Effective service conversations - the basics of writing to customers with Leslie O’Flahavan

Email, social media, chat. It’s a wonder how customer service agents can maintain effective communication through all of these channels. Well, that’s possible because of the talented and skillful teachers behind the scenes. One person who makes the wonders happen is customer service writing expert, Leslie O’Flahavan, owner of E-WRITE. Read our interview with Leslie to learn why the words you use when writing to your customers are key to customer satisfaction.

Who is Leslie O'Flahavan?

Leslie O'Flahavan is a professional writing trainer and coach, plain language advocate, as well as an instructor at Lynda.com and LinkedIn Learning. She also owns a writing training company called E-WRITE.


A screenshot from one of Leslie's courses on LinkedIn Learning. Source

Leslie about her career

Q: First of all, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your career? How did you start, and where are you now?

My name is Leslie O’Flahavan, and my company is called E-WRITE. I'm the owner of this writing consulting company, which I founded in 1996. My company's mission is to help people learn to write well at work. So, over the 25 years since I formed this company, I have offered customized writing training for many, many working people: administrators, project managers, scientists, scholars, researchers, journalists, web-content writers, etc. But since 2000, I have focused a lot on helping frontline customer service workers write better email, chat, social media, and text because many of them began their careers answering customers’ questions on the phone. And the transition from phone service to written service is rarely easy. Even those who didn't begin their career speaking to customers on the telephone have a challenge writing to customers. It's a difficult job. The stakes are high, and I want to help them do it better.

Q: What are the most favorite and the most complicated parts of your job and why?

I love delivering training. In my heart, I'm a writing teacher; all the work I've ever done in my life is to be a writing teacher. So I like to be with people in person or virtually when they are building their writing skills, so they can do their jobs. And I like to observe them and use my training and teaching skills and my knowledge of how people grow to help them improve their skills quickly and to enjoy writing more.

I would say the most difficult part is staying up-to-date. So by difficult, I don’t mean tiresome. I just mean that I am committed to making sure my knowledge of customer experience, customer service, and technology is current so I can be of use to my clients.

Opportunities and challenges of writing in customer service

Q: In terms of writing for customer service, what do you see as challenges and opportunities?

Each of the written channels for customer service presents a different challenge and also a different opportunity. So with email, I think the greatest challenge is that customers often write their emails unclearly. It's not a synchronous channel, so agents have to figure out what customers are saying without being able to ask the customer questions. Sometimes we have to guess about what they are asking or think very analytically decipher what they want. And so, the challenge of giving good customer service via email is the challenge of analytical reading. Can we read carefully enough, with enough knowledge of what's implied and not only what's stated, that we can write an answer that will satisfy the customer?

In social media, the main challenge is that almost all customer service conversations start in public. They may move to a private channel, but they usually start in public. So, the risk of the company looking foolish or performing badly is there; it’s real. Also, customers sometimes have tantrums on social media. They're exploiting the public nature of the conversation, so they can gain attention. And that sometimes makes them unreasonable or prevents them from thinking logically.

Chat, I think, is probably the best-suited channel for written customer service. It’s a channel that satisfies both the customer and the customer service agent, the writer. That’s because in chat we have the best of everything. We have a written record that the customer can use for reference going forward. But we have also had the opportunity for the customer service agent to probe like they would on a phone call. So we don't have to guess what the customer is really asking. We can actually know. I think the chat is often made more challenging because companies have customer service agents answering too many chats at once. But the channel itself, I think, is well-suited for good writing and customer satisfaction.

Q: In your opinion, what are the biggest failures of businesses in responding to their customers in writing? And what are the biggest successes in responding to customers in writing?

Companies fail when they rely too much on pre-written answers, which we could call templates, scripts, or macros. But they fail not simply by relying on those answers. They fail when they force their front-line customer service agents to use pre-written answers without customizing them. Contact centers gain efficiency by using templates instead of having agents actually free text, but they lose the opportunity to build a connection with customers. And when customers feel that the company is sending them formal responses or pre-written responses, their level of distrust goes up and the distrust manifests itself in being impossible to serve or impossible to satisfy. That's a terrible cycle. Companies are causing this cycle of distrust from customers and lots of repeat contacts from customers who are growing increasingly frustrated. I'm not against using templates entirely. I am against using templates to save money because it doesn't actually work.

The greatest success I've seen in customer service comes when companies treat the job of writing to customers as an important job. So, when front-line customer service agents are well-paid, well-respected by their employer, and when their employer has a plan to keep them in a job and to give them increasing amounts of skill and responsibility, then those people often write really well to customers. They're also comfortable stepping away from a template, whether it's an email template, a social media template or a chat template. They're comfortable with using their own knowledge resources, their knowledge base so that they can take what they know and express it naturally in response to a customer. So it's the quality of their job. “Is this a good job? Will I make a career of it? Does my employer care about me as a person that often indirectly leads to better writing to customers?” - these are the important questions that should be answered positively.

The 101 of handling difficult customer support cases

Q: What is the most unusual case you've experienced if there were any, and how did you handle it?

I have a strong feeling that I have seen it all (laughs). Every time I work with a client, I am impressed again with how they answer the most difficult questions customers have. So, for example, when I worked for airlines, I encountered such profound and strange questions from customers. For example, a passenger will say: “On my flight from New York to Los Angeles, the woman sitting next to me died and all the flight attendant did was put a blanket over her head, and I had to sit next to a dead body for a six-hour flight.” How does the front-line customer service agent answer that question?! But they do.

Or I have worked with food manufacturers, with pharmaceutical companies, and they may get emails from customers that say: “I opened one of your foil-wrapped chocolates, and inside it, I found a rat foot. What are you going to do for me? Here's a picture of the rat’s foot that was in my chocolate.”

So those are the kinds of things that I think are pretty amazing because these questions can be shocking. They can seem impossible to answer. And yet, customer service agents answer these questions. They're real questions. I didn't make them up. The airline I mentioned was well-prepared to answer this question. It was definitely not the first time they had to answer it. And the food company I mentioned they have received emails where the customer is telling the truth about some kind of animal part in the chocolate, and they've also received lots of emails from customers who are lying. They have practiced so that they can take emails like this in stride and simply answer them.

Q: What qualities do you think customer support or customer service agent should have to be able to resolve such cases?

Well, in these difficult questions and even in the commonplace questions, the customer service agent needs to be able to accept the customer's perspective—time after time. This is extremely difficult to do, but it's necessary. Consequently, one of the outcomes of customer service work is that people often start to feel: “I've heard this a thousand times before, I've answered this question five hundred times before.“ But of course, the customer has only written it once. And so this ability to regard each customer as a person who deserves your attention and your trust is an extraordinary skill. And few people have it, but it's a necessary skill.

That skill must be also paired with the ability to express your message in writing. So people who write to customers well are careful readers. Agents need great analytical reading skills that they can exercise afresh each time you interact with the customer. You need to be able to take pre-written content like knowledge base articles or templates and edit these materials so you're using only what you need and customizing the response for the customer. Agents need to establish a friendly tone even when the customer is angry and to sustain it throughout the chat or throughout the ongoing social media conversation. And they need to be able to check your spelling and write a full sentence, of course.

Q: How would you serve an angry customer yourself? What would be your advice in that situation?

Well, first of all, don’t become angry yourself, don’t take the customer's anger personally. It's not directed toward you. They don't know you. Even when they seem to be attacking the front-line agent directly, the agent is a proxy, not an actual target. I think it's really important to observe the amount of emotion in the customer’s angry response because some anger is very clinical and some anger is very emotional. And if there is a lot of emotion, then we need to respond to emotion with emotion. We're going to make the customer’s negative emotion into positive emotion with demonstrations of caring because we know if a customer is stuck in their feelings, they will not be able to read logically or accept a logical answer until the emotion is addressed.

Another thing that helps customer service agents manage a customer’s anger is when their employers give them permission to switch channels to a channel where they can actually help the customer become less angry. So ideally, if a person is really, really angry and writes an incoherent email to a company, the company would give the front-line agent the authority to respond by email and say: “I would really like to talk to you. Are you available? Can you schedule a call with me?” Or if they're angry on social media, we should try to bring them into a private channel, so they're not expressing all that anger publicly. Ask: “Would you like to have a live chat with me right now? Here's a link. You can click, and I can chat with you so that we can solve this problem.”

Making small steps every day will lead to big achievements

Q: Do you have an everyday ritual that helped you to achieve success? And what is it?

I spend time connecting with my colleagues in social media, on Twitter, and Facebook. The time I spend on social media is a meaningful way to help me learn. I do learn a great deal from my colleagues. So, that's my ritual: engaging in social media, meaningfully and predictably.


Leslie O'Flahavan and Jeff Toister on a CCExpo event by ICME. Source

Q: How do you keep up with the latest trends, for example, in customer service?

I speak at conferences at every opportunity. When I am at a conference, virtual or on-site, I learn and learn and learn. So I might have a session on a Tuesday at 1:00 p.m. And for the rest of the time, I'm going to other people's sessions. I read widely in my field. I know whose opinion and analysis matter to me, and I read their work all the time.

The influence of the COVID-19 on Leslie's business

Q: How did this pandemic influence your work?

Yes, the pandemic did influence my work, and it will continue to influence my work because, after twenty-four and a half years of mostly delivering training in person, I'm ending the year exclusively delivering training virtually. As a lifelong educator, to change from being with the people who are learning to not being with the people who are learning...this has been a huge change. I have become a more versatile online instructor over this year. And I am certain that what I have learned about helping people become better writers in virtual training will last even when we can get together again.

A Special Question

Q: If you could immediately acquire one new skill, what would it be and why

I’d like to be able to sing on key. And if the pandemic wouldn't have happened, then I could start my career as a blues singer.

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