How Best to Empower Today's Contact Center Agents

The U.S. contact center industry maintained the largest share of the global market in 2016, demonstrating steady 1.5% annual growth in spending, according to a state of the market report from JLL Research. Additionally, U.S. contact centers accounted for nearly 2.6 million jobs last year -- up nearly 35% over the last five years -- and were responsible for driving $9.4 billion in revenue since 2013.

As this significant growth clearly shows, contact center services continue to play an integral role for enterprise brands in driving efficiency and improving the customer experience. In fact, as Deloitte found in its 2015 Global Contact Center Survey, 96% of businesses expected to expand their contact centers in the next two years to support business growth and customer experience demands, and over half believed that contact centers play a primary role in sales and customer retention.

Even as consumer and client preferences continue to evolve in today's digital-first economy, brands are still focused on driving human-to-human connections to build positive experiences for their existing and potential new customers. However, thanks to the pervasiveness of the smartphone and intense focus for brands to personalize each customer interaction, the role and functions of a contact center agent has dramatically changed and continues to become much more integral to the overall customer experience.

Today, brands are individualizing customer experiences through the use of big data and artificial intelligence to understand behavioral patterns across social, mobile, and commerce platforms to encourage and reward customers -- and gain their loyalty. While this digital transformation evolves and becomes a more effective and efficient way to meet consumer expectations, an evolution in call center protocols as well as the people handling customer interactions has been occurring in the background.

What was once a role that required basic customer service skills and a pleasant voice, brands' ever-evolving digital landscape demands that today's contact center agents be emotionally engaged, empathic, and digitally fluent to meet customer needs and concerns. Here are the emotional and technological skills that the modern contact center agent must possess to create thoughtful, one-on-one engaging customer experiences.

A Personified Evolution

Today's digitally savvy consumers have exceedingly high expectations that contact center agents know them as customers and can solve their problems quickly and pleasantly. Getting agent interaction right has never been more important. In fact, 70% of today's buying experiences are based on how customers feel they're being treated, and 40% of consumers listed "better human service" as their biggest request for improvements to a brand's experience, according to Help Scout statistics.

To prevent gaps in human service, brands have evolved their selection of the type of agent persona they recruit, hire, and train. Businesses are now focused on hiring more emotionally intelligent agents with empathetic skills to handle key or complex customer communications.

Using empathy to interpret and adjust service according to the perceived emotional impact of others is the most important skill personified by contact center agents today. According to the 2016 Global Empathy Index, the top 10 most empathetic companies doubled their value over the bottom 10, and generated 50% more earnings. The report also finds an 80% correlation between departments with higher empathy and high performers.

An empathy-first approach goes a long way with customers. Whether an agent clarifies and asks for details about an issue to show he or she understands a customer's challenge, reassures the customer that problem resolution is a top priority, or shares second-by-second updates on actions being taken while on the phone, building an empathetic relationship with every client helps maintain positive customer relations and ultimately brand loyalty.

Solving complex issues for today's digital-savvy, always-connected customers has evolved the agent persona to include a high level of emotional empathy and service adjustment.

A Wealth of Knowledge

Today's consumers expect agents to have thorough knowledge of their accounts. This means businesses require today's agents to have higher technological and interactive skill sets to maintain a personalized understanding of every customer. Considering that many company CRMs and omni-channel systems haven't caught up to customer expectations, it takes an even more intuitive and engaged agent to navigate all the available systems effectively to meet or exceed customer needs and deliver on the brand's promise.

Delivering personalized service in real time is important because seconds matter with a customer -- 78% of consumers have abandoned a purchase because of poor service experience or an agent's inability to answer a customer question 50% of the time, according to Help Scout statistics. As such, businesses are investing in cutting-edge tools and datasets to stay ahead of the curve and provide agents a 360-degree view of every caller.

Maintaining meaningful, real-time engagement with customers is key, which means agents not only must have access to a customer's online interactions, but also understand how to interpret a customer's digital touch points in order to deduce common behavioral patterns and needs. In addition, agents must be able to work -- and be willing to learn how to work -- alongside emerging customer experience technology such as big (and small) data, artificially intelligent self-service tools, and social media management platforms to have a more knowledgeable understanding of each individual customer.

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