Creating Career Paths for Contact Center Agents
Illustration by Gina Park

There is no doubt that technology has accelerated the pace of change in contact centers. Yet when it comes to the human element, some things have remained the same for decades. Agent turnover has been and remains a top challenge in centers. The repetitive nature of the job and limited potential for career advancement create a revolving employment door in many centers.

Perhaps change is finally coming to this critical aspect of contact center management. Key trends are converging that are likely to reshape the way centers view agent career development:

  • There is a global talent shortage. Employers everywhere are facing the most acute talent shortage since the recession, according to the latest Talent Shortage Survey released by ManpowerGroup. Of the more than 42,000 employers surveyed, 40% are experiencing difficulties filling roles.
  • Employees want to work for employers who help them to develop and grow their careers—and they’re willing to leave those who don’t. In the United States, lack of opportunity to advance was the No. 2 reason why millennials quit (after minimal wage growth), according to a study by Ernst & Young.
  • More contact centers are employing artificial intelligence (AI) and chatbots to handle repetitive tasks and routine customer issues.
  • When it comes to complex issues, consumers prefer personalized service from human agents who are knowledgeable and have creative problem-solving capabilities.
  • Businesses across sectors view the ability to deliver an exceptional customer experience as the means to differentiate themselves from competitors.

Agent development initiatives that focus on upskilling frontline staff and providing opportunities to advance beyond the contact center are already becoming more prevalent. In these centers, leaders have found that when management demonstrates a sincere commitment to the agent’s long-term development, agent performance and engagement skyrocket. Employee loyalty also increases. Rather than take their skills to a new employer, agents tend to move into other positions within the company. A bonus for the business: Employees who start their careers in the contact center develop a customer-centric lens through which they view their future roles, projects and input.

AI and Chatbots Will Upgrade the Agents’ Role

Ask any agent what they dislike most about the job and the most frequent responses will be tedious tasks and repetition. Enter AI and chatbots. AI-powered customer service solutions free agents from repetitive manual tasks and allow them to tap into their critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Service organizations like TravelBird view AI as a tool to eliminate repetitive manual tasks and allow agents to focus on the part of the job that they enjoy—providing a more personalized experience for customers.

Chatbots also have been gaining visibility in contact centers as a cost-effective way to handle routine questions. While this has also led to speculation that chatbots could end up replacing human agents, a recent survey of 500 CSRs conducted by Aspect Software found that most agents have a positive view of the impact that chatbots may have on their jobs. The 2017 Aspect Agent Experience Survey found that agents are not only ready and willing to spend their time on more complex customer issues, the majority see increased opportunities for growth and contribution when handling a larger number of complex customer issues. Millennials, in particular, welcome the opportunity to handle more complex issues. One-half of the millennial agents in the study said that they would feel a greater sense of commitment and satisfaction if they were given more complex questions to handle.

Naturally, upgrading the job to focus more on issues that call for critical thinking and problem-solving skills will require additional training and development. “Live agents will not only have to be trained on handling complex and challenging questions but they will also have to feel a sense of empowerment from their workplace enabling them to make decisions that they may not have been able to make previously,” says Aspect’s Tim Dreyer, senior director of public and analyst relations. “If a contact center has confident, skilled agents who are capable of making business decisions and handling complex questions, more doors should open within the call center for them to move up.”

That could do much to offset the view that the contact center is a dead-end job. Currently, Dreyer points out, only 4 out of 10 agents surveyed feel like there is opportunity for them to advance in the center where they work.

Develop Internal SMEs

How can you make the agent’s job more fulfilling while providing opportunities to work with other business functions? One avenue to consider is the internal subject-matter expert (SME). SMEs are the go-to experts on a particular process or product. Within the contact center, SMEs can assist with agent training, handle escalations and contribute to the knowledge base. But beyond just a resource for their peers within the center, SMEs can also add value by taking an active role in other areas of the business, such as marketing, IT, and product design and development.

A good example is DAT Solutions, winner of ICMI’s 2017 Global Contact Center Award for Best Small Contact Center. The center provides agents with ongoing learning and development opportunities to help agents become SMEs in the company’s products and services. It also helps staff to develop professional skills (e.g., leadership, communication, project management, public speaking) so that they can confidently contribute to product development activities, as well as onsite customer training and user conferences.

Centers can also look to their staff to fill in skills gaps needed to optimize new technology deployment. MainTrax’s David Patchen recommends that centers develop a speech analytics SME. He points out that many businesses fail to designate the right individual to manage the technology. “Contact centers often assign this task to someone in operations, typically on the telephony side, but in our opinion, the person given this responsibility doesn’t need to be tech savvy,” he says. “More important is that they should be solutions-driven and business-curious. Why? He or she is likely to answer to a wide range of internal customers.”

Certainly, this type of career move will require an investment in time and training to become familiar with the technology, but promoting from within means that the individual is already familiar with the company’s products and services, as well as the contact center’s processes and workflows.

Prepare Agents for “New Collar” Positions

Similar to Patchen’s proposal, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty advocates preparing workers for “new collar” career opportunities. In an opinion column for USA Today, Rometty stated: “As industries from manufacturing to agriculture are reshaped by data science and cloud computing, jobs are being created that demand new skills—which in turn requires new approaches to education, training and recruiting.… In many cases, new collar jobs may not require a traditional college degree. In fact, at a number of IBM’s locations across the United States, as many as one-third of employees don’t have a four-year degree. What matters most is that these employees have relevant skills, often obtained through vocational training.”

Your organization may have—or may soon have—new collar positions available in cloud computing, data science, cybersecurity or design. Helping agents to prepare for these types of roles by guiding them through coursework at accredited vocational/technical colleges or online programs provides them with a career path while filling open positions elsewhere within the company. But are agents suitable candidates for the work? The basic skills and qualities are similar to those included in many contact center top-performer profiles.

IBM hiring managers shared what they look for in new-collar recruits. Sam Ladah, HR vice president, IBM Talent, says he likes to hone in on the following areas:

  • Critical thinking and problem-solving skills (Will you challenge the status quo, look for new and innovative solutions to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges?);
  • Teamwork (Can you work as part of globally diverse teams that are embracing new, more agile ways of working?); and
  • Adaptability (Can you handle uncertainty and change? Are you able to grow and adapt through ongoing learning and development and the attainment of new skills?).

Christopher Wingler, a senior manager at IBM’s Public Sector Infrastructure Services, looks for the “it” factor, which he describes as how well someone communicates, if he or she is coachable and whether the individual will work well in a team setting. He then tries to determine how the candidate learns—visual, verbal, hands on, etc.—and if the person has the mindset and drive to quickly learn new skills and/or processes. “The last—and most important—aspect is the ability to see a problem or issue not as a roadblock but as an opportunity,” he says.

3 Tips for Developing and Retaining Top Talent

Over the years, we have reported on many practical career development paths that provide agents with ongoing opportunities to enhance their skills and knowledge, while increasing performance, morale, job satisfaction and employee retention. The following are a few tips from the experts.

Provide exposure to different business units through job shadowing. Develop a career development plan for your agents in concert with HR, advises consultant Todd Marthaler (see How to Tackle Attrition in the Contact Center, Pipeline, June 2016). He recommends the following steps:

  • Make time for team members to shadow areas of the business that they are interested in. Each quarter, provide them with a few hours to sit with someone from a different function so they can understand what a typical workday is like for that employee.
  • Establish check-ins with the agent after shadowing other areas. Did they like it? Is it something they would like to pursue? Are there other areas they might be interested in the next quarter?
  • If they have an interest in another area, work with that department’s leadership to understand the expectations, training, skills required, and potential timing around future openings.

Provide industry certification training and testing. Carbonite supports frontline agents who wish to pursue professional certifications. The company has put several trainers through the Microsoft Certified Trainer program so that they could provide frontline staff with certification classes onsite. Although not required at the center, “MS certifications are important to people who have taken a technical path in their career,” VP of Customer Care Robert Frost points out. The company also partnered with a computer-based testing provider to become an approved Microsoft testing centers so employees can test onsite at no cost.

Provide intradepartmental rotations. Allowing agents to participate in on-the-job training in specialized roles within the center, such as training, QA, workforce management, etc., provides them with a greater understanding of the overall operation and the “why” behind many policies and practices, says Service Agility’s Jay Minnucci. If intradepartmental rotations are not practical in your center, he suggests that allowing agents to spend even a few days in each area may be enough to expand their view of the operation—and possibly even help them to determine a career path.