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August 2008 | Volume 27 / Number 3
CRM, BPO & Teleservices

The Role of Agents and Their Impact on Customer Service

By Steve Loring
Business Development Manger, Customer Interaction Solutions, Dimension Data Americas

One of the biggest issues affecting customer service today is the role of the contact center agent. Dimension Data, a $3.8 billion leading IT solutions and services provider, recently researched the role of the agent and the agent's impact on customer satisfaction in the company's 10th annual Dimension Data Contact Center Benchmarking Report. The report is based on survey results from 300 contact centers in 36 countries across five continents. Survey results revealed numerous issues facing contact center agents today — three of which are cost reductions, query complexity and agent attrition.

Customer Expectations vs. Keeping Costs Down

One major factor impacting contact centers today is the balancing act that exists when a company is trying to keep costs down, while addressing increasing expectations from customers. Customer expectations for good service are increasing, contact centers are working to improve cost efficiency by asking their agents to handle as much customer contact in each transaction as is humanly possible. This results in increased pressure on the contact center agents to deliver an appropriate level of service in less time. Customers are also now becoming comfortable with multiple channels — telephone, e-mail, chat, Internet, mail — which also means that agents need to become fluent in all modes of contact in order to meet customers' needs.

While contact center managers today need to plan for more diverse contact types, the telephone call is still the most demanding and also the one that requires the most immediate attention. While the standard for answering the telephone is 70% of calls answered within 20 seconds, some e-mail service levels are measured in days. This indicates that customers will wait for an e-mail response, but want their phone calls answered immediately.

Query Complexity

Phone calls still put the greatest pressure and demands on contact center agents primarily because transactions are becoming more complex and telephone calls occur in real time. It's difficult to put a customer on hold for too long and the emotion of a caller is also often a factor in adding to the complexity. Language barriers between customer and agent sometimes come into play as well. Additionally, customers often call with more than one question during one call, and agents are expected to handle various product inquiries and know who to hand calls off to if they can't resolve an issue.

In addition, increased query complexity may also be the result of greater information availability. With so much information (not to mention, misinformation!) on the Internet, customers are more knowledgeable than ever. In fact, they are sometimes better versed in a topic than the agent! This paradox obviously makes helping them difficult, which puts further strain on contact center agents.

In fact, call complexity is one reason agents now spend about five minutes on each call they answer, up from 187 seconds in 1999, according to the Dimension Data report. And when considering the high volume of inbound calls, increasingly complex transactions and the general impatience level among customers to have their issue resolved on the first call, it's no wonder today's agents need to be more skilled than ever to deliver quality service.

What's helping these situations is technology. Today many callers are able to satisfy their requests in an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) unit for simple requests like account balances. When a company utilizes Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) capabilities, agents are often able to spend less time asking customers to repeat account information that they've already entered. CTI can also benefit the agent because often customer details and notes are “popped” to the screen when a call is transferred. This too can save time and bring an agent quickly up to speed in order to keep the call time as short as possible.

Absenteeism & Attrition

Today untrained, inexperienced agents often leave the job, adding to the burden of high agent turnover and absenteeism. This situation also impacts items including call length, budgets and ultimately customer service standards, as inexperienced agents come and go, disrupt the flow of a center and often add time to handling each call. The valuable contact center agents who do their jobs every day are often left with the responsibility of filling the void left by absent agents. When you consider the fact that the biggest expense in a contact center is its staff – which accounts for 60 % of a typical contact center budget – then call complexity, attrition and absenteeism are enormous issues.

So What Can Be Done?

Today, companies and contact centers are starting to realize that when agents feel valued and have personal development plans in place, there is a positive impact on attrition and absenteeism. At the same time, centers are being driven to hire agents who can handle multiple and diverse transactions in one call – resulting in agents who are more skilled, are capable of better self-management, demonstrate increased levels of motivation and have higher levels of competency. Additionally, the proper use of technology can enable agents to feel more in control of a customer situation. When customer account detail is available to an agent, the agent is more likely to feel more empowered and satisfied that they are helping the customer to resolve an issue.

Recommendations for improving agent performance include:

Understand the Business Objectives

Against this backdrop, it's important that agents also understand a company's business objectives. For example: How valuable is the customer? Does the company want to keep the customer for life? What does it really cost the company to get a new customer? What is the company's standard average time to answer?

When an agent grasps these elements, customer satisfaction delivery is easier. As a result, ensuring that agents understand the business and their role in service delivery can help solve typical contact center problems like call complexity, absenteeism and attrition. In a culture of open communication, agents will trust management and send out a positive impression to customers when they are motivated and understand the strategic vision.

Invest in Your Agents

By investing in and managing the needs and role of the agent, managers help agents better understand the corporate goals and better understand their career paths. When this occurs, both the agent and organization benefit from development, progression and promotion. At the same time, it's important to note that agent growth may not always center on advancement. Incentives can also be provided through development opportunities, lateral opportunities and job satisfaction techniques. To take that concept one step further, when teams of agents help define an incentive program, management has gone a long way in enabling agents to feel in control of their situation.

Refresher Training and Agent Incentives

Refresher training based on actual contact center experiences seems to be a valuable component in keeping agents engaged. When refresher training is initiated, agents seem to respond when managers measure transaction accuracy, timeliness, customer satisfaction and first call resolution statistics.

In Conclusion

Today there is slow evolution happening in the contact center, with companies looking at these issues and working to create the optimal environment and optimal support mechanisms to enable careers to flourish. Such an outcome involves retaining talent longer and enabling centers to become more cost-efficient — which, in turn, supports the delivery of higher-quality service. To that end, contact centers are increasingly working on the development of people-oriented policies, training and sound human resources planning. As a result, the role of contact center agent is moving away from the ‘dead-end job' to a fully-fledged service career, reaching out to specialist areas, support roles and to management.

Steve Loring is Business Development Manager, Customer Interaction Solutions at Dimension Data Americas. For more information, please visit the company online at http://www.dimensiondata.com.

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