The Changing Role of the Contact Center Agent

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An organization's contact center agents are often its customers' primary touch point. Yet somewhere along the line contact center agents became guardians of handle times and hold times, rather than of the relationship between customer and corporation. Those measurements are taking a back seat in modern, effective contact centers. Driven by everything from sophisticated tools to brutal cost pressures, the role of the contact center agent is changing, in large part to create more business value from a smaller, more highly skilled workforce. Do-not-call efforts, real-time analytics, and personalization tools are placing great pressure on contact centers to sell during any appropriate inbound contact. Fear of customer defection in these trying economic times also has increased the pressure to resolve, rather than deflect, customer issues. Many in the contact center industry fixate on the significant role labor plays in the cost of operating a call center--70 percent or more, according to some estimates. Technological advances allow companies to do more with their labor dollars than ever before. Virtual call center networks allow ad hoc teams to be created with at-home workers or multiple sites, even offshore locations. Web self-help and IVR not only offer more opportunities to resolve problems before they reach the contact center, but they provide invaluable sorting and routing assistance to the call center. Unfortunately, some remain too focused on squeezing the payroll to see the flaw in the numbers game. Some companies "are so obsessed with the amount of time it takes to serve the customer and shave five seconds off that they forget that it's not about the call, it's about the customer," says Lior Arussy, president of Strativity Group. "The [idea] is to upgrade the workforce to build value and loyalty through interaction, rather than just respond to calls." Old Metrics, New Customers The metrics may be traditional, but the contact profiles are not. Even leaving aside the nascent percentage of customer contacts that arrive via email and Web chat, the very nature of the "typical" call center inquiry changes the moment self-help enters the equation. As more mainstream customers adopt self-help and solve the simple problems solo, callers tend, on aggregate, to have more challenging issues, meaning that even entry-level support agents may not be able to resolve today's entry-level questions. Further complicating matters, some agents must also be prepared to act as tier 1 support for the Web site itself. But agents teaching customers to use online self-help is a time investment that can pay off manyfold, based on the proverb about teaching a man how to fish so he can eat for a lifetime. In short, the call for agents who can juggle several responsibilities is becoming louder. "It used to be that you could get away with an agent doing one process, one product, all the time," says Ken Cross, director of operations for call center operator Inktel Direct. "With price points dropping, legislation and other issues, and clients wanting more out of agents, agents may have to answer an inbound phone call and provide service while multitasking, doing a Web chat, and answering an email." Some CRM vendors have begun bandying around the term resolution management to describe the tools and processes their customers are asking for to smooth the road between customer problem and satisfactory solution. The key mindset shift for agents--and managers--in a resolution-management model is to use the tools and abilities at their disposal to optimize the result of the current call, rather than using them to speed to the next call. Mary Jo Lichtenberg, director of business process excellence for call center provider Telvista, says that her clients have come to realize the value of accurate resolution, and are building it into service metrics. "When we first started, first-call resolution was not even in our contracts. Now, it is probably the number one key performance indicator," she says. The Perfect Agent
The profile of 1994's model contact center agent is very different from the model agent of 2004. With more channels and more challenging inquiries coming to bear, and support tools that are both more informative and more complex, agents and management's expectations must evolve. "You're looking at a profile of people not just with basic product knowledge but with a background in handling and building relationships with individuals," Arussy says. By way of example he lauds a British branchless bank that hired not seasoned call center professionals, but nurses and social workers, to staff its telebanking lines. Some organizations today choose to hire on sales skills and teach the technical side, while others prefer to hire on problem-resolution skills and instill the sales techniques at a later date. The most important step is to make a choice and develop a plan that will give agents, new and veteran, the skills they need to handle more complex requirements. "We ask our representatives certain questions--How many tasks can you handle at one time? Do you get frustrated when you can't perform a task in a quick fashion?" says Inktel's Cross. Inktel starts all its agents in a "straight-sell" outbound calling environment, then promotes those who show a customer service aptitude for the multitasking world of inbound support and upselling. Even service-minded call center organizations have had to shift gears in recent times. "In the past we had a number of people who basically took orders, but those people are becoming more focused on inside sales, contacting customers to identify selling opportunities with them," says Candyce Anderson, business analyst for ADC, a telecommunications equipment manufacturer based in Eden Prairie, MN. The move was motivated as much by evolution as by need--with the global telecom market depressed, ADC went two years without adding call center personnel and reduced its staff through attrition. The company decided to make better use of the cream of its crop by putting those experienced agents to work on a broader range of business problems. "We know they have so much experience with our products that literally anyone can do level 1 support [in addition to sales tasks]," Anderson says. For those who cannot count on such long-term stability, training is key. Agents are hitting the floor better prepared than ever. "Training has gone from days or weeks to a month or month-and-a-half, up-front," says John Bartholomew, executive vice president of business development at call center-- provider Livebridge. Training time is also up 50 percent on average at Telvista. With turnover rates lower industry-wide due to the shaky economy, higher training expenses have been easier to justify. Pay for Performance All the posturing about call center responsibilities, and all the training to support them--will be meaningless without the proper inducements. "We've seen companies hire agents based on their ability to sell, and put fancy CRM behind those agents, but the real key is compensation and incentive," Reservoir Partners' Selland says. Pay agents to sell, and they will sell. Pay agents to solve problems, and they will solve problems. Pay them to keep queue times low, and they will--one way or another. Employees are more perceptive than many managers give them credit for being. Send one message in training and another in the review, promotion, and retention process, and they will discern the truth readily enough. If a change in contact center policy is designed to save costs, say so, rather than blowing smoke about how customers will be happier. The agents fielding the calls will know soon enough if customers are happier or not, and in the end it is the messages managers send about reward and advancement that will dictate their response. "The majority of companies are talking about [contact centers] as a profit center, but are paying agents to hang up on their customers," Selland says. "If they're paid to get off the phone as quickly as possible, that's how they're going to behave." Above all, if you want agents to resolve complex problems or upsell and cross-sell, stop handing out trophies to agents based on handle times. It says nothing about what you, or your customers, should expect from the contact center experience. "Your best agent will not be your most cost-effective agent," Selland says. "It will be an expensive agent, a well-trained person who understands your customers' problems and how your [product] solves them." Agents Who Sell/Agents Who Solve In the modern contact center first-call resolution and incremental revenue are taking center stage. Whether you believe your organization can train and retain the perfect agent for both tasks, or you choose to split the responsibilities between tightly trained teams, understanding the building blocks for each skill can make the difference between success and costly inefficiency. Agents Who Solve...
  • are given, and trained on, the tools they need to promptly diagnose customer problems across a wide range of products and possible points of failure;
  • are rewarded not simply for minimizing escalations, but for accurately addressing issues on the first contact;
  • feel genuine passion for the product and camaraderie with the customer, so they know they can solve problems the way they would want their own concerns addressed. Agents Who Sell...
  • are given tools to allow them to make cross-sell and upsell offers that will resonate with customers, rather than an obligatory, stale, do-you-want-fries-with-that pitch for the end of each call;
  • are measured and rewarded on their sales success;
  • have some selling experience--which is particularly valuable for scenarios in which agents may need to overcome objections. --J.C. Jason Compton is a freelance journalist who specializes in covering CRM.
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