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What Makes a Great Conversation?

I have been working in the Customer Service industry for the past five years and during that time, I have talked to many Customer Service leaders about the variety of metrics they measure: CSAT, AHT, abandonment rate and more. With all those numbers flying around, it can be hard to remember what customer service is really all about: having useful and effective conversations with customers. A good and effective conversation leads to a higher CSAT, quicker response time, loyalty to your brand and less effort from the customer. It is at the core of every customer service organization, yet customer service leaders do not spend much time evaluating and improving their conversations.

At we use AI to automate tier-1 customer service calls, and we create AI-powered virtual assistants for our customers. Because of that, we spend a lot of time studying the science of a great AI conversation, in addition to focusing on the dialogue and design principles of a profitable discussion. I wanted to share one of the frameworks we use to design effective and rewarding conversations so you can make sure that your customers are satisfied. 

So what makes a great conversation?

One of the most useful tools we’ve found to facilitate a good conversation is Grice’s maxims. Paul Grice, a British philosopher, came up with the following maxims for a successful conversation:

  1. The maxim of quantity, where one tries to be as informative as one can possibly be by giving as much information as is needed to solve the problem, while excluding extra information.
  2. The maxim of quality, where one tries to be honest by not providing information that is false or not supported by evidence.
  3. The maxim of relation, where one tries to be relevant by saying things that are pertinent to the discussion.
  4. The maxim of manner, when one tries to explain his/her thoughts in a clear, brief and orderly way, therefore avoiding obscurity and ambiguity.

Now, reflect on a great customer service call you’ve participated in. You can easily see how Grice’s maxims are relevant:

  1. The maxim of quantity: Provide the customer with all the information they need, without burdening them with superfluous details.  “Your purchase is still under warranty and we will replace it at no charge” is an example. On the other hand, you would not want to say, ” You wouldn’t believe what I had to do before I got my manager to agree to replace your item for free. I had to email him 10 times.” Both responses contain the same truth and information, but adding unnecessary information may hurt your business. 
  2. The maxim of quality: Honesty is key in customer service. There is no point in saying, “This has never happened before”, when people can google customer reviews or complaints and see that it has indeed happened. You may think the customer service conversation you have is contained in this call, but the caller is exposed to the experience of many others and can easily share the content of your conversation. Telling the truth requires less creativity, therefore creating a more consistent experience between agents. For example, saying that “Your shipment is delayed due to an error in label printing. We are sorry and will give you a $10 credit for your next shipment” vs. “Your shipment is delayed since you provided the wrong address.” Altering the truth to avoid angering the customer rarely works and often creates a negative outcome. 
  3. The maxim of relation: the more you understand the callers and their needs, the more you can frame the conversation to make it relevant and relatable. If your customers are detailed-oriented engineers (or event planners), you may want to provide detailed explanations. If you sell services to busy executives, you may want to keep the conversation short and to the point. In any case, do not share random information that is irrelevant to the conversation, unless it is well crafted and serves a purpose (e.g. building a relationship)
  4. The maxim of manner: Oh clarity! This is where conversations can go really wrong. You know things that your customers may not know so make sure you walk the customer through the explanation with a logical flow. Sharing your knowledge with customers makes the difference between a short and effective call or a long and confusing call. You also want to make sure that your call script and agent training correspond to the audience: Are you contacting PhDs? If so, devise a more sophisticated conversation. However, if your product caters to a very wide audience, you may want to aim for clarity by using the USA Today’s level of English. 

When constructs call flows for our “Thinking Machine” we take Grice’s maxims into account, making sure we understand the audience, the customer’s case, any problems that could have initiated the call and the best way to solve the problem while also making sure that customers get a consistent, honest and clear response every single time. The same best practices we use for crafting great AI conversations can be used to craft human to human conversations. After all, Paul Grice was born in 1913 and probably didn’t envision that his principles would be used a century later for AI virtual agent conversations. If you incorporate the Grice’s maxims in every conversation, you will discover that the metrics you are so worried about with your call center, take care of themself.

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