Published: December 05, 2017 | Comments
This year, Jenny Dempsey (CustomerServiceLife.com blogger) and I started the #FreeToHelp movement, and we hope you’ll join us. We believe most frontline agents are willing to help customers, but we wanted to know how free they are to do so. Do managers really trust agents to make decisions that benefit customers? Do managers give agents the tools and the permission that enable great service? We suspected the answer to these questions was “no.”
I’ll admit it. Jenny and I started the #FreeToHelp movement with our biases clearly on display. We believed that agents wanted to be free to help, but bad conditions in the contact center were preventing them from doing so. We theorized that frontline agents’ innate customer service instincts were being trampled by rigid policies, stern managers, bad software, and ridiculous expectations.
The #FreeToHelp Survey: Frontline Agents Speak Their Truth
But Jenny and I knew that we couldn’t start a movement based on a bias, so we decided to actually ask frontline agents whether they believe they are #FreeToHelp. We created a short, anonymous #FreeToHelp survey and shared an open invitation to frontline agents to complete it. Here are a few of the questions we asked on the survey:
- How responsive are your managers when you suggest new and better ways to help customers?
- Are other departments in your company preventing you from being free to help?
- What do you wish you could do to help customers, but you're not allowed?
To date, about 240 customer service agents (or reps) have completed the survey. We plan to keep it open through mid-2018. We’re aiming for 500 respondents.
So far, the survey results have been surprising in a couple of ways:
- Agents do believe they are #FreeToHelp. The survey results show this. In fact, 70% of them rated themselves “quite free to help” or “very free to help.” Our bias about agents being prevented from helping customers has turned out to be wrong.
- Agents have a LOT to say on this topic. We were truly surprised by the number of people who chose to add explanations to their answers. (This was optional.) Approximately one third of respondents took the time to explain why they responded the way they did. Their comments are fascinating, though they sometimes contradict the positive answers on the survey.
To illustrate, here are the words of two agents who rated themselves “quite free to help.” From their comments, it’s not clear how free—or able—to help they actually are.
Agent #1: Most escalated issues require me to make a follow-up call. To do this, I have to enter an "After Call/Call Wrap" or "Customer Callback" status that impacts my Productivity. So, I’m punished for helping?
Agent #2: PLEASE make the knowledgebase easier to search. It’s very unintuitive and makes it difficult to find answers that are definitely there somewhere. For example, searching "key word" will not get the same results as searching "key words," "keyword," or "keywords."
What Prevents Agents from being #FreeToHelp?
The survey results and the conversations we’re having with customer care leaders are helping us answer this question. As you might expect, there’s blame on both sides.
Managers can prevent agents from being free to help when:
- Agents must handle too many contacts. You can’t really help any particular customer if you’re rushing to start with the next person.
- QA scoring is rigid and consequences for low scores are severe. When the “lanes” are too narrow, no one will dare to step out of them. Why would an agent risk low a QA score to help an individual customer?
Customer service agents can prevent themselves from being free to help when:
- They’re unwilling to become the customer’s advocate. Sure, this involves some risk on the agent’s part, but when something needs to be changed, a professional should speak up.
- They’re just in it for the paycheck. The word “serve” is the core of “service.” An agent who’s working just to earn money doesn’t care about whether they’re free to help. Service is not the reason they come to work each day.
Lessons Learned from the #FreeToHelp Survey
As I’ve mentioned, agents had a lot to say on this survey. And while the survey will still be open for a few more months, some reliable themes have emerged about how to make agents #FreeToHelp:
- Stop measuring handle time. Agents want to be able to finish with the customer in the amount of time it takes to answer the customer’s question or solve the customer’s problem. They believe they’ll be more efficient if managers will put away the stopwatch.
- Broaden agents’ authority to correct billing errors. This is where being free to help in theory crashes into being free to help in reality. Agents are often permitted to correct billing errors, but at too low an amount. Managers, agents want you to allow them to correct higher-dollar-amount errors.
- Allow agents to tell customers plainly what the service level agreement is. Agents don’t want to lie about the timeline and then wrestle with customers’ frustrations and arguments.
- Survey your team at least twice per year about their knowledgebase and resource use to learn what could be improved. Oh, your agents know how they want their information resources to support them. Do you know what your agents want from their software?
- Offer flexible scheduling. The survey asks, “Which improvement in work climate would enable you to do more to help customers?” A surprising 36% of respondents chose “Flexible scheduling or work-at-home options.” We’re not sure why flexible scheduling would empower agents to be #FreeToHelp, but we assume that overall job satisfaction would improve and that positivity would flow to customer satisfaction too.
Want to Join the #FreeToHelp Movement?
Our movement is growing, and we want you in it! Here are four things you can do right away:
- Invite your customer service agents to take our #FreeToHelp survey.
- Contact us to request a custom #FreeToHelp survey for your frontline agents. We’d be glad to create a custom survey URL you can share with your frontline agents. After they’ve completed the survey, we’ll share your team’s results and responses with you. (Your agents’ responses will be anonymous.)
- Download the #FreeToHelp Discussion Guide for Customer Service Teams. If you’d like to have an open conversation with your customer service agents about whether they feel they’re #FreeToHelp, download our Discussion Guide. In it, we’ve shared the words of frontline agents who feel empowered to truly help customers and those who feel prevented from doing so. You can use the Discussion Guide to help your agents open up. Together, you can plan how your team should move forward.
- Stay in touch with #FreeToHelp by reading our blog and following us on Twitter and Facebook. We’re collecting stories of agents who are truly #FreeToHelp, and we’d be glad to tell your team’s story.
With your participation in the #FreetoHelp Movement, we can continue to open the doors for agents to speak their truth, for managers to understand how they can support their teams, and, ultimately, for customers to receive the genuine, consistent service they deserve.