Mastering the “Fine Art” of Conversation in a Digital World

FROM THE OCTOBER 2017 ISSUE

Mastering Conversation in a Digital World
Illustration by Ilya Lestov

The idiom “fine art” (first half of the 1800s) is defined in the “American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms” as “something requiring highly developed techniques and skills.” Conversation certainly qualifies as “fine art.”

Unfortunately, it appears that the fine art of conversation is at risk in today’s digital world. I have been reading the book, “Reclaiming Conversation,” by Sherry Turkle, and it makes me think that contact center leaders are facing a new threat.

Consider this: The Deloitte “2017 Global Contact Center Survey” findings show that “contact Center interactions are projected to increase not just in volume, but also in complexity. Across all businesses surveyed, 85% recognize the move toward complexity.” This move toward complexity is already in play. Many organizations have found themselves automating many low-complexity, high-frequency contacts; they have also introduced simultaneously more and more tools for digital engagement. These may or may not be operating smoothly or “as advertised.” Promo codes don’t work; gift certificates fail at checkout; shipping is delayed; access channels perform poorly; and FAQs provide poor, old or incorrect information. These forces combine to drive more voice contacts into the contact center.

Voice contacts still include orders being placed by phone due to preference, complexity or confusion, e.g., “How long are those sleeves?” It is with voice contacts that the fine art of conversation takes place. Unfortunately, far too many people today haven’t been nurturing this particular skill; instead, their entire communication experience is digital. Society is becoming completely absorbed by digital devices. This is the siren sounding on quality conversation, which is among the most critical skills required for problem-solving.

There is a strange dichotomy here. On one side, the consumer demands automation. All contacts being digital is appealing and comfortable, even requisite to upcoming generations. So industry provides; yet when things go wrong, those same consumers demand “someone to talk to” in order to resolve complex issues.

On Friday of Labor Day weekend, I received an order from an online fashion shopping service where the product is sent on approval. You return what you don’t want within three days and then you are invoiced. Well, guess what? If you can’t log into their website, you really can’t do anything!

I have recently been on a password change mission, as I decided that using the same password for everything is a bad idea. I had selected a new password for this particular website, but low and behold, I could not remember it. When I clicked “forgot password” I received an automated response telling me that my request would receive a response within 24 hours.

My immediate thought was, “Are you kidding me?”—because, of course, we have been conditioned to receiving an immediate response for such a low-complexity contact. I then began to hunt the website for a phone number. I am not going to say there wasn’t one; I’m only going to say that I couldn’t find it. So I emailed and got the same automated response. Then I became irritated and pummeled them with emails of angst and irritation. Several hours later, I did receive a temporary password, not a link to change it on my own. This leads me to believe this is an entirely manual process. Oh, they also told me to pay no attention to that three-day window! While the clothes were OK, the experience WAS NOT!

In this example, there was no one to talk to. A quick and simple conversation would have been so much more effective; my interest and confidence in the company would be at a much higher level than it is now. I have issues with an organization pitching a subscription-based customized offering and deliberately avoiding the “voice” channel when they clearly don’t have the infrastructure to abandon voice. However, one may be swayed by the argument that, far too often when companies do provide a voice channel, the quality of conversation is becoming a huge challenge. The fine art of conversation is getting lost within this digital world.

“A real conversation always contains an invitation. You are inviting another person to reveal herself or himself to you, to tell you who they are or what they want.”—David Whyte, Poet and Author

Many contact centers provide entry-level positions which typically attract the younger folks in our communities. Think about working with today’s youth. Many, if not most, are digital device devotees; whether it be texting, emailing, posting, shopping, chatting or games, there is a growing movement that Turkle describes as a “flight from conversation.” She points out the fact that when we use digital devices, we operate on an “edited” version of communication. We can “retouch” the messages and make necessary adjustments to influence our digital identity. Turkle suggests that there are many young people today that “would rather text than talk.”

What are we to do in the customer care environment if, in fact, those hired to “care” cannot engage? Engagement is the outcome of conversation and is critical to resolving complex issues. If we believe Deloitte’s findings (and I see no reason not to), we must consider how we train people to engage in conversations that deal with complex situations. Often, basic communication skills are presented almost as a task list: listen, ask open-ended questions, provide feedback, summarize major points, take next steps, etc.

A communication skills curriculum makes an assumption that the learner has at least basic conversational skills; this may no longer be a valid assumption. Many young folks have been brought up in households where the parents spend MORE time on devices than their children. Today’s parents are “warned” to limit their children’s screen time, which they often proudly do. The real issue is that they don’t limit their own. Consequently, parents aren’t engaging their offspring in conversation. This is extremely troubling since parents and the extended family are the key sources of mastering the “fine art” of conversation at the earliest stages of life.

Device devotion has hijacked not only the ability to converse with others but also with ourselves. If we can’t communicate with ourselves, how do we learn to interact with others? It appears from Turkle’s studies that self-reflection is an additional risk of digital device devotion since self-reflection often occurs in our quiet moments. Devices hijack any and all quiet moments. Boredom is the label given when there is a lull in the home, the classroom and the office; it drives people to social media, online shopping, posting, playing games or other device-driven distractions.

We carry our devices as if they are the most important part of ourselves. I know I downright panic if I have forgotten or misplaced my phone. (A great YouTube video, “I forgot my phone,” illustrates just how crazy social activities have become).

Contact center leaders must understand that training programs may need to be adjusted to include the value of conversation and not just with customers. Many have adopted the belief that we will be so much more efficient if we have all learning online and eliminate classroom instruction. Have we really considered what we are giving up? People need to engage on a human level to grow conversational skill, which is more an art than a science.

Many organizations are discovering that actual conversations move strategic and complex projects and planning along more quickly than the current trend of sandboxes and playpens. These are certainly useful for some explicit tasks, but they replace requisite and rich human contact with more “edited” versions of interaction.

Take a look around and ask yourself whether you believe that artificial intelligence, automation and social media are really “better.” Are you ready to start evaluating and embracing the fine art of conversation? The benefit is that it may pay you back as an “experiential” differentiator. The skill of conversation is facilitated by creating space and time for folks to actually converse rather than provide a quick training or informational fix. For example, spirit committees ought to be given real time to physically meet rather than to simply email one another. Process improvement ought to be part of a real conversation. It is in conversation that we discover things we may not have noticed in our more edited digital interfaces.

We must get people accustomed to the unique attributes of being a conversationalist. We cannot expect this to happen only when our associates are on the phone with a customer. It needs to be a cultural norm. Remember the days when early arrivers to meetings would “chat one another up.” This is not so anymore. It is as if this opportune moment to get to know a little about the actual humans you work with is less interesting than viewing something on your digital device. Consequently, building a culture of camaraderie is simply lost due to disinterest and inability to converse.

Next time you reach for your digital device, stop for a moment and determine what you are NOT doing. Are you NOT talking to your kids? Are you NOT solving problems collaboratively? Are you NOT engaging your workforce in a meaningful way?

Think again, drop the device, and invite someone to a “device-free” tea break to enjoy the “fine art” of conversation.

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FROMContact Center Pipeline October 2017
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Kathleen Peterson

Kathleen M. Peterson is the Founder and Chief Vision Officer of PowerHouse Consulting, Kathleen is an acclaimed Contact Center consultant and recognized industry visionary. She offers a refreshing and sometimes challenging philosophy to positioning the Contact Center as the true lifeline of the enterprise—believing that vision, brand, leadership and execution combine to deliver a powerful customer experience. Kathleen has emerged as one of the most sought-after experts and consulting partner in the field of customer experience working with the world’s top customer-focused companies, and is published widely in the most prestigious industry journals in the U.S. and abroad. As a featured speaker at conferences and Fortune 500 companies, she has shared her humor, knowledge, and experience across four continents, including Contact Center conference keynotes in the United States, London, Paris, Turkey, Dubai, and Hong Kong. Kathleen also served as Conference Chair for the North American Conference on Customer Service Management.