Recently, I stumbled upon a terrific article in the Harvard Business Review, “Kick-Ass Customer Service.” (The title alone makes the article a must read.) In it, the authors do two things effectively: First, they argue for updating contact center training and management approaches, particularly in the era of customer self-service. Second, they make the case (based on their study of more than 1,400 contact center agents) that many brands’ assumptions about which type of agent is most effective may be way off.
On both points, we couldn’t agree more.
If you’re a contact center manager, you might be thinking, Okay, but how is any of this actionable? How can I optimize my own customer service team? Where do I start?
I think you’ll be surprised at how simple the solution is. First, though, let’s tackle each of the “Kick-Ass” article’s main points.
Customer Service Agents Are the New Brand Heroes
We’ve written about the growing demand for customer self-service. Nine out of 10 consumers say they want and expect to be able to help themselves without having to contact customer service.
Fortunately, with the help of technology, brands are making self-service increasingly easy. Most customers can take care of routine tasks through their account pages. Or search for answers on FAQ pages. No need to call, chat, or email.
Until the customer hits a dead end.
At that point, the customer may be frustrated. And the problem will likely be complex, thorny, or downright unpleasant.
As the self-service customer’s last resort, contact center agents must be more knowledgeable, empowered, and effective than ever before. Customers want a superhero who solves problems, not an average mortal whose tone deafness or weak response makes things worse.
Yet all too often, as the “Kick-Ass” authors contend (and as we’ve witnessed ourselves), companies often pour resources into new self-service technologies at the expense of front-line training and performance management. To make matters worse, team leaders hamstring their agents with strict procedures and scripts, making it tough (if not impossible) for agents to solve complex problems on their own.
What these companies aren’t fully considering is the enormous cost of bad service experiences. In the pre-Internet days, customers vented to friends and family; today, a single bad experience can spread like wildfire and be seen by hundreds, if not thousands, on social media.
What Makes for a Kick-Ass Service Agent?
Many contact center managers assume the customer wants an apologetic, touchy-feely personality on the other end of the line. So they hire and train accordingly.
But as the HBR authors point out, many customers prefer someone who takes charge of the situation (a “controller”), rather than someone who feels their pain (“empathizer”).
The fact that controllers tend to outperform empathizers across all industry verticals is important to note. But that’s not the key takeaway here. The only thing that matters to your business is what your customers expect when they contact your service team. It could be any one of the “seven types of reps” the authors have identified, and as we’ve written before, the ideal agent will likely differ from one brand to the next, depending on the product type, the buying process, and a host of other variables.
So how can you settle this question? What will it take to accurately define the ideal customer service experience, and then hire, train, and manage performance to achieve it?
There’s only one way to get this done. Not random or weekly quality assurance reviews, not monthly NPS® scores, and not the C-suite’s definition of “great service.” It’s agent-level customer feedback—a steady stream of it, delivered to the front line in real time.
The Many Benefits of Agent-Level Customer Feedback
An agent-level customer feedback program is a game-changing tool for brands. Many of our own clients have seen dramatic improvements in agent performance, client satisfaction, and sales revenue (for brand-specific results, check out these case studies). Programs like Stella Connect are both simple and cost effective, and they deliver value on many levels.
- Sky-high response rate—Typical customer satisfaction surveys have a 4-5% average response rate. For Stella Connect customer feedback requests, the response rate is usually around 40%—and often much higher. With so many customer responses, you can begin to draw meaningful conclusions about your agents’ performance and customers’ preferences.
- Excellent motivator for front-line teams—Customers’ positive ratings, comments, and suggested rewards boost morale and engagement on the front line. Agents feel more brand pride and loyalty, and they feel inspired to continually improve their performance and compete for individual recognition.
- Improved hiring strategies—Once you identify your top-performing agents, you’ll know what type of agent your customers prefer. As you scale your team with new hires who fit that profile, they’ll feel comfortable, confident, and happy in their roles, and your churn rate will drop as a result.
- Stronger customer relationships—A feedback request that includes the agent’s photo and bio serves to humanize the brand and establish an emotional connection with the customer. Customers will feel inclined to not only reward the agent, but also praise the brand in their social circles.
- Brand awareness and revenue booster—The ripple effect of a bad service engagement can extend far and wide on social media. But on the flip side, agent-level customer surveys can be a big positive for brands. By including sharing tools and custom links, you can turn your customers into brand ambassadors, expand your customer base, and drive sales.
The data you collect through agent-level surveys will give you everything you need to determine who your top and bottom performers are and create hiring personas. From there, you can nurture the best, train the rest, and build a world-class customer service team.
Bottom Line for Brands: Invest Where It Counts
Your contact center is a critical touchpoint. When self-service fails, your front-line team should be ready, willing, and able to establish a connection and solve the problem at hand. Anything short of that could be the final straw for your customers.
The best way to ensure excellence on the front line is to measure your agents’ performance in real time, define your customers’ ideal service experience, and train and motivate your front-line team to deliver exactly that. The more invested you are in your team, the more it will show—and the more customers will reward you with their hard-earned dollars and heartfelt praise.