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The Impact of Self-Service on Contact Center Agents 

The Impact of Self-Service on Contact Center Agents

The Impact of Self-Service on Contact Center Agents

8/19/2008
By Donna Fluss
SupportIndustry.com

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Introducing self-service applications into a contact center has a significant impact on agents. Successful self-service applications benefit customers while saving money for the enterprise, but they also change the volume and mix of calls handled by agents and create new challenges for both agents and their managers.

Self-Service Value Proposition

The primary purpose of self-service solutions is to displace as many calls as possible from reaching agents. The idea is to use less expensive self-service systems to handle all calls that do not require the empathy and cognitive capabilities of human beings. In a properly designed self-service environment, the organization identifies the tasks that they expect customers to be receptive to performing themselves using an interactive voice response (IVR) system or website. (While some of the tasks are the same for IVR and websites, customers are generally willing and able to do much more on a website.) It is critical to avoid the classic trap of automating tasks that the organization wants customers to do for themselves, instead of what customers are actually willing to do.

Self-Service and Call Volumes

When an IVR is first implemented, a surprising result is that the volume of calls arriving in the contact center often increases. While the total volume is likely to go up, the number of calls reaching agents starts to decrease. IVR systems are great at handling basic information requests, such as “What is my balance?” and even some simple transactions, like requesting document copies or refunds. More sophisticated environments may use the IVR to make personalized offers to customers, such as credit line increases. The self-service options offered to customers vary based on customers’ willingness to use the automation and the type of technology involved; speech-enabled IVRs are much more flexible than touch-tone-based IVR solutions. Customer service websites can be much more transactional than IVRs and often include trouble ticket environments, searchable knowledge bases and many other types of activities that are not practical for an IVR.

The Changing Mix of Calls

Assuming that the right options/tasks are included in the IVR and/or website and the self-service functionality is easy to use, the composition of calls reaching agents will change. As customers become accustomed to using self-service applications, the automated system will begin to handle a growing proportion of the basic and simple calls. As a result, the calls reaching agents will typically be more challenging and take longer. While these calls have always reached agents in the past, they were a smaller percentage, compared to the overall number of inquiries that were simple and took a small amount of time. Therefore, one impact of adding self-service is that agents’ average handle time will initially increase and the number of calls that they handle during the day may decrease. On the other hand, agents will generally receive more interesting and challenging calls. This has a positive impact on agent retention, as they are more stimulated and therefore more likely to be satisfied with their jobs.

Another result of using self-service automation to displace calls is that the number of angry calls reaching agents appears to increase. In reality, the ratio of unhappy callers remains the same; what has changed is that a higher percentage of transactions reaching agents are high-stress because many routine calls have been removed from the agent queue.

When a Web self-service environment is implemented, agents must be trained to handle technical inquiries about the website along with their traditional customer service responsibilities. This is another way in which the types of calls going to agents change. Many organizations that offer Web-based self-service provide a separate phone number for customers with technical inquiries. (The phone number is made available on the website.) This approach is accepted as an industry best practice. Customer-centric organizations take the extra step of soliciting agent feedback to identify technical issues that are limiting usage of their self-service applications.

Impact on Agents

An essential step when implementing or modifying a self-service application is to keep agents informed about the changes and prepare them for the impact. All agents, whether or not they are handling technical calls, must be trained to use the new systems so that they are familiar with their capabilities and can assist customers. Agents should be motivated and rewarded for helping customers use the self-service solutions.

If the self-service application is successful, agents may become anxious about losing their jobs. This is a justifiable concern and one that contact center management must address to facilitate the success of the initiative. While there are exceptions, typically, it takes time for a self-service solution to yield optimal results, i.e., handling from 25% to more than 80% of calls. (The results are closer to 25% for an IVR used in a transactional environment, and can reach more than 80% for an IVR in a contact center that handles mostly informational inquiries.) While staff reductions will ultimately be necessary if the self-service application achieves its goals, layoffs are unlikely, since most contact centers have high agent attrition rates, anyway.

Final Thoughts

Customers may not always like self-service applications, but they view them as a right and an essential part of a business relationship. When these solutions are properly designed and implemented – a major challenge for companies all over the world – they satisfy customers and reduce operating expenses. While self-service applications provide benefits to customers, enterprises and agents, they generally cause anxiety about job cuts among staff members. To avoid negative impacts on morale, and possibly even damage to customer perception, management should involve agents in the development and roll-out of these self-service tools. They should also invite agents to share their recommendations for enhancing these applications on an ongoing basis. These actions can help to alleviate agent concerns and improve the quality and capabilities of self-service solutions.

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