Upskilling the Contact Center: Planning for Your Agents’ Future in an Era of Uncertainty


Upskilling the Contact Center Workforce

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic continues to unfold, shifting last quarter’s priorities to the back-burner. As more communities around the world go on lockdown, company leaders are focusing their resources on stabilizing the operations.

Without doubt, the top priority for contact center leaders during a crisis is the human element—taking care of your agents and your customers. Customers are seeking reassurance from companies and they need it to be delivered with the empathy and emotional intelligence that only another human can convey. Meanwhile, many agents have been thrust into a work-from-home situation without the proper preparation, tools or support processes in place. And everyone everywhere is trying to cope with heightened levels of stress, anxiety and isolation.

It can be difficult to see past the here and now given the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet whether it is measured in months or years, the economy will inevitably recover. In certain sectors, the changes in customers’ needs and behaviors, work environments and collaboration requirements is accelerating rather than pausing the pace of digital transformation.

In the midst of managing through the coronavirus pandemic, it is also vital for contact center leaders to step back and think strategically about how to position their people, channels, technology and practices for the longer term—to ensure that customers’ concerns and needs continue to be met, and that agents feel supported and have opportunities to grow their skills as their work environment evolves. Planning now will help your people and operation to emerge with increased agility and resilience to weather future storms.

Upskilling the Human Side of the Operation

In terms of emerging skills in the work environment, let’s take a look at recent research into technology’s impact on the future of work. According to a report by ManpowerGroup’s report, “Humans Wanted: Robots Need You,” despite demand for tech and digital skills growing across all job functions, employers are placing increasing value on human skills. While 38% of organizations say that it is difficult to train in-demand technical skills, 43% said it’s even harder to teach the soft skills they need, such as analytical thinking and communication.

The report estimated that by 2030, demand for human skills—social and emotional soft skills—will grow by 26% across all industries in the United States. Frontline and customer-facing skills that are growing in demand include problem-solving, communication & relationship-building, and managing machines.

The World Economic Forums’ “Future of Jobs Report” points out that, by 2022, no less than 54% of all employees will require significant re- and upskilling. “Skills continuing to grow in prominence by 2022 include analytical thinking and innovation as well as active learning and learning strategies,” the report states.

Both of these studies offer an interesting look at the trends impacting the general workforce. However, I wanted to find out more about how frontline customer service agent roles specifically are being reshaped, so I reached out to contact center staffing and training experts Mike Aoki, President, Re­­flective Keynotes Inc.; Sangeeta Bhatnagar, Founder, SB Global; Mike Dershowitz, CEO, Fair Trade Outsourcing; Leslie O’Flahavan, Principal and Owner, E-WRITE; and Jennifer Thomas, Di­rector, Contact Center Operations, Penn Foster Education. The following are their views on emerging skills for customer-facing staff, the value that human agents can provide, and their advice on helping your people to grow and evolve.

Q. How is automation reshaping the contact center’s requirements for agents’ skills (i.e., what are the emerging skills that customer-facing staff will need in the coming years)?

Mike AokiMIKE AOKI: The agent of tomorrow will need to be a “Customer Experience Superagent.” Like how a superhero is a normal human but with a superpower, superagents will possess superior emotional intelligence and problem-solving skills. That is because “easy” calls, emails and chats will be handled by AI, leaving complex issues for live agents. In other words, the live queue of tomorrow will be like today’s escalations queue.

To meet that expanded role, agents need better customer service and decision-making skills. They also need to be EMPOWERED to make higher value decisions, instead of having to escalate everything to their team leader. In addition, compensation will need to increase, since you are recruiting and retaining employees with higher value skills.

SANGEETA BHATNAGAR: With automation of simpler tasks, such as address changes and bill payments, the requirements of agents has definitely changed. Contact center agents no longer need to be able to just “listen, talk, type” as the type of transactions and problems they are solving are increasingly complex. Customer-facing staff (regardless of channel) will need to be able to “listen, empathize, problem-solve, type, communicate, collaborate, and follow-through” along with the desire to learn and willingness to adapt to work with technology.

Agents need to be even more coachable with clear communication skills so that they are able to be trained on how to educate customers to work with the new technology in place of doing simple tasks. An example would be educating a customer on how to change contact info or report a payment.

MIKE DERSHOWITZ: We all know the bots are coming for parts of our jobs that are the most repeatable and predictable, like taking down a customer’s personal information. We can expect computer and voice-based tools to become significantly better at assisting agents, either while in-call or before the call, in the next several years.

There are two key skills that agents will need to improve. First, while sitting at a workstation, they will have to be more comfortable juggling several computer programs at a time. Their ability to master the human-computer interfaces we all use (keyboard, mouse and, eventually, eye tracking) will play a major role in their ability to stay productive. They will need to become much faster computer operators.

Second, the automated tools will increasingly “push” information at agents, whereas now, many agents spend a lot of time “pulling” information to them. Think as-you-need it instead of lookup. First, they need to adapt to that.

But the “push” of information will also require agents to become better human filters of information for clients. That’s a lot of what agents in contact centers do today—interpret for callers. This will only accelerate, now that AI tools will be another “pusher” of information to the agent.

LESLIE O’FLAHAVAN: In coming years, automation will require customer-facing staff to develop some new skills and to deepen some skills they already have.

Here are my predictions:

  • Develop new skills. In the future, frontline agents will become expert at the “automation handoff.” They’ll have to know how to receive customer’s question after an automated response failed to satisfy or how to transfer a customer from a live interaction into an automated one.
  • Deepen existing skills. Today’s frontline agents need to be quick learners of new software, and the need for that skill will only deepen. Because disparate software programs will be better integrated in the future, agents won’t need to be experienced users of more software programs, but they will need to be willing and able to take new software in stride. They’ll also need to deepen their writing skills by becoming great writers in more channels. Many of today’s frontline agents are either email agents, chat agents, or social media agents. In the future, they’ll need to develop the writing chops to communicate with customers in any channel.

JENNIFER THOMAS: Automation is definitely changing the landscape for contact centers. As we move more toward automation, staff needs to be agile in their skills base, shifting toward more technology capabilities as well as growing interpersonal skills. The “basics” are now handled through automation, so contact center staff needs to take it to the next level to handle the items that automation can’t. It becomes all about the experience and less about the process or policy.

Automation allows for a deeper conversation, a more proactive approach to your product or service. Staff can shift their focus to items that the customer may not be aware of using the entire customer profile to talk about the future.

Q. As more of the routine, repetitive tasks are automated, how will frontline agents add value to the brand, business and customer experience?

Mike AokiMIKE AOKI: We may reach a stage where most customer interactions are performed by self-service or by AI bots. In that environment, agents can add value by building relationships during their live interactions with customers. That means personalizing their conversations (both phone and written) so that customers feel special and supported. It also means educating a customer on appropriate additional features, services and upgrades.

SANGEETA BHATNAGAR: Frontline agents will always be of value, as human beings crave and value the “human experience.” Our frontline agents, across all channels are the walking-talking brand ambassadors through their actions or nonactions. Their attitudes will still determine what customers think of brands. With strong listening, high empathy and problem-solving skills, the agents will be able to solve the specific customer issues ensuring that their respective company maintains a solid brand around great customer experience.

When recruiting frontline agents, whether it be for face-to-face, chat or on the phone, it is even more important to screen for a great attitude, willingness to go the extra-mile, coachability, adaptability, teamwork, problem solving and collaboration. The agents that meet those requirements will bring the most value to the company as they will be able to be valuable contributors to company’s customer experience (CX) as well as employee experience (EX).

MIKE DERSHOWITZ: What’s not easy is giving an irate customer the time to be heard and given assurance in return. AI, no matter how human-like the voice sounds or how intelligent the responses are, cannot deviate from the script to respond to an emotional call for help. And that can only be found in human interaction.

Even when it’s not a call from an angry customer, most people are social learners, which means they need to interact with a human being in order to learn and feel much better about the situation. Have you interacted with a bot lately? They don’t deal well with frustration.

The best thing agents can do for their employers is to do the one thing the bots can’t do—be human. Listen, empathize, respond. It will be a long time before we have sympathetic androids that are actually believable.

LESLIE O’FLAHAVAN: When repetitive tasks are automated, frontline agents will be presented with more complicated, less predictable tasks that only a human can solve. These agents will bring tremendous value to the business because they will use their analytical reading skills, their problem-solving skills, and their ability to express empathy to support the brand and sustain an excellent experience for customers throughout their journey. When they interact with a bot, for example, customers must package their questions to suit the bot. When they interact with a frontline agent, customers simply ask their questions and the human agent flexes and stretches to provide an excellent answer.  Talk about adding value!

JENNIFER THOMAS: Frontline agents will add value to a business by gaining those next-level skills. Instructional design is a skill that can help any business in creating automation flows that agents can participate in, and as we know, the frontline staff are the experts in this area. Creation of these flows doesn’t need to be done by your IT department anymore.

As stated earlier, interpersonal skills are becoming critical. Frontline staff can learn how to take it to the next level in terms of customer experience and then help to change your business playbook for handling interactions. Interpersonal skills and taking the experience to the next level is what will set your business apart from others.

Q. What advice can you offer to company leaders on how to help their people continue to grow within evolving contact center roles?

Mike AokiMIKE AOKI: Gone are the days when agents only received new-hire training and the occasional product updates during their career. Now, continually evolving challenges require continually evolving skills. That means ongoing training on customer experience, sales, retention and relationship-building skills. To accomplish this, leverage all forms of learning: classroom (when coronavirus ends), predesigned e-learning, custom live instructor-led remote learning, and peer-to-peer learning. Support that with ongoing coaching to fine-tune your agents’ knowledge and skills.

To improve retention and employee engagement, establish a career path for your agents. For example, a suggested career path may initially have them take on different queues, with increasing complexity and compensation. Then, they could transition into becoming a QA coach, trainer or team leader. An alternative career path may be to other departments, such as sales or marketing. A designated career path can improve retention by giving agents hope they can advance within the company. It also allows your contact center to provide employees to the rest of the organization. That means you will have allies in every department, with firsthand customer experience. That is a great way to spread customer experience practices thorough an organization.

SANGEETA BHATNAGAR: I always recommend continuous development even if there is a minimal budget. You can recognize and reward those individuals who take the initiative to take online courses, free internal courses and even simple job-shadowing.

During the interview process, you should screen for those who have a desire to learn and a willingness to be coached. I always ask for examples of something they have taken initiative to learn, and I ask them to “share an example when you were coached on a skill or behavior. What was it and how did you modify that skill or behavior?”

The agents who will be able to grow and evolve are those who do not fear technology, coaching or change. The best agents will be those that are having a willingness to adapt, grow, empathize and help!

MIKE DERSHOWITZ: I encourage you to stop thinking about workforce development monolithically. Jobs are no longer monolithic; they’re as dynamic as we’ve ever seen them in the history of human work, and they will continue to become more dynamic.

Your frontline agents will have to master a variety of skills, too, if you want them to accomplish more than what the bots can do. As humans, they are better at making inferences, conclusions or decisions, especially given the limited information that they have. They can adapt to changes in their environment and that means jobs that require some social analysis and engagement will solely become the humans’ realm of expertise.

Consider this: When assistive technology is deployed to help both the customer and the agent, not only is the customer journey enhanced, but the agent has a better overall experience as well. The agent will feel better with less obstacles to doing their work, and as a result, frustration will drop and agent engagement will improve, which we all know leads to improved customer satisfaction.

So my advice is—don’t shy away from assistive technology. Even though I run a people-first company, technology can help the people, which is exactly the way humans have been using technology for millennium.

LESLIE O’FLAHAVAN: To help people continue to grow, company leaders must commit to  offering ongoing training! As with so many aspects of customer service work, leaders sometimes expect frontline agents to just know or be able to do something, simply because it’s desperately needed. But people grow when growth and learning become habit. Company leaders must commit the time and money to training, so they can normalize the ongoing growth they need from employees.

JENNIFER THOMAS: It all comes back to training and development. As the game changes, you have to evolve. Look for ways to build your employee engagement and learning portfolio. Frontline staff may not know the new skills they will need to grow with your business, so do the legwork for them. Also staff may not realize what their potential for growth is with the changing landscape.

Start from the beginning by looking at your job descriptions for various roles, and ask yourself the same questions from this article. What skills are becoming irrelevant? What are the skills of the future your staff will need to hold these jobs and where are your current training/learning gaps?

As I often like to use quotes in articles, in the words of the band Semisonic, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”