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Expert's Angle: The People in Your Neighborhood: The Agent

Who are the people in your contact center "neighborhood"? Read the previous article, Meet the Customer.

The Agent is the Cornerstone of your Contact Center

Meet the Agent

Welcome again to our series “The People in Your Neighborhood.” Today we introduce you to [drumroll] the AGENT!

Perhaps it’s stating the obvious to say that the agent plays a critically important role in the customer service system:

  • The AGENT is the person the CUSTOMER is most likely to interact with
  • The AGENT is the FACE of your COMPANY
  • The AGENT has the most power to satisfy a client in real time
  • The AGENT talks to more actual customers than anyone else

To paraphrase ICMI’s Brad Cleveland, the challenge of contact center management is having the right people available at the right time with the right resources. The right resources include training and the technological tools to do the job well. Without proper training and tools, we accept that agents will not be prepared to handle calls well, and ultimately they won’t handle calls well.

Ironically, as important as the agent is to the business, the agent is in many respects powerless to affect the system in which they operate. The Customer Service System - the neighborhood we’re talking about in this series - is governed by decisions made at the management level, without input from the agents.

Let’s take a closer look what the agent cannot control:

  • The agent is not in charge of how calls are routed
  • The agent is not in charge of the IVR and how technology may be used to thwart or satisfy customers
  • The agent is nearly powerless to affect HOLD TIMES
  • The agent is powerless to affect the script they’re forced to read
  • The agent does not decide whether or not to attempt up-sells to already dissatisfied customers

However, where the agent is powerless, management is not.

  • It is management that affects hold times by choices made in staffing.
  • It is management that may or may not invest in technology to allow customers to serve themselves within the IVR, or intelligently route calls based on call type
  • It is management that writes the scripts that agents must follow
  • It is management that must synchronize the customer service group with the rest of the organization

The problem I’m getting at is that the Agent is only able to do his or her very best in the system set up by management; it’s up to management to ensure that the system is set up right.

Common Pitfalls: Failure to Sufficiently Invest in Customer Service

The Agent is critical to the mission of ensuring optimal customer satisfaction and retention, as critical as the soldier on the battlefield. For this reason, The Business must invest in the agent. If The Business doesn’t invest in the agent, the customer will suffer, and in turn will take their frustration out on the agent and ultimately, the company.

For the purposes of this article, think about the relationship between customer and agent as the fundamental commercial transaction. When someone calls Customer Service, it’s as if they’ve walked up to a counter. The customer wants only one thing - they want a solution to their problem.

The Agent, in this example, is behind the counter, and they want only one thing - to hand the solution over the counter to the customer.

If we diagram this, it’s simple. Agent A hands Solution B to Customer C. Simple!

Of course, it’s never really simple, is it? When we look at the contact center, our number one goal is always to try and make the transaction this simple. We streamline wherever possible.

On the customer side, don’t put an obstacle course in front of the counter. This means don’t put a convoluted IVR between the caller and the agent. Make the path direct. On the agent side, make the agent as ready as they can be with the solution. That’s what we’re looking at today. Give the agent the tools they need to provide solutions to customers as quickly as possible. On the product side, remember that focusing on quality at the product level will always make your contact center life much, much easier!

So What Do We Do?

We must invest in the agent. In a non-scientific test, I determined that 99% of queue hold messages say, “Your call is very important to us.” As a customer, I believe that this is true less than 100% of the time. Excellent customer service means backing up that claim, and that means having a well designed system for serving customers that gives agents to the tools they need to do their job well. Let’s look at those necessary tools.

Tools Agents Need


They need training to be expert on the products they support. If there are too many products for agents to be expert in all of them, then you must sort the calls before they get to the agents. Use distinct numbers (DIDs) and well designed IVRs to make sure the customers get to the right desk. Customers who end up at the wrong agent will be hotter than New Orleans in August when they get to the right agent, and they are likely to abuse that agent. If agents are unable to provide answers to clients, it reflects very poorly on the company. In days gone by, the client would simply churn to a competitor as quickly as possible. That’s bad enough, but today the client will badmouth you on Twitter and Facebook on their way to the competitor. A viable business can’t afford this. Training is an investment that a contact manager should not skimp on.

A Powerful and Useful Knowledge Base

The Knowledge Base is a tool that agents must have and critical to ensuring that service is both quick and consistent. This is no longer cutting-edge technology, and a contact center without a knowledge base is not serious about customer service. Agents need the tools easily at hand to get customers the solutions they want, need, and deserve.

The knowledge base should include: product information, and FAQs to answer customer questions. It should also allow agents to search and find a history of problems agents have solved. Agents need to have the experience of other agents at their fingertips. Without this, valuable knowledge walks out the door every time an agent quits. The knowledge base should include - or be integrated with - the customer record so that when “Irate Irene” calls, the Agent is not dealing with the call in a vacuum, but rather with the whole history of this customer's calls. For example, if this is the 4th time today that Irene has called, that’s never going to be because she is sooooo happy talking to agents. The call should be taken in context.

Screen Pops
We can, will, and do make this observation repeatedly: As technology improves, expectations rise, and what used to be good enough, is no longer good enough.

Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) binds information about a caller to the call. This allows systems to provide agents with screen pops. Like the Knowledge Base, Screen Pops are no longer cutting edge, and they are required as part of excellent customer service. If the system is not popping up information about the call to the agent as it arrives, the system is outdated and customer service is suffering. A system without screen pops is a telltale sign of an organization that’s not serious about customer service.

An Intelligently Designed System

An agent should be working in an intelligently designed system, where the left hand knows what the right hand is doing. The IVR is connected to the contact center and is routing calls effectively and efficiently. All channels (phone, web, chat, social) are in sync. The system includes non-technical factors like marketing releases and sales efforts. Intra-organizational communication and coordination is part of getting the most out of the contact center. When agents don’t have the tools they need, they can’t deliver the results customers expect. When marketing doesn’t let the contact center know about a release, the agent is blindsided and it’s the customer who sees the disconnect.

A Clear Direction
Another aspect of customer service that the agent has no control over is the mission of the contact center. Contact Centers should focus on customer satisfaction first, and other priorities should be secondary. There can only be one top priority. Agents who are asked to prioritize selling will necessarily put customer satisfaction in second place. It is management who is responsible for setting the priorities in the contact center. It is management who must set the goals for the business as a whole, and the contact center can only help to reach those goals.

Management is furthermore responsible for providing the resources necessary to reach the company’s stated goals.

Goals that are in conflict confuse the agents and prevent optimization of the customer service system. For example, increasing first call resolution and reducing occupancy might both be stated goals of management, but the efforts required to ensure first call resolution can increase occupancy.

Agents Need To Not Be Blindsided
One could truthfully say that the job of Contact Center Agent is not a strenuous job, but it would be wrong to say that it’s an easy job.

The work can be monotonous, and the cubicle environment can be painfully reminiscent of the film, Office Space. That’s on a good day! Agents want to help. When calls come in, they are poised (metaphorically, at least) to pounce on the problems of customers. However, if agents are not prepared to handle calls well, they won’t handle calls well.

To be blindsided is “to be attacked critically where a person is vulnerable, uninformed, etc.” For most of us it means to be hit by something we didn’t see coming. At a tactical level, with screen pops and caller information, the agents have a better view of the field they’re playing on. At a strategic level, keeping the contact center up to date on marketing and sales efforts is critical to keeping the staff properly informed.

Invest in Agents - Invest in Customer Satisfaction

Management makes implicit promises of quality when a product is released. An explicit claim is made when the queue message says, “Your call is very important to us.”  The agent is at once on the hook for the promised quality, and dependent on management to be able to deliver.

If you don’t invest in your agents, you show that call was NOT that important to you. If it were, you’d have created a better system.

Chris Burgoyne is a Quality and Delivery Manager for Vision Point Systems. He holds a Masters degree from Virginia Tech University.