Agility means a lot of things to different organizations. In the end, it’s the ability to pivot quickly to better serve the customer. If businesses learned anything from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that they are not nearly as agile as they hoped. As companies prepare themselves to take on the unknowns of the future, improving operational agility is one of the top priorities for scaling businesses.
In this session of CX Power Hour, Alan Pendleton, CEO of ArenaCX, Deon Nicholas, CEO of Forethought, and John Kearney, VP of Customer Care at Zendesk, discuss exactly what it means for customer support teams to be agile and the 3 key areas they must focus on to make their team adaptable and future-proof: People, Processes, and Technology.
Discussion Highlights & CX Takeaways
What does it mean to have an “agile” customer support team, and what does that look like in practice?
"Aaron De Smet, a principal and organizational design specialist at McKinsey, defines agility as the ability of an organization to renew itself to adapt, change quickly and succeed in a rapidly changing ambiguous and turbulent environment. When you think about customer service as a function: How would you define agility? What does [agility] look like in customer service?"
"In a background, contextual definition, agility is just how quickly a company can adjust to ever changing business conditions. But I also want to bring in a complimentary definition, which is very mature in supply chain, which I mentioned earlier. But here, it's about how quickly a company can adjust manufacturing capacity and output up or down based on demand signals from customers.
So how do we apply that to customer service? One way is to think of a demand unit, in customer service as a ticket or a chat or a call. The demand unit is not the headcount, the demand unit is the work output that needs to be performed. When you think of it that way, now, you can start asking yourself, how quickly can my company adjust my customer support capacity and output potential in response to ticket demand or interaction demand signals coming in, in the support network, there's many ways to achieve this."
"Oftentimes, we talk about just like you said, headcount, even how to become more agile, but the reality is, it's the output, and we don't look at customer support in terms of how many people do we have, but how many people can we support? What is our output?
When you think about an agile organization, we've all seen and worked in agile organizations, we've also worked in rigid organizations, what characteristics do you see in an agile organization? What does it look like from the outside looking in so that people that may think that they're an agile organization, they can look at and say, Hey, I don't check any of these boxes, so maybe I'm really not as agile as I think. Deon, when you think of an agile organization, what does that look like?"
"Most of the time, in a non-agile organization, you follow some form of a waterfall process, right? Your requirements are set at the beginning that gets passed through to the leaders, then that gets passed through to the managers which gets passed through to the actual frontline agents or workers. This can be true for any kind of process, whether you're developing a product or adapting to customer support needs.
And so flipping that, the most important thing in order to be agile when you're looking from the outside in is where do the demands come from? Where do the requirements come from? Is it coming from some centralized source? Or is it distributed down to what I like to call the nodes, or the leaves are the people actually doing the work. And so you start to see a lot more things like knowledge centered support, for example, in the support world, where your agents are not only responding to questions, but they're, they're actually the ones updating the knowledge bases, updating the articles, and then giving that back to leaders. And so there are things like that, that you can actually start to see across many different processes that give you the signs that you're an agile organization."
"I'll just add that when I think of agility from a customer service standpoint, being agile versus a more rigid one, it's creating a competitive advantage, where you can quickly adjust to the market changes, what customers are moving towards, and how quickly your organization can address those needs, and provides a competitive advantage for companies that think that way and move that way.
Obviously, there's challenges to that. But the more that you can provide a listening system from the the staff closely to what customers are experiencing, and then providing that listening feedback up into the organization from a product standpoint, then now the whole company's kind of gearing its its approach to meet that customer demand, and be flexible and extensible to to grow in the future and scale as well."
How can you make sure you have the cash flow and flexibility you need while also considering the headcount of scaling your teams?
"One thing people often ignore when they think about agility, is the ability to actually be agile with cash flow and contract flexibility. When you're scaling a business and trying to grow teams, what do you look at when you're considering those? How do you look at longer-term contracts in regards to shoring up your resources - making sure you have them there available to you, but yet, also making sure you have the cash flow and the flexibility that you need? Alan, do you want to lead that off?"
"Sure. There's a lot of angles to take on that, as I'll maybe start with this one to say, customer support agility, and cash flow flexibility. If you're thinking about running a headcount based support operation, you are locking in for a period of time to theoretically fixed capacity.
So if you have 100 agents on the floor, you can do the work that 100 agents can do right now. That's your theoretical capacity, you also have kind of a fixed cost associated with that. That's the supply side of the equation. The demand side is customers don't know how many agents you have and they don't care. They're gonna open tickets, as long as your channels are going to let them come in.
So the demand line is all over the place, whereas the supply line is fixed. So at any given moment in time, you either have too much capacity. In that case, you feel like maybe you're overspending or over invested, or you have to make up work for people to do or flipside, you don't have enough to demand to support it or you're late on customer responses. Now you're disappointing customers because you're under capacity. And so solving for that problem is difficult when your contracts are long term with fixed headcount with minimum floors and lead times.
That's native to the whole outsourcing industry. And so that's not something I would expect many companies to have aggressively solved for. But it is possible to do that. At ArenaCX, we've adjusted the ability for supply to be dynamically adjusted to demand and that directly affects cash flow, so you pay for what you need when you need it, and not vice versa. So that's, that's one response of probably many other possible ways to take that question."
"Yeah, the thing that comes to mind for me is that it also depends on what stage of company are in if you're in a, call it hyper growth rate, where things are constantly changing, then the you kind of want to be in a state where you're just slightly understaffed at all times, but you're growing as you go. And you'll never have a shortage of work to do so to speak.
But then there's a world where you're in a more “flat” environment or something like that, when the most important thing is just customer quality, right? The most important thing is to make sure that you're hitting your SLAs, you probably have more resources to boot. And so it's okay to be slightly higher on the on the supply side than on the demand side to give that quality customer experience. And so I was just thinking about the idea that when is it better to be over-resourced, or under-resourced, and it's highly a function of what what environment you're in and kind of, you know, choose your own destiny."
How do you know when you should hire internally vs. outsource? Key Area #1: People.
"What are your thoughts on the important parts that organizations need to consider when they're looking at agility? Why is it important to hire internally? When should a company look at bringing outsourced support? How do you forecast for that? And what are the different elements that people need to consider?"
"The question is, how do you know when to hire internally versus outsource, and how to plan for that. So most people who aren't doing it, don't think they're ready. I haven't met someone who's not [outsourcing] who says I am ready right now. So there's always a feeling of risk and uncertainty associated with it. And so I think, if there's a business reason to do it, it's never too early to get started.
But what's important is to de-risk it and be careful to do it strategically. So find an entry into it, that's in a lower risk category of support or business or a small share, and then let it grow as the outsource competency is demonstrated. So that's kind of the way our algorithms work at ArenaCX, for example, is you can start small. If that BPO proves itself relative to others in the network, then it can earn more share and grow into it.
I would say, starting safely is a smart way to do it. And grow only as you achieve competency. But don't think that you're too immature as a business to do it. Most companies start before their training is fully documented before they have the kind of robust infrastructure that they might want. And oftentimes, it's the outsourced service provider that can be utilized as a deliverer of best practices in the first place. So instead of thinking of them as a staffing agency for you, that's doing everything according to your dictates, think of them as a true partner that wants to sit on the same side of the table with you roll up the sleeves together, and collectively solve problems.
And these companies do business with dozens of other companies and can bring ideas to the table as well. And that's what they specialize in, so you can benefit from that along the way.
As far as planning for it, there's a lot of factors involved. So your your demand growth matters, the volatility of your demand would matter. Timing it, you probably wouldn't want to outsource the day before a pretty new product launch. Or a very volatile period in terms of demand uncertainty, and so start when it's a smart time and your product and customer lifecycle or company lifecycle as you mature.
And have an exit plan. It's possible to make a false start and I've met some companies who would say, I'll never do that again. They did an RFP they picked one company put all their eggs in one basket and got burned because the PowerPoint was so good. They were persuaded by it. And then they learned it wasn't the right fit. And so there are literally 1000s of outsource providers. Finding the right fit one does, in fact matter and being resilient and agile to be able to adapt if you realize you've made a misstep, rather than giving up on outsourcing. Using agility as part of your outsourcing strategy matters as well."
"If we're looking at outsourcing or offshoring, it’s strategic to your labor mix. Right? So part of that is just understanding what portion of our business can we offshore at potentially a lower cost labor market that will save us money, but help us scale? That's one part. And I do agree with Alan, that we should consider them strategic partners. And they should work with us just as closely as we would our own staff. But also realize the redundancy there.
If you do have a site that goes down, and you're offshored at a different portion of the globe, then you've got resources there available to help out, even if you have a business outage in a different part of the country, or globe. And the other piece I think about is being able to scale at cost. When I think about staffing, philosophically, I think a lot of companies would say hey, we're in a tiered approach, you know, we hire in entry level tier one, then we move to tier two, and then tier three.
The problem is, with a tiered approach, you have all that inertia to overcome to resolve customer issues. So it creates a backlog, it slows things down and negatively impacts customer experience. So over the past years, whether it's Salesforce, and Zendesk is already in this model, is to move to a “swarming” type of approach where you hire in the resources, they're able to scale with the complexity of your product. So you don't think about this tiered approach. You think about what skill sets I'm going to need to be able to grow with the complexity of the product, and then hire accordingly.
But you use a swarming model to say, if you can't solve it, where are the resources to help you solve it, and then we all come together to work that model and reduce that inertia that it takes for customers, so they have a better experience, and provides greater throughput and efficiency outside of the tiered model. So there's a lot to that. But I feel like what are the skill sets you're going to need to hire for the future, and look at that as your next wave of staff to bring in so that they can scale with the complexity of the product, if that makes sense."
There’s so much more to this discussion as Deon (Forethought), John (Zendesk), and Alan (ArenaCX) dive into the Technology and Processes pillars of creating an agile customer service organization. Watch the full webinar on-demand now.
Or get in touch with our team to learn more about ArenaCX.
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