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Agent Empowerment: Putting Firstline Employees First in the Contact Center

One of the most famous lyrics in classic rock is from The Who’s 1971 classic, Won’t Get Fooled Again. Whether or not “Meet the new boss same as the old boss” is a reference to political unrest of that generation, the message is clear: The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.

Credited to 19th century French Author, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, the proverb holds true more than 150 years later; turbulent changes do not affect reality on a deeper level other than to cement the status quo.

Advancements in technology have contact centers light years ahead of where they were five – even two years ago. But despite innovations like omnichannel and artificial intelligence, the importance of providing firstline employees with the tools to deliver optimal customer experiences has not changed.

In its “The Future of the Contact Center in 2019” report, CCW writes that customer contact leaders believe “the best way forward is to make sure the heart of customer centricity is not left in the past,” and that in 2019, they will emphasize agent “empowerment.” 40 percent of executives surveyed said they plan to take steps to help agents spend less time preparing and more time actually connecting with customers, with 35 percent indicating that improving agents’ desktop/dashboard experience is a priority for the coming year.

Last year, a survey by Harvard Business Review Analytics Services showed that 78 percent of business leaders said that connecting and empowering their Firstline Workers is critical, yet only a small number of organizations typically act on this. The same survey shows that increased efficiency is the top driver for business leaders wanting to digitally enable their Firstline Workforce, with a vast majority of respondents believe this will be essential to their organization’s success in the future.

Primary Drivers for an Empowered Firstline Workforce Chart

Simply put: investing in their Firstline Workers can lead to improved business performance, and those execs holding the purse-strings know they have some changes to make.

Of the 383 business leaders who responded to the Harvard Business survey, all indicated that their organizations employ firstline workers; nearly two-thirds reported that a significant proportion of their employees work on the firstline of business.

Total Motivation Chart

Despite a seemingly obvious need, this critical contingency has often have been an afterthought in many organizations’ digital transformation efforts.

In front lines today, productivity growth has stalled, while employees are feeling less engaged and more stressed, according to findings reported in the Harvard Business Review. Moreover, employee retention on the front line continues to be a problem. Too many organizations are responding to these trends with more pressure and micromanagement, which only worsens the problem and increases risk.

Businesses that continue to ignore the needs of firstline employees – such as contact center agents – do so at their own peril.

Agent Experience Demands No Friction and Easy Access to Data

A recent study by West Monroe Partners (WMP) in Electric Light & Power’s online magazine says utility executives aren’t doing nearly enough to meet the shifts occurring in the workplace. Property & casualty (P&C) insurance companies are failing to meet their customers’ expectations when it comes to digital interactions, according to the J.D. Power 2018 Insurance Digital Experience Study.

Why is this important?

Microsoft Corporate Vice President, Kirk Koenigsbauer explains that, “Firstline Workers are the more than two billion people in roles that make them the first points of contact between a company and the world it serves.

“They are the people behind the counter, on the phone, in the clinics, on the shop floor, and at the help desk. They are often the first to engage customers, the first to represent a company’s brand, and the first to see products and services in action. They form the backbone of many of the world’s largest industries, and without them, the ambitions and strategies of company leaders could not be brought to life.”

Firstline Workers Diagram

“The customer expectation for a standout digital experience is rapidly being set by digital-native consumer brands like Amazon, Netflix and Uber,” said Tom Super, Director of the Property & Casualty Insurance Practice at J.D. Power. “Like it or not, those are the user experiences against which today’s consumer-facing insurers are competing. While many insurers are falling short, the leaders are establishing best practices for how to build engagement, create personalized digital experiences and deliver consistency across digital components.”

Dan Belmont, a senior consultant for WMP, writes that savvy executives will “swiftly and fully integrate tools, people, systems, information, and operational technology to align with serving the customer.”

CCW’s research validates Belmont’s assertion and crystalizes customer-centric organizations will seek to create happy, engaged, productive agents. The agent experience is clearly integral to the future of the contact center.

What’s important to note is that technology alone cannot solve the problem of disengaged employees. Streamlined desktops up-to-date technology are important, but so are workforce development, training and professional education.

As the shelf life of skills shrinks, business leaders worry that talent developers are focused on training for today’s skill demands, at the expense of preventing tomorrow’s skill gaps, according to LinkedIn’s 2018 Workplace Learning Report. LinkedIn’s research shows that in 2018, talent developers are prioritizing the employee development needs of today. And while that is essential, executives and people managers are looking to talent developers to do more—specifically increase their focus on identifying industry trends to prevent internal skill gaps.

Despite widespread adoption of automation and self-service solutions, customer experience ratings most accurately reflect agent performance; it’s an established and longstanding causality.

Contact center leaders must adapt to current day realities. To prevent attrition and cultivate the happy, productive agents who create happy, loyal customers, corporate decision makers must invest in their employees through training and professional development that helps agents grow in their careers.

The rise of millennials as baby boomers retire has fostered a changing of the guard in executive management. For the sake of contact centers agents everywhere, hopefully the new boss will not be the same as the old boss.


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