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Super skill me: The six essential skills of the modern super customer service agent

13th Nov 2009
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The days of thinking customer service agents are unskilled are over. As Oke Eleazu reveals, the modern agent must be multi-disciplined to meet customer demands.

You may have missed the furore over the term 'McJob’. In case you have, the term a ‘McJob’ was/is a slang term for a job which requires little skill, little training, requires tight supervision and have very little opportunity for advancement. Like many slang terms these days, the term has made it into the Oxford English Dictionary defined as a “an unstimulating, low paid job with few prospects created by the growth of the service industry”. Such was McDonalds’ displeasure over this, that at one point they apparently threatened legal action.
Anyway, why do I mention the above? Well firstly, McDonalds is an incredible company and a fantastic employer, which does a great deal for its employees (I don’t include that for legal reasons, it’s just true…if you don’t believe me, Google them…see there’s another of those new words!). Secondly, I’m always amazed when frontline staff of an organisation are described in such derogatory terms. I can assure you that how friendly, helpful and engaging a member of staff was would make a huge difference to where I bought my burgers and as such it directly affects the organisations bottom line… makes a McJob pretty important to me.
Lastly, I know that there are many people that consider working in a call centre as a ‘McJob’. I know that from personal experience. When I was the customer service director of one of my former paymasters, I was at a senior directors conference when one of my colleagues turned to me and said, “I really don’t understand how you cope with managing the pond life!” (Names have not been included to protect the ignorant!).  I wouldn’t have believed it happen apart from the fact that I was actually there! But even back then it made me reflect on the relative value placed on frontline staff and the perception of their ability.
The truth about the ability of modern agents couldn’t be further away from a McJob. This is for a number of reasons, some obvious, others less so:
  1. Agents have a deeper knowledge – the advent of self-service for simple transactions means that people can do the easy stuff themselves. When was the last time that you phoned up for a bank balance, to change your address or even book a cinema ticket. For many of these things are a thing of the dim and distant past. However, we all still use the phone a lot, which means we are using the phone for more complex queries. The average call agent now has to have a much deeper knowledge of their subject matter, which means longer training time and more expertise.
  2. Agents deal with a varity of communication platforms – call centres aren’t call centres any more, they’re contact centres. We are just as likely to email or even text our queries to organisation and expect a speedy response. Often the people responding to our email queries are the same ones who are answering our calls. As I can testify, just because you can speak well does not mean you can write well! Many modern contact centre agents are now expected to be expert in both forms of communication, which can be extremely demanding and require not only a different skill set, but also a different suite of training.
  3. Agents are multi-skilled – many studies have shown that the highest customer satisfaction is created when a customers query is dealt with on their first call, by the first person they speak too… more commonly known as first call resolution (FCR). FCR is therefore the ‘holy grail’ of call centres and a metric that all call centre leaders try to maximise. One of the ways of achieving this is to enable many agents to answer as many queries as they can. This often involves very broad product and process knowledge, which takes years of experience and extensive training. In recent years, knowledge management systems have been used to help deal with the breadth of knowledge required in these situations by keeping a significant amount of the knowledge required in an easily accessible database rather than in individuals’ heads! Multi skilling is also a really effective way of saving an organisation money…the more ‘things’ an agent can do the more effectively they can be deployed. For more on first call resolution click here
  4. Agents must be experts in complaint handling – as our expectations of service rise so the inability of many organisations to meet those expectations becomes more exposed, and complaints increase. Most complaints are now made on the phone and therefore the ability to effectively deal with complaints is another skill many call agents are expected to have. There has been a significant increase in the amount of ‘objection handling’ training, as a complaint well handled can often produce a loyal advocate for the organisation and advocates are worth their weight in gold!
  5. Agents must be able to achieve sales through service – previously it was good enough that providing great service meant that you were more likely to buy another product from that company. However, now, the service agent is actually expected to sell that product on the same call. You can’t seem to ring a bank these days to query a transaction without them trying to get you to sign up for another credit card, an overdraft or even pet insurance…and I don’t even have any pets. The key point here is that up/cross selling is a completely new skill set to many service based agents and is something that they are now actively measured on. This not only drives additional training requirements, but also often needs completely different types agents! For more on sales through service click here
  6. Agents must be engaging – the secret of a great call agent is, the ability to fully answer a customers query (knowledge, as discussed above) but also the ability to engage positively with that customer. This is all about empathy. There has been much debate about whether empathy is something you can train or is just an innate ability. However, more and more organisations are training are their staff, perhaps not to acquire empathy, but more to be able to improve that empathetic engagement with the customer which is vital.
So as you can see the requirements of contact centre agents has changed significantly. The best agents now can add significant benefit to an organisations ‘bottom line’, as well as their customer satisfaction scores. These modern super agents also have the best grasp on customers requirements and expectations, so can often they can be instrumental in many different marketing and strategic projects. Due to this broad skill range many agents are now able to move on to a multitude of other roles in the organisation. As a result of this the salaries of the best and most skilled agents is increasing significantly as their remuneration begins to reflect their value to the organisation.  Let’s go back to that definition of a McJob – “an unstimulating, low paid job with few prospects’…I think we can safely say that a modern contact centre agent no longer meets that definition!
Oke Eleazu is managing director of think outside in consultancy and vice president of the Institute of Customer Service. Oke was formerly customer service director at Bupa and also at Prudential.

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