A Look at Tomorrow's CSR, Today

We spend a great deal of time and treasure on the customer service center. We purchase software, hire people to use it, train the dickens out of them, track and evaluate their performance, and generate all sorts of metrics about performance. But one blind spot in all this might be how we hire people. I'm not suggesting the hiring process itself needs to be examined—it might be, but that's not the purpose of this piece. I want to suggest that the skills we look for might need a review.

A recent article in Harvard Business Review was an eye-opener. A survey of more than 1,400 agents and managers from different industries and countries revealed something startling. The study divided the agent population into seven types and ranked them first by population size and then by their effectiveness at delivering solutions. What emerged is that the most popular type of agent by population is referred to as the Empathizer, but the most effective ones are called Controllers.

As you might expect, the Empathizer feels your pain, but the Controller needs some explanation. Controllers like to show off a little bit. They're smart and know their stuff and like to take charge of a situation to deliver a solution. Customers like Controllers, according to the study, with 84 percent saying a take-charge person is what they want.

The reasons are simple once you understand what's going on. Today's customers prefer solving their own problems, and the study says more than 80 percent take a shot at it before giving in and calling. So many of the issues that used to hit the service center no longer make it because the customer solves them. This means that typically harder problems are what's left, and these are the problems that end up in the call center.

So there's a high probability that when a customer gets on the phone it's after spending time and effort trying to solve the problem to no avail. Such customers might not be the most tranquil people ever to use a phone, if you know what I mean. Perhaps that's why 84 percent want someone to just take charge and solve the problem.

So today's call center is well-fashioned to the talents of Controllers. Unfortunately, though, by population, Controllers are in the middle of the pack, meaning we don't hire them in any abundance. The problem, according to the Harvard study, isn't that Controllers are rare, it's that the hiring paradigm skews to Empathizers.

According to the study, typical job postings that attract other CSR types use words like "can meet quality and productivity standards," "deliver service through the use of multiple systems, applications, administrative processes, and operational tools," and "work an eight-hour shift."

But Controllers value their independence and expect to be treated like knowledge workers. According to the study, A posting that describes a rote and mechanistic service role tells Controllers that the company is seeking factory floor drones who can follow rules and procedures, not knowledge workers who will be trusted to exercise their own judgment to deliver superior customer service. That's a deal-breaker for Controllers.

Even once on the job, Controllers are different in that they need different styles of coaching and expect to be listened to when offering ideas for improvement. I'll leave you to read the article for more.

What this tells me is that the service center has changed significantly for two reasons. Perhaps the last time many of us thought about the people we're attracting, the company was new and product quality wasn't where it needed to be. That probably generated a lot of relatively simple break-fix kinds of call. But product quality is way up now thanks to maturation along many dimensions, like statistical quality control. Today most of those calls don't happen, and what's coming into the call center requires more professionalism and perhaps a tad less empathy. In these situations, hiring Controllers makes good sense, but doing so might also call for some remodeling in the service center's business model.

Denis Pombriant is founder and principal analyst of Beagle Research. Prior to that, he held multiple sales and marketing management positions in emerging companies. In 2000, Pombriant joined Aberdeen Group and held positions as research director and vice president of the CRM practice.