Weighing the Pros and Cons of Cross-Trained Agents
| Published: April 20, 2017 | Comments
One of the fundamental questions that gets asked in the call center services procurement process is: will we have a dedicated team of agents or will they be shared? It’s a great question and seems pretty straightforward, right? A dedicated team is always the best solution … or is it? Say you’ve been charged with putting together an RFP for contact center services. Your company experiences both unpredictable spikes in volume and predictable and/or seasonal spikes. In addition, you are concerned about an outsourcer being able to fully represent your brand. And of course, the bottom line is important. When does having a dedicated team of agents to protect your brand take priority over the need to effectively conquer those spikes in volume? Does the need to handle the spikes capably take precedence over cost-effectiveness? Or, can a contact center outsourcer put together a program that takes care of all three priorities effectively? We believe that an out-of-the-box deployment of cross-trained agents can, in some instances, be a client’s best solution. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons.
The Advantage of Cross-Trained Contact Center Agents
Scheduling for maximum efficiency and flexibility is one of the most crucial tasks in your contact center (in fact, it’s one of the things your Workforce Management team wishes HR knew). And one of the significant benefits of having access to a pool of cross-trained contact center agents is that your project reaps the rewards of flexibility and efficiency without the associated costs of having dedicated agents standing by to meet unexpected, or even expected, spikes. (Why is efficiency is critical to the mix even if your program is a per-transaction model? Efficiency is what allows your contact center partner to stay competitive and keep your costs down.)
Let’s be clear on the definition of “cross-trained” before we dig into this further. At Blue Ocean, a cross-trained agent is someone who has a “home” project where they spend 80 to 90% of their time AND they have been fully trained and regularly take calls for a second project. This is not a “shared pool” approach where agents concurrently support up to three clients with low volume requirements. These are agents who can, when needed and when volume allows, be switched from their home project to temporarily support another client.
There are three essential elements for this to work:
- Agent profiles have to be aligned. The sure fire recipe for a customer experience disaster is trying to put a square peg in a round hole. The agent skills and natural attributes have to line up on both home project and secondary project.
- Arrival patterns have to complement each other, not compete with each other. If seasonal peaks happen at the same or over-lapping times or if intraday or intraweek volume tends to spike at similar times, you’ll rarely be able to deploy the cross-trained team members.
- Agents must regularly be scheduled to take calls on their secondary project to keep their skills sharp and their knowledge current.
If those stars align and your contact center demonstrates excellence in forecasting and scheduling, cross-training as part of your solution can contribute to key metrics like faster speed of answer during spikes and ultimately increased customer satisfaction. For projects with significant unpredictable volume (emergency roadside assistance, for example, where weather plays a huge role in volume), cross-trained agents who can be deployed with little or no notice represent the ultimate flexible workforce.
The Downside to Cross-Trained Contact Center Agents
Skeptics to the cross-training model frequently turn to the familiar saying, “a Jack of all trades is master of none.” That’s the biggest potential disadvantage of sharing agents across projects; when an agent must represent multiple brands and spread their skills between them all, there’s the potential that the brand experience may be impacted. That’s where careful management that can balance all the moving parts and adapt to changes efficiently is absolutely vital. It’s where the first of our three essential elements comes into play – the agent profile has to be a fit. The required levels of empathy, technical knowledge, problem-solving and other skills must be carefully aligned so a single agent can meet the need of every client they’re supporting. That’s non-negotiable in our world.
Training and continual learning are a challenge in the cross-trained model. Your outsourced partner needs to manage the process diligently. There would be few worse things for your customer experience than to get an agent who is out of touch with systems or whose knowledge is out of date. In order for the model to work, agents have to be almost as strong on their secondary project as the agents who call that project home. Why is it okay to say almost as strong? Because protecting your customer service in peak times or crushing spikes is the goal. So, for example, getting the call answered quickly because you have more available agents thanks to cross-training adds may be more important than a slightly longer handle time from a cross-trained agent.
The HR side of hiring for cross-trained agents can also be a challenge. The ideal contact center agent profile for an agent who is going to be successful in a cross-trained model must include a preference for switching tasks and must be comfortable with a degree of unpredictability in their work day. They’re often people who love learning and enjoy the adrenaline boost that comes with change.
The Pros and Cons of Cross-Trained Agents
The choice to leverage the advantages of cross-trained contact center agents depends heavily upon your specific needs, brand, and performance metrics. At Blue Ocean, we work closely with our clients to determine the best fit for their project. But as you put that call center RFP together, we would encourage you to ask not just “Will we have dedicated or shared agents?” But perhaps, “What model do you recommend for staffing our program to meet our KPIs given our unique arrival patterns and seasonal peaks?
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