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RapportBoost Podcast – Featuring Mike Aoki

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Hear from this foremost expert on the trends in customer service, call centers and the use of live chat. Learn why transferring phone agents over to live chat without training can actually hurt the experience for visitors.

David:    Welcome to the RapportBoost videocast series, where we talk to industry leaders within the customer service center and call center spaces. We’re privileged to have Mike Aoki of Reflective Key Notes on the line. Mike, thanks so much for joining us.

Mike:    Oh, you’re welcome, David. Thanks for inviting me.

David:    Sure. Give us a little background on you and your service before we go any further.

Mike:    Oh, of course. Well, I began in the contact industry 25 years ago, more than 25 years ago. I’m dating myself now. Back then, it was all voice. It was all phone. It was a call center. Of course, now it’s changed so much, and there’s been more of an all-around contact, multichannel, omnichannel contact center. I can remember when workforce management was done on in Excel spreadsheets.

David:    Oh man.

Mike:    I know, and how much things have changed, haven’t they? As far as my offerings, they’re focused on helping people in terms of sales and customer service skill development, both over the phone and also writing live chat and email customer service.

David:    Things have certainly changed in the last generation or so. I wanted to focus on your customer service center experience. Given the current landscape of multidimensional, multichannel communications, what would you say are the three “must do’s” for any customer service center, regardless of industry?

Mike:    I think when it comes to training specifically, one of the biggest must do’s is to have ongoing training. The viewpoint of hiring people and putting them through three or four or five new hire course and then putting them online and never train them anymore again doesn’t work. It has to be ongoing training, ongoing skill sharpening. Customers are so much more demanding now than there were even five years ago, and so the skills have to stay current. It’s a constant refresher training, booster shot training, e-learning, and classroom training. All of those things are important to keep reinforcing throughout someone’s career in a contact center. That’s one of the keys.

Mike:    I think another critical training focus area focuses on soft skills. I’ve seen a lot of new hire training programs where 90% or more of the time gets spent on that, and if lucky the agents get maybe one day, perhaps a day and a half of actual soft skills training. When you think about what’s essential to a customer, empathy, listening skills, excellent questioning skills, vocal tone, energy, et cetera, are very, very important, not just technically being able to find something on the computer.

Mike:    I think another change is for the entire contact center to focus on ongoing product knowledge training; making sure that everybody onboard knows how the product works, how the software and systems and support works, and also in terms of keeping them current at any new announcements as well for policy and procedure changes. You don’t want to have discrepancies of what different agents are saying based upon when they were trained in the previous months or previous years as well. Those are probably the top three in terms of training.

David:    I appreciate that perspective. I guess maybe the flip side of that is these companies need to budget accordingly then, just given the demands of customer service centers now and the need for training. That could be a penny wise, pound foolish kind of scenario.

Mike:    Oh, yes. You’re right about that. You want to invest in your people because they’re your greatest strength. They’re the people that are communicating with your customers.

David:    Concurrently, what are the three “never do’s” that any customer service center service should mind?

Mike:    I’ll mention three. One of them is not giving perspective. I find that working in a contact center in many cases can be very insular. All you hear from our customers that are upset about things, and you miss the fact that 80 to 90% of customers in any company typically never contact you. They’re happy in a given year. Whereas if you look at 100% of the calls or emails that come in, or live chats that go into a contact center are typically either questions or complaints. It’s easy for frontline agents getting bombarded with 50, 60, 100 contacts a day, almost all negative, to get down on themselves and more importantly to get down on the company, right? That can have an almost brainwashing effect where they become convinced that the company’s wrong.

Mike:    The management team should share success stories and happy customer feedback. Provide agents a perspective about the fact that only a small segment of customers ever call in and yes, of course, most will be upset because that’s why they’re calling. That’s why they’re contacting you. It doesn’t mean that 100% of the customers are angry. It means that 100% of the 10% of customers that call in are calling for a reason, to get something fixed. That perspective’s vital if you want to keep morale up.

Mike:    I think a second one is making sure that the contact center gets enough information and included in the loop in terms of any kinds of changes that will impact customers. It’s straightforward sometimes for contact centers, especially ones located off-site. I’ve seen scenarios where the head office is literally in one city and the contact center is in a different town still within the same country but a different city or the suburb or whatever, but a different building in some cases. I’ve seen that even with a parking lot separating the north and south buildings, right, administrative and then the contacts that are in kind of a different structure in the south side of the parking lot. Even that’s enough that it breaks communication. The contact center has got to be in the loop in that because they have to answer customer questions.

Mike:    The third major “never do” is not keeping your agents from actually testing any new software changes before they happen. I’ve seen organizations where the IT department comes in for a technical review, but don’t get either customers and or the agents involved. Of course, when it goes live, agents say, “Wait, that doesn’t work,” or “It’s a different workflow than what we’re used to, and our calls are going up by 10 seconds because of that.” Just little things like that can help in terms of improving contact center efficiency.

David:    Yeah. That’s a great perspective, and I appreciate that latter part particularly. It sort of dovetails to the next question, which is the evolution of live chat. Where do you think the proper fit is for that type of technology?

Mike:    The technology works well in more transactional kinds of interactions because of the written medium. Chat can handle simple questions that can be answered very efficiently in terms of handling more process or technical things like step one, step two, step three. It’s very good for that. It is challenged somewhat, though, in its current state in terms of being able to address emotional and complex issues, especially with customers that can’t type in exactly what they need doing. In these cases, companies might be better off to go and steer the actual customer over to a live phone call instead.

Mike:    Having said that, live chat is essential. Some studies suggest that written customer service will account for probably 50% or more of all contacts even as early as this year and overshadow voice as far as being the premium channel that customers use. They love the convenience. They love being on a website, having a box pop up and then be able to chat or ask a quick question on something on the site itself. So it’s a handy tool to have.

David:    How does an organization operationalize live chat within an organization? How does that get put together in a cohesive package?

Mike:    Well, David, you mentioned a significant point, which is being a cohesive package. I think one of the challenges right now is that many contact centers are multichannel, not omnichannel. They’re very good at having the phone queue, their email queue, the live chat queue, et cetera, but typically not integrated into a true omnichannel package. A great example of that would be calling a company, say by phone, and then being asked to go and send something in writing. You do it and don’t get a response back necessarily because it goes to a different person.

Mike:    I think that’s the important part about being cohesive, having those smooth handoffs. A lot of it is behind the scenes processes. Can you capture the customer information from the first contact channel and be able to forward that to whoever’s handling the next step in the process? Can they then take that information and build on it through whatever channel they’re using the second time around and the third time around, et cetera? 

Mike:    And I’ll give you an example. I called one company. It started with phone and turned into chat, became a phone call again, then chat still, and later turned into a face-to-face conversation when they send the service person out. So five different contacts. I will say three of them were excellently done, one was “so so,” and one was very poor. As the customer, guess which ones stood out in my mind, right? The poor one.

Mike:    The thing about an omnichannel is a chain is only as strong as its weakest link and what do customers remember? The weakest link. So the challenges of handing off from one channel to another stand out in customers’ minds. Consistency and handoffs are probably the two biggest challenges when it comes to implementing live chat.

David:    Mike, what needs to happen to get chat agents up to speed?

Mike:    One of the things that most contact centers do is as soon as they develop live chat is transfer phone agents over. That’s one of the biggest mistakes you can make. The tools and skills you need to be a great live chat agent — reading and writing — are very different than what phone agents typically excel at, which is their phone voice of course, and also being able to listen over the phone actively. In some cases, the agents are unhappy with the change. 

Mike: I’ll give you an example. I was training a group of phone agents on written customer service a couple of weeks ago. They all said that they were challenged because they were so used to using the warmth of their phone voice, the warmth in their voice, and the way that they sound. When they wrote, they dd so in a very dry, very technical style. If you were to read one of their live chats, you’d think, “Wow, this must be the most boring, unfriendly, dour person in the world,” and then you talk to them and they’re so lively and friendly. You have to put the warm in your writing. You use words and phrases that convey warmth and empathy. You can’t count on your phone voice anymore.

Mike:    When you train voice agents to come over, you have to emphasize those missing pieces. Not everybody is excellent at both reading and also listening to get information. It can happen, and voice agents typically will have an advantage in the sense they’ve probably been with the company for an extended period and know the products backwards and forwards. However, there are some traps that you have to watch out for when you’re training them.

Mike: It’s almost like taking a great athlete and trying to have them play different sports. You can have somebody who’s got the terrific athletic ability, size, speed, strength, quickness, et cetera. They might be excellent at basketball, an all-star, and then you ask them to play hockey. Totally different sport and different techniques, right? It’s completely different. It’s the same thing when you take a voice rep and put them in a live chat. It’s a whole different ball game now. They’ve got to type it in, they’ve got to read it from the customer. That’s a very different skillset again.

David:    Mike, this has been fantastic. What a great analogy to end on. You’ve been so kind with your time. Thanks for joining us.

Mike:    Oh, you’re very welcome, David. Again, thanks for inviting me.

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David Oates

About David Oates

David Oates is a 20-year marketing and public relations veteran who holds extensive experience in developing as well as executing successful and measurable programs for a wide range of agency, high tech, corporate and government organizations. He is an accredited public relations (APR) expert affiliated with the Public Relations Society of America, and serves as the Chairman of the Board of Advisors for Operation Homefront, California as well as on the Board of Directors for Rotary Club of San Diego. David has worked with Tony since 2001 in numerous capacities such as a non profit Board supporting veterans. He received his MBA from San Diego State University’s Executive Program in 2004 and his bachelors of arts from the University of Maryland in 1991. David was named among the 2009 “40 under 40” list of top professionals by the San Diego Metropolitan.

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