The Contact Center Agent Hiring Gap
Before the pandemic, contact center leaders often found it challenging to hire people with the skills to become outstanding agents. There were enough candidates, as this is seemingly a suitable position for recent college graduates and people returning to the workforce. Unfortunately, however, not enough of these people have the background, experience, or nature to position them to be model contact center agents. This quickly becomes apparent once newly trained agents begin handling inquiries, as is reflected by the high early attrition rates. The difficultly in hiring agents worsened during the pandemic because many companies didn’t have the policies and procedures in place to know how to hire remote employees. And the situation is becoming worse now that many contact centers are asking their agents to return to the office, eliminating a pandemic-induced perk.
What Makes a Great Contact Center Agent?
The obvious question is “What makes an ideal contact center agent?” Some of the characteristics of an ideal agent include empathy, being very bright and quick at learning new things, competence and being comfortable using technology, outstanding communication skills, the ability to retain and recall a great deal of information in a short amount of time, effectiveness in managing customer interactions (in voice and digital channels), responsiveness to customer nuances, being unflappable, excellence in and enjoyment of multitasking, ability to sit for long periods of time without a break, and being highly flexible and easygoing about changes to their schedule without advance notice. In addition, these unique individuals must be willing to work for little more than minimum wage, remain in their position for at least two years with only small salary increases and promotions, and perform manual mundane tasks. Lastly, contact centers often have outdated systems and applications, making the agent’s job much harder than it needs to be.
The functional and technical requirements and job descriptions for agents generally align properly to the role companies are asking these individuals to perform. What is not fair or appropriate are the low wages paid to agents or the inflexible scheduling demands placed on them. Think about it this way—most everyone else who works in a company, from the CEO to the janitor, can change their lunch time or take a break when needed, but this is not the case for contact center agents.
The Agent Perception Issue
There are multiple factors and steps to consider when looking into how to fix the agent hiring gap problem. The first step is for companies to acknowledge the issue, and many companies have. Enterprise, contact center, and human resource executives have known for years that agent attrition rates are substantially higher than for almost any other function in their company. Many of these leaders believe that they need to keep the salary for agents low, and agent “occupancy” rates (the amount of time agents are performing their primary job function of helping customers) very high, because customer service departments and contact centers are people-intensive and are often considered cost centers. The second step is for executives to alter how they view the contributions of customer service and contact center employees. This means that contact center agents need to become influencers who drive customer satisfaction, retention, and company differentiation and enhance the brand. For this to become a reality, companies need to upgrade the agent function, which will require investments in new systems, processes, and training. These enhancements need to happen anyway, as part of the digital transformation.
Addressing the Contact Center Agent Gap Is Necessary but Not Easy
While there are actions companies can take to improve agent perception and hiring challenges, there is no easy way to address these issues, as there are many interdependencies. However, since many companies in the post-pandemic business world are struggling to scale their service and contact center organizations quickly enough to keep up with their current business requirements, and there are new technologies that can automate many of the manual tasks currently performed by agents, it’s an appropriate time to re-imagine this role.
Companies that want to thrive in the future need to get creative with their service and contact centers to position them to scale while improving the customer experience and the customer journey. Below are a few of the high-level phases that will enable companies to revamp and transform their service experience, enhance the perception of their brand and upgrade the role of an agent:
- Evaluate your contact centers to identify the changes necessary to enhance the service experience in a digitally transformed business environment; companies need to assess their people, processes and technology.
- Coordinate with your company’s robotic process automation (RPA) Center of Excellence (COE) to identify tools to automate tasks that are better handled by software robots or workflow. (If you do not have a COE for RPA, do the research on your own.)
- Work with your company’s artificial intelligence (AI) COE to tie into initiatives and technology already being rolled out within your company. (If you do not have a COE for AI, do the research on your own.)
- Build a company-wide self-service strategy (not just your contact center or website), and include all touchpoints.
- Rethink your workforce management (WFM) strategy and move away from the restrictive employee policies of the past; find a new-gen WFM solution that positions your company to be viewed as a forward-thinking and flexible employer of choice.
- Convene a new HR steering committee that broadens the responsibility of managing resources by involving leaders from all major departments, including the contact center
- Speed up adoption of cloud-based solutions that position your company to more rapidly realize the benefits of new-generation systems and applications that enable customer service and contact center agents to vastly upgrade their performance and contributions to your company.
These initiatives will position companies to transform their service and contact center departments into essential corporate contributors.
It’s easy to make the argument that companies should be socially responsible and pay all employees, including their contact center agents and customer service representatives, a living wage, but it’s only part of the story. Contact center agents and customer service representatives interact with customers frequently and are positioned to influence customers and prospects. When armed with intelligent systems and applications, these individuals can generate revenue and enhance the brand during every interaction. Now that it’s becoming too difficult and expensive to continue to operate as they have for decades, it’s time for companies to fill the agent hiring gap by making investments to transform their service and contact center departments.
Donna Fluss, president of DMG Consulting, is highly regarded as one of the foremost experts on contact centers and the back office and specializes in digital transformation, artificial intelligence, and automation. With 30 years of experience helping organizations build highly effective operating environments and assisting vendors in delivering competitive solutions, Fluss created DMG Consulting to deliver unparalleled and unbiased research, analysis, and consulting services. Fluss is a renowned speaker, author, and source for industry and business publications. She can be reached at Donna.Fluss@dmgconsult.com.