Agent productivity is always top of mind for contact center leaders. But particularly so when their organizations are facing economic and business challenges like inflation, demand and cost changes, and impatient high-growth-expecting investors.
On top of that, there is the New Normal of rising customer expectations for excellent service: while attracting and retaining staff to provide it risks becoming difficult with the Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting amidst slowing labor supply growth.
That New Normal also includes employees, like contact center agents working from home (WFH), full-time, or in hybrid arrangements.
To get a handle on the key contact center productivity trends and how industry leaders can anticipate and respond to them I had a conversation recently with contact center operations and technology authority Laura Sikorski. Read on for her insights and recommendations.
Q. What are, and prioritize, the top agent productivity trends? Explore the factors driving them.
Laura Sikorski: Let’s begin by first defining what I feel Agent Productivity entails.
For me, an agent can only be productive if they work for a company that has a positive culture. One that pays well, engages them to participate in process changes and/or development, has clearly defined career paths, and which provides appropriate training (product and soft skills), eLearning, coaching, and job tools to satisfy and meet the expectations of their customers.
Remember: training is an investment NOT an expense!
If employees do not like to come to work they will not be productive. Communication is the single most important factor to avoid low productivity. Let staff know what is expected on their first day of work. Encourage asking questions, requesting special projects, and reaching out for more training or coaching.
Watch out for the new “Quiet Quitting” employee. This is when a staff member works the minimum to satisfy their pay grade. They generally do not go “the extra mile” to be the best agent they can.
…an agent can only be productive if they work for a company that has a positive culture.
Management’s measurement of agent productivity can become more of what vendors are “pushing” and what reports are available for viewing. I have attended many demos recently and come away amazed, asking myself when supervisors and quality assurance (QA) staff will have the time to adequately coach their staff to become better at their jobs.
First, my advice is to not be a spreadsheet/numbers company. Create a focus group of agents and discuss what they feel should be measured and how it should be tied to their compensation. This of course will evolve into interesting conversations and end with agents having a better understanding of why performance evaluations and productivity are important to them and their customers.
Many companies use the number of calls an agent takes per hour, time they are on the phone talking, and time spent in chat or on special projects. If these measurements are used for pay increases they will only help agents if quality is measured.
Average Speed of Answer (ASA), and meeting Service Levels (SL) should not be an agent productivity measurement as they cannot control the number of staff that are required to process an interaction. These should instead be Manager/Supervisor productivity measurements (see box).
Q. Has the need for productivity changed over the past year and if so, how, and why?
Laura Sikorski: Productivity and performance are synonymous; however, the methodology used to evaluate has changed over the years.
Companies have moved from “telephone-only” operations to a transaction-based multi-channel model. QA staff monitor performance and supervisors and/or team leads are challenged to keep agents trained and motivated.
We are now relying on pre-hire testing, transaction recordings (voice and screen capture – during and post interaction wrap-up), online performance evaluations, customer and employee surveys, eLearning, system analytics, and automated speech analytics. These systems provide standardization and easy navigation.
Q. The U.S. economy appears to be facing both high inflation and a recession. Will they have an impact on contact centers and on productivity?
Laura Sikorski: Inflation and recession will have a serious impact on customer buying habits and their service expectations.
In my opinion, staffing in the contact center will be greatly affected. Companies will reduce agent staff due to loss of revenue and remaining staff will feel the burden of increased interaction volume.
Quiet Quitting will be the norm, layoffs and staff reductions will increase, and unemployment will be visible in every market.
Q. Artificial intelligence (AI) has been promoted as a tool to improve contact center efficiency. But is it effective and is it delivering on the promises?
Laura Sikorski: AI is only effective when designed with agent input and pilot tested.
Chat seems to be the recipient of AI technology; however, in most cases, customers are frustrated. It is almost as bad as phone trees! Clear reasons why AI is needed MUST be developed first.
Common chat issues are too many questions, no easy way “to get out” and speak to an agent, and it just takes too long, especially for customers who do not type quickly.
I think Conversational AI when used to assist agents while on a live call is great as it directly influences productivity. When designed correctly, it can teach and coach and will increase customer and agent satisfaction.
Q. Discuss the state of the agent desktop experience. Can it be improved, and if so, how?
Laura Sikorski: Let’s be honest the agent desktop is their lifeline to satisfy customers.
I recommend side-by-siding with senior staff and new-hires and watch how they use the supplied software to handle interactions on “live” calls. Take special note of network response times, screen freezes, and how many URL tabs are used/opened to satisfy a customer interaction. This will help guide a decision on new agent desktop software.
In all honesty, when I do an audit, side-by-side agent interviews are a high priority. I learn so much from the staff and what they need to do their job correctly the first time.
I am always amazed at how cumbersome it is to find answers, place orders, and contact other departments. “Agent short-cuts” or “agent quick tricks” are incredible. These are generally operational, more logical, and usually involve CRM screen navigation. Most of the time, these improvisations are not learned during training or shared with management.
You may want to put together a Task Force to review “agent quick tricks” with IT. This department will most likely be able to modify the software to make an agent’s life much easier and ensure there are no security or compliance issues.
Be sure staff knows why these interviews are being done and that the agents’ honesty is paramount.
Q. There has been a debate whether WFH has improved or hindered productivity. Please discuss.
Laura Sikorski: WFH has created an entirely new productivity dilemma. It has become evident that agents are the holders of their own success and destiny. They must have the full access and support of company technology, policies, and procedures. It is their responsibility to be more pro-active in their own training and coaching needs.
Remote working has brought about the need for rethinking the entire contact center operation. Namely:
- The software support systems on the agent and supervisor’s desktop.
- How agents and supervisors communicate with each other.
- How technology and IT equipment support is provided.
- How productivity will be evaluated and monitored.
- Attendance/schedule adherence requirements.
- Insurance and tax considerations.
- How to guarantee the safety, welfare, and wellbeing of these employees.
Support systems are vital to remote workers so they can react and feel part of the entire company. These workers must have easy access to support for software, communications platforms, internet speed, reliability, and security, workforce management tools, knowledge management, recordings, analytics, and AI.
Remote working has brought about the need for rethinking the entire contact center operation.
They need the ability to process interactions with minimal assistance yet can get help quickly from supervisors or team leads.
I would like to key in on the home workspace. Work environment, mental health, safety, and wellbeing need to be assessed, certified, tested, and monitored before an employee takes their first interaction.
I feel that this responsibility belongs to Human Resources as part of the onboarding process. They should be coordinating equipment requirements, single sign-on and password to access all support systems, and remote testing with IT. All IT equipment, internet access, and installation should be provided by the company.
Believe it or not, there are remote employee lawsuits stating they were not correctly advised how to set up their workspace. Falls and fires have occurred.
Q. What are your recommendations to contact centers?
Laura Sikorski: Finding and retaining qualified staff is the most challenging responsibility for contact center management and has a direct correlation to staff productivity.
Managing turnover, in my opinion, regardless of the percentage, is the most difficult task for managers.
Continuous feedback by managers will open communication “doors,” improve staff relationships, and boost their productivity. Be empathetic, let staff know why feedback is being provided and be specific.
Finding and retaining qualified staff is the most challenging responsibility for contact center management.
Keep in mind the adage “one size does not fit all.” When providing feedback, associate it between customer satisfaction and employee productivity. It will help if staff “hears and sees” the issue on a recording and/or in a screen capture.