Don't Let Poor Reading Skills Crush Your Support Queues

It seemed like a simple question.

My wife, Sally, and I want to install a smart thermostat at our vacation rental property to make it easier to control heating costs when we don't have guests. I went to the website for a popular brand and searched for documentation on vacation rentals.

Finding nothing, I started a live chat session. "Can you share documentation on using your product in a vacation rental property?" I asked.

The response was a link to an article about going on vacation. Not quite right. After a few back-and-forth messages the agent agreed to search for something and email me.

The email was a link to articles about setting the thermostat when you go on vacation.

Situations where agents don't apply basic reading comprehension skills are frustrating. It unnecessarily wastes customers' time. In my case, it drove me to a competitor.

Here's a closer look at the problem and a few solutions.


The Comprehension Problem

The NBC app wasn't working on my iPad, so I submitted an online support ticket.

(While I normally hide company names when I share my own negative service experiences, I've provided this feedback to the company multiple times.)


The text from my support ticket is at the bottom with the response at the top. This response had two big misses that show the responder didn't fully read or understand my question. 

First, the response asked me to search for my provider, even though I clearly state my provider in my message. 

Second, the emailer asks for the type of device and OS I'm using, even though that information is clearly identified in the personal data attached to the email. (I removed that portion for privacy.)

**Bonus question to my technical friends** Do you think this response came from a human, a bot, or a human pretending to be a bot?


What Causes These Reading Issues?

Let's set aside an obvious possibility, that the agents hired for these jobs are not screened for appropriate reading skills.

That may be true, yet there are still other possibilities.

One is a focus on productivity, not quality. Look back at the email and you'll see some signs:

  • The ticket is marked at the top of the email as solved. (Makes ticket closing numbers look good.)
  • This is clearly a pre-written template.
  • The sender ignored information I provided.

Another possible root cause is a lack of quality monitoring. Here's a sneak preview from a study that will be released by ICMI in October. The chart shows the percentage of contact centers that monitor various channels for quality.

Source: ICMI

Source: ICMI

This graph shows that most contact centers are monitoring calls while more than half aren't monitoring email or chat. The stat for social media is just sad.

So if an agent exhibits poor reading skills, chances are the boss isn't paying attention. And if the boss isn't paying attention, you can be sure the agent isn't getting any feedback on how to do better. 



An immediate action is to review a sample of written communication from your agents.

I did this exercise as a contact center manager and was shocked at how many emails contained a mistake or weren't as helpful as they could be. 

You may also consider changing your support procedures:

  • Create a customer service vision that focuses on customers, not transactions.
  • Implement quality monitoring for written channels.
  • Incorporate a reading comprehension assessment in your hiring process.

Of course, all agents could use help with some skill development from time to time. Check out online courses from customer service writing expert, Leslie O'Flahavan:

Lessons From The Overlook: Pricing Strategy

Note: Lessons from The Overlook is a monthly update on lessons learned from owning a vacation rental property in the Southern California mountain town of Idyllwild. It's a hands-on opportunity to apply some of the techniques I advise my clients to use. You can find past updates here.

Pricing strategy can be tricky.

One thought is customers naturally want to pay as little as possible. So you can bring in more customers if you cut your prices. That's what Amazon is betting on by dramatically cutting prices at newly acquired Whole Foods. The challenge is lower prices equal lower profit margins, so you'll need to sell a lot more to make more money.

Another approach is to charge a premium. This way you can sell to fewer customers and still make money. Of course, you want to avoid raising prices so high that nobody will pay them.

My wife, Sally, and I decided on a third pricing strategy. We wanted The Overlook to be an excellent value for the customer we wanted while appearing too pricey for customers we didn't want.

Here's what we did and how you can do it, too.

We like to think The Overlook is a little nicer than our competitors. Image courtesy of JoniePhoto.

We like to think The Overlook is a little nicer than our competitors. Image courtesy of JoniePhoto.

Define Your Target Customer

One thing you'll notice about The Overlook is each room has just one bed.

There are no side-by-side twin beds. No bunk beds. The sofa isn't a pullout sleeper. We have four bedrooms and four beds (two king, two queen). Our advertised guest limit is eight.

This is very intentional.

We want a certain customer who will enjoy the peacefulness of our cabin. It's often extended families (mom and dad, the kids, plus grandparents), a couples weekend, or two families meeting in the mountains. Our guests enjoy the cabin's amenities plus a little elbowroom.

There's also a customer we don't want—the bargain hunter who is looking to cram as many people as possible into a cabin to maximize the cost per person. 

Those guests create extra wear and tear without any extra revenue. More things go missing and more damage occurs. We've had a couple of renters sneak in more than eight guests and the cleaning alone was always a challenge after these guests had gone.

Other cabins in Idyllwild pack 'em in. Guests sleep on bunk beds, in lofts, or air mattresses in the living room. These cabins typically offer fewer amenities. We think the bargain hunters are willing to make that trade-off and will stay in those places instead of ours.

A good pricing strategy starts with your target customer. What are the characteristics of the customer you want and can you serve them profitably?


Competitive Analysis

Serving customers profitably brings us to the next step: conducting a competitive analysis of your pricing.

This means comparing your prices to what your competitors are charging. We started with the other cabins managed by our property manager that slept six or more guests with three or more bedrooms.


The Overlook was the least expensive of the four-bedroom cabins. While our cabin also sleeps fewer people than the other four-bedroom options, it also has more amenities.

For example, our cabin is the only one with a view. And only one other four bedroom cabin has a spa. Our research shows that our guests want a spa, good views, a nice fireplace, and it should be pet-friendly. The Overlook checks all four boxes.

Here's how our pricing looks compared to just those cabins with the same amenities:


Not as many options! And the lower-priced cabin is much smaller and is really only comfortable for two couples. 

We also compared The Overlook to cabins in the area that weren't managed by our property manager. There were plenty of lower-priced options, but The Overlook was on the low-end of the scale when you just compared cabins with similar amenities.

And our price includes the cleaning fee, which can be $100 or more at other vacation rentals.


Our Pricing Decision

We ultimately decided to raise our nightly rate to $325 for the first two nights, $275 for each additional night.

Here was our new positioning when compared to our property manager's other cabins:


We wanted to price on the higher end of the market to deter bargain-hunters who were not our ideal customer, while remaining an exceptional value for the customers we were trying to attract.

The results have been good so far. Our guests have been very pleased with the cabin and the amenities. They've consistently commented on enjoying a peaceful and relaxing stay.

Best of all, revenue is up 5 percent over last year and none of our guests have trashed the place.

The Best Way to Ask Employees About Training Needs

You may be tempted to survey employees to ask about their training needs. Don't.

Asking employees what training they need is like asking young kids what they want for dinner. An enthusiastic answer doesn't mean that's what they need. 

I once worked with a payroll department that was struggling to serve its internal customers. They frequently couldn't process payroll on time and made many errors. The team was denied a request for additional staff so they asked me for time management training.

It turned out they really needed a better process. 

We worked together to map the existing process, identify bottlenecks, and implement a new workflow. Productivity immediately improved by 25 percent and errors went down to nearly 0.

No training required.

This won't always be the case. Employees often need training to help them do their jobs. The trick is asking them directly will often yield what they think they need, not what they actually need.

Here's a better way to ask employees about training needs.

Do This Before Asking Employees About Training

There are a few steps you should take before asking employees about training.

Step one is to identify a business need for your company, department, or team. Think about a problem you're trying to solve, such as improving customer service, reducing complaints, or improving customer retention. Resources are limited, so we want to focus our training investments on areas of business need.

Step two is to identify the key drivers that contribute to that goal. For example, Palo Alto Software recently decided to focus on customer retention. In an interview with Celeste Peterson, a Customer Advocacy Supervisor, she described two key retention drivers her team identified:

  • Customers logged in to the software more than once in the first week they signed up.
  • Customers can easily access help when they're confused or frustrated.

Step three is to determine what employee behaviors lead to good results with your key drivers. This step may actually involve dialogue with your employees, though you're not discussing training yet. The conversation should focus on what's working and what's not.

Palo Alto Software determined that its customer advocates (customer service reps) needed to do two things in particular:

  • Provide helpful support to customers in need.
  • Use positive phrasing when customers are confused about annual billing.

Notice the goal for these steps is to identify a business need and then link it to what employees need to do. Only now are you ready to assess employee training needs.


What to Ask Employees

Once you've identified what employees should be doing the next step is to find out what employees are actually doing.

The best way to do this is to observe employees in action. Here is when you can ask a few questions:

  • What do you do now?
  • Why do you do it that way? (If it's different than expected.)
  • What's preventing you from achieving your goals?

For instance, Peterson observed her team at Palo Alto Software to see how they handled situations where a customer complained about being charged for 12 months of service. These customers had signed up for annual billing to get a discount, but somehow didn't realize they would be charged for a year's worth of service at one time.

Customer advocates would generally apologize, and offer to refund the charge and convert the customer's account into a monthly one.

This seemed like a customer-friendly, low-friction approach but it was actually costing customers money in the long run since monthly accounts billed at a higher rate than annual subscriptions. Monthly customers were also more likely to cancel.

This observation revealed a simple training need—customer advocates needed to learn a better approach to handle complaints about annual billing.

Here's how Peterson described the new approach she trained her team to use:

"Now, rather than immediately addressing their confusion and apologizing, giving a negative impression, we empathize, and focus on the positive, that the annual subscription provides the benefit of a 40% discount by collecting for 12 months in advance. We also let the customer know that we're happy to convert it to the monthly option or cancel and refund if they prefer, since we have a 60 day money back guarantee."

Notice there's still no survey involved.

I do like using surveys when there's a larger audience. For example, I'm working with a client now where about 700 people will need training on the organization's customer service vision. In this case, the survey is a convenient way to ask people for their current understanding of the vision.



Asking the right questions up front made a huge difference at Palo Alto Software. These questions were focused on what employees needed to do their jobs, not what training they wanted.

Peterson's employees may have asked for customer service training if she simply asked for their training requests. That might have resulted in a half-day training class on serving angry customers or having each person take my one-hour Working With Upset Customers course on

Doing an upfront needs analysis allowed Peterson to make a bigger impact by offering very limited training on a specific technique for a particular situation.

You can learn more about assessing employee training needs by taking my Needs Analysis course on

I also highly recommend the book Courageous Training by Tim Mooney and Robert O. Brinkerhoff. It provides step-by-step instructions for identifying training needs by first framing business needs.

Report: Companies Have the Tech to Ease Phone Pain

Calling customer service is a pain. 

Most of us don't want to call customer service. Three things in particular make the call miserable:

The first is Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems that try to deflect calls by repeatedly offering self-service. It's the reason why we repeatedly press "0" or yell "Live Person!" into the phone.

The second is being put on hold. This feels like a waste of time because it is. Anxiety and frustration increase the longer we wait.

The third is repetition. It's annoying to repeat information the company should already know, such as our name and contact information..

There is some good news. A new report from cloud-based contact center platform NewVoiceMedia reveals that most companies already have the technology to avoid this mess.

Source: NewVoiceMedia

About the Report

NewVoiceMedia partnered with the market research firm, Opinion Matters, to survey 1,018 people who work in contact centers.

The report is called Contact Center Technology Survey: Why businesses are failing their customers. As the title suggests, there are opportunities for contact centers to improve their technological infrastructure. 

I also see a glimmer of hope.

Many companies already have technology to deliver better service.You can download the full report or read a summary of key findings below.


IVR Self-Service is Unnecessary

Companies primarily offer IVR self-service to deflect callers away from live agents. 

This was a customer benefit prior to the age of online self-service. IVR self-service suddenly made it easier to handle a simple request such as checking your account balance with a few touchtone commands. 

The NewVoiceMedia report shows 85 percent of respondents now offer online self-service. My research indicates customers today tend to call customer service only if online self-service doesn't work or they believe their issue is so complicated a live agent is needed. 

This means customers may perceive IVR self-service as an annoying obstacle to live help rather than a customer benefit. The simple solution is to shut it off.


Customers Don't Need to Be on Hold

Nobody likes to wait on hold.

The NewVoiceMedia report shows that 42 percent of contact centers regularly make customers wait longer than five minutes. This understandably irritates customers.

The good news is there are many ways to reduce hold times without hiring more agents. Here are just a few:

  • Adjust schedules to better meet demand
  • Improve online self-service (which deflects calls)
  • Respond to email faster & better
  • Focus agents on first contact resolution (prevents future calls)
  • Offer a callback option such as Fonolo

In my interview with Fonolo's CEO and co-founder, Shai Berger, he explained that a callback feature can actually smooth out spikes in call volume. 

"Demand spikes tend to have a cascading effect. Hold times stretch longer, so you have to juggle around your agent lunch and break schedules, which means there might be fewer agents available later in the day when you need them. It sometimes feels like you can never catch up."

Many contact centers use multiple approaches to reduce demand spikes and prevent this chain-reaction from occurring.


Eliminate Repetitive Repetition

Imagine you're upset about an unresolved billing issue that you emailed about last week. You call, enter your account number into the IVR, deflect a series of useless self-service offers, and then hold for ten minutes. 

You finally get a live agent and face a barrage of annoying questions:

  • May I have your account number, please?
  • Will you please confirm your first and last name?
  • Will you please confirm your phone number?

You eventually get to the help phase of the call only to have to repeat everything you wrote in your email. By now, you're fuming.

The NewVoiceMedia report suggests this is often unnecessary:

  • 89 percent of agents can identify a caller before answering the call
  • 82 percent of agents can access information about previous interactions
  • 79 percent of agents can follow customers across multiple channels

Contact centers would serve their customers much better by humanizing the service approach. This means leveraging existing technology to allow agents to skip the repetitive questions and quickly getting to the heart of the issue.

How to Help Customers Recover From Nasty Surprises

A Customer Service Tip of the Week subscriber recently wrote to ask for some advice.

She explained that production problems at her company were delaying deliveries. Her customers were understandably upset and she wondered what could be done to help them feel better.

Here's the advice I shared.


Communicate Responsively

The first step is to keep customers informed.

There are two components to a nasty surprise. The first is the service failure itself. In this case, a delayed delivery. The second component is the emotional impact of an unpleasant surprise.

Responsive communication can lessen the emotional impact until you can fix the service failure itself.

I advised the customer service professional to reach out to her customers. Be honest about what’s going on, express an understanding of how her customers must feel, and describe what the company is doing to fix it. Contact customers individually, if possible. 

She could also use mass communication channels (email, mail, social media, etc.) as appropriate to provide ongoing updates.


Give Goodwill

The second step is thing is to make a goodwill gesture.

Determine if there’s anything you can offer customers as a gesture of goodwill to alleviate their anger. It could be discounts, expedited shipping, or perhaps some other service.

The key is to make it meaningful. Don't automatically assume customers want compensation or something for free. Listen carefully to your customers' concerns and align your goodwill gesture with something that has meaning.

Customers are often more forgiving if they see you are making a sincere effort to restore their trust and earn their continued business.



The third step is to follow-up with customers.

I advised the customer service professional to reconnect with her customers once the delivery issues had been resolved. She should communicate what was learned from the situation and describe what steps were taken to prevent it from happening again.

It can take some time to restore trust. Additional follow-up will often help customers start to feel better.



In a perfect world, you can help customers prevent nasty surprises altogether.

Managing expectations is the best way to do this. You want to be sure customers understand what will happen so they're never surprised.

This training video on Lynda can give you step-by-step instructions. 

You can get a 30-day trial if you don't already have a Lynda account. LinkedIn Premium subscribers can also access the course on LinkedIn Learning.

Here's a short preview: