Technical Reps or Agent Techs? The inter-changing roles of technical support and customer service

TechSee explores the changing roles of customer support and technical support

“You’ve reached Service Enterprises. Your call is important to us.
For sales support, press 1.
For product support, press 1.
For technical support, press 1.
For account updates, help with installation, or billing activities, press 1.”

While most IVR systems don’t sound like this yet, the possibility is not that far off. In reality, the lines between customer service agents and technicians have become blurred – the technician’s role includes some traditional responsibilities of agents, and the agent’s role includes more responsibilities traditionally held exclusively by technicians.

The pandemic has further accelerated this phenomenon. COVID-19 forced many enterprises to establish remote support teams staffed jointly by agents and technicians, with the goal of resolving customer’s issues without requiring the safety risk of a tech dispatch. For the first time, technicians normally found in the field were stationed in a back office or worked from home, guiding customers remotely as a traditional agent. Likewise, agents were empowered to go above and beyond their standard scripts, using their newfound technical knowledge and skills to assist their customers. Triage sessions between agents, technicians, and customers became the norm.

Once the ROI of these remote technical support and customer support teams became abundantly clear, many enterprises decided that these temporary teams would become permanent.

The drivers for changing roles in contact centers

Focus on agent engagement

With all data pointing to the clear connection between customer experience and customer loyalty, more and more customer service organizations have begun investing in enhancing the role of the frontline customer service agents.  A Salesforce survey indicates that 77% of service professionals say their company views them as customer advocates, 70% of agents say they’ve received training on how to be empathetic with customers, and 77% of agents say their role is more strategic — up from 71% in 2018.

This makes good business sense.

With simpler queries increasingly automated and handled by AI-driven tools, agents are now focused on the more complicated customer requests, leading to longer, more involved conversations that require a broader range of skills and technology. No longer viewed as telephone answerers, chat typers, or script readers, customer service agents have become strategic customer liaisons. They must be able to empathize and build a rapport, problem solve, communicate effectively, and be trained in appropriate technical knowledge and expertise to fulfill their customer support roles and responsibilities.

Focus on reducing customer effort

Enterprises are increasingly recognizing that on-demand services are fast becoming expected by customers, and they are putting processes in place to ensure every interaction is as quick and seamless as possible.  For a customer calling in with a technical issue, waiting for a technician is high effort activity. One customer survey highlighted that 67% of consumers reported a willingness to spend over 15 minutes of their time trying to self-install a device in order to avoid contacting a call center for assistance. Even more telling, 70% would rather visit the dentist than wait for a technician!

Empowering agents to handle technical requests that eliminate the wait for a technician can pay off. Data from a Gartner survey indicates that loyalty is achieved by reducing the customer’s level of effort and making their life easier. In fact, 96% of customers who experience a high-effort interaction become more disloyal compared to just 9% who have an effortless experience. Organizations should strive to deliver experiences that are low effort, according to Gartner, because effort is the driver with the strongest tie to customer loyalty.

Emergence of new technologies

Recognizing that the new way of working may be here to stay in the medium-to-long term, CIOs are shifting their IT budgets to implement tools and technologies that bolster their remote staff – such as digital workspace, remote team collaboration, and remote customer support tools. Advanced remote support – powered by computer vision and augmented reality – can deliver automated remote support aided by predictive tools that make the customer’s life easier, as well as decision support tools and self-service deflection tactics that make the agent’s job simpler.

Ensuring these advanced customer support tools can easily integrate with the organization’s existing systems and knowledge base makes it easier for agents to put on their “remote technician hat” and quickly access the data they need to assist each customer — a new definition of customer support.

The drivers for changing roles in field services

Focus on reducing on-site support

With 61% of customers today reporting that they would avoid technician visits unless strictly necessary, field service organizations have been turning to remote support alternatives in lieu of face-to-face visits. Instead of visiting a customer’s home to provide technical support to customers, a technician can guide the customer from a remote location with the customer acting as the “hands” of the technician. Six months into the pandemic, the demand for remote assistance is still evident, with 45% of consumers willing to use remote guidance to resolve issues due to safety considerations.

In addition, many field service organizations are shifting to an operating model that focuses on performance-based SLAs, where the priority is keeping customer equipment running at all costs. According to a Gartner survey in May 2019, 19% of service companies already offered these contracts, and another 26% were expecting to do so within 12 months. This model de-emphasizes the need for on-site visits and instead requires a greater reliance on automated remote monitoring tools and remote assistance tools, which ultimately translates into a hands-off approach that is so critical during today’s safety-conscious world.

Focus on CX and CX metrics

With the hyper-awareness of the customer experience as a central theme of enterprises everywhere, field services have also transitioned to a more customer centric model. According to Field Service News, 65% of field service organizations identified customer satisfaction as either equal to or higher in importance than operational efficiency.

Focusing on customer satisfaction as an outcome of the service interaction has led companies to shift their measures of success as well. 91% of companies surveyed by Field Service News stated that NPS or another alternative CSAT KPI was a key field service KPI for their organization.  Even more telling, in organizations that officially adopted a customer-centric business model, 100% of those companies listed CSAT as the single most crucial field service KPI they measure when providing technical support to customers. To ensure customer expectations are met, technicians with expert technical skills are no longer enough. They are now expected to act as front line agents by displaying the soft skills needed to empathize and engage with their customers.

Skill gap and increased use of third-parties

Today’s number one challenge in field services is the knowledge gap between the aging workforce and the next generation of junior technicians who have less experience.  In addition, many enterprises are choosing to outsource some or all of their field work to third-party service contractors as it provides a broader geographic coverage, improved efficiency and cost, and even enhanced service offerings. This increased reliance on novice technicians and third-party technicians has made it imperative to empower these individuals to do their jobs effectively and efficiently.

With the newfound reliance on remote support, many enterprises require technicians to “touch base” with their customers before the dispatch. Acting as agents, these technicians gather the necessary details to ensure the on-site visit cannot be avoided and that the right equipment will be on hand for a successful first-time-fix.

How can we get there?

Customer service agents and field service technicians have traditionally been two totally separate departments that play for the same team. But forward-thinking enterprises are increasingly realizing the benefits of collaboration between the technical support and customer service departments. Connecting off-site field service technicians with in-office expertise and data can ensure faster and more effective service to the customer.

Shift to Collaborative KPIs

To encourage a collaborative culture, enterprises must shift to collaborative KPIs that encompass the efforts of different departments. Measuring the Remote Resolution Rate – and on the flip side, the contact center’s tech dispatch rate – encourages agents to go the extra mile to achieve a resolution and avoid a truck roll.  Shifting from measuring Average Handling Time (AHT) to measuring Total Time to Resolution (TTR) will encourage agents and field technicians to resolve more issues through closer collaboration.

Next Issue Avoidance (NIA) is another collaborative KPI that measures whether agents and technicians are anticipating the next issue a customer is likely to experience on their journey and addressing it before it becomes a problem.  For example, an HVAC company drives NIA by training their staff to look for damage or wear-and-tear even when it is outside the scope of a specific call. While they’re visually guiding a customer how to perform a boiler reset, the employee is also looking for rust, loose connectors, and other symptoms that could turn out to be an issue in the future.

Implementation of new procedures

Many organizations find that updating standard workflows and procedures go a long way toward promoting cross-department collaboration between customer service and technical support. Implementing a shared knowledge base – even better if visuals are included — enables any agent or technician to instantly become an expert on any issue.  A joint triage session between the customer, agent, and technician can save time and provide the customer with the fastest, most efficient service possible.

When a technician visit is deemed necessary, customer service agents can use visual inspections to make sure technicians are fully prepared for every visit, with complete knowledge of the issue and all the right parts and tools. For example, the customer service agent can ask to see a customer’s smart TV, noting the make, model, and on-screen error message. An image of the TV’s connections can be captured as well, so the technician has all the information he needs before he is dispatched, limiting the time on-site and ensuring there will only be one visit needed.

Adoption via change management and technology

To achieve a positive, long-lasting collaborative culture, effective change management is essential to maximize effectiveness and promote adoption across the organization. Technicians will need support in enhancing their soft skills when it comes to customers, including communicating appropriately and de-escalating stressful situations. Agents will need training to develop their technical skills and knowledge, as well as how to think out-of-the-box to resolve customers’ issues.

In addition, to support this transformation and further encourage acceptance, new tools and technologies must be adopted by the organization and its employee base. Technologies worth investigating are new collaboration tools, platforms for shared knowledge bases, unified CRM / FSM capabilities, remote support tools, and visual assistance.

The future of technical support and customer service

There’s a new trend in customer service: the borders between technicians and agents are becoming blurred, with each one taking on aspects of the others’ traditional roles. This shift has accelerated following the pandemic, but it’s here to stay, as customers and enterprises understand that remote assistance is a key to resilience and brand loyalty. To cement this cross-department collaboration between customer service and technical support, enterprises must emphasize collaborative KPIs, implement new procedures, and invest in the change management and technologies necessary to support this transformation.

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