Use The Human Conversational Model to Create Engaging Contact Center Interactions

Human beings are naturally social, and one of the fundamental ways that we build rapport and bond with other people is through conversations. Organizations can tap into our innate affinity for engaging conversations to deepen relationships with their customers by designing interactions that mirror the key elements of compelling everyday conversations. 

To help organizations do this, we created The Human Conversational Model, which we’ve previously applied to digital interactions. This post explores how that framework can be applied in contact centers to facilitate more productive and emotionally resonant interactions between agents and customers.

This model has seven components, which are broken down across two distinct processes: Cooperative Interface and Background Mindfulness. To help you recreate each element of the model, I’ve provided some quick tips and advanced practices for each of the seven components. 

Cooperative Interface

The Cooperative Interface piece of the model encompasses the elements that a conversational partner sees and responds to. For contact centers specifically, this refers to what takes place during the actual conversation between an agent and a customer. There are five components of Cooperative Interface that organizations must consider to equip and prepare agents to emotionally connect with customers in real time:

  1. INTENT DECODING. In the course of everyday conversations, people are able to quickly and intuitively recognize what the other person is trying to achieve during the interaction based on content, context, tone, and shared history. Contact center conversations, on the other hand, have historically started with the customer explaining why he or she reached out to the organization – often a frustrating exercise for both customers and agents. Here are some ways you can help agents better anticipate and decode customers’ objectives:
    • Quick tip. Proactively notify agents of major events – such as new marketing campaigns, software upgrades, major storms, or data breaches – that are likely to increase call volume, and offer them clear guidance and resources to help them effectively communicate about that event. 
    • Advanced practice. Build a central data repository that integrates information from different platforms across the business – like contact center systems, CRM systems, sales and marketing systems, and digital analytics – and can be mined using data analytics to provide agents with the fullest possible picture of customers and their interaction history.
  1. CONTEXTUAL FRAMING. In ordinary conversations, people automatically identify some basic characteristics of their partner – like their appearance, age, gender, style, shared history, etc. – and then tailor their manner accordingly. During contact center interactions, however, agents often have little to no insight into who the person they are talking to is as an individual, which limits their ability to forge emotional connections during these conversations. Here are some ways you can help agents create personalized, engaging interactions:
    • Quick tip. Create customer personas based on characteristics like demographic information, personality type, customer value, or where they are in the customer lifecycle, and then train agents how to quickly recognize different persona types and adapt their communication style accordingly. 
    • Advanced practice. Predictively route customers to the most compatible agent based on inputs like customer information (e.g. value, favored channels, products owned, location, interaction history), agent information (e.g. skillset, tenure, past successful case resolution, business outcome data), and real-time data (e.g. utilization rate, customer intent, case complexity).
  1. EMPATHETIC AGILITY. During face-to-face conversations, people can demonstrate empathetic agility by reading nonverbal cues – such as facial expressions, tone of voice, mood, and body language – and then adjusting their behavior to keep the conversations positive and productive. Recognizing and adapting to these nonverbal cues is significantly more challenging during contact center interactions as agents are usually conversing with someone they can’t see and have never met. Here are some ways you can help agents identify and empathetically respond to customers’ changing emotional states:
    • Quick tip. Instead of requiring agents to adhere to a strict script, offer more general guidance in the form of a checklist or competency framework, and then provide them with the soft skills training, tools, and support necessary for them to hit those necessary notes while giving them the freedom to exercise their own judgement to resolve the customer’s query.
    • Advanced practice. Augment agents’ natural Emotional Intelligence by using speech analytics to analyze and process customer and agent voice signals in real time and sending them empathy nudges when appropriate.
  1. SUPPORTIVE FEEDBACK. In normal conversations, people naturally provide a steady stream of small, non-interruptive signals to show they are listening, like nodding their head, saying “mm-hmm,” maintaining eye contact, and asking relevant follow-up questions. This type of reassurance is essential to contact center interactions as customers are often reaching out with a problem or questions and are therefore in a heightened state of confusion and concern. Here are some ways you can help agents provide supportive feedback to reduce customer anxiety:
    • Quick tip. Instead of forcing agents to deliver long-winded apologies that take up customers’ valuable time, train them instead to sincerely demonstrate compassion within the first few seconds of the conversation, but then transition quickly to finding viable options for resolving the customer’s issue.
    • Advanced practice. To help agents find information in the internal knowledge base quickly, integrate real-time speech analytics into your knowledge management system, enabling it to listen in on the conversation and automatically pull up the relevant articles, forms, links, etc. based on what documentation has previously been used to solve a similar case.
  1. BASIC MANNERS. At the core of any productive, engaging conversation is good manners and an adherence to social norms like taking turns, staying on topic, not hogging the discussion, and using appropriate language. Even if every other aspect of the contact center conversation goes well, if basic etiquette is ignored, the customer will not be happy. Here are some ways you can help agents demonstrate basic manners during these interactions:
    • Quick tip: Explicitly ask customers to rate agents on their prosocial behaviors – such as politeness, helpfulness, friendliness, and patience. Use the metrics to inform training, coaching, and incentive programs.
    • Advanced practice. Because people tend to be more polite to those they converse with on an ongoing basis, connect customers with the same agents they’ve interacted with before (assuming those experiences went well) or assign customers a dedicated agent who will always be their point person on customer service issues.

Background Mindfulness

Although the Background Mindfulness piece of the model is not directly observable during the conversation, it nevertheless informs the way participants communicate with both their current partners and their future partners. For contact centers specifically, this refers to the internal, behind-the-scenes processes and organizational dynamics that support and inform individual conversations between agents and customers. There are two components of Background Mindfulness that companies must consider to facilitate emotionally engaging contact center interactions:

  1. SELF-AWARENESS. Self-awareness is essential to successful conversations as, if someone doesn’t understand themselves – their personality, beliefs, feelings, motivations, strengths, and so on – they are likely to behave erratically, confusing and worrying the person they’re talking to. Likewise, an organization needs a consistent brand and voice across the entire business, including within the contact center. Here are some ways you can ensure these interactions embody your organization’s brand:
    • Quick tip. Emphasize experience-focused metrics that reflect your brand promises (such as effort, trust, delight, or agent helpfulness, knowledge, or friendliness) instead of business-focused metrics (such as average handle time, cost per contact, or average transfer rate). While operational and compliance metrics are important, they do not encourage agents to show personality or build relationships with customers.
    • Advanced practice.  Articulate a customer service vision statement that expresses exactly what kind of service agents are expected to deliver to customers and then use that vision to inform training, coaching, measurements, and incentives.
  1. EMOTIONAL REFLECTION. Over the course of a conversation, people will continuously learn more about the person they are talking to and use that information to steadily refine how they communicate with that particular person as well as how they communicate with other people during future conversations. Contact center interactions supply companies with a great deal of useful information about both an individual customer and broader trends, information which they should feed back into agent training and experience and product design. Here are some ways you can use what you’ve learned during a conversation to shape future interactions:
    • Quick tip. Institute a process to capture and act on agents’ notes as they often hear problems or opportunities that may not otherwise show up in customer feedback.
    • Advanced practice. Automatically detect customer sentiment through voice and behavioral signals and use that information to link certain emotional states to actual business outcomes (e.g. churn rate, renewal, upsell acceptance, repurchase, recommend).

Written by 

Isabelle is an XM Catalyst with the Qualtrics XM Institute. She helps large organizations design and operate successful experience management (XM) programs by producing industry thought leadership, developing and delivering training, consulting with companies, and speaking on key XM topics and trends. She currently leads the XM Institute’s research into how companies identify, design, and deploy innovative new experiences. Other areas of expertise include digital CX design, metrics management, consumer psychology and emotions, and behavioral economics. Prior to its acquisition in 2018, Isabelle spent five years working at Temkin Group – a research, consulting, and training firm dedicated to helping many of the world’s largest brands accelerate their experience transformation efforts. Isabelle is a Certified Customer Experience Professional (CCXP) and a graduate from Wellesley College.

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