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National Customer Service Week was established in 1984 by the International Customer Service Association (now a part of the Professional Association for Customer Engagement or PACE). The U.S. Congress took things further by making it a nationally recognized event in 1992. Each year, the first week of October acknowledges the work of customer service staff. This year, it is celebrated from October 5th to 9th. Celebrations typically include employee awards, special lunches, cakes, and other fun activities.

The honor is well deserved, since most would agree that customer service is not easy. Agents often deal with repetitive work, challenging tools and technology, and the occasional upset customer. This is reflected prominently by staff turnover rates: prior to the pandemic, customer service had an attrition rate estimated between 30 and 45%. Further complicating things this year, COVID-19 forced many companies to send agents home to keep their customer service lines open–with varying degrees of success.

For this year’s National Customer Service Week, it seems even more important to celebrate agents who may still be working from home or are navigating the path back to working from an office. But in addition to the awards and cake, consider supporting their hard work year-round by improving their work environment in a few key ways.

Self-service and automation

It begins by stemming the flow of repetitive issues agents find themselves responding to. Instead, offer solutions to customers’ most common problems with self-service.

A solid knowledge base is a must-have. It provides a searchable library of step-by-step instructions to address issues and is helpful to customers and agents alike. Keep it relevant through ongoing curation, which is great part-time work for agents or dedicate full-time staff if merited. Allow customers to provide feedback on articles as well as suggest ideas for missing topics.

Many common customer requests like address changes, billing inquiries, exchanges, and warranty registrations should be automated. Done right, customers simply fill out a form or answer some questions. Workflow then connects the request to the people and processes in the departments outside customer service where such issues are addressed. This not only speeds resolution time but also allows agents to focus on other tasks.

Within the last few years, chatbots have become a favored customer service technology. Customers can quickly become frustrated when searching doesn’t turn up the answer they’re looking for. The conversational nature of chatbots make it easy to quickly answer simple questions or point customers to knowledge base articles, automated solutions, and other sources.

Finally, consider offering an online community. There, customers can pose questions that can be answered by fellow customers or agents. Those solved problems, in turn, can be harvested and turned into knowledge base articles. Communities also provide useful insight into customers’ perspectives, helping drive future product and service development.

Case sorting and routing

When a solution isn’t available via self-service, customers may resort to opening a case online. Those cases require prioritization, categorization, and assignment. Typically, this case triaging is performed by an agent, and this manual data review may have low degrees of accuracy and slow the resolution time while also taking agents away from more interesting work.

Enter machine learning. It can make this high volume, lower value task a thing of the past for agents. With as little as a few months of historical data, machine learning identifies the sorting patterns from prior work to build its understanding and will continually learn and adjust further. With time, machine learning’s accuracy rate can be better than a human. As a result, customer issues are routed and addressed faster than before.

Simplified work environment

Too often the tools agents use to assist customers may hinder their work in several ways. This prevents them from efficiently assisting customers.

One cause is the use of multiple disconnected systems to address even the simplest of customer queries. When agents must switch between applications to perform tasks, their work is more challenging and time-consuming than necessary. Find ways to connect systems (and eliminate unneeded ones) to simplify agents’ work.

Next up is streamlining the agent’s workspace. Observe how they interact with the case management system as they perform their work to identify areas to improve the interface. Put important customer and case information upfront at eye level with minimal scrolling, moving less-needed information to other screens or tabs. Minimize clicks, data entry, and screen changes as much as possible to increase efficiency.

Finally, many modern customer service platforms offer technologies powered by machine learning to assist the agent. These tools monitor agents as they work with customers and suggest possible solutions from other information repositories: the knowledge base, automated solutions, answers in online communities, and other solved cases. This assistance helps both new agents and seasoned agents find answers fast.

Continue the appreciation

Customer service has never been easy work. Agents are often required to provide solutions that might seem tedious and repetitive. They must stay current on products, services, policies, and procedure. They may often face emotional and frustrated customers. And on top of all that, they must perform their work using systems that might seem to work more against them than for them.

Customer Service Week is dedicated to honoring the hard work of customer service. By all means, take the time to recognize a job well done. But when the week is over, continue to reward customer service staff further with ongoing investments in self-service; machine learning; and a modern, efficient work environment.