5 Surprising Ways to Improve Contact Center Performance

When it comes to delivering an outstanding customer experience (CX), the table stakes are obvious: robust technologies, detailed insights and well-trained staff. But there are a few less-obvious ways to make a good contact center operation great. And they all start with your CX employees.

During Customer Contact Week Nashville 2022, several speakers shared unique insights on how to improve contact center performance. Many of their recommendations stressed that the agent experience deserves more attention, especially as employee expectations rise and the war for talent wages on.

Here are five ways focusing on CX agents will boost your overall contact center performance.

1. Hire Self-Starters, Not Emotives

“The type of talent we need is different than who we have,” said Nicole Kyle, Managing Director, Research, at Customer Management Practice (CMP), during her session “Retaining and Engaging Agents in an Increasingly Complex and Distributed World.”

As environments and customer expectations change, different attributes and work styles become more — or less — appropriate. Kyle revealed findings from CMP research that examines five agent personas: emotive, fundamentalist, opportunist, self-starter and time manager.

The research found that 29% of self-starters exceeded expectations in their last performance reviews. This was notably higher than fundamentalists (20%), time managers (19%) and opportunists (18%). Emotives lagged at 15%.

But you need a well-rounded team to deliver great customer experiences. Customers expect empathy and want to be listened to and understood in service interactions. Hiring for this trait is essential across all personas — and so is training to improve how it’s expressed.

But don’t go into hiring with unrealistic expectations when it comes to service professionals’ skills, cautioned Will Lombardi, VP of Service and Operations for Northwestern Mutual. There’s no “Jedi” service professional, he said during his session “Empowering the Customer Service Professional of the Future.” His advice: Go after the best talent. Retain them by focusing on and supporting them. And give them the tools they need to do their jobs.

2. Adopt a Growth Mindset

Most contact centers operate with a remedial mindset, said Marcus Buckingham, a best-selling author, motivational speaker and co-creator of the Gallup Organization StrengthsFinder tool.

Customer service supervisors spend a lot of time and energy fixing agent performance issues. Some of these issues are skills-based and can be corrected with additional training. Others are focused on what he called “areas of opportunity.” Often these coaching opportunities lead to frustration — not growth.

“You can’t fix your way to thriving and flourishing,” said Buckingham during his keynote. “You have to focus on strengths.”

Buckingham recommends creating a workplace that recognizes and supports each employee’s unique strengths. That doesn’t mean ignoring challenges. It means calling people out for doing the right thing, offering career planning based on employees’ aptitudes and talents, and continually coaching and training in areas where CX employees excel.

“It’s not just having a career growth path; it’s having the right one — and today it’s having a new one,” said Kyle, adding that only about half of contact center agents are satisfied with the training and education opportunities they receive.

But a recent Valuegraphics report found that what agents enjoy most about their jobs is the opportunity to learn new skills and new technologies.

“The velocity of technology change is putting pressure on contact center staff…. They want to do their best, [so CX leaders] need to keep them trained up,” added Lombardi.

3. Simplify with AI

Much of the conversation around artificial intelligence (AI) in the customer experience focuses on using the technology to deflect customer interactions from reaching agents. It’s time to talk about using AI to arm agents with information they need to better serve customers while improving their own experiences.

“The real advantage we’ll see over the next 10 year is the pairing of AI and people to make both more effective,” said Philip Bennett, Customer Service Operations Manager for Empire-Today, during his session, “Leveraging Next-Generation Technology to Improve the Customer Journey.”

Currently, 23% of organizations are using AI-based coaching and training recommendations; and 70% plan to implement this over the next one to two years. Similarly, one-third are using AI-based performance monitoring and evaluation and another 60% plan to implement it within two years.

“If agents can do their job better, they’ll be more satisfied,” said Bennett. And that leads to employee retention, he added.

4. Trust Employees with Autonomy

Many contact centers have a reputation for narrowly focusing on schedule adherence, handle time and detailed scripts. This restrictive approach might not work for those entering or reentering the workforce today.

In fact, the positive impact on agent retention is when managers have and provide autonomy, according to the CMP research.

Autonomy isn’t just about loosening the reins when it comes to handle time and scripts. It’s also about trusting CX employees to work remotely. The study found that 39% of agents would choose to work fully remotely; 44% would prefer a hybrid schedule.

But 60% of contact center managers said working from home introduces more management complexities. Plus, managers and agents need to overcome a trust gap. Currently, 58% of CX managers say they trust agents working from home versus onsite. Fifty-four percent say they can reach agents as easily when they’re working from home as when they’re on site.

Additionally, about half of CX leaders say they’re concerned that hybrid and remote work will lead to lower productivity and inconsistent or worse customer experiences, according to research from MIT Technology Review Insights.

And half of agents polled by CMP admit they’re not as comfortable working from home as they are in the office. Only 58% say their company is effective at meeting their work-from-home needs.

Kyle also pointed out that agents’ attitudes toward flexibility align with who they are as people. The top reasons agents value flexibility are personal comfort (51%) and saving money (50%).

5. Build Excellence in CX with Love

“If you study excellence in anything, there’s always love involved,” said Buckingham. When it comes to work, you’ll hear employees say, “I love this about my job.”

Companies can define loveless jobs and job descriptions, he added. “But if you study people who excel at their job, you’ll find love in it.”

Even so, no one will love every aspect of their job. Buckingham said that most people love about 20% of their job. Less than that and employees will burn out.

CX leaders who want to engage employees and help them to be their best selves at work need to help them find what they love about their roles.

Buckingham shared three clues to love:

  • Activities you find yourself looking forward to
  • When doing something you love, time passes quickly
  • When you’re done with an activity, you’re not drained – you’re invigorated

“If you have unhappy employees, they can’t give the best of themselves to customers,” he said. “If you want to attract the best people, you’ve got to start with love.”

Love equals growth, said Buckingham. And employees grow the most when they do an activity they love. That’s when they’re open to more information; they’re more innovative and collaborative.

It may feel uncomfortable, but it’s time to loosen the reins and show CX employees more trust. To do this, customer experience leaders need to hire and nurture self-starters who love to help customers solve problems and learn about opportunities. They also must support employees in their career growth and strengthen innate abilities.

CX leaders who do this will build a high-performing contact center that not only attracts the best employees, but also delivers outstanding customer experiences.