Dun & Bradstreet on Reducing Agent Effort for a Better Customer Experience

Kindra Cooper

agent engagement

With contact centers focused squarely on the customer experience and reducing customer effort, the concept of agent effort wasn’t even part of the equation - until progressive contact center leaders noticed that engaged agents lead to higher customer satisfaction.

After some probing into their own agent experience, data analytics firm Dun & Bradstreet discovered that its reps were preoccupied during calls with customers because they were busy hunting through different applications for answers to specific questions, or copying and pasting the same data into different systems, all while trying to listen to what the customer was saying. Workflow inefficiencies, often created by the organization itself, disrupt the customer experience as much as they encumber agents.

“You may notice long pauses where the customer speaks and then the agent doesn’t say anything, sometimes for 5-7 seconds, which, as we know, is an eternity in a phone call,” Brad Nichols, global customer service leader at Dun & Bradstreet, said in a recent online event with CCW Digital, 'Reducing Agent Effort: The Key to a Great Customer Experience.'

While speaking to a customer, an agent might have to create a new case in a CRM tool, scour the knowledge base to locate answers to specific questions, and source pre-existing CRM data on that customer to view their product permissions or prior purchases. Under pressure to minimize handle times, agents can appear distracted, unfocused or uninterested.

“We were stunned when we did a little bit of inventory with one of my teams to find out they had almost 50 different applications that they had to be in and out of every single day to do their jobs,” said Nichols.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, Nichols and his team reverse-engineered the tools traditionally used to measure customer satisfaction to examine agent satisfaction instead.

“We decided to flip that concept a little bit and apply those same tools to the situation of the agent, where instead of having the customer as the focal point we took the agent as the focal point.”

1. Using Voice of Customer tools to obtain agent feedback 

Surveys asking frontline agents for suggestions on how to improve the customer experience are commonplace. Instead, Nichols elected to redesign the survey to ask agents how the firm could improve their ability to focus on the customer during phone conversations. Dun & Bradstreet also re-examined its existing customer journey map to include the agent’s process and understand any pain points.

“We added another layer into the customer journey map where we were accounting for the steps that the agent was taking in between the customer touchpoints in order to solve even the more straightforward questions.”

Most enlightening of all was assigning technical subject matter experts to shadow agents on the job. However, rather than grading the agent on typical quality assurance metrics, the technicians were there to observe the agent’s workflow and identify redundancies.

“These subject matter experts were able to see instances where the agents might be copying and pasting the same value they typed into one system across five systems,” Nichols explained, “or they have to keep opening different windows to find information from different places.”

2. Quantifying and measuring agent effort

Customer satisfaction is an elusive metric that hinges on a range of tangible and intangible factors - hence the popularity of customer effort scoring as an allegedly superior readout on future customer loyalty. The scoring system measures the ease of an experience typically on a five-point scale from “Very Difficult” to “Very Easy,” where a customer rates how much effort was required to use the product or service.

At Dun & Bradstreet, Nichols and his team are working to duplicate that scoring system for the agent-facing side, rolling out early this year. “What this will look like is as each agent closes a case in our CRM system, it’s going to ask them right then and there for a very quick indication of how difficult it was for them to resolve that case for the customer.”  

Soliciting quantitative feedback from agents helps make the case to management for a change to contact center workflows if numerous agents are experiencing a high level of difficulty, Nichols adds, while enabling contact center leaders to be aware of the daily travails encountered by the agents they supervise. 

3. Using speech analytics tools to infer agent effort

As part of a long-term commitment to recognizing and reducing agent effort, Nichols trained managers on the quality assurance team to listen for indicators of back-end snags during live calls. Long pauses after a customer speaks where an agent says nothing are usually because the agent is busy hunting for information. Unnecessary requests for the customer to repeat information are another red flag, not necessarily for laziness or inattentiveness, but an indication that the agent’s attention was divided.

“We found that it wasn’t because they weren’t paying attention from a lack of effort; it was because they were trying to find a piece of information or log into a system and were focused on that rather than listening to the customer.”

Agent engagement is often misperceived as a “soft” metric on par with job satisfaction indicators like opportunities for career advancement or the degree to which an agent feels valued by their manager.

Some organizations use a similarly “soft” sensibility to overcome the problem by throwing company parties, renovating the breakroom, or hosting expensive employee retreats, but that often misses the point, says Nichols. Most important of all is equipping agents with the right tools to get the job done, and eliminating needless barriers that hamper them.

“I’m a big believer that everyone goes to work everyday with a desire to do a good job,” he says. “If I’m unable to do a good job because it’s difficult for me to perform the tasks that are being asked of me to be successful in that job, then by derivation, I’m not going to be as happy or effective.”