Cautious optimism is defined as “a feeling of general confidence regarding a situation and/or its outcome coupled with a readiness for possible difficulties or failure” (TheFreeDictionary.com).
I had an interesting experience when I called my insurer the other day. I approached the call with “cautious optimism.” What made it interesting was the way the agent was able almost immediately to introduce calm to a situation that I anticipated would be difficult. I was calling because my prescription was “denied.” I have been on this particular medication for several years, had a recent refill, and could not fathom the issue.
The pharmacy had tried, my doctor’s office tried, but the insurer would not budge. My doctor recommended that I call my insurer to try to determine the issue. I don’t know about you, but when I undertake a call like this it is almost as if I want a shield and a sword to prepare for battle. In this case, all the angst and negative anticipation was nearly put to rest immediately when Ms. Alex said to me, “I’m going to take ownership of this issue right now; it is my job to take care of our patients.” Whoa, what? This took all the angst-driven wind out of my sails. Ms. Alex resolved my issue within 30 minutes, called me back, and explained that the pharmacy had processed the prescription with the wrong dosage. No worries… all set. It was not just the words either. It was also that Ms. Alex communicated with confidence and enthusiasm.
Frontline agents are often challenged with separating home life from work life; accordingly, they bring poor communication habits to work. Keep in mind that we are now in a social environment in which conversation has morphed into text messages, social media postings, photos and “emojis”! Hence, the fine art of interacting with other humans to solve problems is a skill that needs to be polished.
Providing the opportunity to engage your front line in conversations around managing and controlling a phone call is more critical than ever. There are several ways to accomplish this. First in my mind is including time within the training program for discussions (actual roundtable type of chats and talking rather than telling) around the mission and purpose of the center, the brand of the enterprise, in addition to effective strategies for call control.
Just today I was listening to some phone calls from a client and the experience was painful. Interestingly enough, the worst part of too many of the calls was LONG SILENCES. I mean several minutes of silence or being placed on hold without benefit of explanation. I had to keep checking the media player to make sure I was still connected. When the agent returned to the call there was no apology or explanation for the hold… just a brisk brush-off by telling the caller she would now be transferred.
The other thing that struck me was the abundance of “lazy speech.” If you listened to some of these calls, you would be unable to identify the company because the speech in the greeting was slurred. This was not like “drunk” slurred speech, just said too fast to be understood. Then the obvious occurred when the caller asked if this was XYZ Company. The response was a snarky, “Yes.”
So in spite of all our advances in technology and sophistication in managing contact centers, this condition of poor interaction skills plays very nicely into the argument for AI/chatbots. But these are not yet capable of handling complex or complicated operational issues. So at least for now we must get our front line connected to mission, purpose, brand, call control and CONVERSATION skills.
First and foremost, examine your training program to assure that there is a context for communication with customers. Contextualize your brand and customer experience objectives into the skill development. This allows trainers and coaches to address skill development as it relates to achieving business objectives. I find that far too frequently the front line needs more connection to these drivers.
Secondly, coaches will achieve much greater results if they provide feedback that connects to higher-level forces rather than simply to the perceived “opinion” of the coach. Honestly, no one has ever been motivated by the phrase, “When I was a rep.” People are driven by self-interest; this kind of context is unlikely to engage.
Communication essentials require some upfront definitions regarding the engagement with callers. I identify three as critical to frontline contact center reps:
- Communication—the exchange of ideas;
- Negotiation—the process of dealing with another to reach an agreement; and
- Motivation—the basis for action.
We need to impress upon the front line that professional business communication is very different from our day-to-day interactions with friends and family. Many that we have taught tell us that the skills they learned apply to both their jobs and to their personal life. This type of learning also improves employee engagement with customers and colleagues.
Communication and Negotiation
Help reps to understand that they are the “Communicator in Chief” and to recognize that communication is an exchange that allows us to reinforce the power of listening skills. This requires a mindful focus on the caller rather than on a hasty response or reaction. Agents that “flip out” early on a tough call are neglecting an “exchange of ideas,” which results in a meaningful and solution-driven dialogue. Talking over the caller, brutally interrupting, or delivering harsh statements/reprimands (e.g., “You have to calm down” or “I’m just trying to do my job”) simply do not promote negotiation.
If there is a failure at the fundamental communication level, negotiation will be unachievable because the agent has already lost control of the call. Many folks associate negotiation with sales. Problem resolution is in fact a type of sale and problem-solving clearly meets the criteria for “reaching an agreement.” If the agent delivers statements like, “That’s our policy” or “It’s right there in the warranty,” the likelihood of a healthy problem resolution is slim. And no one feels good after such an engagement.
We must instruct staff that negotiation is a communication skill and help the front line to pull from the conversation the caller’s real issue. The caller may have tried to resolve their issue on your website and was “forced” to call due to an unsatisfactory self-service experience. Telling the caller, “Sorry, it’s not my fault. I can’t fix the website” pretty much will end any good will. Just as Ms. Alex did on my call to the insurer, the rep must be able to decipher the true issue and act on it.
An action-oriented response, rather than a negative and exasperated one, falls into the negotiation realm. Statements such as, “I’m going to take ownership of this for you” or “I understand this is taking more time than you expected—let’s get on with taking care of the problem” reduce stress considerably. When reps spend their day successfully reducing caller angst, it is an incredibly empowering and satisfying experience. This is quite the opposite of the outcomes of anger and resentment.
Motivation is the basis for action. Management, coaching, hiring and training all contribute to whether or not your staff is motivated to achieve excellence, represent the brand and proactively manage the customer experience. However, do not kid yourself into thinking that motivation is all positive. There are without question those that are motivated to whine, complain and simply make everyone’s life miserable. Not just the customers suffer in this scenario. Today’s contact centers must weed out job candidates and incumbent staff with profiles of this nature.
I would say that the single most important criterion for hiring frontline reps is optimism. Optimists are known to be learners, a characteristic that is critical in today’s contact center environments. We must look for optimists! If candidates lack every other skill, choose those that are hopeful, upbeat, confident and reflect positivity. There are many standardized prehire assessment tools to assist in identifying this critical characteristic. Optimists have what Dr. Martin Seligman describes as an “optimistic explanatory style” that he says is often found in “stress resistant” people (“Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life”).
We must provide structure to the conversation; reps need to understand that their word choice matters A LOT. Overuse of the word “you” may lead to difficulty as the caller hears that the problem is theirs and not yours. For most of us, the response to a statement such as “You have to understand” is a flat “No, I do not.” Then the call veers into an entirely different discussion. De-escalation is as much about word choice as anything else is. Phrases like “I recommend that we…” or “Let me share what I can do now” always lead to the affirmative. Conduct conversations with staff and play around with different words and phrases. Dig through call recordings to identify effective phrases and share that information. The front line needs this level of detail!
Tonality (intonation) is “the rise and fall of voice in speaking.” It is a critical communication element that involves the pace, pitch, volume and tempo of the voice. Articulation is also a key factor in avoiding lazy speech. Pronouncing consonants (e.g., in words such as recognize) is something to carefully watch and coach to in order to improve tonality. The rate or speed of speech is also critical, especially when words get jumbled together and articulation suffers. The broadcast rate of speech is 150 to 160 words per minute; a great exercise is to test out that rate with staff in the contact center.
Body language and the non-verbal messages it conveys certainly matters in the contact center. Staff that slouch down at their desk do not come across as ready, willing and able to serve; rather, it is the posture of lazy speech. For decades, we have heard that a smile can be heard through the phone and it is absolutely true. Years ago, contact centers often issued a mirror to each frontline rep as a reminder.
The fact is that body and mind are intimately connected. Deep breathing, staying hydrated, “deskercises” and a healthy ergonomic environment each contributes to the maintenance of an “optimistic explanatory style.”
Help Agents to Succeed
Give your agents what they need to succeed as an effective communicator and help them to reassure customers that have “cautious optimism.” You will not be disappointed!