Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. You’re waiting on the phone to connect with a customer service agent. Once you connect, you describe your problem, only to get bumped to the next service agent…who then bumps you on to the next service agent.
After you finally get your answer, you look at the clock, wondering “did it really need to take that long?” “Did you really need to talk to that many people?” And “did you really need to explain your issue that many times?”
There’s a good reason this story resonates with so many of us. Whether we’re calling about a computer problem, a phone plan, a banking request, or any other number of questions, we’re getting dropped into a support structure that is as pervasive as it is outdated.
I’m talking, of course, about traditional models of tiered support. And the reason I’m talking about this is simple: there’s a better way that benefits customers, employees, and business operations alike.
Intelligent Swarming: What it Is (and What it Isn’t)
The Intelligent Swarming methodology, developed by the Consortium for Service Innovation, describes a single-level model of support. One where one agent handles one case for one customer, from first call to resolution. It centers on collaboration that leverages the skills and interests of the people on your team to improve customer experience (CX).
Think of it as “playing catch, not ping pong” (a brilliant analogy from Cisco). In a tiered system, cases bounce from agent to agent through upwards of five tiers. The main goal of this system is to minimize the number of cases that make it up the ladder of expertise: in the hopes that lower-level agents can take care of most commonplace or simple problems.
But as problems become complex – which we’re seeing in high-tech and software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers in particular – fewer cases are resolved at that first stage. If only one of three issues gets resolved by Tier 1, and the rest ping-pong their way up the chain, can we really say that’s a successful model?
Customers in a single-level organization, on the other hand, deal with one point of contact who is best suited to handle the problem from the get-go. Should the agent need help, they can tap into their knowledge database or collaborate with subject matter experts (SMEs) to help them resolve the case.
The Intelligent Swarming methodology...describes a single-level model of support...where one agent handles one case for one customer...
To the customer, the process is as frictionless as it is painless. No more frustration from wasted time or repetitive explanations. They simply get the assistance they need, from the best available agent. And happy customers are the ultimate goal.
Intelligent swarming, when done well, requires four key ingredients. They are:
- People profiles that capture agent skills and interests, ideally in a dynamic way.
- A way to route cases to the right agents as they come in.
- A place for agents to collaborate synchronously when they need help.
- A tech stack that supports knowledge management and collaboration, embedded in your workflow.
Now, single-level service is nothing new. Neither is collaboration within customer service teams. But not all approaches are equal within this sphere.
Peer-to-peer collaboration, for instance, encourages agents to ask each other questions, but it’s hard to capture over-the-wall chatter to help solve future issues. And just because someone sits nearby, it doesn’t mean they’re equipped with the best answers. And in remote environments such conversations can’t be readily made unless they are done over personal voice, text, or email.
Forums and Slack channels are important collaboration tools, but they aren’t the be-all end-all, either. Without the right processes in place, you’ll often find the same people participating in collective problem-solving...and the same people sitting on the sidelines.
...single-level service is nothing new. Neither is collaboration within customer service teams...But not all approaches are equal...
Also, don’t forget the noise and disruption that comes with a chat channel where all issues get shared with all team members. And you’ll need a fail-safe in place to make sure that every thread gets addressed: otherwise, if it’s everybody’s responsibility, then it’s nobody’s responsibility.
Behind the Slow and Steady Shift to Swarming
In 2016, 20% of support organizations that benchmarked with the Technology and Services Industry Association (TSIA) were on a single-level support model. More recently, TSIA reported that number is up to 30% among its members. Why the shift? Primarily, it’s a continuing focus on digital transformation.
Driving a complete digital CX is on everybody’s mind. But a few other reasons come to mind why organizations should adopt swarming.
1. The rise of self-service. 81% of all customers attempt to take matters into their own hands before reaching out to a live agent, according to the Harvard Business Review (HBR).
Add to that the capabilities of personalization tools, which can serve up the most relevant – and thereby helpful – information in just one quick search.
That takes the burden of easy-to-answer questions that would typically fall to Tier 1 agents off of contact centers. Which leaves them to tackle the complex or novel issues that self-service isn’t well-suited to address. However, that’s where swarming shines the brightest because the agent who is well-versed in that product or service is addressing the problem. They’re also backed by a team of SMEs if additional help is needed.
2. Customer satisfaction and retention. Both are increasingly seen as important drivers of business success.
If your support process adds friction and frustration, if it’s too complicated to do business with you, if it’s difficult to achieve resolution or they continuously hit a wall, customers can simply opt to do business with someone else.
We’ve seen those behaviors emerge in consumer markets, from retail to streaming services. They’re translating into the B2B world as well. Research shows the flip side is true, however; great customer experience drives over two-thirds of customer loyalty, reports Gartner.
3. Employee satisfaction and retention. Happy employees stick around, too. Swarming gives agents autonomy over the cases they contribute to and opportunities to learn new things by joining swarms that align with their interests. It provides gratification from being identified as an expert within their area of specialty. Then there’s the motivation that comes from being part of a team where everyone learns together while working toward a common goal.
As for operational results, they speak for themselves. TSIA reports improvements in employee satisfaction, voluntary employee attrition, net promoter score, contract renewal rate, and support gross margin.
By making the swarming shift within our own support organization, we’ve seen a 37% improvement in average time to resolve compared to other collaboration models we’ve tried. After launching our machine learning model that learns which SMEs to pull into requests, we’ve seen a further 27% improvement.
And for hybrid/remote teams, resolutions created through swarming supported by intelligent technology are captured and circulated: a tenet of good knowledge management.
Adopting a Swarming Mindset
These benefits may help you build a business case for adopting Intelligent Swarming within your contact center. But when the rubber meets the road, what challenges can you expect to encounter on your transformation journey?
The biggest hurdle, in my experience, is navigating the culture change that’s necessary to make swarming successful.
This change needs to happen at the agent level, breaking down rigid silos between different support levels. Agents at the lower tiers need to become comfortable taking on complex issues; those working in the higher tiers who only deal with a small number of cases need to become comfortable speaking with more customers.
Swarming requires a shift in contact center manager mindsets, too. No longer should they solely focus on telling people what to do, how to do it, and when to get it done.
Instead, leaders act as coaches or facilitators that motivate and inspire their teams. They normalize and even encourage raising a hand and asking for help. Just as importantly, they eschew the “us versus them” mindset that’s so prevalent across teams in favor of collaboration that solves customer problems.
That said, executive sponsors are the make-or-break component of adoption. If those at the top don’t change the way they think about support, the agents and managers aren’t likely to follow through.
The biggest hurdle...is navigating the culture change that’s necessary in making swarming successful.
That means thinking differently about the way you measure contact center success: for example, focusing less on individual handle time in favor of team-wide metrics around CSAT and resolution rates.
Getting Started (Tips From An Insider)
Even though Intelligent Swarming requires a big shift in mindset, you don’t have to make big changes all at once. In fact, a small pilot project is all you need to take your first steps.
It could be as simple as identifying the places in your contact center where you experience the most volume in escalation rates and opening a Slack channel where agents can pick up cases and collaborate on solutions. A small team that has each other’s backs and shares responsibility for the outcomes will be essential to get the ball rolling and establish a proof-of-concept within your organization.
As you expand your swarming approach throughout different areas of your support organization, there are other best practices to keep in mind:
- The metrics you track. While you’ll still want to keep tabs on classic metrics, like how many requests come in and how many get resolved, you’ll also want to track metrics such as how often agents raise their hands for help, how often they step in to help others, and how consistently they update your knowledge database.
- The technology you use. Whatever tools you use for identifying the customer problem, routing people to the best available agent, and collaborating within the team to find the best solution, make sure they’re embedded in the workflow people already use. Artificial intelligence (AI) can help further by easing the manual load of pairing the right agent with the right issue.
- The knowledge you share. Your customers should have access to relevant and helpful information via self-help channels when the problem is relatively easy to solve or commonplace. Likewise, your agents should be able to tap into the depth of knowledge from across your organization to solve more complex issues.
Most importantly, go in with an open mind. Adopting a swarming framework within your contact center is a big change. It can be hard to win over those who are reluctant. My advice: give it a try, start small, and build on top of what works for you.