Customer Experience and the Fine Art of Conversation

Kathleen Peterson Rants & Raves by Kathleen Peterson

Customer Experience remains at the forefront of business strategy. Customer Care Contact Centers play a key role in the execution of the Customer Experience. It is management’s responsibility to assure that the skills required to deliver on the strategic promise are present and constantly groomed.

Customer Experience at the front line is where conversations are taking place. These conversations are with people who by their very demographic may be challenged by actually speaking to other people. This goes for the caller and the agent in some cases. Often, there is a distinct disconnect between the caller’s need for conversation and the agent’s skill in providing one.

Here are five key areas to consider when evaluating your management approach to grooming staff to engage consistently in the fine art of conversation. (The focus here is on actual rather than electronic conversations, which of course matter but are different.) There is no more powerful tool to quell dissatisfaction and inspire confidence than engaging in an effective conversation.

1. Use the telephone. When hiring staff to provide Customer Care via the telephone, the first contact with the candidate MUST be via telephone. The call ought to be made by a representative of the Contact Center utilizing a set of evaluators that will eliminate them or clear them for the next level of consideration.

While HR departments seek to match candidates to your requirements, the initial contact may remain electronic unless you have collaborated closely with the recruiters. This opens the door for completely unqualified candidates to show up and waste a lot of their time and yours because they perform poorly on the phone.

2. Evaluate your training. Training is the most important and misunderstood activity in Contact Centers. We all know the importance … so I will focus on the “misunderstood” part. I continue to find it mind boggling how many Contact Center managers attempt to lead the development of training without an iota of expertise themselves. These managers generally wind up having someone create a “manual” and document every conceivable transaction, exception, etc.  And they call it training! This type of training is often longer or shorter than is necessary. It neglects to contextualize the objectives of the Brand and the Customer Experience and completely short changes learners when it comes to the fine art of conversation. If training does not include … every step of the way … the manner in which information can be most effectively communicated and contextualized, you may be producing more of a robotic response than an enthusiastic one.

3. You can’t script intimacy. I have seen and experienced many agents relying on such obvious “scripts” that it is almost painful to listen. (I am not referring to the required reading of regulatory disclaimers.) Customer Experience strategic objectives are applied in different ways in different departments. While shipping needs to pick, pack, and ship correctly, Customer Care needs to engage on the phone. That means conversation! Scripting is often a poor leader’s last effort, but it is more like Custer’s last stand! It will not work for a ton of reasons. Here are just a few.

First, the caller can detect the script. I once had some issues with an auto warranty. When I could not get satisfaction with the dealer I put in a call to the manufacturer’s Customer Care Center. What a joke! The agent simply repeated the same statement over and over again. It was clearly scripted. Instead of engaged I was enraged. Not that it matters, but I knew I would never buy another Toyota in my life. That was at least six cars ago; none of them has been a Toyota. (Mind you, the decision had NOTHING to do with the actual performance of the car; it had only to do with the treatment. My automobile needs are humble and able to be met by many other manufacturers.) Scripting eliminates engagement on the part of the agent who is “only authorized to apologize.”

Scripting words and other requirements could be destroying the Quality program by dumbing it down! In my view, scripting includes conditions other than requiring an actual group of words strung together in a particular manner. I include all the quality forms that require things like “use the caller’s name at least THREE times.” The number of times is a ridiculous guideline. I can envision agents making tick marks on their note pads to assure compliance with the “form.” In fact, using the caller’s name is a means by which to engage and must be used judiciously.

I was observing calls one day at an insurance company. The agent had just explained why a claim had been denied. The caller was irate, etc., etc. At the end of the call, the agent asked the caller, “Is there anything else I can help you with today?” How stupid! Needless to say the caller relapsed into his dissatisfaction with the claim denial. At the end of the call, I asked the agent why he would ask such a question on a call like this. His response was, “I have to; it is worth five points!” I find it incomprehensible that anyone can say that this requirement has ANY possible effect on genuine quality. It is crazy that programs intended to drive quality only wind up isolating incidental interaction behaviors rather than overall Customer Experience behaviors. Try this on your form, “End the call graciously.” Then have CONVERSATIONS about what that means. End the scripting … it just isn’t working! Adopt a guided conversation model.

4. Engage your team. Encourage discussions around the fine art of conversation. In today’s world of tweets, texts, and postings, it is easy to understand how the art of conversation is being destroyed. However, conversation is a key communication skill that ultimately determines your professional fate! Yes, this is a dramatic statement but I am completely serious. Every element involved in professional satisfaction and advancement includes a factor for the ability to communicate and the ability to engage in a conversation. If you have two highly qualified candidates for a position, generally speaking, the better communicator gets the job.

Mastering the fine art of communication must be at the core of all Customer Care training. Transaction accuracy is important but the interaction is critical. I recently had a conversation with a high-end online retailer and I actually felt sorry for the agent. Her level of engagement was so distant and so disinterested that it was appalling. I was inquiring about a promotion code that was not working on the website. Her flat response was, “That item must not be included.” Really, where would I see that? “Well you might not see it, but if the code doesn’t work that is what it usually is.”  That was it … and then silence. I had to let it go. Because of the work we do, I felt pretty strongly that this could actually be a website issue as this happens to many of our clients. I just couldn’t bring myself to even pursue the conversation as the agent was so disengaged.

5. Silence kills. Silence is where the scared retreat. It feels safe … I can’t get in trouble for saying the wrong thing if I say nothing at all! How wrong that thinking is. Customer Care cannot be about silence or fear. To achieve engagement a certain level of confidence is required. The confident are curious; the confident engage, listen, ask questions, and are excited about problem solving. Silence doesn’t assist. So don’t silence your team, your trainers, your coaches. Encourage conversations! Encourage dialogue in your department and help translate that skill to engage your customers.


The fine art of conversation is not simply offering rote information. It is being a thinker, a doer, and a person that is genuinely interested and curious. This takes attention, particularly if you are hiring the “text” generation. These folks need to be challenged to participate in ongoing and engaging conversations. Coaches, managers, and agents need to develop the art of conversation for themselves and their staff. This takes practice, so allocate some time to it!

“The most fruitful and natural exercise for our minds, is, in my opinion, conversation.” Michel de Montaigne, French Renaissance Writer