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Contact centers improving customer service by expanding agents’ role

Contact centers are giving agents more decision-making power to help improve customer service and boost emotional connections.

With increasing pressure on companies to improve customer service, many contact center managers are moving away from traditional scripts to give agents more flexibility to problem solve and, in some cases, independently make decisions to give customers a more personalized experience.

“For me, this is about giving them the flexibility to make game-time decisions without having to get approvals,” said Robert Frost, senior director of global client relations at Acronis Inc., a backup software company based in Woburn, Mass.

For example, Acronis agents can use their discretion to give customers a modest discount on an upcoming purchase if they believe they are about to lose the customer, Frost said.  

Companies like Acronis are turning to software tools and new training programs to encourage contact center agents to emotionally connect to customers while also promoting good customer service skills. In Balancing Call Center Efficiency and the Customer Experience, a survey released this year by the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI), a leading contact center professionals association, managers were asked what they were doing to help create “positive customer experiences.” Nearly 50% of the 428 respondents said they are using desktop tools and 60% said they are developing training programs to help agents make emotional connections with customers.

Significantly, nearly 30% report giving agents “leeway on account activity,” said Layne Holley, director of community services at ICMI. 

Improving customer service with new technologies
This shift to giving agents more autonomy is in part influenced by the fast, informal interactions of social media. It is also fueled by the growing use of self-service channels. Often, by the time a customer resorts to calling a company and speaking with an agent, he has a complex problem and isn’t interested in a canned response.

“It isn’t that customers don’t want a script, but that they want someone who can think,” said Sheila McGee-Smith, president of McGee-Smith Analytics LLC in Amherst, N.H.

But the key question for contact center managers is how much freedom to give agents. In regulated industries, such as financial services, for example, free-wheeling agents wouldn’t be allowed, and scripts will continue to be required. But in other industries, particularly hospitality and retail, it makes sense to increasingly tailor interactions.

“Blanket empowerment can be frustrating and very dangerous,” cautions John Goodman, vice chairman of TARP Worldwide, a contact center consulting firm in Arlington, Va. “Most people won’t use that because they won’t know what will get them in trouble.”

Goodman and other industry analysts said contact centers should create problem resolution frameworks that give agents resolution strategies they can pick from depending on a customer’s individual situation.

Role of success stories  
One tactic is to give examples of customer situations and then two or three scenarios for resolution.

TARP’s Goodman suggests supplementing training programs with “victory sessions” every few weeks to focus on cases in which agents made that true connection with a customer and helped solve his problem.

“The big problem is when supervisors spend time catching agents doing things wrong,” Goodman said. “In victory sessions, agents talk about an issue and how they handled it. Everyone gets positive recognition. Some people don’t absorb classroom training, but they do absorb stories.”

Some companies will find they can toss out scripts entirely. iRobot Corp., maker of the Roomba vacuum cleaner, doesn’t use scripts and instead provide agents with customer profiles that include the names customers give to their robots.

“For customers, there is an emotional attachment to their robots; it is like a member of their family,” said Maryellen Abreu, director of global customer care of the home robots division. “So, any kind of scripted response really doesn’t work.”

Abreu said it comes down to top-notch listening skills. “They have to have the ability to find out the customer’s situation,” she said. “They need to know if they have three labs shedding in the house, the floor size, the size of their house. We couldn’t script it if we tried.”

Instead, the company records customer calls and relies on customer surveys to flag calls that go wrong and then determine how to improve interactions.

New software and training programs
But building teams of empowered contact center agents requires more than frameworks. Contact centers need to create easier access to knowledge bases and software tools to give agents real-time information on their desktops. In addition, managers need to provide more targeted coaching programs to help agents fine-tune their skills, according to industry analysts.

“You want agents to be sophisticated and move off scripts, but they have to be comfortable with their empowerment,” said Keith Dawson, a senior analyst at Frost & Sullivan in New York. “It takes a while for this to percolate out to the agent pool.”

Software companies are zeroing in on this agent autonomy trend and beefing up desktop tools to help agents with decision making.

“I see a lot of vendors working on what I call process guidance solutions and I see a lot of interest in the customer base to get away from scripts to actively guide their agents,” said Kate Leggett, principal analyst with Forrester Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

Sword Ciboodle, for example, offers software that provides a front end to multiple knowledge bases and other customer data sources so agents do not have to access each source individually. Nicor National, a provider of home warranty and energy management plans, installed Sword Ciboodle software earlier this year to serve as a front end to nine legacy systems. The company is also using a Sword Ciboodle feature called the Recommender that provides agents real-time suggestions for selling additional products.

“This becomes a better customer experience -- you don’t have to put customers on hold three times,” said Barbara Porter, vice president of business development and customer service at Nicor.

Many contact center software companies are adding real-time tools and other agent productivity functions to their product suites as well. As an example, Verint Systems is focusing on e-learning tools. With the release of its Impact 360 platform earlier this year, it beefed up its Scorecard and eLearning modules. Now, if an agent’s score on such metrics as customer interaction falls below a certain level, the Scorecard program will automatically generate an alert to the Workflow module. It in turn will schedule a training module for that agent when call volume is low.

The customer interaction training modules include videos of agents interacting conversationally to give agents a sense of effective communication.

“What we are getting to is we are trying to train them on interaction skills so they don’t sound like robots,” said Oscar Alban, global marketing consultant at Verint. “We want them to have the people skills.”


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