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Your Company’s Work Environment Can Harm Customer Service Rep Performance

Developing high-performing contact center reps depends on creating a work environment that gives them more freedom and responsibility world of customer service has changed a lot in the past decade. Customers increasingly want personalized, tailored service and only tend to speak to reps when they have more complex issues that can’t be resolved by an automated voice or online (see here for more on how customer service has changed). It’s no surprise that the complexity of an average customer service phone call has skyrocketed as a result.

This shift in customer service expectations and complexity of any live conversation with a customer means that reps must be able to exercise their own judgement more and require a much higher degree of autonomy and flexibility in their role. Simply reading answers from a script won’t cut it in a world where customer requests are increasingly unique or don’t have a black-and-white answer. But customer service managers are wary of the cost, the legal risk, and the harm to customer experience that might come from trusting their reps to make so many of their own decisions.

This can create situations where reps often do not have enough room to adapt to unique customer situations and are left with a frustrated customer to whom they have to explain that their hands are tied – they’d love to help but they can’t. This will wear down anyone – including the customer service rep and the customer.

Contact Centers Need to Trust Customer Service Reps

CEB research identified a set of skills, which it calls the “control quotient” (CQ) and which describes a rep’s ability to maintain control over themselves, their customers and the service interaction as well as respond to any emotionally challenging customer interaction. After testing it alongside other rep traits such as their emotional intelligence (or EQ) and their IQ, CEB’s work shows that a high CQ actually leads to the greatest boost in rep performance.

Reps with a high CQ are able to to see the bigger picture. This allows them to stay one step ahead in the conversation to guide the customer to the best solution. It also helps them not take negative feedback or a tough call to heart, or let those situations affect the next call they take. High CQ reps are:

  • Resilient and calm in the face of demanding customers.
  • Able to take deliberate ownership of a conversation at all times.
  • Responsible and respond well to constructive criticism.
  • Able to avoid “burn out” in what can be a high-stress job.

In fact a high CQ gives reps a performance boost of 11.2% (based on quality, customer satisfaction and productivity scores) while also improving their willingness to work harder and their intent to stay in the job, all of which are critical measures of rep engagement.

The Importance of Environment

But developing CQ in service reps is easier said than done. Some of it just can’t be done with training or coaching; for example, it is impossible to coach reps to be more resilient or take on more responsibility. CEB also found that while most reps have CQ “potential”, only a few leading companies see that potential manifest into the right behavior from their reps.

What’s needed is a different approach to rep development – one that considers the overall work environment of the rep. Frontline reps’ CQ is largely dependent on the type of environment they work in.

For instance, when asked why they like their jobs, reps with a low CQ mainly cite “transactional” reasons such as a paycheck, flexible schedule, and so on. On the other hand, reps with a high CQ almost always mention their work environment – that they are allowed, or even expected – to take a position of responsibility and are trusted to get the job done in a way that balances the customer and company needs.

Customer service teams that demonstrate trust in reps, and allow for flexibility and freedom in working schedules, see a far higher CQ among their reps.

Creating the High CQ Environment

The traditional contact center model, based on a set format for live customer interactions and regimented rep metrics (such as “average call handle time” (AHT)) inadvertently creates a low CQ environment. Customer service managers should look beyond just building up the right capabilities in their reps, and overhaul the management of the contact center itself.

To do this, customer service managers should take a three-pronged approach to create a work environment that enables reps to reach their CQ potential.

  1. Create a strong rep support network: Companies can encourage reps to support one another by supplementing existing training methods with peer coaching. This will decrease the burden on supervisors while also encouraging reps to seek advice from their peers.

    When creating this network, it’s crucial to share lessons learned when things don’t go to plan as well as traditional best practices. It’s important to learn from others’ mistakes and know that the company is open to this type of sharing, and helps to embed this behavior in reps’ day-to-day work.

  2. Demonstrate trust in rep decision making: One of the best ways to demonstrate trust is to give reps greater ownership over their customer interactions. Reps must be trained to eliminate the checklist mentality, which is based on a static set of criteria and can’t be applied in all customer interactions. They should also eliminate the “handle time” approach, which focuses on keeping calls short rather than fully answering a customer’s questions. In short, reps should focus on the customer, not the checklist or the clock.

    But that doesn’t mean that all efficiency and consistency needs to go out the window. Managers should set suitable boundaries, give reps the discretion needed to treat each customer interaction as unique, and spend time coaching any reps that have difficulty staying within that framework.

    This model allows reps enough freedom to meet unique customer needs, but ensures consistency and efficiency. CEB research shows that, although calls might sometimes be a little longer (but certainly not always) things like escalations (passing issues up to a manager), calling customers back, or making them switch channel (from phone back to a website, say) are reduced, so overall cost is lower. It’s worthwhile taking a longer-term view of customer service metrics than things like average handle time.

  3. Align reps to common goals: While service managers are striving to meet strategic goals, contact center reps often don’t understand how they fit into those larger goals and their work can end up feeling as if it is of scant importance to the firm. This leads reps to do the bare minimum to get by.

    Senior managers should provide opportunities for reps to understand how their job supports overall goals and how it is critical to helping the company hit corporate strategic goals. Reps should be given the chance to become aware of the role his or her work plays, and then reinforce that role in the day-to-day work of the rep.

These three steps to creating the right work environment not only combine to help customer service reps be more effective, but also depend on one another to be successful. For example, without demonstrated trust in rep judgment, support from other reps wouldn’t be nearly as helpful because there wouldn’t be any judgment-type calls on which that support was needed.

Instead, reps may complain that their jobs don’t enable them to help customers enough, which can harm team morale and engagement. Companies should work on these three components together to change the environment of the contact center so that reps feel supported and expected to work together to provide excellent customer service experiences that also balance the needs of the company.

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