In an ideal world, it’s difficult to think of any good reason why you wouldn’t want all of your contact centre agents to be able to handle any customer requirement. The benefits are obvious – no need for an IVR to route callers to a specific team, customer service is improved as callers aren’t bounced to other agents, agent resources are used more efficiently through better workload balancing, and increased first-contact resolution rates.
From a survey of 200 contact centre managers and directors, the reason why so few take this approach is the combination of training cost and attrition rates. In recent years, attrition rates have come down due to the current financial climate but the training cost, which is closely aligned with the system and process changes that naturally happen, still appears to be a big barrier.
Most contact centres handle a wide variety of requests from a broad spectrum of citizens. With training seen as an overhead to be minimised, each team may only be trained in a subset of services or customers. They can gain this relatively easily and therefore quickly become productive and efficient. Perhaps over time, they might have the opportunity to build on their initial training and learn how to handle the work of one or two more teams, but the ever-changing landscape makes multi- or universal-skilling relatively rare.
The training overhead is exacerbated by the increasing complexity of the agent role. On average, agents need five applications open on their desktop, although as many as twenty-seven have been reported! Call-handling procedures are often complex and subject to change. In one organisation, simply identifying and taking payment for a caller’s outstanding balance was a seven-step, three-application, two-minute procedure with both screen-jumping and cutting and pasting. Further complexity is added by the increasing range of products and services offered through the contact centre; the average council offers some 700 or more discrete services.
Limitations of current solutions
The inhibitors to multi- or universal-skilling are therefore associated with the time and cost needed to train agents, as well as the limited ability of agents to retain an ever-increasing amount of knowledge in a relatively short training period.
Software products still only offer a partial solution:
- Scripting products are more sophisticated than before, but still tend to be disliked by both customers and agents because they cause the conversation to be wooden. Scripting software that can only follow a pre-defined sequence is only suitable for a small number of low-value enquiries.
- Software products promising a ‘unified desktop’ offer agents a single user interface to avoid screen-jumping. However, this only tackles part of the problem and in most cases either requires expensive system integration or only offers agents limited, pre-defined information from other applications, especially if information has to be entered back into those applications. Furthermore, any changes to this set-up require recoding by IT with all the associated delays and costs.
- Business process management systems offer the promise of automated procedure handling but suffer from three drawbacks. They are not suited to the high-volume, fast response needs of contact centre agents and either require IT expertise to create and change or introduce risk into the system by allowing untrained people to make changes to live systems on the fly. They also are generally poor in really helping an individual with their tasks.
So what’s needed?
Let’s look at what is necessary to cost-effectively enable multi-skilling. After relationship management skills, there are three types of knowledge all agents need to handle customer requirements:
- Product or service knowledge;
- Procedural knowledge;
- System or application knowledge.
Each of these has to be learned by an agent through a combination of training and experience and then refreshed as things change.
But what if that knowledge could be put into the system instead of into the agents’ heads? What if the system could guide any agent through any customer requirement, in the same time and with the same quality and consistency as a trained agent?
The solution is to systemise as much of the products, processes and systems knowledge as possible. But how? Well, let’s look at the above three knowledge elements in turn:
- Product or service knowledge is relatively easy. Information on specifications, variations, prices, etc will all be held in databases, spreadsheets, documents, your intranet or other applications within the organisation – the requirement is to give agents rapid access to this information at the right point in the process.
- Procedural knowledge can be automated with a workflow management solution.
- System integration, along with ability to be able to ‘remote control’ an application, can provide access to and control of underpinning applications and support the agent with a unified desktop.
Put all this together and now you have a system that can truly help an individual with tackling more and more complex processes within the organisation while requiring little training or retained knowledge on the part of the agent. This is because the system knowledge, process knowledge and product knowledge exist within the system rather than having to be fully retained by the agent. This in turn frees up the agents to focus more on the client and softer skills such as questioning, empathy and listening techniques while increasing the chances of helping the client first time at the first point of call. All of which will lead to lower costs and better customer satisfaction.
This is the inevitable approach needed to achieve better service at lower cost. Quite simply, traditional training methods are inefficient and ineffective and are the single biggest factor holding organisations back from the step change they seek in customer and knowledge management.
Alan Smith is executive director for sales and marketing (UK) at SKS Solutions.