What makes a good conversation?


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The Challenge

Conversations can often be incredibly high stakes. Imagine, for instance, your last job interview. You are invited to meet with high level executives and arrive fully prepared with knowledge about the company, their business challenges, and competitors. You know you gave relevant factual answers, but there is still something that felt off about the flow of the conversation and the ability to connect with the interviewer. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what happened, but you don’t get the job.

We’ve all felt that sense of discomfort when a conversation is going poorly and there is pressure to figure out how to save the conversation. That missing factor – the seemingly intangible sense of rapport and ease – is often influenced by the nonverbal elements of the conversation. In fact, over 80% of dialogue is actually communicated via nonverbal impressions. Not noticing or responding to these cues cost you the job. In professions that rely on communicating, such as within the contact center world, the inability to effectively communicate could cost you the career itself.

Research has shown that, as humans, we can form a first impression after hearing just one word in a conversation. That one word can carry lots of information: the tone, volume, and pitch begin to shape our impressions. These impressions deepen as we hear the pace of another’s speech and the pauses between words. The skill of being able to notice and interpret another person’s nonverbal behaviors influences how we are perceived and how we judge and predict others’ emotions, personality, status, and intentions from nonverbal cues. The back-and-forth of conversation is also where we make perceptions of competence and establish power dynamics.

The Solution

Imagine the interview again: While you are giving your factual relevant answers you have a coach whispering in your ear. The coach guides you, almost without your noticing, on how to speak and clues you in on nonverbal cues the interviewer might be giving. The feeling of the conversation becomes much smoother, even though the words may remain the same. At the contact center, this same coach giving real time feedback would be even more valuable – a silent guide, directing agents with feedback when engaging a customer. Agents are able to adapt their nonverbal behaviors to increase empathy, to improve outcomes, and to guide a more fulfilling conversation.

Recommendations for Fostering Great Conversation

At Cogito, we’ve spent years listening to hundreds of front line contact center representatives, and analyzing millions of calls. Across all, we’ve uncovered that more attention to nonverbal behavior can improve conversations and ultimately increase key customer satisfaction metrics. Agents in a call center are consistently reminded: project confidence! Infuse warmth! Bring energy! Tempers can run short, stress seethes, and tension mounts before the conversation has even begun. So, how can agents, whose work relies on conversations, ensure a good experience when as human beings, we are likely to trip along the way?

Well, imagine if you could have a coach, that could guide you on the specific behaviors to pay attention to – in every conversation, under any context or situation? Behavioral notifications can help agents avoid the pitfalls of poor conversational dynamics. Customers who perceive positive energy from the contact center representative, who also resolved their issues, are more likely to provide positive feedback, as much as an increase of 5-11% in tNPS (Transactional Net Promoter score).

Live feedback in the form of behavioral notifications help remind agents the following:

Slow to Respond & Speaking Slowly: First, respond to a customer in a timely manner. When agents speak too slowly or take a longer-than-expected pause to respond, the customer may perceive that the agent is ignoring them or their issue. The customer may be exhibiting negative cues during this pause (such as sighing) that the agent may miss it because they are too focused on looking up information or thinking about how best to respond. Considering the person on the other end of the line demonstrates attentiveness which leaves customers with a positive perceptions of professionalism, confidence, and empathy.

Energy: Going beyond pace to tone – consider how much energy you project onto the call. It can be difficult to isolate when energy is there, but it’s pretty easy to spot when it’s absent. Have you ever thought about a time when you were talking on the phone with someone who seemed distracted or subdued? Speaking with more enthusiasm conveys an aura of friendliness to a customer who seeks individualized attention.

Continuous Speaking: Customers who provide positive feedback about their experiences often cite feeling “understood”. Agents who pause between long explanatory statements and invite customer feedback are creating an opportunity for dialogue. Agents who barrel through the statements and speak continuously can leave the customer with the impression that their needs are being ignored.

Extended Overlap: Ever watched a “Saturday Night Live” monologue? Ever notice how the celebrity guest star is often interrupted by members of the audience or music from the band? These interruptions are actually helpful to the audience. As human beings, we haven’t evolved to communicate by listening in silence. Instead, we pause, we give feedback, and we engage with our listeners. These behaviors help us feel understood, heard, and ultimately, leave a positive impression on the overall relationship. These types of audio responses are called back-channeling. Back channeling is an excellent way to build rapport. Back-channeling is typically one of the strongest behavioral indicators of conversational rapport between two individuals.

Using artificial intelligence, new technology can help agents modify their behaviors – speeding up when necessary, filling moments of silence, and projecting more energy. The result is conversations that are well paced, delivering messages to the customers from a confident, thoughtful, and active listener. Imagine that interview again, and this time focus not just on what is said, but how you say it. Lean in when listening, smile when responding, and pause between stories. Just a bit more non-verbal encouragement will generate the perception of a trustworthy, credible, and likeable candidate.

Steve Kraus
Steve brings over twenty years of experience in marketing, selling, and delivering customer engagement solutions to the world's most customer-centric organizations. Prior to joining Cogito, Steve led product marketing for Pegasystems, growing the CRM suite from a niche player into a recognized leader for marketing, sales, and service applications.


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