The agent experience inside the contact centre

There are over 734,000 customer service agents in the UK. That’s more than the population of Liverpool and Swansea combined.

While keeping customers happy is always a primary goal for any customer service interaction, making sure the customer service workforce is also content is an important factor for employee retention and, ultimately, customer satisfaction.

With staff turnover notoriously high in the service industry, though, that is easier said than done.

Fast fact:

Staff turnover costs the call centre industry £1.1 billion each year

The right tools for the job

Enter technology. Providing customer service agents with the right tools and systems support often makes the difference between an agent with fire in their belly, ready to give the best service possible, and a dud who sounds lethargic and robotic.

The right tools and support can prove to be a problem. Many contact centre teams believe that the technology they use is not up to scratch, and that their current systems will fail to meet the future needs of the business.

Now, that’s not to say that the contact centre industry is hesitant to embrace new technology. In recent years, for example, the integration of live chat, social media and SMS messaging have easily been added to the customer communication spectrum.

Adoption ≠ efficiency

Unfortunately, embracing technology doesn’t always mean effective implementation. Despite all these recent integrations in the contact centre, there isn’t a single person you meet that hasn’t been left feeling frustrated after trying to deal with a service team at one point or another.

We all know the common problems: the agent not having the right information to hand, being transferred to the wrong department, having to explain your entire situation again to multiple people. It’s enough to leave even the most patient customer frustrated.

However, spare a thought for the agent on the other end of this failure. The mess and confusion isn’t enjoyable for them either. In all likelihood, they’ll be feeling let down by their systems, and wishing they had the right tools to help you and avoid any future embarrassment.

Introducing smarter tech

Many organisations are looking to artificial intelligence (AI) and automated processes to help ease the workload of their agents. The hope is that this technology would free up agent time to support customers — what they are employed to do in the first place — rather than being restrained by admin and inefficient processes.

During a TED Talk on AI, philosopher and technologist Nick Bostrom claimed that “machine intelligence is the last invention that humanity will ever need to make.” However, agents shouldn’t be concerned about this. Computers aren’t quite ready to take over the role of humans just yet. In fact, they may never be.

The Turing Test was developed in the 1950s to test the intelligence of a computer. To do so, it established whether a human could distinguish a computer from another human, using the responses both gave to a set of questions.

So far, machines have been unable to truly pass the test, and many experts, including Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and commentator on artificial intelligence, don’t expect it to happen until around 2030.

Fast fact:

A computer program called Eugene Goostman claimed to have passed the test in 2014, however artificial intelligence experts claimed the test had been unfairly weighted in the chatbot’s favour.

Current AI applications

Today, automation and AI technology is being used to cut customer waiting times, help guide the customer to the right department and generally support the role of the customer service agent.

“Society is experiencing the greatest technological change we’ve seen for generations,” said Claire Williams, group HR manager at Orion Media. “The world is getting virtually smaller — and as we change the way we socialise and work, I believe technology will assist us in working smarter.

“Technology may replace some tasks in our roles, potentially freeing up time to expand our roles sideways, but it will not replace us.

“There is a lot of technology already in the marketplace that can handle administrative tasks such as clerical, dictation or data entry. However, there won’t be a lesser need for humans in the future workplace.

“Technology and automation will never replace a human role. It cannot replicate empathy, context, consideration or negotiation, it can only enhance our roles; but only if we use it correctly. The key is working smarter, not harder.

“Certain things, such as admin flow, customer sales processes or recruitment, are already benefitting from algorithms that make judgements for the employee. And, let’s face it, a sales professional who can click a button on an app in their smart phone to process a sale before they even leave a customer’s premises will be more efficient than one reliant on antiquated paper systems. This real time, no time, processing will continue to pervade our working life.”

A changing workforce

“By 2020, 75 per cent of the workforce will be millennials,” Williams continues. “This is the generation that has grown up with homework submission on a portal from an iPad, group conversations over Snapchat and leisurely runs around the park being mapped out and reported on in real time.

“These people will be used to having everything immediately available at their fingertips. The workplace will need to reflect this.”

The human touch

Automation is already speeding up processes and completing monotonous customer service tasks. But as any customer service expert will tell you, the human touch is what elevates customer service from good to excellent.

Simple tasks will no doubt be increasingly managed and completed using automation and AI-enabled agent support systems, whereas complex issues will still require the careful intervention of a human agent.

While a lot of customer service and sales agents are concerned about their own positions, one company took the notion one step further. Williams explained, “SD WORX UK designed a spoof human resource robot called HARRI — the Human Advisory Resource Robotic Interface — essentially a replacement for the HR or managerial role.

“It was designed to get people to think about how they see the role of a manager, and what they would miss if that role was carried out by a robot. While HARRI would be able to regurgitate policy or procedure, and be impartial to conflict, it would not be able to quantify or qualify context, be empathetic of individual situations or compromise and negotiate in discussion.”

Not forgetting human management

In the same way that customer service will always require the human touch to provide empathy and emotion to customer communications, agents will always require human management to keep them on track.

According to Megan Purdy from Workology in her article covering the continued need for human resources (HR), “The work that HR does has so much impact on company culture and success. It’s become common in the tech industry to hail the death of HR, but someone needs to make the human element a priority.

“But who needs HR? Employees. Managers. The company. Everyone needs HR. Without HR being considered a core business priority, some things fall by the wayside. When treated piecemeal, developing, rewarding and diversifying your workforce is impossible to track or encourage.  

“Similarly, without clear policies for onboarding, offboarding, training and performance evaluations, it’s hard to get a handle on how your employees are faring. The murky human element of ‘human’ resources is, and must, be a core business priority from day one. You may not need a big HR department but you do need HR.”

Human interaction is irreplaceable

The increasing use of technology in a business environment is changing the way we work. Processing customer sales, providing efficiencies in administrative tasks and even speaking to customers, are all things that technology can do instead of a human.

But for a business to succeed, while we can rely on technology, like automation software, for efficiency, it will not give us human traits like trust, integrity and honesty.

Through all stages of a customer service agent’s experience, from being hired through to their final ever customer interaction, the involvement of human connection is essential. Nothing can replace human interaction.

NB: This post is an extract from our book, The Conversation Engine. To read the full work, download a free copy here: