SOCAP International

10 Writing Skills Agents Need to Chat With Customers

From free text to reading critically to empathy, here are the skills that agents need to succeed.

Customers really like live chat. Customers are more satisfied with chat than email or phone (73% satisfaction for chat compared with 61% and 44% for email and phone, respectively), according to eDigital's Customer Service Benchmark, which surveyed 2,000 consumers on their experiences of various customer service channels.

Chat may be popular, but doing it right isn’t easy. Writing high-quality chat is a lot harder than it looks. (There’s way more to chat than typing fast and pushing links!) Whether you’re planning to start chatting with customers or your team is chatting already, be sure your customer service agents have these solid, chat-specific writing skills.

1. Mix templates and free text. Chat agents should have access to a library of high-quality prewritten content (templates) and should use them to answer customers’ questions. But customers don’t respond well to canned chats, so agents need to be able to switch from template to free text as needed.

Matt, a Vonage chat agent, does a good job of this. He’s chatting with John, a customer who’s switching from landline to Vonage service. Matt’s first statement is clearly a template, but his second is “free texted” to answer John’s question directly.

John: What’s the cost of your best plan for small business customers?
Matt: Our Premium Unlimited Plan, available for small businesses, provides unlimited local and long distance calling anywhere in the US, Canada and Puerto Rico for business customers. Also, new for this plan is FREE calls to 5 select European countries for only $49.99 a month plus taxes/fees! You also get a free dedicated fax line with 20+ FREE advanced phone features.
John: OK that's good. I am glad to learn about the fax line. But can i keep my existing fax number? Can the Vonage line work with my ancient Brother fax machine?
Matt: It will be able to work with the fax machine. What you will do is place the order with me. Then you will call customer care to transfer the actual fax line number over.

2. Read critically. You might be asking, “How can reading be a writing skill?” But critical reading is the bedrock of all writing skills. Critical reading is the cognitive ability to read what the customer is saying and discern what the customer is asking. In chat, critical reading is especially important because chat requires customers to write quickly, without editing, and sometimes their writing is really sloppy and confusing. If agents can read critically, they can take in the customer’s messy writing and figure out what the customer is really asking.

Empathy is more dignified than telling customers which bridge they can jump off of.

3. Use the brand voice. When they chat, agents represent their company’s brand, so they should sound like the brand. If, for example, an agent chats for a surf and skate clothing retailer, and its company’s marketing message is “We keep the world ripping and rocking,” the agent needs to be able to use that brand voice. It would be jarring to write, “It has been a pleasure assisting you in purchasing your shoes.” Better to write, “I know you’re going to like your dope kicks.”

Critical reading is the cognitive ability to read what the customer is saying and discern what the customer is asking.

4. Signal to the customer when he needs to wait or when the agent will wait. In many chats, customers and agents sometimes have to step away to get information. Good chat writing makes it clear to the customer when he needs to wait or when the agent will wait for him. When chat agents manage wait or away time properly, there’s little need on either side to ask, “Are you still there?”

In this chat, agent Vanessa does a good job of signaling to the customer when she’s stepped away from the chat.

Customer: What’s the status of my return for replacement on order number 12345678?
Vanessa: Hello, Lisa. I'm happy to help you with that. Please give me one moment to check the status.
Customer: Thank you!
Vanessa: The return package for order #12345678 has arrived in our warehouse, and we’ve begun processing your request for replacement.
Customer: Excellent! Are both items still in stock?
Vanessa: Yes, both wheels are still available.
Customer: Great! I appreciate your assistance! Will I get an email with tracking information when they ship?
Vanessa: Yes, you will get an email. Please hold one moment, and I will see if I can get the shipping date for you.

5. Ask probing questions. Chat is a great channel for helping customers clarify what they need or want. Watch how Annabelle, an expert chat agent for Zappos, keeps probing to help the customer narrow and clarify her shoe question. In the early part of the chat, almost everything Annabelle writes is a question. Some are matter-of-fact (shoe size) questions and others are open ended (“What key things are you looking for?”) This mix of question types engages the customer and gives Annabelle the best shot at finding the shoe the customer wants.

Customer: I am looking for shoes that will allow me to walk comfortably. I have nerve damage in my foot. Annabelle: Okay, so you are looking for walking shoes?
Customer: Yes, let's start with walking shoes. I will need to replace my dress shoes too.
Annabelle: Okay no problem, one moment please ...
Annabelle: What size do you wear?
Customer: I wear a size 7 or 7.5
Annabelle: What width are your feet?
Customer: Average width
Annabelle: Okay. What key things are you looking for in a shoe?
Customer: Comfort, really. I have a lot of pain in the ball of my right foot. I can barely walk on it.

6. Empathize. It would be easy for chat agents to let their dignity slip and respond in kind to angry, rude or stressed customers. Instead, they should empathize. Empathy is more dignified than telling customers which bridge they can jump off of. Seeing things from the customer’s point of view is essential because it makes customers easier to manage, which controls chat time. Use empathy statements like these:

You’re right.

Me too.
I can definitely understand.
I can see your point.
That sounds difficult.

7. Close with something genuine and specific. Agents should end the chat on a high note. They should avoid using only the generic closing: “Is there anything else I can help you with today?” or the generic sign-off: “Thanks for chatting with us.” While those are polite and necessary prewritten statements, go beyond what’s expected. It’s better to close with a specific reference to a topic covered in the chat:

Thanks for upgrading your account, Mary. Have a great day!
I’m glad we could help you troubleshoot the problems with your modem …
I’m sorry about the problem you had with our website today, and I hope …

8. Have agents admit when they don’t know something. Agents can admit not having the answer, and then can go get it—pronto. Chat is the best channel for live problem solving, so customers often chat when they’re in the middle of a task. Good writers are prepared to say things like, “Let me check my knowledgebase to see whether there’s an update that would fix the problem you’re having.”

9. Shut down prank chatters. A clothing retailer that targets the under-21 crowd finds that at about 3:30 each day, after-school prank chatters jam the queue with silly stunts like giving a pornographic username and repeatedly asking the agent, “How do you like my name?” Good customer service writers have a strategy (and management’s permission) to shut down this type of chat, so they can move on to real customers.

While chat is certainly less formal than other types of writing, spelling mistakes and punctuation errors never improve communication.

10. Use correct spelling and punctuation. While chat is certainly less formal than other types of writing, spelling mistakes and punctuation errors never improve communication. Agents certainly don’t have to write standard, formal sentences in a fast-paced chat, but they should spell words and use apostrophes correctly. Bloopers like these make your company look bad and your service questionable:

Whats the start and end date for your trip?
We will be glad to assist you and Ship your items to toronto Canada
Currently, we are expereincing the technical glitch in our system.

Keyboarding errors like these are not as bad, although it’s best to avoid them:

I am glad I was able to assist you you today.
Onnce you’re done, click on the “Continue” button.
You have a wnoderful day ahead!

O'Flahavan_Leslie_headshotLeslie O'Flahavan

Bio: Leslie O'Flahavan, E-WRITE principal, has helped thousands learn to write well for online readers. She has delivered customized writing courses for customer service agents, social media managers and support desk staff. In 2013, she completed an overhaul of customer service writing for a global airline’s domestic and international contact centers. O'Flahavan is the co-author of “Clear, Correct, Concise E-Mail: A Writing Workbook for Customer Service Agents.”