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It’s Time To Uplevel the Role of the Service Agent — Here’s Why

Despite all the talk about customer centricity, many organizations are not attuned to the unique needs of their customer service representatives. Why is that, and what can you do about it?

Service rep takes a call

Employee engagement has earned a prominent home on the front page of business journals. It is also a key focus at the executive level because employee experience (EX) is a prerequisite for long term business growth.

There’s lots of evidence linking employee happiness to business growth and profitability, yet many organizations are not attuned to the needs of all their employees. Who’s left out? The people who are in many ways the face of your organization, your customer service representatives. They are a critically important channel of communication between your company and your customers, often on the front lines of shaping customer perceptions of your brand. But in reality, many organizations, despite all the talk about customer centricity, are not attuned to the unique needs of these employees. 

Why is that, and what can you do about it?

Customer service is critical to business growth

Behind every customer service process is an employee. In our most recent State of Service report, we uncovered multiple statistics that remind us of the criticality of service on customer experience, and the impact of customer experience on business growth.

Once we have made the connection between motivated, engaged employees and improved customer experience, it becomes obvious why an enterprise must focus a spotlight on the factors that lead to great employee engagement and positive business outcomes. 

High-quality products and services are important, but it’s exceptional customer service that creates loyal customers. According to our research, 91% of customers said good customer service makes them more likely to make another purchase.

Customers are looking at — and judging companies on — their overall buying experience. Eighty percent of customers surveyed said the experience a company provides is as important as its products and services.

Our research reflects these sentiments, which shows an increasing number of service organizations are working to elevate the customer service agent’s role. Specifically, they are being seen as strategic customer advocates, vs. script-reading order takers:

  • 77% of agents say their company views them as customer advocates  
  • 70% of agents say they’ve received training on how to be empathetic with customers
  • 77% of agents say their role is more strategic — up from 71% in 2018

Each of these changes presents an opportunity for service organizations to increase agent engagement with their work, and in turn, decrease the chance of turnover. But before digging into how to improve agent productivity and agent happiness, it’s helpful to assess their relative place in the enterprise.

The status imbalance of customer service in the enterprise

The people who answer the telephones, respond to emails, and manage the chat queues are generally poorly paid, though there are notable exceptions depending on industry and skill level. Salary is hardly ever listed as the top driver of employee satisfaction among service agents. Yet with few exceptions, the compensation of service agents does not reflect the importance of the role. The average customer service representative in the U.S. for example generally is an hourly worker or a full time employee earning $30,000 or less. 

Among the many adverse outcomes of having little autonomy, little standing in the workplace, and insufficient compensation is high turnover. According to The Quality Assurance and Training Connection, the average annual turnover rate for U.S. contact center agents is between 30-45%, more than double that of all other U.S. occupations. 

Employee turnover costs your company a lot more than the recruitment ads needed to replace them. When you lose an employee, institutional knowledge walks out the door with them, as do the many relationships they’ve built with their colleagues and your customers. An employee’s departure, even on the best of terms, can result in lower morale, and lower productivity as the team scrambles to pick up the departed agent’s workload. 

The need to elevate the status of customer service has never been more crucial. Consider that many basic service requests can be handled by bots, AI-based tools, or other automated technologies. That said, human interaction between customers and agents typically happens when the problem has become too complex for automation to handle. And you can bet that when a customer is dealing with a problem complex enough to warrant a one-on-one conversation, they need to engage with an empathetic, informed agent who has access to intelligent systems and contextual information to solve the problem fast. But tools alone are not enough. Agents also need deeper ongoing customer service training and the associated performance measurements to be successful. 

How to solve the disconnect between the C-suite and customer service

We know that customer service is vitally important, and that organizations need to invest more in developing talent and world-class service. So why don’t people in the C-suite see it that way?  The answer to this puzzle is simple: members of the C-suite rarely, if ever, come up through the ranks as customer service representatives. 

According to a LinkedIn study of 12,000 CEOs, their backgrounds are in computer science, finance, economics, or marketing. There is little evidence to show what CEOs think of front line call centers or their customer service agents. That in itself sheds light on their priorities. There is ample literature and statements on inclusion and diversity, and an increasing focus on employee engagement. That leaves only the evidence to speak for itself: nearly no mention of customer service agents in CEO talks, low levels of compensation, and high levels of job dissatisfaction accompanied by high turnover in the representative pool.

Customer service leaders must educate other senior leaders on the bedrock necessity to invest in the customer service function. A group effort needs to be coordinated amongst the heads of customer experience, customer support, talent management, and human capital management to achieve this.

The goal is simple: a bigger focus on the selection, training, compensation and ongoing wellness of the customer service representative. The global pandemic and shift to work-from-anywhere raise this level of urgency, as the day-to-day contact with the agents has dropped, and the feeling of isolation has risen. 

At the time of our State of Service survey, over half of customer service professionals worldwide were working from home — nearly three times as many who did so in 2019. What’s more, the majority either expect to work remotely into 2021 or remain uncertain about their future work setting.

  • 54% of service pros reported working from home in 2020
  • 29% of service pros expect to be working from home in 2021, with an additional 28% unsure if they will work from home

Many of these workers work from home due to the pandemic, not a proactive choice on their part. They may be struggling to carve out a suitable workspace out of earshot of their partner who is also working from home, perhaps for some while keeping an eye on their children who are attending school – also remotely! It’s not the 8-hour shift in the office they’re used to, and for many, when combined with the above factors, it’s likely taking a toll. It might require new KPIs to supplement traditional ones. Customer trust is important, but so is employee trust; adding a measurement to gauge employee satisfaction impacts your existing measurements of customer satisfaction. For example, many companies are adding weekly or monthly wellness surveys that measure the different components of wellness: social, mental, economic and physical wellbeing.

Take a prescriptive approach with your employee engagement

As a service leader, it is your job to demonstrate how improvements in the training, management, and engagement with your customer service agents help drive customer loyalty and business profitability. For example, do you have the right agents, with the right skills, helping customers at the right time? Are cases being resolved the first time? Do you see a decrease in your customer effort score and an increase in customer satisfaction? You should identify the barriers that are preventing this from happening, and be specific.

You must be highly prescriptive. Customer service organizations have suddenly needed greater resilience and far better technology to succeed. Remote work has hard and soft challenges including: 

  • Security breaches, uptime, and bandwidth
  • The need for the agent to have greater autonomy in setting and altering their work hours
  • The need to interact with one another and with customers over channels that are often unavailable in some companies due to the need to update case management workflows, such as web chat and messaging apps. 
  • Agents require the tools to understand the customer’s context and preferences, including better journey mapping and identification of the right knowledge base article. It also includes integration into multiple systems such as order status, inventory, billing, invoicing, and others
  • A need amongst managers for a much better real-time analysis of customer service resource demands – by media channel, time of day, product, and factoring in seasonal fluctuations

Heads of customer service will succeed in educating the C-suite by marshaling data to show the specific strengths and weaknesses in the customer and employee experience, and the consequence of those to the overall enterprise. This highly prescriptive approach, causally linking improvements to all factors – people, process, and technology – will create a self-sustaining customer service center of excellence.

Learn more about how to deliver a unified, seamless service experience for both your agents and customers with Service Cloud and Workforce Engagement.

Michael Maoz is Senior Vice President of Innovation Strategy at Salesforce. He joined Salesforce from Gartner, Inc., where he was a founder of the CRM practice and held positions as Research Vice President, Distinguished Analyst, and Gartner Fellow. Michael is also a Board Member at Rutgers Center for Innovation Education, and an advisor to Just Capital. Michael has lived and worked on three continents. He focuses his time outside of work on family, friends, learning world cultures, hiking, cycling, volunteering and reading.

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