• March 27, 2017
  • By Denis Pombriant, founder and managing principal, Beagle Research Group

Meet the New Ideal Customer Service Rep

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We're used to debating the finer points of the extended call center because we have so many good new options, like omnichannel, machine learning, and analytics, and they are wonderful. But one area on which we haven’t spent nearly the same amount of time or brainpower has been how we staff. Sure, we have hiring tools that make the process better, faster, and cheaper, but it can also lead right to a GIGO moment—garbage in, garbage out—unless we also take a better look at who we’re hiring.

In “Kick Ass Customer Service,” a recent article in Harvard Business Review (https://hbr.org/2017/01/kick-ass-customer-service), Matthew Dixon and his associates from CEB, a consulting group, reveal the results of a study of 1,440 service reps from across the globe and across industries. The results are thought-provoking, to say the least.

From experience we all know that answering the easy customer service questions has been offloaded to a significant degree to automated systems. The authors say that “fully 81 percent of all customers attempt to take care of matters themselves before reaching out to a live representative,” and their success rate with automation is high enough that the problems left tend to be of the hairball variety. That’s when customers call in.

According to the report, call centers are staffed by seven types of agents in different proportions.

Empathizers, at 32 percent, make up the bulk of the population. An empathizer, say the authors, “enjoys solving others’ problems; seeks to understand behaviors and motives; listens sympathetically.” That’s exactly what you might expect to find in agents who were brought on board before automation took such a dominant role, but the study ranks this type of agent No. 4 in effectiveness today.

The most effective agent type today, again according to the study, is labeled “the controller,” which the study describes this way: “outspoken and opinionated; likes demonstrating expertise and directing the customer interaction.”

The study also suggests that when someone finally gives up on a hairball problem and actually calls in, they’ve been wading through a lot of seemingly conflicting information, and they are exhausted by the experience. They want answers and someone who will take over and give them what they want. It’s a situation tailor-made for controllers.

Unfortunately, controllers make up only 15 percent of today’s agent population. They aren’t high on managers’ hiring radars because they like their independence. They like and even crave the ability to go off script to get things done, which is not a good match for conventional call center thinking. But maybe it should be.

All this suggests to me that we might need to upgrade our thinking about what constitutes success in a call center and, obviously, how to staff one. But there’s also a deeper reason for a rethink. We’re headed into an era where independent thinking and leveraging machine intelligence are becoming keys to success throughout businesses. The call center might only be the tip of the spear. Think about it: Aren’t the qualities of a controller the same ones we prize in salespeople?

A good sales rep knows how to take charge of a situation and solve a customer’s problem, usually using his product. Finding good sales reps is at least as challenging as hiring competent CSRs. Attrition in both realms is high, with CSR turnover reaching 24 percent today, according to the Harvard Business Review article. Given this, it could be worthwhile for businesses to offer more of a growth path into sales for skilled controllers. Some controllers will likely be wrong for the promotion, but others could take to it like the proverbial ducks to water. We know for sure this part of the talent pool has been overlooked for a long time, and now might be the perfect time to recalibrate how we use it, and possibly turn things around.

The article also has some pointers on how to adjust to the needs of controllers as well as staffing ideas. It is well worth a read.

Denis Pombriant is founder and managing principal of Beagle Research Group and the Bullpen Group. He is a widely published CRM analyst in the United States and Europe, and his latest research spans all areas of social CRM, cloud, and mobile computing. His latest book, Solve for the Customer, is available at Amazon.com.

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