Why do call centre agents have such a bad reputation?

A recent survey has revealed that call centre agents (operators) are in the second most hated profession in the UK — only traffic wardens are more loathed. At the other end of the scale, surgeons are the most respected.

How did this come about? Is it justified? And if not, how can agents regain the respect that they deserve? Those of us who work in call centres know that agents frequently have to cope with aggressive customers, volatile workloads and unresponsive computer systems, yet they still manage to deliver a great customer experience. Clearly in many cases the stereotypical view revealed in the survey is inaccurate. But there is never smoke without fire. We have all witnessed examples of bad practice in contact centres which have nothing to do with the attitude or aptitude of the agents — but the agent always gets the blame. Customers shoot the messenger.

Agents may never reach the pedestal occupied by surgeons but let’s face it: your agents are the voice of your business and an important element of your brand. Here are some ideas for making sure that your agents build your brand rather than damage it.

Improve first-contact resolution

Numerous studies have revealed that First Contact Resolution (FCR) is directly linked to customer satisfaction and therefore to the customer’s perception of the agent. For example, ICMI concluded that 12% of customers leave if it takes more than 2 calls to address their issue.

Improving FCR is easy to say but not so easy to do. It could mean updating your call routing technology; it could mean process re-engineering; it might require IT upgrades; and it will almost certainly involve training and cross-skilling of agents so that fewer handoffs are required to address customer demands. Here’s some further reading

Hire the best and make them want to stay

Start by hiring the right candidates. Hire for attitude, coach for skill. Put in place a solid reward programme that recognises excellence. Offer shifts that deliver great work-life-balance; Flexible shift patterns that respect childcare or college arrangements is one sure way of retaining staff and boosting morale. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that everyone wants to work 9–5 Monday to Friday. Some people actually relish the shifts that other people hate, e.g. evenings and weekends. This makes the task of shift planning more onerous but the results more than repay the effort and today’s low-cost cloud workforce management applications make this a breeze — check out www.injixo.com.

Education, education, education

Personal development is intrinsically motivational. The skills gained by top call centre agents open doors to many career opportunities. There are some examples here. If we train our agents to fulfill their potential, the inevitable consequence will be better customer service — and a better reputation for the agents and the brand.

Traditionally, call centre education has meant taking agents off the phones to attend classroom training. Today, comprehensive web-based e-learning is available at low cost. This enables agents to learn best practice at their own pace and during quiet periods when they might otherwise be unproductive. Good e-learning will have a comprehensive curriculum and offer mastery tests which may be taken at the end of each module, so that agents — and their supervisors — can monitor progress. Have a look at The Call Center School.

The CCMA, in partnership with the University of Ulster and the Professional Planning Forum recently launched a degree course in call centre management. This is clearly not applicable to the entire call centre workforce but can only serve to increase professionalism and bolster the reputation of call centres.

Happy agents = happy customers

Numerous studies, e.g, have concluded that businesses with positive, motivated and engaged employees end up with happy customers who enjoy interacting with the firm — and ultimately buy more products and services.

How can we make the agents in our call centres more happy? Job satisfaction isn’t just about salary and promotion. We know what agents don’t like: They hate being burned out, swamped with calls as a result of under-staffing. The answer is not just to hire more people. It’s about creating shifts that put the right number of agents in their seats at the right time, so you have people on duty when you need them — and not when you don’t. It is a mathematical fact that if you staff up for average demand, then for 50% of the time you will be understaffed. Introducing smarter shifts makes the task of shift planning more onerous but with powerful cloud applications like injixo available at low cost, there is really no excuse for not optimising shifts and minimising burnout.

We know that agents do like having opportunities for training and development — see my previous point. They do like having a say in the shifts that they work and being able to book time off and do shift-swaps on a self-service basis. This is where WFM applications with a comprehensive agent portal come into their own. The best agent portals are those which offer access anytime and anywhere using any browser on any device, e.g. smartphone or tablet. Check out injixo Me.

What next?

To quote the ancient Chinese philosopher Lau-Tzu, the longest journey begins with a single step. By adopting just one of the good practices referred to in this post, we are taking a step towards an industry where people really want to work and which attracts the best talent. Maybe call centre agents will never have the kudos of surgeons but surely the current poor reputation is ill-deserved.

Originally published at blog.injixo.com.