The Role of Contact Center Agents in Product Innovation


As we turn the page to a new year, and in the spirit of new beginnings, I’d like to challenge managers and leaders to consider alternative approaches to drive innovation and business change. Change must bubble up from within an organization, not merely cascade down from above, because in the next two years we’ll witness more change than we’ve seen in the last 10 years.

To shape the future, we should strive to empower not just your executive and senior leadership team but also your contact center associates to consider how they can do things differently, better and more efficiently. It’s been said that the strength of a team is each individual member, and the strength of each individual member is the team. When teams are inclusive, and differences are not just tolerated but celebrated, all team members can become even more creative and innovative.

Each and every day, contact center agents are on the front lines handling customer service inquiries and ensuring customer satisfaction. While their role in solidifying the customer experience is well established, respecting and really listening to your associates are fundamental principles for successful organizations. Throughout my career, I have found that the best ideas don’t just come from the C-suite and senior business leaders. Instead, some of the most impactful ideas frequently come from those agents speaking with customers on a daily basis.

In thinking about Agero’s contact centers, we desire that inclusivity and those differences in perspective—not just from a product view or a technology view or an engineering view, but also from an operations view—to collect, consider and carry out new initiatives that drive business innovation. Whether it’s an idea that can increase mobile adoption to its usage or a suggestion that can save a few seconds during every customer interaction, input from contact center employees can have a profound impact on the business.

Intentional Interactions Bring Teams Together

The first question I’m often asked is how do you encourage associates and managers in the contact center to build relationships and lines of communication back to the product and engineering teams?

Think of it as another form of social networking. You need to foster and maintain not only your team network or your operations network but also your extended networks in other parts of the organization. For example, operations managers in the contact center should know their counterparts in IT, engineering, product, finance and so on. My team will tell you they frequently hear me say, “How often are you meeting with your partners across different lines of the business?”

We focus on helping identify representatives from across teams to help bring ideas from contact center associates to fruition. For example, we might help connect an operations manager in the contact center to their counterparts on the product and engineering teams. If our associates identify a system, process or workflow that isn’t functioning as intended, the contact center’s operations manager can feel comfortable talking with associates about what’s happening and why things aren’t operating as expected and share the information with other appropriate teams.

Taking that a step further, that operations manager from the contact center is then able to present the associates’ feedback with the product team representative during a Zoom meeting. They might even share their screen and point out exactly what the associates identified and the challenge it creates for them. While this can be an insightful exercise for everyone involved, it also engages the associates to be a part of changing how their work is done and ultimately makes it easier for them to do their jobs.

Ensure a Holistic Feedback Loop

Once you’ve established these connections, the best way to begin collecting employee feedback at scale is through the establishment of an associate improvement request (AIR) programs. Of course, these programs aren’t new; I’ve certainly come across them in other organizations and industries I’ve worked with in the past. But where these programs frequently lose momentum is in their failure to close the feedback loop.

It’s not enough to simply collect feedback from your associates and advance the suggestion from there. It’s just as important to continue engaging your associates so they can see that they shared an idea and understand that someone is listening. Make the feedback loop count—have the person compiling the AIR submissions follow up with the associate to ask a few questions about their idea, or at least let them know that it’s a great suggestion but will take some time because it needs to be prioritized against other proposals.

Today, we have 3,000 ideas in the pipeline generated by our associates. It’s incredibly empowering for associates to see their ideas come to fruition. Your associates may have ideas but not know where to start or how to implement them. In a workforce that is critically dependent on time and seconds, this feedback loop keeps employees engaged and a part of making their organization even better.

Prioritizing Associate Requests

When it comes to this kind of approach, success begets success. With a large number of ideas in the pipeline, an organization may be flummoxed by where to begin reviewing and prioritizing associate suggestions. Not all of them represent a six-digit value in terms of savings to the business. But as you stack-rank these ideas, you’ll eventually begin to identify ideas that represent substantial opportunities.

For this approach to work, keep in mind that you’re always making trade-offs among people, process and technology to achieve the desired customer satisfaction outcome. Some ideas might represent easy fixes to implement, while others may require adding short-term headcount in operations, for example, while the organization continues searching longer term for the perfect process or product innovation through a technology solution. However, you’re doing this in a collaborative way with all of the relevant stakeholders involved so that everyone has visibility into the different facets or complexities the associates face. That comes through constructive and healthy debate to ensure the acceptable trade-offs and best solution comes out on top and receives the proper prioritization.

All of that is to say that this type of approach could be difficult to implement in a vertically oriented organization. Those involved in the prioritization process must be comfortable working across functions in a matrixed environment.

In addition, participating staff from product management, product development, engineering and so on must be willing to meet your associates where they’re at. They should be comfortable coming to your employees and asking safe, generic, open-ended questions that can help build rapport. If they come in with a negative attitude—having a preconceived notion of what’s wrong and why something’s not working—your associates are likely to be more guarded and closed off. That’s not the kind of empowerment environment that fosters success.

Agent-Driven Change: An Example in Action

An example of change being driven from the bottom up at our company is the redevelopment of our new associate training program for our digital platform. We received feedback that new associates had to go through a long, extensive training—an approximately 100-page training manual—to learn our systems and processes. As we redeveloped the program for our new digital platform, their feedback helped us realize that we could do better in ramping up agents to quickly be productive today, while continuing to learn and improve over time. As a result, we now break up the training into four different phases, or “personas.”

Persona one, for an entry-level employee during their first months on the job, provides associates with a minimal amount of training to become familiar with our systems in just three to five days, as opposed to the 90 days it previously took. After getting their feet wet, associates progress to persona two for another three or four days of training to further develop skills to handle additional calls. From there, persona three exposes an associate to handling the majority of the entire call load, and those associates are now able to transition effortlessly between multiple personas to handle the different types of calls before reaching persona four.

Celebrate Your Team’s Successes

The final ingredient to ensure ongoing contributions for product innovation from contact center associates is to recognize and celebrate individual and team successes. It’s essential that this happens at all levels and across all teams in the organization—not just in the contact center but also within the product team, the engineering team, etc.

While everything else discussed up to this point may empower your associates to share their suggestions once or maybe twice, nothing but recognition and positive reinforcement will drive the organizational and behavioral changes and desired outcomes.

If your organization still embraces the mindset that decisions and ideas for product innovations only come from specific function, you’re missing an opportunity to capture suggestions and tap into a valuable source for creative thinking. Instead, go to your cross-functional teams with an empty whiteboard, a dry erase marker and an open mind.

In the spirit of the new year and a new beginning, there’s no better time to engage your contact center associates to incorporate their ideas into innovation streams to make even better product offerings.

As Agero’s Chief Operations Officer, George Horvat is responsible for end-to-end operations of the company’s closely intertwined network and contact center functions. George brings over 25 years of Fortune 500 experience as a results-driven executive in manufacturing, quality, and operations. His leadership skills are helping drive Agero’s continuing journey toward operational excellence, delivering more consistent, high quality end-to-end experiences for our consumers while building stronger relationships with service providers.