Universal Agents May Not Be Answer

Most call center agents today are required to support multiple products. Call centers have evolved from a reactive role of simply taking orders, to a pro-active role based on one-stop service. And in the world of low margins and rare customer loyalty, customer service has become the primary differentiation.

The manner in which calls are handled is premised on the corporate definition of customer service. This could mean that an agent handles only pieces of work before handing off to another department or the agent handles all queries without transferring the call.

The latter is commonly referred to as the universal agent concept, and it has radically changed the face of call centers.

No longer do call centers just take calls. They must integrate complex workflow processes with traditional call handling functions and utilize technologies to enable each universal agent to accomplish in a single telephone call what was once handled by multiple departments.

Agents are responsible for numerous tasks, including call handling, paper processing, managing technology and various clerical duties. Each role entails various competencies and agents must cope with tremendous volumes. Agents are often expected to rely on their own judgment to prioritize and organize their work activities.

At any given time, many people are performing the same functions in different ways. The implied inefficiencies are magnified when the pool of people increases – this is the true cost of the universal agent. Each task can have a different execution process and tends to consume time and distract agents from handling calls.

In call center environments where talk time and traffic handling efficiencies are primary concerns, the concept of universal agent rarely results in a favorable ROI. This is the focus of the Call Center Audit.

Streamlining for efficiency goes far beyond traditional telephony measures and must include a detailed analysis of work types, call types and related process flows. With a company's vision and core operating principles in mind, call center technologies and re-engineering techniques strive to find that compromise.

Common Automatic Call Distributor (ACD) statistics such as Average Speed of Answer, Calls Abandoned, Telephone Service Factor, etc. are typically aggregate averages and are usually misleading. These averages tend to disguise deeper inefficiencies. Sporadic and extreme spikes in any one of the traditional ACD measures indicate a lack of structure and standardization at the agent level. Efficient call handling is premised on this concept. These random spikes are typical of a universal agent environment.

Eric Young is president of Tele-Centre Assist, Toronto, a full service support organization for call centers.

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