Teaching Analytical Reading
Illustration by Erik Blad

In Ask Help Scout, long-time customer service professional Mat “Patto” Patterson answers readers' most challenging customer support delivery, leadership, and career questions.

Dear Patto,

I recently read your Time to Resolution article and one point really stood out to me. You said if a team is having lots of back-and-forth conversations, they should improve their analytical reading skills.

I’d love to do that! I’ve tried coaching my team to read more analytically but without much success so far. Can you provide any more detailed help on how I can help them develop that skill?



Dear Davida,

Reading between the lines, I think you are frustrated! In customer service, anything that can reduce frustration for both customers and customer service staff is a big win, so targeting back-and-forth conversations is smart.

Of course, it’s vastly easier for me to say “improve their analytical reading skills” in an article than it is to actually make that happen. But I think I can help.

My first question: Is your team not able to read analytically, or do they have the skills but — for whatever reason — are not consistently using them?

To find out, I suggest you all run through a practice exercise. Take one or two real customer conversations and break them down together, having each team member identify what questions the customer is asking, what they really need help with, and how they are feeling.

It’s the process described in Leslie O’Flahavan’s article (and in the recorded video it includes). If you find that everyone on your team can do a good job of analytically reading during the exercise, then you might have less of a skill problem and more of an environmental problem.

By that I mean their usual queue work environment is making analytical reading happen less often. That might be because they feel too rushed or that they aren’t being rewarded for spending the extra effort to resolve things in one email compared to quickly closing three more conversations.

If that’s the case, then you need to work on that environment, looking for ways to incentivize the preferred behavior. It could be changing your metrics, promoting analytical readers, or even just reporting on replies-to-resolution numbers.

On the other hand, you might identify some people who really don’t have strong enough analytical reading skills yet. Those people really will need some more training.

Here’s one training exercise you could use. Pick some well-written answers (ones that demonstrate the analytical reading skills you want), and share just the answers with the team.

Have them try to recreate what they think the question was, only using the answer. A well-written answer should make the initial question pretty clear, and in comparing the original question to the reverse-engineered version, you will have lots of interesting talking points for training.

You might also introduce some peer-to-peer quality assurance practices — having people see how their peers are answering questions compared to their own work can be educational. Be sure to start with a shared understanding of what quality looks like so you can have a non-confrontational comparison.

Finally, if you have the budget, you could have Leslie or another skilled trainer set up a half-day training event, custom made to help develop those skills.

I hope to hear soon that your team is deep-reading every conversation!

Have a question for Patto?

Have a question for Patto?
Like what you see? Share with a friend.