7 Things Good Contact Center Agents Do (That Bad Ones Don't)

Brian Cantor

Contact center professionals know an agent is never solely responsible for what transpires in an interaction.

Agent demeanor and skill level indeed matter, but they cannot entirely account for the impact of the contact center ecosystem. So much of how an agent performs is attributable to the business itself.

Does it give agents access to the right customer data? Does it provide the agents with the right systems and tools? Does it empower agents to make customer-centric decisions? Does it train and coach its agents to expertly handle the myriad of potential interactions?

There are indeed bad agents, but bad contact centers make those bad agents worse. They can even make good agents bad.

The customer does not, however, account for the behind-the-scenes realities when engaging with an agent. And insofar as it is the business’ job to serve him, the customer has no obligation to account for those realities. He is going to evaluate the experience based on his actual engagement with the actual front-line agent.

When doing so, he will encounter numerous factors that can dramatically affect the experience. He will encounter numerous factors that, in his mind, distinguish a good contact center agent from a bad one.

Positive manifestations of those factors will drive the customer to the conclusion that the agent is a good one, even if more of that "good" is attributable to the contact center environment than to the specific agent’s prowess. If those factors emerge as negatives, he will conclude that the agent with whom he interacted is bad even if the agent is actually very skilled and motivated.

To avoid this problem, businesses need to ensure that the agent demonstrates key positive qualities throughout the course of the interaction. Whether it does so by hiring the best possible people (and empowering them to do so) or by putting decent agents in position to best perform, its need to produce the desired experience is the same regardless.

Here are ways a contact center agent can signify his competency to customers. When the agent does—regardless of whether he or the business is most responsible—he will be deemed "good" by the customer:

1) They are excited to interact.

An agent’s demeanor signals more than mere friendliness. It reveals how the agent feels about the interaction.

Agents who demonstrate an excitement to connect are the one who see the fundamental value in the interaction. They want to get to know the business’ customers. They want to learn of any issues associated with the business’ goods and services. They want to help.

For a customer to trust that he is receiving the best possible care, he needs those assurances. He needs to know that the agent seems a successful interaction as a positive worth maximizing rather than as a negative cost worth minimizing.

2) They side with the customer.

Customer interactions are not meant to be battles between brand and customer. They are meant to be opportunities for the business to add value to the customer’s experience.

Good agents understand this reality. They accept completely accountability for the matter, and they immediately work to determine what they can do for the customer. They see themselves as a microphone for the customer rather than as a line of defense for the business.

Bad ones do not. They devote their attention to upholding "company policy" – or even working to discredit the customer and absolve their employer of blame, responsibility and/or accountability.

3) They have answers for the customer.

Excitement, empathy and demeanor are necessary ingredients of the customer experience, but they do not eliminate the need for results. At the end of the day, even the friendliest of agents needs to bring the customer from his point of frustration, disappointment or concern to one of satisfaction.

Good agents consistently facilitate that transition. If they are asked a question about the business, they have an accurate, relevant, valuable answer. If they are asked to resolve a problem, they do so in a manner tailored for the customer and context.

They, ultimately, understand that an interaction is not successful until the customer gets what he needs. If they cannot provide it, they know they have failed – and they know they (and the business) are accountable for correcting that failure (in addition to resolving the issue that spurred the initial interaction).

Bad agents do not hold themselves to that standard. They help when they can, but they ultimately see their job as answering calls. They view handling calls quickly and accurately—rather than resolving matters efficiently and effectively—as top performance priorities.

4) They yield to the customer.

As advocates for the customer, good agents do not simply work to provide the best outcome for the customer: they also work to create the best interaction for the customer. That happens by allowing the customer to exclusively set the tone.

If the customer is looking for a conversation, they converse. If the customer is looking for a rapid, transactional call, they work efficiently. If the customer is furious and wants to vent, they listen. If the customer is interested in offering nice, constructive feedback, they listen.

Bad agents ignore the unique expectations and preferences of each customer. They instead lock all callers into boxes of formula and procedure. As contact center agents, they have a designated approach for listening and resolving, and it is the customer’s job to honor and adapt to those constraints.

5) They know the customers.

Good agents demonstrate instant familiarity with a customer – and his connection to the business. They do not ask pages worth of qualifying questions, and they do not need the customer to share his entire background of interactions prior to offering assistance.

For an agent to prove that he is acting in a customer’s best interest, he must establish trust that he knows what that best interest is. To do so, he must know the customer he is serving.

Poor agents identify customers as random "callers." They might be very committed to resolving a given problem, but the scope of their service does not extend any farther.

Insofar as they reduce customer relationships to transactions, they do not act within the unique context of those relationships. They provide the service they are trained to believe the issue requires rather than the experience the specific customer truly demands.

6) They know the issues.

That a customer should not be defined exclusively by his transactional issue does not mean the issue is not important. It is, after all, the reason the customer is getting in touch.

It is therefore imperative for agents to demonstrate complete familiarity of the issues associated with the good or service they represent.

Customers will experience issues differently, and they will communicate those experiences differently. Given that variance in communication, an agent cannot rely exclusively on the customer’s dialogue to establish context of the matter and formulate a response. His connection to most (if not all) potential issues must be so strong that he can properly identify—and resolve—an issue regardless of how the customer specifically defines it.

A bad agent only knows matters as they are defined by the knowledgebase. As a result, he is unable to properly handle a matter that is not communicated exactly how the business anticipated it would be communicated.

And if that is the case, he offers no value beyond what could be provided by the inherently static IVR system.

7) They are customers.

Relation breeds connection to a far greater extent than information. In the contact center world, being able to relate to what the customer experiences is far more valuable than being aware of what that experience entails.

Actual customers, therefore, make the best agents. When one can personally relate to the experience of using a product or receiving a service, he can best understand the urgency and importance of the issues that arise. When one has personally navigated a business’ product offerings, he can best provide other customers with recommendations for maximizing value.

Not all business models allow for an intersection between agent and customer—a private jet company, for instance, doubtfully can afford to exclusively staff its contact center with private jet owners—but all give agents the opportunities to tap into their experiences as customers. And it is thanks to those experiences that agents will not simply be able to connect with their callers but deliver experiences of optimal value to those individuals.

All agents are also customers, but not all agents allow that perspective to drive their work. Those that do connect with customers. Those that do not serve them from a static, distant position and thus routinely fail to deliver the result that is best for the specific customer and specific circumstance.