A pandemic is sweeping across today's customer service teams. Its effects are lower customer satisfaction, increased agent attrition, and a disconnected customer experience. Its dormancy is short for some and prolonged for others, but it will inevitably activate for all.
Over the past two years, I've extensively researched the customer experience, contact center agent performance, and the various nuances of customer relationship management. During my search for the enablers and inhibiters of exceptional service, I consistently encountered one common denominator that is negatively affecting all of them with increasing frequency: agent-facing technology. In fact, 2015 research I conducted for ICMI found that 92 percent of contact center leaders believed their agent technology was unable to fully meet agents' needs.
Whether it was a contact center, a cashier, or a concierge, the tools supplied to and used by customer service professionals are overwhelmingly ineffective at meeting the needs of customers today. Technologies are notoriously slow, clunky, and disconnected; processes are unnecessarily complex and antiquated; people are conditioned to apologize, empathize, and conceal the reality of their despair because, at the end of the day, contact center leaders don't want these inefficiencies to impact the customer experience.
The reality is, however, that these stitched-together systems and cumbersome processes are causing harm no matter how well rehearsed the agent's masquerade. It's not sustainable, it shouldn't be acceptable, and the damage runs much deeper than its common veil of inconvenience would indicate.
For starters, ineffective tools and resources are a primary cause of attrition in many customer service organizations. When properly hired and trained, customer service representatives are wired to help customers. They enter their positions with the rightful expectation that they'll have the tools, resources, and supporting processes needed to serve customers well. As the representatives discover that their tools actually complicate, disrupt, or undermine their ability to deliver the best service possible, their discontentment, frustration, and on-the-job stress grow to a critical mass that drives them away from their work.
As if reducing employee turnover were not reason enough to warrant a change, subpar agent tools and resources are delivering a direct blow to customer engagement and loyalty. One driver of decreased customer satisfaction and loyalty is decreased agent engagement and loyalty. My 2015 agent research unanimously revealed a direct correlation between agent satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) and customer satisfaction. The impact of dissatisfaction was most commonly amplified when agents had problems with their tools or resources.
A second driver is the complicated customer experience and disconnected journey that occurs as a byproduct of disconnected systems and processes. Anyone who has contacted a service organization and experienced multiple transfers, representatives missing details, and excessive, repetitive requests for information understands this driver. The ability to detect a bad customer experience is possessed by everyone, and when we encounter one, we naturally pursue a more desirable experience if possible.
While we all have varying degrees of expectation in how accessible and accurate service should be, as consumers in a modern, connected society, those expectations grow as the conveniences of new channels, increased mobility, and immediate global reach increase and improve in reliability. These shifts lead organizations to evolve (at least some of) their approaches to people, processes, and technologies in an attempt to improve the customer experience. As a result, they expand their self-service options or other channel offerings, cross-skill their agents, or adopt new platforms and functionalities to accommodate rising service expectations. The challenge with this historical evolution in service offerings and customer expectations is that it all happened somewhat rapidly and in multiple, fragmented steps.
Multiple, monumental changes in a short period of time resulted in an unintentional fragmenting of channel offerings, service delivery, and customer journey mapping. Our well-intended efforts to improve the customer experience backfired on us and we actually made things more complicated for ourselves. Customers now interact across multiple channels, and we lack seamless insight into their experiences. Common contact drivers migrated to self-service, but now agents handle more complex contacts that require more time and greater resources. We thought these efficiencies would reduce our number of contacts and yet they only drove them higher. It didn't all go as planned, but we're not done yet.
Your customer experience is under attack by an enemy that your organization created and that your organization can defeat. While there will continue to be evolutions in channels, expectations, and needs, a sense of normalcy and predictability in service requirements has arrived. Now is the perfect opportunity to step back, honestly look at the state of your customer service organization, and implement the people, process, and technology modifications that can make exceptional experiences the norm. We're in an age where price and product can easily be replicated, so it is the service experience that will competitively differentiate an organization. You don't want to be left behind, so invest in providing your front-line employees with the tools and resources to deliver on the promises you make to your customers every single day. It's a decision that you're certain not to regret.
Justin Robbins is group community director at the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) and HDI. Prior to joining ICMI, he was manager of training and guest experience at Hershey Entertainment & Resorts in Hershey, Pa.