• January 27, 2003
  • By David Myron, Editorial Director, CRM and Speech Technology magazines and SmartCustomerService.com

Fix the Agents Not the Technology

In the latest weekly GigaFLASH newsletter from Giga Information Group Inc., Elizabeth Herrel, a vice president at Giga, says companies ignore one of their strongest assets: contact center agents. In her latest memorandum, called Agents Are Contact Centers' Greatest Asset or Liability
, Herrel underscores the importance of acquiring and retaining quality agents. "Despite billions spent during the past five years on technology improvements, customers still complain of rude service and inadequate support. Companies spend two thirds of their contact center budgets on agents and supervisors -- but appear to backslide when it comes to improving performance," Herrel stated in her memo. Herrel adds that technology is only partially the answer. Organizations need to hire the right people, redefine agent requirements and skills, and build a supportive infrastructure to retain agents to deliver service levels that promote customer growth. Empowering people instead of just relying on technology to bring about positive change is a common theme of late. Using a fictitious scenario in his recent book The Experience! How to Wow Your Customers and Create a Passionate Workplace, (published by CMP Books) Lior Arussy shows how the lead character, Joe Jacobs, a call center manager, sets record breaking numbers in his call center by encouraging agents to focus on customer relationships instead of efficiency. In the fable, Jacobs shares a discovery with his supervisors at a morning meeting: "...efficiency and relationship building cannot coexist. You cannot have an efficient relationship. You either invest time in building a relationship or you let go of the relationship and become efficient. Can you imagine being efficient with your loved ones? I can't imagine being efficient with my wife. Our relationship grows through shared experiences, and time is key to this growth.... We're sending mixed messages to our agents and to our customers. Customers are told through our brochures and advertising that we seek a sincere and committed relationship, which takes time to develop, while our agents are being paid not to spend time with customers. This simply does not make sense!" In her report, Herrel provides a list of six tips on how to acquire and retain quality agents: 1) Hire quality agents at the beginning. 2) Develop a career plan that is reasonable and motivational. 3) Train agents throughout their career on a regular schedule. 4) Monitor agents' performance and provide feedback. 5) Develop coaching skills in supervisors or have an independent team coach. 6) Provide flexibility in the work schedule. "Today's contact centers are far more challenging than earlier call centers. Agents must be versatile in handling multiple communications channels and make more independent decisions while helping their customers. Multiple channel support calls for greater proficiency in email and Web service and often requires an agent to shift back and forth throughout the day," Herrel states. It will only get more complicated for agents to juggle tasks. "As companies are acquiring new applications to apply business intelligence and marketing analytics, agents will also be expected to propose sales offers that increase average sale per customer. This requires agents to develop product knowledge and strong communication skills," Herrel says. (Editor's note: At press time Herrel could not provide any statistics on the impact untrained agents have on the market or individual companies.)
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