Think about the last time you flew. When you checked in, did you use a self-service option, such as the airline’s website, app, or airport kiosk, to check your bags, choose your seat, and print your boarding pass? Or did you wait in line at the airport to speak to a human being instead? If you’re like most people, you used the self-service option. in fact, our data shows an overwhelming preference for self-service: Across industries, 81% of all customers try to take care of things themselves before reaching out to a live representative.
Self-service offers businesses a tantalizing opportunity to cut costs, often dramatically. The cost of a DIY transaction is measured in cents, while the average cost of a live service interaction (phone, email, or web chat) is more than $7 for a b2c company and more than $13 for a b2b company. Corporate investment in self-service technologies has been enormously effective in removing low-complexity issues from the live service queue, and most companies we’ve studied report a steady reduction in such contacts in recent years.
All of this creates a new challenge: As customers handle more simple problems themselves, customer service representatives are faced with increasingly difficult problems—the problems that customers can’t solve themselves. and representatives today are wrestling with these complex issues. As one service leader at a large retailer admitted to us, “Our people are woefully ill-equipped to handle today’s customers and their problems. we are not running a contact center here. it’s more like a sadness factory.”
Compounding the problem, as companies have focused on new self-service technologies, they haven’t invested enough in front-line service talent. they still hire, onboard, develop, and manage their service representatives the same way they always have. While the self-service experience has improved dramatically in recent years, live service interaction has barely changed in decades, driving a gap between customer expectations and the actual experience. stories of poor service spark outrage on social media and go viral despite companies’ best efforts to contain them. It’s not surprising that customer satisfaction has been in steady decline across all industries for years.
plus, putting unprepared staff on the phone with irate customers is costly. complex issues take longer to handle, which drives up costs: the average cost of a live service contact jumped from $7 in 2009 to almost $10 five years later. Inadequate training also drives staff turnover, which is exacerbated by a tighter job market: Attrition among customer service representatives has skyrocketed from 19% during the Great Recession to 24% today. Higher turnover not only increases recruiting and training costs, but also forces companies to pay more to retain the reps they have, so valuable knowledge and experience doesn’t go out the door.
In a self-service world, talented reps are more important than ever. But what kind of people are best equipped to handle today’s customers? And how can organizations ensure they attract and retain the most effective reps? that’s what we set out to learn.
seven types of repetitions
To determine the optimal service representative profile, we conducted a global, cross-sector study of 1,440 representatives. We found that all reps fall into one of seven profiles we derived from the data: ushers, competitors, controllers, supporters, hard workers, innovators, and rocks (see the exhibit “The Seven Types of Reps”). our team then interviewed dozens of reps to better understand how different types approach their jobs. We also surveyed contact center supervisors about the types of reps they like to hire and manage.
When managers look at all seven profiles, they prefer, by a wide margin, the sympathizers: 42% of the managers we surveyed preferred this profile. therefore, it is not surprising that supporters made up 32% of all frontline service representatives in our study. In interviews, managers described the ideal representative as “service-oriented,” “a good listener and communicator,” and someone who “likes to help others.” that role is not easy. Said a vice president of service for a large cable operator, “Customers today are incredibly impatient. as soon as we ask how we can help them, they jump down our throats. they’re frustrated with the amount of time they’ve had to spend on their own, frustrated with the amount of conflicting information they find on the internet, and frustrated at the thought of having to deal with a service representative. they don’t call us because they want to; They call us because they have no other choice.”
so how well do supporters perform? To find out, we collected representative-level data on key metrics used for performance management in service organizations. Based on our own research into what drives customer loyalty in the service environment, we focused on the ability of reps to make service interactions as smooth as possible. we also take into account other quality indicators, such as customer satisfaction levels, along with productivity measures such as average handling time.
our results deviated dramatically from what managers expect: supporters don’t win; the controllers do. The latter outperform all other representative types on a number of quality and performance measures, particularly in reducing the effort required from customers. however, service managers like this profile less: only 2% said they would hire controllers before other types.
just solve customer problems
See also: 6 Ways to Show You Care
why do controllers perform better than their counterparts? our structured interviews revealed that they are motivated to provide quick and easy service and are comfortable using their strong personalities to demonstrate their expertise. They describe themselves as “take charge” people who are more interested in building and following a plan than “going with the flow,” even in social situations. they are confident decision makers, especially when no one is in charge, and they are opinionated and expressive. as one controller explained, “I like to take control of the situation and guide people.”
and as the problems reps face have gotten more complicated, controllers have turned out to be the best troubleshooters. They not only proactively diagnose customer issues, but also consider the customer’s personality and the context of the call to tailor a solution and present it effectively. controllers focus less on asking customers what they’d like to do and more on telling them what to do, with the goal of always reaching the quickest and easiest resolution. the conversation feels decidedly human and unscripted: controllers tend to avoid generic language and prescribed checklists, especially when their diagnosis suggests customers have already spent a lot of time trying to solve a problem on their own.
Knowingly or not, controllers provide what information-saturated customers want (according to research): clear guidance rather than excessive choice. in ceb’s customer contact practice, for example, we found that 84% of customers would prefer a direct solution to their problem rather than a wide range of self-service channels (email, chat, social media-based service and soon). In our sales practice, we have found that providing clients with prescriptive guidance that simplifies important buying decisions leads to much lower levels of buyer’s remorse. And in our marketing practice, we’ve found that brands in the top quartile of the “decision simplicity index” are 85% more likely to be purchased by consumers than those in the bottom quartile.
Managers looking to shift to a driver approach to their service interactions face three pressing challenges: hire more drivers; teach other types of reps the skills needed to create a controller experience with customers; and rebuild the climate of the service organization to encourage and reward driver behavior.
controllers made up just 15% of customer service reps in our sample. Given their scarcity and superior performance, you might assume they would be harder to attract or more expensive to hire than other candidates. To test this, we studied a panel of 1,022 job seekers. After classifying each job applicant as one of seven representative types, we assessed each group’s appetite for frontline customer service roles. We found that controllers are just as likely as other reps to take a job that pays less than $35,000 a year (the average for contact center workers), are less likely to have a college degree, and are more likely to apply for a top of the line customer service job.
essential background information
This is not to say that hiring drivers is easy. a series of obstacles stand in the way. First, the messages that companies typically use to attract candidates for front-line service positions are more likely to turn away the drivers that attract them. Our team audited job postings from several dozen Fortune 500 companies and found that all firms used virtually the same language to describe their frontline representative positions, yet ironically many of them tout unique and differentiated customer service. what are you offering. these companies tend to call candidates with “proven customer service skills,” limiting the candidate pool to applicants with prior customer service experience (who, according to our data, are much less likely to be drivers).
These companies also offer a very generic employment value proposition: Virtually every post we reviewed promised some version of “challenging career opportunities” and a “culture that rewards performance.” In addition, typical postings noted a desire for candidates who fit old stereotypes of customer service workers: people who “can meet quality and productivity standards,” provide service “through the use of multiple systems, applications, and more.” , administrative processes and operational tools,” and “working an eight-hour shift.” unfortunately, this type of role is the exact opposite of what controllers are looking for. in our interviews, they indicated a clear preference for flexibility to express their personality and handle problems as they see fit.A post describing a rote, mechanistic service role tells controllers that the company is looking for factory floor drones that can follow rules and procedures, not knowledge workers who will be trusted to exercise your own judgment to provide superior customer service.that’s a fact r decisive for drivers.
By rewriting job postings, companies can powerfully influence the people they attract. Macquarie Telecom, in Australia, surveyed its top performers to find out what excited them about their work, and then put together a job posting to call attention to those characteristics. the company promises that representatives will “serve as the customer’s primary point of contact” and “handle customer issues from start to finish.” The job listings also include quotes from Macquarie supervisors, who describe their best customer service employees as “zealous problem solvers” with a unique ability to “think on their feet” and as “starters who feel comfortable taking the initiative.” Finally, Macquarie publications highlight employee benefits that high-performing employees said they valued most, such as a top-notch training program for new hires, the ability to earn industry certification, and the opportunity to work in an energetic and fast-paced environment.
fix the problem and more
Once an organization has learned how to attract target candidates, it must become more aggressive to ensure good fits. Like Macquarie, Canadian subcontractor Blue Ocean uses language designed to appeal to drivers from various professional and personal backgrounds, not just those with previous service center experience: “If you excel at solving logic puzzles and logistical nightmares Like hosting sports tournaments or planning long multi-vehicle road trips, then we bet you’ve got the right stuff.” The company also uses devious language (“this job is not for the faint of heart”) and is candid about the difficulties Faced with reps: “Sometimes you won’t know the right answer, but you’re the type of person who’s always up for a challenge. he will rely on his resources and quickly research an answer, and sometimes just have to google it.” Clearly defining expectations not only deters poor-fit candidates, who are more likely to leave in the days and weeks after their initial training, but also signals that the service organization has exacting standards, which contradicts the conventional wisdom. assumption that anyone can do the job. blue ocean also works to combat negative stereotypes about the position, posting videos on social media to challenge common misperceptions and present blue ocean service center opportunities in a favorable light.
Carefully crafted messages will attract drivers, but won’t guarantee they’ll receive a safe passage through the hiring process. As we’ve discussed, many customer service managers have a strong preference for sympathizers and a bias against controllers. We’ve created an interview guide to help overcome these biases by suggesting questions that will help identify drivers and highlighting “red flag” responses. For example, we suggest that interviewers ask: “Tell me about a time when you realized that a process you were asked to follow didn’t make sense. what did you do?” and “Describe a time when you needed someone to do something right away, but you knew that person is often passive. what did you do?” Many companies we work with use this “dashboard” in pre-employment interviews and assessment tests, which helps streamline employee selection.
teaching the controller mindset
even a robust hiring approach, redesigned to attract and identify controllers, will leave companies with a significant number of other types of frontline reps. therefore, in addition to better hiring, companies should consider new approaches to talent development and performance management to help non-controllers act more like controllers.
Companies that have committed to teaching controller skills have changed their training curriculum from teaching product knowledge, rote processes for handling calls, and procedures for using systems and tools. instead, they are teaching reps to apply listening techniques and frameworks that replicate controller instincts to quickly understand what the customer needs and how to deliver the optimal personalized resolution. however, nuanced controller skills cannot be taught through traditional classroom instruction alone. Companies intent on developing controller skills are increasingly moving toward manager-led on-the-job training that helps reps achieve greater mastery over time.
Unfortunately, most first-line managers confuse coaching with performance management. In the typical service organization, most training is an episodic “check the box” exercise done away from the floor, usually once or twice a week. these sessions often involve reviewing recorded calls from days or weeks prior, making it difficult for reps to remember and explain details. And because the focus tends to be on what went wrong rather than why it happened, sessions can feel punitive rather than constructive.
Although this type of targeting is common, in a study of more than 300 frontline customer service managers, we found that some managers use a more effective “embedded targeting”: interactions that happen across the floor in short bursts during regular daily workflow. we saw a dramatic difference in the impact of the two training styles. Teams for which the majority of training was of the integrated variety performed 12% better than average on company-reported quality and productivity metrics. Just as important, when managers focused on scheduled training, those teams performed 5% below average.
build a driver-friendly service organization
Controllers appreciate being allowed to troubleshoot in a way that doesn’t require strict adherence to a rigid protocol. they also appreciate the freedom to “bring up issues with policies and procedures”—they want to be part of organizations that are serious about continuous improvement and are willing to give representatives a voice in that process.
Creating this kind of climate, where reps can exercise their judgment and help identify opportunities for improvement, requires new ways of managing individual performance and team engagement. First, from a performance management perspective, companies need to rethink their current “checklist” approach to quality assurance. the traditional quality control method, which requires reps to adhere closely to a defined call process and scheduled interactions (“say the customer’s name three times,” “apologize for any difficulties the customer may be experiencing “, “always thank the customer for being loyal”, etc.), runs directly against a controller approach.
A large bank replaced its quality assurance checklist with a “flexible competency framework.” Instead of rating reps on their ability to meet a script, the bank rates them on their core competencies, such as negotiating and relationship-building. their framework doesn’t tell them what to say, but instead describes behaviors on a performance spectrum from “noob” to “expert.” for example, a newbie might “talk about the customer,” while a more advanced rep “would use a collaborative, assertive tone.” By articulating the high-performance characteristics in each competency, but without dictating a precise script, the bank allows representatives to exercise their own judgment in individual customer interactions, and managers to evaluate them accordingly.
Bank customer engagement results have dramatically improved as a result of this change. the approach helped drive a 5% increase in the number of customers paying their balances during calls and a 30% improvement in customer engagement with a payment plan. The new framework also helped reduce rep appeals of quality control scores. Previously, the bank received an average of 20 to 30 appeals per month, a rate that has since dropped to fewer than five per month. Said one of the organization’s quality assurance managers, “You want people to become experts at the skills that matter, not experts at following instructions by rote. our staff feel that their handcuffs have been removed.”
In addition to approaching performance management differently, companies must employ new vehicles for soliciting feedback from reps and engaging them in creating a better customer experience. Fidelity Investments created an online discussion platform for representatives to funnel improvement ideas to senior management and seek advice from colleagues on how to handle customer issues. The forum is moderated by veteran service representatives who serve as conduits between the representative community and management, relaying the best ideas to the leadership team and communicating responses to their fellow representatives. In the forum’s first year, representatives posted more than 3,000 comments, including 350 ideas management deemed worthy of further evaluation. For example, representatives identified a website timeout issue that was frustrating customers and causing increased calls, an issue that was quickly fixed once it came to light. since then, senior management has approved more than 100 improvement ideas, helping the organization save more than $4 million.
Another major financial institution, in Australia, also created a process for inviting ideas for improvement from representatives. The company has a quarterly “Feedback Day,” in which representatives present concepts to senior management. To help reps prepare, the company provides after-hours training on building business cases, making presentations to leaders, and developing project plans. Management scores proposals based on standard criteria related to financial impact, customer impact, ease of implementation, and other factors, and those that pass a defined score threshold are given the green light for action. In addition to surfacing dozens of opportunities for improvement—for example, consolidating an internal function in the contact center, which reduced call transfers and generated efficiency gains of A$350,000 a year—the effort has led to an 11% improvement in frontline staff engagement.
When we share our research with managers, they sometimes cringe at the thought of a service organization full of drivers, let alone drivers interacting with their most frustrated and troublesome customers. managers often tell us controllers “wouldn’t fit the culture well” and lack the empathy needed to succeed. but our interviews reveal that controllers are, in fact, quite empathetic. They understand the needs and frustrations of customers. but they respond in a distinctive way. they recognize that after struggling online trying to serve themselves, customers don’t want an apology, they want a solution.