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Creating the Agent of Tomorrow

Transforming enterprise skills to manage increasingly informed customers

The biggest challenge in customer service isn’t how to deal with interactions across an ever-increasing number of channels.  Instead, the real issue is how these increased channels have changed the nature of interactions.  Through social media, review sites, online communities and price comparisons, customers are more informed than ever before.  In fact, they are often more informed than the employees that are serving them – yet quite rightly still expect consistent and high levels of service and responsiveness.  And this situation will likely intensify.

The old mantra that the customer is always right has suddenly become a daunting challenge. They are now right... to the power of ten. From the high street to the contact center to the back-office, sales staff can no longer get by using pre-scripted answers or blinding customers with spin. Instead, this savvy generation of consumers expects employees to know about an ever-greater range of products, issues, applications and services and to engage in increasingly complex interactions to make the sale – actively seeking to put them on the back foot by throwing new information at them about competitors’ pricing or product issues.

Nor is this problem exclusive to the sales environment: it’s equally true of service departments, stores, branches and anywhere you engage with customers. When a customer calls to complain, they already know – thanks to a multitude of discussion forums – that they’re not the only one that’s experienced a certain issue. They may have tried a few solutions already, so won’t be fobbed off with a direction to try the online help. And if they’re willing to wait several minutes in a queue for expensive telephone support, they emphatically don’t expect to be greeted by an agent who isn’t familiar with their product or the issue.

For frontline employees, whether in the high street or the contact center, it’s a difficult and often dispiriting experience. How do they deal with these complex, challenging, often emotionally charged and technical encounters?  How will they manage as customers just keep getting smarter?   The smoke and mirrors of traditional business encounters has been cleared away; transparency, depth and detail have taken its place and your employees have nowhere to hide. And critically, where do they go for the support?

The agent of the tomorrow will need to be a multi-tasking, multi-skilled ‘knowledge’ worker; a problem solver, project manager and psychologist.

The evolving role of frontline staff

The role of frontline staff is evolving – fast. In any given day, they may need to be a consultative problem-solver one minute and a market analyst the next. In the same interaction, they need to deploy psychology skills to understand and empathize with a customer’s responses, and project management skills to negotiate and then drive through a solution with the wider business.

This isn’t something that traditional training methods can prepare staff adequately for. The knowledge required for one interaction – detailed understanding of a particular short-term offer or specialized product – may not be relevant the next day. Customers might be willing to wait a couple of hours for a call-back, allowing an agent time to research the issue and come back with a suitable answer, but they can’t wait till the agent has booked a day off to attend a course.

For the organizations they work for this is a massive challenge. How do you give your staff the skills and knowledge to respond effectively and maintain or enhance the customer experience, without compromising productivity or burdening the organization with massive cost?

This is not a problem that can be solved by the traditional methods of people development and training support. The volume and depth of information available is too great to be covered practically in the classroom; collation is too and the speed of change is too fast. Learning and development programs simply cannot keep up.  A different approach is needed, one which enables employees to take greater responsibility for building their skills – a “pull” model where they can access the information and learning opportunities they need in a timely way to meet the demands of this savvy generation of consumers, and in a way that suits the performance and work demands of the enterprise.

Evolving learning for these evolving roles

Instead, what today’s staff need are the tools and resources to build their knowledge at their own speed and in response to their immediate needs: online information, eLearning materials, access to in-company experts who can provide a response. They can then check the truth of what a customer is claiming, compare prices and deals, understand differences and technical features – all of which makes for more effective service and more satisfied customers.

Of course, alongside this, there needs to be a cultural change which encourages those same staff to take the time to upskill and find answers. Granted, it might take them away from the frontline for a few minutes, but if that leads to a purchase being completed, or a customer being retained, that’s money well spent for the business. Alternatively, where staff realize they have a significant knowledge gap, they can then seek in-depth training at a more convenient time.

From the individual employee’s perspective, this is also more rewarding work: solving a problem is far more satisfying than listening gloomily (and helplessly) to another complaint. Staff typically welcomes the opportunity to manage an issue through to resolution, to complete a sale, to build their own knowledge and to interact with other parts of the organization. As a result, the consequences in terms of increased retention are obvious, which also means that the business investment in learning and development is working harder: you keep the skills the company has acquired, rather than seeing them walk out the door.

Such an approach empowers and motivates individual employees to take responsibility for their own development, whilst at the same time equipping management with the controls, insight and comfort to effectively steward this liberated and more effective workforce.

This may seem like a radical vision – a high-risk departure from a tried and tested approach to L&D. But take a closer look at the L&D models in operation in most organizations and an uncomfortable truth emerges: most training isn’t working. It’s costly – and all too often it isn’t clear what you get back for your money. It’s generally slow and lags the needs of the staff – when it happens at all. What’s more, throwing more money at the problem (while maintaining the same approach) actually won’t help.

From push to pull: the alternative approach to L&D

How can you practically deliver learning on a “pull” basis – where individual employees are able to access the learning they need when they need it? How can you hand over control of learning to staff, without losing control of what those employees are actually doing with their time? And above all, how can you start to achieve a clearer link between the investment you make in L&D and business results?

To meet these challenges, organizations need a technological solution that enables them to align their approach to L&D with today’s customer management challenges - giving staff the opportunities to develop their own skills but also giving businesses the insight they need to understand what skills drive performance, and how these can best be acquired and nurtured. Such a solution must combine a rich source of management information with practical user tools, blending the best of “push” learning – managers actively targeting specific improvements in the skills and knowledge of team members – with a new era of “pull” learning that puts staff in the driving seat.

Instead of assuming everyone at a certain level has certain skills, or that skill levels equate simply to what training has been completed, organizations need to develop a true picture of each individual’s abilities and skills gaps. This should be based not only on training courses attended but should also performance data, manager feedback, results of online tests and crucially self-assessment.

On an individual level, this then forms the basis for staff to take control of their development. They can see what skills they have but also what they might need – either within their current role or to further their career. They can investigate ways to build their skills, from finding and using online assets such as eLearning materials to registering an interest in classroom training relevant and specific to them. They can ask for colleague support, contact trainers, alert their managers to learning opportunities they want to take and continue to measure progress.

Above all, in a ‘live’ context, where they need information to help them respond effectively to customer queries or complaints, they are able to visit relevant websites, view company ‘crib sheets’ or product FAQ, and pull the information they need to manage the interaction successfully.  Alternatively, they can consult a database and find a colleague who is an expert in the issue – then either hand the customer on to them, or seek their input before answering.

Everybody benefits: employees, managers and customers

Suddenly, instead of these frontline staff feeling underappreciated and under-invested in, they are being trusted and empowered. What’s more, they are better able to keep pace and serve customers and meet their expectations.

Managers retain overall control, even as staff can make more choices.   Managers need to be able to identify exactly what skills gaps exist in their team and push relevant learning opportunities to team members. They need to see requests for learning and factor that in to scheduling, perhaps identifying a suitable timeslot outside of peak demand, or where there is sufficient cover. Managers need to correlate their L&D and staff skills with business success –making sure employees do more of the stuff that works and helping their people succeed.

Servicing the savvy generation

As this article has explored, the changing landscape of customer interaction is changing the demands on frontline staff. Faced with an army of savvy consumers, the frontline has to be increasingly savvy itself – responding dynamically to shifts in the wider landscape (competitors’ deals, emerging product issues, negative feedback on review sites) and acquiring knowledge at speed to maintain customer trust and satisfaction.

In this evolving landscape, successful organizations will be the ones that best empower their people to gather that knowledge and build their skills. It is clear that traditional methods of learning cannot cope, which is why Silver Lining Solutions has built powerful performance optimization solutions to address the challenges and continuously underpin the success of the ‘agent of tomorrow’.

If you want to see how Silver Lining’s PerformanceDNA solutions could help your organization optimize its learning and use of skills, contact [email protected] to arrange a free optimization workshop.