• July 1, 2016
  • By Ian Jacobs, vice president and research director, Forrester Research

Why Increased Self-Service Can Be Good for Agents

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We're all starting to rely more on non-agent-assisted channels when we have a product or service problem. Forrester data increasingly shows this, and anecdotal conversations with our clients support it. We use Web self-service, and we use voice self-service; we use virtual agents, and we use peer-to-peer support in customer communities. To be fair, we continue to be more satisfied with the experience of speaking to contact center agents than we are with self-service, yet we continue to move toward agentless interactions. We see them as more convenient and involving less social friction.

What’s quirky about this trend is that it has a completely counterintuitive effect: Our increasing preference for self-service means brands need to invest more—not less—in their agents. That’s right—the more customers don’t want to talk to you, the more you need to focus on the moments when they do talk to you. The reasons for this are twofold.

First, agents today deal with more complex issues. The non-agent interactions that customers have tend to center on the simpler things. How do I change my password? Where is the nearest store location? How do I arrange a return? This means that the simpler problems are taken out of the customer service funnel at the top; all that’s left for your agents are the tougher issues and edge cases that self-service cannot handle.

Second, agents today start most interactions three steps behind. Because a customer tried to self-serve and failed, he is already frustrated when the agent arrives on the scene. The poor agent has done nothing but say “hello” and is immediately greeted with exasperation. And then that agent needs to solve a complex problem for an increasingly irritated customer. Doesn’t seem fair, does it?

All of this leads back to the idea that you need to invest more in your agents; you may even need to rethink your ideas about who and how to recruit, hire, and train. Here are two approaches:

• Pay agents more. This radical idea seems to have little traction, but try raising the base pay of your agents by $3 per hour and see the impact it has on customer experience metrics. The higher pay will allow you to expand the pool from which you draw your customer service staff. It also allows you to be more discerning in selecting the ones who will handle the more intricate service requests with aplomb.

• Focus on the tools you provide agents with. In a Forrester survey of global information workers who work in customer service, we found that those who were happier with the technology on hand were more likely to be happy in their job. Additionally, they were more likely to recommend their company as a good employer. That latter piece of data is critical. People tend to be friends with people like themselves—they come from similar socioeconomic backgrounds and have similar levels of education. When your best agents are happy with the tools you give them, they’ll act as a promoter for your company as a great place to work. The people they know are likely the type of people you want in your contact centers because they are similar to those high-performing agents. In fact, think of this as a way to clone your best performers.

So what types of technologies make agents happy? Tools that empower them to do the tasks at hand and don’t make them feel like they are constantly fighting the system. To deal with complex support, process-guidance tools can lead agents through the service process step-by-step. Process simplification aims to break complex processes down into discrete steps, and provides help for agents at each step, especially important for infrequently accessed processes. Predictive tools understand real-time text or real-time speech and interject recommendations based on this real-time dialogue. Finally, because contact center agents tend to be younger than typical enterprise employees, providing a consumer feel to technology becomes even more critical to making the agents successful. And successful, happy agents will lead to happier customers.

Ian Jacobs is a senior analyst at Forrester Research. He can be reached at ijacobs@forrester.com.

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