My 10-year-old son thinks I am so old, I roamed the earth alongside the dinosaurs! He is right in one way: I started in the contact center industry when things were very primitive. In fact, I began as an agent in the “Phone Age” (rhymes with “Stone Age”). Phone calls accounted for 99% of customer interactions; the other 1% was written letters sent by postal mail.
Most calls involved simple transactions such as address changes, password resets and providing “brochure-like” information such as answering questions about rate plans. The requirement for getting a “call center” job back then involved having a good phone voice, friendliness and the technical ability to find information in a paper binder or through an early version of a customer relationship management (CRM) system.
After that came the “Multichannel/Omnichannel Age.” Customers could now use different channels to get help. They could access support by phone, email, live chat, SMS/text and social media. That meant a customer selected a communication channel and agents helped them via that channel. It was a major advance in customer service driven by improved technology.
Now we are in the “Age of AI (artificial intelligence).” Basic transactions such as address changes, password resets and providing “brochure-like” information can be done through AI chatbots and virtual agents. AI can also assist live agents during their interactions. For instance, AI can analyze a customer’s account and provide the agent with recommended upsells for their customer. These tools are redefining contact center customer service.
Human Skill Levels Evolve with Tool Development
Human eras are defined by their tools. For example, as humankind moved from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age, they moved from cutting with stone knives to using sharper bronze tools. This improvement in tools meant you could do more things, such as finer craft work with metal tools. It also meant skill levels needed to increase in parallel with tool development.
Contact center “ages” are also shaped by their tools. The change from a primarily phone-based era to an omnichannel environment meant agents’ written communication skills became more important. Reading customer text became as important as listening to a customer’s voice over the phone. The ability to type quickly and express thoughts concisely via text became as important as speaking clearly on a phone call. The ability to multitask across two or three chats at once became as important as giving your customer your undivided attention on the phone. Skill levels evolved to match these new tools.
How does the “Age of AI” change the skills needed by agents? With AI chatbots skimming off “easy” calls, agents need advanced product knowledge and problem-solving skills to handle higher-level inquiries and solve more complex issues for customers. They also need emotional intelligence, negotiation and conflict resolution capability so they can handle emotional issues when customers want to talk with a live person.
Work-from-Home Agents Require Unique Skills
Concurrent with the “Age of AI” is the ability to work from home. A work-from-home (WFH) environment demands agents who are self-motivated, independent and can think on their feet. WFH agents need to be self-managed since their team leader could be across town, or even in another state. They need to be reliable, well-organized and self-disciplined so they can be trusted to log in on time, every time, from their living room or bedroom. They also need emotional maturity and the ability to bounce back from difficult customer interactions. That is especially important since a higher percentage of interactions will now be “difficult” or “highly emotional.”
An agent’s technological skill level is another factor. While the IT team can examine an onsite agent’s computer in person, a WFH agent needs enough technical savvy to troubleshoot their own computer and internet issues in their home office. That requires a higher skill set.
Speaking of skill sets: Remember when the hiring criteria for the “Phone Age” was friendliness, a good phone voice and the ability to learn basic product and procedural information? Now consider the requirements for a work-from-home omnichannel agent in the “Age of AI.” If you were to place a truthful job posting, it might read:
Aside from the minimum wage, does that sound like an entry-level job?
Of course not. That creates a challenge. As the need for higher-level skills increases, the pool of potential candidates with those skills shrinks. So, it becomes more challenging to find good people. Increasing your compensation range can attract candidates who already possess those skills. Another approach is hiring candidates with the aptitude to learn those skills and then train them.
Team Leader Roles Must Keep Pace with Change
From a training perspective, the key is to provide continuous learning throughout an agent’s time in the contact center. That means training the basics in new-hire classes and then bolstering those skills with weekly or monthly skills upgrade sessions. That includes blending live, instructor-led training and e-learning to help agents develop their skills. Topics include advanced customer service and sales skills lessons, along with emotional intelligence, problem-solving, negotiation and conflict resolution skills. In addition, they should be provided with stress management and resiliency training (especially for work-from-home agents who have less company support than on-site agents).
Along with the evolving agent role, how do the roles of team leader, quality assurance coach and workforce manager need to change? Think about it this way: AI is taking on transactions formerly handled by tier 1 agents, and agents are now moving up to tier 2 customer interactions.
This means that escalations forwarded to a team leader will be more complex so team leaders require additional training on dealing with irate customers and solving complex problems. They also require training on how to properly lead, coach and support higher-skilled agents, so training on DISC behavioral profiles and emotional intelligence will help them upgrade their team leader skills.
In addition, leaders of work-from-home teams need to be trained on how to build rapport, coach and lead teams virtually. Often, a team leader is the main lifeline between a work-from-home agent and the company.
Employee engagement is another key. Deloitte’s “Global Human Capital Trends” report shows that over 60% of candidates rank employee engagement as one—if not the—most impactful deciding factor for staying at a company.
Team leaders, quality assurance coaches and workforce management staff interact the most with WFH agents. Yet how many of them are trained in employee engagement practices? That means going beyond the “virtual coffees” and “online team-building events” to focus on what makes people stay with a company. That training should become another part of their development.
Customers’ Expectations Are Higher in the Age of AI
If agents feel engaged and have a great support system, they are more likely to remain at your company. Agent retention becomes more important since the cost of recruitment, compensation and continuous training is higher in the “Age of AI.” The old “agent assembly line” of recruiting, conducting new-hire training and losing 30% (or more) of your agents annually belongs in the bygone “Stone Age/Phone Age.”
Is it fine to stay in the Stone Age? There are still isolated tribes today that are in the Stone Age. If they do not interact with the outside world, their lack of technology and sophistication are not exposed. However, your customers will compare you to the BEST customer service they have ever experienced so if you are not in the “Age of AI,” customers will notice. Do not let your company treat customer service as an entry-level position. The skills required to be an agent in the “Age of AI” go beyond entry level.