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Will It Blend?: The Pros and Cons of Channel-Blended Agents

Channels are a hot topic in any contact center discussion! Whether we're discussing best practices for decades-old channels, contemplating the possibilities of the channels of tomorrow, or pining to deliver the elusive omnichannel experience, the communication mediums on which we provide service are an essential part of contact center strategy. Despite our love for various contact channels, many organizations struggle to deliver consistent, effective assistance on every channel they support.

One strategy for bolstering omnichannel success is the channel-blended agent: a contact center agent that handles customer contacts from more than one channel. Rather than being a specialist in one communication method, one channel-blended agent may routinely respond to emails, calls, live chats, and social media requests. In this article, we'll explore the pros and cons of channel-blended agents for our customers, our agents, and our company as a whole.

Pro: Full-Service Consistency Across Channels

As customer demand for chat and social channels increases, so does the importance of delivering consistent service through every point of contact. Sadly, many organizations struggle to offer the same quality and service offerings across channels. Customers are frustrated when their social contacts are deferred to phone or email. Live chats of even moderate complexity are likewise remanded to traditional voice channels, creating unnecessary friction for the customer and cost for service providers.

Discrepancies in agent training are a key driver of channel deviation. Live chat and social agents are often not given the same degree of training or latitude as phone agents. Even if initial training is identical, skills that aren't exercised will be lost. This applies whether you're reciting product specifications or choosing the right tone of voice. It's a lot of work, but customers expect us to resolve their issues by the channel of their choice. By cross-training agents to handle contacts across channels, we enable every agent to solve every issue in our customers' channel of choice.

Pro: Job Rotation

Maintaining a high level of agent engagement is a regular challenge for contact center leaders. Many factors contribute to engagement, but providing unique and varied work experiences helps to keep agents interested. It prevents work from becoming dull and routine. Encouraging job rotation from channel to channel provides different work experiences. Additionally, by regularly exercising a variety of knowledge and skills, job rotation helps agents to be well-rounded and offers more flexibility and opportunities in the future.

Allowing agents the flexibility to work across channels may also help to reduce the risk of emotional exhaustion. As Becky Roemen, CX consultant and fellow ICMI Top 50 Thought Leader, points out, less rich communication channels like chat and email may be emotionally more comfortable to handle. She says, "if a blended agent has just completed a high-stress call, they can relieve some of the tension by handling a chat or email instead of being immediately thrust into another call that could strain their emotions further."

Pro: Workforce Simplification

Workforce management is already complicated enough. Dividing agent skills by contact channel adds an unnecessary layer of complexity, and it might artificially reduce the supply of knowledgeable agents when you need them most. This segmentation lessens scheduling flexibility, and it can create a disjointed customer experience at a critical touchpoint.

Consider a company whose mobile app support experts are divided by phone and email channels. Half of their agents are trained for phone support and never touch email, while the other half handle emails but never answer calls. This works fine in theory until a software update causes a glitch that prevents customers from managing their accounts through the app.

One would expect contact volume on both phone and email channels to increase dramatically. However, this error message was hard-coded to direct customers to call, and it doesn't list an email option. The telephone support team is suddenly inundated with frustrated customers, while the email support team sits helplessly on the sidelines. Assuming app developers listed email as an option in the error message, what happens if the glitch is too complicated to resolve by email? Email-only agents wouldn't be able to see issues through to resolution.

Due to the ever-growing complexity of customer contacts, having specialized agents in the right place at the right time has never been more critical. Channel-blended agents are specialized by knowledge, not by a communication medium, enabling them to pitch in where they're most needed.

Con: Training Complexity

While channel-blended agents offer many advantages to customers and the contact center, their success requires additional training investments. Voice, chat, and social channels have their own tools, etiquette, and best practices. Channel-blended agents must be proficient on every channel they serve, and this multiplies the development and practice required upfront.

The additional time it takes for agents to learn the nuances of each channel might reduce the amount of time spent expanding their knowledge of the product or service they're supporting. While channel-switching causes friction for customers, it's far worse to work with an agent who doesn't have the necessary experience to resolve the problem. When planning to implement a blended agent strategy, be sure that it doesn't come at the expense of technical training.

Con: Channel Preferences

For many contact centers, the type and complexity of contacts have a natural tendency to differ between channels. As mentioned before, this variety can be useful for helping agents to manage on-the-job stress. However, it's not good for a blended agent's channel mix to veer too far in one direction. If blended agents perceive that one channel is easier to handle than another, they will be more inclined to stick with the easy channel and neglect the difficult one. Being relegated to a single channel can also cause channel envy or fear of missing out when agents perceive one channel to be more enjoyable or easier than another. Perception is reality, and it doesn't take much for the grass to appear greener on the other side.

Without careful workforce management, agents may gravitate towards their preferred channel. If too many agents share the same channel preferences, this can cause a decline in availability on the more difficult channels, which could hurt service levels. Furthermore, if agent preferences remain unchecked, it could also hide training deficiencies that need to be addressed for the agent's long-term professional growth.

Con: Cost and Performance Management

Experienced omnichannel agents are a boon to a contact center's overall performance, but channel-blending can make measuring performance more challenging. Metrics like cost-per-contact are relatively easy to measure for each channel when a fixed group of agents handles a known number of contacts on only one channel. However, this metric can be more complicated to measure when agents float between channels. It's not the end of the world, and it's certainly possible. However, be prepared to review metrics' efficacy after making structural changes to the contact center.

Most importantly, we must ensure that the metrics used to evaluate agents individually are effective and paint an accurate picture of their performance. Most contact center products can easily calculate agent availability, but many organizations use different tools for different channels. How we reconcile statistics from various systems can make or break our metrics. Judging employees based on metrics that don't accurately reflect their contributions is a recipe for attrition, so it's important to be mindful of potential problems that may arise when introducing new channels or expanding agents' scope of service.

There are numerous advantages to allowing agents to work across channel boundaries, but there are also pitfalls that we must carefully avoid. With the right training, management, and measurement techniques, it's possible to prepare agents to deliver fantastic service regardless of the communication medium.

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