Stop me if this sounds familiar... A friend recently called a company to get help with one of their products. Although it was the first time he spoke with an agent, it was actually his third interaction with that company. He originally emailed them and got an auto-response. But his email never resulted in any action. So, he tried a second email. Finally, he picked up the phone. By that point, he was already frustrated from having used other contact methods without success. Situations like this are, sadly, not uncommon. As we’ve added more contact channels to the mix, our customers have more options for service and, consequently, more opportunities for companies to experience service failures.

This might have you wondering, what does this story mean for contact center agents and their leaders? Simply put, customers may be frustrated before they speak with a live agent because they have already expended effort to fix their problem. This increases the complexity of first agent-assisted contacts and demands a higher agent skill level. Compound this with the related trend of customer self-service eliminating transactional interactions from the contact center and what remains are more challenging scenarios. All of this considered, it’s important to have the answer to one very critical question: what are the key skills needed by contact center agents for 2020?

1) Resilience:

Being a contact center agent is an incredibly challenging job. Great agents need product knowledge, technical skills, and great interpersonal skills. However, they also require the ability to bounce back from challenging customer interactions. They need to maintain positive emotional energy for their own sake, as well as that of their customers. It is not easy being yelled at by strangers. So, resilience is a key agent survival skill.

The American Psychological Association lists several ways to build resilience. One of the key ways is to build connections with colleagues. No one outside of the contact center industry understands what we go through on a daily basis. I still have flashbacks to when friends would ask me, “How can you be tired? All you do is talk on the phone all day!” It’s a unique environment, which is why friendships with co-workers, having someone to confide in at work and having a supportive manager can help agents bounce back from tough calls.

A second way is to, “Accept that change is a part of living.” Most contact centers experience constant change with new products, procedures, and technology arriving all the time. Embracing change and looking for the silver lining within that change is an important survival skill in our industry.

Thirdly, encourage agents to take good care of themselves. A good diet, regular exercise, and doing fun activities outside of work are all ways to recharge from a tough day. Help agents to develop resilience, ensuring they can bounce back from challenging customer situations.

2) Emotional Intelligence:

Defined as, “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one's emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically”, emotional intelligence is vital for agent success. The good news is emotional intelligence can be learned. Start by helping agents become self-aware of their own emotional response to various contact center scenarios. Help them recognize their own reactions to aggressive, crying or emotionally needy customers. Then train them on how they can respond sympathetically, without internalizing their customer’s emotions.

3) Omnichannel Customer Service and Sales Skills:

Less than a decade ago, agents with strong verbal skills could thrive in a pure “call” center, even if their written communication skills were weak. Now, agents could interact with one customer via live chat and then take an inbound phone call immediately afterward. The modern contact center agent needs training in both verbal and written skills. A common challenge for agents who convert from handling voice-only interactions to written channels is a failure to add word choices that convey friendliness. They rely on their "phone voice" to show warmth and forget to type extra words of warmth into their live chats and emails. They need training and coaching to develop their written “voice” to ensure that they can successfully help customers via written channels like chat, SMS, and email.

How can contact center leaders help agents develop their verbal and written communication skills? They can offer additional training, leveraging both classroom and eLearning solutions. Research on adult learning supports the value of using multiple channels to engage learners and ensure successful knowledge transfer. This means that the training experience should leverage text, audio, and video to engage agents both virtually and in the classroom. This will enable agents to learn new communication techniques to boost both sales and customer service skills, as well as practice them in a safe environment.

Training and coaching your agents to develop their resilience, emotional intelligence, and omnichannel sales and service skills can help them deliver excellent customer experiences. Many of these skills are also “transferrable skills” that will help them in their personal lives, and in future roles. Invest in your team–the more skills they gain, the more they can help your customers.