Are Universal Agents the Secret to Great Customer Service?

There is a certain attraction to universal agents for contact centers: we dream of the agent who can do it all. In theory, if a contact center could be staffed with universal agents, all contacts could be managed through a single queue regardless of contact channel.  Let's look at the case both for and against universal agents.

What is a universal agent?

What exactly is a universal agent? Universal agents are those who can skillfully handle any type of issue—anything from technical to billing problems. More recently, with the emergence of the muilti-channel customer, universal agents have come to refer to those agents who can handle customers across any assisted contact channel, from phone to social. In a sense, both are correct and offer similar benefits. However, they also pose operational challenges.

Who needs universal agents?

While there are few use cases where universal agents are required, a colleague ran across an instance where it would make sense. The company supported both web-to-case and email-to-case functionality. When a customer contacted the company about the status of their case, they were routed to the agent who handled the online inquiry, assuming that agent was available. Otherwise, the customer was routed to a universal queue (universal queues will be discussed in another blog post).  Using agents in this way was not about saving money but rather providing a differentiated service experience. 

 In addition to the customer-agent affinity use-case, universal agents may allow smaller centers to provide a cost-effective assisted service. In the smaller centers, utilization is often low and universal agents may provide a productivity boost by aggregating service demand.

 If universal agents are so great, why isn't everyone staffing them?

To quote the great baseball coach Yogi Berra, "In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is." The reason contact centers do not embrace universal agents, especially for multi-channel contact, is that it is very difficult and very expensive. As my colleague Robert Roop noted, "Every call center that I have worked in, managed, or consulted with has considered universal agents. None of them were able to operationalize it."

 Why is this so?  There are a number of reasons.

  • Recruiting. Setting out a hiring profile that would support universal behavior, especially across all contact channels, is difficult and expensive. In a simple example, if 50 chat agents and 50 phone agents could be hired to handle all inbound volume, what is the case to hire 100 universal agents at a much higher hourly cost?
  • Business process. Customer-agent affinity is often the reason for seeking universal agents.  Undeniably, there are times when that will make complete sense, such as a wealth management bank wanting to keep the same advisor with a customer throughout their service experience.  However, for most companies, the incremental increase in customer experience has little measurable payback.  A simpler process is more cost effective with little negative impact.
  • Workforce management. Scheduling agents is both art and science, but what about in a universal agent scenario? Since the company is aggregating demand, that should have the effect of making it easier to staff agents. As demand increases, the benefits of universal agents on workforce management decreases.
  • Overall cost. For very small demand, universal agents are more cost effective than typical agents. However, as the demand increases, it quickly shifts in favor of the typical agents. 

Summing it up

While there may be outlier cases for universal agents, in the vast majority of cases there is no reason to try. Simply put, universal agents are too difficult to put into practice. It would be better to look for other ways to improve each agent's productivity and effectiveness. 

Thanks to Syed Kirmani, Robert Roop, and Abbas Rangwala for their contributions and insights for this article.

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