Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Future Workforce: Imagining and Writing the Revolutionary Agent Job Description

In this exclusive preview of the Frost & Sullivan Executive MindXchange Chronicles: Customer Contact 2014, West, a panel of experts offer their insights on the workforce of the future, with an emphasis on evolving necessary skill sets, engaging millennials, and managing of remote employees.

Michael DeSalles, Principal Analyst, Customer Contact, Frost & Sullivan

- Denise Pullen, Assistant Director, Learning Innovation, Hyatt
- Kelly Ravsten, Director, Americas Audience Operations, Yahoo
- Ann Szymanowski, Global Director, Customer Service, Dow Chemical


With customers’ increasing ability to solve simple problems online, the questions that come in to agents are becoming more and more complex. Consequently, companies need to recruit for, train, and retain intelligent employees with the competence to solve challenging problems. 

What that means for contact centers: The skill sets of today’s agents need to favor problem-solving abilities and adaptability rather than rote memorization and adherence to scripts.


That doesn’t mean agents need to be technical experts; instead, the panelists said, companies must hire agents who can follow questions logically and figure out how to find solutions. In addition, agents need to be able to listen and have empathy for the customer. 

Look for customer-service-oriented individuals leaning toward sales, and recruit for college-educated employees on campuses. That strategy tends to work best in locations with high unemployment rates. Creating relationships with nearby campuses can allow the company to hire students part-time as they work toward degrees.  


Panelists agreed that education is important for today’s customer service agents. According to Ann Szymanoski, all agents at Dow Chemical have college degrees, as and they need strong critical thinking skills. Agents need understand the logistics of the company in order to serve customers.

All agents at Yahoo have degrees as well, Kelly Ravsten said. Her company looks for agents who can solve problems logically and learn. It’s impossible to use scripts to solve complex problems, she said. 

At Hyatt, college graduates are highly sought after but a degree is not specifically required, said Denise Pullen. The company is receiving much more complex calls now because most of the simple questions can be answered online. 


As the workforce evolves, organizations need to adapt to the generational differences of their employees. Younger agents tend to value different things than those who came before. Retaining millennial employees depends on engagement and motivation.


Companies must understand differences between the millennial workforce and prior generations, the panelists said. Unlike baby boomers, millennials often require a lot of feedback. They tend to be impatient and eager for promotion when they meet agreed-upon benchmarks, so it is important to ensure that these opportunities for advancement exist.

Don’t just rely on stereotypes about different generations. There’s a big gap between how most businesses view millennials and how they view themselves. For instance, according to
  • 35 percent of millennials consider themselves to tech savvy while 86 percent of HR managers say they're tech savvy. 
  • 82 percent of millennials think they are loyal to their employer while just 1 percent of HR managers say so. 
  • 86 percent of Millennials think they are hard-working, while 11 percent of HR managers agree.
Despite the challenges, panelists stressed companies should be excited about hiring millennials. Yes, they constitute a change in the workforce that requires a shift in motivation and retention strategies; however, they are the leaders of the future and, if properly engaged, have a lot to offer.  


The panelists recommended companies adapt their business structure to fit millennials instead of expecting them to adapt to fit the company. Create a work environment that challenges employees with clear parameters detailing acquisition of necessary skills and pay increases based on performance.

It’s important to help these employees with tuition reimbursement or loan assistance. The skilled college graduates companies are looking for will most likely have a higher debt ratio. 

For recruiting and retention, use groups and community outreach to help millennials feel connected to the company. For instance, Pullen said, Hyatt has created health and fitness club and a diversity group. Creating a fun culture that millennial employees fit into, fostering friendships, and allowing them to pursue a higher purpose will make them more likely to stay with the company.


Using work-at-home agents can help for recruiting, cutting costs and increasing agent availability. However, there are some challenges companies must overcome. According to the panelists, remote employment is a viable option as long as the right candidates feel connected to the company.


In today’s marketplace, it may be necessary to allow employees to work from home in order to hire and retain top talent. To avoid problems, companies must create a work-from-home environment that allows highly-trained employees to accomplish their work off-site.  

At Hyatt, about a third of agents work remotely. The training for them is key, Pullen said. The company uses a virtual classroom that’s completely interactive to make sure employees are engaged in the training.


The panelist recommended companies implement systems to ensure that remote employees are actively working despite not being physically present. Ongoing communication can help remote employees feel connected. Keep remote employees engaged with daily check-in meetings and frequent instant messaging interactions.

If you are considering a remote workforce but do not already have those capabilities in place, always test with a small alpha group. Allow highly-skilled employees who were originally trained in-person to migrate their work home.  Develop systems to monitor at-home work, such as remote desktop and webcam-based surveillance.

The creation of an at-home workforce may require realignment of leadership teams to service in-house, remote, and transitional employees.  Be prepared with a dedicated team of people taking care of remote employees to help ease the transition from in-person to remote.  


Just as the workforce is changing, HR departments must also evolve.  Leaders need training on generational diversity and what motivates each generation.  

For more valuable information, order your copy of Frost & Sullivan's Executive MindXchange Chronicles: Customer Contact 2015, West, a unique collection of all the key take-aways and best practices discussed at the event

Building a Customer Experience Strategy with Long-Term, Tangible Results

An interview with
Alistair Firmin
Vice President, Customer Service
Standard Insurance Company

Interviewed by Sam Narisi

As Vice President of Customer Service with The Standard, Alistair Firmin serves as the executive sponsor of the organization’s customer experience effort. For a little over a year, he’s led a company-wide push to ensure the customer stays at the center of everything The Standard does.

Following his presentation at the 10th Anniversary Customer Contact 2014, West: A Frost & Sullivan Executive MindXchange, we spoke with Alistair about the customer experience effort, what challenges the company has faced, and what lessons have been learned along the way.

How did your current customer experience effort begin? What made you realize it was time to implement this strategy?

We’ve been a company for 107 years, and we were founded on the basic principles of customer experience. Our founder Leo Samuel got together with some friends and started an insurance company in Portland because processing claims on the east coast took too long for the families covered. They paid their very first claim on the same day it was submitted, which is pretty incredible for 1906, let alone today. So we’ve always been about the customer experience, but our concerted effort began after the financial crisis, when everyone really focused on staying financially viable. We wanted to make sure we brought the whole customer experience back into the center of what we do.

We stepped back and took a holistic look and saw we had a mix of products, distribution channels, technology, etc. We knew we had to make sure our customers didn’t get lost in all this and that we were bringing products and services to the marketplace in a way that makes sense for them. It wasn’t that something big or disastrous happened to shift our focus; it was a natural progression for us.

Talk about the steps you’ve taken as part of this strategy.

During the first few months I talked to people and started to formulate the best way to get it going. I tried to get a feel for not just their perspective about customer experience, but also what things may have helped add to or detract from the customer experience in the past. When you’re talking about customer experience or anything else that’s not so tangible, you really need to understand the culture in the company and how you can best ride that to deliver a long-lasting impact.

For the next step, I selected six of my peers to join me on a council. Those were folks who not only demonstrated a passion for customer experience but also had controllership of key areas of the company and were decision-makers. I told them this can’t just be a flash in the pan that we put together and employees snicker about; it has to deliver tangible results. We got together and created a roadmap with the items we knew we needed to tackle first, then prioritized those efforts and put some resources behind them.

One of the elements of that roadmap that’s been extremely important for us was putting together customer champion teams. Those consist of 15 or so individuals from different functions that focus on each of our customer segments. They help map out the touchpoints and how customers feel, how important those touchpoints are, and how easy or difficult it would be to close any gaps.

What was the biggest challenge you faced along the way?

The biggest challenge we ran into and continue to run into is the time this requires people to spend away from their day jobs. The council meets every week for an hour at a minimum, and we have the champions get together several times a month for two-hour sessions. So the biggest challenge is not only getting those folks, because they’re fantastic individuals and everyone wants a piece of them, but then making sure we maximize their time and make sure they feel their time is being well spent.

This is where those efforts can easily wax and wane. If people don’t feel like their time is being respected and well used, they’ll drop off. One thing that’s helped avoid that is that we have an incredible project manager on the job. She brings a lot of energy and passion and keeps things moving forward. Another thing is the people involved. When you have a great group of people, some of them will be naturally inclined to put more effort in. So it’s important to identify those people early and make sure they feel satisfied, because they keep the energy going as well.

We also focus on recognition, thanking people for participating, and making sure we listen to what they have to say and are honest and open with them. They need to know that if they put the effort in, we’re going to listen and take them seriously.

You mentioned how important it is to have a long-term, tangible impact. How do you measure success to make sure it’s working? 

When we started looking at customer experience from a strategic perspective, we knew we needed to link it to something tangible. We’re tying our efforts to retention or what we call persistency – the willingness of customers to renew their coverage. If our customers are having a good experience, they’re more likely to stay with us. We want to keep our customers, make them feel valued and deliver a great experience. The longer any company keeps a customer, generally the more profitable they become.

As an insurance company, you work with both individuals and businesses. Do you have to address each type of customer differently? 

We have three customer segments for employee benefits. First, we have our brokers. They’re not captive to us and they represent all of our competitors as well, but we absolutely view them as critical. They’re the ones who bring us to the table with their clients. Their clients are the employers, which is another customer segment. The employers are working with us on bills and contracts, and they have to do on-boarding and on-going management of their benefit plans. Then of course, there are the covered employees – the folks who are actually using the benefits.

Each one of those segments brings a different expectation and a different view of us as a company. That’s why we have three different champion groups, to make sure we keep each one of those customers in perspective. We’ve also done some market research around customer perspectives and attitudes and what’s important to them, and we’ve dovetailed it with our branding efforts at the corporate level. The brand team has done a great job surveying the marketplace and determining the positioning for us. Understanding the attitudes and perspectives of the different types of customers is critical. Often, efforts like this will tailor to one customer type and lose the other perspectives.

This is an ongoing process. What have you learned along the way?

We learn constantly. We have constant feedback sessions and we’re always looking to the council to see if we need to change direction or shift our focus. There are multiple things we’ve learned. The biggest key here is making sure you’re constantly looking for and soliciting feedback, and that when it comes you listen to it. There isn’t one lesson I can point to, it’s lots of little lessons and constant course correction and adjustment.

Empowering The Customer Experience Culture Shift: From Customer Service To Customer Care

By Rhonda Basler
Director, Customer Engagement
Hallmark Business Connections

Customer experience is such a big beautiful term. Everyone uses it. Many companies are “focused” on it. They create journey maps and define moments of truth, all in the hopes of becoming customer experience champions. But what I find most interesting is the struggle many companies face when putting customer experience plans into action.

Improving the customer experience requires both an internal and external shift in an organization. This calls for change, which can be difficult to embrace, but not impossible. I propose a shift that can power a culture change that drives customer experience improvements. It’s a simple shift and is easy for employees to willingly embrace: Stop simply serving customers and start caring for them.


Customer service is factual, punctual and logical. Customer care is empathetic, tailored, individualized and, most importantly, emotional. When customers make decisions, how they feel about your company always wins over what they think about your company.

I believe one of the most challenging roles in a company belongs to customer service individuals. Being a customer service provider typically involves intense training that is focused on the “logical” portion of customer outreach: how to fix mis-shipments, billing errors, damaged product protocol and more. The list goes on and on. Solving problems and providing solutions are important to improving the customer experience, but what if there’s more? What if the customer experience doesn't need to solely end with a solution, but with a relationship as well?

Customer care is an extension of customer service and leans into the naturally empathetic side of all human beings. Each of us seeks to understand one another without judgment. We feel empowered to end our interactions positively. It’s in our nature. We need to capitalize on our inherent urge to form relationships. We need to encourage our employees to own their empathy and apply it to all customer interactions. The more customers feel understood and cared for, the more likely they are to speak favorably of your company.


No doubt, one of the biggest moments of truth for any company is the atonement process.  Everyone makes mistakes, and businesses are no exception. Each day technology errors happen, misunderstandings occur and, despite best efforts, customers experience distress. But it isn't the nature of the mistake that matters – it's how it's resolved.

Customer service is tactical in its approach to resolving customer complaints. When a customer calls with a problem, the customer service representative solves it. Customer care pushes this boundary further. Instead of simply resolving the problem, a customer care associate uses empathy to offer support and comfort. This employee strives to understand what the customer is feeling and, in doing so, true empathy can be conveyed, healing the emotional wound.

According to the 2013 Customer Rage Study, 56 percent of study participants felt they received nothing from a business after they filed a complaint. Additionally, 76 percent of respondents simply wanted an apology, but only 32 percent received one.

Put yourself in the shoes of your customers and strive to understand how they feel without over-complicating the situation. Sometimes the most effective solution is a simple apology with a side of empathy.


Customer feelings wield a lot of power over the future of your business. According a study by McKinsey & Company, 85 percent of customers increased their spending based on positive emotions throughout their interactions with businesses, while 70 percent reduced their spending when they had a bad experience. When employees are actively engaged in their work and strive to create a better emotional experience, customers will be more satisfied. This increased satisfaction leads to higher retention and loyalty.

Hallmark Business Connections has the pleasure of working with a global fortune 100 company on its customer care strategies. After training and providing customer care tools, employees said they felt inspired by the relationships they were building and had an 18 percent jump in their job satisfaction scores. Moreover, customers felt more valued and reported being three times more likely to maintain the relationship with the company than before. Overall, customers touched by the program had a 10 percent increase in customer retention, a 21 percent increase in purchase activity and a 32 percent increase in revenue. There is no arguing the success of those customer care results.

Customer care is essential to achieving our customer experience goals in today’s business world. Our hyper-social, high-tech world leaves little room for just “service.” Why? Because every business can provide that. When we empower our employees to embrace their natural ability to understand, empathize and care for customers, we also create a competitive differentiator in the marketplace.

To learn more, visit Rhona Basler can be reached on LinkedIn

Why Social Media is Different - and How to Use it for Customer Engagement

By Brendan Read
Industry Analyst – Customer Contact
Frost & Sullivan

Every company understands the necessity of listening and engaging with customers on social media. But have most companies grasped how to effectively market to them on that channel?

As noted in the Frost & Sullivan Market Insight, From Mass Marketing to Social Marketing, companies may be challenged in marketing on that channel.  Here’s why, from this report and from other research:

  • Companies are not used to engaging and interacting with a mass, but also a targeted audience, and a “target of one”. Companies are still conditioned to “message-out”. Shorter, colloquial conversations run a greater risk of misinterpretation.
  • Applying metrics to track performance, results, and to determine ROI is very difficult to accomplish as there is a lack of universal metrics across social platforms. Companies can’t use audience size and length of engagement because there are active and passive audiences, including audience members (like me) who view social sites through other Web sites. This last category is probably bigger than most people or businesses think.
  • Companies cannot generally use social media as a direct sales channel because it is open, hence confidential information cannot be revealed. Also, the social media culture frowns on this practice.  However, a new Facebook “buy” feature may change that attitude if it is unobtrusive and secure.
  • While customers may be buying as a result of social marketing programs, the conversions are often difficult to track. For example, a customer may have purchased an item after reading a Tweet, but the seller may not be able to identify the direct link. 

To market on social media effectively, companies need to step back and look at social media for what it is, which is a gathering place, like an event, meeting, or a reception. The same social practices, conventions, and mores that apply when you attend in-person also apply while on social media:

  • You listen politely to conversations, analyze what is being said (and not said) and, at the right moment, you introduce yourself.
  • When the others allow you to speak, you engage with them in their conversation before talking about yourself, making your points, and introducing your topics.  All the while you are picking up “data points” about the others’ careers, interests, passions, demographics, status, and social influence.
  • Only if the others express a direct interest in you and your points do you deep-dive into them.  And if there are one or two people who are especially interested in what you say you go to one side or follow up with them later “off-line”.  Some Twitter solutions, like those from HipLogiq, perform lead generation with social conversations. They capture and analyze Tweets for desires and wants, such as “I’m hungry for a burger”, and respond with targeted offers.
  • Finally, if you find that the group is not listening to you, then you move on to another group.

There is so much information that is exchanged in a simple conversation that to sort it out and to respond accurately and appropriately in real-time with analytics solutions is extremely challenging.  I like IBM’s social media analytics solutions in part because IBM continually strives to bring machine intelligence closer to human intelligence, such as through its Watson cognitive processing technology.

Once companies see and understand the social dynamics in person they should apply them to social media marketing and social media in general, with the right tools. If they do then they might be pleasantly surprised with the results. 

The Top 5 Take-Aways from Customer Contact 2014, West

By Michael DeSalles
Principal Analyst | Customer Contact
Frost & Sullivan


Sam Narisi
Publications Editor/Lead Writer
Frost & Sullivan

Customer service experts and thought leaders recently gathered in the San Diego for the 10th Anniversary Customer Contact 2014, West: A Frost & Sullivan Executive MindXchange. These executives, directors and managers  discussed the day-to-day challenges they face in their own contact centers and their strategies to move toward improving the customer experience.

The theme of this year’s event was “Raising the Bar on Customer Engagement and Experience.” Participants, speakers and session facilitators shared their perspectives around what companies can do to keep the focus on delivering an excellent experience no matter why customers interact with the company and no matter what channel (voice, text, video, email, chat) they are using.

Discussions covered all aspects of contact centers and customer service, including hiring and managing agents, mapping the customer journey, customer satisfaction metrics and finding the best ways to use data and technology to improve the customer experience.

Here are a few of the biggest takeaways that came out of these highly interactive think tanks. If you were at the event, please share your own top takeaways in the comments below.

1. Agents require new skills

More and more customers are gravitating toward self-service tools when they have a question for a company or need an issue resolved. Customers can now visit a website to take care of many of the simple problems that used to require a phone call. They only call the contact center as a last resort, when they’re dealing with something more complicated.

That means businesses need agents will the right skills to be able to handle those complex issues. Employees need to know more about the products and services and the internal workings of the company. As a result, many companies are focused on hiring educated agents with strong critical thinking skills.

For instance, during a panel discussion, Ann Szymanoski, Global Director of Customer Service at Dow Chemical, said her company makes a concerted effort to hire agents with college degrees. Dow also makes sure they understand the company’s logistics so that  they are better equipped to answer customer inquiries..

2. Millennials require new management strategies

Companies must also deal with the generational shifts occurring in the workforce. Many participants noted that acquiring, retaining and engaging Millennial agents requires new strategies and approaches. Despite some negative stereotypes about this group of workers, it’s important for businesses to put in the effort to get to know what drives not only this group of employees, but also consumers that fit this demographic. When properly engaged, Millennial agents have a lot to offer.

One strategy that can help with recruiting and retention is to the company’s corporate responsibility outreach. This kind of community involvement can help employees feel more like an integral part of the company. Hyatt Hotels, for example, has created a health and fitness club as well as a diversity group, said Denise Pullen, the company’s Assistant Director of Learning Innovation. Creating a fun culture that millennial employees fit into, fostering friendships, and allowing them to pursue a higher purpose will make them more likely to stay with the company, Pullen said.

3. Empathy and authenticity are necessary for delivering a great customer experience

Satisfying customers today requires providing seamless, effortless and personalized interactions on whatever channel the customer chooses. That means businesses must measure customer satisfaction levels (NPS, FCR, C-Sat surveys), as well as make sure that agents have the right information at their fingertips in order to handle interactions quickly and effectively.

Agents must also go beyond reading scripts and try to understand each individual customer's situation, said best-selling author Mike Robbins during his keynote presentation. The key is being authentic and genuine, Robbins said. He contends that agents cannot always give the customer what he or she wants. However, authenticity will make a difference in how that customer perceives the company.

4. Customer experience begins with the small things

Too often, business leaders think of efforts to improve customer experience only in terms of big, company-wide initiatives, said Michel Falcon of Falcon Consulting. However, you can't start any big initiatives without first providing consistently great experiences on a daily basis.

You need to start slow and begin by making sure each individual customer interaction is excellent. Employees need to be able to treat their 100th customer the same way they did their first.

5. Businesses need a Big Data strategy 

There's a lot of data companies can collect from customer interactions and use to improve the customer experience and deliver products and services that better meet customers’ needs. However, companies need to have a strategy in place so they know what their goals are and what they need to measure.

Companies must begin by determining the metrics that are important success indicators for the organization, and then collect data accordingly, said Curtis Generous, Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at AARP. To get the most out of the data, look at all channels and make sure information is organized properly. In addition, companies need to use data collection methods that align with the preferences of customers. For example, AARP will use different methods than an organization with a younger customer base.