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Steve Kraus

This is the second in a series of posts on customer experiences in the call center, catch up and read the first post here: Why the Call Center Matters More than Ever

Call centers have a reputation as being difficult places to work, and it’s not unfounded. The call center has long functioned as a kind of employment mill, churning out agents in some cases almost as quickly as it brings them in. Call centers are at high risk of succumbing to conditions described in best-selling author Patrick Lencioni’s book The Three Signs of a Miserable Job: irrelevance, immeasurement and anonymity.

The numbers are shocking. According to ContactBabel’s 2014 US Contact Center Decision-Maker’s Guide, the average rate of agent churn is 33 percent, and that number shoots up to 70 percent in large call centers. By comparison, total turnover across industries in 2014 was about 15 percent, says noted compensation consultant Ann Bares.

Beyond that, the agents who do stick around often lose motivation in their jobs. Gallup data shows that 70 percent of service employees are “disengaged,” meaning they aren’t invested in their jobs and don’t take them very seriously. That’s a problem for brands, where agents are the literal physical manifestation of a company for its customers. A grumpy agent is very unlikely to provide good service.

Why do agents become disenfranchised? For one thing, working in call centers is tough. By the time customers pick up the phone to call a company, they’re often already angry, meaning the agent catches the brunt of the customer’s rage. Customers feel that agents are unable to help them solve their issues, as if agents are just an anonymous, narrated version of the company’s Website. Also, agents and supervisors have a notoriously tense relationship, with supervisors lacking reliable measures of agent performance. Supervisors can only judge agents on a handful of phone calls, often the worst calls in the bunch. Working as an agent can be exhausting and discouraging.

Compounding the problem is that, until recently, call centers couldn’t do much to train and mentor agents to do their jobs more effectively and therefore derive more satisfaction from their work. Data from traditional call-center metrics was insufficient to enable supervisors to provide the guidance agents needed to actively help customers solve problems rather than simply absorb complaints.

Agents had no way to measurably develop the “soft skills” of dynamically reacting to customers on a human level, with empathy and rapport. They simply gave stiff, strictly factual answers to questions, which left customers feeling cold and dissatisfied. The call center became a carousel of misery, with discouraged agents moving in and out frequently and frustrated supervisors unable to help their employers retain customers or build loyalty.

Customers, inevitably, have felt the sting of dysfunctional call centers. Consumer Reports states that the two biggest complaints customers have about service is that they can’t get a person on the phone (75 percent of respondents), and when they finally do, the person is rude or condescending (also 75 percent). Half the time, customers tell Harris Interactive, agents fail to answer their questions. And the number of customers who feel companies always meet their expectations, according to a Harris Interactive survey, is 1 percent. That’s basically nobody.

Of course, this sad situation is costing companies customers … and money, ultimately. The same Harris Interactive survey found that 89 percent of consumers began doing business with a competitor after a poor service experience. And they don’t keep their feelings to themselves. News of bad customer service reaches twice as many ears as praise for good customer service, according to the White House Office of Consumer Affairs via Help Scout.

The good news in all of this gloom is that agents don’t have to be miserable or disengaged. With behavioral signals technology from Cogito, which can provide both in-call speaking guidance and measurable appraisals of soft skills, supervisors can train and mentor agents. And agents, with best-practice guidance from Cogito’s application, can even train themselves to be better at their jobs. The agent-customer relationship must be a memorable partnership, not an antagonistic pairing in which the agent fees irrelevant or anonymous. When the relationship is positive, both agents and customers are more engaged, more satisfied and ultimately more loyal.

Read Part three of this series here: The Call Center: Whats love got to do with it

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