Don’t Blame Apathetic Agents for Poor Customer Service

It’s a given that stressed-out contact center agents mean lousy customer experience. However, according to a new survey, business leaders are well aware of this but just pay lip service to improving contact center employees’ environments.

The findings come from a new report, “Agent Apathy: The Root Cause of Poor Customer Service,” from the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) in partnership with Five9. An overwhelming number of organizations (85 percent) said that agent loyalty is an important priority.

However, at the same time, 87 percent of contact center leaders acknowledged that they know their agents are experiencing moderate to high levels of stress and are becoming unattached to their jobs, but that they are not taking steps to rectify the situation. The report warns companies that the “customer management industry can no longer treat the agent as a bottom-level necessity moving into the future if they truly want to improve customer service.”

Justin Robbins, senior analyst at ICMI, stated that the report “exposes the dirty little secrets that are holding a majority of organizations back.”

“It bothered me that when you ask [business] leaders what’s most important to them, they’ll tell you [that it’s] customer experience, customer service,” Robbins says. “But the reality is that their actions are completely contrary to that. They know that their agents are stressed out and the main reason is their tools and technology aren’t efficient.”

Robbins believes that changes are implemented only when organizations believe that they will save money by improving contact center efficiencies. Executives have yet to realize that by providing agents with better tools and technology, agents would be less stressed, more satisfied, more productive. In turn, customer experience would improve, driving more satisfaction and, ultimately, loyalty.

Robbins says that companies need to assess their customer service priorities. “They have to figure out what the ROI is [from their] investment in new technology for their agents,” he says. But Robbins believes that many companies aren’t interested in drilling down to the ROI level.

“They say that they just want to see the dollar amount associated with making changes, not the ROI, even if they know that [may mean] higher agent turnover and high dissatisfaction,” Robbins says. “It’s more important [to them] to save costs wherever they can.”

Such attitudes seem not only counterproductive when applied to the customer life cycle, but shortsighted considering that 52 percent of agents stay with a company less than three years, according to the survey. The sometimes considerable expense of hiring and training an agent goes down the drain.

Another surprising finding is that 59 percent of contact center supervisors were former agents. “They’ve been in these shoes before—they know that tools aren’t efficient, and the frustration. It becomes a top-down problem if companies don’t align themselves with what it means to provide great customer experience.”

Robbins says that while companies are beginning to get the whole picture, this latest research showed they are still not making changes.

“Companies have to change the traditional paradigm towards the contact center agent,” Robbins says. “We started to see this in our survey last month. [Now] organizations are starting to recognize that agents are the most important piece of the customer experience. But they’re not [acting]. A lot of it has to do with going along with the traditional way of doing things.”

ICMI is carrying out new research to determine if contact centers are perceived as cost centers or sources of value to the organization. “The early trends show that most contact centers are still in a vicious cycle that the organization doesn’t necessarily see the overall strategic value that contact centers provide,” he says.

And, Robbins says, there’s a reluctance to embrace the reality that customers are more in control of what they want their experience to look and feel like.

“The more that this happens, the more organizations have to give authority and resources to the people who ultimately are the closest to the customer—the agent,” he says. “If organizations don’t find a way to be nimble, adapt their approach in a way that empowers agents in the same way their customers are nimble, they’re going to fall short.”  

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