As the founder of a company that aims to improve virtual care QA and training, I occasionally drop into a few of Reddit’s contact center discussion boards to see what frontline staff have to say about their experience.
Usually, I stick to r/talesfromcallcenters, which boasts over 200,000 members and offers terrific insight into the everyday work life of contact center agents, including a mix of serious stories and hilarious vent sessions (dubbed “tales from the trenches of the call center world” in the subreddit’s description).
But the other day, I visited a less popular subreddit and came across a post that struck a chord.
It was the title that first stopped me in my tracks: “To elaborate on the notion of’ ‘being a human shield.’”
In the post, the Redditor details the difficulty of being on the front lines of customer service and the frustration of being unable to adequately address callers’ issues. According to the poster, the company running their contact center had consistently failed to give staff the information and tools they needed to solve callers’ problems, resulting in a high volume of dissatisfied callers.
Without the resources needed to solve problems and answer questions, this agent felt they and their colleagues had become little more than “human shields,” meant to take the blame (and sometimes, abuse) for the company’s failings.
“I am okay with being a human shield,” they write. “I understand it’s literally what I signed up for. But at least equip us to help solve the problem, rather than just throwing us under the bus so the customers can scream at us.”
Or, as they put it in the final line of the post: “They want us to clean up their messes for them, but they won’t even give us a mop!”
It got me thinking: How common is this feeling, even outside of a traditional customer service context? What about at health insurance contact centers? Substance abuse treatment hotlines? In virtual care?
While I suspect frontline staff at these organizations are less likely to face explicit anger and abuse from callers, they may feel similarly ill-equipped to solve problems, answer questions and do their best work.
This can easily lead to disillusionment, disengagement and, ultimately, high turnover.
To solve this problem, I think we need to focus on three key areas:
- Making it easier for staff to find answers and solve problems
- Optimizing training for both individuals and teams
- Prioritizing regular, comprehensive feedback to support staff growth and increase job satisfaction for high performers
Why staff feel ill-equipped to do their best work
Even the most dedicated and experienced staff can find themselves out to sea if their organization fails to offer the tools, training and support they need to do their work effectively.
Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the key danger areas to keep in mind:
The right answer is hard to find
One of the most difficult parts of being on the front lines at a contact center — and one highlighted by the Reddit post — is finding the right answer when you need it.
You’ll notice I said the “right answer,” not just “an answer.” After all, two of the biggest pain points in customer service are agents not knowing the right answer and different agents giving different answers.
Most of the time, though, the issue is not a lack of care on the agent’s part. Most agents genuinely want to help callers and do their best to answer questions and solve problems. But they can hit a wall if their organization hasn’t provided an easy way to access the information.
In other words, they want to help, but simply can’t find the right answer (at least not quickly).
As the Reddit poster noted: “As long as the company provides the information, resources, and tools to help solve the callers’ problems, it can be a decent job.”
I suspect part of the problem is that the vast majority of organizations expect staff to rely on overly time-consuming methods of finding information — like searching through outdated, bloated knowledge bases or hours of how-to videos.
While the answers may be buried somewhere in an organization’s knowledge base, how likely is an agent to find it in the moment during a call?
More likely, the agent will give the best answer they can think of quickly or put a caller on hold to search for the answer or ask a colleague for help. Callers either get inaccurate or incomplete information or are left waiting on the line, growing frustrated.
Maybe the caller hangs up, calls back, speaks to someone else and gets a different answer. Maybe they leave negative feedback on a post-call survey or call to complain to a manager.
How would you feel as an agent in that position? You did your best, but simply didn’t have fast, easy access to the information you needed. Now you’re worried about your next performance review.
Demoralizing, to say the least.
Given how hard it can be to find information in real time during a call, ongoing training is key to ensuring contact center staff feel prepared to address different situations or escalate issues to more suitable team members.
Unfortunately, contact center training has a long way to go.
It not only takes an inordinate amount of time for agents to reach proficiency (as much as 7 months at many contact centers), but training also tends to be front-loaded and generalized, making it difficult to address the ongoing needs of individual agents.
Training also tends to rely heavily on lectures and memorization. This means agents are less likely to retain information long term.
Add to this the notoriously high turnover rates at contact centers, which mean teammates — including managers and other sources of institutional knowledge — are constantly changing, leaving staff to fend for themselves.
This all paints a dismal picture even for agents doing their best to learn:
It can take months to reach proficiency, but agents are taking plenty of (potentially frustrating) calls in the meantime.
- Training can be hard to come by past an agent’s initial onboarding, putting agents in a “sink or swim” situation.
- Training relies on memorization or trial and error on the job.
- Training is designed for the team at large, not individual agents, who may need more help in specific areas of their work.
Given these circumstances, it’s no wonder many contact center agents feel unprepared or overwhelmed on the front lines.
Ideally, training should be a regular part of an agent’s day to day — regularly refreshed, based in role play and real-world examples instead of memorization, and tailored to an agent’s individual strengths and weaknesses.
These changes should not only create a better experience for callers, but also give staff more confidence, more quickly.
Sadly, though, few contact centers have the time, resources or infrastructure needed to optimize training in this way.
See related: The importance of optimization in virtual care
Limited feedback (including positive reinforcement)
Better access to information and more frequent and tailored training can go a long way toward helping agents feel more confident and competent in their roles, but regular feedback is also key.
All too often, feedback in virtual care and other contact center environments is slow, rare or, when it comes, shallow or vague.
Providing feedback on individual calls is an impractical time-sink for most contact centers and considered next to impossible to do for 100% of calls, so agents either get generalized notes on their overall performance or hyper-specific critiques on a tiny fraction of calls.
If agents feel like calls aren’t going well, but they never get any feedback on what they could do to improve, how can they be confident in their ability to handle calls?
And if they only receive feedback (especially negative feedback) on a handful of calls, that doesn’t seem like a fair representation of their work.
In either case, you end up with demoralized staff who feel they’ve been left hung out to dry by their managers. They either don’t get the feedback they need to do their best work or they get in trouble for one call out of hundreds.
It’s also important to remember the role feedback can play in retaining top talent. An organization’s best performers need positive reinforcement to know their good work is being noticed, otherwise they’re likely to feel undervalued and start to disengage or look for a team that better appreciates them.
Failing to give needed feedback to underperforming staff can also sap enthusiasm from an organization’s most talented staff.
This is showcased in a different post from the contact center board, in which a Redditor vents about the frustration they feel when their less experienced or underperforming colleagues handle calls poorly or provide inaccurate information.
“I sometimes get calls or emails from customers that got in contact with my colleagues before [and] I see a lot of mistakes,” they write, before putting it bluntly: “It annoys me so damn hard to keep getting calls from customers, [who] are (rightfully) pissed [because] another agent messed up or just lied to them.”
If organizations fail to offer the regular, comprehensive feedback necessary to level up team performance, many staff will struggle and top performers may start to wonder whether an organization is committed to their success.
Can technology help?
While many organizations would admit their methods of training and performance evaluation are less than ideal, they don’t see an alternative. Even seasoned contact center leaders may look at the situation and say, “What’s else can we do? That’s just the way it is.”
But new innovations in AI and conversation intelligence can be a game-changer when it comes to supporting staff with easier access to information, better training and real-time feedback on every call.
Here’s a quick look at how conversation intelligence tools can help agents quickly find the right answer and help managers drive higher job satisfaction and engagement:
- Give agents the right answer, instantly. Conversation intelligence tools can analyze calls in real time and surface necessary information from an organization’s knowledge base or best practices documentation. No more putting callers on hold to dig through articles or search for help from a more experienced agent.
- Give agents real-time feedback and suggestions based on their organization’s best practices. Conversation intelligence tools can analyze calls in real time and give staff in-the-moment feedback on their performance via alerts when they miss protocols or kudos when they have a great interaction. This can not only reinforce training and help struggling agents find more confidence, but also show top performers that an organization is noticing their quality work.
- Give managers unprecedented insight into team performance. Since conversation intelligence tools can analyze and QA 100% of calls, managers get a truly comprehensive view of agent performance and identify pain points at both the individual and team level. This can help organizations better address issues or provide additional coaching so that agents feel better equipped to do their best work.
See related: Using AI to level up feedback and performance evaluations
Bottom line: Agents can’t do it all alone
Even the most talented and well-intentioned call center staff can only do so much. Without easy access to information, ongoing training and timely, relevant feedback, even an organization’s top performers may start to feel like little more than “human shields” sent out to face callers unprepared.
Organizations need to be proactive about making information easily accessible and offering timely, comprehensive feedback and training to staff. This can help ensure staff feel valued and set up for success.