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).

Tapping into the Six Traits of Human Beings During a Crisis

Experience Management (XM) is all about human beings. Customers are human. Employees are human. Partners, leaders, suppliers, prospective customers… all human. In the current environment, where many people are facing hard times, it’s more critical than ever for organizations to find ways to demonstrate their humanity and build deeper emotional ties with all the people who interact with them.

This, unfortunately, is easier said than done. Human beings are complicated and can be difficult to understand. So to adapt your experiences to address the shifting concerns of the people you care about, consider their needs across all Six Traits of Human Beings:

  1. INTUITIVE. People use two different modes of thinking to make decisions and judgements: Intuitive Thinking, which is fast, automatic, and emotional and relies on cognitive biases and heuristics (mental rules of thumb) to make decisions, and Rational Thinking, which is slow, effortful, and deliberate and relies on logic and reason to reach conclusions. While humans always tend to use Intuitive Thinking more frequently than Rational Thinking, our dependence on it intensifies during times of stress and uncertainty. So emergencies often exacerbate our existing biases – such probability neglect, availability bias, aversion to uncertainty, and herding behaviors – leading to “irrational” reactions, like buying mountains of toilet paper.
    • Customer Example: Reduce customer uncertainty by proactively communicating how your company is addressing the current situation (e.g. new safety precautions, expanded channels for reaching customer service, plans for waiving certain fees or penalties, etc.). Studies show that during an emergency, communication is most effective when it is timely, credible, empathetic, emphasizes useful individual actions, and is tailored to specific audiences and segments.
    • Employee Example: Engage employees’ Rational Thinking by providing them with a continuous flow of relevant data and insights and then holding them accountable for using that information to make evidence-based (rather than intuition-based) decisions.
  1. SELF-CENTERED. Everyone views the world through their own personal lens, which is informed by their unique life experiences. Unfortunately, this individual context can make it hard for us to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and see the world through their eyes. However, in the current environment, where empathy is paramount, organizations must actively work to help leaders and employees escape their individual context and instead demonstrate understanding and compassion for each other and for customers.
    • Customer Example: Instead of continuing to survey customers about the company’s performance, shift your Voice of the Customer efforts to understand how your customers are doing on a personal level. Shorten surveys to only a few open-ended questions that ask people how they are feeling and how the organization can help them get through this challenging time.
    • Employee Example: Engender empathy in employees for both coworkers and customers by sharing people’s stories in their own voice – whether that’s through contact center recordings, customer verbatims, or inviting employees to recount their experiences during team or company-wide meetings. 
  1. EMOTIONAL. As Maya Angelou once said, “People don’t always remember what you say or even what you do, but they always remember how you make them feel.” Human beings remember experiences based on the most emotionally extreme points and how it ends – a phenomenon known as the “Peak-End Rule.” Because of the heightened emotional climate, people are going to be particularly sensitive to how organizations make them feel right now…and will remember those emotions long after this episode has passed.
    • Customer Example: To create positive emotional peaks, review your major customer journeys and find moments where your organization can add a special moment of surprise or delight, such as sending a customer a handwritten note, waiving a fee, adding a small gift to their package, or empowering employees to spend a certain amount of money to go above-and-beyond to make a moment special.
    • Employee Example: When conveying bad news to employees, lessen the negative emotional spike by carefully preparing for the conversation in advance rather than leaving it up to chance. Think through how you will explain the situation and its causes, communicate with transparency and respect, deliver the news in an appropriate setting and format, and allocate plenty of time to answer their questions at the end.
  1. MOTIVATED. All people strive to fulfill four intrinsic needs – a sense of meaning, choice, progress, and competence. These four motivations are especially important for a company to tap into during a time of crisis as people often feel stalled and discouraged, and the business may not be in a position to incentivize people with extrinsic motivators, like money or formal recognition.
    • Customer Example: Tap into customers’ desire for choice by offering them a variety of solutions to problems they encounter, such as canceled flights, out of stock items, or long wait times for the contact center. Studies show that when companies give customers a variety of potential solutions to choose from to resolve an issue, they are ultimately more satisfied with the outcome.
    • Employee Example: Tap into employees’ desire for meaning by finding ways to redeploy your organizational capabilities to help the community (e.g. repurposing factories, donating products, providing logistical support, etc.), and provide opportunities for employees to contribute to these efforts – both within the scope of their everyday roles and on a volunteer basis. 
  1. SOCIAL. People are naturally social, and we particularly enjoy connecting with other people and institutions who are “like us.” Because people are more attracted to brands who are able to give them a sense of community and belonging, in this time of social isolation, companies should actively create opportunities for employees and customers to connect with each other around shared interests.
    • Customer Example: Give frontline employees space to emotionally connect with customers by waiving efficiency metrics like Average Handle Time.
    • Employee Example: Studies show that the greatest predictor of a person’s success and happiness during a challenging time is his or her social support network, so encourage all employees to start every day by reaching out to someone in their social network – a coworker, family member, friend, etc. – to briefly express gratitude and appreciation. This will help people to feel more connected and recognize they have more social support than they may think.
  1. HOPEFUL. People flourish when they envision a positive future. When we are optimistic, our brains perform better across a number of different categories – such as intelligence, resilience, and creativity – compared to when we are feeling neutral or pessimistic. To help people focus on the positive amid the continuous barrage of bad news, organizations should articulate a compelling vision of the company’s future that specifically addresses people’s personal needs and aspirations.
    • Customer Example: Instead of only communicating with customers to convey negative or disappointing news, share inspiring stories from around the business as well as positive lessons the business has learned that will be carried forward to make the company – and its customer experience – better than before.
    • Employee Example: Start every company meeting by highlighting successes, praising team members, or sharing something you’re excited about. Priming people with positivity will change the way their brains process the challenges you are about to tackle.