Meet Ryan. He’s a customer service agent for an insurance company whose role is to act as a first point of call for customers who are abroad and require assistance with their travel. As well as having to adhere to regulatory guidelines and verify policies using internal software, he has to remain calm under pressure.
The nature of the job means that for the 640,500 people like Ryan working in customer services in the UK, a thick skin and resilience are required. Meanwhile, the challenge for employers is to keep staff morale high.
Customer service has one of the highest staff churn rates. Research released at the beginning of the year by quality assurance improvement platform EvaluAgent showed that roughly 40 per cent of people employed in customer services are likely to look for a new job in January because of a seasonal slump in engagement and motivation.
The research also revealed the financial implications can be quite significant. For example, Ryan’s job pays £21,000 a year and, if he were to quit it, would cost his employer at least £6,300 in lost productivity and recruitment expenses.
Tech key to staff morale
So how do you maintain a high level of staff morale? The answer isn’t to throw money at it. Salary increases and cash bonuses may motivate some agents in the short term, but they won’t necessarily reduce staff turnover in the long term.
There needs to be a mixture of both financial and non-financial incentives, argues Jaime Scott, EvaluAgent’s co-founder and chief executive. “In our experience, disengagement becomes a particular problem when companies don’t invest enough time and effort in their people,” he says.
“It’s easy for companies to become too focused on customer outcomes alone and view any time spent coaching, developing, supporting and training agents, and not servicing customers, as an unnecessary cost to the business.”
Regard for others is an essential attitude for agents to have as they need to be genuinely concerned and interested in their customers
More than half of customer service agents surveyed by EvaluAgent cited regular feedback as a way to motivate them and improve the employee experience.
“Tools that allow agents to view their feedback and monitor their performance can be extremely useful,” says Scott. “They can help to ensure both agents and team leaders track development, identify skills that need to be improved, and document next steps.”
For example, Ryan may be efficient at adhering to regulatory guidelines, but the conversational side of the job may not come naturally to him. With help from call analytics software powered by artificial intelligence (AI), real-time insight can improve his call performance.
Having quality-control managers sit in on a random sample of calls to make sure service is consistent is effective to an extent. Speech analytics, on the other hand, gives contact centres the ability to analyse scripts to identify tone, topics and problem areas that come up again and again, says Chris Marron, director of competitive and market intelligence at 8x8, a provider of integrated communications and analytics solutions for contact centres.
Using analysis and feedback, Ryan can learn to improve the intonation and pacing of his voice and his inflection to control conversations and keep customers onside during calls.
What’s more, human resources departments can use this insight to inform how they implement appraisals and take a more proactive approach to employee reviews, instead of scheduling them weeks in advance.
One size doesn’t fit all
Contact centres have now moved beyond fielding calls and responding to emails to being omnichannel, which includes making use of instant messaging and social apps. As David Parry-Jones, vice president, Europe, Middle East and Africa, at cloud communications company Twilio, puts it: “Contact centres need to evolve in keeping with the way customers communicate with one another.”
“Offering customers multiple channels of communication ensures agents are talking to them on the channel that works for them, regardless of the time and place. It also helps businesses to shift away from a one-size-fits-all approach to the contact centre.”
According to a 2019 report from Salesforce on the state of customer service, adoption of AI in the industry is growing exponentially. Chatbots, for instance, are being implemented to deal with basic queries and to reduce the need for customer service agents to answer the same questions over and over again, which is something that can be demoralising, notes Marron.
For agents, AI’s rise is redefining their role. Seventy-one per cent of agents surveyed by Salesforce said their job is more strategic than it was two years ago. Whereas they would usually be pushed to close as many cases as quickly as they possibly can, they’re now able to focus their efforts on ensuring each customer interaction is personalised.
To make their job easier, the latest software is providing agents with knowledge of customers’ previous interactions, enabling them to react swiftly.
“Agents don’t need to have a dozen or so different windows open to manage each channel. Instead they can opt for a single-window interface that gives them a clear holistic view of any customer interactions,” says Parry-Jones.
From a customer perspective, contact centres implementing the latest software to improve the employee experience is streamlining the customer experience by eliminating the problem of having to repeat personal details and order details when their interaction is escalated up the chain. A complaint often heard from customers is that agents can take too long looking for the relevant information, leaving them on hold.
Balancing tech with emotional intelligence
Looking to the future, advances in AI and automation are expected to continue freeing up more customer service agents to deal with complex issues. As a result, people skills will become more relevant.
“The customers who do get through to a human are going to have more complicated issues that need resolving and will likely be more emotionally charged,” argues Jill Pennington, consulting director at PSI Talent Management.
Dealing with these more complex interactions, she says, requires greater emotional intelligence (EI) and contact centres should be placing as much emphasis on EI as they are on technology.
Centres need to evolve in keeping with the way customers communicate with one another
Tools that analyse speech in real time can help agents to develop the skills needed to handle inquiries. However, their ability to handle their own emotions is just as important.
“When EI is dialled up, people are more aware of themselves and others, and feel motivated and empowered,” says Pennington. “Regard for others is an essential attitude for agents to have as they need to be genuinely concerned and interested in their customers.”
Agents with a high regard, she adds, are less likely to judge customers when on the receiving end of frustration or rudeness.
Furthermore, agents with self-regard are more likely to be present when interacting with customers, especially over the phone, rather than listening to an inner voice telling them they can’t handle the conversation.
“A typical contact centre is a high-pressure environment,” says Pennington. “High self-regard means customer service agents can cope with this level of scrutiny and see it as an opportunity to learn and grow.”
By getting the balance right between developing EI skills and investing in technology, contact centres can improve the employee experience for agents and deliver a better service for customers.