The January-February 2017 edition of the Harvard Business Review contained a very thought provoking article called “Kick Ass Customer Service.” It’s thought provoking because the authors challenge the entrenched belief that people who are predominantly empathetic make the most effective contact center agents.

The authors first provide the context for their idea by noting that self-service has changed the nature of the types of contacts being handled by live agents. According to the article, 81% of consumers use self-service, such as website FAQs, to try to resolve their own issues prior to reaching out to a service agent. This means that the types of inquiries making it to agents are the more difficult ones that customers couldn’t resolve themselves. This also means that by the time many customers make it to an agent, they have already invested some frustrating time on the issue and just want someone to take ownership and fix it, rather than offer platitudes and more options.

Against this backdrop, the authors set out to identify the most effective type of agents and whether contact centers were aligned on this agent type. The results of their extensive study are quite interesting.

First, the authors assessed 1,440 agents and found they fell into seven categories:

  • The Controller – “Outspoken and opinionated; likes demonstrating expertise and directing the customer interaction.”
  • The Rock – “Unflappable and optimistic; doesn’t take difficult conversations personally.”
  • The Accommodator – “Meets people halfway; involves others in decisionmaking; eagerly offers discounts and refunds.”
  • The Empathizer – “Enjoys solving others’ problems; seeks to understand behaviors and motives; listens sympathetically.”
  • The Hard Worker – “Follows rules and procedures; likes working with numbers; is persistent and deadline oriented.”
  • The Innovator – “Identifies ways to improve processes and procedures; generates new ideas and options.”
  • The Competitor – “Focuses on winning, outperforming colleagues and changing others’ views.”

This is where it gets interesting. When they showed managers the list, 42% of the managers preferred the Empathizer profile and, consistent with that, 32% of the agents in the study fell into the Empathizer category. However, when they assessed which agents were most effective at their jobs (like making the interaction effortless, satisfying the customer and meeting productivity goals), Empathizers were not the best. In fact, they came in fourth.

So which category scored the highest in this assessment? Controllers. And the authors gave a good example of why that is. Whereas an Empathizer is likely to say, “Here are your options. What would you like to do?”, a Controller is more inclined to say, “This is what you need to do.” For many customers who are weary and frustrated by having just gone through self-service efforts, this can be music to their ears.

Now the real problem, according to the authors, is that only 2% of the agents in the study were Controllers. So the most effective profile type is grossly under-represented in the average contact center. The authors don’t believe this is because Controllers aren’t willing to take service agent jobs. Rather, they think it has more to do with recruiting and hiring practices. Controllers have strong personalities and tend to be opinionated. Hiring managers may think these characteristics would make them a bad fit or hard to manage.

The article also contains some insightful suggestions for rewording job ads, structuring interview questions, and implementing internal programs that will appeal to Controllers. The authors also reassure us that many Controllers have a lot of empathy.

And it’s that last point that makes me cautious about buying the results of this study wholesale. Individual people are a complex mixture of characteristics and that makes forcing them into one profile type an inexact science. But having said that, there is plenty of substance in this article and it’s well worth reading and thinking about.

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