The New Face of Customer Service Agents

Customer Service
Customer Service
Hot Topic Customer Service: When innovating customer service operations, don't forget about retraining agents.

Customer service is evolving at a rapid pace. What used to be considered a necessary cost center is now a strategic customer touchpoint. The focus on efficiency has shifted to customer satisfaction and effectiveness. An ever increasing number of new technologies are available to improve companies' ability to create actionable insight from customer service interactions, as well as integrate contact center operations with other parts of the business.

The impact on business as a result is a more effective and efficient contact center that is tied to the larger business. But what effect has all this change had on customer service agents? It's created a need for more change. In other words, as contact centers evolve, so must agents' skill sets.

According to the recent study Agent Performance Management, by Ventana Research, 11 percent of the 365 call centers surveyed are being innovative in their approach to agent performance through empowerment, incentives, and training; while 16 percent have begun to take strategic steps to improve process, performance, and technology around agents. However, 47 percent of those surveyed still consider the call center a tactical department, and haven't invested in agent performance. "While companies are collecting more advanced information about their operations, they aren't using it to improve how their agents are working," the report states.

Forward-thinking companies, however, do understand the importance of educating agents on how to make the most of new tools and technologies, hiring for the new skills required, and aligning compensation accordingly.

"Today we're looking for associates who can successfully deliver a positive customer experience by listening to customers, identifying key issues underlying the reason they called, and using a broad set of systems at their disposal to resolve the call," says Tommie Mobbs, Ph.D., director of talent management at business process outsourcer Teletech. "The attributes underlying success include softer, interpersonal skills, the ability to quickly learn new systems and processes, and applying those traits to exceed customer expectations."

The key metrics in the contact center have changed from a primary focus on average handle time and other efficiency measures to effectiveness and relationship-based measures like first-call resolution and customer satisfaction. Mobbs also says there has been a tremendous increase in demand to use the customer contact center, after the initial concern is resolved, as an opportunity to proactively identify other products or services from which the customer can benefit. "Associates in service roles are held more accountable for key revenue metrics in addition to the resolution and positive customer experience measures," he says.

As a result, Mobbs says, an ideal agent is a person with high levels of technical knowledge and the ability to multitask, while also using soft skills to move away from a script to a personalized, conversational interaction.

Other companies staff their call centers with experts who can provide that extra level of assistance customers may need. Online beauty products retailer e.l.f. employs two professional makeup artists who "cater to customer issues on the fly," says Joseph Shamah, CEO and cofounder. Customers can launch a live chat window, powered by BoldChat, on any of the site's beauty product pages to ask questions of the artists.

"When you're buying skincare online, there's a lot of added value to have a personal shopper advising you," Shamah says. "It helps customers make a decision by having a professional at their fingertips." The artists recommend products based on a shopper's skin tone, or suggest complementary products, for example. And while e.l.f. also has a separate customer service department for order inquiries, the makeup artists are trained to handle order questions, as well.

As the roles and responsibilities of the agents change, so must their compensation and incentives. The Ventana Research report states that companies should "put in place processes and systems that manage agents' time better, balance the way they are assessed using all available information, make more information available to them, and reward them more on business outcomes."

Teletech's Mobbs agrees. "As the position evolves to have increased responsibility for revenue generation, traditional fixed compensation becomes less appropriate," he says. "The optimal compensation for these evolving roles includes flexible pay systems that reward the identification, presentation, and execution of revenue-based action." Even if the agent isn't generating revenue, he adds, it's critical to "reward the behaviors you're after and ensure you have all the systems and support in place from a coaching perspective to make that associate successful."

The future customer service agent will understand the nuances of customer issues, then quickly learn from and leverage that knowledge, Mobbs says. It will be a role of "continual progression toward the relationship extreme."