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Is Your Email Scorecard Making Agents' Writing Worse?

It's Friday morning, you're a third-grader at Maple Elementary School. You're a nervous wreck because you're taking a spelling test and you know how to spell only half the words your teacher is reading out. You're able to spell "nurse" and "doctor" because the teacher did a lesson on people who work in hospitals, and you got to see those words a lot in the stories you read this week. But the teacher has added the words "puddle" and "dragon" to the test, and you've never practiced spelling or reading those words! You like puddles as much as the next third-grader, but you can't spell "puddle." You sadly resign yourself to getting a bad grade on the spelling test and spending the weekend without access to your iPad.

Spelling test

Stay with me here as I connect this sad spelling test story to the task of scoring email quality in a contact center. When managers score agents' email quality in a "gotcha" fashion, or when they score agents on writing skills that haven't been explained, taught, or coached, they can actually damage agents' writing skills. Yes, it's true. An ineffective or punitive email scorecard can make agents' writing skills worse.

Here are three commonplace ways an ineffective email scorecard damages agents' writing skills:

1.    Taking points off for every incident of the same error. Let's say you use a 100-point scorecard. Agents can earn-or lose-up to 15 points for correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar. One of your agents, who we'll call Tracy, made eight egregious comma errors, so you deducted 8 points from the 15 points she could have earned for this standard.

This punishing approach to scoring for correctness is going to backfire. Dinging Tracy over and over for the same error isn't going to help her use commas correctly; it's just going to show her that the hammer comes down hard when she makes a mistake. Deducting eight points may communicate, "Your ineptitude with commas is a big problem" but it doesn't do anything to help Tracy correct the problem. If you want to build Tracy's writing skill, you have choices:

  • Show her how to use a comma correctly
  • Ask her to use online punctuation practice to brush up on comma rules
  • Pair her with a colleague who's great at punctuation

If I were Tracy, and I'd lost 8 of 15 points because I made the same comma error 8 times, I know what I'd do. I'd stop using commas! You can't get punished for something you didn't do, right?

Do you serve customers via social media or SMS? Attend Leslie's Contact Center Expo Session-- "Excellent Service in a Few Words: How to Write Well in the World of SMS and Social Media."

2.    Combining two distinct writing behaviors into one standard. One of my clients scored agents' emails on a standard they called "Pleasantries and Empathy." They allotted 20 points on a 100-point scorecard to the "Pleasantries and Empathy" standard. But using the occasional pleasantry in an email is not the same writing behavior as expressing sincere empathy! Using pleasantries means knowing when to write such phrases as "Have a nice weekend," or "We look forward to seeing you at our Hometown store again soon." Writing with empathy means being able to see the situation from the customer's point of view and express that perspective in words: "I can understand why you are frustrated. We should have corrected this billing error when you let us know about it last week. I'm sorry you had to contact us twice to get this fixed."

These two writing behaviors differ greatly in how much thinking and critical reading they require. Using pleasantries requires relatively little thinking or wordcraft. A list of pleasantries could be gathered in a "pleasantries template" and copied and pasted as needed. Empathy, on the other hand, requires critical reading and careful writing. Empathy can't be scripted. The agent has to carefully craft an empathy statement, which must be tailored to each customer and situation.

When the scorecard bundles writing behaviors that should be scored separately, it discourages agents from using either writing behavior. Agents may wonder, "Which do you want? A pleasantry or an empathy statement? Should I use one of each even if the email response doesn't require that? What if my pleasantry isn't as good as my empathy statement? Don't take my 20 points away!!"

3.    Failing to define or illustrate crucial writing behaviors. The email writing behavior that affects quality and customer experience the most is the agent's ability to freetext within a template (or put the template aside completely and just freetext). Most email quality scorecards evaluate agents on this skill. Managers often allot a generous portion of the overall score to this writing behavior.

But too often the scorecard-and the accompanying Definitions Document or other explanation of the standards-fail to define or illustrate this writing behavior. For example, one organization I've worked with listed this standard as "Proper use of templates." This standard was worth 30 of the 100 total points! Their Definitions Document elaborated on the standard this way, "Agents should use email templates properly and customize them when necessary. Agents should delete parts of the template or add information to prepare a complete response."

Freetexting within templates is a high-level writing skill. The scorecard recognizes the value of this by making it a 30-point skill. But neither the scorecard or the Definitions Document does anything to help an agent build this skill. It's the manager's obligation to define this skill, so agents can do it.

If I'm the agent, this scorecard will not help me be a better writer and may make me a worse writer. With vague advice about using templates properly, I'm likely to avoid customizing the template at all or go rogue with my freetexting. Either of those choices will harm email quality. But if the scorecard or Definitions Document had explained the standard this way, I would be able to demonstrate this writing skill: "Agents should choose the correct email template for the email response and customize it by adding the customer's name, account number, and product code. Agents should delete any part of the template that's not relevant or add information to prepare a complete response. Agents should freetext the first and last sentence of the response to build rapport."

For third-graders and for customers service agents, spelling tests and email scorecards may be necessary evils. They may be stuck having their writing skills scored in these ways. But customer care managers should do everything possible to make sure the scorecard isn't damaging agents' writing skills or motivation. Writing emails to customers is difficult enough without making agents wonder, "But how do you want me to write?" and "I'm going to get a bad score no matter what I do!"

If you'd like more information on helping agents become better writers, read my article, Can Bad Writers Improve? If You Coach Them, Yes. And if you'd like feedback on your organization's email scorecard, contact me. I'd be glad to help!