Beyond the web: Customer service centre content strategy

In 2015 I was honoured to be given the opportunity to speak at Confab Central in Minneapolis. Here’s a text version of my presentation.

Let’s pause for a moment and think about the last time you, or someone you know, asked a business for help.

What was the reason?

Help: How can I check if my phone is unlocked? I want to use a local SIM when I travel overseas.

Help: I’ve just bought this new camera from your store and the charging cable doesn’t appear to be in the box. How can I get a new one? Can I return it online?

Help: I need to update my address on my account profile, but I can’t see how to do it. Do I need to fill out a form? What type of information do I need to provide?

Or, was it for something far more serious?

Help: My house has been burgled and I need to claim on my insurance. What information do you need to process it?

Help: I’ve received a letter from you saying my application has been rejected. I don’t understand why, the reason made no sense. Why did you reject my application?

Help: My husband says that if I leave him he’ll take the kids and I’ll never see them again. I can’t afford to get a lawyer. What can I do? What are my rights?

You see, as content professionals, as communicators, we hear a lot about creating fans for our business, our brand. Especially since the rise of social media – and content marketing –  there has been a focus on likes, shares, reviews, votes and all the rest.

We’ve seen headlines like:

“Top 10 tips for creating a tribe online”

“How to build your business through customer engagement”

“Amazing lead generation secrets you can use today”

“Create content that will get you noticed”

But it’s not working. Our customers are not happy and are leaving us in droves. And they are frustrated with our content. They are frustrated with self-help sites not being able to answer their questions, too much paperwork or online forms, and not being able to understand the information we provide to them.

Why is this such a big problem?

Too much focus on the funnel

I think there has been too much focus on the funnel. The sales funnel, the activities around attention and acquisition. Historically, this worked fine. Many businesses were set up to be successful based on one-off purchases or products that had a long lifecycle. Think traditional IT and software, financial services, utilities, insurance and the like. But now business models have evolved. We have embraced subscription-based products for almost everything. Local and global competition in different markets means there’s more choice so you are no longer tied to a specific brand for anything. The internet has made us expect more from the companies we pay for goods and services.

But still, so many businesses have this outdated attitude around providing attention and value to new customers, rather than treating existing customers well.

How many times have you seen a great deal for new customers only? Do loyal customers ever get rewarded? Not often.

Of course, this focus on new customer acquisition is also reflected in the content we produce.  As a content strategist, I have seen a huge amount of time, energy and budget spent on new website content, while other collections of content have been completely ignored.

And one of the most important collections of content that is often ignored is customer service centre content.

But there are many reasons we shouldn’t ignore it.

Content plays a critical role in customer service centres

The most obvious one is that the customer service centre has direct contact with the customer.

They are the ones who are charged with maintaining, and hopefully developing, the relationships with our customers. They are the ‘face’ (or voice) of our business and our brand. They have the power to enhance or erode the customer experience.

Another reason why customer service centres are important is that everything is measured. Whether it’s a call centre with phone operators, or more of a knowledge-base support system, customer service centres usually report on the volume of enquiries, the time it takes to respond to them, the nature of the enquiry, and how it was resolved. This is gold for a content strategist – especially when you consider how hard it is to draw conclusions from some of our web metrics. Plus, they are often connected to customer relationship management or CRM software so it’s possible to track ongoing interactions.

Finally, it’s good for the bottom line to keep our current customers happy. All the money spent on attracting and acquiring new customers becomes wasted if we can’t keep them as customers and they choose to go elsewhere.

Accenture have dubbed this group of customers as the ‘switching economy’. The movement of customers between different companies equates to $6.2 trillionglobally. That’s a lot of money, right?

So, at the heart of customer service centres is content. It’s critical in fact. And in the same way as our business models have changed over the past few years, so has the way our customer service centres use content to interact with our customers.

  • They use product guides, manuals and factsheets to instruct customers on how things work.
  • They respond to enquiries and complaints on social media and instant chat.
  • They might use web content or intranet content to find answers for customers.
  • They answer emails, keep frequently asked questions up to date and create knowledge base articles.

They create, maintain and publish a LOT of content.

Silo syndrome

But, they suffer from silo syndrome. We forget they are there. We don’t include them in our plans. Our customer journey maps skip over their interactions. We say we are strategic, but we don’t add them to our strategies.

We never step into our customer service centres and see what it’s like to be on the front line.

And this failure to include them in our strategy leads to failure in our content.

We see this failure to include them manifest in a number of ways. We get web content that doesn’t match customer service content. I think many places are guilty of updating a web page but forgetting about the support articles. But consider that from a customer’s point of view. What’s the outcome for getting the wrong content? Is it frustration that you can’t activate a new feature in some software, or something much more important?

We launch new products or campaigns and don’t plan effectively for how it will impact their content and their ability to answer questions. We don’t consider  if there will be enough operators to handle an influx in calls about a product recall. We don’t think if we need to track specific issues or concerns, or if it will change the workflow in the centre.

Another challenge is that high turnover or outsourcing customer service functions means that operators aren’t familiar with website or other content. So responses are slowed down or delayed because finding the right answer is hard.

So what do we do?

I think we must improve the experience for the customer and the operator. In the same way as more people are thinking about how author experience within a content management system helps improve the content they produce, focusing on the operator experience within a customer service setting will also improve the customer experience.

Creating content that supports the needs of the customer and the operator gives us the best opportunity to improve the experience for everyone.

Create content with empathy

The first thing we can do is show we care by creating content with empathy. Quite often the reason that you are contacting a customer service centre is not because your day is going well. There’s usually a problem or situation that needs a solution. This problem or situation might be making you feel anxious, scared, confused or just pissed off.

So how come it’s so easy to find customer service content that’s cold, uncaring and unsympathetic? We need to change this.

To start with, be aware of your tone.

If you are dealing with content that is related to a sensitive issue, be respectful of that context. Even if your insurance brand is a little bit cheeky in marketing copy, this doesn’t mean your guide on making a claim for your spouse’s life insurance is the right time to surface that humour. Use language that is not going to make the situation worse.

If you are dealing with someone who may have experienced a trauma, be conscious of how much content you provide. Research shows that dealing with trauma can affect concentration, so big paragraphs of text are harder to absorb. Instead, keep sentences short, use sub-headings and provide information in a logical order.

And for goodness sake, don’t try and sell to someone on a support call.

The next thing to consider is how to deal with personal information and privacy. In the Accenture report, 82% of U.S. customers report they feel companies they buy from cannot be trusted on how to use personal information provided to them.

Now privacy could be a topic of a talk in itself, but from a content strategy point of view, let’s have discussions around what personal information we actually need, how we communicate what we do with this information, and how to make it easy for our customers to update or change their own information in a way that suits them. In Australia we have strict privacy legislation for government, health care providers and businesses with a turn over of more than $3m per year – and part of that is enabling people to access and update their own information.

Companies know a lot about us. When this information is used in the wrong way, we feel very vulnerable. Don’t abuse this relationship by not respecting what your customers care about.

From a customer service point of view, this is content you need to plan for. With the rise of personalised experiences and targeted content this is becoming more important and must be part of the conversation. Get it right and you can provide a thoughtful, tailored experience. Get it wrong and you come across as creepy and untrustworthy.

Be sure to include it as part of your content strategy.

And don’t forget to use clear, familiar language. Banking and insurance are especially guilty of carefully crafting well-written, customer-friendly outward facing content for websites and other communication, but all of their customer service content is still wrapped up with legal jargon and buzzwords. Sure, you have to work around the terms and conditions and fine print of your products or services – but that doesn’t mean it has to be written in a way that no one understands. The point is to help your customers – not to make them feel stupid by not understanding what your content says. Clear, familiar language helps people make decisions they are confident with, and may actually help prevent unnecessary calls to a call centre.

Optimise for the operator

Start off things by visiting (if you can) where they work. Sit with them as they answer calls or respond to emails. Try and find the content to solve a question in their knowledge base or CRM. See how easy or hard it is. Take notice of the little work-arounds that operators use to make their jobs easier. When I worked on a project for Legal Aid, I sat with the call centre staff and listened in on calls. Watching how they kept track of a call, making notes on the fly in a Word document, before updating the file system opened my eyes to how content was really being used.

Speed and efficiency are important. Whatever you can do to help them complete their job faster is a good content strategy.

Have a look at your internal search.  Does it find the right content first up, or is more of a hit and miss affair? What content is being returned? Is the metadata that’s being displayed with it helping the operator find the right piece of information? Can they search across different systems? Can they filter and search by the right attributes? For example, being able to search by keyword and last updated, or keyword and product line.

If your search isn’t working well, investigate how your content is tagged. This might be through the use of keywords in your CRM or keywords in your web content. Are tags in the language of the customer, or is your taxonomy internally focussed? Does this matter? Or does it make the role of the operator harder because they need to learn two sets of terms for different things.

If your operator does have to refer customers to a web page or a specific file, are your naming conventions for URLs and file names reader-friendly? Or is it a terrible database driven string that no one could say out loud over the phone? Do your forms and PDFs have sensible names, meaningful names? Or is it some secret code that makes no sense from the outside?

Design better forms

How many times have you got so annoyed by a form that you’ve given up and called someone instead? Or, you’ve filled out dozens and dozens of fields, then find out right down the bottom that you also needed to supply information you don’t have. Or your password doesn’t meet some complex security standard, or you want to change your details and you can’t.

As I mentioned earlier, the 2013 Accenture report found that one of the top two frustrations with marketing and sales practices is not trusting how a company treats their personal information. Now a lot of this is to do with how much you are spammed afterwards with sales material, but on a more serious note – there’s nothing worse than being asked to provide very personal and sensitive information and you’re not exactly sure how it will be used.

I think that as content professionals, and people who care about customer service, we need to make a commitment to design better forms.

From an operator’s perspective, well designed forms make their job easier too. Whether it’s reducing the amount of calls they get for help, or improving their own experience collecting information – we can make data collection better.

So what makes a good form from a content point of view? There are five things to remember:

  1. A good form only asked for the information it truly needs. And it allows for all types of answers to be given.
  2. A good form is clear as to what the information will be used for.
  3. A good form asks and groups questions in a logical order.
  4. A good form provides instructions on how to complete fields correctly up front and not after the fact. This includes password requirements and what information you need before starting to complete it. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting half way through a form to realise you need to dig through the filing cabinet to find a policy number or reference code from previous correspondence.
  5. A good form maintains the same rhythm in its questions, it has a good flow. Questions are structured consistently, familiar terms are used and scales are kept the same.

From an operator’s point of view, it’s easier if the forms fields that the customer is filling out match the fields in the systems the operator uses.

Think format and structure

This leads nicely into the next point I’d like to make about customer service content. We have to get the format and structure right.

Understand how the content will be used and design it accordingly. Will it be read out loud? If so, make sure anything written is tested this way.

Design for scanning. Quickly finding the right content is a priority in a call centre so use strong headings and subheadings, frontload with keywords and allow enough whitespace. Group ideas and topics together.

Plan the right workflow

Finally, plan the right workflow.

Let’s include the call centre in our publishing and governance workflows. Keep them up to date with changes in the way they want to be kept up to date. This might mean providing status updates to a team leader who then chooses what to tell the operators about.

Incorporate a feedback mechanism so operators can let content authors know if something is out of date, or if a new FAQ or support note needs to be written. Likewise, use their knowledge and contact with the customer to help measure content across the organisation. Provide a way to gather customer feedback, including good or positive feedback.

Extend style guides to cover customer service content as well as web content so that the experience is consistent between channels. See how content can be reused in different formats.

And, allow time to review and maintain customer service content. User generated support content especially can turn into a hell hole for people looking for answers to their problems. I found this the case when I was trying to figure out how to remove a Google Maps pin from my house. In fact, trawling through the Google forums made me angry.

In summary

None of this is rocket science. They are simple ideas. But by creating content with empathy, optimising for the operator, designing better forms, thinking more about format and structure, and planning the right workflow we can build a better experience for everyone.


This presentation references two reports by Accenture:

Customer 2020: Are you future ready or reliving the past (pdf)

2013 Global consumer pulse survey (pdf)

I also talked about two projects I worked on for Legal Aid Queensland and Sunsuper. You can see (and hear) about that on the Livestream recording.