Can Old-School Customer Service Meet Multichannel Expectations?

“The phone is dead, let’s put more customer service representatives on Twitter. It’s all about self-service now, we need more people working chat.” If you talk to most companies about customer service, you’re likely to find they’ve become hyperfocused on multichannel. Social media, chat, video, Web—there’s a scramble to provide several avenues to serve customers.

And what about your agents? Can they be trained to handle cross-channel duties? Do you need to hire specialists in social media? When it comes to offering the best customer service, industry experts say that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

The Need for Speed

Consumer expectations have shifted in the past 10 years; now customer service is about immediacy and the contextual. Customers expect companies to know who they are and why they are calling. While the channels have changed, the pre-IVR, old/new concept of building a relationship with the customer and providing personalized interaction is paramount.

“This is a really big shift for companies that have always thought that the contact center is about driving cost efficiencies,” says Sam Boonin, vice president, product and platform marketing at Zendesk. “The idea of a contact center that just deals with customer complaints in bulk, there’s a real mismatch in those models, and that’s what companies are really struggling with. That’s been a really big change over the past five to 10 years.”

Strap into Your Swivel Chair

To provide a personalized experience, agents are increasingly wearing several hats. They might be speaking with someone on the phone where they are completely focused, with no distractions. But with the addition of other channels such as live chat, the agent may be connecting with three other customers at the same time. The same can be true with email or social. “In order to work with different channels, agents need to context-switch faster—you can’t focus just on one customer conversation,” Boonin says.

Boonin points out that agents also have to traverse more systems in order to get customers’ questions answered. “It used to be really simple—all you needed to do was log in to an order-management system and get a little bit of information from the customer.

“But now, because of the nature of technology, agents have to switch back and forth between many more systems, and their job is a lot more challenging.” 

Knowledge is Power

One thing that hasn’t changed is knowing what you’re talking about in the first place. No matter what channel a customer uses, to build a strong foundation, agents will always need to be trained and subsequently coached on a company’s processes and products.

Interestingly, multichannel use of self-service has heightened this need. Research is increasingly finding that customers prefer self-service more than any other channel. Carrying out simple tasks such as tracking a package or finding out what color a shirt is available in can be done on a mobile or Web site in seconds. Today, unless a problem is more complicated, customers can avoid frustrating IVRs or agents.

“It’s kind of oxymoronic—the more things to be found out about online, the higher an agent’s skills need to be because the questions are harder,” says Sheri Petras, CEO of CFI Group. “Those skill sets become more and more important as simple queries are addressed online.”

The No. 1 Skill Multichannel Agents Must Have

According to industry experts, regardless of new technologies and an array of channels, soft skills remain the most important tool in an agent’s arsenal. Chief among those skills is empathy—the ability to relate to a customer, make them feel like their issue is important and that they are heard.

“The No. 1 skill that’s necessary is the ability to address customer issues, to see things through a customers’ lens,” Petras says. “You can train people how to do social media or call center software, but I don’t know that you can train empathy.”

Boonin points out that going back 20, even 30 years ago, personal relationships between agent and customer were wiped out by IVRs. Yes, IVRs save companies a lot of money, but often at the expense of customer satisfaction.

“Customer service has been about systems and processes that were designed to make it impossible to let customers interact with companies,” Boonin says. “Now, because of changes in consumer behaviors and companies like Zappos, organizations are bringing the relationship back into customer service.

“This is an opportunity for agents to not just be monkeys working on processes, but to actually have customer empathy, to work on their soft skills more and make a personal connection with customers.”

Empowered Agents Boost Satisfaction and the Bottom Line

Building empathy and personalization often means giving agents more latitude to make some decisions on their own. While agents have to adhere to company policies and processes, they might decide to go off script and ask their supervisor to approve a one-time policy exception or offer the customer a better deal. 

“One of the things that we’ve found is that regardless of channel, agents need to have some kind of authority,” Petras says. “That pays off.  If they can do something for the customer, then you just made the company a whole bunch of money.”

Boonin believes this is an exciting trend for companies. In addition to making customers happy—and companies money—it also translates into happier agents who may find their job more rewarding. 

“We have customers that are very strict with how they respond and rely on macros, which are pre-canned answers; then we have other customers that feel that it’s more important to provide a personal touch and give their agents the latitude to provide that,” Boonin says. 

It all goes back to having the empathetic factor, he says.

“Agents are relationship builders. They need to have the ability, or develop the ability, to understand customers. I’m seeing that companies are starting to realize that they can provide a differentiated experience by investing in empathy training.

“Don’t just focus on Twitter or email or the phone. It’s better to understand your customers and meet them where they are.”

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