Kustomer + Michael Pace: Is Agent Empowerment Today All Wrong?

How do you empower your customer service agents to deliver a great experience and delight customers? How do you hand down your company’s vision and purpose, so that they can bring that to all of your stakeholders? Well, we thought we’d speak with Michael Pace to find out.

Michael is the Principal and founder of the consultancy The Pace of Service, which helps organizations to realize the full benefit of Customer Service, Social Business, Business Process Management, and People Leadership. There he’s worked with some amazing brands like Tory Burch, David Yurman, and Rue La La among many others. He’s also the President of the Northeast Contact Center Forum, which puts on quarterly events for contact center and customer experience professionals.

In this episode, we go deep into the world of agent empowerment, covering what empowerment means, how to build trust between manager and agents, how to build trust, and how to set guidelines for responsible freedom. Listen to the podcast to get all that great knowledge, and check out this related post from Michael’s blog below:

Leaders: You Are Doing Empowerment All Wrong

Every management book will tell you that you need to empower your associates. In many ways, it does make perfect sense; the more your associates can do the right thing for customers on their own, everyone wins.

  • Customers get their issue resolved or the product they want with limited hassle.
  • Your associates are more fulfilled and their overall engagement and morale increases.
  • And you, as the leader, get the opportunity cost of focusing on more strategic priorities
    But you are doing it wrong (maybe).

Somehow the word empowerment turned into something that you can give to another person, like a magical gift. Or I can bop you on your head, like a holy man, and now you are empowered (dusts hands off in a proud manner of achievement). Or you have been hypnotized by my mystical words of leadership.

Empowerment is like energy, I cannot physically give you mine; it already resides in your associates. If you believe you can actually pass it along, you may be essentially passing over nothing. However, if we believe empowerment is something that I (your manager) can help unlock within you (associate), we can take the appropriate steps to unleash it. So instead of talking about empowerment, I talk with my reports about how I can help them exercise their responsible freedom, and how they can help their reports exercise theirs.

I discovered the phrase in a book by Chip R. Bell & Ron Zemke called Managing Knock Your Socks Off Service. It’s a great book for the Customer Service Leader who looking for direction that spans both strategic and tactical, combined with real life stories. Exercising Responsible Freedom is simply knowing the right thing to do, understanding the risk, recognizing your proverbial guardrails, having solid rationale, and most importantly doing something. Sounds a lot like empowerment, but with some real power.

How do you do it?

  1. R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Have the respect for your associates to treat them like adults. Far too often, I encounter people leaders who act more like parents than business leaders. Your associates typically have mortgages, rents, insurance, bills, children, and a whole host of other responsibilities, they can handle more than you think. If they can’t, you probably need to reassess their future and the time you invest in them.
  2. Paint the Vision: You cannot expect people to know and do the right thing if they do not know what direction you are going. Describe to your associates what the realistic future looks like, and have conversations (two way) about what it means to them.
  3. Provide the Flexible Guardrails: Talk about what would be going too far, and talk about what is too safe. Use examples of what is in scope and what should remain out of scope. In regulated industries, providing this detailed information is critical for wary associates.
  4. Discuss Possible Outcomes: Have a discussion about if something did go wrong. Develop operating agreements that provide a safe zone for both you and the associate to review lessons learned. I find myself often saying to people, if you had a good rationale for actions, you will never been in trouble. But if I asked “why”, and their answer is “I don’t know” or “I just did it”, we will need to talk more. And don’t forget to talk about the incredible things that can happen if they take the appropriate leap.
  5. Let them know you TRUST them: Just overtly saying to associates, “I trust you to ….” is amazingly powerful confidence builder. It reaches them on both a professional and personal level. See prior post on Trust for more info.

It is evident that service and relationship building are key differentiators between similar businesses. Customer’s expectations are pacing with the speed of technology and process innovation. If you provide scripted and/or automated responses to customers, they will repay you with the equal amount of passion. If your social support team is tweeting right out of the traditional public relations handbook, you will most likely anger or disenfranchise your customers. Same goes for customer service representatives who must use the caller’s full name 3 times in a call.

We need to hire, develop and foster our associates (and our associates’ associates) to think critically, do what they believe is the right thing for the customer, and not feel they have done something wrong by erring on the side of the customer. When they exercise their responsible freedom, they engage customers on a human level, they build strong relationships, and they have the true opportunity to “WOW” a customer.

How to Scale Your Support Team

Growing your business is hard enough—but growing your service organization alongside it comes with its own challenges. More agents customers mean more complexity. To help make sense of your growing CX team, we’ve listed some common stumbling blocks and some intuitive solutions to get around them.

Agent Collision

Tickets coming in from multiple channels makes it hard to separate out who owns what. When a customer gets annoyed with wait times, they will often start reaching out over several different channels with the same problem. Agents working in these different channels then have no way of seeing that it’s the same person, and the customer ends up getting a response from more than one team member on chat, email, and wherever else they reach out.

The solution to this problem sounds easy, but is a huge shift in service philosophy. Give your agents ownership over the customer relationship, so that they are responsible for satisfying individual customers over many channels, instead of all the customers in one channel. By making your service omnichannel, agents are aware of every conversation happening with each customer.

Disconnected Data, Disconnected Systems

As your business expands, so too do the places and ways you store customer data. If you don’t rein these in, then agents end up wasting time switching between applications and hunting for information in back-end systems.

If agents have to go into multiple systems—ordering, shipping, customer information, and more—to see all the information about the customer, then copy that information and paste it into another screen, their workflow grinds to a halt.

To overcome this obstacle you need to be able to have all of your data in one place, with systems that integrate with one another, and a way to turn that insight into action. When agents don’t have to spend time hunting in separate systems for information they need, that makes everything in your service organization easier to scale—because your agents are more efficient and productive than ever before. Just the ten seconds agents save from not having to switch applications can translate to days of work saved in one month alone.

From Reactive to Proactive Service

When you scale your business, you do everything you can to keep up with your customers. However, all the effort it takes to simply respond to and stay on top of their queries leaves no time for any forward-thinking, proactive engagement.

You soon won’t have the luxury to pick up the phone and call every customer who gave you a low CSAT score. You need to be prepared to deliver that same level of 1-1 service, but on a much greater scale.

Automation is going to go a long way towards freeing up your agents’ time. Anything you can do to learn more about your customers and their needs before they’re transferred to an agent is going to massively increase your efficiency. Chatbots that ask a few simple questions about the issue a customer is having can simplify the experience for customer and agent alike. Smart segmentation that makes it easier to determine the right actions based on informed personas will save even more time and effort. Proactive outreach can inform an agent to send an email, or even automatically send an SMS, if an item is going to be delayed, giving customers options for how to proceed.

Team Reporting and Monitoring

As your team grows, so too does your need for detailed reports and insights. However, these reports are often in separate products for different channels, forcing you to spend a prohibitive amount of time creating and combining separate customer reports. To make matters worse, these reports are often delayed by hours or even days, meaning you can’t really see what your team is doing in real time. Many businesses that are scaling quickly also tend to start using more remote agents and teams to work faster. You are going to need a way to effectively monitor them in order to provide proper coaching.

The answer to your reporting problems is to be able to query, segment, and display reports through custom dashboards in real time. If your current solution doesn’t have these features built-in, they aren’t going to spring up overnight. And without proper reporting, you won’t be able to fully understand what’s happening in your growing team.

It can be difficult to successfully scale your support team—we know. Without a modern platform for customer experience, it might feel nearly impossible. Learn more about how Kustomer can help you avoid the common pitfalls of efficiently scaling your team here.

Deliver effortless, personalized customer service.

Request Live DemoView Demo Videos