The next evolution of the call center - network judgment techniques for problem solving

Denis Pombriant Profile picture for user denis_pombriant April 11, 2017
Summary:
The days of routine query handling in the call center are coming to an end. The next step is to operate the call center as a problem solving unit using network judgment techniques.

Call center
Some years ago when collaboration apps like Salesforce’s Chatter were introduced, one of the selling points was that these tools could enable an organization to “swarm” on a customer problem bringing specific talent to bear on situations when needed.

The benefit to customers was thought to be obvious while the benefit to service providers was that swarming enabled access to the best brains in a business with dissemination of knowledge, a distinct possibility. Skeptics said that software was simply a company’s way of selling more software but now the promoters of collaboration are being proven right.

Matthew Dixon and colleagues Lara Ponomareff and Lauren Pragoff at CES, now a part of Gartner, are at it again this time with a 7,500-person customer service study of contact center culture. The skinny analysis is that service organizations have one of three distinct work environments as reported in a Harvard Business Review article:

  1. Adherence climates, in which reps rely primarily on company policies and procedures when making decisions.
  2. Individual-judgment climates, wherein reps rely on their own personal experience and judgment to make decisions.
  3. Network-judgment climates, in which reps rely more on advice and guidance from colleagues to inform their own decisions.

One of the more subtle points of Dixon’s and CES’s research lately has been the impact of a changing business environment on the contact center. The proliferation of advanced tools that deflect easy calls and enable customers to solve their own problems, has reduced the population of calls. But the issues that do get to the switchboard tend to be the hardest problems.

In previous research Dixon and company have showed that the kind of rep most successful in this situation is one who takes control and synthesizes a solution for a customer. A few years ago it was one who could empathize with customers. The current research says that given the need for strong personalities, contact centers also need more collaborative environments in which agents can trade knowledge to come up with solutions rather than relying on scripts and static metrics like Average Handle Time (AHT).

Not surprisingly, this knowledge is new and the industry, as measured in the study, is not yet up to the challenge of this brave new world. Say the authors,

…fully 52% of reps reported working in an adherence climate compared to 35% who work in an individual judgment climate and only 12% who find themselves in a network judgment climate.

And of course, the goal of life as the authors have it, is to move closer to the world of the Network-judgment climate. If life were as simple as knocking down some cubicles and telling reps to collaborate, there likely wouldn’t be a need for the study or this article. But as life has it, the effort is subtler involving some creative destruction that goes beyond the cubicle walls.

The current dominant culture in the contact center is more of the Adherence variety left over from the days when reps were first and foremost empathizers. But in an age of stronger personalities, adherence has definite disadvantages. First, the strict adherence to scripts, thanking customers for their loyalty, using a person’s name, using an approved greeting, etc., and metrics like AHT, are an impediment. The number and degree of difficulty encountered in calls to a contact center today make a mockery of such niceties, not that being nice isn’t valued, it’s just not what drives customers who might be frustrated from failing to solve a problem solo.

Second, the culture for the contact center is, in many organizations, still focused on hiring agents who can perform to scripts rather than taking more proactive roles that include collaboration and taking charge of finding solutions for customers. Making the change requires some managerial awareness and finesse.

My take

Dixon and company’s body of work paints a picture of the contact center coming of age. From a utility that helped customers check balances, pay bills, and find the “any” key in order to continue installing something, the contact center is rapidly evolving into a place for eager and intelligent young professionals to begin a climb in a corporation. Those people are far different from the part time students you could reliably see with headsets following scripts to the letter a few years ago.

The professionals taking over are more assertive, knowledgeable, and most of all they are problem solvers not so much empathizers. In the best sense of the word, problem solvers are also tool users and information consumers. The problems they encounter can’t be scripted because there are simply too many variations on a theme, which leaves them to rely on their wits and supporting technologies. They’re also natural networkers in the same ways as other professionals.

Lawyers, doctors, business people all have journals for sharing best practices, call center agents aren’t at that level yet but they rely increasingly on trading knowledge through collaboration.

Treating these people as the professionals they are has benefits for them, their customers, and their organizations. Dixon et al.’s data show that in a collaborative environment reps exhibit 54 percent higher discretionary effort and 17 percent higher intent to stay than reps working in a more conventional contact center. Everybody wins.

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