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5 Barriers to Agent (and Customer) Success

Sometimes we create barriers to success. As a result, these barriers can damage morale, cause confusion, or make a task more difficult than necessary. We must learn to remove barriers, not create them! Here are five obstacles that may be preventing your team from creating successful customer experiences.

1. Complicated policies and procedures

What happens when a product, process or policy is too complicated? Your customers (and call center agents) end up in situations that are time consuming and require multiple contacts to resolve. Did you know that the average handle time (AHT) on a repeat call is typically twice the length of the initial phone call? Nevertheless, if you formulate the right changes you can increase agent and customer satisfaction while reducing handle time!


Call center life is challenging. Help everyone by improving processes when possible. Leverage technology, collaborate with product managers, and assign complex content to subject matter experts (SME’s). Here are a few tips:

  • Invite your product managers to listen to calls (I bet you’re experiencing product issues they aren’t aware of!)
  • Allow agents to provide usability feedback on your process documents
  • Empower your agents with an appropriate “level of authority” to do their job

As a contact center leader, and advocate for your team, help your business create products and processes that are easy for the customer and your agents.

2. Technology

Technology is terrific when it works (and you’re properly trained to use it), but nothing will annoy your customer service team more than burdensome technology issues. Agents often complain about problems with systems, and, unfortunately, leaders just as often ignore their feedback. Don’t ignore them!

In a previous role I had an opportunity to work closely with our IT Director. We were always developing “great ideas” to make service simpler, more efficient, and better for the customer. Often times these ideas for improvement panned out. But at times they didn’t and we ended up working through a number of bugs to correct the problems we created in the process. These bugs and the insufficient communication of changes drove my team nuts!

I recall rolling out one IT “enhancement” in an effort to simplify a process. The first release did not turn out as planned. In fact, it actually created several bugs. Consequently, we were unaware of issues and agents were talking to customers while unsure of how to help them. This was a situation when agents looked at me with a “what was wrong with the old way?!” expression. Even worse, this was a 24/7 operation so there were several nights when staff were figuring out how to work around the issues without sufficient leadership/technical support. The resulting damage control took a while to overcome.

The lessons here: seek buy-in from your team, ensure the “fix” will work, and no matter what – COMMUNICATE THE CHANGES!

Common customer service complaints about technology:

  • System crashes/runs too slow (you’re killing my AHT man!)
  • Locked out of systems/need to call help desk to reset passwords
  • Outdated technology that is difficult to navigate
  • Unable to use “enter” or “tab” within the system – (It’s surprising what a difference this makes!)
  • Unable to view information the customer sees when logged into the website (e.g. Superuser access)

3. Lack of Research and Resolution Time

Don’t force your team to choose between meeting KPI’s and helping the customer.

Remember earlier when I said the average handle time on a repeat call is twice the length of the initial phone call? If your team isn’t allowed to properly research, resolve and communicate outcomes to your customers, the result will be higher handle time and an increase in  repeat calls. You’ll also  acquire a reputation for providing poor service and being difficult to work with (think Customer Effort).

You don’t want that. You want a customer focused culture with agents who assume ownership and resolve issues the first time. To achieve this you need to give your people sufficient time and access to leaders to work on research and resolution. You may also need to build out escalation channels that can help research/resolve cases..

4. Lack of Empowerment

Do you give your team the training and authority to help your customers? Don’t create bottlenecks to resolving customer issues. ESPECIALLY not common issues.

If common issues require supervisor approval you are sending a message that you don’t trust your agents. You’re also teaching your customers they need to escalate to the person who can actually solve their problem. Empower your team to an appropriate level. If you’re thinking about raising the team’s level of authority on a task, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this a common situation?
  • What is the impact if they’re wrong?
  • Do they have sufficient training and resources?
  • What controls are in place?

Train your team, provide them with the resources they need, and give them have access to leaders. Set expectations and let them do their job. Create a culture that allows for mistakes and encourages frequent communication and feedback.

In a previous role I gave my team authority other teams didn’t have. When a new agent joined the team I let them know I  trusted them with this authority. I only asked that they ask for help if they ever felt unsure. As a result, the team rose to the occasion and our customers weren’t left waiting for my approval.

5. Unintended consequences of KPI’s

Lastly, and perhaps more importantly, when we set goals, or establish policies, there will likely be unintended consequences. Often times, the “unintended consequences” result from unknowingly encouraging the wrong behavior. It’s important we do our best to prevent unintended consequences and watch for them to show up.

The tricky part? Since they are unintended, you don’t expect them to happen. How do you seek out, prevent, or identify something you didn’t intend or expect to happen? It requires experience, listening, and the right culture. Spend time with your agents and communicate often with informal leaders/team leads to find out what is happening (side note: informal leaders/team leads know what people REALLY think way earlier than you). Foster an environment that encourages open and transparent communication. Don’t punish people for asking questions and sharing concerns. These approaches will help.

I have experienced unintended consequences related to KPI’s firsthand. With a previous team I had been presenting a productivity metric to each team member for over a year. I ALWAYS reminded the team during 1 on 1’s there was no specific goal and taking care of the customer was the priority. Even though I felt I was clear about expectations I continued to hear people whisper about hitting “their numbers”. In this case, the focus they were putting on the productivity metric was taking away from creating the best possible customer experience.

Common metrics and programs that result in unintended consequences include: QA programs, Customer Satisfaction programs (CSAT), and Average Handle Time (AHT).

Bringing it All Together

What processes, approaches, or philosophies are creating barriers for success in your contact center? Identifying those roadblocks is the first step to improving the customer experience. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.

What obstacles has your team overcome? Share your stories in the comments!