understand who they are talking to. They can guess that these customers would be interested in the much talked about latest software release, new advances in processing speed, etc. If your social media team were being trained rather than your chat team, perhaps you can research your Facebook insights in Business Manager to understand additional information about the customer.
- Prepare: Once the agent is out of training and on the floor, it’s a good idea to be ready when that interaction comes. Online transactions have a bit of an advantage over phone calls in that some sort of data is usually passed to the agent before the customer is “live” with them. Perhaps your phone reps get a customer account delivered to their computer screen with the initial call, but you’re live at that point with the customer and quickly scanning to see what’s happening. In the online chat space, typically the customer has stated their inquiry in a pre-chat survey and is in queue waiting on an agent. Train your reps to take the time to fully read and understand the customer’s inquiry before they engage the customer. For social media, because initial response time expectations are a bit longer than on chat, you can take this a step further and see how far you can get resolving a customer’s issue before you ever reach out to them. Yes, your initial response time is possibly longer; however when you reach out to the customer, it feels as if the agent is engaged, prepared, and knowledgeable about the customer’s inquiry.
- Listen: Ok, in the digital space it’s probably more accurate to use the word “read.” Have the agent read all of the words the customer has written to ensure that no assumptions are made. This is an easy place for online interactions to go from being helpful and satisfying customer issues, to being a huge waste of time for the customer. Thoroughly reading and understanding what the customer’s issue is avoids the agent taking time to solve for what they thought the customer needed help with, rather than what the customer actually wanted assistance with.
- Ask: A colleague of mine once shared that he would ask three questions of a person before providing a single answer. This was to ensure that he fully understood the question before providing an answer. Brilliant, right? Let the agents know that it is a good idea to ask as many questions as necessary to ensure the answer they’re about to provide is truly the answer the customer requires. This pairs directly with “Listen” above. Skipping this step, in my experience, is the primary cause for customers feeling that only very simple transactions can be conducted online, and that for “tough questions” they need to call in. When executed properly, this step ensures that very complex troubleshooting can be conducted in online channels.
- Share: Let’s not forget this one. The agent should share with the customer what should be done and why before getting started. Now, by “why,” I don’t mean that we should burden the customer with all the technical specifications that allow that agent to do the task. That’s wasted handle time and, quite frankly, the customer is not going to perform the transaction so we can skip all that and save everyone time. What is helpful is that after all the listening and asking of questions, we share the diagnosis with the customer. This is important because it’s possible that the agent has made an incorrect diagnosis. Sharing the high-level plan with the customer and asking if they are ready to correct the problem can prompt the customer to share additional details they hadn’t known were relevant before. This extra information could completely change the diagnosis, and might send the fix into a different direction. This step of sharing can again save precious time for the agent and the customer.
There you have it. Five Steps to Personal Online Support. What.. what’s that? Oh, right. Those steps above seem to be outlining how to have efficient and effective troubleshooting with a customer online. So, how is that personal, is that your question? Let me explain.
The reason customers report feeling disconnected during online interactions is because the agent isn’t listening to them, doesn’t share information, or doesn’t explain what they’re doing. Chat and social media interactions seem challenging to customers because there isn’t an ability to say enough words to get the agent to understand what the real issue is. The agent is trying to finish the transaction expediently since it’s an online channel, and this can cause a rush to figure out the customer issue. This rushing causes incorrect diagnosis, which, then, leads the agent to perhaps solve the wrong problem or be ineffective at solving the right problem. The customer feels like the agent doesn’t care because the agent isn’t sharing any information and doesn’t understand what they’re trying to convey. (phew, did you get all that?) Time and time again, reviewing thousands of online interactions over the years, this is what we see.
What does feel like caring, personal interaction to people is, of course, saying hi, how are you, how is your day going, etc. And agents are already doing this. But what really, truly feels like caring is when people listen and people help. We’ll of course assume that your agents want to help and wish they had time to listen. By providing them with these steps above and the assurance that it’s ok to take their time to ask some questions, I believe your agents will thrive and your NPS scores will improve.
Have a look at your chat or text transcripts, or review your social media interactions. If you find this to be relevant to your situation, but are concerned about an increase in handle time, I recommend you try a pilot with just a few agents. The handle time impacts will then be contained, and you can compare the results of the pilot group against those in regular population. Happy trials!