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The Looming Contact Center Agent Experience (AX) Crisis and What to do About it

Agent experience (AX) refers to the overall experience of the contact center agent, from their physical environment to their mental and financial well-being to their morale and the day-to-day experience. One could argue that the last one—day-to-day experience doing their jobs—is critical to improving the other aspects of AX.

Currently, AX is driving up agent churn to among the highest of all job types, with some estimates at 30%-45% (Source: QATC). It is no secret that the job of a contact center agent is not an easy one. A quick Quora search for the question, “What is it like to work in a call center?” results in these quotes from agents who are either still on the job or have quit them:

The level of burnout due to psychological stress is very high. Anxiety attacks, crying jags, depression, rage, and sleep problems are common.

We were all placed on 90 days probation and I didn’t realize it at the time, but there would only be about five of us left … at the three-month mark.

I lasted there nine months before I had had it. Call center burnout is common.

Here is more worrying news

The job of the agent is poised to become even harder.

The looming AX crisis

Once upon a time, there was a saying that contact center agents needed to have 20-pound brains. After all, they had to answer many different types of customer questions and solve many different problems. But 20 pounds may very well be lightweight these days, based on what an agent survey of US contact centers, conducted by BenchmarkPortal and sponsored by eGain, just revealed.

  • Nearly two-thirds (63%) of the 456 agents who responded said that customer queries are getting more complex. This is not surprising since routine queries are handled by customer self-service systems.

To add to the problem, many agents use outdated methods such as poring over documents or walking over to the next cubicle for answers when the customer is on the line. It reminds me of struggling with paper maps or stopping to ask people for directions in the pre-GPS era.

The escalating query complexity and the lack of access to modern knowledge guidance tools require agents to have 50-pound brains now, which a human neck cannot support. Attempted humor aside, this is a big problem.

No wonder CX, which is inextricably linked to agent experience (AX), takes two steps back every time it takes a step forward.

It took a hit again in 2022, according to the latest Forrester Customer Experience Index Rankings report for US companies. It evaluated 13 industries in the US alone and found that CX fell for 19% of brands. The report also found that CX fell in 11 of the 13 industries and, yet again, not a single US company offered “excellent” customer service based on its criteria.

What to do about it

A few years ago, consumers told us (through Forrester Consulting) that the lack of agent knowledgeability and inconsistent answers to their questions were the biggest deterrents to good CX.

76% of agents still work from home, finds eGain survey
Source: State of Agent Experience 2022 survey, conducted by BenchmarkPortal for eGain

The same problems have been dogging AX as well—agents have long complained that they get different answers from disparate knowledge silos in their organizations. The increasing query complexity requires them to be experts in situational problem-solving and process know-how, which is not easy to teach through traditional training sessions. This problem is compounded even more by remote or hybrid work environments—76% of the agents reported working in such settings in the BenchmarkPortal survey.

These factors together have created a compelling need for knowledge-enabled conversational and process guidance when agents are talking to the customer, which most agents admittedly do not have.

Best practices that improve AX

We’ve seen that forward-looking organizations have already been leveraging this technology before, during, and after the recent pandemic. They have been able to improve customer and agent experience even when agents had to go remote overnight when lockdowns were first imposed. Here are some of the best practices they employed beyond leveraging technology for knowledge-enabled guidance and improved AX:

  1. When they piloted the technology, they involved agents and got their feedback to understand if it made their jobs any easier. They included a range of agents in the process, including novice agents, successful agents who were enthusiastic about the initiative, and even experienced skeptics. Getting buy-in from skeptics was equally important since they had tenure and significant influence on others.
  2. They explained to agents how it would increase their confidence and effectiveness while lowering stress. For example, they talked about not having to navigate 10 different windows, fast-read manuals, become a rocket scientist, or disrupt busy colleagues asking for their help. As the technology would improve first-contact resolution, they also would not have to deal with irate repeat callers.
  3. They proactively discussed with agents how their jobs and metrics might change once the technology was put into place.
  4. Management instilled and nurtured a knowledge-sharing culture. Knowledge contribution was made one of the key performance metrics for contact center agents and subject matter experts (SMEs). Agents benefited from the collective knowledge the system captured on an ongoing basis.
  5. Analytics was used to continually optimize and expand the knowledge base over time: How effective are the knowledge articles in resolving the customer queries? Does the knowledge base cover the most frequently asked questions? This increased the agents’ trust in the system.

Knowledge-powered conversational and process guidance can help contact center agents succeed even as their jobs get harder. It won’t be overly presumptuous to say that with modern knowledge tools, contact center agents can punch effectively, efficiently, and consistently above their brain and even body weight!

This article was first published on Forbes.com

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