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A human tone of Voice

Sam Smith

Head of Audience Services

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Last year the team at the BBC that deals with all feedback from audience members, appropriately called Audience Services, embarked on a project to test out different ways of responding to audience questions. One year on, head of the department Sam Smith reports back on the experience and shares some of her findings.

In a keynote speech late last year Tony Hall, Director General, outlined his vision of the BBC’s relationship with its audience. He said that he wanted a “closer, warmer relationship with our audiences…” one where “people would think – not ‘the BBC’, but ‘my BBC, our BBC”. For an organisation that reaches 96% of the population each week, this can sometimes seem like a challenge. We asked ourselves, was there a way of developing the style of our responses to people’s questions in a way that developed this “closer” relationship? My team and I decided to find out.

The question sounded simple enough: could we try and adopt a more personalised approach in our communications? Easy enough surely, until you realise that the BBC receives an incredible 180,000 enquiries every single year, ranging from “who was that person on BBC Breakfast this morning?” to “what are the lyrics to that Morecambe and Wise song?”.

So, in order to deliver a more human touch in a way that wouldn’t lead to a backlog of letters as tall as New Broadcasting House, we began with a trial. Two agents on our ‘call floor’ were freed from their usual guidelines and encouraged to respond ‘with a more personal touch’, allow their personalities to shine through, and have a bit of fun doing it. 

As an example, Paul, one of the agents, answered a lady who wanted a “Trinny and Susannah” style makeover from the BBC with a long discussion about how his wife always swore by the “little black dress” when she wasn’t sure what to wear. The lady was grateful for the exchange and gave Paul 10 out of 10, declaring “nothing can be improved, excellent response, thank you”.

Audrie specialises in tailored sign offs – when she received a question about Morecambe and Wise, she not only gave a full and detailed answer, but signed it off with “I hope this answer brings you sunshine”. The lady who’d enquired was delighted “A personal acknowledgement and shout out must go to Audrie, who was extremely helpful (and possibly another Morecambe and Wise fan!)”.

Now this was just an experiment, but the results surprised everyone. Customer satisfaction scores rose in a matter of weeks. Something was working. But, as the old saying goes, numbers only tell half the story. The true success of the trial can be seen in the messages that were sent back to the team once an enquiry had been answered, from some very happy people indeed.

“The response to my enquiry was timely, accurate and humorous. I loved it and I'd like the person who replied to know that!” said one. “Absolutely brilliant reply which gave the link to the site but also a typed copy of the recipe. Well done and thank you so much. “Excellent” said another.

This new approach has been fully rolled out to all enquiries. The feedback from audience members is still amazing, with so many of them thanking us for the human way in which they were spoken to and more than half of them giving their experience ten out of ten.

The experience has been hugely positive. We know the BBC belongs to our audiences. It feels right that when people take the time to ask us something, they should get a response that reflects the effort they’ve taken. From what we’ve seen so far, audiences love this new approach. Whilst this work only applies to enquiries sent into the BBC, we are currently looking at how to roll it out more widely and apply the lessons to other areas in which the BBC speaks directly to its audience.

Sam Smith is Head of Audience Services


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