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The Ultimate Showdown: Agent Stress vs the Customer Experience

"The customer is always right."

"Le client n'a jamais tort" (the customer is never wrong).

"Der Kunde ist Konig" (the customer is king).

It's ubiquitous, global, and constant: our focus on the customer experience. But here's a simple fact we sometimes seem to overlook. We can't actually control the customer experience. We can't touch it or feel it, and we certainly can't just pick it up, put it on a workbench and whittle away at it until it's perfectly streamlined and polished.

Agent Stress vs the Customer Experience

All that we can possibly hope to do is influence the customer experience through the people, processes, and technology upon which customer interactions depend. Of course, it's ultimately with our agents where those three factors converge to make or break each individual experience.

But with all of our focus on the customer, and on the goals, the metrics, staffing complexity--you name it--we sometimes lose sight of how very difficult a job our agents really have, and how much pressure we put on them to perform, even when the odds are stacked against them.

All of this adds up to one seemingly inevitable result: STRESS. For you, for your agents, and for the customers they serve. That's never more present or palpable than throughout the holiday season and New Year; and while it may be difficult to correlate or measure, anyone can see that agent stress can't be anything but detrimental to your customer experience.

The simple truth is that, for the most part, people treat others the way they are treated. So while we certainly can't govern every variable that influences agent stress, and the customer experience by extension, we certainly owe it to ourselves (and each other) to control the ones we can.

Contact center work is inherently stressful, since everything is moving at lightning speed. The research is clear that an agent's daily experience has the very real potential influence the service they provide with 92 percent of customers reporting that a customer service agent's perceived happiness has an impact on their experience. This goes to show just how important it is to make sure that contact center agents are equipped with the tools, processes, leadership, and culture required for excellent customer experiences.

Here at LiveOps we've created a formula: Better Agent Experience = Better Customer Experience = Better World.So how can you help your agents build a better world, one customer experience at a time? As with so many things in life, it's really about getting back to basics and fundamentals. So here are a few reminders about the steps you can take to help ensure more positive agent experiences, and in turn, more positive customer experiences.

Start with providing your agents the best possible tools and technology. There's no surer way to get stressed than to have issues with your system in the middle of a call, or to get lost in alt-tab hell with multiple screens open. It can be difficult to remain calm when we expect systems to just work and they don't. A cloud-based and integrated, multichannel desktop can go a long way to making customer interactions smoother, improving both the agent and customer experiences. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of the companies Ventana Research surveyed agree that a cloud-based contact center is the best way to move forward from a technology standpoint and the agents that participated in one of our own LiveOps studies estimated they could be 50 percent more productive with an integrated desktop that included social and mobile channels. When everything from customer history to order details to contact information is easily scannable in one place, agent calm ensues.

Develop best practices for customer interactions—for every channel. It doesn't have to be a script but should include details on the company voice or DOs and DON'Ts. Make sure your agents are equipped with guidelines for each type of customer interaction;and leave some room for personalization. It should be clear to your customer that they are interacting with a person, not a robot. Give your agents the space and autonomy to let some personality shine through. This not only humanizes your company, but it helps to give agents a sense of pride and personal ownership of the customer experience. In a dry, predictable world of overly scripted interactions and legal disclaimers, this step alone can transform your culture and the experience you deliver.

Along with that, give your agents soft skills training and establish a framework for diffusing especially challenging situations before escalation. Your agents should be, at a minimum aware - if not totally proficient in the arts of active listening, empathy, negotiation, self-control, mirroring, and creative-problem solving. Some of the best customer service organizations have even started book clubs through which agents voluntarily read and learn about personal and professional development, comparing notes, and discussing how the principles learned can be applied in their daily interactions. This not only has a wide-reaching impact on agent self-esteem, confidence, and motivation, but also makes it significantly easier to identify the truly-driven rising star in your organization.

Take a deep dive into analytics to improve your planning for busy seasons. The holiday season and end of year is likely one of your busiest times. Busy times have the potential to heighten stress levels in everyone, even agents. They are tasked with handling increased customer volume while maintaining high service standards. Not to mention smiling the whole way through. Look at analytics from the same period of time last year, as well as your most recent period or busy time, to help manage staffing levels. And consider expanding your agent pool to allow you to quickly adjust staffing up or down as needed. There are a few companies that offer cloud-based agent services and can nimbly respond to staffing needs and they can be invaluable resources during busy times.

And remember that your agents are human beings. None of us are perfect and we shouldn't expect them to be either. With high volume and high demand, mistakes are bound to happen. But if we set expectations so high that any mistake is unacceptable, then our agents will simply mitigate their risk by following the scripts and not taking any chances when it comes to what they believe is the right thing to do and best for the customer. And then you're right back where you started.

Finally, it just can't always be about work. Keep things loose. Create contests and plan social events to drive team-building. Agents can be a great source of support for each other by offering tips and advice, mentoring newer agents and challenging each other to succeed. When you create opportunities for team-building and personal interactions, you help keep agents engaged, empowered, and happy and you'll see the results on your dashboards.

Yes your customers matter. And one of the very best things you can do for them is to take exceptionally good care of your agents. Once you strip away all of the stress commonly associated with the season, you'll find generosity of spirit, a sense of connection to others, and a common desire to make the New Year just a little bit better than the last. And by opening up that space of possibility for your agents, you might even just find that this season really can be magical after all.