Hiring Customer Service Agents is Harder than Ever

Why companies need AI today. 

“Call centers have never been more important — or more strapped1.” 

Imagine having a 100-year old parent who has a panic button for emergency situations. When you try it out, it takes an agent five minutes to call to check in. Why the delay in what could have been a life-or-death situation? A shortage of agents. A problem brought about by the pandemic2

This medical alert company is not alone. Companies around the world are facing a customer service staffing shortage, finding it harder than ever to attract and retain agents. All of this comes at a time when customers have higher expectations, and support ticket volume and costs are skyrocketing: 40% of businesses are experiencing a rising cost of worker wages3

In this environment, companies need to look to tools like AI to automate and augment the work of customer service agents, or risk damaging their customer experience.  

Ticket volume is on the rise when there’s fewer agents 

Across industries, ticket volume is spiking as a result of changing customer behavior. Some companies have seen unprecedented demand – like grocery and food delivery, retail/eCommerce, e-learning, streaming, etc. With more customers, comes more support tickets. Other industries like travel have seen demand fluctuate, but as customers start to return to normal behavior, they too are reaching out to companies at unprecedented levels to understand evolving policies, safety measures, etc. 

This spike in demand and surge in tickets has come at a time when there are about 25% fewer call center agents answering phones than before the pandemic in the United States4

“Overseas, in call-center-heavy countries such as India and the Philippines, entire facilities were shut down because of COVID-19 risk4.” And according to one estimate, “tens of thousands of employees were unable to work from home, lacking essentials like laptops, high-speed internet, and a secure way to access sensitive customer data1.”

Some of these overseas call centers have since reopened, but many have not4

As a result of less agents and more tickets, support teams are struggling to keep up. In one example, after a record-breaking number of calls and hours-long wait times, Delta CEO Ed Bastian went as far as inviting customers to email him directly. “We’re doing everything we can,” he said5

Hiring? Good luck. The talent pool for agents just isn’t there anymore. 

We’re seeing it across the board: there are jobs open but not enough people to fill them. In the United States, the overall labor force is 3.5 million people smaller6 than pre-pandemic as workers have exited the labor force7.

The labor crunch is widespread, affecting many industries that dimmed their lights during the pandemic and are now scrambling to turn them back on,” reports TIME. “The current hiring crunch is very much rooted in the pandemic, stemming from economic shutdowns, industry-specific restrictions and major shifts in consumer spending patterns last year8.”

The companies rushing to hire are in a job seekers market.  As of the end of July, there were a total of 10.9 million job openings in the United States9. At the time of this post, 1.7 million customer service jobs were open on LinkedIn10. Delta alone is trying to hire at least 5,000 agents5

It’s clear from these numbers that securing talent is harder than ever, especially in the United States where many say pandemic unemployment benefits are keeping people home and not reentering the workforce. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says “one in four recipients taking home more in unemployment than they earned working11.” In Pennsylvania, for example, the extra $300 per week from the federal government on top of the state benefit raises a minimum wage earner’s weekly pay by more than 50%12”.

“What we’re seeing is companies post job openings in record numbers, but applicant activity is at record lows,” according to Steve Lucas, the chief executives of iCIMS, a recruiting software company. Since the beginning of 2021, job openings on iCIMS have increased by 35%, while job applications are down by 20%7


On average, employers have been receiving 3.5 fewer applications per job opening7.


The perils of the customer service agent job and the impact on agent attrition 

Even if companies are able to fill their open positions, other challenges remain. The industry has one of the highest attrition rates of any industry with turnover rates between 30-40%. This is due to a few key factors: agents report feeling stressed having to deal with increasingly frustrated customers who are harder to please; they have to access many complex systems concurrently to resolve tickets; and are under pressure to resolve more tickets faster. 

An article in the Los Angeles Times has referred to customer service agents as human “punching bags.” While the article focuses on the airline industry, it can be argued that agents across industries bear the brunt of upset customers – whether it’s a missing ingredient in a meal-kit, a lost bag, or lost package. According to the publication, “Agents are subjected to verbal abuse almost daily. It’s a thankless job requiring patience and thick skin.13” 

And this only intensified during the pandemic. “What people don’t realize about contact centers is that they are the free psychological counseling centers in times of crisis,” says Donna Fluss, president of the contact center market research firm DMG Consulting LLC. “Often people call up and they dump their fears and their concerns1.”

All of these factors cause agents to leave their jobs at record numbers, resulting in extraordinary costs –  $13 billion annually in the US – to hire, train and onboard new agents. How is it so expensive? It’s estimated that it costs 30% of an employee’s salary to hire a replacement. If an average agent salary in the United States is $50,000, replacement costs $15,00014

The impact of attrition, though, is more than just financial: customers experience lapses in consistency and longer resolution times. 

How AI can protect customers, agents and businesses 

As a way to combat staffing shortages and rising costs, scale up and down to manage ticket spikes, and provide a good customer experience, companies are leveraging customer service AI. 

AI can help support teams in a few key ways: 

  • Automate resolutions to the repetitive, everyday queries 
  • Gather information from back-end systems and customers before passing a ticket on to an agent 
  • Drafting responses for agents to quickly edit, review and send 
  • Intelligently summarize and route tickets to the right agent based on expertise, availability and stress 

Working alongside AI-powered agents, human agents are able to focus on higher-level tasks which results in higher job satisfaction. Additionally, with AI handling the mundane work, agents are able to have upward mobility in their roles, taking on more creative and managerial work. It also allows companies to prepare for spikes in volume, whether expected or not, and keep customers satisfied and resolution times down. 

Companies like WestJet enjoyed the benefits of having AI in place during the early days of the pandemic. When the Canadian airline saw a 45-fold increase in ticket volume, its Netomi-powered AI agent was able to deflect tens of thousands of calls from human agents.

The future of customer service is human + AI

It’s harder than ever to staff a customer service team while meeting the rising demands of customers for immediate, personal and convenient support. The teams that will thrive in today’s environment are the ones that use a combination of human and artificial intelligence. AI needs to assist and augment the work of human agents, enabling them to focus on the work that requires a uniquely human touch. Eliminating mundane work also leads to a better experience for employees, and can help significantly reduce attrition and the costs associated with hiring.  

Can we discuss how you can use AI within your customer service workforce to enhance the customer and agent experience? Get in touch

References 

  1. https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2020/5/13/21243420/call-centers-on-hold-customer-service-unemployment-airline-cable
  2. https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2021-08-03/column-coronavirus-customer-service 
  3. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/08/10/the-labor-shortage-isnt-main-streets-biggest-problem.html 
  4. https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2020-11-10/column-coronavirus-high-call-volume 
  5. https://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/airline-news/2021/07/14/delta-customer-service-wait-times-hold-times-wont-ease-until-september/7960074002/
  6. https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/CLF16OV
  7. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/22/business/dealbook/labor-shortage-causes.html 
  8. https://time.com/6076710/restaurants-labor-shortage/ 
  9. https://www.bls.gov/jlt/ 
  10. https://www.linkedin.com/jobs/customer-service-jobs/ 
  11. https://www.uschamber.com/press-release/us-chamber-calls-ending-300-weekly-supplemental-unemployment-benefits-address-labor 
  12. https://stevenrattner.com/2021/05/steve-rattners-morning-joe-charts-a-labor-market-in-need-of-labor/ 
  13. https://www.latimes.com/travel/story/2019-11-14/airline-customer-service-agents-mistreated-angry-passengers 
  14. https://www.benefitspro.com/2021/04/28/keep-your-customer-service-agents-happy-4-ways-to-reduce-turnover/ 
  15. https://apnews.com/article/health-coronavirus-pandemic-business-bb295afe6ec8d8b88b1b944f3eba7931 

Michael Kahn

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