Service is delivered through people. Despite all the advanced technology and Six Sigma processes that we institute in our contact centers, the frontline agent holds the key to high-quality (and low-cost) service. Many of us have hundreds or even thousands of agents, making it difficult to provide exceptional service on a consistent basis. That challenge has led to common training programs, verbatim scripts and goals centered on conformance—the white-collar version of mass production.
The objective is consistency, and there is nothing wrong with that. But along the way, the position of contact center agent became rote and mundane. That dull, uninteresting job role is an underlying cause of some of the more egregious problems we see in contact centers. High attrition, low adherence and elevated absence rates can usually be traced back (at least, in part) to a position that is about as glamorous as a sack of potatoes.
Tackling those issues may be reason enough to take a second look at the role of the agent. It is not, however, the only reason. Times change, and much of what we do in contact centers has become more complex. Mass production carried out by armies of generic agents may not be the right model moving forward. Mass customization delivered by engaged teams of knowledge workers may well be the direction of the future.
Knowledge worker is more than just a term. It represents a change in how we view the role of the agent (and by extension, the role of the contact center). The following are just a few examples of how these differences show up in day-to-day activities in the contact center:
In a transaction-processing environment: Defined almost entirely by metrics, and the objectives are focused mainly on production and compliance.
In a knowledge-worker environment: Many objectives are qualitative and centered on the ability to improve the organization. There may be some metrics, but none are production types that encourage quick contact handling (calls per hour, AHT, etc.).
In a transaction-processing environment: Provide customers what they ask for with answers based on scripts.
In a knowledge-worker environment: Focus on listening and asking questions before providing any guidance or answers.
In a transaction-processing environment: Document the call so agents who get calls in the future can better handle them.
In a knowledge-worker environment: Document the call and suggest revisions to knowledge management systems and/or training as appropriate.
In a transaction-processing environment: Focused almost entirely on compliance—did the agent do what was supposed to be done?
In a knowledge-worker environment: Focused on the ability to identify customer needs and add to the organizational understanding of what customers want.
Knowledge management system
In a transaction-processing environment: Tool that all agents should use to provide consistent answers.
In a knowledge-worker environment: Tool that allows agents to add expertise that others can utilize.
Redefining the agent role from transactional processor to knowledge worker is a strategic maneuver that touches virtually everything we do in our contact centers. You will need to bring in the right resources and ensure that every position in the contact center is adequately represented. All of the processes and pitfalls that accompany any type of large-scale change management project apply. The high-level steps that you will need to follow include:
- Acknowledge it strategically: Recognize that it will impact every facet of the organization, and pull in the people you need to ensure a smooth transition.
- Start small: If you already isolate high-value contacts, you can treat these teams as the “lab” to test changes to practices, metrics and other management tools that better fit a knowledge worker environment.
- Revise metrics: You do not need to abandon metrics as a measurement method, but you will likely need to revise them and add in more qualitative measures.
- Revamp people management tactics (coaching, training, job descriptions, hiring profiles and compensation): These changes (and the revisions to metrics) are the ones that have the most impact on the contact center floor.
The transformation does not have to happen overnight, nor will every agent be affected. In the near future, though, at least some portion of most contact centers will need to change, if only to keep pace with those we compete with for staffing. If it results in better customer service and higher employee satisfaction, it will be a change we can all live with.