Agile is one of the hottest management trends for companies across industries, and with good reason. This approach, which encourages collaboration, responsiveness, and ownership, has helped to transform different parts of an organization and generated significant performance improvements.
Over the past decade, leading companies have applied agile methodologies to IT, software development, project management, and delivery organizations. All of these functions have volatile processes with multiple inputs and high uncertainty, which made them natural candidates for agile.
To date, companies have been much slower to implement agile in operational functions, in part because executives assume these areas are ill suited for this approach. Customer care, for example, has less uncertainty than other functions, with plenty of repeated tasks and requests. Prevailing wisdom has been that rigid control is necessary in customer care to increase efficiency. Accordingly, this function has long focused on execution and used lean and Six Sigma to improve performance while standardizing interactions and investing in tools to guide service agents in their interactions.
However, the human element of customer care introduces variability and unknowns: customers increasingly demand service tailored to their needs and want their requests resolved without being transferred multiple times. What’s more, the imperative to become more customer centric and adapt to changing customer preferences now calls for introducing new elements from agile.
Agile has tremendous potential to revolutionize customer care and unlock the value of frontline employees, who represent a huge untapped resource. By empowering agents through an agile approach, organizations can infuse customer ownership and creative problem solving in customer care. Early adopters have already achieved impressive results in their contact centers, increasing first-call resolution and efficiency while lowering operational costs. A combination of agile best practices and a sustained investment in culture change can position organizations to capture similar benefits in their customer-care functions.
The right dose of agile for customer care
Currently, many customer-care functions are pursuing a traditional approach focused on standardization. Contact centers often resemble automotive factories, in that leadership carefully plans and orchestrates every step. Due to this top-down dynamic, contact centers have typically been siloed functions, with agents who have adopted a reactive, transactional mind-set. In today’s customer-centric environment, the step-by-step customer-care model is insufficient to resolve today’s more complex customer inquiries. Therefore, a fresh approach—one that harnesses the collective knowledge of frontline agents—is critical to delight and surprise the customer.
The agile methodology, as deployed in IT and product development, is not completely suited for customer-care functions, but it can be adapted in several ways to significantly boost customer experience.
Ownership. A major challenge in classic care organizations is that tasks and competencies are very scattered. With training, agents can quickly resolve simple requests, but they must typically forward complex ones to more skilled agents. The result is that, in many organizations, the first-call resolution rate hovers around 40 percent. Indeed, customers of major companies often complain about being stuck in the organization or being dropped after the third transfer.
Over the past decade, companies have incorporated digital to resolve standard requests within customer care. Yet many of the tasks left to agents are more complex, so a different approach is required to provide excellent service. Taking a page from pure agile methodology, a team or department gets ownership of a certain customer group and is entrusted to take care of all their needs. The team is also responsible for a customer’s satisfaction, revenue, and associated costs of service.
Self-managing. The agile way of working, with a focus on self-managing teams, can help customer care attain the next level of performance improvements. Teams and departments are guided less by input variables (such as average handle times and utilization) than by common targets (such as customer satisfaction, total revenue, and waiting times). Through daily performance discussions and the freedom to adjust processes and care strategies, the team can provide better quality care.
Capabilities and team. Customer-care functions must build capabilities in their frontline organization to more effectively provide end-to-end care. Experts that have previously handled more complex requests, for example, are being integrated into agile customer-care teams or serving as coaches on the floor, joining calls as needed. These cross-functional teams can resolve more than 95 percent of customer requests during the first contact, preventing a negative experience or multiple handoffs.
Enablement. When customer-care agents are part of the resolution process, it accelerates learning; and the combination of experts with frontline agents creates a culture of knowledge and learning. One of the better-known industry examples is US telco T-Mobile, which has a model called “team of experts.”
Agile routines. Most customer-care organizations conduct performance reviews, but they are focused on evaluation and payment rather than joint learning opportunities. Introducing agile routines as biweekly reviews enables teams to assess their achievements and performance of the previous period and decide on priorities to work on for the next period. In addition, teams can implement daily, 15-minute huddles to track progress during the past day. These structures help the team embark on a learning journey that is dedicated to serving customers more effectively and addressing their personal needs.
Leading companies have already applied agile approaches to the initial steps of the customer journey. However, these stages are only a fraction of overall interactions, leaving tremendous potential for improvement (Exhibit 1). Capturing this value requires the entire organization to adopt agile principles and coordinate its collective efforts.
How early movers are harnessing agile
For customer care, agile principles represent a unique approach: customers are served end to end by empowered agents who work in self-managing teams. Two case studies demonstrate how agile can be used to radically change customer-care organizations in different industries.
T-Mobile was struggling with very low first-call resolution and high customer dissatisfaction. Its agents were often forced to forward calls through the organization to try to address issues, resulting in too many handoffs and declining customer satisfaction. The telecom company recognized that revamping its first point of contact with customers would be a crucial step toward achieving better outcomes.
The steps the company took involve multiple elements indicative of an agile methodology.
Executives call their approach “TEX,” for the team of experts that focuses on resolving the requests of their customers and building a personal emotional connection with each customer. These teams, which include a mix of customer-service agents and specialists, implement a collaborative approach to efficiently handle more complex requests. Calls are accepted by the general customer service agents, called “experts.” In the event they are unable to resolve the issue, they bring in a specialist. This approach has two effects: the customer’s request is resolved, and the expert embarks on a learning journey. Thanks to this structure, agents can often resolve similar requests on their own in the future.
At the same time, digital tools are applied to automate standardized tasks so that agents are freed up to innovate, and the specialists are available to collaborate with agents to troubleshoot, share their knowledge, and debrief after calls. Once a week, specialists and agents participate in upskilling sessions where they highlight best practices. Classic team leads are replaced by coaches to ensure sufficient time for development, and administrative tasks are pushed to a support team linked to the department head.
While in the past agents addressed the full range of customers and requests, T-Mobile’s new method allocates a fixed group of customers to a set of agents across several teams. The designation creates greater ownership: in most care strategies, agents who transfer a customer might not come into contact with that individual again. With this new approach, agents know the customer will come back again if they can’t resolve the root cause of the issue. This setup combined with the team’s “profit-and-loss ownership” create incentives for performance on metrics such as revenue, total cost, and customer satisfaction.
In addition, this system combines classic contact-center principles, such as routing and workforce management, with all five agile elements, enabling T-Mobile to significantly outpace its existing customer-care efforts on several key performance indicators: first-call resolution increased by 14 percent while net promoter score rose by nine percentage points. And in a reflection of the efficiency and visibility that TEX promulgated, the contact center reduced the number of times customers were transferred by 70 percent. The new approach has also had an impact on employee morale and talent retention: the emphasis on engagement and teamwork among the squads led to a 40 percent drop in employee attrition. In this way, T-Mobile turned a challenge into a competitive advantage.
A financial services provider faced a different challenge: its contact center was taking too long to resolve requests—sometimes as much as eight weeks. One reason for this poor customer service experience was that the provider had not designated an owner of the customer journey, which created siloed functions that were focused on tracking their own performance metrics without regard to overall goals. To remedy this situation, the provider aimed to streamline processes and reduce the number of requests that had to be handled by specialists, who were sometimes overwhelmed by the volume of issues that crossed their desks.
The application of agile principles led the provider to create self-managing, end-to-end teams composed of customer-care agents with colleagues from other relevant functions (Exhibit 2). Serving as single points of contact, these teams took ownership of issue resolution. This streamlined process improved customer engagement and significantly reduced the number of internal handoffs. To strengthen connections with customers, the provider coached agents to treat requests as if they were coming from personal friends. The provider also aligned performance metrics with the end-to-end customer journey to better track the ability of the team to resolve issues.
Establishing ongoing communication and teamwork across the contact center benefitted both customers and the provider. In just 12 months, customer satisfaction increased by 20 percent, while contact-center costs fell by 30 percent and employee satisfaction rose by 10 percent. The increased visibility also reduced unnecessary rework by approximately
60 percent. The provider used the success of the pilot to roll out the new customer-care model to locations in nearly a dozen different countries.
How to get started with agile
The agile playbook is well established, thanks to its success in other functions such as delivery organizations and project management. Still, the unique dynamics of customer care require companies to tailor plans for implementation and scaling. Customer-care executives should seek to integrate four best practices into their agile strategies.
Identify customer-care functions for selected pilots. The initial pilots should be concentrated in a discrete area of customer care—for example, around a product line or specific region. The process of mapping customer journeys end to end can help agents think about how their engagement at any given touchpoint contributes to a positive customer experience. The top priority when evaluating candidates for pilots should be to ensure that agents can get as close to the customer as possible. Companies must also determine how best to cluster their teams, as this composition has a direct impact on performance.
All of these decisions share a common goal: to empower employees and give them the perspective and support to think more proactively and creatively about customer interactions. In some contact centers, teams have more flexibility in rostering and staffing plans and eventually transfer part of the profit-and-loss authority to individual teams.
Create an agile culture and mind-set. Since contact centers have traditionally been highly structured, with a command-and-control management approach, moving agents from a purely executional stance to a more engaged, problem-solving mind-set is critical. In an agile contact center, everyone needs to work together and support one another. Employees who may have become used to the standard ways of working may need a compelling reason to adopt a new approach; a clear change story can be the stimulus.
In addition, the physical layout of a contact center can send strong signals about the need to embrace collaboration. At one European contact center of a major telecommunications company, all of the employees who served specific customers were located on one floor with an open seating plan. Specialists were a visible presence, walking the halls, sitting next to agents, and sharing feedback on issues and how to resolve them. These measures serve to make call centers less anonymous and reinforce team spirit.
Prepare for the global rollout in waves. To scale successful pilots, companies must pay special attention to preparing employees for the shift to agile in advance, since selecting the right people to lead the rollout is crucial. Indeed, companies want to put at the vanguard people who are well respected by their peers and can be effective evangelists for agile. And by modeling the desired behaviors, these leaders can reinforce the collaboration and dialogue necessary to provide better service to customers. T-Mobile, for example, had a competition to choose people to participate in the effort. Executives should also reach out to internal work councils to ensure they are on board and understand the new opportunities that agile can offer to motivated workers.
In addition, companies should upgrade their workforce to ensure they have the capabilities to excel in agile. Professional development and training programs can address the hard skills, but it’s just as important to create an environment that helps employees gain the soft skills of teamwork and mentoring.
Go live and then improve continually. The beauty and challenge of an agile approach is that to be effective it must adapt to changing customer needs. Since the contact center has nearly constant engagement with customers, frontline workers will be the first ones to detect emerging issues, recognize trends, and then develop and test new ways of working to address them. Above all, teams need to remain flexible and be open to recreating themselves on a regular basis.
By keeping teams intact, companies can benefit from institutional knowledge and help to maintain morale among workers, who will take pride in having end-to-end responsibility for a product or region. Companies might need to invest in reskilling for agents in certain product segments or regions, depending on evolving customer preferences.
In the coming years, customer expectations will continue to evolve—likely at an accelerating pace, making the quest to please customers ongoing and continuously changing. Agile can not only improve customer-care outcomes in the near term but also lay the organizational foundation to respond quickly to shifting customer preferences. The prize is simply too big to ignore—not just more satisfied customers but also higher-performing customer-care organizations and happier employees.