Scott hadn't logged into the phones all day.
He was behind on too many open support tickets. They were all nasty, too. None of those easy password reset questions that he used to get.
James, Scott's co-worker, was feeling the pressure on the phone. Customers were angry about long hold times and he was doing his best to keep up. Every call seemed to be a long one.
Trudy, another co-worker, was frustrated too. She just took a call that lasted five minutes, but she knew most of her co-workers would need 30 minutes for the same issue.
She would have loved to share her knowledge with her colleagues, but there hadn't been any time lately. Everyone was neck-deep in tricky tickets.
This is a common challenge. Phone contacts are getting more complicated and that's taking more time. Agents and contact centers aren't always prepared.
I reached out to some of the top analysts covering the contact center industry to find out what's going on. They all point to an unexpected culprit: self-service.
Here's why, and what you can do about it.
Phone Calls Are Changing
Years ago, customer service phone calls varied widely.
Many calls would be simple transactions. A billing inquiry, a password reset, or a status check on an online order. Today, customers can handle all of those transactions themselves online or via an app.
According to Roy Atkinson, a principal with Clifton Butterfield, LLC, the situation drives customers' decision to call: "The more complex the issue—from the customer’s perspective—the more likely the customer will be to want to talk to a human."
Atkinson points to this data from the American Express Global Customer Service Barometer:
John Goodman, Vice Chairman of Customer Care Measurement and Consulting, agrees:
"Telephone service is not going away and in some aspects is becoming more critical. This is because when an issue becomes serious, customers pick up the phone. Our 2015 National Rage Study found that for their most serious problems, customers go to the phone 72% of the time, more than six times as often as going to email or social media (11%)."
The Customer Impact
A 2015 study by Mattersight revealed that only 28 percent of customers use the phone as their first attempt to solve a problem.
A separate 2015 study, this one by Microsoft and Parature, found that 57 percent of customers first go online to try to resolve a problem on their own. They only call when that fails. This makes the phone agent's job even tougher.
Ian Jacobs, a Senior Analyst at Forrester Research, put it this way:
"Because the customers have already tried to self-serve and failed, they are already somewhat frustrated when they reach an agent. The agent starts two steps back at the word hello."
Indeed, Mattersight reported that 66 percent of customers are frustrated before they even speak to a phone agent. Part of it is the problem itself. Justin Robbins, Group Community Director for HDI & ICMI, points to another issue causing frustration:
"The typical customer journey is taking them across multiple channels, and all too frequently captures information in multiple disparate systems. When these customers finally make their way to a phone rep, it’s often a fragmented, complicated mess."
This customer frustration ends up making calls take even longer. Last year, I discovered research that showed angry customers are more judgmental and less open to ideas. That makes those customers even harder for your phone reps to serve.
How to Help Your Phone Reps
There are a few things you can do to help your phone reps.
The first is to make it easier for customers to get the help they need. Robbins suggests that organizations need to do a better job of anticipating customer needs:
"Organizations are in control of their processes and have the ability to map and affect the customer journey. If leaders are truly concerned about an increase in the complexity of service, they’ll take the necessary steps to create better and more simple service models."
Goodman had this specific suggestion:
"If your website homepage anticipated and answered the top six issues customers call about, you would see at least a 30% drop in calls on those subjects. Most home pages are 90% devoted to marketing when at least 80% of visitors are existing customers trying to get assistance. The allocation of real estate is exactly backwards."
Finally, make sure you equip your agents with tools like knowledge bases to help them quickly find the answers to tough issues. If one agent can solve an issue in 5 minutes, there's no reason why it should take other agents 30 minutes to get through the same call.