Last year, contact center agents became essential workers. Customer experience (CX) guru Shep Hyken recently posted a cartoon on his social media channels that depicted all the roles an agent must now fulfill in a single day: customer service agent, therapist, mother, dog-walker, friend. Whilst funny at first glance, it was a stark reminder that our frontline agents are doing one of the hardest jobs at any company and can very much be the difference between a brand’s success or failure.
With the level of responsibility we place upon our customer-facing workers, it’s important to stay on top of trends that positively impact the employee experience (EX). If we can make their jobs easier, shouldn’t we do so? When agents are better supported, they are better able to deliver better experiences to customers, which is incredibly important in today’s crowded marketplace. Here are five contact center innovations that directly impact agents and are reshaping the future of customer service:
1. Agents Working With Self-service Bots
Empathy was a pretty defining word last year. When people reach out to customer service, it’s nearly always because they have a problem that they need to be resolved (duh). Sometimes customers don’t want to speak to a human, but sometimes they do. Being met with a bot that you can’t seem to move past is sure to make a frustrated customer even more irritated. Brands that are able to integrate smart bots into their contact center to quickly gather the necessary information and then seamlessly transfer the customer to an empathetic agent are the ones that will be praised for their service. It shortens the time-to-resolution process and acts as an assistant to the agent.
While utilizing bots in the contact center isn’t new, they can be immensely helpful when used thoughtfully across channels. They’re getting smarter, too. They can handle entire interactions around things like standard product questions and account information. Plus, with the help of advanced NLU and sentiment analysis, machine learning-powered bots can detect when a customer is upset and automatically transfer them to the right live agent. If you do it correctly, the combination of bots and humans has the potential to endlessly elevate the CX.
2. Omnichannel Agents
Traditionally, agents are trained to handle either inbound or outbound interactions and a specific channel, like phone, webchat, email, or social media. For example, you may assign one agent inbound phone calls and assign another agent outbound emailing. These agents can’t access customer data from interactions on channels other than those which they've been assigned and frequently find themselves working in a silo. This may create experts in each area but doesn’t create an optimal customer experience.
Have you ever started a webchat with one agent only to end up conversing over email with another agent? Or getting transferred to a third and repeating everything every time? As a customer, isn’t it incredibly frustrating to have to start “your story” over from the beginning because different agents only have the ability to handle specific interaction types on certain channels? There’s usually a wait involved too, or - too often - a dropped connection whilst you’re being transferred. Argh. When agent training is narrow and the backend systems agents have to use are disjointed, so is the CX.
If it’s frustrating for us, imagine what it’s like for them. Enter: omnichannel agents. Omnichannel agents can handle inbound and outbound interactions. And, they’re cross-trained to service customers on multiple (or all) channels. When it comes to technology, these agents succeed by having a single view of customer journeys and omnichannel tools to effectively manage all of the inquiries coming in across channels.
Empowering agents to be able to handle various channels means that customers no longer have to be transferred and bounced around among multiple agents. Inquiries can be handled quickly and wait times are lower. Having swiss-army-knife agents who are capable of handling all interactions across all channels leads to better, more personalized CX, happier customers, and brand loyalty.
3. Agents Working From Home
COVID-19 sent e-commerce skyrocketing as we all ran to fulfill more of our shopping needs online. This meant agents were bombarded with a huge spike in interaction volume and also working from home for the first time ever (mostly). Customer service was thrust into the spotlight like never before and customers were quick to pinpoint which companies were able to react quickly to this new challenge, and which companies were not.
Now that the dust is settling, brands must re-evaluate whether their remote infrastructure was a temporary fix or a viable, permanent solution. Ask yourself: Are we giving agents the tools to WFH and do it well? Are we making their lives easier? Are we giving them the support from managers and product experts that allows them to manage customer inquiries with confidence and success?
The switch to remote work highlighted the importance of the employee and agent experience - finally. It also emphasized the need to reduce agent stress and increase happiness at work. If you surveyed a pool of agents, most of them would say they enjoy the newfound flexibility of working from home and they want to stay there (this is actually the case with employees in all departments across industries). Happier agents are better agents. Invest in establishing hybrid and remote call center environments to satisfy everyone’s wants and needs… one with built-in Unified Communications (UC) that makes it easy for agents to communicate with their managers and back-office experts to serve customers better and faster, right from home.
4. Gig Agents
If it had not already, service overtook product last year when we all signed up for home-delivery meal kits, door-to-door shopping, contactless car repairs, and everything else you can think of that meant we didn’t have to see or exchange air with another human. Certain businesses unexpectedly blew through the roof while others shrunk. Oftentimes, there’s no telling what will happen next. Brands must be set up to grow without limits.
When your contact center gets stretched thin and encounters new challenges, your customers can tell. Plus, the pain is also felt by stressed-out agents who are short on the time, and possibly skills, to handle the customer inquiries coming in. Most people assume that scaling your contact center requires outsourcing. It doesn’t have to be so! In order to scale instantly without disrupting the CX you provide, you need the right technology of course, but you also need to get clever with expanding your workforce: leverage the growing gig economy to fulfill remote customer service agent roles.
Gig agents, which are literally freelance contractors, can complement your “in-house” contact center team and can be hired as needed. They can be anyone… students, stay-at-home parents, semi-retired folks, etc. They likely prefer a limited schedule and could help out during peak hours, or lend expertise around a hard-to-find skill set, such as being bilingual or having firsthand experience with a certain market. All you need to supply them with is a laptop, headset, and cloud contact center software with a built-in knowledge base and real-time training. Once you’ve established a smooth-running virtual contact center and enabled agents to work from anywhere, it’s easy to utilize gig workers adding and removing them with the click of a button.
The final word from our CMO: Attrition will plummet because now companies can hire anyone anywhere for any set of hours. Sometimes the best people for the job aren’t under our nose but across the world. Maybe they only work half-days. Maybe only on Wednesdays. So what?
5. Agents as CX Innovators
Last but not least, agents can be your most impactful CX innovators. Enter: the democratization of technology…i.e., providing people with easy access to technical or business expertise without extensive (and costly) training. We should enable agents to identify pain points and tweak the way they deliver service on the fly based on input and desire that comes directly from customers.
As Dave Michels said last year, “The contact center isn’t exactly associated with innovation.” But we’re on a mission to change that by making it possible for anyone to set up a workflow, modify a program, and become an innovator. It’s time.
We’ve learned that giving agents access to a wider arsenal of tools has clear benefits: faster resolutions, deeper customer relationships, stronger loyalty, increased revenue, and a better CX. And when people at the front line have the power to fix what's broken (or breaking), customer experiences get better and better. With Workflows, every agent has the power to provide a more customized, accurate, personalized, and elevated experience than ever before. It doesn’t take days or weeks or months to implement changes and make tweaks on the fly, but rather minutes. Win-win.
Customer Service Gets Better and Better
Changes and challenges have created opportunities and innovations like those above. These five contact center innovations perhaps once seemed daunting, but today they are quickly reshaping customer service by improving the agent experience, which in turn is having a real impact on the customer experience brands deliver. Beyond seeing changes to your contact center KPIs, there is a less obvious impact: the cultural shift, where agents are more engaged and motivated to assist customers than ever before. Imagine going so far as to give your agents more control over their hours, interaction types, and even which customer buckets they handle. Working in customer service has more meaning and is more rewarding. Agents get to be people helping people, yielding the power to improve the CX along the way. By adopting these innovations as a new reality, your contact center’s transformation will create a lasting impact on your customers.