As if the pandemic weren’t challenging enough already, many businesses are now also grappling a serious labor shortage on the seemingly endless road back to normal.
Temporary layoffs accounted for essentially the entire increase in unemployment to its historically high rate in April 2020, and tens of millions of Americans quit their jobs in 2021. Today, the “Great Resignation” is so ubiquitous that it even has its own entry on Wikipedia.
Much of the news about worker shortages has focused on food service and consumer goods, but the labor squeeze is also hurting the customer service function across all major industries. Financial services, healthcare, retail, insurance, and other providers of vital products and services to millions of people are struggling to hire enough call center agents to deliver essential customer support.
Pay is an important lever for attracting quality employees, of course; but other factors such as personal engagement, professional growth, and a general sense of value are arguably more important to sustaining morale and commitment among agents. To find and retain enough of them, businesses need to ensure that the job is satisfying and rewarding.
“Vaccine” was Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2021. The Big Quit could be the winning term for 2022. Total nonfarm employment in the U.S. fell by more than 22 million jobs between February and April of 2020. And despite a steady climb since then, the U.S. economy still had 3.6 million fewer workers at the close of 2021 than in February 2020. Despite a record number of job openings, many employers continue to report having a hard time filling vacant positions.
Contact centers are no exception to the general trend. Turnover rates were above 40 percent before the pandemic, and contact center leaders tell us that battling agent attrition is harder than ever before. To attract and retain customer service agents in the current climate, businesses need to relieve some of the pressure that traditionally goes with those jobs and ensure a higher level of professional engagement and development to keeps agents feeling valuable.
Call center agents are frontline soldiers in any customer service delivery operation. The tone of their interactions with callers can make or break their organization’s reputation, one customer at a time. And though companies do make an effort to support their agents, it’s often not enough to alleviate the frustrations that lead to attrition.
An agent’s job offers an unpredictable workload, with rapid-fire interactions with customers punctuated by sudden lulls. Depending on the industry they work in, agents are required to understand and comply with highly specific rules and regulations. They are expected to work quickly, and to deliver accurate, high-quality solutions to complex customer problems. They’re expected to remain calm and professional in the face of occasionally angry or unreasonable callers.
All of this requires constant training and coaching, and many times those activities are the first to get canceled when volume spikes. When circumstances combine to leave agents feeling undervalued, they’re more likely to disengage and move on. High agent turnover was a serious problem before the pandemic, but today, with options for job seekers at an all-time high, it’s urgent.
Taking Work Home
These challenges were exacerbated by the pandemic-driven shift to remote work. According to a Global Contact Center Survey from Deloitte Digital, one out of four companies surveyed said they experienced lower agent performance and longer hiring and onboarding cycles as a result.
Many companies were simply not prepared to send employees home at the beginning of the pandemic due to technological or process barriers. Office computers, servers and phone systems couldn’t always be sent home with employees (some of whom lacked reliable home Internet), and remote employee training and management programs were sparse or non-existent.
The Deloitte survey shows that before the pandemic, only six percent of customer service agents worked from home. After skyrocketing in early 2020, the share of remote agents leveled off at 56% by the end of the year, when organizations began transitioning some workers back to the center.
After two years of pandemic practice, business leaders recognize that working from home has become integral to the contact center operating model. Even as some pull agents back into the center in the near-term, forward-thinking leaders are working to lay a sustainable foundation for long-term remote-work programs. This should expand access to a broader labor pool and create an environment conducive to flexible and dynamic staffing and scheduling, But it will also require a rethinking of legacy processes—and a larger role for automation.
AI to the Rescue
Whatever the blend of remote and in-center work moving forward, organizations will need to convince agents that their jobs can be a source of satisfaction rather than just stress. Automation will play a large role in this transformation. But not just any automation. Artificial Intelligence (AI), which has been advancing rapidly in recent years, is now poised to step into its own as a force multiplier for process efficiency and also for human performance.
Artificial Intelligence is a more advanced automation technology capable of learning and applying what it has learned to subsequent situations. Now, more than ever, AI is a critical component of any service delivery model. The Deloitte survey found that 79 percent of contact center leaders plan to invest in greater AI capabilities in the next two years.
Intelligent automation is an AI-powered technology platform capable of processing massive quantities of time-sensitive call center data in real time and leveraging the results to take immediate, automated actions that quickly solve or even head off problems before they occur. This automated assistance makes agents’ work more productive, more efficient, and more satisfying.
Add a Dash of Intelligence
Intelligent automation turns insights into actions and provides more effective, efficient support for the people and processes working together to serve customers. It does this by:
- Enabling organizations to define business rules to monitor chosen metrics that trigger automatic responses to help keep agents and processes on track
- Identifying unforeseen moments of opportunity (e.g., idle agents when call volume is low) to engage in important development activities like training, coaching and other critical development activities—ensuring that agents are well prepared to be successful
- Prompting agents to go to break early and updating Workforce Management (WFM) schedules automatically, helping avoid the frustration of getting stuck on calls that cut into scheduled break time
- Delivering surprise break offers to reward individual agents or to promote wellness at moments when enough other agents are available to ensure service level continuity
- Helping ensure that agents are well trained, less stressed, and able to resolve customer issues
Intelligent automation is also “location-agnostic,” meaning that it delivers the same consistent work experience to both remote and in-center customer service teams.
A Little Engagement Goes a Long Way
Contact center leaders have realized that great customer service depends in large measure on high levels of engagement and a sense of appreciation among frontline agents. Proper cultivation and support of agents is more conducive to consistently high-quality service than repeatedly hiring and training new agents to replace those who quit in frustration.
Enlightened leaders realize that eliminating unnecessary stress from the agent’s job and delivering timely assistance and support will lead to employees who feel appreciated for their critical contribution to the organization’s overall success. Intelligent automation strengthens agent engagement by removing traditional sources of frustration, making it easier for agents to deliver all the flexibility and empathy necessary to solve the tough problems of your customers. The result is a more engaged and efficient workforce, one able to withstand the ebbs and flows of a volatile job market.
Intradiem provides Intelligent Automation solutions that help customer service teams boost productivity, enhance employee engagement, and improve the end-customer experience. Patented AI-powered technology processes the massive quantity of data generated by contact centers and back offices and takes immediate action to support both in-center and remote teams. Customers can count on a guaranteed return on their investment, with a 2X payback typical in the first year and 3-5X in subsequent years. Each year Intradiem powers more than one billion automated actions and helps customers save more than $100 million.
Guest post written by: Intradiem. To learn more about this and other critical CX topics, register for Execs In The Know’s Customer Response Summit Clearwater .