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Why agents who take control perform best

Now, more than any time in recent memory, companies across industries are facing challenges recruiting and retaining talent. Prompted by the pandemic, people are taking a cold, hard look at what they want out of their careers, and topics like the "Great Resignation" are dominating headlines. It's backed up in research too: The latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report estimated 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs in November of 2021.

When it comes to customer care, ensuring long tenure among agents has always been a priority. Given the wider societal and economic context however, contact centers are further ramping up efforts to foster a deeply engaged workforce. That means they are redoubling efforts to seek out, hire, train and motivate the right people. This begs the question: Who are the right people?

The conventional wisdom has always been to hire highly empathetic people in customer care. You want polite agents who listen to customers; agents who care about customer concerns. But can we get more specific? That's what renowned customer experience (CX) expert and bestselling author, Matt Dixon, wanted to find out.

Dixon's global research, published by Harvard Business Review (HBR), led to a taxonomy of seven statistically-defined, distinct agent profiles. Unsurprisingly, one such profile was that of the "Empathizer" — the type of agent that service leaders look at and say "that's the one I want," says Dixon. But that's where the predictability ends. It turns out, what service leaders are looking for and what today's customers actually want are two different things.

Customers want agents who take charge

The simple-to-solve issues aren't making it to agents anymore. The rise of self-service tools like wikis, community forums and chatbots have empowered customers to find answers to these questions all on their own. That in isolation is a good thing, but the knock-on effect is that the questions that remain for agents are often difficult to solve.

Dixon's taxonomy identifies that "Controllers" are best suited for this new reality. "These are folks who relish in their expertise," Dixon said in an exclusive conversation with TELUS International. Controllers were found to outperform other profiles in a number of categories, including the reduction of customer effort. After conducting structured interviews with agents, Dixon reported that Controllers "are driven to deliver fast, easy service, and are comfortable exerting their strong personalities in order to demonstrate their expertise." It seems that since complicated queries are all that's left, customers prefer "clear guidance instead of excessive choice."

But in highlighting the contrast between Controllers and Empathizers, the matter of empathy requires further clarification. Dixon told TELUS International, "Controllers bristle at the idea that they're not empathetic." He went on to explain that Controllers know customers have exhausted a list of self-service options before they reach out for help, and that what customers want is to feel like they're talking to someone who can take charge and provide a solution. That is empathy, albeit demonstrated in a way that differs from what has been typically expected.

Hiring and retaining Controllers

Ideas about how to acquire talent for the contact center, and how to keep agents engaged, have predominantly focused on the perspective of Empathizers. And for a long time that has made sense: Empathizers account for 32% of the current global contact center population, more than double the percentage of Controllers (15%), according to Dixon's research published by HBR. But in the current climate, and with a now deeper understanding of customer effort, it's time to pause for critical thought.

In terms of recruiting these assertive agents, start at the very beginning. When crafting a new job posting for a customer care role, be intentional about the way you describe the responsibilities and the ideal candidate. You can still expect empathetic candidates, but you should take the time to emphasize the importance of problem solving skills and comfortability with autonomy.

And for candidates who make it on to the interview stage, be aware that a Controller is likely to communicate differently and that might work against your existing biases. According to the HBR article, hiring managers have been found to like the Controller profile the least, with only 2% reporting that they'd hire a Controller ahead of another type. This speaks to a clear need to look past your preconceptions and remember your customers — they want answers and Controllers tend to get them more effectively than anyone else.

Companies who hire Controllers also need to be thoughtful about how they keep them engaged. Dixon's suggestion? "Trust you’ve hired the right people and that they know what the rules are." In other words, be less prescriptive and use fewer scripts, and instead give agents the freedom to take the lead and deliver customers to satisfactory solutions. To engage these agents further, create a culture in which they can provide feedback about processes and policies. Controllers are most engaged in companies that are "serious about continual improvement and willing to give reps a voice in that process," explains Dixon.

Setting agents up for success

Now, for the elephant in the room. It's not always easy for brands to extend the level of trust that Controllers need to thrive. But not easy and not possible are different things, and getting there is a matter of two critical components: training and technology.

Beyond exacerbating high turnover rates, inadequate training increases agent effort, which coincidentally increases customer effort and weakens CX. Suffice to say, it's important to get training right. Brands looking to train their Controllers, and to train other agents to act more like Controllers, move away from "teaching product knowledge, rote processes for handling calls and procedures for using systems and tools," writes Dixon. Instead, after establishing guardrails, effective brands focus on "teaching reps listening techniques and frameworks that replicate the Controller's instincts for quickly understanding the customer needs and how to deliver the optimal personalized resolutions."

It takes time, but the skills can be developed with thoughtful, manager-led coaching. Technology can help the process too. When an agent says, "Let me figure this out for you," an easily searchable and up-to-date knowledge base is a lifeline.

While it's true that customers are generally not contacting support for simple issues, the reality is that the pandemic has resulted in a rise in contacts overall. According to Salesforce, 82% of consumers expect to continue reaching out for customer care at pandemic-level rates, and 10% indicate that their contact rates will rise even higher. Your customers will be calling and they're looking for solutions, and it's going to take a different type of agent to gain control of the situation.

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