Dale Holub

In the Multichannel Contact Center, How Specialized Should Your Agents Be?

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girlNot that long ago, contact center agents were primarily answering calls and tackling basic customer issues. If there were more complex problems, calls would typically get escalated to a manager. Agents rarely needed specialized skills or knowledge unless they were working in an issue-specific call center like a tech help desk.

How things have changed! Today, customers are now contacting agents via multiple channels with more complex issues than ever before. With an increasing number of customers preferring to use self-service channels, the issues that are coming in by phone are often multi-faceted and requiring specialized service. Because of this, the need for specialized agents has become greater. But how specialized do your contact center agents need to be?

The Benefits of Specialization
With a team of agents with specific skill sets, you gain the ability to increase first call resolution rates. However, agents’ specializations are limited. For example, some agents will have technical expertise, and others will be better at handling orders and returns. To maximize the benefits of having specialized agents, you need to have an IVR system with advanced call routing to take the customer exactly to the agent they need to handle their specific issue.

In today’s multi-channel contact center, agents often need to be able to handle more than just phone calls. When there are lulls in calls, agents trained in managing chat or issues coming in from mobile apps, text, email, or social media can jump between channels to maintain service levels.

Customers certainly benefit from agents having greater specialization, with issues being handled faster and more effectively. Businesses also benefit by the added efficiency and customer satisfaction ratings. As well, contact center agents will have higher levels of job satisfaction if they are better trained and skilled. This results in less turnover and reduced expenditure on agent recruitment and new hire training.

The Cost of Specialization
Of course, there is a cost to having a team of specialized agents. If you hire agents who already possess specialized skills, they will certainly demand higher salaries than agents with little or no experience or training. If you choose to invest in training agents to become specialized, you will have to incur the ongoing costs of training. Thus, it’s wise to weigh the cost of specialized agents versus the benefit you’ll gain from their added skills and experience. In general, you will gain significant ROI for hiring more trained agents, but it may not be necessary to staff your entire contact center with highly skilled agents.

Determining the Right Mix of Skills
Through your contact center and CRM data, you can best determine the number of skilled agents you need to balance costs and service levels. You can even drill down deeper into metrics to understand the number of agents you need with each specific skill type. If you have higher call volumes on Tuesdays with customers having technical issues, you can add more agents to your roster on Tuesdays to cover these calls. Perhaps, you see a trend that customers are using self-service channels to place orders and ask questions frequently after you offer specific email promotions. This might warrant having more specialized agents during these specific times. Yes, this means having conversations with other departments and business lines to understand what they are doing and how it affects the contact center. Likewise, unexpected issues, such as a recalled product or a service outage, may cause an influx of calls and require a team of highly specialized agents to handle them.

Keeping Costs Down
Agent salaries make up approximately 60 percent of total call center operating costs. With the majority of your budget going to salaries, it’s important to carefully determine how many specialized agents you can afford. It may not be feasible to hire more than a core team of agents with specialized skills.

Yet, you can maximize the benefits of even a small number of specialized agents through your systems. Along with having an IVR system that only routes specific calls to these agents, you can minimize low-priority calls from being routed to them through the use of solutions like call back software. As well, easy-to-use self-service options and customer outcome management software can help customers get their issues resolved with less effort and greater efficiency.

Having a skilled team of agents is certainly a tremendous asset to any contact center. However, to maximize agent capabilities, it requires careful planning and the right systems in place. As customers expect more channels and greater help with challenging issues, agent specialization will only become more important. By knowing how to hire and keep the right mix of specialized and generalist agents, you’ll be well-positioned to deliver a competitive level of customer service.

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