Tips for Re-Engaging the Disengaged Customer Service Rep

Customer service executives are naturally focused on supporting reps through the ongoing adjustment to working from home—and for some even a more recent return to the office. But in shoring up rep engagement through these short-term disruptions, service executives are overlooking a far greater, more dangerous source of disengagement that has nothing to do with the global pandemic at all. Instead, the far greater cause of service rep disengagement today has everything to do with the design of the job itself—irrespective of location. And that disengagement is costing service teams dearly.

There is no doubt expectations on service reps have evolved dramatically in the past several years. In fact, 54 percent report that today's reps are responsible for three or more activities beyond traditional issue resolution. Meanwhile, 69 percent of service leaders believe driving customer retention is more important today than just three short years ago.

At the same time, customers' rising preference to resolve all but the most complicated tasks through online, self-serve channels means that customers who do wind up in a live rep channel often arrive there after trying and failing to resolve their issues on their own. Gartner research indicates that 66 of customers first failed in a self-service channel prior to contacting a service rep, meaning more service calls start with more frustrated customers looking for far quicker resolution.

And when we look at service rep data, one thing is immediately clear: These rising expectations have taken a huge toll on service rep engagement.

A Costly Crisis of Rep Disengagement

Following conventional research, we examined service rep engagement across three dimensions: Exhaustion, indifference, and efficacy.

In a survey of more than 600 service reps this spring, we found reps score high on both exhaustion and indifference, but surprisingly, even higher on efficacy. More specifically, 74 percent of service reps feel highly effective at their jobs, able to solve problems as they arise. Yet, 51 percent report high levels of exhaustion, and 47 percent report high levels of indifference toward their jobs. They feel used up at the end of the day and emotionally drained from the work, doubt the significance of their work, and have become less interested in that work over time.

In all, two thirds of reps score high for either exhaustion or indifference, and 38 percent score high for both. And the price for that disengagement is steep. We found that disengaged reps are five times more likely to engage in attrition behaviors, including considering leaving, applying for other jobs, and actively interviewing. Meanwhile, disengaged reps who choose to stay triple the effort customers must expend to resolve service issues. In terms of callbacks alone, for example, in a call center with 100 full-time employees taking 1 million calls a year, disengaged reps'; tripling callback rates translates into $668,000 of incremental cost.

The Two Drivers of Rep Engagement: Work Flexibility and Role Clarity

Our research indicates two meaningful ways to improve rep exhaustion and indifference.

First is giving reps far more ability to determine for themselves when and even how their work gets done. Allowing reps to take breaks as necessary not only provides a practical means for reducing exhaustion, but also a meaningful way to give reps more say over how they manage their time. In fact, moving reps' perception of work flexibility from a bottom quartile to a top quartile score results in a 67 percent increase in likelihood that those same reps will feel engaged in their work, specifically through lower exhaustion and decreased indifference. In a job of rising, unrelenting expectations, simply allowing reps more control over how to address those expectations and custom-fit the work to their work style can dramatically improve their willingness to lean in a little harder and stick around a little longer. With greater flexibility, they have more control over their environment and how they interact with it.

Second is role clarity. Leaders who can move their organizations from Not So Good to Pretty Good on role clarity can nearly double the likelihood of rep engagement, specifically, by minimizing two related challenges: task ambiguity and contradicting objectives.

Task ambiguity is the degree to which employees lack confidence in what exactly their role should be. How should they prioritize their time? How do they manage tradeoffs?

Contradicting goals describes the situation where reps feel that pursuing one organizational objective puts them in direct opposition to executing another (e.g., reducing average handle time while simultaneously ensuring high-quality interactions). When leaders leave it to reps to figure out practically how to make that happen, they leave them exhausted, confused, and frustrated. Especially when they feel second-guessed no matter what they choose.

Collaboration Over Compliance

Re-engaging disengaged service reps will require a systemic solution targeting the very design of the job itself. In fact, the most progressive service organizations are now experimenting in new, creative ways for providing reps far more flexibility in their workflows. Others are rethinking rep performance metrics altogether, measuring performance based on customer outcomes instead of discrete activities. And others still are rebalancing measures of individual rep performance with team-based metrics of collective performance, encouraging deeper, more organic collaboration over rigid hierarchical compliance. In fact, the best companies are moving rapidly to rethink the service profession altogether, acknowledging the profession's rapid evolution from task-based activity to thought-based work and rethinking the drivers of employee engagement as a result.

Brent Adamson is distinguished vice president, advisory, at Gartner.