Contact center agents are customer service or sales professionals that handle phone calls, emails, live chat messages, SMS texts, and support tickets for companies. The nature of the calls and messages they handle can vary from simple bill payments and order inquiries to complex support questions and complaints. And they are typically responsible for handling a large number of inquiries each day. If you’ve ever wondered about the profession of these workers who handle our inquiries day in and day out, dealing with us when we’re sometimes confused, exasperated or even downright angry, here’s a small look at what goes on behind the scenes.
Call Center Outsourcing
Sometimes agents work for an outsourced contact center that handles customers from a variety of different companies. Since these agents represent more than one company, extra care must be taken to follow the correct procedures for each client account. So while they may be working for an insurance company, a telephony company and a hotel all on the same day, the customer needs to feel like they are dealing with a dedicated representative.
Virtual Call Center Reps
A virtual call center rep is someone who works as a call center agent, but not at a central office. Rather, they work from home using their desktop or laptop. Just like in-house contact center agents, some virtual call center representatives are employed directly by a single company. Others work for an outsourcing company and answer calls or tickets for several different clients.
Virtual call center reps can work from anywhere that has a stable internet connection; all they need is a computer that is capable of running the chat interface or ticketing application. If the agent will also be making or taking calls, however, then they will be expected to work in a quiet environment with a high-quality headset. Customers should never have to contend with trying to make themselves heard by an agent that is working in a noisy coffee shop.
Some outsourcing companies will provide agents with high quality headsets so that they know callers will always enjoy a consistent experience, regardless of who they reach. They may also require workers to use a wired internet connection with a certain minimum speed requirement. In some cases, agents may be asked to install a dedicated line that is used only for calls and ticket work, so they don’t have to worry about other members of the household using all the available bandwidth for video streaming or online gaming, which would impair call quality in the process. They may also be asked to use a dedicated PC for their work.
Non-voice Call Center Agents
Agents that work in a non-voice contact center role provide a similar service to agents that work in call centers, but instead of speaking on the phone they answer support tickets, emails, and live chat.
Non-voice call center agents may handle several chats at a time. This means that they need to be well organized, fast typists, and able to pay attention to detail.
In some cases, they may handle social media-based support. This requires particularly good people skills. While a poorly handled phone call is unlikely to have a significant impact on a company’s image, a thoughtless Facebook message or tasteless Tweet could go viral and quickly become a PR nightmare for the company.
Non-voice agents may handle anything from simple account questions and bill payments, to pre-sales questions, account closures, and complaints. Handling live chat or email messages takes care and attention, since text-based communication is not always as clear as phone calls; if the agent forgets to ask for some information in an early contact, then must send another email or chat message, it may take a while for the customer to see it. This will greatly increase the time taken to resolve the issue.
Call Center Agent Duties
The job of a contact center agent can be quite varied and interesting. Responsibilities may include:
- Responding to short SMS queries.
- Answering inbound phone calls.
- Answering emails.
- Responding to support tickets filled out over a web form.
- Engaging in live chats.
- Making outbound phone calls.
Agents may have to deal with a wide variety of issues ranging:
- Inbound sales
- Outbound sales
- General account queries
- Bill payments
- Technical support
- Account upgrades
- Account closures
- Appointment bookings or reminders
Agents must make sure that they:
- Answer calls within a specific period of time.
- Answer the call correctly, usually giving their name, the company they represent, and the department.
- Resolve most calls on the first contact or refer them to the correct department.
- Ensure that the customer is happy and that they do not have any other queries.
- Log the nature of the call accurately against the customer’s account.
- Handle an appropriate number of calls per day (or at the very least be in the ‘ready’ state to accept calls for the right amount of time, if call volumes are low).
As previously mentioned, some call center agents work in-house, directly for their employer while others may be working for an outsourcing company and accept calls for a range of clients. Depending on the specialization of the agent, they may handle calls falling into several of the above categories, or they may be focused on one or two specific areas.
Some companies, such as financial companies, may assign high-value clients a designated “account advisor” agent who will answer the majority of their calls. This helpful customer retention strategy and ensures that the customer interacts with someone who knows the status of their account and who can answer their questions promptly. For complex issues and high-value accounts, this kind of continuity is essential.
All companies, regardless of their size, the lifetime value of their average customer, and whether they handle customer queries in-house or via an outsourced agency, will benefit from contact center systems that pull together customer interactions into a single record that the agent can refer to before and during the call.
Is Being a Call Center Agent Hard?
Working as a call center agent can be a very demanding job, though how demanding it will be may depend on the company you work for. Some companies have incredibly high call volumes and agents may answer a dozen or more calls per hour.
Depending on the nature of the calls, working in a call center can be quite repetitive. Agents who work in departments doing bill payments or inbound sales need to be good typists, since they must record addresses and card details quickly and accurately. Those working in support roles need to be able to complete ticket information accurately, demonstrate good listening skills, and communicate instructions clearly.
Flexibility helps too, and can even lessen the repetitive nature of call and contact center work. Agents with the ability to switch quickly between tasks may be able to work as a “blended agent.” The role of a blended agent is more diverse than that of a traditional call or contact center agent since they swap between inbound and outbound calls or other communications channels. This results in greater efficiency for the employer (the ability to handle more channels means less agent downtime) and it’s great for the employee too, who will benefit from being able to work on a wider variety of tasks.
Call center work can be stressful if the callers become hostile, but it can also be quite rewarding if the callers are polite and are grateful for the help that they are given. Outbound sales agents, and those who do outbound surveys, can sometimes face hostile responses from call recipients. A good call center agent will handle it gracefully and remove the recipient from the database so they don’t get called again.
How Much Do Call Center Agents Earn?
The rate of pay for contact center work can start at the minimum wage and vary greatly from there. General inbound customer service tends to be at the lower end of the payscale, but technical support, medical or financial related work, and multi-lingual contact center work pays more. Sales roles will typically earn commission on top of their regular salary.
Because of the relatively low rate of pay for the entry level positions, the turnover rate for office-based call center work is high. Virtual call center agents usually enjoy better job satisfaction, and a better pay rate in real terms, since they do not have to commute to work and don’t have to worry about packed lunches/eating out or buying work clothes. Since they work from home, their work day feels shorter and they may enjoy more leisure time while still getting the same rate of pay for the hours they work.
Call Center Agent Training
Call center agents will usually undergo a training course which includes a few weeks of classroom training (or online training) followed by a monitoring period when they first start taking calls. They may be re-trained periodically to refresh their knowledge or updated if the client’s procedures change.
Once they are comfortable in one area they may be offered training in other areas to become multi-skilled or blended agents that do both inbound and outbound work. Multi-skilled agents enjoy higher rates of pay than agents that handle one type of call and they may get bonuses depending on the volume of skilled work they handle each day.
Contact Center Agents: An Important Part of the Customer Experience
Call center work isn’t always easy. Agents typically must deal with a large number of customers every day, and some of them may be hostile, aggressive, or have especially difficult issues. It’s a job that is often dismissed as menial by those who have not ever worked in a call center themselves, but it’s a position that requires good people skills, good problem solving skills, and attention to detail – skills that most would agree are critical in many business environment and job roles. More and more, how you handle customers can make or break your company and these agents are at the frontline, a critical component of the overall customer experience.
For a look at current customer experience trends and tips on how to improve your contact center operations, check out our recent research in “The State of Customer Experience 2017.”