Online tools and Artificial Intelligence help customers solve their problems without human interaction. Does this mean that Contact Centre agents are doomed?
Not at all. But companies are recognizing that the contact centre agent needs to evolve, drop the scripts and approach the customer in a new way.
Here's how to do it.
Hail to the Super Agent!
It's plain logic.
Self-serve tools and AI are like a rising tide, quickly flooding the lower levels of the value stack a call centre agent used to provide: Changing address details, asking about the status of an order, balance inquiries - few agents do tasks like these any more.
Instead, companies are "turning towards interconnected and agile teams", as a very interesting (and readable!) Deloitte study says.
Leaders have to rethink organisational models that might have been useful in the past. For example, dividing customer service teams along product lines can result in too many customer handovers between agents, which is a leading cause of customer frustration. Instead, dividing teams along customer segment lines could reduce this type of friction.
At the same time, agents have to move up the value stack. Specifically, they need to:
- be versatile and serve different products or service groups, or, in the case of Business Process Outsourcing, even different clients.
- be able to switch modes from reactive to proactive. For example: An agent has to be able to deal with a complaint, understand where the customer is coming from, offer them alternatives, and actively sell them on the best one. This requires a degree of empathy and intellectual agility that didn't use to be in demand for customer service reps in the past.
- "own the problem" and not follow a script. This doesn't have to go as far as the customer service rep at shoe retailer Zappos who famously looked up a pizza delivery service for a customer at 2am. But owning the customer's problem and feeling the responsibility to help them is far more powerful than adhering to rigid processes.
All of this is easier said than done. What can a manager of a contact centre actually do to grow an army of Super Agents?
We've scoured the literature, spoke to a few experts and mixed in some of our own insight to come up with a list of measures that will lead the transition into the new world of customer service.
#1. Hire for ownership attitude
Skills are trainable, attitude (usually) isn't.
You know the difference between people who have an owner attitude vs employee attitude - right? Owners are intrinsically motivated and consider themselves to be Mini-CEOs of their area of influence that they want to make as good and productive as possible. People with an employee attitude simply do what they are being told, go home and collect a paycheck at the end of a month.
Even if you are formally an employee, you can own your domain:
- A cleaner owns his job in that it's his ambition to leave a room spotless. He is intrinsically motivated to look for ways to make his work more efficient to get more done in less time.
- An HR manager in a company owns her job by making sure that a new joiner is well taken care of. If she senses that something is off, she ponders it on her way home and realises during her next morning's gym session that the employee was unhappy with his desk location but was too shy to mention anything.
In the same way, a customer service agent either owns her domain and is committed to do as good a job as possible in it - or she just sits through the day, fielding calls until the clock strikes the hour when she can leave.
Telling signs of ownership mentality that you can look out for during job interviews are:
- Owners focus on output, not input. The result matters, not how many hours you put into it to get there. Ask interview questions like Which of your achievements are you most proud of? and Which job in your past was the most satisfying and why? If they mention how they were able to get things done and be useful, that's a big plus. If they talk about the fun colleagues and the cameraderie, that's a big minus. If they gush on how much they've learned, that's a small minus. It's input oriented and self-centreed.
- Owners also work on the job, not just in the job. Bosses aren't all-knowing, and often the individual contributor knows best if they are being effective or not. Owner types actively push for creating tools to be more impactful in their work and don't wait to be told what to do. Ask interview questions like Tell me about a time you questioned something your boss wanted and Tell me about an example how you made your work more productive on your own initiative. The quality of responses will be telling.
- Owners question how things work, beyond their immediate role. You want people who have ideas on how things could be made better across the team and the organisation1 - and, crucially, they implement those changes as far as they can. They default to action rather than asking for permission. Ask interview questions like In your last job, what did you do to be more effective? or What would you have done differently if you had had your boss' job? If they then offer various suggestions, ask the follow up What did you do to turn all these great ideas into reality?
However, let's be realistic. Owner types aren't exactly a dime a dozen.
You will not be able to staff your entire contact centre with people like that. Also, ownership / employee attitude is not a binary state of mind, but rather a sliding scale.
So while you should always be biased to hire people who tick a lot of ownership boxes, it's ok to also have normal people in the team, as long as they are flexible and willing to learn during their "punched-in time" .
Because as long as you have a critical mass of owner types on the team who act as role models for the others, many aspects of role ownership can be transferred through company culture.
We call these people culture ambassadors.
#2. Nurture your culture ambassadors
Culture is nothing but a set of habits. This is true on a macro (as in: the culture of a nation or ethnic group) as well as on a micro scale (within a company department).
As in any social scenario, power is not equally distributed in a contact centre. Some people exercise disproportionate amounts. In a hierarchical organisation, that's usually the leaders. But there are also those without formal power who have strong influence on how things are done. They are either very charismatic or very effective in what they do and compel others to gravitate towards them in a time of complexity or crisis.
The natural leaders. They exist in every organisation.
You need to support them so that they naturally become role models that others on the team emulate:
- Spend time with the team (ideally doing some of their work alongside them) to be able to get to know everyone better and observe their behaviour so that subsequently you can reward those who displayed ownership.
- Whenever you can, promote the culture ambassadors (those who exemplify the ownership behaviour you want to nurture) into positions of authority and leadership and make the reasons for their advancement very clear and rationally understandable.
- Create challenges that reward owner-like behaviour (and which, conveniently, the culture ambassadors are therefore likely to win). For example, create a "happiest customer" award where you reward those reps whose work has elicited proactive customer mentions on social media.
- In 1-1 conversations with them, recognise specific instances of owner behaviour. Make it clear that these are the right things to do, even if in some cases the outcomes might not have been immediately successful.
- Create a "culture commitee" and run regular meetings to identify possible problems and discuss culture initiatives. Read here how a London startup does it (search [CTRL+F / CMND+F] for Cultural Ambassadors Committee).
- Avoid the temptation of the shortcut: If you directly hold them up to others as examples to follow, you could create the "teacher's pet" effect. This could undermine their reputation and influence in the team.
Under no circumstance should you create the impression of being buddies with them. This means that often you will have to actively counteract this impression in cases when you DO have a good personal connection with them. For example, when you have team drinks, make an effort to mingle with the others, not with the culture ambassadors.
It's difficult to say with certainty what "critical mass" is in the context of culture ambassadors. 1 out of 50 is definitely too little, 20 out of 50 would be enough.
Brett Putter, a "culture geneticist" and consultant focused on company culture, underscores the need for written down values and building systems and processes to recognise those tho live these values. He mentions the example of Dutch company Guidion where employees vote on the employee of the month - the person who most lived the company values. An interesting quirk of the process: Every employee who has been voted for gets notified who nominated them - even if they end up not winning. And these votes are then also posted publicly. This motivates everyone to align their behaviour closer to the company values - particularly if you haven't received any votes.
#3. Actively gather and act on feedback
The days of “sit there and do your job” are clearly over. The more valuable the tasks that employees undertake, the more you need to listen to them, if only from a retention standpoint.
On the feedback collection side, the following simple measures have worked well for us and other companies we spoke to:
- Daily standups - similar to agile teams in software development, you hold a daily 15-20 minute catchup with the whole team to discuss yesterday's challenges and plans for today. Take notes, so that you can follow up on specific issues the next day. To keep the meeting short, you conduct it while physically standing up. This is mainly for information sharing on work-related challenges and best practices, not for airing grievances.
- Weekly 1-1s. This depends on team size. As soon as one person has more than 10 direct reports, weekly check-ins can be a bit onerous, in which case once every two weeks is acceptable. This format helps to address more confidential issues and performance problems.
- Anonymous pulse surveys where you can ask sensitive questions such as their overall job satisfaction and how likely they are to be working with you one year from now. You can use tools like 15Five, TeamBay or Peakon - these tools safeguard the respondents' anonymity.
- Half-yearly deep dive surveys where you ask for more detailed feedback on yourself and other leaders.
In the end, it doesn't matter all that much how you collect the intel. As long as there is a chance for employees to share feedback confidentially and regularly, you're half way there.
The other (and as important) half is to act on the feedback. This is an area that is really easy to let slide and do nothing about. It's also the perfect breeding ground for employee resentment and cynicism, if not acted upon.
Common sense and hard work win the day here. Simply...
- ...keep track of the issues mentioned. Instead of taking notes in a general purpose notebook it's better to have a dedicated MS Word or [better] Google Doc for each person to collect feedback during 1-1s. That way, you can prepare by scrolling through the past meetings' notes.
- ...show your areas of priority. Employees will understand that not all their complaints and suggestions will be taken care of. But if you show them that you considered all of them and that time permits you only to look at the top three, they will buy into this approach and support you with identifying the top three issues.
- ... encourage and reward initiative. Not everything has to be solved by you, the leader. If someone has a good idea that they can implement themselves for the benefit of the whole team - it's the perfect breeding ground for ownership experiments.
- ...give proactive status reports and tick off problems solved. Noone likes to be a nag. So when someone gives you feedback, they are doing you a favour. You return the favour by telling them about the status of individual issues without them having to chase you for it.
You are THEIR customer service. Their problems and challenges are tickets that you have to resolve. Like customers, they will be unhappy if they won't hear from you. Because you are their boss, they will not complain openly (like customers would), but they will resent it and, if such cases accumulate, leave.
#4. Help them work in and on their career
The #1 reason for people leaving a position in customer service is lack of career advancement (Deloitte study, p.20). Financial considerations are secondary.
Many companies are widening the spectrum of experiences for their agents as a defensive measure to keep them from leaving. "The trend towards the Super Agent is linked to companies wanting to retain their best people", says Dorothy O'Byrne, Managing Director of CCMA Ireland, a contact centre industry association.
In the Deloitte study, a contact centre executive describes their internal development efforts: "We need to help talent on two fronts. Help them plan their career and help them realise that they own their career."
Working on their career
Even if it sounds paternalistic, it's an experience we've had over and over: Many young people are just taking on a job, do well in it, but there is no real plan in what they are doing. Few have a concept of stepping stones towards a career goal.
This is perfectly understandable: Most education systems in the West emphasise merely professional skills and guide you towards static execution of a role in an organisation: You are a software engineer. You are a marketer. You do sales. What gets deemphasised is the notion of career progression. Where do you want to get to? What skills do you need to develop to get to the next level?
This doesn't mean that the only way is up and everyone needs to or should become a CEO. But as Cal Newport points out, one of the best ways to think about your career is to consider your ideal lifestyle and then work backwards. How do you want to live five years from now? And what are the skills and attributes you need to develop to get there?
There's two ways how you can contribute to your agents realising that they own their career.
A. Invite them to think about a fixed point in the future and how they want to live then. What contribution do they want make to the world? What lifestyle do they want to have?
B. Challenge them if their goal isn't big enough. This is very controversial. The dominant cultural narrative is "you know best what makes you happy" and suggesting that someone is not ambitious enough is a big taboo. But in our experience, a key ingredient in happiness is to develop and stretch yourself, to expand your comfort zone, realising that you had more in you than you previously thought. And, as Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert posits, we humans are rubbish at predicting what will make us happy anyway. So we might as well be challenged on what we imagine will serve us.
Working in their career
One of the executives surveyed in the Deloitte study says "international hires do not wish to be hired for language skills alone and they are keen to develop technical and industry specific skills".
So create a career plan for your agents:
- Rotate them through functional areas, across products and services, as well as across service levels (if the investment in their technical education is warranted).
- Give them minor project responsibilities and reward jobs well done with further responsibility and promotions.
- Build a good system for sharing knowledge (especially around handling difficult customer situations) within the team.
- Create objective criteria that serve as necessary (but not sufficient) guide posts towards advancement and promotion. ("In order to be promoted, you need to be able to execute A, B, C flawlessly").
In a contact centre, there's only so many leadership positions to go around - but even small things such as stretching someone shy to give a presentation during a team meeting is a good contribution towards their career development.
Having a well-thought-through skills development programme helps stem employee churn: Executives interviewed for the Deloitte study believe that "attrition related to reward in particular can be mitigated through robust career planning."
If you think this is difficult in the context of a contact centre, look no further than Zappos who created mini levels of advancement. Most companies promote employees after 18 or 24 months. This is a near eternity, given the usual contact centre employee churn rates of 20% per year. Zappos, instead, tied promotions to small, achievable qualification goals: Passing a MS Office test or reading a specific set of books on a given subject resulted in a mini-promotion and a small increase in salary. That way, Zappos improved their workforce and rewarded employees for improving themselves. (an aside: I'm not sure if this career plan is still in place after the company made its dubious move towards Holacracy.)
Conclusion: You're building a fortress
You're building a company and team culture that is unassailable from the outside. Your team performs like a well-oiled machine, team members have each other's backs, and your customers give the highest grades to the service they receive.
Company culture is a real and tangible competitive advantage. Culture eats strategy for breakfast, in the words of Peter Drucker.
Getting there is not easy and will take a long time. As comedian Eddie Cantor says "It takes 20 years to become an overnight success".
With the building blocks outlined above, we hope you'll have a good shot at excelling in contact centre team management.
And if you think we forgot an essential ingredient, let us know in the comment section or tweet at us: @benivohq.
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1 There is a fine line between a proactive owner type and an annoying know-it-all. The key distinguishing factor is: Before making suggestions beyond your immediate responsibility, do you have your own domain in order? People who want to improve things across the organisation while having glaring deficiencies in their own effectiveness are usually in the know-it-all category.