Buddying Up – Putting Virtual Employee Assistants at the Heart of Agent Development
The contact center industry continues to face extremely high agent turnover, with some outbound and telemarketing centers experiencing attrition rates as high as 27% annually. With this high turnover presenting a significant challenge to contact centers in terms of cost, productivity and morale, it is not surprising that there’s an ongoing global trend towards fostering agent development and enhancing their day-to-day activities. Virtual Employee Assistants (VEA) – or digital buddies – have been tapped as an effective solution to help contact centers both support and motivate their agents.
Contact centers are ready for change
Today’s contact center agents are no longer satisfied with spending their days placating frustrated customers while under tremendous pressure to meet operational KPIs. They now demand more satisfying and empowering work experiences. With this in mind, Gartner’s “How CEC Agents Could Benefit From Having a Digital Buddy,” recommends that contact centers invest in technology strategies that not only drive operational performance, but that boost agent engagement and satisfaction.
Today’s limited Virtual Employee Assistants
Current VEAs, such as Personik and Wizy, focus mainly on helping employees engage with the company. They integrate with existing corporate infrastructure and communicate with employees via chat. They also handle employees’ needs such as vacation requests, HR forms, IT issues and on-demand learning. Other digital assistants are commonly deployed to help with agent productivity. These often act as a first point of contact when it comes to executing simple and even relatively complex processes, offering decision support and freeing up agents to focus on higher-value tasks. For example, Amazon’s Alexa for Business helps employees delegate tasks, while Nokia’s MIKA helps agents find answers as they perform complicated tasks or diagnose problems. In fact, Gartner predicts that by 2021, 25% of digital workers will use a VEA on a daily basis, up from less than 2% in 2019.
Building a better VEA
Gartner’s report takes a wider view by outlining the need for custom-built VEAs that combine both of these aspects into a solution with the potential to revolutionize contact center operations. The goal of the VEA would be to assist with all aspects of an agent’s job, from tasks and admin, to motivation and workflow improvement. By buddying up with a human agent to make his job easier and more satisfying, the VEA will drive agent loyalty, streamline onboarding, improve daily productivity and help the agent provide better overall customer experience.
Deploying the most effective and sustainable VEA would require the integration of multiple technologies, such as interaction guidance, decision support, robotic process automation, workflow optimization and agent career path development. These tools all currently exist but cannot be found as a single off-the-shelf product.
Current approaches to agent empowerment
Forward-looking customer service organizations have discovered various innovative ways to empower their agents and enhance their value to the organization.
With many basic transactional enquiries handled effectively by self-service channels, T-Mobile agents were struggling to meet their KPIs when handling more complex queries that couldn’t be handled by self-service. Recognizing an emerging opportunity, the company implemented the TEX model, (Team of Experts) whereby a team of reps sit together in shared spaces called pods and operate as a sub-unit, collaborating closely in order to solve customers’ issues. Agents are now able to build stronger relationships with specific customers and are measured on both individual and team performance, further encouraging teamwork.
The TEX model has already paid off for T-Mobile: in just three years, the company’s overall cost to serve is down 13%, its NPS has increased by more than half, and its customer churn rate is at an all-time low. Employees are more satisfied, with agent attrition and absenteeism way down.
As explained by Bain & Company, episode management refers to the mindset of companies when it comes to customer experience. For every customer episode – paying a bill, getting technical support with activating a device, etc. – instead of focusing on a narrow set of numbers such as AHT, episode management looks at the overall outcome. For example, if a customer is having trouble with an appliance, a rep may achieve an extremely short AHT, simply because he quickly dispatched a technician to fix the problem. However, if the overall episode had been considered, the interaction would have been negative, because the tech dispatch costs the company more and the customer is less than satisfied by having to wait for a resolution. Companies that measure and hold reps accountable for the overall outcome of an episode, considering the emotional impact on customers, the frequency of the issue and overall company costs, find that they earn the loyalty of both their customers and agents.
Artificial Intelligence-powered contact center tools
To reduce costs and alleviate pressure on agents, companies are increasingly turning to artificial intelligence (AI)-powered solutions to automate activity in their contact centers and to empower their agents. Current approaches to automation in contact centers are mainly focused on structured data, text and voice. With speech analytics, agents are equipped with a wide range of voice-based tools, enabling auto-recognition of accent, gender, and emotion. These systems also power conversational IVRs and voice-based virtual assistants. Meanwhile, Natural Language Processing (NLP) algorithms have enabled AI-powered tools to grasp context, powering smart classification and routing of customer enquiries. Decision support tools help agents make faster, smarter decisions based on problem diagnoses, previous successful actions and other relevant contextual information.
When gamification is introduced into a contact center environment, agents compete to complete objectives and outpace colleagues in specific metrics such as hours worked and average speed to answer. Rewards may include recognition on leaderboards, physical prizes, priority for preferred shifts or free parking. If a company’s culture supports healthy work rivalry – as is the case at Microsoft – success lies in full transparency and comprehensive reporting to ensure a level playing field.
However, as far back as 2012, Gartner raised doubts about the long-term value of gamification, predicting that 80% of gamified applications would fail to meet business objectives because of poor design. While the jury is still out on the worth of the approach, a better angle from which to address agent motivation may be to address their real-life aspirations, rather than treating them as game pawns.
The bigger, more dynamic picture: VEAs with visual engagement
While companies continue to make great strides in developing, empowering and supporting their agents, one promising channel that must be further explored is the implementation of visual data into VEA capabilities. Visual engagement represents the usage of a visual communication channel – live video, recorded video, photo stream or photo chat messaging – by an agent in order to better interact with a customer. Contact centers that utilize live video assistance enable agents to see exactly what the customer sees, effectively eliminating the lengthy back-and-forth verbal process inherent in auditory communications and building agent-customer trust in the process.
With advanced AI technologies – such as computer vision and augmented reality – providing the ability to visualize the customer’s environment either offline or in real time, agents can point, annotate and visually guide the customer, resulting in a faster and more effective call resolution, a more satisfying customer experience and empowered agents who are motivated to use innovative tools to succeed.
A win-win with wider capabilities
Combining the best elements of these approaches into a customized VEA would result in a near-perfect agent support model. For example, VEAs might combine visual customer assistance with agent decision support tools, motivation and career guidance. These VEA would enable agents to identify and resolve issues more quickly, while allowing them to engage on a more personal basis with the customer, with obvious benefits in terms of loyalty and upsells. This positions the agent as a holistic customer ‘account manager’ – just like in T-Mobile’s TEX model – rather than someone there to fix only a narrow range of issues.
This combination is used in Vodafone’s Welcome Team approach, which uses Big Data analysis to predict almost all potential onboarding issues. Here the visual dimension is key to empowering the agent to achieve more effective onboarding, unboxing, setup, troubleshooting and operational guidance.
The relationship between agents and VEAs must also be a two-way street. Agents should feel that they’re actively improving the performance of the VEA and contributing to the company knowledge base – according the “crowdsourcing of expertise” principle. By applying social media principles, such as image sharing, the visual decision support tool can be considered not just a database of fixes, but a living, visual “wiki” of agent actions, tips, and career development.
The endgame – a perfect mix of virtual and human interaction
Contact center agents are acutely aware that their field is already undergoing rapid change in terms of the drive towards full automation. Providing agents with the most complete set of tools – embodied as Virtual Employee Assistants – could help agents with their day-to-day activities such as handling repetitive tasks, answering common questions, gathering basic information, and routing customer service inquiries.
By entrusting VEAs with simple yet time-consuming tasks, especially when integrated with a visual dimension, agents can prioritize other more complex or strategic activities that make them feel more empowered and satisfied in their jobs. With this mix of virtual and human interaction, businesses can have the best of both worlds – self-service that alleviates pressure on agents and the human touch from expert, highly motivated “super-agents” when required.