by E-WRITE's Leslie O'Flahavan

April 17, 2015

Video Interview: How to Improve Email Response Time

Since 2011, my friend and colleague Jeff Toister, of Toister Performance Solutions, has conducted an annual survey on email response time, asking these straightforward questions:

  • How fast do you expect a response to an email you send to a business?
  • How quickly should you respond to an email from a business? A coworker? A friend?

 

This year's survey revealed that email response time expectations continue to escalate: 16.5% of respondents want a business to reply within an hour, 13% will wait four hours, and 43.4% want a response within one day. Any way you slice the data, one thing is clear: Businesses better hurry up and answer, or customers will walk away. Or even worse -- they will email again!

Knowing that I have many an opinion on how to do email right, Jeff kindly interviewed me on ways customer care organizations, and businesses of all types, can improve email response time without sacrificing email quality.

Please watch our interview and let me know what you think. Do the survey results match your customers' expectations for email response time? How soon do you expect an email response from a business, coworker, or friend?

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March 20, 2015

Hotel Allegro, Get Your Customer Service Act Together: When Multichannel Goes Wrong

Last week, I stayed at the Hotel Allegro in Chicago. My stay was OK, maybe a C minus. The hotel's under construction, the wi-fi was sketchy, you have to leave the hotel to go to its 312 Chicago restaurant, and the room was really small. I might stay there again, but probably not.

Why am I telling you all this? Because my post-stay experience as an Allegro customer presents an object lesson in how not to do multichannel customer service. Here's what happened.

A couple of days after my stay, I needed an itemized folio to prepare an expense report for my client. I assumed I could choose a channel. I could call, email, or tweet the Allegro, but when I looked at Hotel Allegro's Contact Us page, email was the featured option for getting help.

I used the webform to send the following email:

Allegro_ContactUs_March2015

Then, I waited for a reply. After about three hours, I became impatient--and I am not proud of this--because I wanted that folio right away. I was eager to cross the expense report off my to-do list, so I called the hotel to request the folio. I became a multichannel customer in a multichannel customer service world. When I called, the  very helpful man at the front desk of the hotel in Chicago agreed to email me the folio, and he did it. Right away.Cool!

Here's the email I received with the folio attached:

Allegro_Chicago_Email

 Yep, that's the entire email. It has no subject line, no content, no signature, and the attached folio has no name. I got some fast service, but that's not feel-good service. Hotel Allegro, which gathered plenty of information about me during this interaction (and during my stay) squandered every opportunity to build rapport with me in this email.

I was having a very uneven multichannel customer service experience:

  • I'd sent an email via webform, but I wasn't patient enough to wait even three hours for a response. (That's on me...)
  • I'd called the hotel and had a great experience on the phone.
  • I'd receive an email from the hotel, which completed a transaction but didn't help me build any bond with the hotel or the brand (Kimpton).

 

Here's the folio I received from the front desk staff:

Allegro_Folio

But this tale has one more chapter. About an hour later, I received a response to my webform email from a Kimpton VIP Reservations Agent. She informed me that she could not send me a complete folio showing room and restaurant charges because I'd booked with Orbitz. Ahem. There's a couple of problems with her reply: I'd already received my complete folio (Thank you, Front Desk Guy), and I hadn't booked the room with Orbitz! The Reservation Agent's information was wrong.

Here's the email from the Kimpton Reservations Agent:

 Allegro_Email_Orbitz

And here's the folio she sent me. Not very useful. It would have done nothing to advance my cause of clearing an item from my to-do list, that's for sure.

Allegro_Folio_No2_March2015

 

So, I promised you an object lesson in multichannel customer service.

I think the morals of this story are pretty clear:

  1. Get your customer service act together. If you are going to serve customers in multiple channels, you have to give them the same answer in each channel. If you give them different answers in different channels you'll confuse and anger them, and you'll increase the number of contacts you receive.
  2. Cross-train agents to deliver good service in multiple channels. If you're going to let Front Desk Guy send emails to customers, equip him to do it well.
  3. Even the "old-school" channels can be challenging. Customer care organizations are delivering service in ever more channels--text, video, chat, social--but as we can see, good old phone and email can still present a challenge.

 

Please weigh in! I hope you'll comment on what you think is the reason for this multichannel mix-up. I'm eager to know what you think.

P.S. I tweeted @KimptonCHI about the first email I received, the one with no subject line. No surprise, but I've received no response to my tweet. It looks like Kimpton is using that Twitter handle for feel-good stories, not yet for customer service.

 Update

I invited Hotel Allegro to respond to this blog post. No reply.

Tweet_to_Hotel_Allegro

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February 26, 2015

How to Write Email Templates That Don’t Make Customer Service Agents Sound Like Robots

When it comes to writing emails to customers, contact center managers fall into two camps. The first is the “Have You Seen Their Writing?” camp. In this camp, managers are so concerned about their customer service agents’ poor writing skills that they require agents to use templates (canned responses) when they reply to customers’ emails.  The “Have You Seen Their Writing?” managers realize that templates sound pre-written, but asking agents to free-text is just too risky.

The second is the “Keepin’ it Real” camp. In this camp, managers are so concerned about the authenticity of their agents’ emails to customers that they reject templates. The “Keepin’ it Real” managers know that their no-template approach makes it likely that agents will send some poorly written—possibly embarrassing—emails to customers, but requiring agents to use templates is just too robotic.

So, who’s right? The “Have You Seen Their Writing?” managers or the “Keepin’ it Real” managers? In my opinion, neither is right. I believe we should provide email templates for agents to use, but the templates must be written in a style that enables us to deliver sincere, personal customer service.

Five tips for writing email templates that won’t make customer service agents sound like robots:

1. Write templates in your company’s brand voice. If your marketing team and your customer care organization don’t collaborate regularly, it’s likely that your email templates don’t sound anything like your company’s TV or magazine ads, newsletters, email blasts, web content, mobile app, Facebook posts, or tweets. This isn’t good. To give customers a consistent experience, the voice and tone of your company’s customer service emails should be consistent with all the other ways your company speaks to customers. If you want customers to trust the information you give them, your emails have to sound like, well, you.

Imagine you work for ABC Auto Finance Company, a lender that targets first-time car buyers between ages 25 and 30. Your tag line is “No credit, no problem!” and your mascot is a cute little teddy bear called “Fresh Start Fred.” Your brand voice is playful, approachable, and casual. If you use templates to write emails to customers, the templates must use the same brand voice as your company’s other communications.

Example: Don’t use a template that sounds nothing like Fresh Start Fred

Dear [Mr./Ms. Last name]:
We have received your email about your inability to log on to your ABC Auto Finance online account. In reviewing your account, we have learned that your name is misspelled. We have sent a request to the appropriate department to correct the spelling of your name. The updated information will show on your account within one to two business days.

You may log on to your online account after the correction has been made on your account. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.
Please follow these instructions to log on your corrected account online:

  • Sign in at www.ABCAutoFinance.com with your username and password
  • Answer security question
  • Go to Add Another Vehicle on the Account Overview page
  • Enter your account number and the last 4 digits of your Social Security Number
  • Click Submit

Should you encounter any difficulties, please call our Customer Service Center toll free at 1-800-123-4567.  The hours of operation are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Friday.

We value your business and look forward to servicing your needs in the future.  

Sincerely,
[First name Last name]
Auto Finance Financial Services

Do write a template that uses Fresh Start Fred’s voice

Hello [First name],
Thank you for contacting us about the problems you were having when you tried to log on to your ABC Auto Finance account. In your online account, your name was misspelled, so you couldn’t get into it. We’re really sorry about this mistake, and we’ve fixed it! The correction will show on your account within one to two business days.

You can log on after the correction has been made on your account. Here’s how to log on:

  • Sign in at www.ABCAutoFinance.com with your username and password
  • Answer the security question
  • Go to Add Another Vehicle on the Account Overview page
  • Enter your account number and the last 4 digits of your Social Security Number
  • Click Submit

If you have any problems, please call our Customer Service Center right away at 1-800-123-4567. We’re here for you Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m.

Sorry we got off on the wrong foot. Everything should be working smoothly now!

Sincerely,
[First name Last name]
Auto Finance Financial Services

2. Train your agents to combine templates with free-text. Being able to knit together prewritten content (the template) with individualized content (free-text) is a high-level writing skill, but with training and practice, most customer service agents can free-text very well. Good templates should require some free-texting, so customers will realize that the agent read, and is responding to, their individual issues.

Here’s an example of a template that requires a good amount of free-texting and, in my opinion, yields a natural-sounding, non-robotic email to the customer.

Template that requires the agent to free-text

Dear [First name Last name],
Thank you for letting us know about the [describe item] you left on our plane on your flight to [destination] on [date]. We’ve looked for it, but I’m sorry to say that we haven’t found it.

To try to locate your [item], we contacted the flight attendants and cleaning crew. None of our staff has found your lost item, and, unfortunately, your [item] has not been turned in to our Lost and Found Department.

Is there any chance you left your [item] at the ticket counter at [airport name] or in the area of your departure gate, which was [number]? If so, please contact the airport’s Lost and Found Department directly. Here’s their Contact Information [hyperlink].

We hope to see you on another ABC Airlines flight soon.

Sincerely,
[First name Last name]
ABC Airlines Customer Relations

How the agent free-texted the response

Dear MaryAnne Farrell,  
Thank you for letting us know about the iPad in the blue leather case you left on our plane on your flight to San Francisco on January 5, 2015. We’ve looked for it, but I’m sorry to say that we haven’t found it.

To try to locate your iPad, we contacted the flight attendants and cleaning crew. None of our staff has found your lost item, and, unfortunately, your iPad has not been turned in to our Lost and Found Department.

Is there any chance you left your iPad at the ticket counter at San Francisco International Airport or in the area of your departure gate, which was Gate 60 in Terminal 3? If so, please contact the airport’s Lost and Found Department directly. Here’s their Contact Information.

We hope to see you on another ABC Airlines flight soon.

Sincerely,
Courtney McKesson
ABC Airlines Customer Relations

3. Use lots of pronouns. Using the words I, we, and you liberally in your templates establishes a personal relationship between the writer (customer service agent) and reader (customer). So, templates that include lots of pronouns just sound more personal.

Don’t write templates like this
Customer service is of paramount importance at ABC Corporation, which welcomes the opportunity to review customers’ concerns and questions and provide feedback.  

Do write templates like this
Thank you for bringing this issue to our attention. We’re glad to have the opportunity to review your concerns and provide feedback.  

4.  Loosen up your grammar. Use contractions (gasp). Begin a sentence with however, but, or and (faint). If your templates are written in a style that sounds more natural, your customers may not even realize they’ve received a template response. The first template, below, is grammatically correct, but stilted and unfriendly-sounding. The second template takes the occasional liberty, but it’s less likely that a customer will realize it’s prewritten.

Don’t write templates like this
As per our records, your dormant account has been closed due to inactivity. Dormant accounts are deactivated when the account owner has not signed into them four months, even if email has arrived during that time. Unfortunately, once an account has been deactivated, it is impossible for the EmailNow team to retrieve any stored information. It is possible to reactivate your account; however, it will not have any of the information stored in it. Owners who wish to reactivate their accounts should follow the fours steps listed below.

Do write templates like this
Because your email account was inactive, we’ve closed it. We close (deactivate) accounts that haven't been signed into for four months. Unfortunately, once an account’s been deactivated, the EmailNow team can’t retrieve any information from it. It’s possible for you to reactivate your account by following the four steps listed below. But, even if you do reactivate, your account won’t have any stored information, like email addresses or saved messages.

5. Use plain language, not legalese. Sometimes we have to explain a policy to a customer, and a template is a great way to equip your agents to do this without much effort. But the template itself doesn’t need to include the entire policy, chapter and verse. In the template, paraphrase the policy in plain language, then link to the full “legalese” at the website.

Don’t write templates like this
According to our records, all persons who purchased tickets for the canceled concert on December 6, 2014 were issued a $100 ticket credit coupon for future use. This discount coupon is valid for one year toward ticket purchase at the Downtown Music Theater. The single-use coupon is not combinable, not replaceable if lost or stolen, and cannot be used for promotional items, clothing, or artists’ merchandise. Upon single use, any residual balance remaining on the coupon will be forfeited.

To redeem a discount coupon, patrons will be required to purchase a ticket on our website or you may call our Box Office toll-free at 800-123-4567.

Do write templates like this
Because the December 6, 2014 concert was canceled and you couldn’t use your ticket, I’m sending you a $100 ticket credit coupon, which is valid until December 7, 2015. You can use this coupon to purchase tickets for any of our Downtown Music Theater shows. (Please review the fine print about using this coupon.)

When you’re ready to use the coupon, please go to our Buy Tickets page or call our Box Office at 800-123-4567.

If they’re well-written and carefully maintained, email templates help new agents get up to speed quickly, enable customer care managers to store and update information in a central location, and improve email agents’ productivity. Templates themselves don’t make agents sound like robots. Badly written, canned-sounding, brand-voice-lacking, legalistic templates do. But well-written, natural-language templates with lots of room for free-text can connect with customers really well.

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February 9, 2015

Why Your Site Needs a Style Guide and a Governance Handbook: Interview with Courtney Reyers of NAMI

Courtney_ReyersI’d like you to meet Courtney Reyers, Director of Publishing at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Courtney has just led NAMI through the two-year process of re-thinking, re-architecting, re-writing, and re-launching the NAMI.org website. (During that time, I provided NAMI with web writing training, web writing coaching, and content writing services.) NAMI’s old site had grown weedy, out of date, and confusing. NAMI’s new site looks gorgeous and meets users’ needs.  Just take a look at a before-and-after page comparison.

But this interview doesn’t focus on NAMI’s new site. It focuses instead on two essential documents Courtney created to help ensure content quality: The NAMI Editorial Style Guide and the NAMI Web Governance Handbook. Courtney has generously agreed to share these documents and to explain how she'll use them to ensure NAMI’s content owners will provide meaningful, usable information for NAMI’s community. If you're planning to create a style guide or web governance document (or process) for your organization, read Courtney's advice. She's got a lot of great experience to share.

 

Can you give any specific examples that made you realize that NAMI needed a Style Guide or a Web governance document?

When I started working at NAMI almost six years ago, the web content tone and voice was all over the place. So, one of the first things I did back then was create a style guide based on AP style. You and I both know that simply having a style guide doesn’t mean everyone is going to follow it. The change management piece is always the hardest.

The lawyers I worked with (at the American Bankruptcy Institute) before coming to NAMI were easy to train to use a style guide, but a group of mental health experts who are more interested in advocacy or diversity is proving a little harder because they all have different audiences they’re speaking to. So, what I did for the updated 2015 version of the Style Guide is freshened it to line up with the web writing training we did with you. The Style Guide had to match the way we changed our tone and voice for our Web redesign. To our users, we want to be an accessible and friendly guide on mental health topics, and I thought the Editorial Style Guide should be written in the same way: a little more casual, using contractions and things like that.

And the Web Governance Handbook?

Well, it was clear our old site needed governance. I mean, it had 10 menu items at the top level and a left rail with another 10 items. It had 20 banner ads. It was bananas. There were 40 starting points! It was the classic case of people coming up and saying “I need this on the home page" and getting their way. So, without governance, the site had become bloated. People on staff were going to the executive director and end-running around the Web team or just putting so much pressure on the Web team who just got tired of saying no. There was no rule book that could give the Web team authority to say to staff, “What you’re asking for will make our content less effective,” or “This will confuse the users.” So the Governance Handbook institutes a process. Now I can tell people, “The web site isn’t a bulletin board. You don’t just get to throw an article up without thinking about who is going to read it.” The Governance Handbook institutes a kind of strategic thinking. It helps staff understand how our site works as a communications tool.

On a side topic, I have a pretty funny web governance example to share. As you know, we’ve spent about 18 months on this web redesign, working with you and Dina Lewis of Distilled Logic, strategizing on UX and IA. Recently, our former COO emailed me a screenshot of the site NAMI launched in 2001, and it had the exact same overall structure as the one we launched in 2015: Learn, Find Support, Get Involved! I just laughed out loud. So this 2001 screen shot is going to be perfect any time I need to talk about Web governance with the staff. I can use it to show what happens without governance; you go from streamlined to bloated. Now, we’ve ended up with the simple easy structure the site had 15 years ago.

Did you get any pushback on either the Governance Handbook or the governance process?

Not pushback, so much. I created a first version of the Handbook that had an access revocation policy and all these other scary sounding things that were very off-putting and no one would have read. That version went through about 4 revisions and grew to 40 pages and, I mean, even I hated it. It was technical and heavy-handed. It just culturally didn’t fit, so I had to kind of loosen the reigns and check myself.

Actually, I don’t want the Governance Handbook to come off as a Bible because really I’m treating 2015 like a sandbox year. We’ve got this Governance Handbook and we’re going test it out. Already things in it need to be changed, such as the content request form, which needs space for a full list of assets, including video, etc. There are things I already know I need to tweak. I expected that because this is the first time I’ve created a governance document, and it’s the first time NAMI’s had one, so it’s going to be a learning process. I’m hoping that by the third quarter of the year, our workflow will be zipping along, and we’ll know that the Governance Handbook reflects our needs. It should keep the principles and the structure of the Web site held high, so they don’t get compromised.

What advice would you give to a person in your role who wants to produce a Style Guide or Governance Handbook?

First, I would say trust your instincts. You are where you are in your career because you are passionate about what you do. Next, understand your organization’s culture. You’ll have to win people over. You’ve got to engage with your staff both on the Style Guide and the Web Governance Handbook. It’s been a beautiful thing to see the light bulbs go off, staff person by staff person, but I have to take the time to meet with them and talk about their content and their sections of the site. Every time we meet, I’m pitching the Style Guide and pitching the Governance Handbook and process.

Can you think of an example where the light bulb went off?

Yes, a particular one happened early on when we were doing our content audit, which we called a “clean sweep” on our old site. You've got to remember, our old Web site had 11,000 content records, and the new site has not even 300. So at the beginning of the clean sweep I was just asking people to categorize and tag things as keep, kill, or archive. Basically, is it up to date? Is it correct? Is it ours?

Well, we have this one team, the Child and Adolescent Action Center (CAAC), and during the clean sweep I was telling them about the personas we had developed to shape the redesign and how we were going to move from a topic-centered or department-focused site to a user-focused site. As I started to explain that to them, they quickly got it. At the old site, they had their CAAC landing page filled up with anything that was related to youth. When I explained that one of our personas is a parent or a caregiver, CAAC said, “NAMI’s Education Department does a program for parents that focuses on children and adolescents. That info’s not on our page. When we move to the new site and we have a parent section for CAAC, shouldn’t they see that Education program as well as our stuff?” And I almost crumpled to my knees in joy. I know it seems so small, but at NAMI everything had been so siloed and these two departments tended to work independently from each other, at times even competing over content that served the same audience. When they said that, I though, “OK, I can do this.” It was sort of like the heavens opened and a ray of light came down. If this web redesign can enable these people who for 10 years have been almost working in a vacuum to come together to serve our users, that’s a beautiful thing.

That’s a great example. When content owners focus on the user, they stop thinking “our departments vs. that other department.”

Right, and that helps CAAC; it gives them a little bit of existence outside themselves. In non-profits, people are passionate; they have different agendas and goals. CAAC’s light bulb was one of the first signs I got that we could really unify and think outside of our silos and make the experience for the user, the visitor, the best it could possibly be, and just put all that other department stuff aside.

What advice can you give about who should review the draft Style Guide and Web Governance Handbook and how to introduce these documents to the staff?

That depends upon your culture. At NAMI, we tend to do everything by committee, which can be frustrating, but you do get a little more buy-in.  So I wrote the Style Guide and Governance Handbook. Our COO and CIO had to review it, as well as our National Director of Communications.

I also ran the Style Guide and Governance Handbook past a group of people who acclimated really early to the content strategy. I call these people my Web warriors. My executive director said she wanted staff to give me input on the draft Style Guide and Governance Handbook, so I took it to those six people. They already had a good idea of where the site was going, so I wanted their feedback. I needed to know they could understand and use the Style Guide and Governance Handbook. After she was sure the staff was on board, I gave the Style Guide and Governance Handbook to my executive director. She felt confident and said, “Let’s roll it out.”

*** *** ***

I want to thank Courtney for sharing her Style Guide and Governance Handbook, for letting me interview her, and for inviting E-WRITE to be part of NAMI’s efforts to publish excellent content for its community. In closing, here’s a quote from NAMI’s Web Governance Handbook, which supports the truth that content is everyone’s responsibility:

As of Q4 2014, nami.org gets nearly 1 million unique visits a month. Our homepage gets almost 240K visitors a month. We have more than 20K Twitter followers, 240 Instagram followers and 160K likes on Facebook. That’s a big community! NAMI’s website belongs to all of us. Although quarterbacked by Communications and Information Technology, all staff members are responsible for NAMI’s web content and the site is representative of everybody’s work.

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January 27, 2015

March 4 - WRITING WORKSHOP: How Web Design Trends Are Changing the Way We Write Content

Register now for our writing workshop on March 4, 2014 in Washington, DC

Today's web design trends affect more than the way sites look and work; they affect how we write content. Writers are being asked to write less text, to let the images and icons communicate more. But can we continue to write less without making our content shallow and ordinary?

If you are a communications professionals who writes digital content, sign up now for this hands-on half-day content writing workshop. We'll take a close look at five design trends that are changing the way we write for online readers:

  • Infinite scrolling
  • Card format for visual browsing
  • Sharelines, or instantly tweetable summaries readers can click and share
  •  "The fold"
  • Oversize typography

 

You’ll see examples of excellent content written within the five design trends, learn more about the issue of “short vs long” content, and get vital tips on how to write content that fits today’s design trends without compromising quality.

Who should attend

  • Content writers or editors
  • Content managers
  • Writers who want to make sure their existing skills work within these new design trends
  • Designers who want to know how content writers think and work
  • Anyone involved in a desktop-to-mobile redesign or a static-to-responsive redesign

 

What you'll do

  • Learn about the five design trends and see examples of each
  • Evaluate the quality of the content written within these design trends
  • Practice writing content for websites and social media
  • Discuss how your company's website design affects what and how you write  

 

What you'll receive

  • A course notebook with guidance, activities, and examples you can use on the job
  • Access to a private resources page with practical information you can use in your own content writing projects

 

Workshop schedule

  • Workshop. We'll begin at 9:30 am and end at 12:30 pm. (E-WRITE will provide coffee, juice, and light snacks.)
  • Optional brown bag lunch. Please consider staying for the optional brown bag lunch and roundtable discussion from 12:30 - 1:30 pm. Bring your own lunch. We'll spend the hour discussing your company's web design and web content. You'll get the group's feedback on your content writing and help with upcoming projects.

 

About the instructor
Leslie O’Flahavan, principal of E-WRITE, will lead the workshop. Leslie is an experienced, versatile writing instructor who has been writing content and teaching customized writing courses for Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and non-profit organizations since founding E-WRITE in 1996, which was also the year she coined the phrase "bite, snack, and meal" to describe how to write content in different sizes for different audiences.
Tuition refund policy: You will receive a full refund if you cancel before February 25, 2015. If you cancel between February 25, 2015 and March 4, 2015, you will receive a 50% refund. If you cannot attend, you may send a substitute.

Register for the March 4 writing workshop.

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