"Don't judge me on my worst five minutes." This is a reasonable request from any employee to their employer.

Yet, in many contact centers, supervisors evaluate agent performance randomly, often on the basis of less than a 1 percent sample size. It's more about luck than fairness. And agents are saying enough is enough.

Contact centers have historically had issues with turnover, and employee instability has presented a major roadblock to improved service. Research conducted by the Quality Assurance & Training Connection (QATC) shows that the average annual turnover rate for agents in U.S. contact centers ranges from 30 to 45 percent, which is more than double the average for all other occupations in the U.S.

A common frustration of agents is being managed toward statistics, not training and growth. If contact centers are serious about initiating real change, they need to shift from beating agents up over numbers to helping them improve. 

Empathy or speed? Knowing what customers want goes a long way

In a contact center, things can escalate quickly. The ability to identify the triggers for customer agitation can make the difference between a quick, efficient call and one that goes sideways. Experienced and well-equipped agents understand that a customer's initial frustration isn't with them but with the situation.

To help agents more quickly identify a potential issue and to eliminate the guesswork, many companies are turning to A.I.-fueled speech analytics -- technology that focuses on data and facts instead of presumptions.

The level of agent engagement this creates provides a much stronger customer experience than relying on call scripts in which language is uniform across all interactions.

A.I. recognizes the different types of calls and the responses that lead to the best outcomes. It offers guidance on seemingly intangible variables such as politeness and empathy. Each industry represents a unique challenge to customer service, and approaches must be specific to meet demands.

For example, financial services calls need to be efficient. Customers don't care that an agent is sorry; they just want their issue resolved. Customers in other industries, such as telecommunications, want to know that they are being heard, and that the agent understands their plight. Here, empathy is key.

Confidence matters

Research shows that when contact center agents feel unprepared to deal with specific customer issues, there is a higher attrition rate within their first 30 days on the job. This is largely because of the agents' fear of failing on the call and not being able to meet the predefined metrics of their employer.

Achieving a stronger customer experience is a shared responsibility between the company and the agent. Technologies such as speech analytics are introducing a new level of accountability for organizations: one where the company provides ready access to the necessary tools, and where agents assume responsibility for their own development.

"When we implemented speech analytics technology, agents began to feel that they finally had control of their own careers," says Cristopher Kuehl, vice president of analytics and client insights at Sitel, which handles more than 2.5 million unique customer experiences every day. "Employees were more confident on the phones and more efficient in their handling of even the most difficult of customer interactions."

Adds Jeff Gallino, CTO at CallMiner, "The use of analytics is all about driving improvement. The ability to use data objectively to coach agents along the way is critical to improving both EX and CX over time."

In any industry, feedback is crucial to performance. Ensuring that evaluations are viewed as fair and complete can be a challenge for contact centers that deal in immense volumes of calls.

According to Gallino, "Speech analytics technology allows companies to look at the totality of employee performance and removes the randomness that small samples can introduce into the process."

As Kuehl puts it, "Our agents now view our evaluation process as fair and complete. They see that our motivation is in helping them improve their performance and grow their careers. Trust between agents and supervisors has grown, and performance continues to increase."

Contact center agents deal with many unique situations, and the ability to adapt their approach from call to call is a key ingredient for success. It would seem that technology is helping to provide the guidance and support needed to make this happen.