How to empower your customer service agents

What’s the best way to offer friendly, faster, and more efficient support to your customers? By giving your customer service agents the resources, best practices, and authority to do their jobs well. It’s a concept called “agent empowerment.”

At first glance, empowering agents seems simple. But many companies struggle to actually give their agents the tools they need to succeed.

We spoke with Jeff Toister, bestselling author and customer support expert, to learn exactly what support teams can do to empower their agents.

Jeff, you’ve worked with so many support teams of all sizes over the years. Why have you homed in on the concept of customer service agent empowerment?

There are a few reasons why agent empowerment is so important to me.

First, I’ve been a customer service agent myself. One of the most frustrating aspects of the job is when you aren’t able to do the right thing for your customer. I’ve trained thousands of customer service agents, and many tell me the same thing.

Second, I’m a customer. The best customer service often comes from employees who are empowered to deliver great service. On the other hand, our most frustrating experiences often occur when employees are restricted by a lack of authority, resources, or clear processes.

Finally, empowerment is better for the business. Empowered employees tend to be more efficient. They stay longer. And empowered employees do a better job retaining customers.

What do customer-focused companies do differently?

When I was researching for “The Service Culture Handbook,” I was surprised to discover that customer-obsessed organizations don’t look at empowerment as just authority. I think that’s the traditional definition of empowerment: letting agents do what they feel they need to do. But that’s not how it was defined by elite companies. The elite companies were looking at empowerment as enabling customer service agents to deliver great service, and there were three components. 

Authority was one.

Processes or procedures were a second component. In other words, a standardized way of doing things that we know works most of the time and makes it easier for people to do a great job.

And the third component was having the appropriate resources. So the tools, resources, and access you need to actually follow through on empowerment.

Can you give us an example?

A number of years ago, my dog passed away. A couple of days later, the pet supply company Chewy delivered my scheduled order of dog food and treats. Of course, I didn’t need that dog food or treats anymore. So my wife contacted Chewy and said, “hey can we return these and get a refund?” 

The support agent said, “Don’t worry about returning it. If you’d like, just go ahead and donate it to a local animal shelter.” It was such a wonderful gesture.

It happened because not only did the agent have that authority; they had access in their system to issue a refund for food and treats in an order that was not coming back. And they also had a process. It wasn’t just about giving the authority, it was about enabling their agents to provide a great experience.

Why is empowerment so difficult?

So there are three big reasons I hear from managers. One is fear. I’m worried that my agents are going to give away too much, or customers will take advantage.

The next one is time. It takes a lot of time to be able to empower my customer service agents, at least up front. I’m going to save that time in the back end, but a lot of times I don’t feel like I have time to invest in showing them exactly what to do.

The third is consistency. In larger organizations especially, if every agent is doing things their own way, it’s hard to create a consistent level of service.

But here’s the surprise one. I’ve talked to a lot of contact center trainers who tell me they don’t train their agents to be empowered. And I challenge you to look at how you’re training your agents. You probably focus on how to use the various systems, policies and procedures, and the flow of a phone call or a chat or email. But none of these things helps agents understand: what does great service look like from the perspective of our customer?

Tell us how you’ve seen that play out.

I had a friend who lives in a rural area, and he depends on propane to heat his house and cook food. One winter was extra cold and he was going through a lot more propane, and the propane delivery truck did not show up when expected, so he contacted customer support.

Customer support had a very transactional focus. They were thinking, “Oh, we missed a delivery. We’ll fix that by rescheduling a delivery for a later date.” That makes sense for the company, but they weren’t understanding the real issue. For the customer, he didn’t want to run out of propane, because now he’s cold and can’t cook food.

My friend actually ran out of propane trying to get another delivery to show up. And so, of course, he switched providers. One of the most frustrating moments in any customer experience is when an employee is not able to do something that’s really really obvious, like making sure they get propane to keep the house warm in the wintertime.

How can support leaders make a business case for greater empowerment?

One of the best examples I’ve seen I wrote about in “The Service Culture Handbook” about a regional cable company in Florida called Brighthouse Networks (they’ve since been acquired by another cable operator). Brighthouse analyzed how much time their supervisors were spending on approving large credits.

That approval process cost the company two things. One, the time supervisors had to spend on approvals, and two, we know the longer it takes for a big issue to get resolved, the angrier customers get. And that means the credit has to be even bigger.

So they allowed their agents to give a credit without getting approval. Then they did an audit of every credit that was issued that was $250 or more. After six months they found out that not a single credit was issued that should not have been issued.

There’s the business case. You save your customers a lot of aggravation, so you reduce your exposure to losing business, and you save a lot of administrative time on approving things that were going to get approved anyways. Why not just let your agents do it?

Finally, tell us about the last time you got really good customer service.

Here’s a recent example where an empowered employee helped create a better experience. My wife and I visited a new ice cream shop. As the employee rang up our purchase, my wife commented on a loaf of bread baking in an oven.

This was an unusual sight. What was a bakery oven doing in an ice cream shop, and why were they baking bread?

The employee explained the shop was experimenting with something called “ice cream bread,” which is bread made from melted ice cream. Then, without missing a beat, he offered us samples of the latest creation.

It might seem like a small gesture, but being empowered to connect with customers and hand out a sample created a deeper connection to this new shop. I’m sure we’ll be back.

Empower your support agents with Zoom

Learn how Zoom Contact Center and Zoom Virtual Agent can help empower your agents and provide great support to your customers across all channels and on all devices.

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