The Customer as Agent-Advocate

I've been in a lot of conversations recently about the shrinking role of the customer service agent and how artificial intelligence and robots will be stealing the jobs of customer support. Although we are seeing chatbots and self-learning knowledge bases reduce the overall need for first- and second-tier customer support, the traditional contact center agent faces a far more foreboding job competitor: the customer as agent-advocate.

Simply put, agent-advocates are existing customers who bring their product passion and knowledge to the job. They might engage on a fee basis (as some retailers practice) or on curated social channels where they gain recognition, loyalty points, or other incentives for answering other customers' questions. The agent-advocate goes beyond the typical customer community knowledge base by integrating it into the actual structure and process of the internal customer support function.

Gaming companies were in the forefront in bringing their consumers on as agent-advocates. Often remunerating those gamers with points and social media cred instead of a paycheck, they are able to leverage social networks and their fan base to drive greater adoption while reducing traditional support burdens.

Today it's not just the gaming companies. Traditional consumer goods manufacturers in specialized fields like power tools are bringing on their customers as agent-advocates, using them to guide other consumers, answer their questions, and increase the enjoyment and value they get from their products.

There are both bottom-line and top-line benefits to this approach, including the following:

  • Lower onboarding and training costs. Agents who are already knowledgeable and passionate about products can skip most of the product training and go straight to the training on contact center processes and technology.
  • Reduced turnover. Because agents can gig in and out as mutually beneficial, and actually care about the products on which they're advising customers, they're more likely to stick around longer.
  • Increased upsell opportunity. When a customer contacts customer service, he's much more likely to buy if a knowledgeable agent is prepared to make recommendations for him. The agent-advocate approach puts a fan directly in contact with a customer.
  • Increased customer loyalty. Knowledgeable agents with passion about your products can do more than answer questions or provide support. They can engage with other customers in a more genuine way than a typical customer service agent ever would, driving greater loyalty.

To support this brand of agent, technology needs the following:

  • High usability. Agents might have different levels of technology skills and might use the software on an intermittent basis, so intuitive applications with limited need for training are key.
  • Integration with compensation processes or rewards programs. Agents working on a gig basis, whether they're rewarded with cash, social media cred, or other incentives, need to be able to see how and when they're getting paid.
  • Multichannel capabilities. As we've seen with retailers, agent-advocates can be very effective with traditional phone channels but are most cost-effectively used across multiple channels.
  • In the cloud. There are numerous economic and business reasons to move contact center technology to the cloud, but the ability to scale up and down flexibly and provide access from anywhere is important to attracting and supporting agent-advocates.

As companies continue to look to differentiate themselves based on service, bringing in a loyal customer basis is a great way to leverage existing product passion and knowledge, employ a highly trainable and flexible workforce, and drive a virtuous circle of customer loyalty. While chatbots and other technologies might represent a short-term risk for the lower-tier agent, the agent-advocate drives not just reduced costs and management but a positive upside as well.

Rebecca Wettemann is vice president at Nucleus Research.

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