Can Bad Writers Improve?
If You Coach Them, Yes
By Leslie O’Flahavan, E-WRITE
I can picture you. It’s the end of a busy week and you’ve finally carved out an hour or so to do a quality check on the emails your agents send to customers. From the “Sent” pile, you randomly grab a response written by “Marian” and settle in with your QA scorecard to see how well she did.
Here’s the customer’s question:
My disability placard for parking expired in March. How do I go about renewing it? The number of my placard is 12345678.
And here’s Marian’s response:
Dear Jane Doe,
In regards to your e-mail obtaining a current first-time updated disabled placard, one would need to complete a form VR-123 (can be download from the web, under forms) and taken to any full service Motor Vehicle Agency office, Monday – Friday ,8:30 – 4:30 p.m. (If U cannot get to the doctor’s, then the form will allow one 6 months to have the doctors complete it (still will receive a placard) If U cannot come in, U may give someone nortize power of attorney.
Marian, MVA Customer Service Agent
I can still picture you. Now, you’ve got your head in your hands. You’re wondering what poor Jane did after receiving this badly written email. Did she ever renew her disability placard? You’re wondering why your predecessor hired Marian. You’re wondering whether Marian’s poor writing skills should cost her the job.
Marian’s not unique. Lots of contact centers are staffed by customer service agents who can’t write very well. There are several reasons why:
- Writing well is difficult. People in all different types of jobs are bad at it.
- Many customer service agents started out talking to customers on the phone. They didn’t need great writing skills, and they don’t have them.
- Agents write to customers in a production environment. They write one email after another all day every day. That’s not the kind of environment that fosters excellent wordcraft.
- Many agents rely on templates, so you may not know until they’ve sent some pretty bad emails that their free-texting skills are poor.
Can Bad Writers Improve?
Yes, they can. It takes work on their part and on yours, but customer service agents who don’t write well can learn to write better if you coach them properly and if they take your coaching seriously.
Let’s start with the idea of coaching to improve writing skills. For coaching to work, it has to be frequent, consistent, focused, and brief. Think of the way a track coach shapes the performance of a runner, and you’ll have a great model. A track coach works with the runner on each day she trains. The coach rarely comments on the runner’s overall performance. Instead, she gives the runner focused feedback on pace, stride, arm swing, or foot strike. If the runner tries but fails to do what the coach is suggesting, the coach figures out another way to demonstrate what she’s looking for, asks another runner to show the technique, or puts the request aside until the runner is more capable. While the coach may time some of the athlete’s practice runs, she doesn’t time all of them because she doesn’t need to measure performance each time to help the runner improve her performance.
So, if you have weak writers like Marian on your customer service team, use the track coach as a model and use these coaching tips to improve their performance:
Figure out whether they lack “big picture” writing skills, “small picture” writing skills, or both.
I developed these terms to refer to two broad categories of writing skills. “Big picture” writing skills require decision-making on the writer’s part. Using a friendly tone, customizing templates, and sequencing the paragraphs in an email are all “big picture” writing skills. In contrast, “small picture” writing skills require obedience. Spelling, punctuation, and grammar are all “small picture” writing skills.
Sadly, Marian lacks both types of writing skills. She makes “small picture” errors in spelling and punctuation. But she does more damage with her “big picture” skills errors. She fails to explain clearly to Jane what to do to renew her placard.
To coach agents to be better writers, you need to know which types of skills they have or lack. If they lack “big picture” writing skills, I suggest you focus your coaching on those first. Those “small picture” skills errors are embarrassing, but the “big picture” skill errors do more harm to first contact resolution.
Require agents with poor “small picture” writing skills use software tools to fix their errors.
Everyone who uses spell check makes fewer spelling errors. If your CRM doesn’t have a good spell check built in, ask your weaker writers to copy and paste their emails into Word to check for mistakes. You can also ask them to use tools like Grammarly, Ginger, WhiteSmoke, or StyleWriter to support their proofreading.
Build agents’ “big picture” writing skills by asking them to annotate sample email responses.
Let’s say, for example, you have a weak writer who often fails to answer all the customer’s questions. If the customer asked three questions, the agent will answer two of them but disregard the third. This writing habit is a “big picture” problem. To coach this agent to improve, give her at least one sample email response per week and ask her to annotate it. Ask her to mark the customer’s questions and mark where the agent answered each question in the response. Discuss these annotations during your brief coaching sessions. This coaching practice has two benefits: it gives weak writers a diet of well-written emails to read and it puts most of the responsibility on them to do the work to improve.
Meet with your weakest writers for short coaching sessions at least twice a week.
Coaching must be frequent to be effective, so don’t save up your feedback for a long sit-down with your weak writers. Plan to meet with them for about 10 to 15 minutes at least twice weekly. Give them feedback on their own work. Between sessions, ask them to collect at least one email they wrote in which they worked on the skill you’d focused on.
Gauge the agent’s willingness to improve their writing skills.
Becoming a better writer is hard, slow work, so you need to know whether your bad writers are willing to exert themselves. If they don’t show you they’re trying, consider asking them to look for a new job. Being a competent writer is a need-to-have, not a nice-to-have for today’s customer service agents.I firmly believe that good workplace writers are made, not born. While you may have some agents on staff who will never be elegant writers, I believe focused coaching will help most of them become competent writers.
E-WRITE is a writing training consulting company based in the Washington, DC area. E-WRITE founder Leslie O’Flahavan has helped thousands of people learn to write well for online readers. She has delivered customized writing courses for customer service agents, social media managers, and support desk staff. She is a problem-solver for all the writing-related challenges faced by contact centers: e-mail, chat, social media, and text. She helps contact centers train agents to write well, measure the quality of their writing, and maintain their libraries of canned answers. Leslie is a LinkedIn Learning (Lynda.com) author of four courses: Customer Service: Serving Customers Through Chat and Text (upcoming), Technical Writing: How to Write a Quickstart Guide, How to Write Customer Service Email and Customer Service: Writing for Social Media. Leslie is the co-author of Clear, Correct, Concise E-Mail: A Writing Workbook for Customer Service Agents. Leslie may be reached at Leslie@ewriteonline.com.