Want to Improve CX? It Is the AX, Stupid

First off, I don't mean to call anyone stupid. I was just channeling James Carville's "It is the economy, stupid," sage advice to win elections (apologies to political junkies who might already have known this). His point was that the economy is the key to winning elections. Likewise, in today's customer experience (CX) battlefield, you can't win if the agent experience (AX) isn't in good shape.

Notwithstanding the occasional bright spots, CX has been in the doldrums for a long time, and 2018 was no exception. In Forrester Research's annual CX Index, not a single company in the United States offered excellent customer service (with a score of 85 to 100) in 2018, and the number of companies offering good customer service (with a score of 75 to 84) declined from 17 percent in 2016 to 15 percent in 2018. The state of CX before 2016 was nothing to write home about either.

The root-cause of CX malaise? Customers point to the lack and inconsistency of knowledge among agents in a Forrester survey of 5,000 U.S. consumers sponsored by eGain. Not so surprisingly, contact center agents mirrored consumer pain points. When we asked more than 600 agents to name their biggest hurdles to providing good service, they mentioned finding the right answers, different internal systems giving them different answers, and navigating multiple application windows as their top hurdles.

Of all the links in the experience chain, AX has been the most ignored. No wonder agent churn has remained persistently high, at 30 percent to 45 percent, costing companies millions of dollars in new agent training and onboarding, lost customers, and damaged brand equity. Investing in CX while ignoring AX is throwing money down the drain.

To make AX matters worse, agents encounter more than 10 hostile encounters per day with customers, according to Psychology Today. Furthermore, "the risk of mental health problems is higher for call handlers, and job-related well-being is lower, compared to benchmark groups of employees in other occupations," according to Health and Safety Executive.

Even good workmen (justifiably) quarrel with their tools.

Agent experience can be only as good as their desktop tools. We know customers have gone digital. Less talked about is the fact that today's contact center agent workforce, dominated by millennials and increasingly Gen Z, is also digital. However, they are stuck with phone-centric tools from the 1990s. Per Gartner, 84 percent of contact center agents do not think that their desktop tools help them resolve customer problems, and they wrestle with more than eight application windows, on average, when the customer is on the line. Poor AX leads to poor CX.

The obvious solution here is a digital-first, omnichannel agent desktop, or simply, a digital desktop. But, what are the traits of a digital desktop? Here's the short list:

  1. Digital-first and omnichannel: The digital desktop should not only be a one-stop desktop for digital interaction channels, but it should also have deep capabilities for digital-first, omnichannel engagement, including rich support for emerging channels like messaging, video chat, social media, and cobrowsing, and mature channels like chat and email. The desktop should also be integrated with voice, since some interactions might still require escalation to the phone channel. Digital customers would rather have agents collaboratively fill out forms online with them than go to branch offices. But cobrowse tools should offer control over what certain people can see and do for privacy, security, and compliance reasons.
  2. Guided: Today's digital agent is accustomed to driving cars with a GPS and managing finances with robo advisers. She will not care for maps nor want to pore through documents for an answer when the customer is on the line. It is, therefore, essential that the desktop provide contextual, conversational guidance to the agent that adapts to how the conversation flows, just like how a GPS provides adaptive navigational assistance.
  3. Collaborative: While it's important to collaborate with the customer, the agent should also be able to collaborate internally with other agents or subject matter experts to resolve queries in real time, when the customer is on the line.
  4. Unified: All interaction channels should be unified with one another and with systems of record, such as CRM and transactional systems, for a 360-degree view of context and analytic insight. Moreover, agents should get guidance from a common AI and knowledge engine for accuracy and consistency in answers and best-practice and regulatory compliance.
  5. Embeddable: The desktop should be componentized and offer two-way embeddability. It should allow embedding of information from third-party systems, while allowing itself to be embedded into other systems. Equally important, the solution should come with easy out-of-the-box integrations and an open architecture.
  6. Flexible: The desktop should adapt to multiple contextual factors, such as the interaction channel, customer attributes, and task at hand, as well as the experience levels of the agents. It should behave differently for a cobrowse or social media session versus a phone call and have the flexibility to be used in a single screen or multiscreen setting.
  7. Agile: Can the solution provider have the desktop up and running in a matter of days? Does it have deep functionality out of the box or require multiple partner solutions and ongoing integrations? Does it offer a risk-free desktop consumption model, not only for the initial deployment but also for value expansion on an ongoing basis?

CX remains a key battlefield for competitive differentiation, and it won't budge unless other stakeholder experiences are fixed, with AX being key. Forward-looking contact centers are revisiting their desktop strategies to improve CX through AX. They are far from stupid. They are ultra-smart!

Anand Subramaniam is senior vice president of global marketing at eGain.