Call centers employ nearly three million people in the US alone, and the average call center handles 4,400 calls per month. With millions of agents talking to millions of customers, the stakes are high: small improvements in agent performance can create significant ripple effects across key metrics like customer satisfaction, loyalty, and retention. How well-equipped your agents are can also have an outsized impact on your call center’s employee turnover.
With this in mind, improving call center agent performance needs to be a top priority for SaaS leaders in CX and CS leadership roles. There are many ways to do this: improving processes, monitoring calls, and providing regular coaching to agents, for example. But for today’s call centers, perhaps nothing is more impactful than incorporating the latest technology—especially AI call center tools.
To help your agents perform at their peak, you’ll need to tackle everything from SOPs to call center software tools to your employees’ work environment. There’s no getting around it: this is a big task. But by helping agents better anticipate and meet customer needs, you have the opportunity to generate a dramatic impact on revenue, employee turnover, and customer satisfaction.
The Changing Role Of Call Center Agents
In an age of AI and self-service, you might assume that, as the use of digital self-service options like chatbots and interactive voice response (IVR) systems increases, the need for call center agents will decrease. While that’s a fair assumption, it hasn’t yet come to fruition: 61% of call center managers say that call volumes have actually increased in the years since 2020. Most managers expect volume to keep increasing over the coming years.
Why the disconnect? Although AI-powered virtual agents can deflect upwards of 60% of customer inquiries, many customer support teams have been slow to adopt the latest tech. While adoption is trending upward, only 50% of customer service teams empower agents with even basic performance-boosting tools like a help desk, a knowledge base, and collaborative email capabilities. At many call centers, that means human agents continue handling high-volume basic inquiries.
At the same time, customer expectations continue to grow: customers expect ever-faster, more personalized responses from agents. Dealing with frustrated or angry customers and managing a high volume of interactions is stressful, often leading to agent burnout. Meanwhile, agents at omnichannel contact centers are expected to juggle different modes of communication seamlessly.
Strategies For Enhancing Call Center Agent Performance
Agent performance starts with the hiring process. With the wrong person in the agent role, no amount of training will make up for the poor fit. Instead, make sure the agents joining your team have natural customer service skill sets like active listening, problem-solving, empathy, and attention to detail.
Once you’re sure you have the right agents on your team, there’s plenty you can do to help them perform at their best. Successful call centers have long relied on training, SOPs, call scripts, coaching, and customer feedback to improve agent performance. In recent years, software has changed call centers in many ways. The advent of AI call center software, in particular, is having a significant impact: the global market for AI call center tools is expected to jump from $1.6 billion to $4 billion by 2027.
The following strategies cover tried-and-true methods to improve agent performance, as well as the latest AI-powered tools to empower your agents to handle customers with skill and confidence.
1. Build Comprehensive Processes
Customers have always been impatient. But these days, they are even more so: a 2019 survey commissioned by Arise found that nearly two-thirds of consumers will only wait on hold for two minutes or less before hanging up.
The answer? In part, processes. When you have standard operating procedures for every situation, agents can handle customer issues confidently and quickly.
Create SOPs for everything you can:
- General call flow: How to greet callers, ask probing questions, gather information, resolve the inquiry, and close out the call.
- Standard workflows: Cover things like how to create a new account, how to reset passwords, how to refund customers,
- Troubleshooting: Create quick reference guides and cheat sheets that agents can rely on for common problems, and tailor them to every product and feature.
- Escalation: Decide under what scenarios agents should get a supervisor involved. Give agents as much leeway as you can for resolving issues on their own.
- Compliance: Some customers are wary of handing over sensitive data. Make sure your agents understand compliance standards for data protection, as well as disclosures and legal disclaimers that need to be verbalized.
Since your products and features change regularly, your processes will too. Come back to your workflows and processes regularly to update and simplify them. Incorporate automation where possible to take repetitive work like data entry off of your agents’ plates.
2. Empower Your Agents With Technology
Among the many challenges facing call center agents today is the expectation of personalized service. 71% of customers expect personalization, and they don’t want to be put on hold while agents scramble to put together their account details and history. Instead, they expect instant, informed service.
Fortunately, personalization is just one of many capabilities offered by the latest call center software. Rather than going into calls without context, agent dashboards can display everything agents need to be successful: customer details from your CRM tool, relevant past customer interactions, and dynamic call scripts that suggest what to say next.
For example, Dialpad has a feature called Assists that brings up context-aware answer suggestions based on the conversation between the customer and agent.
Customer service agent dashboards can also show agents where they stand from a performance perspective, with KPIs like average handle time (AHT), first call resolution rate, and customer satisfaction scores.
customer feedback, and how they’re performing versus other team members.
Here are some key call center software features to look for:
- Relevant customer information: Automatically surfaces customer records and history when calls come in.
- Smart search: Helps agents quickly find relevant articles.
- Call recording: Today’s AI-based sentiment analysis tools can keep track of calls that are trending negative, allowing managers to provide live coaching or jump in and save the call before it’s lost.
- AI assistance: Provides real-time guidance to agents during calls, from checklists to dynamic prompts, so agents always know what to say.
- Collaboration tools: Allows agents to seamlessly consult with supervisors and teammates. For example, agents can “raise their hand” to flag a manager who can seamlessly jump onto the call to listen, message the agent with helpful information, or intervene if necessary.
- AI notetaking: The more time agents spend on post-call admin work, the less time they’re able to serve customers. AI can provide real-time transcriptions of 100% of calls, including items like call summary and next steps.
Low-tech solutions can make a difference, too. Make sure your contact center agents have comfortable headsets, ergonomic chairs, and dual monitors to boost agent productivity and avoid fatigue. For remote staff, subsidize home offices to ensure that agents can create an environment to work comfortably and without disruption.
3. Route Calls Intelligently
Intelligent call routing can have a dramatic impact on call center performance. CallHippo, a VoIP provider, automatically escalates customer inquiries that have negative revenue implications. It also flags those inquiries to the customer success team for follow-up. Using this strategy, CallHippo was able to reduce revenue churn by 20% and improve agent CSAT scores by 21%.
When considering call routing strategies, it’s helpful to go back to the fundamentals. Broadly speaking, there are a few categories of customer calls:
- Simple inquiries that could have been handled via self-service.
- Calls that can be handled by a voice assistant.
- Calls that can be handled by any human agent.
- Calls that are best suited to specific agents or teams.
Ideally, most customers can find what they need via self-service—and indeed, 62% of millennials and 75% of Gen Z prefer this mode of service. Beefing up your self-service resources, including knowledge bases and chatbots, should help free up your team to focus on more complex calls.
Even once customers have called in, AI-powered voice assistants may be able to handle simple inquiries. In several US states, 911 centers are now using AI to manage non-emergency calls and free up more agents to handle emergencies. AI now manages 40% of the administrative calls placed to the emergency call center in Jefferson County, Colorado.
Meanwhile, IVR can determine whether an inquiry can be handled by any customer rep, or whether it needs to go to a specific team or a technically-skilled agent. And the latest sentiment analysis technology can flag upset customers, automatically escalating them to senior agents with relevant expertise.
4. Use Call Scripts Strategically
Call scripts don’t have the best reputation. If you’ve ever reached out for customer support and felt like reps were just reading off a script—and not really listening to you—you’re not alone.
But rigid, robotic call scripts are not the only option. Smart call script strategies can give customers the answers they need faster while helping agents deliver support more confidently. Today’s AI-powered tools are making call scripts more flexible and context-aware.
For example, Dialpad’s Real-Time Assist cards pop up on agents’ screens to provide guidance whenever certain “trigger” words are spoken on a call. If the agent or customer says “export account information,” a dialog might appear with specific instructions.
Balto’s Real-Time Guidance feature helps call center leaders “scale winning conversations” by automatically collecting the most effective phrases used by agents, then promoting them for use by all agents. Balto also offers smart checklists that give agents more flexibility than a call script while keeping them on track (and automatically detecting when they’ve mentioned something on the checklist, to make sure nothing is missed).
5. Monitor Calls And Provide Real-Time Coaching
Not so long ago, call center managers were faced with a tedious task ahead of performance reviews: pulling call recordings, listening to agents’ performances, and making notes on where to improve.
Today, this process is easier. Rather than listening to recordings and scoring them manually, managers can rely on AI-powered call monitoring and analysis tools, occasionally diving deeper when needed to review recordings or transcripts. Speech analytics can have a measurable impact on key metrics: a 2022 McKinsey report found that they improve customer satisfaction by up to 10%.
Real-time call analysis also opens up new performance management and coaching possibilities. Using live analytics, managers can see which agents need guidance and help save the interaction before it’s too late. For example, Dialpad shows an overview of agent calls along with a live sentiment analysis, making it easy to decide which calls to listen in on.
AI can provide coaching, too. The real-time guidance features of the latest AI call center tools can give live feedback to agents; for example, “You said ‘I’m not sure if that’s possible.’ Instead, try ‘Allow me to look into that for you’.”
The best agent calls can be highlighted by managers and re-used for agent training, as in this example from RingCentral:
6. Prioritize Agent Engagement and Happiness
Employee turnover at call centers is high, averaging 30-45%. It can be a tough job: a study by Cornell University found that 87% of call center workers had “high” or “very high” workplace stress levels. 50% of agents felt emotionally drained, over 50% reported sleep problems, and over 50% said they had been prescribed anxiety or stress-related medication.
While there’s no quick fix to agent satisfaction, consider focusing on engaging your employees and investing in tools that make their jobs less stressful.
First, consider stress-reducing tools. While investment in self-service resources can reduce call volume, it’s hard to predict the effect that will have on agent stress levels; if the easiest-to-handle calls are the ones that are diverted, your agents might end up dealing with an even higher percentage of complex calls. Focus instead on new tools and technology: use AI to make your agents’ jobs easier with real-time suggestions, automatic post-call notetaking, and speech analytics that let call center managers jump in to support agents during difficult conversations.
Second, engage your team with both short-term and long-term incentives. On a long-term basis, reduce turnover by making sure your agents understand their career path and what they need to do to progress. On a short-term basis, use rewards and contests to incentivize agent performance and keep the team engaged. For example, Plecto offers gamification features that allows employees to earn tokens redeemable toward dinner, movies, and in-office treats.
Helping Your Agents Operate At Their Best
Call centers are changing fast: A Gartner report found that nearly one in ten contact center conversations will be fully automated by 2026.
In the face of that change, agents need as much support as they can get. Fortunately, although AI is disrupting contact centers, it’s also providing tools that can make agents’ lives easier and improve their performance. The challenge for CS leaders is to overcome organizational inertia and make the investment needed to help agents be more productive. By giving agents the tools and coaching they need to succeed, you can reduce turnover, improve customer satisfaction, and boost key call center performance metrics. Your customers—and your agents—will thank you.
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