There may be companies hard at work at developing vehicles that drive themselves, or robots that handle factory tasks without much supervision, but customer service agents are often still far from autonomous by comparison.
Almost from the moment they arrive at a contact centre, an agent’s schedule is rarely their own. There might be an initial group meeting to go over metrics or discuss new team goals, followed by eight hours or more where every move is carefully monitored.
Agents are often held accountable for how many customers they have served on a given shift, how long each interaction took and a host of other factors. Lunch breaks and coffee breaks may happen only at specific intervals.
This is despite the fact that customer service agents serve one of the most valuable roles within any company. The work they do makes the difference between brands with a strong reputation or a poor one. Customers who have a good experience with an agent may recommend the company to their peers.
The critical nature of their work would suggest that agents might perform like leaders if they were given a little more autonomy.
With autonomy comes a freedom to make decisions faster. Autonomy can help people to better develop their skills based on their particular needs, rather than the more generalized needs of a group.
Autonomy also tends to make us more fulfilled because we feel in control, and trusted by our employers.
That said, organizations may be leery at first of giving customer service agents too much autonomy in case it leads to bad outcomes. These could include a decline in productivity, costly errors and even lost business.
There are ways, however, to balance that risk with introducing autonomy so that your business measurably improves as a result. Just look at these tactics and try them out:
If agents need to put customers on hold every time they need to check with a manager to approve a decision, the customer gets frustrated and the agent’s capabilities are limited.
There will be plenty of occasions when agents need to make a judgment call on whether to allow an item to be returned, to offer a full refund or other kind of “make good” to a customer. When you have historical data on the conditions that can guide those decisions, agents should be able to make the right call without their manager.
Agents are individuals, so there will be differences in how long it takes them to resolve a customer issue over the phone versus a chain or text messages or email.
That’s why agents should have a dashboard that lets them see at a glance what kind of volumes are coming through each channel. That way, they can organize their time based on how quickly they can manage the flow of questions and requests.
There are always frequently asked questions or common troubleshooting issues that become so routine that an agent could probably address them in their sleep. When working in a contact centre becomes that rote, agents might begin to feel like they’re chained to their desks, rather than providing real value to their employer.
In that sense, self-service tools aren’t just a boon for customers who want to save time and deal with challenges themselves. They also ensure the agents are only being routed the kinds of tickets or cases that let them use their expertise and creativity. These tools give them the autonomy, in other words, to pursue original solutions to more unusual problems.
Agents often walk into a call centre having no idea when they’re going to have a sharp uptick in customers reaching out for help. That’s a shame, because the technology is available to make customer service a lot more predictive.
Using artificial intelligence, for example, historical data can allow service teams to get in front of big waves of customer outreach before they begin, and let them determine the best strategies to respond when they do.
Customer service tends to be a highly reactive kind of work, but that changes when agents can use the data at their disposal to take initiative and actually grow revenue.
With a 360-degree view of their customers, resolving a question or concern can easily be followed up by an agent suggesting additional products and services that boost customer satisfaction even further. They’ll feel more autonomous because they’ll be determining what to offer to whom, and when.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced many organizations to immediately shift agents into a work-from-home (WFH) modality. In some cases it wasn’t easy, but it opened up many employers’ eyes to the benefits of remote work scenarios. This includes the fact it may be appealing to the next generation of customer service agents.
When agents don’t always have to commute and can better balance their personal and professional obligations through technologies that support WFH, a feeling of autonomy is a natural byproduct.
Contact centre managers or customer service leaders will obviously want to use data to improve overall team performance, but they don’t have to do it all on their own.
Agents can not only use the same tools to look at data and identify the most actionable insights. They can also offer anecdotal evidence based on front-line observations that help refine or bolster a particular service strategy.
Remember, autonomy doesn’t mean that customer service agents should feel like they’re all on their own. It means they should feel a greater sense of owning the results they deliver.