CONVO: Self-service, bots, and AI promise to screen out routine calls so agents only get calls that require deeper product knowledge – meaning a more expert breed of agent. Do many companies see the writing on the wall about this?

BRAD: There’s no alternative. This trend is impacting recruiting and hiring, but it’s especially impacting the skill paths, coaching and resources that forward-looking companies are putting in place for their current staff. And it’s creating an opportunity for a lot more value-add.

C: What do companies need to change structurally to allow agents to shine?

B: One of my clients realized they had to restructure how they got work to their team. They had hundreds of skill tags, and, as a result, they lost control of their resources. You don’t need hundreds of tags. For customers with multifaceted issues that can’t be addressed by self-service, let your team do what they do best: bring their intelligence and their human know-how. So simplification, ironically, is a key driver of this new landscape.

C: Do you see any examples of the expert agent already in action?

B: REI is a great example. I was a customer of theirs recently. I could go and research backpacks, but talking to someone who really understands what I need and how this stuff works, that was a huge value add. If you’re going to compete on experience, you’re going to have to provide the experience. That’s not just about customers getting things solved; that’s about customers getting things solved by people in the contact center that they feel confident in taking advice from.

C: In an experience-driven contact center environment, what will C-level executives look to as indicators that their companies are on the right track?

B: It’s going to be different for different organizations and different CEOs, but some of the things are market share, net promoter score, however you gauge customer loyalty, and customer effort. Word of mouth – that’s huge. It can make CEOs very uncomfortable if they see their company’s support discussed by customers on social media channels, especially if they’re not saying things that will build the company’s brand.

C: How can the people managing support help the light bulb go on for their bosses around experience?

B: Too many companies are presenting the story from a transactional perspective. They’re wondering why their CEOs don’t get it. Well, you have to give them a fighting chance. It behooves managers and VPs to tell the story in the right way. They can’t walk into the executive boardroom talking about traditional metrics. That’s so misleading. Cost per contact tends to go up in the best organizations because they’re driving the silly work out of the process, so there are fewer calls that they’re allocating across fixed costs.

C: Do you see any numbers around agent satisfaction among companies that have moved toward a more expert and empowered agent model?

B: Gallup’s done some survey work in this area. Agents love it. Engaged employees are one of the signs that you’re moving in the right direction. That’s tied directly to business results – market share and P&L, the things that drive the organization’s future. So engaged employees are a really positive sign.

C: Bots are often seen as a method of replacing expensive humans. What’s their real benefit going to be for the contact center?

B: Bots and AI are great for getting calls to the right people, and getting the right information pulled together as interactions are taking place. But service is elastic. It’s not like we’ve figured out everything we’re ever going to do in the world and now we just have to divide the work up between machines and people. I would be very careful about painting myself into a corner with budget, assuming some of these capabilities are going to reduce staff. Do everything you can to prevent contacts from happening that are not adding value, and automate anything that’s acceptable to your customers. But I also would be very realistic about the need for human interaction and the need to add value.

C: What does the future look like for businesses that don’t see this trend toward the more expert agent?

B: They’re going to pay a heavy price. They’ll put their business in jeopardy, they’ll be eroding their brand. You don’t want to find yourself in that position. There’s no time to dither. You’ve got to start building the skills now, and you’ve got to start getting the processes and technology support you need. It’s going to be a nightmare if you’re not leading this.