How Giving Contact Center Agents Less Helps Them to Do More
Hiring and retaining contact center agents is harder than ever. Higher call volumes and customer expectations are leading to even...
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Welcome to the pod, Erica. Do I have your permission to record this call for quality assurance?
You sure do, Hailey.
Great. Thank you so much. So Erica, can you give our listeners and readers some insight into your background, where you started, and how you got to where you are today?
Sure. Yeah. Gosh. Close to 20 years ago, I joined a startup. It was a B2B SaaS company serving the healthcare space. I was employee number 10. I wore quite a few different hats, but my primary responsibility there was implementation. And I really helped develop that function for our organization, built the team, established all the processes that went along with it. For a couple of years we were part of Intuit. They acquired us and I learned a ton under that organization about how to be just incredibly customer-centric in everything we do. When we kind of moved away from Intuit, I was asked to step into support and lead support. So there I led a pretty substantial transformation. I established all the right KPIs. I’m really focused on people. How many people, what’s the right team structure, the process, the tools. All of the things that you need to do to really have a high-performing team. I took that customer SAT for that team from about 40% to 98% month over month. And then from there, I moved on to another startup. And this was another start B2B SaaS company in healthcare, that seems to be my wheelhouse these days, and I led implementation, support and customer success for that organization.
From there, I went to yet another B2B SaaS company in healthcare and really worked in service transformation and led a lot of initiatives related to the customer experience. So that was a lot of fun. It’s really where I kind of fell in love with the whole concept of a customer experience. How do all the pieces fit together and how do you really make sure that customers are having a positive experience with your company and also simultaneously getting a lot of value from the product that they’ve purchased from you?
Most recently, I actually stepped away from my role as the vice president of customer experience at a seed-stage startup. I’m enjoying a little bit of a sabbatical right now before I dive into my next challenge.
Great. It’s lovely to take a little break from time to time, recharge the batteries and come back strong.
It is. Yes.
So you were talking about setting the foundation of process. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about what are the key elements of setting the correct process specifically contact centers and your service agents to get to the point of delivering an excellent customer experience?
Yeah. And that can be kind of a tricky thing. But I think it really boils down to what are the actual steps involved with solving a particular issue or escalating a particular issue. Who are the owners of that and just really being clear in terms of not only the steps, but the roles and responsibilities as well within those processes. Processes always tend to evolve. So I’m always looking at how do we do this a little bit better? How do we do it more efficiently? Can we enable this with technology to be more efficient? Those are always questions that go through my mind as well.
Interesting. Here at Vistio we really focus on process first. So when you said process, I jumped all over it.
I love that. Yeah. The other thing is too if you’ve got a bad process, you definitely can’t automate it with technology. You’re just going to set yourself up for failure I think. So I agree with you, Hailey. It’s really important to get that process down part just right first.
Further Reading: The Key to Contact Center Success in 2022: Focus on Process
I couldn’t agree more. So to go back to a conversation that we had a couple of weeks ago, we had been discussing a topic that is top of mind for a lot of our colleagues. There are a lot of terms floating around to define our industry and what customer experience is. There’s CX, customer support, customer service, customer success, and on and on. Do all these terms define different things? And how do we untangle this plethora of terms that we’ve now accumulated?
Yeah. Man. I do think they all define different things. And I really wish we could agree on the terminology from company to company. But one thing I’ve noticed is companies are often slapping the term CX or customer experience on a lot of different things. I think right now CX is kind of a trendy thing out there. Obviously, it’s a really valuable function in an organization, but I think because it is a little bit more of a trendy term, companies and maybe HR folks are putting that role or that name on job descriptions and positions, but I’ve noticed it actually means a lot of different things. So you really have to kind of dig in and untangle what each company is referring to when they mention customer experience.
I do think they’re different. Customer experience really to me is all about how, it’s orchestrating how all the different pieces fit together and how does that look and feels for the customer and really being intentional about designing a great experience the whole way through the journey, from the time really the customer starts to hear about your product through the sales cycle, onboarding, getting value, and support, and renewal, and so on. It’s the whole picture if you will. Customer success is really it’s a methodology that companies should adopt, but it’s also a function within a lot of our companies these days. It’s really all about making sure the customer achieves value from the product and that they’re using the product to its fullest extent. And so that way, when you get to that renewal discussion, it’s not even a discussion, it’s a no-brainer for the customer. They find so much value in your product that they’re happy to renew with you.
Sometimes the implementation and enablement functions are rolled up into customer success too. I see it in a lot of different ways at different companies, but it’s really about making sure the customers are getting value from the product. And then customer support. Every company has some kind of customer support line. And to me, that is really all about helping customers resolve their issues quickly and easily. I think those are two key terms, quickly and easily. In a lot of our organizations, that really means self-service or empowering our customers to accomplish tasks in the technology on their own so that they don’t even have to contact us. But when they do need to contact us, it needs to be easy and hassle-free for them. So there are a lot of terms floating around out there. That’s kind of how I view it. Again, I see customer experience all over the place and I think that’s just because that’s kind of the trendy term right now.
Yeah. I agree. I think we use CX sometimes as a blanket term. So when we were discussing that in an earlier call, I thought it was interesting as we unravel because there are so many terms floating around. I think also it’s easy to get caught up in those trendy terms. We see that on the technology side as well when we see RPA, AI, and automation, some of these buzzwords and we think that we, therefore, need to get on board and even make purchasing decisions because of these trendy acronyms and terms.
I agree. We’ve seen that across a lot of companies as well.
Read more about CX Technology: Don’t Add More Technology, Add the Right Technology
Yeah. Definitely. So switching gears a little bit. You have so much experience working as a leader in the customer service sector of large companies. What do you think needs to change at the organizational level to enable the customer service sector to deliver excellent customer service?
Yeah. I think there are a few things that stand out to me. One is the rapid pace of changes really makes it challenging to keep all of our artifacts straight. The knowledge base, you’ve got documentation, you’ve got all sorts of enablement materials out there. And what I’ve noticed is it’s just really challenging to keep all of that current and make sure that our agents really trust the … I guess the version of the materials that are already out there. I think there are a couple of other things as well. Alignment just across our companies really to deliver a great customer experience. Each team needs to operate from the same page and really give the customer consistent information and a consistent feeling experience. I think those are really two things that we need to focus on in our organizations to empower our support agents and anyone on the front lines who’s working with customers to maintain that high level of customer service.
So when we talk about CX being a part of a broader picture of the organization, in your opinion, how do we get the customer service sector out of the silo and recognized as an integral part of the business as a whole?
Cool. That’s a loaded question. I really think kind of at a higher level in the organization, someone needs to be driving kind of that cohesiveness across the board. What I’m seeing is a lot of organizations are investing in a role like that. Someone who can really kind of help facilitate the alignment across the organization. Customer service can be a really valuable function in your organization or it could be completely the opposite of that. It’s really how do you want to invest in that team and what do you want them to be? They’re either going to help you retain your customers or they’re going to drive customers away by having a whole bunch of hoops that customers have to jump through or just being slow or whatever.
So support leaders need to be on their A-game and make sure that their teams are delivering. They can always look at the data, and the metrics, and understand what’s going on in their teams. A good operations team, and a good customer operations team is going to help with that as well. There are a number of other things, but I think even laddering it up a little bit further. Just having someone in the organization who’s really driving that cohesiveness. So for example, when the product team is putting out a new product or a new enhancement or something like that, really making sure all of that trickles down into the customer-facing teams and into your marketing teams and kind of every touchpoint across the way so that customers are really benefiting from it and your support agents are not caught off guard. How many times have you seen that happen? Where something, marketing might run a campaign or product puts out something new and everybody seems to forget to tell the support team and the support team is kind of caught like a deer in the headlights. That’s really unfortunate for them and that is not setting the individual agents up to be successful either. So I think it’s really important that there’s a person in an organization or a function in an organization that helps drive that cohesiveness across the board.
Can you give a specific example of perhaps a strategy that you’ve implemented that you’ve seen work in breaking down organizational silos so that the customer service teams don’t get left out of the mix?
Yeah. I definitely think it helped. It really starts kind of at the higher level. So there’s the alignment of strategy and alignment. Every part of the business understands what each other’s priorities are. And that trickles down into each functional group. Another thing too, just kind of how do you help keep people aligned? I think those voice of customer feedback loops are really important too. And continually sharing the insights and the stories that you’re hearing from the front lines is really, really important as well to really help make sure everyone truly understands how customers are interacting with your organization and what that experience is like. Without that, I think a lot of companies tend to make assumptions about, we know this is what the customer wants or we think this is what the customer wants. And that’s really hard then when you’re rolling out new things. You make assumptions about what the customer wants. You’re probably making assumptions all over the place as well. And that can really result in failure at the end of the day.
I agree. I think going back to something you said earlier and it’s something that we emphasize on the podcast so much. Oftentimes when a customer finally gets to an agent, it is the only human touchpoint that they have within an organization. And so it’s important that we have empowered these agents to be basically subject matter experts on our product and giving them confidence, trusting them, but giving them those support tools to enable them to be those experts and making sure that they’re also valued in the larger scope of the organization.
So that actually leads me to my next question. How do you think C-suite executives are currently looking at the CX function and even as granular as the contact center floor, and how should they be looking at it?
Yeah. I guess kind of going back to my, my earlier point, some companies just label everything customer-facing as customer experience. Again, I think those companies and those executives who look at it that way are kind of missing the point or really missing the value that a solid customer experience function can bring to your company. But I think there are a lot of really smart executives out there who realize it’s far more complicated than that when you’re starting to talk about the overall customer experience.
Smart executives who really understand that their business won’t exist without customers and therefore they need to prioritize that investment in the customer experience by hiring a solid leader, helping to drive that cross-functional alignment that it really required in order to make meaningful change. They invest in the right tools and really help in the overall orchestration of that.
I think that really pulls through to the contact center as well, like you said, contact centers, they might be the only point of contact that a customer has with your company. And so that’s one opportunity and one opportunity only that we have to make an impression on a customer. And that can be a make-or-break decision that customer has with our organization. I think that’s a really important touchpoint. It’s not just, “Oh, the support they’re over there. They’re responding to customer questions.” No. Your support team really has a big responsibility to represent your company very well so that you can retain that customer in the long run.
I completely agree. And I think it’s so valuable for C-suite executives to even get into the trenches a little bit. I was talking to Jeff Toister the other day and he was talking about how valuable the exercise of even the CEO of a company going out and either calling customers directly, who have interacted with the customer service team, or even that CEO going to the contact center and speaking directly to agents and seeing them do their day-to-day job, and how they’re interacting with customers to gain a better understanding and then to also appreciate the hard work that they’re doing.
Yeah. I love when executives are willing to roll up their sleeves and spend a little bit of time trying to understand the contact center a little bit better and understand the customers a little bit better. I’d even take that a few steps further. I think it’s really beneficial when other functions can spend a little bit of time shadowing or answering some support calls as well. When I was leading a support team, I had our developers just come and kind of rotate in. They’d send one or two of their folks over every week and would spend an hour just kind of listening in on calls. And there were so many moments of, “Oh, my gosh. I can’t believe you have to deal with this. I could fix this so easily for you.” And we don’t even have to make this whole big deal about it by prioritizing all of these big roadmap items.
So we actually ended up kind of creating this whole bug bash function where our developers had some time allocated in each sprint to tackle things like that. So the things that they were noticing, by just sitting with our support agents, really made a big impact. So I think it’s a valuable thing for really any function in the organization to kind of just understand what the contact center does. It’s certainly not easy work, but there’s a lot of valuable things in collaboration that can result from it as well.
I completely agree. I think this is kind of a one off and random thing, but I had heard a story recently about an organization that had spent thousands and thousands of dollars to improve the technology that they were providing to their agents and they created this very elaborate stack. When it really came down to it and one of the C-level leaders actually went to an agent and asked, all they really wanted was a more comfortable chair. I think it’s such an interesting concept that you can … If you really get in the trenches and just go and talk to your agents, you can save yourself so much money, and time, and all of these things. Like we’ve been talking about, there’s this big disconnect, and it could be as simple as providing a better chair.
Yeah. That’s a really funny story. And I think back to my earlier point, we talked about making assumptions. We assume we know what customers want, we assume we know what our employees want too. How much easier is it just to ask a simple question, “Hey, how can we make your lives better? How can we make your lives easier?” It’s a great question for customers, it’s a great question for employees too. And I think that’s just a simple thing that so many of us get so busy and caught up in our day-to-day tasks and our goals that we just forget to ask those simple questions.
Exactly. So this actually leads me right into my next question. This is a personal opinion that I think we often overload our agents with the technology that they have to use in order to properly execute a call. That’s just an opinion, but I’ve seen it happen when sitting in and watching an agent as they’re toggling through all of these different screens and using all of these different interfaces, very impressively by the way. But when it comes to the technology that we are providing for our agents to deliver great customer service, in your opinion, what are the greatest pain points that you’ve seen?
I think it’s related to what you just shared, Hailey. There are so many systems out there that information is often really fragmented and hard to find. And imagine being a new agent, you come on board and you’re wondering, “Where do I look for this or that? And when I do find it, can I count on that to be true? Or does it live somewhere else and it’s more current?” And so they end up asking someone usually just in case. I think it’s really important that employees are confident in the information that they access and that it’s most current and up to date. But I also think that the technology we have in our contact centers and in our companies is often really underutilized. I’ve noticed when you implement a new solution, you’re typically implementing it for perhaps a handful of use cases and the rest just kind of sits on the shelf.
There’s a lot more value I think that we could get from our tools maybe by connecting some of the tools a little bit more effectively so that information flows. I think everybody probably would agree with that and I think most folks would want to do it, but it also comes down to priorities and bandwidth. And often how do we use our tools better that just doesn’t make it above the line? So I think it’s important though from time to time to really set back and look at the tools that you have in your contact center and in your company. Are there ways we can get more out of them? Can we use them differently? Can we connect Zendesk and JIRA? Can we connect Vistio with other tools that we’re using? There are all sorts of things like that that we should be looking at instead of implementing our technology in a silo and making it work for those handfuls of use cases.
The other thing, Hailey, I think a lot of people expect technology to be that silver bullet and it’s not. I think technology is a tool that can help you get the job done. And you need good tools in order to get the job done, but your tool is only going to be as good as the process that it’s supporting or the data that gets entered into it. So I think that’s another important point to consider when you’re talking about tools in companies.
Really in alignment with my thought as well. I think we talk about this so much. That it’s the sweet spot of delivering excellent customer support, and excellent customer service, is where people process and technology meet. So you lay this great foundation of excellent process, you have great people working for you, and then you provide them with the correct tools and there you go.
Yep. I agree.
Just a quick question in regard to the technology tools. If you were to go into an organization and you had the ability to start from scratch with the technology tools that you gave to your agents, what would that technology toolbox look like? And it can be obviously the phone system that they’d use, their CRM. I’d love to get your opinion on what you think that toolbox should look like.
Yeah. I definitely think a really solid ticketing system that’s well connected with the CRM. Now a lot of CRMs have those in place to begin with. And that may or may not meet your needs, but I think a good solid ticketing system is the foundation for that. There’s a couple other things too. Obviously, a smartphone system that’s going to connect your callers with the right people. And of course the chat and all the different channels. You need the technology to support that. I think really some kind of solid tool for knowledge management. And again often that comes with the ticketing system, but there’s a lot of really good standalone knowledge management tools out there that can help aggregate all the information that floats around our organizations and make it a lot easier to find. So that’s definitely something that I would invest in as well.
I’d also probably invest in a really good customer experience kind of platform. So you can collect that voice of customer feedback and really analyze that. I don’t think the gold is in the numbers or the scores that you get. I think the gold is in the subjective feedbacks and kind of the trends that start to emerge from that feedback that you get by asking your customers for … How’s it going? Again, that simple question of how’s it going? What’s it like to work with us? How can we do better? So those are things I’d probably start with. And then obviously as the contact center matures, there’s probably a lot of other things we could consider adding in as well.
I agree. So just out of, again, personal curiosity. In regards to the knowledge base and how we provide the answers to agents so that they can then provide the answers to our customers, what have you found to be the best strategy for providing that information to agents so that they can handle calls efficiently and effectively?
I think just aside from having the right tool when you have that knowledge base, it really requires rigor behind it, keeping it current. It can’t just be an afterthought that some agents are going to maybe jump in and review and update on a periodic basis. I think it needs to be an excellent actual job description. There needs to be some rigor behind it. And then also close partnership with the other functional groups who … Like products management when you work for a SaaS based company. What’s coming down the pipe? How do we create materials for our customers so that they can self-serve or understand how to use the new features and functionality, but also how do we make sure our employees are well equipped to support these new features and functions that our product are teams putting out there?
I think that’s such an interesting answer because it goes back to having a representative at the top to ensure that when there are changes with the product, that there isn’t an assumption that it’s trickling down. That we know that it’s trickled down because there is either a team in place or an individual in place that is bridging the gap.
Yes. Right. Absolutely.
I think that’s so important. So I wanted to quickly turn to agent attrition. As you’re taking a little sabbatical and taking time for yourself to recharge your batteries, which I think is so important for all of us, that it reminded me of this question. So obviously agent attrition has been a long-time issue for contact centers, but particularly during the pandemic where we were stripped of so many of our … so much of our outside lives and that it was really easy to just get hyper-focused on work. So how do we combat agents in your opinion, what’s the best way to combat agent attrition and what are some ways we can even avoid burnout for agents, but also ourselves.
Yeah. Hailey, what a great question? I’m still trying to figure that out for myself probably in a lot of ways. I remember two years ago when the pandemic was kind of new. Man, I just remember thinking, “Wow, my schedule is completely clear.” I didn’t have activities that I needed to take the kids to, there were no wine nights, no book club, no half marathons. And it felt fantastic because all these things were suddenly off my schedule and I really felt like I was free to focus on my two priorities, which were, and continue to be, my work and my family. And so I did that. I went all in on those two things, but I didn’t realize that kind of removing all those seemingly insignificant things really how much they keep me kind of just recharged and going. They were adding a little bit of variety and a break from those two things that are so important to me. And they actually helped me be better. I crashed and burned a little bit at one point over the past two years.
I think when you pull that through to the contact centers, I think our agents feel it, I think our leaders feel it, and I think our customers feel it. Wow. What a dangerous time to be working in support. Because you just don’t know what you’re going to get. So many people are just running on such a short fuse. Now, what do we even do about that? I think there’s a lot of people out there that would really tell self-care, right? That’s how you prevent burnout. You need to take time for yourself and do that.
I think that’s important, but I don’t think that burnout is really the result of a lack of self-care. I think burnout, to really get ahead of it, especially in this kind of post-pandemic time that we’re living in, we need to look at our workplaces I think a little bit more holistically and not just employee by employee and how are they taking care of themselves. What are we doing in our workplaces to help them not become burnout or what are we doing that might be driving that burnout? Are we promoting balance and wellbeing? Are we actually doing it or are we just talking about it?
I think we need to also understand what does this mean to our employees? What does like well-being mean? It’s going to look different to everybody. But I think in the end, we need to just think about how we build a resilient workplace. Where are the stressors and where are the points of friction? Just like we look for friction when we’re talking about customer support and customer service interactions, let’s start putting a focus on that with our employees. How do we find those friction points and remove them so that we create this environment of wellbeing and resiliency in our workplace?
Another way I think that we can do this in our workplaces is really align the work we do every day to a purpose. I think some companies do that a lot better than others. It’s not just a cheesy thing you put on a wall somewhere, but it’s a real purpose. Why are we here? Why are we spending eight-plus hours a day together every day? And why are we doing this work? Why does it matter?
Those are things that I think we really need to focus on. It’s not the pizza parties or the ping pong tables. I think everyone is kind of over that. They’re nice to have, great, I don’t think anyone’s complaining, but those are not the things that are going to keep our employees from being burned out. It’s more connected to the actual work we do and the cultures and the environments that we create around that. I think also we all, and especially as contact center leaders, need to learn to recognize some of those symptoms of burnout. So when we have an employee who might be struggling … I think burnout is a hard thing to admit. Like, “Hey, I think I’m getting burned out here.” Folks very rarely will raise their hand and say that. That still can be a not the right look. A lot of folks don’t want to say that it’s vulnerable. We need to make sure our employees are comfortable with that. Our leaders need to be comfortable with sitting an employee down and saying, “Hey, how’s everything going?” And maybe suggest some time off or something to help that employee catch their burnout before it really bites them in the butt because it will sneak up on you. And if it does, it might not be pretty.
I love the idea that you talk about creating a culture of self-care on the contact center floor, but also going directly to agents and saying, “Hey, how are you doing?” I think it’s the best way to get feedback and to combat agent attrition, is to just genuinely care about how everyone’s doing at work. Exactly. It’s not the pizza parties, it’s not the ping pong tables, it’s not the gamification perhaps. It’s really just actually caring and creating that culture where it’s okay to take a step back, it’s okay to take some time to recharge your batteries. And I think oftentimes taking time off I think there can be some interesting ideas that go through an employee’s mind. If I take time off, they’ll realize they don’t need me.
If I take time off, I’m going to miss changes that happen or also just not seeing that I’m as dedicated to the position. And I think that those thoughts kind of need to be taken care of.
Yeah. I 100% agree with you on that.
It’s an interesting topic. It’s such a good thing to talk about to remind ourselves outside of the work environment, what it means to make sure that we are bringing our best selves to our families in our work.
So we’re going to wrap up the podcast. I’m just going to ask some fun questions or what I think are fun questions. What are some of your go-to resources? Podcasts, publications, online platforms, groups, things like that. Do you regularly reference to stay on top of industry trends and news?
Yeah. I think I’ve curated a pretty good Twitter and LinkedIn feed. So I follow a lot of thought leaders on there like Shep Hyken, Jeremy Watkin, Nate Brown, Bruce Timken. I think Allison Pickens. She’s real big in the customer success side. She’s got a lot of great things out there. Stephanie Thum and many, many more. A lot of these people put out newsletters as well. Jeff Toister is another one, by the way. You mentioned him earlier. He’s fantastic as well. He also puts out a newsletter. So there’s a lot of really good content that just gets wrapped up in that. There’s so much good content out there. It’s really hard to keep up. So that’s kind of why I’ve whittled it down to my Twitter feed and I followed CX and customer support, customer … a lot of customer topics on Twitter and LinkedIn as well. I’m part of a couple of different communities that I find really valuable. One is the CX Accelerator that Nate Brown leads. That’s a great community. A lot of great ideas get shared there, and a lot of community members will throw out a question and kind of crowdsource answers. I think that’s really, really valuable. And I recently joined a customer success leaders community as well, and that’s similar to the CX Accelerator that Nate leads.
If you were to think of books that you’ve read throughout your career, even when you were starting, what do you think … This is really just a personal question. What do you think are some books that you would recommend for people looking to advance maybe their career in CX or even to look for as a resource to improve the CX function of their organization?
Yeah. Wow. Some really good ones out there. This isn’t customer service-related at all, but there’s a book called Mindset by Carol Dweck. And I think that is just such a good book. And it kind of helps paints the picture of I can’t do this yet. This isn’t my strong suit yet but really promotes that growth mindset. So I think that’s a really good one. I think that’s really helped me kind of navigate different change management scenarios that I’ve approached throughout my career. So I’m a really big fan of that book. The Effortless Experience is hands down probably one of my favorite books out there it’s really shaped the way I think about delivering service to customers.
Let’s see. There are a couple of other books out there. Allison Pickens was the chief, I think the Chief Operating Officer at Gainsight for a while. She’s written some really good books about just that whole customer success methodology and how do we make sure we’re really driving value through our organizations and making sure that our customers want to continue doing business with us. That’s another really good one. Those are probably my top. Jeanne Bliss has written some really good books too, like the Chief Customer Officer. So those are really some of my favorites.
Those are great. You mentioned a lot that I wasn’t aware of. So thank you so much. I’m going to put them on my reading list.
Well, Erica, thank you so much for being on recorded for quality assurance. And I look forward to talking to you again.
Thanks, Hailey. Thanks for having me.
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