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Universal agents: The pros and cons of having super agents on staff

Posted July 18, 2018
contact center agents wearing superhero masks

Imagine that you recently bought a digital product from a fast-growing tech brand, but it’s not working quite right. You call the company, expecting a prolonged customer service triage process where you’ll be bounced from one agent to the next before finding the person that can solve your specific issue. But instead, you’re connected to Megan — a friendly, intelligent agent who assures you that she will personally get to the bottom of your problem. She confirms your identity, accesses your purchase history and walks you through some troubleshooting processes.

When that doesn’t work, Megan quickly switches gears and initiates back-end tech support to restore your product to working order. She also tells you about a new promotion that will get you a “pro” membership for 50 percent off. You’ve been meaning to upgrade, so you accept the offer.

Without long hold times and transfers, your issue was resolved in under 10 minutes. Megan’s confident and courteous approach made the time fly by, and she saved you some money by bringing that special offer to your attention. Congratulations — you’ve just been assisted by a universal agent.

The case for universal agents

Universal agents, or super agents, are customer service professionals trained to handle nearly any issue a customer may have, from basic problem-solving, to advanced tech support, to sales. They’re also empathetic people-pleasers, with soft skills that are second to none.

“[Universal agents] have the opportunity to ‘wow’ and delight customers by owning the entire customer problem, not just one device-specific part,” said TELUS International CIO, Michael Ringman, in an article for CIOReview. “It also opens the door to tiered levels of support, including the business opportunity to add value to standard service offerings.”

While companies like Apple have enjoyed the benefits of highly-trained customer service agents for years, the trend is catching on in the wider business world for a number of reasons.

1. Increased efficiency

Customer service departments often adhere to segmentation strategies. When a customer gets in touch, they’re connected to a specific team according to their need, their method of contact, geographic location or even their purchasing habits.

While this approach helps personalization, it can complicate the process. The customer service agents within the various silos are specifically trained, and are less likely to provide help if an issue falls outside their scope. Customers are repeatedly transferred between departments and First Contact Resolution (FCR) often suffers as a result. Technological infrastructure must also be put in place to support the segmentation, sometimes requiring separate software platforms for each channel.

With universal agents on staff, this process can be simplified and made more efficient. Teams no longer need to be siloed according to expertise; rather, every agent has the skills needed to handle most customer issues.

Robb Hecht, adjunct professor of marketing at Baruch College, says this smoother approach makes all the difference to customers. “Research increasingly indicates that younger audiences are choosing accessibility and seamless user experience over brand preference. This means that any company that provides frontline super agents in their customer service experience will leap ahead.”

2. Improved First Contact Resolution

According to a report by SQM Group, 86 percent of customers expect their issues to be resolved on the first call, and every subsequent call is reported to reduce customer satisfaction by 15 percent.

Universal agents are empowered to resolve a wide range of customer issues as they see fit. Customers don’t have to ask, “Can I speak to a manager?” because the universal agent has virtually the same authority and access as a team lead. These agents are the first and last line of defense, streamlining the customer journey and increasing First Contact Resolution in the process.

3. Better customer experience

With deep experience and knowledge that extends from IT skills to sales prowess, universal agents are more likely to get to the bottom of customer issues quickly and solve them in minutes instead of days.

“Any brand that overlooks response time to customer queries as a competitive advantage is sadly mistaken,” says Hecht. But while fast response times can make customers happy in the short term, it takes more than that to win them over for good.

That’s why universal agents are masters of soft skills. They speak eloquently. They have great manners. They use humor appropriately. They display empathy and tackle issues with a positive attitude that assures and eases the customer. Overall, they make service feel personal, and leave customers with fond memories of the experience.

This kind of emotional service is what turns customers into advocates. According to the Harvard Business Review study,The New Science of Customer Emotions, personalized and memorable experiences can make customers up to three times more likely to recommend a product or service, and three times more likely to become repeat customers.

The kryptonite of super agents

Andrew Nocera is a senior program manager of training at Amazon. He warns that while the universal agent solution sounds simple enough, it’s not a perfect fit for every organization. “In theory, super agents are ideal. They are dynamic, well-trained and can handle a wide variety of customer issues. In practice, it’s hard to master,” he explains. Even for the companies that can pull it off, there are still substantial financial and logistical challenges involved.

1. Difficult to recruit and retain

Effective universal agents require background in customer support, sales, social media, written communication and tech support, not to mention the right blend of interpersonal and professional skills. To recruiters, this hypothetical candidate is a unicorn — mythical and elusive.

Even if universal agents can be tracked down and poached from their current employers, the strong demand for the small pool of super agents makes them more likely to jump ship again, should a better offer come along.

2. Cost

The higher skill set of a universal agent comes with a high price tag, and ideal candidates expect generous compensation. Universal agents have more power to negotiate salaries, equity and time off — and these costs only increase year-over-year.

Alternatively, companies can recruit internally — turning the existing customer service agent into a universal agent through intense training. But this approach also has a high cost, both in terms of money and time. Training programs must be implemented, sometimes requiring special software. And every hour an agent is in training is an hour of reduced productivity. Plus, as Nocera points out, the process may be very complex. “It’s challenging enough to train agents for peak performance on one individual channel, let alone across multiple channels, especially when there are nuances with process and policy.”

3. Scalability

Even if all other obstacles can be overcome, the long-term sustainability of universal agents is still in question. “For businesses with simple or similar processes across channels, super agents are an option,” says Nocera. “But as complexity and differences between channels increase, it becomes less of an option.”

A small-to-medium sized business may only require a handful of agents to cover its modest contact volume, but what happens when the company grows larger? More universal agents must be hired, significantly increasing staffing costs.

Furthermore, the personalized approach that makes these agents so special may become a hindrance at times of extreme volume — customers do appreciate a memorable experience, but they won’t want to wait on hold for two hours to get it.

Lastly, as product lines expand and services become more robust, it will take continual training to maintain universal agents’ expertise. As mentioned, this training can be costly to implement and disruptive to execute.

Universal agents in practice

While a customer service department with universal agents at the forefront is possible and increasingly recommended for small-to-medium sized businesses, very large companies may need to deploy them more strategically.

Conversational bots can be used to field basic, yet common tasks like restoring passwords or issuing refunds, in turn, giving universal agents more bandwidth to provide in-depth service. As Hecht notes, customers actually appreciate quick bot interactions if they lead to better service. “That simple chatbot on your website connecting me to a knowledgeable employee in real-time will make all the difference for my loyalty to your brand,” he says.

Regardless of how they’re rolled out, it’s clear that investing in universal agents can yield a more precise and personalized approach to service — one that exceeds the modern customer’s high expectations and keeps them loyal to a brand for life.

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