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When it Comes to Frontline Agents, Empowerment is a Meaningless Term

three workersFor 20 years, I’ve been delivering writing courses for frontline customer service agents, and I consider myself their biggest fan. And their champion. And their protector. I have seen their versatility, expertise, and grace in action. They work difficult, stressful jobs for not-the-best pay. They are often under-respected by their employers and customers alike.

For a few years, I’ve been hearing a lot about “empowerment” for frontline agents. What does it even mean? How can we tell an empowered customer service agent from a disempowered one?

I’m not just quibbling about the vagueness of the term. I’m concerned that frontline agents—who have more responsibilities than they’re compensated for, more stress than they can manage, and less of a safety net than almost anyone else in the company—will be victimized by the concept. I’m concerned leaders will think, “Well, last year, we empowered you! Customer satisfaction scores should be higher, costs per contact should be lower. Revenue should be up. You’re falling short!” I simply am not here for any trendy workplace initiatives that place additional unreasonable expectations on agents.

Let’s examine what empowerment actually is and why “decision-making” is a better term for what we want agents to be empowered to do:

What is “empowerment,” anyway?

“Empowerment” means, or should mean, the state of having been given the power to make choices. To consider empowerment in action, let’s examine that state for a leader in an organization, as leaders are often empowered people. When leaders exercise their power to make choices, they do so with relatively little worry about their own well-being, even if they make a choice that has a bad outcome.

Imagine you are a leader, the Senior Manager of Consumer Relations for a pharmaceutical company. You believe outsourcing your contact center will save the company money and improve customer satisfaction. You do your research, make the case for outsourcing to the folks in the C suite, identify the outsourcer, create the business relationship, shepherd all the legal and financial paperwork through to completion, and make the change. That’s power in action.

Now, here’s the difference between “empowered” leaders and non-leaders, such as customer service agents. When leaders make choices that have less-than-ideal outcomes, they often don’t lose their power.

Let’s say outsourcing does not save the pharmaceutical company much money. In fact, outsourcing turns out to be kind of expensive. Because they’re empowered, the Senior Manager likely won’t be forbidden to make other decisions for the Consumer Relations team; they’ll be given the latitude to work with the outsourcer to reduce costs. Until we allow frontline customer service agents to make choices without suffering dire consequences if a choice has a bad outcome, we shouldn’t refer to them as “empowered.”

I want “empowerment” to be out and “decision-making” to be in.

Now, let’s talk about the types of decisions we want frontline agents to make. When we trust them enough to make these decisions, and give them the resources and training they need, we’ll enable them to provide extraordinarily good customer service.

Here is what that might look like:

Updating a knowledge base article instead of helping customers

Imagine there’s some kind of crisis and the contact center is slammed - a bug in a software update, and the calls, emails, and chats are mounting. One frontline customer service agent has a great work-around and wants to update the knowledge base article on how to help unhappy customers. If this agent is truly empowered, they can make the decision to take themselves off the phone to update the article.

Staying on the call as long as is needed

An empowered agent is trusted to decide how long to stay on a call or chat, or how many email back-and-forths are worth the engagement. Do you let your agents stay on the phone as long as they believe they need to? Can they stay on the phone until the issue is fully resolved? Can they decide to stay on the phone while the customer tries the work-around they’ve suggested? Can they keep talking or chatting with the customer just to build rapport?

Calling a customer back

Do you trust your agents to decide to make calls, not just receive them? Are they empowered to reach out to customers proactively to see whether they liked the red windbreaker they bought when they discovered the blue hoodies were out of stock, or if they have any questions about the updated mobile app?

Switching contact channels

The customer emailed in with a request for help, but the empowered agent believes live chat will enable them to solve the customer’s problem more quickly and with less frustration. Are your agents allowed to offer to reply to customers in another channel?

Making exceptions to policies or procedures

Without asking for a manager’s permission every time, can your empowered agents decide to refund a shipping charge, add a second user to a single-user account, or accept a product for return when your company has a no-returns policy?

Saying “no” to a customer

Do your empowered agents know you will support their decision to tell a customer “no”? Even if the customer is a member of your company’s loyalty program? And has a large social media following? And went to college with your CEO?

When we describe a frontline agent’s level of discretion or responsibility, we owe it to them to choose a term with a single, recognizable meaning. “Empowerment” has an exciting, cape-and-tights superhero vibe, but it means something different in every contact center or customer service team. “Decision-making” is concrete.