First Things First: Unify the Service Desktop, Then Implement a Universal-Agent Program

Mar 28, 2007 9:32 PM  By

There is not yet a standard definition for a contact center “universal agent.” To some, a universal agent is one who can handle both inbound and outbound interactions; to others, it is one who can handle interactions in a variety of channels. And still others see it as one who can handle a variety of call types, regardless of complexity, product type, or required skill set.

The truth is, it’s an agent who can operate with whatever level of flexibility your company needs. It’s a trendy concept; having agents who are able to handle any call from anywhere at any time on any topic is the Holy Grail of contact center efficiencies.

And if there is one place where greater efficiencies are needed, it’s the contact center. Some industries are challenged by a rapidly growing merchandise assortment that requires agents to be able to service multiple types of products. The competitive nature of other industries requires agents to attempt to turn every service inquiry into a sales opportunity.

Clearly the contact center agent is being asked to do more, and more quickly, with more complexity and less time. Ouch.

So it seems that the universal-agent model is a great idea as it creates obvious efficiencies, allowing agents to play a variety of roles. The model can also increase customer satisfaction, as customers can receive resolution for multiple inquiry types from one agent. This also reduces communication costs, since one customer is not placed into multiple queues for different requests.

Implementing an effective universal-agent model , however, has its hurdles. First, you must find and train agents with broad skill sets. Second, for the agent to be successful, you must address a significant operational problem that threatens all the benefits that prompted you to move toward universal agents in the first place.

What is that operational problem? Let’s think through what it means to be able to handle any call from anywhere at any time on any topic. A universal agent must know all the transactional processes that could take place in the contact center. He must also be proficient in the use of all the tools necessary to handle any type of customer interaction. That means he must understand every application (billing, inventory, CRM system) and, more important, how each call flows through those applications, as well as how to use all the tools through which they can communicate with the customer (live chat, e-mail, instant messaging, voice).

Not only is this a lot to know, it’s a lot to do; the agent’s desktop can be complete chaos, with dozens of open applications and tools, each of which contains important – but siloed – information. Or in some cases, there may be only a few applications on the desktop, but they are not aligned with the call flows, so agents waste seconds, if not minutes, each call traversing cumbersome applications because they cannot quickly access what they need. Unless you streamline the application processes and combine the applications into one easy-to-navigate desktop view, the improvements in agent utilization that you gained by implementing the universal-agent model will be negated by the inefficiencies that result from process and application overload.

Implementing a unified service desktop, which enables the agent to access process-specific tools, provides a single point of access to all the mission-critical applications and tools required by the agent to effectively complete a customer interaction and match the contact center’s particular set of process flows.

The unified service desktop is designed to present only the information and tools that are in context to the current conversation, which makes the universal agents more efficient and effective. For example, an agent for a communications service provider that normally handles wireline services will most likely have wireline applications and a wireline service knowledge base displayed prominently on his desktop. Should that agent need to take calls for another center that handles Internet service, using a unified service desktop the agent would change his role to “Internet service calls,” and the script, the available applications, and the knowledge base would change to support Internet queries.

Finding and implementing a unified service desktop solution should be considered critical for a universal-agent program. While researching your options, make sure you understand the key attributes of a well-designed unified service desktop:

  • It should leverage your existing applications. The last thing you want to do is “rip and replace” your big CRM or billing and inventory systems and create a bigger mess.
  • It should be “thin client.” This is particularly important if you are considering outsourcing, off-shoring, or using at-home agents, as you don’t want to have to install and consistently update applications on every single machine.
  • It should be easily adaptable. It should also be able to be personalized to reflect the tastes and, more important, the role of the agent. The desktop should dynamically change to present different content and tools depending on the role that a universal agent is playing.
  • It should be driven by call type. You should be able to allow agents to choose their role depending upon the call type or to configure it so that the correct desktop for the call type is automatically displayed based on a selection made in the interactive voice response (IVR) system, the phone number dialed, or rules in a skills-based routing tool.

Flexibility is a key trait of successful universal agents, and the systems that support them should be highly flexible as well. There is no point embarking on a universal-agent program only to shackle the agents with a chaotic desktop and laborious processes. Start with the desktop; you will make your life – and the lives of your universal agents – much easier.

Cindy Curtin is director of product marketing and communications for Atlanta-based Jacada, a desktop and process optimization solutions provider.

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