In the past 3-to-5 years, customer service leaders added an average of 8.6 tools to help frontline agents assist customers, according to a 2018 ebook by Gartner entitled "Boost the Service Rep Experience". But instead of making life easier, nearly 66 percent of frontline reps say they are having a negative experience with their tools, and many claim these tools are the biggest factor hindering their productivity.
Surely that wasn’t how any leader expected those investments to go.
Though technology is supposed to solve problems, agents are often caught in a mad convergence between legacy and mushrooming experimental technology, and an obsession over customer experience. They’re supposed to be ever better at solving the increasingly technical problems of sometimes crabby customers, but now have to do it while learning to wield a collection of tech tools that are either loosely cobbled together or not connected at all. They have to deal with chatbots, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and Voice of the Customer (VoC) technology. They have multiple channels to manage—from website to phone to chat to social media. And while they have technology to route the right calls to the right person with the right knowledge and the right personality, that happens before they ever find out what the problem is and begin to navigate the maze of troubleshooting. And reps are supposed to do all this with a spirit of generosity toward the customer.
A frustrated rep is not the best candidate to provide a stellar customer experience.
When it comes to purchasing technology solutions, Jim Davies, research director and part of Gartner’s European CRM team, said in a panel webinar on the topic that the default tends to fall toward operational efficiency technologies, making calls shorter, deflecting to self service, better scheduling so a company needs fewer agents, and driving first core resolution.
“The irony,” he said, “is that if a company does start to increase its wager on engagement, it has better operational performance anyway.”
From patchwork to seamless
Companies that want to create a fantastic customer experience, the ebook argues, need to shift their attention to creating a fantastic rep experience. That means not forcing reps to juggle so many balls just to respond to a customer’s need.
Davies points out that customer service technology has been evolving rapidly in three different areas: infrastructure technologies, agent technologies, and workforce technology. But they’re beginning to combine.
“We’re starting to see workforce operation vendors providing CRM” and other crossovers, he said. “The boundaries of each domain are crumbling and the value proposition clients can get are accelerating,” he said. “We’re not there yet, but within those three buckets, integration needs to happen.”
Davies said he often tells a story about a company that used tech from one vendor—that handled recording and quality management and evaluation of agents—plus tech from a different vendor for workforce management forecasting and agent scheduling.
“One vendor bought the other and they migrated to a new platform,” Davies recounted. “They found every single operational metric improved once they got the integrated suite.”
One problem is that companies don’t know which technologies they’re going to need, what’s going to dominate, and what’s going to fall off the famed Gartner Hype Curve. They’ve been buying tech in chunks that don’t always work together, responding to unclear needs, and sometimes losing money—in addition to frustrating reps.
An example Davies gave is real-time speech. In theory, real-time speech is an appealing concept, a technology that recognizes trigger words and tones and alerts the representative, based on that data, that the customer is on the verge of buying a product, for example, or on the verge of churn.
The technology is interesting, Davies said. But, he asked: “Which of those triggers could you not just train the agent to recognize or look out for in that particular phrase? It’s not really a sustainable use case.”
“By 2020, we actually think the virtual assistants bought this year are going to be abandoned,” he said. “But by 2022, 20 percent of all customer interactions will be handled by virtual assistants. Overall, there’s a massive shift in the use of VA and AI, and a lot of negativity around it. Its use case is not being defined. There’s a learning phase with a lot of failure.”
Companies can’t afford to be afraid of failure, he said. But they should invest in the success of reps if they’re interested in customer service excellence.
One of the possible options for this, suggested in the ebook, was to appoint a “Translator” whose job is “observing frontline rep interactions with systems and tools and uncovering non-obvious rep needs and potential solutions…the Translator then reports back to leadership. By voicing reps’ needs — and advocating for the right projects and initiatives — workflows, processes, systems and tools can be updated or eliminated altogether.”
Another solution was proposed in the panel discussion by Nadine LeBlanc, senior director in Gartner Research in the CRM and Customer Research team. The idea is to turn tools like virtual assistants and Voice of the Customer technology around toward the reps.
“In their day to day, blending together a range of technologies, you could look at things like reporting process automation, all the cutting and pasting that has to be done between systems,” LeBlanc said. “The virtual assistant could do that for them.” Or if an agent has been on vacation and returns to a new technology, the virtual assistant could catch them up.
With VoC, she said, you could learn how to optimize the rep experience. “Are they a morning person or an afternoon person? What were their last three calls like? Do they need to go on a break?”
Another proposal in the ebook was to set up a help desk for reps, staffed by experts in not only the technologies but in the company policies and other information needed to help reps solve problems. Gartner’s ebook reports that reps said they had to talk to an average of 23 people in-house to solve a complex problem. The help desk would replace that complex system with a one-stop shop to solve the problem more quickly and easily. So agents would have one place to go for their answers, and wouldn’t have to bounce around, looking for someone available and with the right information.
Choose technology in service of your org’s needs
Anyone who has worked with a computer or had GPS disappear because of a lack of cell reception knows that technology can be one’s nemesis as much as it can be a friend. Customer service centers face the same challenges as other organizations—to make the right decisions when it comes to purchasing and implementing tech solutions, or deciding when and whether to jump on the latest trend.
Possibly, learning how to make those decisions, to really understand your organization and create a seamless experience for agents, is the fundamental question underlying all others.