Contact centres: How technology can save agent burnout

24th Jan 2013
Not only does agent burnout have a negative impact on customer service, which can result in fewer sales or renewals, but the knock-on effect of absence caused by stress-related illness is a huge cost to the business. Jay Modhwadia, who has many years’ experience of running customer service departments, discusses the issues and suggests some answers.
High pressure has always been part of being a customer service representative and most agents get the job because they are adept at handling customers as well as the strains and stresses it entails. However, the realities of business in recent years mean that many organisations have introduced efficiency measures, tasking staff to achieve more with less. In addition, businesses are facing tougher competition with customers expecting the same or even higher levels of service as they seek to get the best possible value. More ambitious client service level agreements (SLAs) are leading to ever more demanding targets for the customer service desk and all who work in them.
While call volumes often go in peaks and troughs, the sheer number of calls can create a problem. Many organisations do not have an overall view of the customer, one system where agents can see everything they need to know about a customer. Without the right information at their fingertips, agents are frustrated by not having a clear and full picture of the customer they are dealing with or having to bounce from one system to another to find the information they need. This can lead to unhappy agents and unhappy customers.
The situation is further complicated by the growing popularity of social media. Customers expect to interact with organisations in a variety of ways – Chat, Web, SMS, Facebook and Twitter – and this all places even greater demands on today’s more complex, multi-channel Customer Service Desk environment.
With a myriad of legislation to comply with, training agents involves a lot more than simply how to handle angry customers or difficult enquiries. For example, the impacts of legislation imposed by the Financial Services Authority (FSA) or Central Government in the form of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests present further issues for customer service desks in any size of organisation. Failure to respond to customer complaints or requests within a specified time period can result in financial penalties for organisations and added stress for their customer service departments.
A further example include the Direct Marketing Association (DMA). On 28th November, it published a white paper entitled ‘Guidelines for call centres dealing with vulnerable consumers’ as the industry’s contribution to a government-led campaign to create a dementia-friendly society. The DMA sets out a best-practice framework for dealing with our most vulnerable citizens in a humane and compassionate way. This is an excellent step forward but it does mean that customer service agents are forced to devote even more of their precious time to understanding another set of rules and applying them to their job.
Combating agent burnout
Agent burnout is a result of overwork and stress. It can result in lack of staff motivation, long-term absence due to stress-related illness and anything in between including highly trained agents simply leaving. Arguably the effects of agent burnout are even more pronounced for smaller companies, as any absence in a smaller team has a greater impact.
The time has come for managers to recognise agent burnout and take positive steps to counteract its damaging effects on the overall business. By increasing staff motivation, customers receive a better service, and reducing absence avoids the costs associated with providing temporary cover. By building an environment that mitigates agent burnout, organisations retain skilled and experienced staff, which will help to realise the ultimate goal to increase customer retention, and even cross-sell and up-sell.
While there are many 'soft' steps that organisations can take to mitigate agent burnout - reappraising work hours, ensuring that there are enough agent breaks, examining the very culture of the workplace - one area that can be overlooked is the role that technology can play.
Avoid overwork
Reducing agent overwork can go a long way to mitigating agent burnout and with the use of clever technology, call volumes and efficiency rates can be maintained and improved. The key to this is to automate as much as possible. The introduction of smart technology that integrates with important business processes and other applications such as HR and finance and even provide feeds from social media will reap tangible results. Providing a full overview of the customer, accessible from one system will enable agents to handle difficult calls effectively and sensitively.
Allow judgement
Allowing agents to use their judgement to best handle a call ensures that they do not become bored, which is another key factor in agent burnout. A system that provides all the customer information they need in one place, empowers them to handle each call most appropriately. An example of this in action might be a recently widowed lady who calls asking to make changes to an account in her deceased husband’s name. Real-time information means that the agent dealing with the first call can update the system so that all other agents are alerted to the fact that the husband has recently passed away and so deal with the caller more compassionately in any subsequent calls.
Enable proactivity
Another example where a fully integrated system enables agents to think on their feet is the situation when a customer calls who has not renewed their maintenance agreement. If the agent doesn’t know this, they could inadvertently spend time providing service to a customer while fee paying customers are waiting. This degrades the service to the paying customers, but without the appropriate information the agent cannot deal with the situation. With a system that dynamically displays pertinent client information, the agent could offer the customer the option to renew their maintenance and so turn the situation into a revenue-generating opportunity.
Empower teamwork
A centralised system for handling calls means that agents can work in teams, each seeing what they others are working on. This team-based approach has been proven to improve morale. In addition, such systems can be used to ensure that agents take the breaks they are entitled to by EU law. Even short periods of time away from the desk are proven to enhance performance and productivity. Wherever possible calls should be allocated to those agents not on a break, ensuring that efficient handling of calls is maintained.
By embracing a culture that aims to support agents with enabling technology, organisations can empower staff and improve customer experience in a way that ultimately protects their brand reputation and increases revenues.
Jay Modhwadia is business development manager for customer service management at Sunrise Systems.

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