Paying Attention to Agent Wellbeing will Improve your Brand

The pandemic has had a dramatic impact on contact centers, most of which has been positive. As can be seen in DMG’s new Report, Contact Centers in a Post-Pandemic World: A Strategic and Tactical Guide to the Future, COVID-19 has accelerated digital transformation by 2 – 6 years. This is driving major upgrades and enhancements in existing operating systems, the expansion of digital channel support, a self-service replacement cycle as well as investments in new artificial intelligence (AI) and automation-enabled applications. All of these activities were long overdue for contact centers and if done properly should enhance the customer and agent experience and improve productivity.

The pandemic is also driving enterprise and contact center executives to consider the ramifications of dealing with consumers on their agents. While in general, customers are pleasant or at least civil, the negative “conversations” (voice or digital) take a toll on agents. While studies have shown that in normal times the percentage of difficult interactions (“conversations”) is less than 5% in most verticals, in troubling times, like during a pandemic, the percentage has been much higher. 

The degree of difficulty in handling live interactions with customers varies based on many factors, but the challenge is very significant when an agent cannot do anything to fix a situation. This occurs when an agent is required to uphold a company policy that they agree is outdated or unfair, when a customer has been mistreated by someone else in the company and takes out their frustration on the agent, when a customer experiences something traumatic that they “dump” on an agent, just to mention a few common scenarios. I have joked for years that contact centers are free counseling centers; unfortunately, it’s not funny for the agents that have to deal with these tough situations. 

Sure, agents can be “trained” to handle tough situations, but agents are humans and it’s going to impact them. Many an agent will talk about how one bad customer has ruined their day. And since agents cannot take a break after a bad experience (because they typically have to wait until their scheduled time), it often carries over into their subsequent inquiries, which is not pleasant for the agent or their subsequent customers. 

And, while agents are striving to deal effectively with consumers, they are often pushed to reduce their average handle time, which doesn’t allow them to show the empathy that most of them would, if they had the time. And when not encouraged to shorten interactions, they are asked to sell additional products and services, even when they know customers are not interested. Agents have a very tough job as they have to know the details of dozens of products and services and navigate anywhere from a few to over 50 operating systems while managing interactions within very tight time frames. Agents are often required to stay at their desks except for the three times during the day when they are scheduled for lunch or a break. And, they are paid the lowest rate of any employee in many companies. 

The question is what companies should do to address this situation? The good news is that enterprise leadership is finally acknowledging the challenges of being a contact center agent and the pandemic can be thanked for these insights. During the pandemic, contact center agents were the first responders and for a period of time may have been the only responders in some organizations. Agents all over the world, demonstrated their agility and mettle in dealing with extremely stressful situations while keeping their own emotions and concerns under control. 

It’s great that executives are seeing the amazing contributions that contact center agents make to their companies, but this recognition needs to translate into action, if companies want to retain these highly valuable employees. Companies should re-evaluate and increase the salary structure for their agents so that they are paid for the work that they do. Contact centers should give their supervisors the time they need to be available to assist, coach and encourage their agents, instead of pulling them for projects and reporting. Agents should be invited to select training and coaching sessions of their choice in addition to being sent to courses that quality systems identify that they need. Contact centers should transform their agent evaluations and scorecards to measure what matters most, which should not be average handle time and the number of transactions handled during the day. Lastly, the overall role of agent should be elevated in a company as these employees have one of the broadest bases of knowledge which if given the opportunity, can be put to good use in other parts of the organization. Contact centers should be employers of choice and it’s time for enterprise executives to make this happen, for the benefit of their employees, customers and bottom line.