Growing customer and senior management expectations. Shifting from in-store retail to online shopping. Working from home (WFH). The rise of digital channels. Video instead of in-person interactions. The Great Resignation. Looming labor shortages.
All of these factors and others, which have arguably been accelerated and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, have implications for contact center performance.
To uncover how managers can best plan and respond we recently interviewed Michael Lawder, Chief Experience Officer, ASAPP.
Q. What are the top contact center issues that your clients are seeing and their drivers?
Agents are leaving at a record pace. It’s truly the Great Resignation. Nearly 20 million resigned from their jobs in spring and summer 2021. Agents are in low-pay roles, and they are leaving for less stressful jobs, so as an industry we are struggling to hire and retain staff.
People are this industry’s most important asset. Therefore, we need to ensure that they have the best tools and training to cope with the challenging demands of customer service, especially as customer expectations are rising as we go digital and virtual: a trend that started prior to the pandemic.
Unfortunately, there is now a wide service gap between what customers want and what agents are having to deliver. In some cases, according to a report that we recently completed that looked into the working lives of agents, less than 50% of agent interactions are resolved the first time.
When agents can’t answer the phones immediately customer frustration rises. So agents need new ways to be empowered with the technology and training to handle customer issues.
Yes, training is one of the biggest cost drivers for the industry. But a lack of it lowers agent confidence resulting in poor performance, unhappy customers, and higher risks of burnout and attrition. In a recent ASAPP survey, agents listed coaching and training, along with career growth opportunities, as the top issues for companies to address.
Q. Has coaching and supervising to address these matters become more difficult since the onset of the pandemic?
Yes. WFH has made it difficult to have impactful and supportive dialogs with agents, whether it’s input into technical issues, soft skills, or just the hallway conversations that cement the working relationships. It can also make it harder to preserve the culture of a company.
Hands-on-coaching, training, and role-playing is critical, especially for new agents. They can make the difference between having a cost center versus a value center: which they are for a brand.
77% of agents told us that hands-on training and side-by-side shadowing is more effective and critical than reading a manual, especially after conversations with customers.
However, we’ve lived in a digital environment for some time. Thankfully, we can now simulate real-life customer scenarios by using artificial intelligence (AI) that trains on historical company data.
These AI-driven company simulations bespoke to each company’s culture and the complex situations they handle with customers, so new agents can feel confident in properly communicating with them. It equally works on helping experienced agents who need extra support in specific situations.
Q. Are agents becoming bored in answering simple calls, and frustrated in not being able to handle more challenging interactions? If so, how important are these factors in driving high turnover rates?
As a former agent myself one thing I know is that what drives agents is to help people. There’s a great sense of happiness and satisfaction in being able to serve others and solve their problems. Our recent report surprised me by revealing that 72% of agents said they want to solve customers’ simple tasks.
I think what that points to is that agents are handling even more complex tasks than ever before. That’s because technology has contained the simpler customer requests. Meanwhile, wait times have skyrocketed during the pandemic, causing a rise in customer frustration where expectations are that we get responses immediately.
When agents aren’t empowered to solve customers’ issues, it points to a lack of infrastructure to solve the complex matters. This is the enabling documentation, tools, and procedures within an organization that are critical and which need to be easily accessible.
Nothing is worse than not being able to help someone: it’s disheartening for the agents.
And when agents aren’t empowered to solve problems it drives up attrition. Additionally, while real-time feedback from supervisors is incredibly useful, negative customer survey feedback to agents in real-time can sometimes serve to exacerbate the anxiety agents experience: and drive attrition too.
However, with complex AI machine learning models trained on a company’s contact center data, and the best agents’ actions and words, it’s possible to provide all agents the information that is needed to solve those complex customer issues.
Nothing is worse than not being able to help someone: it’s disheartening for the agents. It’s key then that agents are empowered to do their jobs, aided by AI that elevates their performance.
Q. Have contact centers experienced increased difficulty with agent training?
It’s not that training has become difficult, it’s different. Agents represent the voice of a company’s brand and contact centers are adapting and changing their training and metrics because of digital: a change that was already underway before the pandemic catalyzed the increasing need.
When agents are away from the brick-and-mortar office, there’s a heavier reliance on technology to provide feedback because there isn’t that in-person shadowing or looking over the shoulder.
In past times, feedback was based on one, or two, conversations. Now with AI technologies, companies can have a world where 100% of conversations are recorded and transcribed.
Machine learning can analyze everything that agents and customers say, and the actions agents take, to actually score the results of those conversations based on what companies know about their CSATs or NPSs.
Suddenly you’re getting this 360-degree view of each agent. The feedback you’re now providing them then becomes extremely targeted and powerful and reflects very specifically where they need to improve, rather than the usual one-off thing that happens in most contact centers today.
At the same time, onboarding is the foundation for successful—or unsuccessful—agents. But how it’s done builds confidence in their abilities. It can determine how long an agent stays, how well they enjoy their role, and how satisfied they are with their job.
Hands-on training and shadowing are still the most effective techniques for onboarding new agents. But the pandemic has catalyzed the need for simulations, given that traditional brick-and-mortar offices are still not fully in operation and that many agents are and will likely continue to WFH.
While there’s not a lot of role-playing as training environments don’t work with the 20 different systems that customers may have, some of the newer AI and machine learning platforms can simulate customer interactions.
A supervisor can go into the administrative panel and shape how an agent is coached by giving them situations, such as how to handle an emotional customer. Or how to handle a complex networking issue with another customer. The agent in training can experience both customers.
These simulated customers scenarios are powered by AI and are created based on historical training data and historical conversations from the company.
These scenarios literally simulate what the agents are going through talking to customers, essentially role-playing the areas that the agent is going to support. Or, in the case of more experienced agents, where they need more experience or help with getting better.
This is a whole new way of training and coaching that is very targeted for specific training and on the job coaching.
Q. Many customers are using online channels to engage with agents. Have they helped or made performance management including training more complex?
Digital broke the model of contact centers that have been operating the same way for the last 30 years.
There’s lots of ways that technology like AI can help with training and coaching. Implemented well, digital programs are going to transform both the customer experience (CX) and contact center agents’ work lives for the better.
Much of the last three decades has been focused on building call centers to support telephone calls.
So how a company staffs, and schedules people to take calls, how they do training and development, and how they measure the success—or failure—of performance has all been based on that one singular synchronous phone call. And the one agent doing the support for that phone call.
Take for example, most supervisors are supposed to evaluate a set number of random calls, or transcripts, per week for each agent. That’s a lot of time and many supervisors don’t have the time to sample enough calls to accurately reflect an agent’s work.
Today, more advanced AI—speech recognition, natural language processing, and machine learning—automates that role to provide a supervisor the ability to understand and evaluate every conversation in a much more reliable way to help agents.
Moreover, consumers can now have asynchronous conversations with big companies in the same place they talk to their friends and family through Apple messages for business or Google Business Messenger.
Companies are enabling customers to ask questions on digital messaging channels asynchronously.
With it, once the questions are asked customers can come back to the responses at their convenience. This has broken the paradigm of synchronous measurement of telephone performance being based on time or on other archaic legacy metrics.
Asynchronous digital communication is so powerful. Not only it is how people now communicate with each other it’s also more cost-effective for companies. If done right, it can allow agents to handle as many as three customers at a time. It’s a real CX differentiator and points to a better experience for agents and customers alike.
Q. What are your recommendations to contact centers to help them address these issues?
Delivering great service is good business. Companies are still trying to figure out how to grow and scale their digital capabilities. Investments in training coaching, technology, and career opportunities are the three major investment areas.
We’re seeing people leave the industry for an extra $1-$2 per hour in other industries. Agents already make up 2% of the U.S. workforce yet 74% view themselves as brand ambassadors for their company. Therefore, agents need support and feedback, yet 37% said it’s been difficult to get them during the pandemic, and poor-quality feedback is a frustration point.
Now is a great opportunity to leverage technology to tackle this fundamental challenge of managing quality in a CX or contact center operation.
With the WFH dynamic there’s an opportunity to drive improvements to the agents and their performance and the quality they are delivering and overall drive better collaboration communication just by having better intelligence and giving them the feedback.
Finally, metrics matter. Measuring success is critical and measuring what truly matters is good for operations.
So, it’s important to redefine what success is, and look at the various metrics which help customers with their challenges.
The future is going towards being more predictive by solving the problems that a company anticipates in the future, which avoids further costs.
In the industry we want people who are engaged, represent the brand positively, and who are empowered to help customers.
Going above and beyond to help customers can increase the success of CX engagement and the lifetime value that companies want to generate from customer interactions.