Omnichannel and Chat agents – why you’re thinking about it wrong

Quick!  What’s an omnichannel agent?  What comes to mind? Is it a multitasking super-agent who can email, text, chat, talk and swap between customers and apps all at the same time?

That’s what a lot of people think an Omnichannel agent is.

In fact, agents almost never need to be multichannel superheroes, and individually, they don’t need to be “omnichannel”. Your business needs to be omnichannel. Your staff only needs to deal with the channels they are hired for and are good at.

An agent handling chat interactions should be able to type. They should understand modern acronomic lingo (just made that up) like LOL, IMHO and MAL[1]! They should be able to multitask (think multiple chats at once).  And they should be able to review interactions that occurred on other channels.

A good chat agent does not need to be a phone agent. They don’t need to deal with emails. They simply need to be good at chat, provide the best service over that channel, and work as part of an overall multi-disciplinary customer team.

Agents can be viewed in four different groups:

  1. Agents who can deal with phone calls:
    Requires empathy and thinking on their feet along with a great knowledge of corporate procedures and tools.
  2. Agents who can deal with email:
    Requires the ability to park items and follow up across days, write coherent paragraphs, and maintain a great knowledge of corporate procedures and tools.
  3. Agents who can deal with chat:
    Requires the ability to multitask, think on their feet, and have a great knowledge of corporate procedures and tools.
  4. Agents who can do it all:
    Typically in specialized contact centers with average staff tenure over ten years.
  5. A fifth bucket – agents who look good – might be added for video, but really, who’s doing it?

The misconception we often run into is that agents in an omnichannel contact center need to be able to deal with all interaction types. In reality, agents need to be aware of all interaction types. They need to understand the entire customer journey context, regardless of the channel they are serving. But your chat agents don’t need to handle phone calls. They just need to be able to see them in the omnichannel customer history, or in the current activity. For example, you are chatting with a customer and can see on your screen that she has already sent in an email on the same topic – having that awareness and being able to resolve, in one chat, what was originally two interactions is efficient and effective customer service. By extension, that also means that you have telephone agents in your call center that are also omnichannel contact center agents – not because they handle digital channels, but because your business does.

The Chat Dilemma

Offering chat as a standalone service apart from everything else in the contact center works well enough as a single point of customer contact – except perhaps for lack of management consistency and integration with the rest of the customer service group.

Standalone chat in the contact center is not actually an optimal way to communicate with customers. In fact, it can be very slow and have a negative impact on agent handle times – unless those agents can deal with multiple sessions at once. Which is why, in most cases, they must.

An agent handling multisession chat, however, should not be confused with a multichannel agent. While it’s acceptable and expected that chats be multisession, it’s not advisable to have an agent on a live phone call trying to handle a chat. The two channels don’t mix and will cause distracted, poor phone service (please hold; please hold; please hold).

When businesses consider the omnichannel contact center, they typically look at the amazing savings they predict they will see by putting those multisession chat agents to work on the phone queues. They foresee the optimization of their ERLANG-C across multiple channels and improved response times and overall customer satisfaction.

And this creates the Chat Dilemma.

The Chat Dilemma boils down to the fact that agents handling chats can’t take phone calls. There is no optimal way for agents to handle dual communications modalities effectively or efficiently.

The following three cases illustrate the point.

  1. Chat agents aren’t the best at dealing with live voice calls. So they shouldn’t be on the phone.
  2. Chat needs to be multisession to be effective. This means that if an agent receives the ‘next’ work item in queue, and it’s a chat, then they will receive three or more chats to optimize their session usage. Those chats do not end at the same time, and as one chat ends, another will be delivered to replace it to maximize the effectiveness of the agent. In this scenario, it is very unlikely that the agent will ever again be ‘chat free’ so that they can return to voice calls.
  3. Expecting Chat agents to be able to escalate to a voice call from within the chat is unrealistic. It can work well for a single chat session, but when the agent is dealing with multiple chat sessions, how do they focus on that one voice call? (or two or three for that matter). Giving the agent the ability to escalate a chat to a voice call dictates that the chats are single session only. And that’s not efficient for the 90% of chats that do not escalate.

Resolving the Chat Dilemma means that you aren’t going to mix chat and voice agents. You’re going to have dedicated voice agents and dedicated multisession chat agents. And that’s alright, you can still be omnichannel. This is required for good customer service. With regards to escalating a chat to a live interaction like phone or video – well, you can either bite the bullet on efficiency and do single session chats only, or ensure that your systems allow full customer context to be supplied so that escalations can be done to live agents without impacting the chat sessions in progress.

Upstream Works provides omnichannel contact center software with an intuitive Single Agent Desktop connecting all channels, interactions and business systems for improved agent experience and customer engagement. To see it in action, request a demo.

[1] Laugh out Loud; In My Humble Opinion, Modern Acronomic Lingo