The battle for the customer is shifting to new ground, away from the telephone to digital (email, web chat) and social media (Facebook, Twitter, and others).

However, the delivery mechanism for customer experience remains the same: the contact centre agent or customer service representative.

“This means that there is now a gap between the agents you used to recruit for their verbal and telephonic skills and the new needs of the customer,” says Sandra Galer, consulting executive for contact centres and customer service for Merchants, South Africa’s oldest and largest business process outsourcer.

“Clearly, your ability to deliver exceptional customer service is compromised. Equally clearly, your approach to both staffing and measurement of operational activities has to change significantly.”

Technology has massively reduced product development times, making it difficult to maintain a market lead. It has also led to a copycat approach in which competing products are very similar. The only real differentiator left for most organisations is the ability to give the customer a superior experience with their brand.

“In the majority of cases, the department tasked with delivering that customer experience is the contact centre,” Galer says. “Which makes the contact centre agent your differentiator because he or she is responsible for ensuring that the customer has a superior experience.

“That’s a huge ask for people who have been recruited pretty much straight out of school and have had virtually no previous work experience. In a telephony based environment, you can mitigate some of the risks of leaving your organisation’s reputation in such youthful, inexperienced hands by providing agents with scripts or, preferably, guidelines.

“And, before the advent of social and digital media, you could be reasonably sure that most of the queries your agents would handle would be relatively routine and your customers relatively calm.

“Today, although customers in older demographics still want voice contact, generation X and Y almost never use the phone. To solve a query about your products or services, they try self-help first. If that fails, they try online research or ask for help from their social media peers. By the time they finally contact the contact centre via their preferred digital or social media channel, they are already resentful of your brand and their queries are complex.

“In this scenario, if your agents get the response wrong, reputational damage to your organisation is inevitable.”

Even though webchat, email and social media communication takes place in a written format, a resentful customer expects the immediate response he or she would get in a telephone call. This kind of time pressure compounds the problem of the agent’s written response going into the public domain rather than being kept private in a telephone call, massively increasing the potential for agent mistakes or misunderstandings to create reputational damage.

In spite of these dangers, the 2014 Dimension Data Benchmarking survey shows that only 37% of organisations globally are measuring the cost and customer impact of handling emails, let alone their management of webchat or Facebook contacts.

“The technology to do the necessary measurements exists,” Galer says. “So, organisations are either being lazy or are afraid of the need for operational changes that the new media metrics are bound to indicate.”

As Galer points out, if you’re not measuring the effectiveness of how you’re handling digital and social media, then you can’t know whether you’re doing the right thing for customers or for your organisation. “If you don’t understand your customer’s preferences, how do you know where your agent training focus should be, or which areas of agent behaviour and capability to improve? If you can’t quantify what type of contact is coming in through the new channels, how can you measure productivity? How can you gauge or justify head count? How do you incentivise your staff to provide customer satisfying service?

“You need to at least start measuring the number of digital and social media interactions you’re handling,” Galer says. “Work out what type of activities customers are using these media for. Are they satisfied with the outcome?

“You also need to determine whether the media you are offering are in line with your strategy. If, for example, you are offering an app that people are not using, then it is not serving its purpose.

“Once you understand what your customer is doing with the channels you provide, then you need to understand what your contact centre agents are doing in relation to those channels. How many queries or interactions are they responding to? How long are they taking and how effective are they?

“You also need to establish how many interactions are related to each question, whether your agents are resolving queries on a specific channel or directing them to a different channel, and what the cost is of the customer using that specific channel.

“If customers say they want to use a specific channel that is costly to you, you may need to retain it but find ways of making it more effective.

“The most important principle to remember, however, is that metrics and human capital are extremely tightly linked in contact centres. If you get either wrong, your customers suffer. So, while you’re adjusting what you measure in your contact centre, you need also to adjust your approach to human capital.”

Not only will organisations have to recruit agents who have innate written communication capabilities, they will have to realign the metrics for the people, such as HR, payroll, contact centre managers, and staff responsible for facilities, whose work impacts agents.

“Non-contact centre personnel must be aware of what it takes to deliver exceptional service,” Galer says. “For example, facilities people trying to reduce costs need to understand that if they remove the DSTV in the chill room or no longer provide tea and coffee, the people delivering your customer service will not be happy. If they’re not happy, your customers won’t be, either.”

When it comes to acquiring talent, organisations need to go beyond simply adjusting their recruitment criteria and approaches.

“We have become much more involved with local schools and their career days in order to create an understanding among young people of what is needed to enter the corporate world and what the industry is looking for,” Galer says.

“We also partner with an organisation called Harambee that sources, trains and places unemployed young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in first-time jobs. This ensures that they are equipped with marketable skills and, in turn, we gain a talent pool we can tap into, helping to bridge the gap between South Africa’s unemployed youth and the needs of our organisation.”