Relationships have always been critical for contact centers. Even in the shortest and simplest calls, that momentary connection between agent and customer can determine the long-range trajectory of the relationship.
Today, though, relationships are more than just critical for contact centers; they’re central. Despite — even because of — the ongoing shift toward digital and AI-first interactions and self-service options, the strength of the relationship between brand and business is more important than ever.
In this evolving environment, the contact center has been called a “relationship hub.” Whatever channels it uses for customer engagement, the contact center is at the heart of the customer’s engagement with the company. It’s there that connections are established and strengthened, and customer pathways from service to marketing and sales are formed. And there at the center of that hub are today’s contact center agents.
Defining the Role of Today’s Contact Center Agent
At one time, the job of a call center agent was fairly easy to define: Resolve the customer’s issue as quickly as possible, then move on to the next one. In today’s complex service environment, this definition would be far too simplistic.
Now, agents serve as the first line of defense, addressing customer problems and concerns to not only resolve issues but keep the relationship strong. This is especially true in light of the pandemic, when customer expectations accelerated rapidly in favor of remote options for engaging brands. It’s also reinforced by the fact that younger generations of consumers have noticeably less brand loyalty than in previous eras. Changes like these mean that the pressure falls on call center agents to set the stage for a strong brand-customer connection.
On any given day, a call center agent may need to field a range of customer complaints, concerns, and queries. On one call, they may have to deescalate a customer’s frustration with a product. On the next, they may need to troubleshoot a complex software issue that a customer is having. On another, they may receive a transfer from a chatbot in which they must quickly get up to speed and seamlessly pick up the conversation.
Whatever the situation, the agent’s role is about far more than just achieving the fastest and most efficient resolution possible. In a 2021 Forrester Consulting study commissioned by CallMiner, contact center leaders reported Net Promoter Score (NPS), service level, customer satisfaction, and customer loyalty as the top four key performance indicators (KPIs) for their stakeholders. All of these emphasize a depth and breadth of service that places greater value on customer relationships than efficient interactions.
An Expanded View of Agent Value
There’s more to the agent’s role, though. Customer service doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and strong connections between service and other departments like sales and marketing can have a powerful impact on business outcomes. This makes agents not just the front line for customer relationships, but the center of the whole relationship hub.
Let’s consider a few examples to see why this is the case. First, imagine a customer who is having trouble connecting their checking account with a savings account at another institution. He’s tried to do it online but, after a few unsuccessful attempts, he calls the bank’s customer service line.
While helping him troubleshoot the issue, the agent gleans more information about what he’s trying to do — set up his savings account to transfer money to avoid overdrafts. The agent helps him connect the account but also informs him about the overdraft protection program available to customers who hold checking and savings accounts with the bank. Satisfied with his service experience and interested in learning more, the customer asks to speak to someone in sales who can tell him more about the bank’s savings account options.
Now, imagine another customer who calls an appliance manufacturer with a few basic questions about using her new smart fridge. Her issues aren’t anything complicated, and the agent is able to help her quickly without any trouble. In the process of helping her, though, the agent engages the customer in conversation and learns that she’s a highly brand-loyal customer whose age falls outside the company’s normal customer demographics.
Because the agent is thinking about not only that customer, but the company’s overarching success, he asks more questions to understand what drew this older customer to these products. He then reports these findings to the marketing team to help them improve their outreach to this demographic.
These are just a few examples, but it’s not difficult to see how these connections between agents and other departments can play out in countless ways. Within this framework, agents are the central connection point for the contact center, not only providing service but deepening customer engagement with the entire business and fostering opportunities for company growth.
How To Support Agents at the Heart of the Relationship Hub
If that’s the role of the agent in this new relationship hub, what does it mean for call centers that employ them? Indeed, some nowadays are saying that call centers need “super-agents” who are equipped with phenomenal communication skills, deep analytical problem-solving capabilities, and vast knowledge of their companies.
Getting that level of skill and performance out of customer service reps is a high bar to aim for, but it may not be as unrealistic as it seems. Here are a few things your contact center can do to support agents and strengthen your relationship hub.
Provide the Right Tools and Training
These “super-agents” aren’t going to arrive at your call center perfectly formed and ready to deliver this kind of high-level CX. They’ll need to be equipped with the right tools and training for the job. The previously mentioned research from Forrester noted a few key areas that call center leaders were already aware of:
- Intelligent solutions that will help agents be more effective.
- Greater AI and automation adoption to free up time for agents to do more meaningful work.
- Solutions that provide clear “next-best-action” recommendations for agents.
- Providing a complete view of customer journeys to better support them throughout the process.
In particular, the research emphasized the need to provide better “empathy training” for agents. As AI solutions provide more customers with self-service options for simple issues, it’s more critical for agents to be equipped with empathy to handle the more complex issues that do reach them. The report goes so far as to call voice the “new empathy channel,” calling for tools and training that help agents develop a deeper understanding of the customer journey and experience.
Support Employee Engagement
Training and tools are only part of the equation, though. Perhaps the biggest factor in empowering agents to play a key role is company leadership. The question here is: What are you doing to deepen engagement among your call center staff?
Much of this comes down to how you communicate a vision for the role and give agents a sense of mission and purpose. A 2018 study by McKinsey and Company found that 70% of agents who reported that they were likely to stay with their call center also felt a strong sense of purpose and connection to the company’s vision.
The study went on to suggest that contact centers “incorporate meaningful customer reflections at the start of meetings across all levels of the company.” Consider this and other ways you can help agents see the pivotal part they play and the connections they can facilitate between customers and other departments.
Integrate Sales and Service in Your Call Center Culture
Taking leadership a step further, you can think about the mindset you instill in your agents. Instead of training them to view service as an isolated job — providing support to existing customers — what if you taught them to view all service as an aspect of sales?
This approach is known as a “sales through service” model. Essentially, it means treating your customer service department as an extension of the sales department. Teaching agents to think this way helps them remember their role in the relationship hub and view every call as an opportunity to sell the customer, whether it’s on a new product or simply on continuing their relationship with the company.
Collaboration is a natural outgrowth of this sales-first mindset, and it emphasizes the relational aspect of the contact center. But it takes intentionality. In traditional call centers, departments tend to be siloed, and information sharing isn’t straightforward.
To overcome this, you need to foster a collaborative mindset in the organization and use technology that makes collaboration easy. The best contact center tools allow agents to share documents, consult across departments, and connect with internal experts so agents can provide the best possible solutions for customers.
Beyond bolstering the relational aspect of your contact center, this collaborative spirit has an added bonus. A study in the Harvard Business Review showed that contact centers with more collaborative cultures performed 50% better than those with more siloed environments.
Emphasize the Right Metrics
Call center managers are well versed in the many performance metrics for evaluating agents. But not all metrics are equally valuable — or equally reflective of overarching company KPIs.
Measurements such as average speed of answer, average handle time, and after-call work time have their place in gauging overall productivity. However, many of these standard metrics only paint part of the picture.
More relevant to the role of today’s agent are metrics that track deeper customer service indicators. First -call resolution — how often an agent resolves an issue without transferring or returning the call — is common. But what about more nuanced data that tracks the effectiveness of agent dialog or of their ability to gather and report relevant information to other departments? If you’re already watching your NPS and customer satisfaction scores, are you examining how those results connect with agent performance? If the contact center is a relationship hub, then the analytics you value most should reflect how well it does this job.
In all of these areas, it’s hard to overstate the critical role agents play. Understanding the value of that role is only the beginning, though. Contact center leaders who truly embrace it will provide their agents with the tools, support, and leadership they need to keep customer connections strong at every port on the hub.