Getting the Most from Your Service Agent Strategy

Customer Service
Customer Service
Customers want to interact with brands over various touchpoints. In response, organizations must decide whether to employ channel-specific agents or train their workforce to serve different channels.

Today's customers are using multiple channels for their service needs. As Forrester analyst Kate Leggett notes in this blog post, consumers' preferences for customer service channels are rapidly changing; they're requesting more communication channels to address their service needs.

While voice is still the most widely used communication for service-according to a recent Forrester report, it is used by 73 percent of customers-today's omnichannel customers are also using channels like chat and social media for their service needs.

This trend means that organizations need to identify customers' preferred channels and customer service agents need to be able to communicate with customers over these channels, at critical moments when customers need to reach them. This might be a challenge for organizations which are trying to keep their customer service costs down. The best organizations are not daunted by this prospect and are adopting a true multichannel service strategy.

There are two different tactics that organizations are taking to be able to provide multichannel customer service. Some organizations are training their service agents to communicate with customers over different channels while others are dividing agents by channels where their skills are best suited. "Organizations approach agents and channels differently, based on shifting channel traffic, company needs and priorities, and customer behavior," says Al Rose, vice president of retail and Internet properties at TELUS International.

An important factor to consider when choosing one of these two approaches is the size of the company and the contact center traffic. As Rose notes, larger organizations are likely to find it more effective and efficient to train agents to handle more specialized customer service inquiries over specific channels. Smaller organizations, on the other hand, might not have enough human resources to make this happen and are more likely to train their agents to interact with customers across different channels.

Irrespective of the strategy chosen, the first step is hiring the right talent for the job. "Whether a contact center should have specialized contact center agents for each channel or train agents to communicate via multiple channels depends entirely on the type of agents you hire," notes Liz Osborn, vice president for product and solution marketing at Five9. For example, Osborn explains, that companies may dedicate agents with strong grammar skills to communicating with customers via email while they may assign agents who are engaging, upbeat, and positive with clear vocal tones to the phones.

Secondly, agents need to be trained effectively. Apart from specific channel guidance, organizations should invest in generalized training in company policy, customer service protocol, and general skills, including writing. "Specific training on individual platforms and customer needs will also be necessary in many instances," Rose says. "Just because an agent is adept at answering questions over social media, doesn't mean they'll automatically be strong on chat."

Investing in agent specialization

Corel is one organization that decided to invest in specialized agent teams which are specifically trained in different channels, explains Maglosia Plucinska, the company's vice president of business operations. Historically the company was dealing with a huge amount of incoming calls, sometimes amounting to 2,000 every day. "It was an insurmountable challenge," Plucinska says. All calls, whether requiring technical support, customer service, or sales inquiries were coming into the same contact center and the first step was to divide the team so that they could handle a specific aspect.

While understanding that customers wanted to interact with Corel over the phone, last year the company decided to make a move to online engagement. A decision was made to offer free online support and turn phone support into a premium service. Further, Corel decided to implement a chat facility while agents are also using social media to interact with customers.

A benefit of specialized agents is that they are extremely knowledgeable, which can be beneficial both for the customer experience and to improve first-contact resolution. Further, agents become very well versed in that channel and more efficient. As Rose explains, chat agents, for example, are able to multitask, handling multiple chats simultaneously without negatively impacting the customer experience.

Although Corel decided to invest in specialized agents for each channel, agents are still cross-trained to be able to handle different interactions if this is required. The sales team, for example, primarily uses the phone but also has a chat representation, Plucinska says. She notes that the reason behind the specialization was to ensure that agents were more effective and to provide a better customer experience. "It's hard to be dealing with three channels at the same time," she notes. Especially considering the volume that Corel deals with, it could lead to unacceptable wait times for customers. "If you're responding to a question over an online channel and the phone rings, you have to answer the phone and then get back to the online source," she notes. Plucinska says not everyone is able to multitask efficiently, and if they aren't able to do that, it's the customer that will be left waiting for an answer. Instead, Corel wants agents to be able to focus on the client they're dealing with, improving the customer experience.

Training across different channels

Wanting to retain its contact center agents was the top reason why Positec Tool Group decided to train its agents to use different channels. Rhonda Tate, the company's vice president for direct response, explains that finding the right agents who are able to both help customers but are also sales-minded is a difficult task. "When we find them, we need to keep them," she says.

However, dealing with the same service issues over the same channel every single day can become monotonous for agents and negatively impact engagement. "Imagine taking 70 calls from customers all wanting to track an order," Tate notes. Concerned that unengaged agents would negatively impact the customer experience, Tate decided to invest in a blended contact center, training agents to interact with customers over different channels. "When you've been talking to customers all day long, your voice gets tired, so we slot in a two-hour email schedule to give agents a break from speaking," she says.

One benefit of a blended contact center is flexibility. If a channel proves to be particularly popular during a certain period, Tate can reallocate resources there. Agents are also more satisfied. "The day goes quicker and doesn't become monotonous so agents are happier," she says. In fact, Positec's contact center has a very low agent turnover, Tate says.

However, as Five9's Osborn points out, the multichannel approach requires agents to have strong multitasking skills and they sometimes struggle to keep up, which could lead to dissatisfied customers.

At the end of the day, as TELUS' Rose explains, there is no right or wrong approach. "Organizations needs to weigh their options and assess which route works best for them based on their customers' inquiries and their service levels." In the end, customers don't care about contact center tactics. "What they do expect is that a service provider will connect them to a person that is knowledgeable enough to help them resolve their question or request on the first attempt in a convenient manner," says Joe Schnaufer, global director at customer support for Cleverbridge. Therefore, organizations need to consider what strategy is most effective for their contact center and will allow them to provide the best customer experience.