With More Self-Service, Agents Need More

In talking to clients these days, I find myself trying to convince them of something that seems counter-intuitive: The more their customers use self-service, the more they will need highly skilled contact center agents. More self-service actually results in a greater need to invest in contact center agents. Customers' increased usage of self-service has begun to dramatically transform the jobs of customer service personnel.

At heart, my argument goes like this: Customers have begun to use, and in some cases even prefer, non-agented interactions. They use knowledgebases, FAQs, mobile customer self-service, chatbots, and peer-to-peer communities in increasing numbers. This means that because self-service solves many of the simpler issues that customers have, the inquiries that do make it through to contact center agents are the more complex, difficult, or relationship-dependent ones. So, contact center agents now need to be prepared to solve harder problems than in the past.

It also means that because most customers who do reach contact center agents will have tried to self-serve and failed, they tend to be more frustrated than they were in the past. In a world where the phone and even chat are actually escalation channels, agents start three steps back by the time they say the word, "Hello."

Companies that have recognized this change have started to rethink the actual role of their contact center agents. For example, can they hire people at $11 per hour who are qualified to handle exasperated customers with difficult questions? Or do they need to pay more and hire a more skilled class of worker? Do they want to have people in their first job trying to assuage the anger of their customers or do they want to hire folks with some life experience?

This reasoning is also behind another looming change. Many companies have started to at least pay lip service to the idea of concierge-like service. Most firms still use a triage model with level-one, level-two, and level-three service organizations, but complex queries might be better served by a concierge model. That would mean agents who own an issue from cradle to grave, agents who are more empowered to 'do the needful' to solve a customer's problem, and agents who can even think outside the enterprise box to help a customer. A hotel concierge working for Hilton, for example, does not just look at Hilton-branded services to get guests what they need; he looks wherever he needs to make guests happy. This model is much better suited to the contact center reality driven by increased usage of self-service.

This concierge model also requires an investment in tools that empower agents to handle these types of interactions. Companies that want to prepare for more complex queries should be looking at process guidance tools that lead agents through the service process step by step. Tools can either provide simplified guidance that ensures agents do not miss any step or locked-down guidance that mandates steps agents cannot skip. Either way, the tools allow companies to ramp up new agents more quickly, arm agents to handle the edge case scenarios that they have not internalized on their own, and service customers that have already gone down the self-service route and failed.

This idea of empowering agents to face the new demands of mobile-first, self-service happy customers has become so important that we decided to build out a track devoted just to it at the upcoming Customer Service Experience conference in Washington April 24-26; we have agent engagement practitioners from organizations such as Symantec, Greenleaf Hospitality, and Lincoln Financial Group leading sessions on how to best empower agents and drive culture change. Come join us.

Ian Jacobs is a principal analyst at Forrester Research, covering application development and delivery. He is also a co-chair of this year's Customer Service Experience conference in Washington April 24-26.