Crafting a Team of Great Writers

In Rework, there’s a great essay entitled Hire Great Writers:

Clear writing is a sign of clear thinking. Great writers know how to communicate. They make things easier to understand. They can put themselves in someone else’s shoes.  They know what to omit. And those are qualities you want in any candidate.

Writing is making a comeback all over our society.  Look at how much people email and text-message now rather than talk on the phone.

The full value of this didn’t hit me until recently. Writing is so key in everything that we do.  Our two primary methods of communication internally are Skype IM and email.  We all are responsible for writing good documentation.  And while not everyone interacts with customers, those who don’t still often interact with people outside the company like distributors or suppliers. Whether or not writing is in their job description, great writing is critical to everyone getting along and everyone doing their job well.

Which is why we’ve been really investing in improving everyone’s writing skills.  We’ve not only been making sure that everyone is writing more frequently (documentation is a great example of that), but we’ve also made sure that we’re all editing more.  I’ve always found that editing others’ writing is the fastest way for me to improve my writing.  We even have two copies of Perfect Phrases for Customer Service that have been circulating around the office.

This dedication to becoming a team of writers naturally improves everything else that we do too.  Suddenly our newsletters become better.  Our site copy becomes clearer.  Our ad copy becomes more succinct.  Really, it’s hard to find an aspect of our business that can’t be improved with better writing.

6 comments on Crafting a Team of Great Writers

  1. Tim Coleman says:

    Very true, on all counts. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to communicate with someone via written correspondence and having them be incredibly long winded, poor at explaining what they are trying to explain or communicating in texting ebonics.

    I also find that I’m far more aware of editing than I am of my own writing, subconsciously I must make correction based on what I read and never even think about it. If I make a mistake in a communication and see it I instantly feel really dumb and wish I could make the correction, it just makes me more focused to not make mistakes… Perhaps more importantly it means I proof read most all messages before I send them.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Same here. There’s nothing worse than rereading an email and realizing I made a stupid grammatical mistake. It bothers me far more than it probably should! Aside from IM’s and the occasional quick email, I always try to give everything I write a good proofread.

  2. Rob says:

    One of the things I find surprising is the lack of consistency in responses I sometimes get from companies. It’s frustrating when departments disagree or when one person from customer support is clearly lacking in communication skills and it’s allowed to persist by the company. It’s also quite eye-opening the variation in responses, clarity and general politeness I get when contacting lots of companies with the same query (ie. looking for a supplier for particular hard to find product). Some I get very terse, rude replies, some I end up being forwarded a whole chain of internal communication that has gone on about my query, others are polite and direct, and others give very complete answers, including recommending alternatives or telling me they don’t have it but can get it.

    Do you ever check over employee customer support cases for QA?

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Really good question Rob. First off, that drives me nuts too. I never want that to happen when a customer contacts us. We’ve put a lot of work into crafting documentation and text expansions to try to help ensure that it doesn’t, but ultimately every question is a little different and relies on the person answering it to make some pretty important decisions.

      When we trained our one full-time customer service person, we emphasized (and still do) fully understanding what the customer is asking, putting yourself in their shoes, and starting/ending emails in a friendly, positive manner regardless of how the customer acts. If he doesn’t know the answer to a question, we want him to do research (search the user’s account history, search past emails, look through documentation) or ask one of us rather than take a guess. We’ve been really trying to drive those points home. I think one of the big challenges for anyone new to customer service is seeing how rude, illogical, and irrational customers can be…it’s such a small subset of people but when you’re at our volume there are still several people each day like that. It takes some time to learn how to handle those customers so that we at least have a chance of turning the situation around to a positive experience (my partner Greg always says there are some people who will always be nice, some who will always be mean, and then a large subset that can swing either way depending on how we treat them…those are the customers we need to win over 100% of the time).

      That said, we’re just now at the point where he’s managing portions of customer service without our involvement. For those functions (wholesale is a good example), we have regular reviews scheduled where an owner sits down with him and reads through all of the emails he’s written related to that function of the business since the last review. In addition to correcting mistakes, it’s a good opportunity to review our processes to see if they can be improved. But these are just starting out, so to answer your question: yes we’re doing QA but it’s too early to tell if the way we’re doing it is effective.

      • Rob says:

        Your QA process sounds good.

        I’ve long been a fan of correcting each problem twice. Once for the customer in front of you and once so it’ll never happen again. Obviously there are some things you can’t do this with (ie. customer is an idiot, courier damaged the package etc.) but for those issues where you can, it’ll slowly rid them from the system and result in a more streamlined process. To this end, do you have a way for your staff to make and rank suggestions for improvements & changes that would ultimately help reduce the customer service workload?

        • Adam McFarland says:

          That’s a good question. We make it a point to encourage them to suggest improvements, but generally we decide if and when they’re implemented depending on the urgency of the problem. I think as time goes on we’ll open it up to them and ask which improvements they want to see first. Our customer service guy just hasn’t been around long enough to have a feel for how important one improvement relative to another for the business as a whole.

          When it’s my choice though I like to always implement an employee’s suggestion ahead of one of ours if all other things are equal. I like to show them that we value their ideas, we’ll actually implement the good ones, and it will improve our business as whole. Creating a culture where employees feel enough ownership of their processes to suggest improvements is really important to us.

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