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Between the Lines: Analytical Reading Skills in Customer Service | #ICMIchat Rundown (October 20, 2020)

Woman reading book at a desk.

Feeling heard and understood and providing accurate and thoughtful answers is at the core of customer service excellence. Why is it that some companies seem oblivious, while others appear to understand customer needs intimately? It often comes down to communication skills, namely analytical reading. Basic literacy is so common we often overlook how crucial it is to effective customer service.

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The best contact center agents take reading a step further, using their broad expertise and deep understanding of customers to provide personalized, empathetic, and correct solutions. These skills are within anyone's grasp, but the right training and practice are necessary to hone them. Leslie O'Flahavan, Principal and Owner of E-Write, guest-hosted this week's #ICMIchat to explore how analytical reading boosts contact center performance.

Analytical Reading Defined

If you've ever "read between the lines" to understand the deeper meaning of a message, you've read analytically! When customers contact us for help, they're often less than clear about their situation's full extent and circumstances. It's vital for contact center agents to combine what the customer has said with their own experience and knowledge of customers' environment and context to understand what they mean. Deeper understanding enables customer service representatives to provide more appropriate and effective solutions. As Leslie points out, "analytical reading [is a] high-level cognitive skill, [...] but it gets less respect and practice in customer service."

Analytical reading in the context of customer service work is being able to figure out what the customer needs--even if the customer is less than clear. You need to understand what hasn’t been asked but needs to be answered.

Sounds like it's an attempt to analyze what you're reading to better understand the message, goal(s), and relationship within a broader context. Taking it beyond "Face value"?

Analytical reading in customer service work is really just "reading between the lines" of what the customer is actually saying to make sure you help resolve what the actual issue is.

Developing Analytical Reading Skills

Although analytical reading is an advanced communication skill, it can be developed through training and practice. As Leslie says, "These aren't skills you need to be 'born with.'" Applying analytical reading to customer service also requires an in-depth understanding of the customer, empathy, and emotional intelligence. When applying all of these skills together consistently, contact center agents become master communicators that make customers feel heard, understood, and satisfied.

The more we can challenge ourselves to think like our customers, the more effective we will be in developing analytical reading skills.

I think people need awareness of it when they start their career. It’s a habit, just like good listening or being cheerful. It takes some training and a lot of practice. It is a game changer when people become managers!

Like any relationship, analyzing the needs and wants of your customers does take emotional intelligence and empathy. When trying to understand what is needed to solve an issue in customer service, put yourselves in their shoes. Simple, but not always executed.

Failure to Communicate

Customers might not know the terminology, but the difference between agents who practice analytical reading and those who don't is painfully obvious. According to Leslie, an expert customer service writing trainer, the problem manifests as half-answers, wrong answers, irrelevant responses, and requests for information previously provided. Inadequate responses like these increase customer effort, endanger customer trust, and make contacts more expensive in the long run.

Although most customers may not care to analyse much, they can see the deficiencies. They may think of it as poor listening skills, unempowered frontline, bad articulation, inadequate knowledge, or just unempathetic.

Customers can tell when agents lack analytical reading skills because they won’t get the answers and information they need from interactions with those agents. Having standardized answers can help, but it isn’t a panacea. Training is needed!

Yes, though the customer may not realize it. When a customer does not **feel** heard, this may be a case of an agent lacking in these skills on their reply. Not all the time, because some customers also don't take time to read said reply. There, I said it.

It's Not Always Easy

Analytical reading is crucial to excellent customer service, and it can be taught. However, that doesn't mean it's easy to practice. Contact center agents work in a chaotic environment under intense pressure. They feel a constant sense of urgency, whether it's their intrinsic desire to reduce customer wait times or a supervisor who focuses too much on average handle time. Leslie observes, "the 'conveyor belt' flow of incoming emails and chats can make analytical reading difficult for customer service agents." In addition to providing robust knowledge and resources, she recommends that managers break up the monotony through job rotation and training.

Agents often can only focus on what's right in front of them and have little time to interpret and analyze. Understanding the UX and UI of what goes into Agent Experience is how managers can help.

Time can certainly be a factor. Also, living in the weeds can make it hard to step back to look at the big picture. Need to remind and teach to do this. Might get hung up on the wrong detail(s)otherwise.

Most agents are chasing some target, like response time, resolution time, or no of closures. That leaves little space for meaningful pursuits like analytical reading. There’s also lack of training and upgradation. The climate isn’t ideal for this.

Omnichannel Skills

While analytical reading is useful for all forms of written communication, it's particularly essential for email. Leslie notes that email is asynchronous, whereas "in chat and social, agents can ask follow-ups if they discover they've misread the customer's incoming request." However, it's still vital that agents carefully read and consider social media requests because these responses may be publicly visible to other customers.

Analytical reading of social media posts is the most important of all customer service channels. It has the most potential to be widely seen. In 2019, it was the most common channel used, so having agents skilled at analytical reading is a must!

All channels require analytical reading to truly understand CX.

The Cost of Misunderstanding

Poor analytical reading skills are harmful to both customers and companies. When customers don't feel understood, they're more likely to become frustrated, demand escalation, insist on compensation, and ultimately end the relationship. In turn, contact center agents become exasperated by angry customers they're not well-equipped to serve, and businesses foot the bill for unnecessarily repetitive contacts, reputational damage, and attrition of disengaged employees.

I'd say it helps to know your cost per contact and cost per acquisition because you will either get more contact or lose customers if you don't read, comprehend, and respond accurately.

The obvious cost is poor CX and losing a customer or reducing customer LTV. Agent frustration and attrition can be affected which also cost.

Missing the point, not addressing their needs, and requiring additional effort from them. + irritation.

Hiring Great Analytical Readers

It's not easy for prospective employees to showcase analytical reading expertise, but selecting employees with this coveted skill gives your customer service an edge. Leslie recommends asking candidates to practice their analytical reading skills on a real-life scenario your contact center handles, providing the necessary resources for them to understand your customers' context. This activity is insightful for hiring managers and job applicants because applicants can see what the work looks like first hand.

When you respond to their resume, ask them to do stuff and see if they follow instructions. I send out a short questionaire, partly to just the content and partly to see if they read.

Screen applicants for analytical reading skills with actual examples from your contact channels. Choose examples of customer writing that was unclear or confusing. Ask applicants to parse the text and respond.

Join us on Tuesdays at 1 p.m. Eastern, 10 a.m. Pacific to weigh in on the contact center industry's most pressing challenges. Check out next week's discussion and join the conversation on Twitter!