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        Balancing Agents and Automation Enhances the Customer Experience

        A lot of conversations around contact centers deal with automation, particularly how to balance the way humans and automated systems work together. Self-service, the front end of the customer interaction, is where practitioners get a first taste of the marvels of increasingly advanced automation. As customer expectations ramped up and labor became more costly during the pandemic, deflecting interactions away from agents took on new urgency. We continue to see impressive advances in automated systems that converse with customers and help them pursue all sorts of activities – buying, transacting, retrieving information – that would have gone to an agent in the past.

        Conventional wisdom held that when you successfully deflect more of the call base from agents, what’s left are more difficult interactions that take longer and require enhanced skills. The expectation was that training and hiring Ventana_Research_2023_Assertion_Self-Service_Automated_CX_Workflows_39_Scosts would go up, but you could reduce head count to compensate. Instead, it appears that automated tools are the answer to address the complexity of harder and longer interactions. Examples include automation that provides agents with guidance and suggestions for procedures, or links processes in contact centers to behind-the-scenes resources like product fulfillment, returns, tech support and updates. Ventana Research predicts that through 2025, organizations will work to define and optimize automated workflows for customer experience. This will link back- and front-office workers and enhance the service experience.

        There are two ways to approach contact center automation and two strong outcomes to strive for. First, centers operate in a strongly cost-constrained environment. They spend the most money on agents – hiring, training, incubating, optimizing and hiring again if workers leave. For years, people have focused on the problems of agent engagement, meaning how they are managed and motivated. When agents are disengaged from their work for whatever reason, they’re more likely to leave, and that degrades the center’s ability to maintain high standards of performance. The replacement agent is, by definition, lower on the training ladder, and it takes months to bring someone up to top performance.

        Where automation comes into play is reducing the stress level for agents by providing a safety net. Automating part of the interaction – either at the front end through self-service or afterward by summarizing call notes or reducing time spent in after-call work ‒ enables agents to concentrate on work that’s more interesting or challenging, solving the harder problems and using their expertise to add value to rote interactions. The result is faster throughput of interactions to completion without subjecting agents to chronic burnout. When agents feel more engaged with their work and the organization, you see lower turnover.

        Secondly, there is a correlation between agent and customer experiences. Unhappy or unchallenged agents don’t present the best face to the customer. They don’t go the extra mile to solve issues or make customers feel welcome and appreciated. That’s the strategic aspect to contact center automation – using it to provide better customer experiences as measured by loyalty, longevity, customer value or sales conversions. Using automation to connect processes that extend beyond the contact center ‒ like back-office workflows that speed resolutions or make relevant information available to move the customer process along ‒ can deliver that strategic boost. The customer benefits from speed, consistency and seamless and unfragmented experiences. Downstream, there’s a strong brand connection, a reduction in customer churn and potentially an increase in lifetime value.

        Human interaction is one of the most important elements in establishing a deep, long-lasting customer relationship. The goal is not to throw as much automation as you can at the problem to save money. That can have the opposite effect by making agents feel they are expendable cogs in a machine. The goal is to create a balance and articulate to agents how they will work in tandem with automated systems and why that’s good for their work and careers. In determining the right mix of automation and human labor, you’ll discover a lot of contact center operations that can benefit from automation. You have to tread carefully, assessing how much automation is tolerable – mostly from the customer’s point of view. For agents, there are several winning use cases. One that’s very exciting is automating knowledge management and discovery. There’s something powerful about having an automated system standing by during a call and popping info to the agent about how the customer is feeling – angry, irritated, grateful – or suggesting the three most appropriate responses to a specific question. The agent can use or disregard the advice, making the human/automation combination more powerful than either on its own. Another agent-related area ripe for automation is the human resources aspect of providing benefit information or shift scheduling and trading. Also, in training: signaling to an agent that, based on a number of observed calls, they should take a refresher course.

        Behind the contact center, countless automatable back-office processes feed into or result from customer interactions. These vary by industry, but of note is sending outbound reminders or suggestions to customers, like appointments or billing notices.

        An organization knows when it hits the right balance between human and automated work by the metrics: You should see quality improvements, faster resolutions with fewer touches and potentially higher customer satisfaction scores. Also, expect indicators that customers are getting what they need with fewer disruptions. On the front end, strive for higher deflection rates and better use of the agent’s time for interactions that make it through the gateway. You should also see a more optimized agent schedule – a smoother flow of break times and training that takes place during dead spots. Importantly, more problems solved means improved first-call resolution, net promoter score and customer satisfaction.

        Automation is a tool for optimizing performance. It’s only valuable if it moves the needle on the metrics you value, whether those reflect efficiencies, customer happiness or revenue. Benefits will come in the form of better agent key performance indicators, reduced attrition and higher satisfaction. Ideally, customers will spend more and tell others about your brand.

        Successfully balancing agents and automation delivers a workforce that’s better equipped to deal with complex issues and has a positive impact on the customer’s view of the organization. I don’t believe that, in the short term, automation will result in a significant reduction of the overall contact center workforce. But it does allow centers to maintain a solid staff of well-skilled agents by investing in things that make people valuable and attached to an organization ‒ like better skills and a fair, communicative relationship with supervisors and managers.


        Keith Dawson


        Keith Dawson
        Director of Research, Customer Experience

        Keith Dawson leads the software research and advisory in the Customer Experience (CX) expertise at Ventana Research, now part of ISG, covering applications that facilitate engagement to optimize customer-facing processes. His coverage areas include agent management, contact center, customer experience management, field service, intelligent self-service, voice of the customer and related software to support customer experiences.


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