We have all heard of The Great Resignation to describe agents quitting in droves spurred on by the COVID-19 pandemic. And while it makes sense, I have worked daily with many call centers from long before the pandemic up to today, and I have witnessed no such resignation. I have instead seen increased hiring and little attrition or turnover.
From what I see, The Great Surrender is a far more significant concern for the call center industry. What is The Great Surrender?
It is the industry’s collective throwing up of the hands regarding agent customer service training and management. And with it, the sweeping under the rug of agent customer service concerns altogether. From my perspective, a significant portion of today’s call center industry has essentially given up on the idea of agent customer service as a seriously manageable entity. The negative effect on the industry has been significant.
We have all heard of The Great Resignation...[But] I have witnessed no such resignation.
As an example of this sentiment, I attended a healthcare call center conference roundtable. After a while, I brought up customer service, and a call center manager attendee said, “Customer service is like a dirty word in our industry, and everyone knows it! No one brings it up because nobody knows how to manage it. Everyone hates dealing with it!” The other attendees, all call center managers, casually laughed and agreed, quickly changing the subject.
Neglect, Misguided Ideas, and Approaches
This not uncommon type of sentiment has led to the neglect of what defines the quality of the call center product (customer service) and the acceptance of misguided ideas and approaches.
The first is that agents are to blame. Their generation is different. They are more demanding of their work environment to be happy. They will quit at the drop of a hat. They need digital games to stay interested, and so it goes.
But I work daily with hundreds of agents from many organizations and have done so for decades. Regarding their ability and willingness to provide quality service, today’s agents are the same as they have always been. Poor training is the only thing to blame.
Second, digital channels are the answer, and agents should be replaced wherever possible. But while I agree that chat and the like can replace some functions in some call centers, I currently work with many call centers daily, and each time replacing agents with a digital option has been tried, it has failed. The idea that digital channels can replace agents is overrated, overhyped, and overpromised.
A recent study surveyed 224 professionals with multichannel call centers and concluded that roughly 70% of their volume is voice (agents) and 30% is digital channels combined. These numbers have not changed since the survey began in 2014. This annual survey includes only multichannel call centers, while most call centers are voice only. The 70% figure is undoubtedly higher when considering the entire industry.
Thirdly is what could be called The Great Denial. This is the collective ignoring of the problem as the roundtable attendee so eloquently described. Lower-skilled and misbehaving agents who offer poor customer service are prevalent throughout our industry. It is, in my opinion, the most significant challenge facing the industry. I follow industry discourse closely, and no one ever mentions it.
Pundits and experts may offer ideas on improving agent service performance, but poor agent service, something for which so-called improvement can provide no remedy (such agents require a complete transformation), is never acknowledged even to exist.
It is claimed that customers have become more dissatisfied with service, but never due to poor agent service. Instead, it is said to be caused by evolving customer needs. But customer needs regarding engagement with a call center agent remain precisely as they have always been. Poor agent service is the problem, and it is rampant.
This Great Denial has also led to a false narrative I call Every Agent Is Good. The premise is that every agent is pretty good on the phone, that none are bad, and all that is needed is to make them a little better, to improve them perhaps. This allows managers like the roundtable attendees to pretend their agents are performing acceptably even when consistently offering unacceptably poor customer service, a familiar managerial dynamic throughout our industry.
It also allows pundits and experts to sidestep our industry’s most critical issue, and in the process, poor agent service has been relegated to irrelevance. This has led to the emergence of ideas and products that have moved the industry away from its essence and from what is most important to its success.
Lastly, a common refrain of The Great Surrender is that customer service is too subjective or loosely definable to manage in a manner that can ensure absolute excellence. But agent customer service is a highly structured skill and discipline defined by clear and specific rules of behavior, much like accounting or chess. It is highly definable, and there is little subjective about it.
Why the Great Surrender is Occurring
So, what is going on? What is the cause of The Great Surrender?
Imagine you had a son whose school was within walking distance of your home, and you and your spouse do not get home until 5 pm each weekday. You want your son to walk directly home following school because he has been walking to friends’ houses instead and getting into trouble.
So, you hide a GPS device in his backpack to track his route after school. But the GPS can only follow if he stays within the city limits, so it has no chance of holding your son accountable for walking directly home after school. He can do whatever he wants, so he continues to get into trouble. The GPS is useless.
This is the predicament of today’s standard QA approaches. Just as the purpose of the GPS is to hold the boy accountable for walking only directly home from school, the purpose of QA is to hold agents accountable for providing only excellent customer service. Anything less exacting would allow agents to roam too freely within their conversations with customers, negating any QA effort.
And just as the GPS parameters are too broad to track whether the boy walks directly home, the loose scoring parameters used in today’s QA approaches are too broad to track the behavioral requirements of excellent service. They cannot hold agents accountable for delivering quality customer service, so under their supervision, most agents do not.
These weak and ambiguous parameters, such as Warmth Level, Conveyed Empathy, Opening, Resolved Issues, Politeness, Service Quality, Sentiment, etc., have little chance of ensuring agents offer quality service.
Nor do approaches that rely on such parameters, such as sentiment scoring, speech analytics, and measuring 100% of calls. And the same goes for 1-10 scoring, checklist scorecards, or yes/no/non-applicable techniques.
The task is too precise and demanding for these slack guideposts and guardrails because they allow for the proliferation of common mistakes in agent behavior that will routinely create subpar customer service and negative customer experiences throughout calls, rendering any such QA effort ineffective.
Under the supervision of such parameters, good agents might remain good. But mediocre to poor-performing agents, for whom the QA is all about, cannot be guided or compelled to execute quality customer service, so most do not.
The irony is that our industry does not view the role of QA as holding agents accountable for offering only exceptional service (or that it is even possible) precisely because of these parameters. Industry-wide reliance on them has led to the lowest bar of training and performance expectations.
The Great Surrender is entirely due to the failure of today’s QA measurement parameters. It makes perfect sense for call centers to give up on them and the programs they define. To surrender.
From Great Surrender to Great Victory
The good news is this challenge has been solved. Advancements in the science of Conversational Analysis (CA) have identified the fixed verbal-interaction variables that define agent customer service, no matter the industry in which an agent works. This provides a clear and specific set of behavioral rules any agent can quickly learn to navigate to ensure they deliver excellent customer service.
An advanced measurement system was developed to precisely track agent navigation of the rules’ detailed requirements...
But like the GPS example, these rules are useless without a system that can precisely hold agents accountable for executing them. Thus, an advanced measurement system was developed to precisely track agent navigation of the rules’ detailed requirements and contextual complexities. It holds all agents, including lesser-skilled and misbehaving agents, perfectly accountable for delivering only exceptional customer service throughout each moment of each call they handle each day.
An example of The Great Surrender is an article regarding the call center director of a nation-leading hospital system with over 300 agents spread throughout several departments.
She said she had given up on QA service training because nothing worked. She stated that while a practical and effective training solution would be far preferable, the only option for call centers is to hire good people and hope for the best.
The training solution she was seeking is now available, many call centers are taking advantage of it, and agent customer-service training has taken a tremendous leap. The long-running challenge of ensuring all agents are consistently exceptional on the phone has been solved. Thanks to CA, The Great Surrender can now be transformed into The Great Victory.