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Writing it Right at Freightliner
Photos and Story by James Hill
by Chris Moore
It’s 3 a.m. on a Saturday. In a lighted corner of Freightliner Corp.’s Swan Island headquarters, the phone rings. A long-haul trucker, broken down on the interstate somewhere in Eastern Montana, needs help, fast.
Customer service representative Duane Carlsen probes for details: “What’s the nature of the problem? Where, exactly, are you located? How can we help you get back on the road?” As the trucker talks, Carlsen enters information into his computer. In minutes, he has a service unit on its way with the parts and tools needed to get the truck rolling again.
At Freightliner’s Customer Assistance Center (CAC) in Portland, employees like Duane Carlsen take thousands of calls each month. In addition to helping with breakdowns, they check on parts orders, research warranty coverage, and field all kinds of questions and concerns. To make sure customers get the best possible service, they carefully document every call.
“It’s important to write up conversations as clearly as possible,” says Customer Assistance Center Trainer Stephanie Smith. “Each situation needs to be explained so the next person who deals with it will understand what’s happened.”
But Freightliner’s customer service representatives are trained in truck mechanics and customer service, not spelling and grammar. To improve the clarity and accuracy of their writing, the company turned to Portland Community College.
“I called PCC and asked about a business writing class,” Smith says. “I thought maybe they could set up something that would work with our employees’ schedules.”
The request found its way to Paul Wild, manager of training and development in the Customized Workforce Training program. Instead of proposing an evening or weekend class, he suggested a class be taught online, using the e-mail system already in place at Freightliner.
“These people need to be there and available to customers,” Wild says. “We wanted to provide them with practical training that would benefit them but not disrupt their work.”
After some initial planning meetings and focus groups, the class began with an introductory, three-hour classroom session. Then participants were asked to send four writing examples each week to instructor Janet Hinrichs. The examples were actual email messages they had already written, so no extra work was required.
Hinrichs went over each example carefully, checking for sentence structure, spelling, grammar and overall clarity. Her suggestions, sent back by email, were often longer than the original message and included explanations on the importance of tact in business communication. Each student was asked to edit one of the messages each week.
“E-mail is a painless way of getting information, and the students had very little outside work to do,” she says. “They practiced their new skills every day and were able to make some dramatic improvements.”
The class began in April 1999 and has continued throughout the summer. Students move at their own pace and the teaching is focused on individual skills and needs. The decision to “graduate” is made jointly by student, teacher and supervisor. Nearly all of the 18 students in the class have successfully completed it, and most are pleased with the results.
“I found the class really helpful,” says Robert Cardoza, a Freightliner customer service representative. “It really raised my awareness. We make these entries all day long. After I started the class, I found myself thinking of how I should write something right at the time I was doing it.”
Smith, who took the class herself, is pleased with the improved quality of writing in her department. “We all want to do things right, but sometimes we just don’t know how,” she says. “This class helped us learn.”