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Create a Climate for Collaboration

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • Identify key agent skills needed.
  • Explain why average handle time (AHT) is a counterproductive metric.
  • Learn how agent collaboration improves the customer experience.

In kindergarten we’re taught that cooperation is fun—and an essential part of life. At work, we sometimes forget this early lesson and slip into patterns where we work in silos without collaborating with our teammates. So how can you improve collaboration and have more fun at work? In this unit, we touch on the importance of recruiting the right agents. We also discuss the way metrics and work climate impact collaboration, ultimately driving customer satisfaction in your contact center. 

Recruit and Develop Agents

Every good manager hires the right people—that’s part of what makes them good, right? But knowing who is the “right” fit for the job is difficult. It’s especially hard in the world of the contact center, where you sometimes have to vet people with little-to-no experience. How can you ensure candidates will succeed? Learn to recognize traits—patience, positivity, empathy, and curiosity—that make for a great customer service agent. 

Your contact center’s success depends on many things, but interpersonal communication is near the top of the list. Now let’s assume that you’ve done a good job hiring the right agents. What can you do now to get your existing agents to develop new skills to take their interpersonal communication skills to the next level?

Here’s a list of skills agents should be continuously developing. 

  • Communicating clearly: Practice using simple, direct language.
  • Being a product expert: Knowing the product better than the customers do is critical to solving issues and maintaining loyalty.
  • Ending on a good note: To solidify trust, confirm with the customer that their problems have been taken care of before ending the conversation.
  • Being authentic: Not everything should be scripted; it’s key for agents to think on their feet.
  • Tapping their inner salesperson: Upsell and cross-sell additional goods and services that solve customers’ issues, thereby improving the overall experience.

In addition to helping agents develop these important interpersonal skills, you should assess agent performance and results, and focus on first contact resolution scores. Why? If the scores remain low, it’s a clear indication that your agents need to spend more time honing the interpersonal communication skills they need to create an excellent customer experience from the first point of contact.

The Impact of Work Climate

Training agents is an ongoing process, but as a contact center manager, you can’t be everywhere at once. Situations arise that agents can’t predict or prepare for. It’s important to allow agents to problem solve amongst themselves sometimes. A great way to do this is to encourage them to talk to each other and share their expertise. 

When an unusual situation comes up, there’s usually someone in the contact center who has experienced it before. It’s helpful for knowledgeable, experienced agents to be able to share the lessons they’ve learned with newer coworkers. Unfortunately, this kind of collaboration can be stifled if the work climate in your contact center doesn’t foster it. 

A contact center’s work climate has to do with the level of freedom agents experience in the workplace. Service organizations, including contact centers, often fall into three distinct work climates: 

  1. Adherence climates: Where agents rely primarily on company policies and procedures when making decisions. This type of climate is the most common.
  2. Individual judgment climates: Where agents rely on their own personal experience and judgment to make decisions. Individual-judgment climates are less common than adherence climates.
  3. Network judgment climates: Where agents rely more on advice and guidance from colleagues to inform their own decisions. Network-judgment climates are far less common than the other two climates.

According to a study conducted by Harvard Business Review, contact centers with network judgement climates perform 50% better than the average contact center when measuring productivity and customer experience. Only 12% of agents work in a network judgement climate so there’s plenty of room for improvement, giving innovative managers an opportunity to differentiate their brand with better service.

Bad Metrics Can Be Part of the Collaboration Problem

High-performing agents are experts in your products, features, and solutions. It takes a lot of time and training to develop a high degree of expertise. As we’ve said, one of the best ways for agents to grow their knowledge is by problem-solving with other agents. But what if the metrics you’re using to improve performance are actually inhibiting this kind of collaboration? One of the traditional metrics used to measure contact center performance, average handle time (or AHT), can actually hinder agents from being high performers. 

AHT measures the length of customer interactions. Think of this as the amount of time an agent takes to handle a single customer call or chat. Most contact centers want AHT numbers to be as low as possible. This is a useful metric if used in conjunction with other metrics; however, relying solely on AHT can damage a contact center’s culture. When agents are forced to adhere to a predefined call length, they are less likely to collaborate with other agents when they face unusual customer challenges. Requiring agents to get through as many calls as possible means they tend to rush customer interactions rather than taking the time to check in with coworkers who may have better solutions for the customer. 

To put your contact center on the road to better collaboration, you may want to explore alternatives to AHT. Another metric that gives agents more time to solve problems collaboratively is first call resolution, sometimes called first contact resolution or FCR. This metric measures whether or not the customer issue was resolved on the first call. With FCR, your organization gets some sense that customers are walking away satisfied, whereas with AHT you only know how long the call was. 

This is not to say AHT is all bad. It can be very useful as a forecasting and planning tool, but as an agent performance metric, you may want to consider dropping it. If you do decide to eliminate AHT from your agents’ score cards, remember that average handle times may rise soon afterwards. The good news is that, oftentimes, managers discover that AHT later declines within a few months because agents get better at delivering high-quality service, leading to additional declines in escalations and callbacks. 

Contact centers managers can also encourage peer learning and sharing through collaboration tools like Chatter and incentives that reward agents for collaborating with each other and sharing advice. Rewards don’t have to be elaborate or expensive. You can acknowledge good work by giving top-performing agents an extra hour for lunch, an afternoon off on a Friday, or an extra day of vacation, for example.

In addition to rewards, consider bringing reps closer together—physically by rethinking floor layout, and virtually by using tools like messaging apps and discussion boards so agents can easily ask each other quick questions when they face unusual customer issues. Just remember that contact center managers play a critical role here by reinforcing these collaborative agent behaviors.

Conclusion

We’ve just discussed the value of workforce management tools, the importance of appropriate metrics, and various different types of contact center environments. In the next unit, we explore the issues faced by today’s distributed multisite contact centers, particularly the use of temporary agents and the increased use of remote agents. 

Resources