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Agent Experience (AX): The Next Frontier for Elevating the Customer Experience (CX)

Introduction


Elevating the Customer Experience (CX) is an obsession for the contact center industry, and rightly so. The experiences that customers have with your contact center condition the way they think about you as a supplier of goods and services and as a trusted part­ner in providing the things that they need and want in their lives. Traditionally, focus has been put on training agents to pro­ vide friendly, empathetic service, along with training on product and service information. We see these elements as constants across virtually all of our clients and contacts.

What is less consistent is the utilization of advanced tech­nology to provide knowledge to both agents and custom­ers in user-friendly, accurate ways. Simply scanning paper-based manuals into electronic for­mats, or using legacy knowledge management software does not provide the high-impact, just-in-time informa­tion that today’s customers want. Customers are getting more demanding and many managers are looking for ways to break through to higher levels of customer satis­faction.

In this white paper we focus on the information made available to contact center agents. While self service is getting better and better through the use of artificial in­telligence (AI) of varying degrees of sophistication, many questions continue to end up with agents, either because the customer couldn’t find the answer through self ser­vice, or the customer simply doesn’t like self service op­tions. In these cases, it is the agent who is expected to raise the customer experience to the highest level of ex­cellence possible.

How can this be done? I invite you to read on and to dis­cover the research and expert insights that show how su­perior knowledge management lifts up Agent Experienc­es, which, in turn, elevates the Customer Experience.

Scaling the Experience Wall

If all the information that customers needed could be easily accessed by them through automated means, then everyone would be happy. However, we know that many customer needs (and customer types) still require the personal atten­tion of live agents. We also know that customer satisfaction and agent satis­faction show signs of level­ing off.

One manager said it feels like efforts at improving these satisfaction metrics have “hit a wall.” As a result, good contact center managers are asking themselves: how do we crack through that wall and increase agent satisfaction going forward? How do we beat the competition by providing im­proved Customer Experiences for those who inter­ act with us – especially those who contact us through our live-agent channels? And how do we make the Agent Experience as supportive as possi­ble of this process?

This white paper endeavors to bring together the latest research on customer pain points and agent challenges, as well as the best ways we see these pain points and challenges being successfully over­ come.

Pain points for customers

According to survey research of 5,000 customers conducted by Forrester and sponsored by eGain, the pain points for customers include some specific elements that we high­light here:

Biggest Pain Point: 34% of CSRs not knowing the answers to questions asked

Over one-third of respondents said the biggest pain point they have with CSRs is the agent not knowing the answer. This is a major fail-point. The whole reason the custom­er contacts the company is to have answers, and finding out that the source they are contacting cannot provide them with a proper answer undermines confidence not only in the agent but also in the agent’s employer – your company.

The responses were also divided by industry and by demographics, and here were some other take-aways that should be of special concern to managers in the following sectors:


Industry sectors with highest caller pain points: 47.2% Retail (Click & Mortar), 46.6% Technology, 39.4% Utilities, 37.6% Healthcare Insurance, 35.6% Government
Industry sectors with the highest levels of callers reporting their biggest pain point is agents not knowing answers.

This sort of performance failure can lead to customer dissatisfaction, complaints, and defections.

CSRs Providing Different Answers.

Also of great concern, over four in ten respondents reported their greatest pain points include situations in which different customer service agents give different answers. This lack of consistency in answers provided by CSRs was most pronounced in the fol­lowing sectors:

We have all had the experience of getting different answers from differ­ent agents. Although occasionally this has a happy result (lower price for a product or a quicker appoint­ment date… ) usually this is a source of confusion that creates dissatisfac­tion. It reflects poorly on the employ­er and indicates a need to look at in­ formation sources -both technologi­cal and human – that are used by agents.

The demographic data for these two questions are interesting and warrant careful con­sideration by forward-looking managers. Younger participants in the survey showed more irritation with agents not knowing the answers than older participants.

Agent pain points reported by agents: Gen Y 40%, Gen X 39%, Younger Boomers 26%, Older Boomers 24% and Seniors 23%
Respondents reporting that their biggest pain points include agents who do not know the answer.
Our interpretation of these results focuses on two possible causes:

  • Younger people, who are used to leveraging technology and having it work, may be more de­manding than older cus­tomers
  • Younger people may be better at self-service, and therefore more of their “easy” questions are answered through the website and other means. This would leave more difficult questions for their contacts with live agents.
The exact same age pattern was found in responses from those who listed “Different customer service agents give different answers”, as shown in this graphic:

Certainly, these survey re­sults are a wake-up call for managers. To provide su­perior customer service and obtain top customer satisfaction scores, you need to have people, pro­cesses and technology that can provide consistent, accurate answers to all those who contact your center.

Agent pain points report - different agents give different answers: Gen Y 48%, Gen X 43%, Younger Boomers 37%, Older Boomers 33% and Seniors 27%
Respondents reporting that different customer service agents give different answers.

Pain Points for Agents

The results shown above, which come from customers, mirror the issues faced by agents and detailed in other research that is focused on contact center agents them­selves. In a worldwide survey of contact center agents conduct­ed by eGain, the question asked was “What creates the biggest pain(s) for you in an­swering questions/resolving problems/executing a customer service process, when you have the customer on the line?”

The second-most cited response by agents, “Answers to questions vary in different sys­tems”, dovetails with the “Different customer service agents give different answers” re­sponse from customers cited previously. It helps to explain why different answers may be forthcoming from different agents, and is something managers should seriously in­vestigate. The third-most noted response is “Selecting among multiple apps / windows” supports both of the previous answers, and can help explain the pain caused by them.

Finally, “Keeping up with new or changed information” also fits in with the other re­sponses. The ability to find and communicate the current information needed by the customer is a matter of proper training, knowledge technology and updating of the in­ formation stored in that technology.

Research Alert: Life is Getting Harder for Agents

Our latest contact center agent survey, “State of Agent Experience 2022”, sponsored by eGain and conducted in mid-2022, revealed that the agent experience (AX) is going to get even harder. 63% of the 456 respondents said the customer queries are getting more difficult. This is predictable as easier questions continue to get automated across communication channels, whether phone or digital. As the percentage of diffi­cult questions has in­ creased for front-line agents, human support for them has been reduced. Remote or hybrid work limits or eliminates the “next cube” safety net from in-office colleagues that many agents relied upon to get their answers back before the pandemic. In fact, 76% of respondents in our research said they still work from home, which is sur­prising given the easing of pandemic restrictions. Nonetheless, this means that Agents are more “on their own” than ever in terms of close-to-hand human support.

One of the other findings of the AX study was the level of stress this provokes in agents, particularly newer agents, who represent an increasing percentage of the workforce in this high-turnover era. These novice agents report stress levels that are 31% higher than the levels for their more tenured peers. This underpins a continuing problem with agents leaving, which is very expensive and disruptive for centers, and is a negative force for both AX and CX.

These crisis indicators point to an increasing need for proper training, complemented by a robust and modern knowledge management system that can fill in the gaps smoothly and quickly for agents searching for answers.

So where are we with knowledge management tools in our industry?

Complexity grows, but tools do not meet the challenge.

As the previous section noted, the complexity of questions, plus at-home work status, mean that agents are in greater need than ever of contextual and personalized knowl­edge guidance delivered to them at the point of customer interactions.

Yet, Gartner data, reported by Smart Customer Service in 2018, indicated that “only 16 percent of representatives find that the systems and tools actually help them handle customer issues and even fewer – just 12 percent – say tools simplify their day-to-day work.”

The inverse of these numbers would indicate that 84% of agents do not find their sys­tems and tools, on balance, help them with customer issues, and 88% feel their tools do not simplify their day-to-day work.
Our State of AX research showed an alarming 64% do not have any kind of conversational or process guidance tools to help them navigate a customer conversation effectively, efficiently, consistently, and compliantly. Agents who are unsupported by “the cubicle next door” and by their knowledge systems are clearly going to provide lower-quality and slower service – and will suffer in terms of morale themselves.

What comes out of our research is a picture of a very stressful work experience for agents, in­volving interactions with multiple software ap­plications and multiple tech support interac­tions. All of this must be seen in the context of customer interactions that are becoming more complex and more pressured over time.

So the research evidence points toward diffi­culties for agents in their quest to resolve in­creasingly complex customer requests on a consistent, accurate and timely basis. Agents become the sandwich meat in the middle of the CX dilemma, with inevitable im­pacts on AX.

Empowering the “Agent in the Middle”

The AX-Knowledge dilemma confronting many contact centers can only be addressed by empowering agents with superior knowledge tools (complemented with appropriate training) that bring structure and certainty to the information access and problem resolution process. Think of carpenters with well-ordered workshops, who know exactly where to find the tools needed to complete their tasks. Compare that mental picture with a vision of poorly ordered workshops, where finding the right tool may take a long period of time and provide a sub-optimal result – because the right tool is hidden under a mess or was never brought into the workshop in the first place.

Or think of your own electronic files (yes, this can be painful, but instructive). Informa­tion that has been properly organized and curated will be readily available for quick re­trieval, while information that is not curated will cause you delays and frustration.

As a manager, you want to put your front-line agents in a position to do their jobs pro­fessionally, accurately and swiftly. Knowledge management technology that is designed for the new age of digital, remote-first (or hybrid) contact centers is a tool that can transform the agent experience and allow agents to elevate the customer experience, all to the advantage of your enterprise. Empowered agents are also satisfied agents you are more likely to retain – avoiding the expense and disruption of high turnover.

Modern knowledge management involves enterprise software (usually cloud-based) which agents access from their desktops. The best knowledge tools load quickly when agents log on and have a user-friendly interface that rivals those of modern consumer apps. Agents can click on informational categories and input search options that will then guide them down to the answer by asking questions that the agent can relay to the caller. The agent then uses the customer’s answers to input responses to the system. The interaction among caller, agent and knowledge system ultimately leads to the cor­rect answer the agent needs or the goal the customer wants to accomplish.

Naturally, the system must be set up and knowledge needs to be created and curated with thought and care by people who are familiar with:

  • The company’s offerings
  • The call types that come into the center
  • The questions and issues posed by callers, both in terms of substance and in terms of sequencing
  • Company policies and compliance requirements
  • Content strategies for easy “findability”

Poor KM can hobble operations and make managers wary of adopting new knowledge systems for fear that they will be entangled in yet another project failure. However, the proper knowledge management technology, implemented with best practices, can bring very high return on investment, boost AX, and improve service quality and compliance.

In addition, some modern systems use artificial intelligence to further enhance knowl­edge management. For example, some of these tools leverage various aspects of Al to better understand customer intent and provide conversational guidance to agents, learning from prior interactions to help optimize knowledge on an ongoing basis.

The financial math behind this concept can be very compelling. Consider a knowledge management {KM} system that reduces your Average Handle Time metric from 5 minutes to 4.5 minutes. A center with 1,000,000 calls per year could save 10% of time spent on calls. If average cost per call is currently $5.00, then reducing the cost to $4.50 would save $500,000. This type of savings is not unusual with good KM implementations.

Elevating the AX to improve CX: Assess, Think, and Act on KM

It is no surprise that the research evidence and the lived experiences of many contact centers point to the same solution. Customer contact is a company function that brings together the ability to create and manage rela­tionships with the ability to make knowledge readily available to those who will use that knowledge to in­ crease revenues to the company.

The quest to make information easily available to agents so that they can share that information with customers is the central purpose of knowledge manage­ment. Successful knowledge manage­ment systems elevate the agent experience and make these employees feel more professional, supported and satis­fied. This, in turn, elevates the customer experience and results in higher satisfaction and loyalty.

Download the PDF to also read valuable case studies.

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