The future is unknowable and people who gaze at crystal balls to predict it are probably crooks, not clairvoyants. In spite of that, I’m going to have a go at predicting a slice of the future based on my knowledge of the recent past. Over the last decade, as companies added one written channel after another, I’ve observed (and helped) frontline customer service agents acquire the writing skills they need to respond to customers. First came email, then came chat, then social media, then SMS. Then there were customer forums. Then we added team messaging channels like Slack.
With this growth in mind, I’d like to offer my crystal ball prognostications about the four writing skills agents will need in coming years. (Truth be told, it’d be great if most agents had these writing skills right now!)
- The ability – and willingness – to contribute to stored knowledge sources. As we add channels to our service offerings, and as we humans rely on non-human customer service agents like chatbots, all frontline agents must be able to write well enough to contribute to or update stored knowledge. This responsibility cannot belong to star agents, the go-getters, or the ones with English degrees. Every agent will need to be able to write well enough to create a knowledgebase article, for example, or an email template. And every agent must be capable of, and willing to, write decent case notes. The future will involve knowledge sharing we cannot even imagine now, so our sources of shared knowledge must be current, clean, and readable.
- The maturity to use tools that check spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Microsoft Office’s spelling and grammar checker is a clunky tool most writers love to hate. (I collect examples of the bad advice it gives. See here and here and here.) But Office’s lame product isn’t the only choice we have today and it won’t be our only choice in the future. Grammarly is more reliable, Google offers a machine-learning-powered grammar checker for Google Docs, and tools like Sapling integrate with Zendesk and Salesforce, etc. Frontline customer service agents don’t and won’t lack tools to help them write correctly, but will they develop the maturity and responsibility to use these tools? Too many agents lack this responsibility today. Their writing errors show they believe customers don’t care that much about correctness or the time it takes to use the tools isn’t worth it. Frontline customer service agents don’t need perfect spelling, punctuation, and grammar skills today, and they won’t need them in the future. What they will need is the maturity to care about correctness and to use the tools at hand to ensure it.
- The mental focus to create a through-line in omnichannel conversations with customers. Today’s live chat agents use this writing skill all the time. Chat conversations with customers are rarely linear. There’s a lot of cross-writing, looping-back writing, and out-of-sync writing in live chat. A competent chat agent can keep track of the topic at hand as well as the questions the customer asked earlier. This skill will be even more important in the future, when our dream of truly omnichannel customer service will have come true. Let’s imagine a frontline customer service agent who received the customer’s first request for help via text, then moved the conversation to live chat, then remoted into the customer’s computer to reinstall software, then called the customer to confirm the reinstall worked, then video chatted with the customer’s IT manager about the reinstall. To truly help the customer, and to manage costs for the company, that agent must be able to keep the entire service narrative in mind. This is a high level cognitive skill, and it will be in high demand in the future when customers transition from one service channel to another more smoothly than they do today.
- The ability to express sincere empathy. “Are you human?” This is the question today’s customers ask when they feel the agent doesn’t understand their question or care about their predicament. “If you’re human,” today’s customers reason, “you’d be able to show a little empathy. You’d be able to see this situation from my point of view.” In the future, customers’ need to be understood will only intensify as more of their interactions will be with non-human agents. In a future that’s AI-heavy and chatbot-rich, it will be easier for customers to get answers quickly, but it will be harder for companies to convince their customers they care about them as people. The skill of writing with empathy will be prized. In the future, frontline customer service agents must have the emotional intelligence to understand why “We regret any inconvenience this may have caused” is highly unsatisfying wording and why “I understand why this delivery delay is so frustrating for you, and I’m ready to make things right” is so much better.
My crystal ball tells me the future of customer service writing is “the same but more.” Customers’ need for quick, correct, helpful service—delivered with heart—will be the same, but the changes in the technologies we use for customer service will cause customers to expect more. Frontline customer service agents need great writing skills today, and they’ll need even stronger and more flexible writing skills in the future. But please don’t despair about finding, hiring, and nurturing people with these great writing skills. If your company offers worthwhile products, a respectful workplace, and a career path loaded with opportunities, you’ll be able to hire people who can write—now and in the future.