In our world of tech-enabled customer experience, a new hero is emerging, says William Carson, Director of Market Engagement at outsourcing specialist CX BPO Ascensos
Like much of our growing subscription economy, insurance for most needs is reflected in our bank accounts as a range of monthly direct debits of barely noticeable amounts.
Regular email communication provides comfort and reassurance that all that we hold dear is protected and accounted for. But when I had to make a claim recently, I dealt with a very competent customer service agent and was genuinely startled to come off the call with everything taken care of and a payment on its way.
In our increasingly self-serve relationship with the brands we trust, whether insurance, banking, retail or travel, the role of competent, knowledgeable and courteous customer service teams has always struck me as essential. But how might this change in the future?
According to Contact Babel’s report on UK contact centres, more than 700,000 people are employed in the contact industry in the UK. But that number is forecast to decline over the next four years. What then should businesses that depend on an agent pool at significant scale and function, whether in-house or with a partner, focus on for the future?
Technology defining tomorrow
A key driver of the change in agent population and the nature of the work that agents support is the acceleration of self-serve solutions, enabled by evolving technology. Every sector has considered more effective use of technology to reduce effort for customers and citizens, and the corresponding internal resource and infrastructure
cost required to support it. Arguably, if we think ‘transactional’ about an engagement with an organisation to achieve a desired outcome, then that engagement should be supported by the channel that best fits that purpose. The engagement that remains is, by default, not transactional and will require a greater level of emotional engagement, empathy and communication skills.
Hero of the hour
Critical thinking, creativity and emotional intelligence are fundamental to the success of millions of customer/citizen engagements today.
The shift from ‘arbitrage-first to digital-first’ engagement models means the long established base of low-skilled, low-salaried agents is shrinking. In its place, the ‘super agent’ is emerging with supporting infrastructure and working arrangements. This team ‘hero’ or champion becomes the norm when engagement scenarios are no longer binary and require greater reasoning and solutions skills to help resolve an inquiry. While self-serve initiatives are tech-enabled, new roles can be expected that will help support and optimise utilisation of these channels and supporting infrastructures. One leading UK insurance brand already uses pattern-matching artificial intelligence (AI) to identify potential fraud, for instance, but it still requires interpretation by agents.
With the need for greater skills and capabilities, a key consideration for the future agent will, of course, include salary. A recent Sabio report revealed that the average salary for an agent is now north of £19k. Any business operating a sizeable agent population will be concerned with ensuring they are recruiting, selecting, retaining and developing the best talent, with a keen eye on where micro and macro factors will require them to grow, expand and evolve in the future.
Your place or mine?
In its report, Everest Group expects that work-at-home, onshore models will become more credible, prevalent and effective over the coming years. Already brands in financial and insurance services are partnering with work-at-home solution providers, but the associated zero hours contract raises political and cultural temperatures. That said, the success of Uber, Deliveroo, and online freelancer marketplaces all point to an unstoppable re-imagining of the role of work. The customer service agent of the future may very well be self-employed and still offer the best brand engagement.
According to Ernst & Young, 50 per cent of organisations have seen an increase in their gig employee population or ‘contingent workforce’ over the past five years. The gig economy now puts within a brand’s reach a solution that could sit alongside existing in-house teams and self-serve technology investments to better support customer contact and help them dominate in their sectors. But to truly benefit from the rise of the super agent, management teams will have to consider the perks, benefits and attractiveness of their business to highly skilled, highly intelligent and in-demand resources if they are to remain competitive and operate effectively.