The Rise of the "Universal" Agent

Customer Service
Customer Service
Companies must train their customer service agents to provide quality care across all touchpoints.

Customers today are increasingly using multiple channels to communicate with the companies they do business with.

That means these companies not only need to invest in new technology to facilitate these multiple modes of communication, they also need to train their contact center agents to use them properly.

There are two schools of thought about how to structure agents in contact centers with multichannel strategies. Diane Clarkson, an analyst at Forrester Research, says she continues to see agents handle multiple channels in some organizations, but she and other Forrester analysts are noticing an increase in the separation of skills at other firms. "We're seeing more of a realization that different channels require different skills," Clarkson says. "[Contact centers] are doing either extensive training or they're separating the agents."

Clarkson adds that initial training for channels typically includes typing, spelling, and grammar, as well as coaching agents who provide service via chat about different tones to take. "Email is a structured way of communicating. Whether it's proactive or reactive, [managers are] not going to be maximizing the agents' potential if they don't have the right person on as the chat rep," she says.

Ryan Hollenbeck, senior vice president of marketing at Verint Witness Actionable Solutions, agrees with Clarkson that most companies separate service via email, chat, and social media from phone-based service. The reality, he notes, is that the written word differs greatly from the spoken word. "In the near term, we will continue to see a separation. But the companies that apply the right kind of discipline around [a multichannel strategy] are having a lot of success," he says.

Frontline Call Center trains for multiple channels and tasks
Frontline Call Center takes a "multitasking" approach. The company trains agents for multiple channels, as well as for multiple products and clients. Owner Jill Blankenship provides extensive training for her 65 agents, so they're able to conduct multiple tasks, over multiple channels, for various kinds of calls and clients. She employs dedicated account teams, but 35 percent of the agents are cross-trained on channels and handle eight to 10 accounts simultaneously. In addition, her agents are trained to conduct order processing, technical support, and customer support, as well response marketing, and order tracking. "Having the ability to encompass all of those channels is what a client is looking for," she says.

According to Blankenship, ensuring the success of the multichannel agent begins with the interviewing and hiring process. During that time she studies candidates' professionalism and tests their grammar. Once hired agents use a training tool called Camtasia, which incorporates video to conduct live training. At that time, the agents also take test calls, and after 90 days the agents take a quiz to test their skills and product knowledge.

The initial training leverages inContact and determines how well the agents handle calls and chat, . That training helps Blankenship determine where to place the agents and which account level to start them with. Before the agents can take on more accounts, thus increase their salary, they are graded on 15 guidelines and must earn a certain number of points to reach the next level (there are four levels in total, with the highest being a supervisor).

While training is critical to a multichannel experience, so is incenting the reps. Blankenship pays her agents by the hour and not by the minutes that they spend on a call.

Blankenship says the advantage of having cross-trained agents is the ability to offer a more cost-effective alternative to her clients. And agents tend to like the approach because it keeps their jobs interesting. "It's not the same thing over and over again," she says. "It's an exciting thing and some agents prefer that. It's not the same old script time after time."

Bank of America Merrill Lynch Retirement agents require extensive training
Bank of America Merrill Lynch Retirement Contact Centers, on the other hand, separates its phone agents from the agents who handle email because of the complex nature of the organization's inquiries. "We separate [email and phone]. When you're someone who is trained to handle a verbal versus a written format, they're two different skill sets," says Kim Kasin, director of the contact centers.

Read more about Bank of America, Sprint...

She explains that the small portion of agents who serve customers via email is trained more heavily on financial and writing skills. The phone agents are taught more soft skills training, like what tone to take with irate clients.

The agents, located in two contact centers in New Jersey and Florida, handle corporate retirement plans with varied products and services, so their knowledge of financial services must be extensive. In addition to learning retirement and investments services, Kasin's agents must become licensed in the financial industry's Series 7 and Series 66 examinations. The agents undergo an initial four-week training program that combines classroom and on-the-job training. During that period new hires shadow a seasoned agent who serves as their mentor, and over the next six months the agents prepare for the certification exams.

After the agents become certified as qualified investment professionals, they receive online refresher training courses on topics ranging from learning a new product to understanding a new financial regulation. The system is powered by Brainshark and offers functionality like videos and agent self-testing. "It allows someone to do training in their down time," Kasin says.

The organization's agent structure is paying off. It was recently recognized for its client satisfaction excellence for the sixth consecutive year under the J.D. Power and Associates Call Center Certification Program.

At Sprint, online training plays a big role for its Care agents
Sprint also matches agents skill sets with its customer channels, and the training of Sprint's Care agents play a large part in the company's continuous customer service improvements, like first-call resolution and customer satisfaction. Sprint uses Knowlagent to deploy training directly to agents' desktops during periods when there is excess agent availability between calls.

The system pushes out training sessions about Sprint's policies, programs, and procedures to the company's 35,000 Care agents when it detects idle time. In addition, when agents need to take a new course, they will receive a pop-up on their computer directing them to complete their assigned training.

Joe Meyer, vice president of customer care at Sprint, says his agents are given an aptitude test that gauges their understanding of the technology they will be using. "They have to multitask and they have to carry on a conversation with a customer while entering things. We look for agents who can get on the same level as the customers no matter what their mood is. These assessments allow us to determine whether they are capable," Meyer says.

For the ongoing refresher courses, the system allows Sprint to target training work groups or specific agents in need of refresher training. "It allows us to go in very small increments where the training appears on the agents' desktops," Meyer says.

In the future, Sprint plans to enhance its training by activating a performance management functionality, which will show on a more granular level how agents are performing and will allow the supervisor to identify areas where they need extra help or coaching. "The agents that are on our front lines represent Sprint to our customers, and it's a complex environment," Meyer says. "To the degree we can help them be more effective in their roles, they will better serve customersand their issues are resolved."

Creating the universal agent
Segregating agents by channel may have a shelf life. Forrester's Clarkson predicts that a majority of companies eventually will deploy online alternatives like chat, click-to-call, and virtual agents as new service channels. "For rather simple issues, as well as complex ones, [companies are looking] to have more people to find answers in the most cost-effective channel," she says. "If they can do it in a cheaper way, then they're considering it."

Verint Witness' Hollenbeck adds that as the number of people who want to communicate via mobile and the Web increases, organizations must restructure their contact centers. In the long-run, he adds, we will see a shift to a "universal agent," an agent who can handle a variety of mediums. "As these companies prepare for the future, they need to focus on communicating for more than one medium," he says. "Eventually these new mediums will be overwhelming and you will need more of your agent population handling all these interactions."