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Contact Center Agents: From Heroes to Superheroes

business suit, sunrise, hero 

They’re on the front lines every day, charged with managing (sometimes angry) customers, solving complex problems, and juggling multiple systems. They’re asked to be brand ambassadors, responsible for building long-term loyalty by making every interaction a stellar customer experience. And now, they’re taking on more channels and increasingly complex interactions with customers using digital channels, including email, chat, and SMS.

Agents, long the often-unsung heroes of the contact center, are now assuming the role of contact center superhero. And yet, every contact center struggles with the formidable challenges of engaging, motivating and retaining agents. Agent turnover, in fact, hovers around 30-45%, more than double that of the average across all U.S. occupations, according to research conducted by The Quality Assurance & Training Connection (QATC).

Today’s contact center leaders agree that their #1 challenge is training and retaining the staff they need to be successful, followed closely by the need to increase agent engagement and morale. These same leaders simply can’t afford—in any sense of the word—to continually recruit and replace agents.

So while customer satisfaction has long been a top contact center priority, agent satisfaction is now a growing concern for leaders facing a tight labor market. Agent satisfaction not only drives engagement, performance and retention, but it’s also inextricably linked to customer satisfaction. Customer satisfaction doesn’t move without also moving agent satisfaction.

What does it take to make life better for agents—invaluable employees whose jobs have traditionally been high-stress and high-turnover?

Making Agent Experience a Priority

By better understanding agent satisfaction, dissatisfaction and motivation, according to ICMI research, contact center leaders can better align their people, processes, strategies and technology to improve the agent experience (AX)—and ultimately the customer experience (CX). Creating the kind of day-to-day experience that drives agent satisfaction must rise to the top of the priority list among contact center leaders. Take care of employees, and they will take care of customers—growth, profits, shared success will follow.

This means that contact center leaders need to focus time and effort on communicating, developing, and prioritizing the agent experience. Tools like focus groups, one-on-ones, and surveys are invaluable in gathering critical insights from contact center employees. But only 50 percent of respondents in the ICMI research said they currently prioritize the employee experience.

What Makes Agents Satisfied—or Not?

Not unpredictably, several elements have been identified as leading contributors to job satisfaction. All of them, in fact, are a part of the agent experience:

  • Working hours
  • Number of channels supported
  • Contact volume
  • Complexity of the work
  • Type of work

Conversely, there are also common elements that clearly lead to agent dissatisfaction, including:

  • Insufficient tools and technology
  • Limited career growth opportunities
  • Ineffective reward and recognition
  • Organizational change that is seen as too frequent, poorly executed, and/or ineffective

In light of these insights, agent satisfaction (or lack of) has become less of a mystery. Agents enjoy helping customers. They want the challenge of more complex interactions and problem-solving and are looking for growth, opportunity and a career path. Simply put, AX drives agent satisfaction, which in turn, drives performance, retention and ultimately, CX. As contact center volume increases and with a large percentage of contact centers planning to expand, it’s essential for contact center leaders to focus on improving agent satisfaction.

What Drives Agent Engagement?

While agent satisfaction is key, a deeper engagement is essential as well. Only about a quarter of the ICMI research respondents felt that leadership had the most significant impact on satisfaction and engagement. But aren’t leaders the ones responsible for creating the right environment for positive employee experiences? Additional factors that contribute to the agent engagement can all be viewed as outgrowths of leadership:

  • Having the right tools to perform job effectively
  • Alignment between roles responsibilities and business goals
  • Alignment between performance measures and business goals
  • Rewards, recognition, compensation

The role of a positive AX in agent satisfaction, productivity, and retention can’t be overstated. Neither can the fact that prioritizing AX and creating the right kind of agent experience is doable for every contact center. Enabling agents to do a good job by giving them the right tools seems obvious. But surprisingly, many agents aren’t working with the most effective, most user-friendly tools and technology. Agents also want to belong, to feel connected to the mission and goals of the organization. And beyond that, they want to know that their performance matters—that it has an impact on the organization’s business goals. And like all of us, agents need to feel appreciated and valued: They want to be recognized and rewarded for a job well done.

Improving Satisfaction is Critical To Turn Attrition Around

Despite important new insights into AX and agent satisfaction, contact center leaders continue to wrestle with continuing agent attrition. And what about those agents who have checked out mentally and are negatively impacting CX? Current statistics are sobering: Only 27 % of agents are satisfied with their jobs, while 25% agents leave within 12 months. Over 42 percent will leave for a non-contact center job. The reasons behind the stats range from job mismatch and lack of growth, advancement opportunity to heavy workload and non-competitive benefits and compensation.

Meanwhile, against this landscape of dissatisfaction and attrition, contact centers seeing a continuing increase in their contact volume have plans to expand—and to add more staff. Concentrating on AX and agent satisfaction is more essential than ever before.

Every contact center leader has the capability to improve the agent experience and agent satisfaction by focusing on the people themselves, the processes surrounding AX and the technology and tools that can make or break AX:

1. Know your Agents

While each agent is unique, leaders can learn what makes them tick by connecting through regular one-on-one conversations. First, acknowledge that supporting customers is hard work! Get beyond quality scores and talk about growth opportunities and career development—in other words, what people care about most. By engaging with agents in these ways, you’ll gain insight into why they like working there, what motivates them and what could make them leave. Then use what you learn to build and enrich a positive agent experience.

2. Drill Down into Vital Processes

Examine and adjust your recruiting, onboarding and training processes—from the agent perspective. Refine recruiting processes; connect the dots for new employees; celebrate milestones. Connections to the team and to the organization are built and strengthened this way.

No process is unimportant: Regularly review and update job descriptions to keep them fresh; double down on value-added tasks and remove the repetitive ones from agents wherever possible. Create projects that drive personal development and knock down silos to create win-win connections among team members.

3. Refine & Build Strategies

Fine-tuning and building strategies to improve AX and drive agent satisfaction covers a lot of ground. The main thing here is to be proactive. Commit to the long haul; regularly assess what’s working and what isn’t. Some of the most impactful strategies cluster around three main areas:

  • Strategies for addressing engagement: How will we measure employee satisfaction and act on the data we gather?
  • Strategies for removing obstacles: What’s keeping our agent experience from being as easy, as smooth, as enjoyable or as productive as it could be—and how do we clear the way for them?
  • Strategies for driving continuous improvement: Employees want to be appreciated and heard. Let agents—those most connected to the customer—represent the voice of the customer in gaining insights on how to drive change in CX.

4. Technology: Automate and Augment

As contact center interactions increase in volume and complexity, agents are being asked to do more with less. One of the ways automation can augment agents’ efforts is by moving less complex interactions to self-service, freeing up agents to focus on tougher, more complex tasks, which boosts their satisfaction as well as CX.

The right technology can proactively automate and augment with intelligence, beginning with AI-based self-service options (e.g., chatbots) that can offload simple and mundane interactions, and virtual customer assistants that seamlessly hand off—or receive—interactions to or from agents when necessary.

Leaders can also help agents think more broadly about agent-facing bots in terms of robotic process automation. What agent wouldn’t like an AI assist with post-call work, for example? And while the bot is busy doing that, agents are even more motivated to focus on helping the customer.

Although true omnichannel and universal agents—those who handle all inquiries across all channels—are still elusive for many contact centers, this is the way the industry is going. The right solutions meet the challenges that omnichannel presents, such as multiple screens and interfaces and needing to learn new processes and new technology. In fact, omnichannel achieves excellence with desktops that are unified with seamless channel elevation. Agent productivity and CSAT both improve.

Providing agents with streamlined, easy-to-use tools, along with customer context extracted from integrating contact center technology with other systems, enables agents to concentrate on what they do best: helping solve customer issues and providing an exceptional experience to every customer, every channel, every interaction. Agent satisfaction soars; performance and retention improve as a result. Ongoing, personalized training and coaching based on multichannel voice of the customer insights and analytics further enrich the agent experience and drive satisfaction.

A Super Experience for Superheroes

As the agent’s role in the contact center continues to evolve into that of superhero, improving agent satisfaction by prioritizing, examining and revamping the agent experience should be every contact center leader’s #1 priority. Focused leadership is critical to ensure that agent experience is one that agents want and need, while fine-tuning processes and technologies that help achieve better AX. When contact center processes are automated and augmented with intelligence, agents can focus on complex, high-value, customer-facing interactions. A unified desktop and smart training enables those agents to deliver on the omnichannel promise.

Working with customers is difficult. But with an enriched agent experience and improved agent satisfaction, the superheroes of the contact center are totally up to the job.