It’s Time To Make Call Center Agents Professionals

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If you want to generate reliable revenue in the call center, consider professionalizing the position of call center agent. The call center agent’s job is the latest in a long line of positions that started out as relatively menial work that became vital to the operation of an organization.

In law, paralegals and legal assistant positions grew out of secretarial work. In medicine, there is a whole raft of positions that grew out of relatively low-level or non-descript assistant jobs; that list includes many of today’s laboratory and technician positions, as well as nurse practitioner and physician’s assistants, and there are many other examples. And Willie Loman—who got by on "a shoeshine and a smile"—probably would not recognize today’s sales professional in technology or pharmaceuticals.
But why call center agents and why now?



The simple answer is that call center agents are today’s Willie Lomans and legal secretaries. There’s a demand for their expanded roles, and smart companies already see it.

New era
In their new book, Return on Customer: Creating Maximum Value From Your Scarcest Resource (Currency-Doubleday, July 2005), Don Peppers and Martha Rogers make it clear that we have entered a new era with a new set of definitions for business success. The old era died with the Internet bubble, and we have spent the last few years casting about for a new paradigm. Briefly, that paradigm acknowledges that, above all else, we are living in a time of organic growth, and market share will be gained the old fashioned way: by earning customer loyalty.

Front office software—CRM or whatever you want to call it—will be integral to making the new paradigm real, and the mechanism for enabling it will be the motivated and incentivized call center agent. But are companies ready to embrace this vision? The answer is, "It depends."

Earlier this year, Beagle Research conducted a survey of call center executives to learn what they thought about transitioning from a service-only to a mixed service and sales format. What we found was that most of these executives were at the beginning of a learning curve and that they had not given the idea a lot of thought. The highest scoring group (47 percent) said they believe the conversion is a simple matter of training agents to sell.

But few could agree on the character of selling that would be involved, and many conflated call center selling with the kind of selling that outside sales representatives perform. And while 65 percent of executives rated customer retention a 5 on a scale of 1 to 5 (five being highest), much lower percentages said that activities like upgrading a customer’s service agreement or enrolling customers in loyalty programs were important. Our data clearly showed that these executives are not clear on the objectives of organic growth or which selling functions are best suited to call center agents.



The right metrics
There was also a surprising lack of understanding of the importance of compensation in a call center sales environment. Most organizations that try to encourage selling in the call center said they provided some sort of incentive, but less than 20 percent paid those incentives in cash. Moreover, many organizations tabulated sales results, even though goals and expectations were never clearly stated to the agents.

In today’s call center, the metrics most in use are those that support efficiency. Call centers measure time in queue or satisfaction with a call, for example, but not any of the metrics—number of conversions or closes, percentage of agents who make quota or obtain revenue goal, number of revenue opportunities, number of attempts to close, number of saves, number of products per customer or collection dollars per hour—that might show an organization how to improve at generating revenue or keeping and growing customers.

Clearly there is a lot of work ahead for call center managers if they expect to capture some of the benefits of organic growth and convert from a service-only to a service and sales environment. While the data shows that many view the conversion as a training and management issue, it is really a matter of professionalizing the call center agent. Much of the focus on agent performance today focuses on catching someone doing something wrong and correcting the behavior. That approach might be necessary and may work well enough in a service center focused on containing costs. But in an environment that is focused at least as much on generating revenue, solutions like work force management and quality assurance may simply add overhead.

A more enlightened approach is to treat call center agents as the professionals we want them to be, providing clear goals, incentives and rewards as well as correction when it is needed. Replacing monitoring with motivation professionalizes the agent by making each one responsible for his or her own success and at least partially eliminating a layer of overhead. It is the same approach used for outside sales representatives.



One unmistakable bright spot in our research showed that executives in companies that have already been through a process of adding a sales dimension to the call center understand the importance of goal setting, compensation, coaching and other elements that might be considered fundamental to success. It was the executives who were in the middle of execution or in the planning phases who showed the lack of understanding described here. Apparently, the conversion process can be a real eye opener for those who get through it. No doubt the learning curve can be shortened by heeding the lessons that veterans can teach us.

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