Give Agents the Right Tools to Do Their Job


In this part of the Contact Centre Manifesto series, we look at the resources agents need to provide the best possible service.

The Problem

Contact centre agents are often expected to meet customer needs using low-quality equipment and slow computer systems. An unwillingness to invest means that change is slow to appear, and can be limited to papering over the cracks.

The Solution

For staff to provide a memorable level of service, they need the best tools that you can give them.

The ‘tools’ we are talking about fall into three main categories:

  • Hardware, the physical equipment that staff use in the office
  • Software, the databases and user interfaces that agents interact with
  • Training, probably the most important toolkit an agent can have

Part 1: Hardware

Computer Monitors

Perhaps the best place to start is with the most simple equipment. The price of computer monitors has fallen considerably over the past few years, so big gains can be made from a relatively small investment.

Small, low-quality computer monitors impact users negatively in two main ways. The first is the difficulty of navigating between programs and locating the necessary information. The second is the increased risk of eye strain, which affects between 50 and 90% of computer workers, according to the Institute for Optometry.

The daily tasks of most contact centre agents require navigating between numerous systems and databases, usually with a large amount of data entry involved as well. To do this, agents should ideally have two monitors of 24 to 27 inches.

Two monitors make data transfer or comparison between windows much easier, while also creating more space for the kinds of features that newer call centre software introduce. For example, a lot of modern CRM systems bring up a dialogue box with key details about the customer they are dealing with. These are the kinds of features that look great on the large and high-quality monitors in the showroom, but which aren’t helpful if office hardware doesn’t support them.


(This poll was sourced from the piece: 45% of Contact Centres Provide Agents With Multiple Monitors)

Research conducted by Microsoft has demonstrated quite conclusively that workers much prefer a two-screen system, with 98% of those surveyed agreeing that a second screen made their work easier; the same study also saw productivity increase by half.

Provide a Range of Headsets With Different Features

Headsets might be the most important piece of physical equipment in the contact centre. There is a lot of variation in their design, catering to the needs of different individuals and environments.

It’s uncommon, however, to find a contact centre that offers staff a range a headset options. As a result, some staff find that headsets don’t meet their needs for functionality or comfort.

Uncomfortable headsets can easily trigger serious headaches, while features like wirelessness better suit the working style of some individuals.

Binaural or Monaural?

One very important feature is whether the headsets are binaural or monaural. Binaural headsets have a speaker for each ear, while monaural has only one. In some environments, especially when agents need to be very aware of their surroundings, monaural headsets are preferable.

However, a lot users prefer binaural headsets, especially when they need to focus very closely on what their customer is saying. In general, large contact centres use binaural headsets because of the large number of conversations around them. Providing access to both will help users establish their own needs and find a headset that suits their working style.

Noise Cancellation

Additional noise cancellation can make working easier and put less strain on agents. Most countries have strict laws protecting employees from damage related to excessively loud noise, and about 16% of adult hearing loss is related to noise in the workplace.

Although most of us associate workplace noise with heavy manual jobs, the call centre has traditionally been among the worst offenders, as hearing can be damaged through persistent ambient noise. When headsets do not have adequate noise cancellation, agents have difficulty hearing customers and turn up the volume on their own headsets. They’re also likely to talk more loudly, which increases the ambient noise further.

In addition to noise cancellation, the ideal headset will also have a limiter, which filters out individual loud noises like feedback bursts. Without this in place, agents face the risk of ‘acoustic shock’ which can lead to nausea, headache and tinnitus.

Ergonomic Office Equipment: Keyboards, Mouse, Adjustable Desks and Comfortable Chairs

Every piece of equipment that staff use has the potential to make life easier or harder for them. Musculoskeletal problems like Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) account for one third of all workdays lost to injury, and are often avoidable.

There are two key concepts to bear in mind. The first is ergonomics, meaning items which are designed for efficiency and comfort of use. A standard ‘no frills’ keyboard or mouse might be cheaper in the short term, but the long-term impact will be discomfort, pain, and a greater cost in lost work days.

The second idea is variety. Staff members come in all shapes and sizes, so office equipment needs to be equally varied. Adjustable desks, high-quality chairs, and footstools are some of the important purchases that can help to preserve staff comfort.

Part 2: Software

Reliable Systems

According to research from Sharp, slow or ineffective systems cost the average UK worker around 40 minutes per day. That number may be much higher in the contact centre, where agents routinely use computer systems with many different programs open.

But even 40 minutes is significant – in a 100-seat contact centre, that translates to almost 65 lost hours per day.

There is a tendency, common to a lot of contact centres, to put ongoing systems issues in the “too difficult to fix” category. Rather than addressing the underlying issues by investing in better maintenance and upgrades, recurring problems are allowed to continue. This can do untold damage to the customer experience and the ability of agents to resolve interactions.

There’s a simple mantra for evaluating systems performance: Reliability, Availability, and Maintainability (RAM). That means ensuring new systems usually work, that they have little down time, and that they can be repaired easily when failing.

For more on this topic, read our article: Slow Computer Systems – It’s Not Rocket Science, Is It?

Better Desktop Software

Agents need to be able to count on their desktop software to support regular business processes. For example, does the software enable the agents to easily escalate complaints as needed?

This kind of capability should be standard, but plenty of contact centres still depend on awkward processes and emailing between departments.


(This poll was sourced from the piece: Over 60% of Contact Centre Face These Three Blockers in Lowering AHT)

Desktop software should also improve interactions by providing a 360º view of the customer. The best-in-class software for this category doesn’t just provide complete customer details for every contact, but selects context-appropriate data to highlight. This data can suggest next actions, linking the customer’s current experience to their interaction history and predictions about their future events.

There are plenty of common-sense ways to measure the impact of new software in terms that really apply to the experience of using them. When HMRC wanted to quantify the value of an robotic process automation integration, they counted the number of mouse clicks it removed from basic processes. Following their implementation they found that the click count went from 66, to 10.

For more on this subject, read our article: What Exactly is a “360-Degree View of the Customer”?

Omnichannel Interface

As the customer environment heads ever more decisively towards omnichannel engagement, it’s important that agents are able to handle all types of contact to the same level. However, it is rarely the agents that present the SLA bottleneck for omnichannel, but the variety of separate systems that are in place.

Having a single omnichannel interface can dramatically cut down on training costs, as agents do not need to learn to use a variety of different user interfaces. Dimension Data’s 2016 report concluded that full channel integration will more than triple leading up to 2018, from around 22% to 75%.

Although agent channel specialisation is likely to continue, cross-training is beneficial. Diversity within the role makes contact centre careers a more attractive prospect, while also allowing more effective load balancing.

Despite an anticipated shift away from phones, the reality is proving to be an increasingly deep blend of channels, of which telephone services are a vital part.

The Ability for Agents to Control Their Shifts

43% of employees would choose flexible working as a perk over a pay increase, according to research from Unify. The takeaway here is that flexible working is among the most sought-after benefits in the workplace.

It is also the case that contact centres are an area of industry best able to provide this kind of flexibility. Shift flexibility can be simple to arrange through a modern Workforce Management (WFM) tool, and has great impact on staff satisfaction, which manifests as lower absenteeism and greater retention.

Around a quarter of the typical call centre workforce is employed on a part-time basis, and these tend to be the people with the most serious obligations outside of work. In most cases they are students or the parents of young children, who will miss all or part of a shift without permission if they feel they have to.

WFM tools make shift bidding very easy to arrange. The agent simply needs to state their shift preferences in advance, allowing the scheduling tool to assign them based on predetermined business conditions like skill sets and the distribution of supervisors.

The positive impact that this will have on staff is valuable enough, but giving them more control over their shifts can also save time for the WFM teams by eliminating some of the manual elements of scheduling.

Intranet and Knowledge Management Systems

Within any business there is a lot of knowledge and experience locked into the workforce, and finding a way to consolidate it is beneficial for both the staff and the business.

The difference between Knowledge Management Systems (KMS) and intranets is smaller than it used to be; what’s important is the functionality that it offers to staff. Intranets and KMSs can provide a simple way for employees to communicate across the business, however widely spread they are geographically.

One of the main reasons this communication has been important to businesses is the training and collaboration support it can offer. This kind of knowledge sharing tends to be how non-standard responses to situations become prescribed solutions.

This only works if staff are willing and able to add valuable content. When Xerox established that engagement with their KMS was low, they experimented with incentives and found that professional recognition was the best way to drive information sharing. By allowing their staff to make profiles and author content under their own name, they drove a substantial increase in willingness to contribute.

Communication across a contact centre can also be useful socially. Research from MIT highlights how well-socialised staff benefit in practically every way: they are more punctual, less frequently absent, learn more quickly, and are more productive. However, because of the nature of contact centre work, it can be tricky for agents who don’t sit near one another to talk.

Traditional intranets have often had forums that could cater to social engagements, but this is now an area where social media might be better suited. Proposing something like an informal Facebook group – run by agents rather than managers – can be a helpful way to extend the social reach of staff.

To find out more about implementing contact centre software to support advisors and other purposes, listen to the podcast below, which features a conversation with contact centre expert Erica Mancuso.

The Contact Centre Podcast – Episode 20:

Contact Centre Technology: Where Should I Invest?

For more information on this podcast visit Podcast – Contact Centre Technology: Where Should I Invest?

Part 3: Training

Access to Their Own Calls

Call any contact centre and you are likely to hear this message: “Your call may be recorded for training purposes.”

Call monitoring and scoring is part of the fabric of many contact centres, and is one of the most effective ways to stay informed about service quality. But how many agents have full access to their own call recordings?

Reviewing their previous calls is one of the best ways for agents to identify their areas for improvement. Soft skills like active listening and tone of voice can be the hardest to pin down, but going over previous calls can produce sense of what an agent is doing well and where they need more work.

To get the maximum benefit from this, agents should use the same scorecards that coaches and managers use to evaluate their calls. This not only helps them to improve in the specific ways that your business needs but gives them a structure for their self-directed training.

Engaged staff are usually keen to improve, but this can be hard to without the traditional coaching structure, when agents don’t know what the call priorities are.

Voice Training

The voice is the only tool that the agent needs to bring with them, and like any other tool, it can be refined. There are usually two reasons for contact centres to consider voice training. The first is that the voice can easily be strained by the demands placed on it in the contact centre.

One in four agents regularly suffer voice problems, including soreness, breathlessness, and voice loss, and this damage is commonly the result of agents speaking too loudly.


(This poll was sourced from the article: 80% of Contact Centre Professionals Have Never Been Offered Voice Training)

Background noise in the contact centre often means that the agent is obliged to speak at a level higher than their comfortable volume. As we discussed earlier in this article, effective noise-cancelling headphones are an important part of the solution to this problem. Another aspect is training in some simple techniques to project the voice properly. This is the kind of training generally given to stage actors, who need to be heard speaking clearly but without shouting.

The second reason to employ voice training is that it can make agents more aware of how they are speaking. In face-to-face conversations, between one third and half of our communication is non-verbal. Over the phone we don’t have that luxury, and it is important that agents compensate by carefully controlling the pitch and tone of their voice.

Again, this is similar to acting. Agents might find a customer’s mistake amusing, or their complaint unreasonable, but it’s important that their opinion doesn’t leak into their voice. Coaching can help them to convey a positive attitude without irritating or patronising the customer.

Emotional Intelligence Training

The concept of Emotional Intelligence (EI) covers a range of behaviours including:

  • Rapport building
  • Empathy
  • Resilience

These skills are important within any working environment because staff need to be able to work together happily and deal with clients. In fact, two thirds of hiring managers report that high EI is a character trait they look for in candidates, ahead of job-related skills or conventional intelligence.

In the contact centre, EI is even more important because an agent has to be able to identify and resolve customer needs that can be challenging, unrealistic, and rude. Whether it’s to dispute a decision, or complain about a service, agents need to be aware of how they can help and how they should end the interaction in the best way possible.

Supporting customers in a way that they find satisfying is about more than just meeting their practical needs. If, for example, a customer has been accidentally overcharged, their practical need – to get their money refunded – is very simple to meet. However, their emotional needs from the interaction may be more nuanced.

Apart from supporting customer needs, EI also places focus on understanding and managing one’s own emotions. This can be very challenging, especially in the face of negative interactions with customers. Improved emotional intelligence enables agents to let go of the baggage of negative interactions more easily, decreasing the amount of stress they feel in the work day.

Because EI is strongly correlated with excellent leadership, it pays to develop those skills early, and nurture the people who will go on to become the next generation of managers.

This kind of training needs to be part of the coaching mix that staff return to on a regular basis. In the strongest training environments, staff are encouraged to have a high level of input regarding the areas that they cover.

For more on emotional intelligence training, view our recorded webinar: Building Emotional Intelligence into the Contact Centre

This article forms part of The Contact Centre Manifesto series

Published On: 23rd Aug 2017 - Last modified: 11th Nov 2022
Read more about - Customer Service Strategy, , , , , ,

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