I read recently that computer scientists in Dartmouth, N.H., defined artificial intelligence 66 years ago as “making a machine behave in ways that would be called intelligent if a human were so behaving.” I’m less surprised by the definition and more surprised at the time frame. To think that AI conversations began more than six decades ago! And now, we’re having conversations globally about AI technology replacing human workers. While AI excels at many things, I don’t think it can ever replace the experience of genuine human interaction.
For many today, AI still seems like a new concept and a technology that isn’t easy to harness or isn’t accessible to some industries. In the contact center, we’ve seen advances in AI with chatbots and self-service tools. I’m inundated daily with new AI tools and services that cater to our space.
I may be in the minority here, and I’m certainly not against great technology, but the human touch, not AI, is the real differentiator in the contact center. It reigns supreme, and it’s not something that can be easily replicated through AI. The bottom line: Your contact center agents—the people—are your greatest assets. Here’s how to empower them to perform at their highest level.
Create a Diverse Environment
According to Deloitte, diverse companies enjoy 2.3 times higher cash flow per employee. And Gartner found that inclusive teams improve team performance by up to 30% in high-diversity environments. It’s no surprise that when companies create diverse environments, everyone wins.
Think about a situation you’ve been in where everyone had similar upbringings, experiences and education. Did you learn in that environment? The answer is likely no. When we surround ourselves with people who have different experiences, cultures and beliefs, we tend to learn more and embrace different schools of thought. When you’re dealing with a contact center, there’s no telling who may be on the other end of an interaction. Chances are slim that it’s a person who is just like your agent who is handling the experience.
When we foster agents in a diverse environment where they’re able to learn and grow from their colleagues, their interactions with others will likely be more meaningful. A contact center agent must be a chameleon—able to have insightful conversations with anyone. This is tough to do if you aren’t constantly giving your agents an environment in which to learn and grow.
Many people believe that empathy is something you either have or you don’t. But this isn’t entirely true. Empathy can be learned, but it requires time and effort to cultivate.
If the last 16 months have taught us anything, it’s that empathy is needed in the workplace. Just like diversity, empathy is going to help your contact center agents better connect with whoever is on the other end of their interactions. During the pandemic, for instance, an outreach call to someone would have fallen flat if the message was aimed entirely at making a sale and not about relating to the shared global experience and expressing empathy for that person’s situation.
While it’s true that some people are naturally more empathetic than others, businesses can do their part to teach and foster empathy in their teams:
- Gone are the days when talking about our feelings is frowned upon in the workplace. Normalize talking about empathy: what it means and why it matters.
- Teach active listening skills. As a rule, it’s always better to talk less and listen more. Active listening goes a step further and refers to a pattern of listening that keeps you engaged with your conversation partner in a positive way while withholding judgment and advice.
- Cultivate compassion. From the top down, show your team that compassion matters. Live and breathe your company’s core values and show support for those who do this well.
Make Learning and Training a Top Priority
Once you have your diverse, empathetic team in place, you must ensure that you’re arming them with every tool they need to be successful. This means investing in learning, development and training.
When your contact center agents make a human connection, they need to have a meaningful business conversation. If you’re not hiring agents who have a significant amount of business experience or knowledge, it’s your job to get them up to speed. And the good news is, they likely want to learn. According to research from Middlesex University, 74% of workers feel they aren’t achieving their full potential at work because of a lack of development opportunities.
It’s important first to address what knowledge gaps you have and develop training that’s tailored to those areas. Otherwise, you may end up wasting time and money by deploying a “one-size-fits-all” type of training program.
I’m also a big fan of allowing agents to upskill each other. Give them time to share experiences with one another and trade strategies. Being a contact center agent isn’t for everyone, so when you find success, allow those leaders to step up and share what works.
Focus More on Meaningful Connections Rather Than Numbers
When you bring these areas into focus, the results will come. So, I implore you: Don’t focus on KPIs at the expense of everything else. The most successful workplace cultures are both metrics- and mission-driven. Don’t get me wrong, KPIs are extremely important, but focusing on achieving a number rather than executing a behavior is significantly less productive in the long term. And performing under constant stress and pressure isn’t healthy for anyone.
Get rid of outdated “dialing for dollars” mentalities and encourage your agents to make meaningful connections instead. These are the moments that will stand out later to a business professional who may need your services down the road. They’ll remember the experience they had with your agent, and they’ll reach out to get another meaningful conversation started.