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Is It Time to Do Away With the Agent Title?

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A headset resting on a desk
Image: A Stockphoto - stock.adobe.com
Here are a few truths to consider about the role of a call center agent: It’s a thankless, often entry-level, and micro-managed position, characterized by high turnover and burnout. Rather than being seen as an extension of marketing or sales, call center agents are viewed as a cost center, which is odd considering agents are often the public face of an organization. Agents get no credit when things go right and are blamed when things go wrong.
 
Therefore, the term agent must go; it’s too tarnished. The question is what to do with all those pesky customer questions, issues, and concerns. It’s not just the title that’s the problem. The bigger issue is the idea that we can delegate the responsibility of customer care to a department or an individual. Every employee role at a company exists in some way to serve a customer.
 
I will use the term employee moving forward, but the legal arrangement of employment and payment is not the point. When employees are treated well and given proper guidance and tools, they can help reduce costs, boost revenue, influence customers, and build a brand’s image.
 
In the most recent Gartner Magic Quadrant for Contact Center as a Service, the analysts wrote: “Organizations that put the customer (not products or services) at the center of their CX strategy require deeper employee collaboration across their organization (and with partners) to effectively deliver on a collaborative customer service initiative...But in order to achieve a greater level of employee collaboration in fulfilling customer needs, there will need to be a deeper level of integration with organizations’ core workstream collaboration platforms.” In other words, Gartner says agents themselves, and the customer service role, have become siloed.
 
Many organizations fail to provide basic tools for collaboration to their customer service employees — and this became apparent when agents started working from their homes. We need to rethink and promote the agent’s role as peers. Last year, they had to adjust to working from home like many others. Everything changed for them, including their tools, equipment, work-life balance, comradery, etc., and they had to relearn how to contribute, stay engaged, and perform their duties from home.
 
We need to reevaluate the customer service role with common tools for alignment, collaboration, and analytics. We also need to make sure all employees are chartered to improve customer satisfaction. We have two choices, either fire the agents or promote everyone to be an agent — expect a mass rebellion on that second option.
 
Eliminating agent as a moniker is just the beginning. Fortunately, the industry is trending toward better tools that broaden and expand the agent's role and tie them more closely to the rest of the business. Here are a few examples:
  • 8x8: Like many other providers, 8x8 has partially attributed its growth in recent years to providing a single offer that includes both UCaaS and CCaaS. Last week, 8x8 launched its experience as a service (XCaaS) offering, which blurs rather than bundles these services. The features of each can be used to compose experiences purposely designed for any given role. For example, corporate receptionists are often underpowered in a UC seat or equipped with a CC seat, which can be overly complex for their needs. XCaaS enables a standard UC user to obtain the advanced call handling and routing features that a receptionist needs — in a single app on a single display.
  • Cisco: One of the highlights of Cisco’s recent acquisition of IMImobile was how it expands its ability to foster customer engagement beyond the traditional contact center. IMImobile’s digital engagement suite is used by agents but also facilitates automation of marketing campaigns, service and operational notifications, and video assistance for teams and customers. This beyond-the-contact-center characteristic is similar to Cisco’s acquisition of CloudCherry, which initially allowed businesses to better collect customer feedback. Webex XM (formerly CloudCherry) along with components of IMImobile form what Cisco calls Customer Experience as a Service, which maps all the customer’s touchpoints across an entire organization.
  • Edify: Edify is on a mission to eliminate the delineation between agents and the rest of the employees. The startup believes that “customer-facing employee” is an obsolete term when it comes to the customer experience because all employees exist to serve the customer. It offers a unified (UCaaS, CCaaS, and CPaaS) solution that is optimized for all employees regardless of title, function, location, or device that they use. Edify also believes that good software design drives adoption, compliance, and ultimately happy customers, so it puts a major emphasis on an intuitive, one-screen design for all channels.
  • Vonage: Vonage has built or acquired leading solutions for UCaaS, CCaaS, CPaaS, video, and AI. The result is a powerful collection of extensible applications. It offers its own solution for workstream collaboration and also integrates with both Slack and Microsoft Teams. For example, Vonage offers UCaaS customers a Smart Numbers feature, which allows any enterprise number (not just the agents) to be programmed for customized workflows that might leverage bots, translation, advanced routing, or other services.
I can list more examples, but the point is simple: The notion that a small team of workers, known as agents, are responsible for customer service is obsolete. No one wants to be an agent, so let’s make the role better. A far broader set of employees is what really drives customer experience. We need to put humanity back into the human agents. And, if the customer calls don’t need an empowered agent, more efficient self-service options to resolve their requests exist.

 
Dave Michels is a contributing editor and analyst at TalkingPointz.

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