There continues to be many and, if anything, more and expanded ongoing conversations and examinations on how to ensure contact center agent productivity.
For good reason. Today’s business environment is marked with multiple challenges with and concerns about rising costs, labor shortages, changes in how and where we work, and meeting high customer expectations.
In the thick of it are the industry suppliers. So we reached out to them for their insights.
Here they are, Trudy Cannon, Director of GTM Strategy for WFM, Verint; John Finch, Senior Vice President, Solutions & Product Marketing, Dialpad; Taylor Johnson, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Feedback, QM, and Customer Experience Analytics, Talkdesk; and Dana Shalev, Director, Product Marketing, WEM, NICE.
Q. What are you hearing about agent productivity issues and needs from your contact center customers?
There are two key drivers our customers are asking for when it comes to agent productivity: providing customer service representatives with a seamless desktop experience, and intelligent tools that surface the real-time knowledge and in-the-moment coaching. These are the tools that agents need to perform their jobs well.
Work-from-anywhere (WFA) and the acceleration of digital transformation have dramatically changed the contact center landscape. Supervisors can no longer “walk the floor” to understand who might need help.
The influx of digital channels such as chat, text, and social media means that traditional quality evaluations using call recordings capture only a fraction of the work performed by today’s agents.
In addition, each channel has different customer experience (CX) goals and expectations that need to be taken into consideration. For example, handle time on the phone compared to a chat or email will be different. Also, agents are typically not providing customer service in a vacuum. In many cases, a chatbot or someone working in the back office is assisting them simultaneously. A total view of the work is needed to understand an agent’s true productivity results.
To address these factors, contact center managers and supervisors need data-driven ways to assess performance to better coach, motivate, and grow their teams. This is giving rise to agent desktop analytics to bring all the data streams into a single view and produce a total productivity scorecard for each employee.
“The influx of digital channels...means that traditional quality evaluations using call recordings capture only a fraction of the work performed by today’s agents.” —Trudy Cannon
It’s important to also note that you can’t just look at agent productivity without looking at customer satisfaction. An agent can be highly productive but have a low CSAT score. The combination of agent productivity, quality, and CSAT together represent the overall performance of an employee.
Contact center agents are oftentimes the first line of defense when customer issues arise, but historically have faced a number of challenges due to outdated legacy software and fragmented technologies that don’t offer true insights into what the customer is feeling and experiencing.
Our contact center customers typically struggle with high agent turnover, providing agents with the comprehensive training required to properly engage with customers, and a lack of insight into agent performance at the supervisory level. This leads to poor service levels and ultimately, customer and financial loss -- in fact, Forrester’s annual Customer Experience Index found that CX quality fell by 19% - the lowest ever recorded for the survey.
The contact center customers we work with want to ensure their customers are being heard and advocated for. They need a seamless, effortless way to provide the best level of service possible using the channels of the customer’s choice.
In addition, access to experts within the organization, such as billing or accounts payable to solve a more complex issue, is needed. Providing a unified solution that brings together both customer service agents and workers within the company helps solve these issues within the first contact in addition to empowering the agents.
Expert access is not only necessary but access to the right knowledge with the help of artificial intelligence (AI) helps guide agents through the interactions with helpful responses and details to effectively solve cases.
Moreover, traditional methods of aiding contact center productivity, such as agent desktops and headsets, are failing by themselves to provide agents with the tools they need to deliver exceptional customer service in the hybrid work age.
Traditional desktops fundamentally lack the predictive insights that real-time insights are able to provide and will only become increasingly obsolete as AI continues to take hold throughout industries.
We view agent productivity as being under a larger agent engagement umbrella because actively investing in and engaging your workforce directly translates to greater productivity (among other key outcomes, such as reduced operational costs and increased customer satisfaction).
With contact center agent turnover continuing to be astonishingly high, customers are realizing how critical it is to be making the most of the investment in the workforce they’re retaining.
Consequently, we’re hearing from an increasing number of contact centers looking to invest in tools that will improve their agent engagement as a first step in improving their productivity.
When we surveyed over 600 CX professionals across 10 different global markets, we found that 78% of them reported that investing in workforce engagement management (WEM) tools is a priority for their organization. Of this majority, over half reported that the main driver of this investment is specifically to improve agent productivity.
Agent productivity remains a challenge as CX and workforce trends continue to shift. The increased consumer demand for a myriad of capable and intelligent digital touchpoints has driven the need for cross-trained, omnichannel “super” agents to rise to the challenge.
The days of agents only supporting phone calls are long gone as contact centers expand and flex to accommodate chat, text, social media, email, and more to meet their customers anytime and everywhere. But without proper training and support, the push towards digital could contribute to agent burnout, complacency and, in turn, lower agent productivity.
Contact centers are turning to AI as the ultimate guiding light for agents navigating this transition and expanding their skills. An AI-powered contact center can help agents solve customer issues more effectively, initiate chatbot deployment as the first line of defense, and drive intelligent customer-agent personality pairings to ensure successful interactions.
All of which contribute to happier, more productive agents and satisfied, loyal customers. Brands are also seeking out automation to remove loads of mundane tasks and improve accuracy and productivity.
Separately, the rise of the hybrid work model has left many contact centers searching for new, innovative ways to manage their teams and maintain or increase agent productivity cross-channel. Better flexibility in scheduling contributes to productivity when agents work in times more suitable for them and are not forced to work in times they have personal commitments or don’t feel well.
Many agents have reported increased productivity levels amid better work-life balance and enhanced flexibility when working from home (WFH).
Business leaders must then adjust operations to manage a hybrid team effectively to stay productive. Contact centers are turning to AI-powered flexible scheduling to ensure teams are adequately staffed while managing in-office, remote, and hybrid employees.
Q. What are the challenges facing contact centers in striving for productivity and their drivers?
Multiple systems and channels that are supporting the agent across different types of work are causing disparity across productivity scores and results.
In addition, the time it takes for supervisors to manually find the data across platforms and pull them into reports increases operational costs in the contact center. Not to mention that their time is better spent coaching and engaging with employees to elevate quality performance.
With data living everywhere, organizations are infusing automation across their tools and applications to connect data silos and create a single view of employee performance. The ability to automatically capture, analyze, and report on agent productivity improves efficiencies and the experience for employees and managers.
First, digital touchpoints – from chat to IM to social media -- are changing how consumers are interacting with brands, how agents are interacting with customers, and how business leaders are managing their workforces and KPIs.
“Contact centers must enhance resource transparency and allocation, including significant investments in AI-enabled flexible scheduling that can intelligently make schedule adjustments and modifications...” —Dana Shalev
As a result, many employees have been trained across multiple touchpoints; specializing is less common now than it was five years ago. Having to understand different tools and etiquette can lead to a steeper learning curve and, in turn, lower productivity.
Next, contact centers are continuing to see heightened levels of burnout, caused by both internal and external forces. The resulting labor shortage has meant many employees are struggling to pick up the work of others or are turning to “quiet quitting” for better work-life balance.
Contact centers must enhance resource transparency and allocation, including significant investments in AI-enabled flexible scheduling that can intelligently make schedule adjustments and modifications to best match that day’s resources with perceived traffic and volume.
Furthermore, brands must bolster hiring efforts to create well-rounded, supported teams and ensure all agents are pulling their weight and working effectively.
Lastly, remote work has bolstered agent productivity, but weakened workplace culture. Employers must focus on empowering agents and invest heavily in attracting agents with the advanced technical and interpersonal skills they require to address only the most complex issues.
The Criticality of Agent Desktops
How significant are the roles played by agent desktops in agent productivity, and are these changing?
Here is what Trudy Cannon said about them:
“Creating a single agent desktop experience is the most critical piece of agent productivity. A multi-channel and knowledge-based desktop that provides unified access to the applications and information required by employees handling customer cases is a must.
“Combining knowledge management, case management, and channel management technologies into a single platform allows employees to work with customers and cases across a variety of channels, including telephone, email, chat, and mobile. It empowers employees and supports their decision making to help provide differentiated and personalized customer service.
“Most of all, a rich integration environment helps eliminate the time and effort needed to switch between applications that can cause frustration for the employees and delays for the customer.
“Agent desktop solutions provide customer service representatives with a 360-degree view of the customer and all the information relevant to the context of the customer’s interaction (customer’s profile, previous interactions, and the products and services used by the customer).
“These solutions empower the agents to provide highly personalized experiences. In turn, this increases agent productivity by eliminating the time and effort to find the information they need.
Q. Has the productivity conversation changed since before the COVID-19 pandemic and if so, how and why?
The need for a holistic view of employee productivity across multi-work platforms has not changed, but the impact has significantly increased with the influx of digital channels due to the pandemic.
There was a higher percentage of phone interactions pre-pandemic. Today, consumers are using a variety of digital channels to engage with brands.
In addition, when employees started WFH it shifted the way managers and supervisors relied on technology to monitor activity, application usage, and schedule adherence for example.
Implementing virtual walk-around management tools became critical. "Among teams led by coaches who spent more than 60 percent of their time on the contact-center floor, staff-retention rates were twice the average." (McKinsey)
Today, many of those agents now work remotely, which requires equipping coaches with a digital means of understanding who is doing what, when, and discerning if an agent is struggling. The ability to examine desktop activity virtually provides managers with real-time data as opposed to anecdotal observations to drive agent feedback during coaching sessions.
In addition, most quality management (QM) programs focus on the internal processes and customer interactions, whether that’s an in-person or phone conversation, or written dialog between customer and agent or chatbot.
But that’s only part of the interaction. There’s also the interaction the agent or chatbot has with your company’s systems. Examining desktop activity can provide supervisors with a host of insights:
- Are there common mistakes that might point to a training or programming issue?
- Are agents skipping compliance steps to improve or reduce their handle times?
- Are there opportunities to automate tedious, repetitive tasks agents currently perform?
Pairing desktop activity with customer interaction data creates a more holistic picture and can uncover ways to improve both the customer and agent experiences.
The need for agents to be more productive isn’t a novel idea — contact centers for decades have wanted to get the most from their workforce investment. However, the context of the agent productivity conversation has drastically changed since the pandemic.
As agents left the office and were forced to WFH many companies quickly realized they lacked the technology infrastructure needed to support these agents outside of the confines of the physical contact center.
Additionally, as customers’ lives were equally upended, their expectations quickly shifted to an always-on, personalized service approach amidst the chaos of the pandemic. Things like flight cancellations, product returns, troubleshooting, or even sensitive customer service calls to financial institutions quickly became overwhelming for even some of the most advanced contact centers and their agents.
The question behind agent productivity shifted from “how can we get our agents to do more in their day?” to “how can we free agents from focusing on repetitive tasks or inquiries and empower them to be more productive by fielding higher priority, higher value service engagements?”
“... the context of the agent productivity conversation has drastically changed since the pandemic.” —Taylor Johnson
To address this new approach to agent productivity, we’ve seen significant interest and adoption of cloud contact center as a service (CCaaS) technologies to exceed customer expectations and satisfy this new way of working for agents.
Among other benefits, strong CCaaS solutions unifies all the communication channels, tools, and data that agents need on a “single pane of glass,” providing streamlined workflows and rich customer context that empowers them to work more efficiently and effectively.
WFH and Productivity
Some three years have now passed since contact centers, along with other business functions, had to rapidly implement WFH in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
So, is WFH permanent? And what impacts does it actually have on agent productivity? And how have contact centers responded?
Also, what effect, if any, did supplying WFH agents with computers or permitting them to use their own machines have on productivity and on the employee experience?
It’s unlikely that organizations are going to shift their employees completely back to the office. We’re seeing that the large majority are taking a hybrid approach. Employees can WFH and/or come into the office a couple days a week. This is a trend that is here to stay.
With WFH, managers need to lean heavily into technology to help monitor and enhance productivity and adherence.
Organizations now need virtual tools to understand when employees are scheduled to work, are they in fact actually working, and are they taking breaks and lunches at the right time, and for the right length of time?
We will continue to see companies leveraging desktop activity tools to help managers virtually monitor agent productivity to drive effective QM and coaching programs.
“It’s unlikely that organizations are going to shift their employees completely back to the office.” —Trudy Cannon
The employee experience is driven by the tools and technology placed on the computer by the company, so whether it is a company-supplied or personal laptop should not impact productivity.
If the company supplies the desktop technology, the experience should feel the same, whether an employee is in the office or logging into the desktop application remotely. And there are no privacy or intellectual property concerns because employees are logging in via a VPN, for instance.
The biggest challenge with company-supplied computers is when an employee is terminated or leaves the organization as there can be issues with logistics for equipment retrieval.
There’s no hard and fast answer as to whether WFH is permanent. Over the course of the past couple of years, we’ve seen many customers implement a WFH policy and then update or revise it accordingly based on public health conditions.
As we start to see more stability and a gradual return to normalcy, most companies plan to offer flexibility through a hybrid work model.
61% of CX professionals we spoke with in our survey say they plan to use a hybrid working model in their contact center, giving agents the flexibility to split their time between home and the office. 36% will adopt a fully on-site model while only 4% plan to leverage a fully remote model in the long-term.
For those businesses that are planning on or have already been following the fully remote approach, research has shown this model does generally produce positive results, however, exact findings tend to differ from study to study.
One of the most recent studies from researchers at Stanford University, the University of Chicago, and the Mexico Autonomous Institute of Technology concluded “remote work will increase overall worker productivity in the US by 5 percent as compared with the pre-pandemic economy.”
There also isn’t a right or wrong approach, as it depends on the nature of the business and customers it serves.
Fully remote or hybrid models offer significantly more flexibility to agents and give businesses access to a greater talent pool that covers a broad geographic area without the costly investment in physical office space. An exclusively in-office model offers benefits like greater security in a highly compliance-driven environment and higher-quality team engagement.
Regardless of where agents are working, the most important way to ensure productivity is by equipping them with the right tools that enable collaboration, promote engagement, and boost efficiency.
Q. Have there been any changes in the metrics measuring and tracking agent productivity and if so, what are they and what factors are prompting these moves?
The traditional metrics to measure productivity have not changed, but with WFH, tracking application usage is helpful to understand and improve agent performance.
In today’s WFH environment, insights into capacity is a metric contact centers are seeking the most. Desktop analytics solutions give contact center managers objective, real-time data on employee application usage. This activity data helps them understand how their employees are performing across all channels and locations, including WFA employees.
These virtual agent desktop tools can:
- Help identify whether agents are using correct applications in response to customer queries.
- Indicate if agents are struggling and need coaching to improve performance.
- Signal if there are opportunities to reduce downtime and increase productivity and capacity.
These solutions sit unobtrusively on the employees’ desktops and captures high-level activity. This information is grouped into predefined categories, such as customer/production-related, non-production, idle, and inactive time.
Managers can compare time spent in these application groupings against peers and team goals. The data quickly shows agents who are falling behind so managers can make corrections as needed, helping improve productivity and the CX.
The shift towards more digital touchpoints is impacting the metrics to measure performance and productivity.
Traditional AHT is no longer relevant in the asynchronous nature of interactions. This also applies to other parameters such as first response time (FRT).
New metrics will have to rise to the expectations of the new digital era. Conversations around this have started, but the traditional KPIs are still very dominant.
Adherence, comparing schedule activity to actual activity, has been a higher priority metric since moving to hybrid and remote work models. Remote monitoring of real-time adherence (RTA) and historical adherence has increased to promote agent productivity and support agent success, even when they’re not in the office.
Many contact centers are still facing labor shortages, which limit resources and can impact agent productivity. Managers realize that it’s imperative to make sure their agents are operating at targeted capacity and utilization to promote better customer satisfaction (CSAT) scores, lower wait and interaction times, and balance the workload evenly amongst staff.
By better measuring and tracking adherence, managers can more easily allocate workload and address productivity and burnout issues before they permeate, creating a more productive, focused, and satisfied team.
Q. What methods and tools do you see contact centers adopting to enable greater agent productivity and why?
Providing a single desktop experience for the agent and giving managers the ability to measure and track desktop activity will have the greatest impact on improving agent productivity in the contact center.
With desktop analytics, managers now have real-time data versus anecdotal observations to drive agent feedback during coaching sessions. They can use this data to help agents focus on the right activities to improve productivity and capacity.
By understanding how agents use applications during interactions, managers can correct behaviors and identify and share best practices across teams.
And when paired with other workforce engagement solutions, organizations can further improve employee performance, compliance, and productivity. For example, managers can program automated alerts based on employee desktop activity. If an agent opens a screen or account file outside their scope of work, they and their manager can get an alert of non-compliant behavior for immediate correction.
Desktop activity data can be used to verify schedule adherence and facilitate reconciliation of hours worked. In addition, application data can be leveraged to provide real-time guidance on the next step or action to take.
In today’s WFH environment, insights into capacity is a metric contact centers are seeking the most. Uncovering hidden capacity via desktop experience solutions enables companies to reduce overtime and offer voluntary time off, among other employee benefits.
It also levels the playing field from a coaching perspective. Knowing that the feedback agents receive in their coaching is based on actual activity data, and that everyone else on the team is being assessed on the same data, goes a long way to building trust between agents and supervisors.
They can have more constructive discussions on how to change behaviors based on the data versus disputing manager observations or potentially biased opinions.
Contact centers have typically been perceived as being “cost centers,” but AI-powered customer intelligence is shifting this narrative and transforming the contact center into a profit center that has the power to drive increased ROI for companies.
“AI is also driving productivity with AI-powered CSAT scores that help manage agents' performance in real-time...” —John Finch
Leveraging the most cutting-edge AI modernizes contact center practices, making connecting with customers and understanding their needs easier. Adapting technology that houses all the necessary communication tools on a single, unified platform will lead to better performance and in turn, better results, thanks to features such as real-time coaching and transcription along with sentiment analysis.
Having these tools readily available allows agents to analyze conversations as they’re happening and if necessary, call for reinforcements, while also providing recommendations to help the agent sell more.
A platform that uses industry-leading AI to automatically transcribe dialog removes unnecessary pressure on the agent to take copious notes during each call. Referencing these transcripts helps agents grow in their role and become better communicators by supplying them with real-time insights.
AI is also driving productivity with AI-powered CSAT scores that help manage agents’ performance in real-time like never before. Immediate coaching recommendations to agents and supervisors on low CSAT scores, along with the help from AI for real-time agent assist, are being used successfully by contact center customers today.
As hybrid work further solidifies and workforces become more distributed, contact center teams should equip themselves with AI-enabled unified communications platforms and tools to help agents meet customer demands.
AI is really a game-changer, revolutionizing the contact center experience with the power to guide agents toward higher levels of customer satisfaction.
There is a direct correlation between strong agent engagement and agent productivity, which is one of the driving factors behind why contact centers are investing in WEM tools.
Here is a five-point approach to addressing agent engagement and promoting productivity using a variety of WEM tools that customers are employing today. They’re using:
- Workforce management (WFM) tools to plan, staff, and schedule efficiently to meet CX goals while providing agents with flexibility and support.
- AI-powered QM tools to detect CX issues and opportunities for improvement at scale with automation and accessible insights.
- QM tools to help investigate the root causes of poor performance at the agent, team, queue, and organization level.
- Performance management tools to engage agents with targeted schedule adjustments, coaching, gamification, and social recognition.
- Customer and agent feedback tools to measure and track the impact on CX, agent performance, and operational efficiency.
There are also tools outside of the traditional WEM suite that play an equally important role in promoting agent productivity, many of which rely on AI.
AI-powered agent assistants provide real-time call transcriptions, contextualized quick answers, next-best action recommendations, and automated pre-call, on-call, and post-call work to free up agent time and make them more efficient in live interactions.
AI-powered virtual agents instantly respond to every customer query at any time of day using Conversational AI technology, freeing up agent time and allowing them to be more productive with higher priority customer needs.
Contact centers will seek out better WFM software that supports on-site, hybrid, and remote team members, providing greater flexibility and bolstering employee satisfaction.
New-age WFM software will provide more detailed insights into RTA and historical adherence as contact centers continue to battle scheduling challenges, enable staff management, and support an evolving workforce while setting agents up for productive and successful interactions.
One critical tool to accomplish this is AI, which can quickly analyze data to provide the most accurate forecasts. AI can identify patterns of activity to predict when staffing fluctuations require scheduling adjustments. Therefore, business leaders have access to constantly updated forecasts, while being able to incorporate business rules and employee scheduling preferences.
“Contact centers will seek out better WFM software that supports on-site, hybrid, and remote team members...” —Dana Shalev
And, as agents report unplanned absences, automated systems can instantly forecast net staffing shortages and promote resulting shift openings to the right agents, avoiding overtime and targeting those most likely to opt-in based on their self-selected preferences.
Automation is another method to optimize the employee experience. An AI-powered discovery tool can identify areas ripe for process optimization and employee training and offer actionable automation opportunities to achieve this. This not only frees up employees’ time to accomplish more productive tasks but can also help them achieve their KPIs and thus enable greater agent productivity.