This article, written by Herb Greenebaum, originally appeared at CRMXchange
It’s an all-too-familiar situation. You’re trying to get an issue resolved and while the agent you’re involved with seems like he or she wants to help as much as they can, you get the feeling that something is holding them back. It’s most apparent when you’re on the phone…you can hear the hesitation in a rep’s voice. But it also comes up in non-verbal communications as well…the carefully worded but emotionless email…the clipped, perfunctory responses in chat sessions.
Two self-described customer service “lifers” who share a worldview that emphasizes the importance of giving front-line personnel a higher level of decision-making capabilities have embarked on a new project. #FreetoHelp is an 11-question survey designed to find out what agents wish they would be allowed to do to help customers with results to be presented as a case study at the 2017 ICMI Contact Center Demo and Conference event in Las Vegas.
“We believe most front-line agents are extraordinarily willing to help, but they’re often prevented from giving great service by rigid policies, difficult managers, imperfect software, and unrealistic expectations,” said Leslie O’Flavahan, owner of EWRITE, a service designed to help agents write better email, chat, social media and text.
Her partner in the venture is Jenny Dempsey, who has a history of having what she calls “hybrid jobs” which blend customer service management and front-line responsibilities. Dempsey is currently Social Media and Customer Experience Manager for NumberBarn.com which enables businesses to find new local and toll-free US numbers as well as being the founder of Dempsey Wellness. “Our current mission is to tap the wisdom of customer service agents who speak with or write to customers all day, every day,” she said. “The information we gather will help us to find out how to keep customer care organizations from getting in the way of good service. One key goal is to encourage managers to build higher levels of trust in their agents and think openly about empowering them.”
The genesis of #FreetoHelp was a question in one of ICMI’s weekly series of chats in 2016 about how much decision-making ability agents are permitted. This sparked an epiphany in the bicoastal team (O’Flavahan is from Washington, Dempsey from San Diego) and a desire to learn the reasons why agents are free or not to help. The two developed an instant affinity as both thinkers and advocates. They decided to create a community to explore what agents feel would provide them the freedom they need to be helpful and give them a voice in making it happen: how can service improve with the right tools, resources and ability to be more #FreeToHelp.
Contrary to their initial belief that most agents were encumbered, they found out that many were in fact empowered to make decisions on the customer’s behalf and were not being punished for “going outside the lines,” as O’Flavahan put it. The initial wave of survey results they received indicate that the managers of the respondents encouraged agents to “go for it” when they wanted to take new directions to help customers and made efforts to get them the tools that they said they needed to improve.
“We thought at the beginning that we would be swimming against the tide,” said O’Flavahan. “But then we found that there was a lot of momentum, but there are still a number of obstacles.” While there are many progressive organizations, there are still holdouts. “If you must ask to go to the rest room, you can’t be empowered,” she said. The campaign has been publicized on a Facebook page and with a Twitter handle. FreetoHelp will also be launching a blog to share some of the more cogent comments that have been made. In addition to those who have been taking the anonymous survey on a voluntary basis, Dempsey and O’Flavahan have also specifically targeted network contacts and previous companies with which they have been associated.
They are encouraged not just by the level of response –more than 130 came in several weeks before the presentation with a goal of 500 total—but by the depth of the answers. “Most of the questions on the survey encouraged optional comments,” said O’Flavahan. “About one of every three respondents are not just commenting, but providing extremely detailed responses. And that never happens.” Another surprising sidelight was that 54% of the early responders had been in the customer service industry for 11 years or more. Most of those who answered are on a dedicated channel, either email (60%) or voice (25%), with only 13% reporting that they had omnichannel responsibilities.
One of the goals of the study is to establish a link between agents’ ability to help customers and the need for businesses to modify quality monitoring processes that both O’Flavahan and Dempsey believe limit individual decision making. “Some quality scorecards beat the decision making right out of agent,” said O’Flavahan. “One client was telling me about a chat measurement scorecard that evaluated how many pleasantries –such as saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ – that an agent used in an interaction. Awarding points on this type of criteria muddies the waters and puts the agent in the position of having to think more about what expressions they’re using than actually helping the customer. Average Handle Time (AHT) is another metric that Dempsey and O’Flavahan question the need to continue, theorizing that stopping or suspending its measurement would contribute to giving agents more flexibility.
The overall purpose is to build awareness of what makes an agent free to help and how to reduce the resistance to allowing agents to make good decisions in companies. “What we have learned is that the one thing that agents want the most is to be able to make an exception for a customer when they feel it is justified to do so,” said O’Flavahan. "The next step will be to turn to management and make a case why this should be allowed…and if not, what are the obstacles?”
As more companies hear about this project, there has been growing interest in learning about what agents feel they need in order to maximize their effectiveness in helping customers. O’Flavahan and Dempsey plan to accept requests to do custom surveys for individual contact center environments.