How to Encourage Agent Feedback for More Innovative Products and Processes
By George Horvat, Agero’s COO, and Chris Small, Agero’s VP of Product
Imagine what your organization could accomplish if every product enhancement was driven directly by the needs and desires of your customers, or if every process improvement was driven by careful, thoughtful feedback from the people within your organization. Instead of scratching your head about why existing processes weren’t equipping your call center agents to do the best job possible, you could get to the root of the problem and quickly adjust. At Agero, for instance, we found that our training model was hindering our agents’ ability to get up to speed quickly. Instead of requiring them to go from 0 to 100 within a short period of time, we found that breaking the training into segments allowed agents to progress at their own pace, allowing us to ramp new hires more quickly, efficiently, and effectively.
How did we accomplish this? By Design Thinking: embracing agents as a direct part of our product and process improvements to develop a better understanding of their needs, problems, challenges, and potential solutions. These agents are on the front line and understand firsthand the challenges customers face, as well as the obstacles they have to overcome in helping customers. Most importantly, they have strong ideas on how to make their job easier. While we operate in the roadside assistance space, organizations across industries can benefit from their agents’ perspective.
There are a few important steps to encouraging this associate feedback:
#1 Establish Cross-Organizational Insight
Every good feedback program starts with collaboration. And I don’t just mean collaboration within a particular silo – the days of vertical partitioning have gone out the window. True insight comes from the team’s ability to work and communicate across functional boundaries in a matrix-type organization that drives the needed speed and agility. The more you can get a diverse set of inputs, the more creative and innovative you can become as an organization.
The best way to foster this is to encourage team members to work cross collaboratively to learn different lines of business. For example, operations managers don’t only need to know operations team networks (supervisors, agents on the floor, etc.), they should also know their counterparts in IT, engineering, product, and finance. Across these functions, there are different views - from a product and technology view to an engineering and an operations view. People should be encouraged to discuss challenges within this larger matrix, thereby uncovering opportunities for improvement. Organizations that can make these changes and continue to morph are the ones that can adapt, create, and innovate.
#2 Build Rapport Through Humble Servitude
While this cross-functional collaboration might uncover insights, it can be difficult to get agents to open up. Before your team will feel comfortable providing honest feedback, it’s important to build rapport. This requires not just leaving your door open, but meeting agents where they are at. Don’t assume they know who you are and that they know what you know. Without a relationship as a foundation, agents can feel intimidated and unwilling to give feedback. To overcome this, start with open and safe questions; ask them how they are doing, what they like and don’t like, etc. This simple gesture can take as few as five or ten minutes, but will make all the difference.
Groups that come in with arrogance and a sense of entitlement, telling people what is wrong and why something isn’t working, find that associates quickly close themselves off. By approaching inquisitively with humble servitude and a desire to understand, agents will feel empowered.
#3 Embrace Suggestions
Once you build rapport with your associates, it’s time to put a simple suggestion program in place. This is the time to ask agents what pain points they face. For example, if your contact center team is struggling with lengthy calls that are impacting efficiency and productivity, product teams can work in collaboration with engineering team to find out what is eating up agents’ time. By going out and polling agents to start an open dialogue, product and engineering can understand the root problem. For instance, certain features of the user interface – ones that are difficult to use, aren’t easily accessible, or require complicated click-through processes – could be slowing agents down. From there, product and engineering can develop a solution in collaboration with the agent team.
It’s important to note that you don’t need to embrace every suggestion verbatim. The bottom line is that engaging with people and getting them comfortable explaining their process will help highlight challenges in the platform or process, and help identify creative ways to overcome them.
#4 Consider The Tradeoffs
Once you receive suggestions from associates, it’s necessary to identify the tradeoffs in implementing the proposed change. There is always a balancing act between people, process, and technology, and between organizational efficiency and customer satisfaction. If the change is worth implementing, this balancing act might require adding extra headcount to operations to achieve near-term improvement while searching for the perfect technology solution for longer-term efficiency.
The key is identifying and discussing with the different stakeholders for a holistic view of the different facets and complexities that each group faces. This often comes through collaborative and constructive discussions, and sometimes even healthy debates, so that teams ensure the proper tradeoffs, solutions, and priorities.
#5 Close The Feedback Loop
While organizations across industries have implemented associate improvement request (AIR) programs, they often lose their legs when the feedback loop isn’t closed. Associates might generate 3,000 ideas, but not all of them will represent significant value. As you begin to prioritize the ideas, you’ll eventually come across some that have substantial opportunities when properly leveraged... and others that don’t.
Yet regardless of whether the idea is implemented, it’s critical to engage with the agent who shared it so they know you’re listening and care about their feedback. This can prompt additional questions, or a quick discussion about other priorities. But in every case, it’s that feedback loop that helps keep people engaged, which is key in a workforce that is dependent on time in seconds. Finally, be sure to recognize good ideas that you do implement. Share the agent’s idea with other associates and colleagues at the product and IT levels to create mutual respect and incentivize employees to continue producing great ideas.
We believe digital transformation means the next few years are going to bring an incredible amount of change - much more than we’ve seen in the last ten years. To be prepared for that change, you have to empower not just leadership, but agents on the front line about how they can work better and more efficiently. Having an empowered team where each member brings their individual strengths to the table helps create an overall stronger team and more innovative products and processes.