People Management

Empowered Agents : How Much Power Works For You?

Eric Berg, Doherty Customer Contact Solutions
Eric Berg, Doherty Customer Contact Solutions

Over the years I have heard, and even have preached, that empowered agents provide better customer experiences. But how much “power” do your agents need to maximize satisfaction while not giving away your company?

To determine the extent of control you want to provide your agents, you must first understand the cost of losing a customer versus the cost of doing whatever it takes to make them happy, in addition to the percentage of returning customers.

For instance, empowerment may be a risk to your business if:
A)        Your product line is low margin with high cost and virtually no repeat business. Giving refunds or discounts can cause immediate and significant losses, while not really adding to the long-term growth of your company. In this case, it seems fairly easy to set policies for customer satisfaction and stick to your guns.

B)        Your industry is highly regulated or requires specific policies for compliance, and strict scripts and policies are a liability protection for your organization. Empowering your employees to deviate from policies in these situations can result in significant costs, liability and damages.
In most cases, though, your business stands to gain from empowered employees. Does the following best describe your organization?

C)        Your company provides a service or product to consumers or businesses and relies on repeat business and a strong brand to grow.
If “C” fits your business, then employee empowerment will help you to amplify customer satisfaction and growth.

Training + Empowerment = Satisfied Customers
When I was younger (in the olden times), if Ihad a bad experience at a company, I would tell my friends and they would tell their friends, and a hundred people would hear the story. Today, social media has significantly changed the way customers are educated about a brand or an organization, and the way its customers are treated. If a customer has a poor experience, they simply post it to Facebook, tweet about it, upload a video, or share it on other social media. Then their connections share it and share it and share it. The next thing you know, you have a viral message about poor service at your company. For an example, search YouTube for American Airlines Poor Customer Service Call. So far, over 7,000 people have viewed the video, and I’ve just passed it on to all of you.

In this particular case, the agent was not appropriately trained and did not have—or did not use—the authority needed to satisfy this customer. Had the agent been aware of the partner airlines and what could be done to make this customer happy, the outcome may have been a very happy customer willing to spread the word that American Airlines provides exceptional service. Instead, you have a highly visible complaint that will sit forever on YouTube, drawing viewers like flies.

Provide Tools, Not Just Templates
Many contact centers spend countless hours creating scripts, changing scripts, modifying scripts, rewriting scripts and pushing out new scripts to agents, only to find that the scripts are actually adding to the frustration of both the customer and the agent. The problem is that customers don’t read scripts, and neither should your agents.

Have you ever contacted a company with a unique problem and the service rep responded with an obviously scripted answer that had nothing to do with your issue? As you may have experienced first-hand, people who feel as though they haven’t been heard become frustrated very quickly.

Every call center should periodically review customer interactions to determine whether scripting or a knowledge base solution is better for your organization. In many cases, providing agents with the training to find answers—and allowing them to go off script as needed—will show a dramatic increase in customer satisfaction. When a customer presents a problem with no scripted answer, the agent can use a searchable knowledge base to find it, rather than parroting a scripted non-answer that leaves the customer unsatisfied.

With a knowledge base solution, it’s critical that agents possess strong listening and problem-solving skills so that they can conduct searches that correlate with the problem the customer is experiencing. When the response doesn’t match the problem, it’s usually due to a lack of careful listening on the agent’s part. Once the agent understands the issue, searching for a solution should be as simple as typing and reading.

What About “That Guy”?
We’ve all encountered customers who are simply not going to be happy until they get something for free, or get their money back. In these situations, a well-prepared agent can provide solutions that don’t undermine the success of the company.

It’s a common fear that, if agents are given too much authority, they will “give away the farm” and compromise an organization’s cost containment. This is an issue that can be solved by training agents to be active listeners and providing them with a range of options to deal with the situation. Often, unreasonable demands can be derailed when the customer is presented with a choice of appropriate remunerations.

This is actually a tactic that is backed up by neuroscience. Expressing and processing anger is considered a function of the limbic system within our brains. An agent handling an angry customer should ask factual questions that engage the prefrontal cortex—the brain’s executive center—and ask the customer to choose between two or more resolutions to the problem that they’re having. Asking questions and listening to the answers sends a powerful message from the agent to the customer: Your thoughts and experience are important. Offering a choice sends another message: Your personal preferences matter to us. And, there are limits.

Encountering angry customers is stressful and unpleasant for agents, especially for agents who are natural pleasers. If you make sure that they have well-developed tools and training to defuse these situations—and to potentially turn them into positive interactions—their job satisfaction, your customer satisfaction, and your employee retention rates will all benefit.

Going Viral for Good
Many companies are finding out that social media is not just for upset customers. If you’re doing a lot of things right, you have evangelists  voluntary advocates for your brand who actively spread the word about your great performance, on your behalf. You can find out who your brand evangelists are through survey results, social media listening, Google searches for chat about your organization, and the combined knowledge of your agents.

When you find a willing evangelist, express your appreciation for their business and their loyalty, and then ask them to participate in a testimonial video or other endorsement. To avoid the sense that you’re buying their testimony, don’t offer a gift up front, but feel free to send a small token of thanks—a gift card or discount coupon, for example—after the endorsement is posted. And, of course, don’t forget to thank them profusely. You may be surprised by how many of your customers are more than happy to take a moment to post a positive experience just out of good will.

Your testimonial program can become another way to empower your agents. Ask them to use their best judgment to solicit happy customers for their feedback and endorsements. Always welcome any testimonials that praise an agent by name—and promote these internally and externally to reward a job well-done.

Agent Empowerment Works
Empowerment not only improves customer outcomes, it improves business and employment outcomes, as well. A University of Iowa study (Scott E. Seibert, 2011) found that “workers who feel empowered by their employers have higher morale and are more productive, regardless of their industry, job or even culture.” The study, which investigated 140-plus cases of empowerment research from 1995 to 2011, concluded that “empowerment initiatives can lead to higher job satisfaction, lower turnover and reduced stress among employees. Empowered workers also are more innovative and perform better at their jobs.”

In today’s tightening labor market, a team of satisfied, high-performing, innovative employees is essential to a strong organization. Build your best team—and keep them longer—by empowering them in all possible ways to serve your customers confidently and profitably.

Eric Berg is the Director of Doherty Customer Contact Solutions. An 18-year veteran of the contact center industry, Eric also serves as Treasurer of the Midwest Contact Center Association (MWCCA) and on its Board.

– Reprinted with permission from Contact Center Pipeline,

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