When customers pick up a telephone to reach a real person for help, their inquiry often isn’t the garden variety, open-and-shut case. As a result, customer contact centers are under pressure to orient their agents—and their entire platforms—to be more modern and agile.
We dug into research from top consulting firms, business leaders and think tanks to uncover the five trends we believe will help bring about this (overdue) evolution:
#1 – Build meaningful collaboration into the way agents work and solve problems.
You can’t script for the relatively complex questions that agents often answer. Instead, call centers need to empower agents through more nimble, distributed, self-paced learning tools.
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Agents should also be enabled to collaborate with colleagues for skill building and to answer questions as needed. Call centers where agents were not only are allowed to get help, but meaningfully supported to collaborate in a “network judgment environment”, performed 50 percent better than the average call center, according to a study published this year in Harvard Business Review.
A network judgment environment is one in which reps rely more on advice and guidance from colleagues to inform their decisions. This approach reduces the risk of agent error by 25 percent, compared with average call centers, the study reported.
However, only 12 percent of agents surveyed reported working in a network judgment environment. Fifty-two percent of agents reported working in an “adherence” climate in which agents strictly follow policies and 35 percent work in an “individual judgment” climate, where the policy is to rely on your own judgment.
#2 – Mine a workforce with a propensity for high job satisfaction.
Call centers have long held a static approach to their workforce, sourcing from a pool of willing workers within their geographic area. Considering that the agent must pay to commute, sometimes pay to park, conform to the call center’s available schedule, conform to call center policies, and accept a relatively low wage, that pool is often very limited.
This approach to sourcing talent has never worked well when you consider turnover: an average annual turnover rate for a customer service representative is 29 percent and the average lifespan for a call center worker is approximately 3.3 years.
The industry has an opportunity to stop this attrition—and save on costs associated with constantly sourcing and training new workers—by making the job more appealing.
Call centers offering access to virtual agents have solved may of these issues, from cutting out commute time to offering radically flexible schedules and self-directed management of their independent businesses rather than heavy-handed employee supervision.
Virtual agents are more likely to feel engaged with their jobs and stay longer. Freelancers often report significantly higher work satisfaction than employed people. Specifically, 85 percent of freelancers vs. 68 percent of non-freelancers describe themselves as “engaged,” according to a study by Upwork, a platform for connecting employers with freelancers globally.
#3 – Get the advantages of highly skilled workers who also understand the culture of their audience.
In recent years, according to Everest Group, the percentage of contact center contracts with significant onshore delivery climbed to 53 percent, up from 49 percent in 2013 and just over a third—35 percent—in 2010.
We expect this trend to continue, as the need for digitally and culturally savvy agents is only going to increase. This lessens the proposition for low-cost overseas labor, notes JLL, a real estate company specializing in the call center sector. Keeping technology infrastructure in the U.S. can also be more cost-efficient.
#4 – Embrace a customer centric-culture.
By capitalizing on the three previous trends, companies will be well on their way to establishing excellent customer service. Prepare your agents to deliver service excellence with dynamic learning tools. “Unfortunately, too many companies are underinvesting in frontline service talent. They still hire, onboard, develop and manage their service reps in much the same way they always have,” according to the article “Kick-Ass Customer Service” published in the January-February issue of Harvard Business Review.
In traditional call centers, that often means classroom-based learning that progresses at the pace of the slowest learner. Scaling for remote workforces, individual learning speed and individual learning styles aren’t factored into training delivery.
#5 – Prepare to manage cost in context with call flow and flexibility.
Perhaps the most worrying trend for customer service executives is the soaring cost of personal customer service. “The average cost of a live service contact jumped from $7 in 2009 to nearly $10 five years later,” according to the Harvard Business Review article cited above.
Call center workforce planners must strike a delicate balance in staffing—by overstaffing, they waste money by paying employees for idle time. But by understaffing, they create angry customers who are willing to abandon the brand if forced to wait on hold for too long.
The solution for this is a pay-for-use model based on on-demand agents who work only when there is customer demand. Unlike traditional call centers with limited flexibility in staffing and scheduling hours, the virtual agent model enables massive flexibility, whether for seasonal or time of day customer service call spikes.
The buzzword of the day for call centers might change, but the underlying business drivers will not—flexibility, agent quality and cost are still the three most essential ingredients to weather any call center trend.