The Agent Expertise Gap Definitive Guide

Support leaders are facing a challenge of high agent turnover and an influx of inexperienced agents, creating an "Agent Expertise Gap." They are searching for solutions to address this challenge.

November 23, 2022
10 min read
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Part 1 – The Real-Life Situation of Support Leaders

Alright, let’s be real and have some straight talk. Most Support leaders are being asked to do more with less. You’re trying to make customers happy and battling constant agent attrition. Your team members’ skill and performance levels vary like crazy. Worst of all, you’re relegated to being perceived as a “cost-center” and not viewed as important as the “revenue-generating” teams. 

In short, things are hard, and, speaking frankly, you don’t get enough credit.

You persevere in doing your job because you still enjoy many parts of it, despite the challenges. You enjoy delighting customers, you enjoy managing a team, you enjoy seeing people grow in their jobs, and you enjoy being a reliable problem-solver.

Meanwhile, while you’re trying to do your job, you’re constantly getting barraged by vendors trying to sell you software that supposedly helps Support teams. You’ve stopped picking up your phone for calls from random numbers, and you’re not reading emails because they’re all the same worthless pitch. “We help you lower your AHT and improve your FCR, CSAT, and NPS. We automate your agents. We use AI and ML. We’ll make your agents more productive. We help you coach your agents to be excellent. We help you make happy customers.” 

It’s all acronym and buzzword soup. Maybe you’ve tried one or two of those tools, but despite your best efforts, they didn't deliver what you were promised. You're now very suspicious of sales pitches. Rightfully so.

Again, your job is hard, and everyone saying they can help sounds the same. This is the world we live in…

Part 2 – Many Support Leaders’ Biggest Concern

If you’re reading this, you’re probably like the hundreds of other Support leaders that people at Zingtree have talked with. Many of these leaders are all facing the same major problem—and you’re likely facing it too.

This never-ending problem is the high attrition rate of Support agents. High attrition rates in Support intuitively make sense, because many agents view their job as a stopover before another job. Plus, burnout is often high when you’re dealing with frustrated customers, which makes maintaining morale and keeping team members motivated harder. 

Some studies say the average annual turnover rate for Support agents is as high as 45%, meaning almost half the people answering customer questions for you today will not be the same people doing it next year (source 1, 2). Of course, the exact percentage is going to vary from company to company. 

Even so, the fact that this is commonplace means that Support leaders have to recruit, retain talent, and rely on technology differently than every other department in an organization. Some days, you may even wonder if your full-time job is leading a Support team or being a full-time recruiter.

Creating an amazing culture can help, but it will probably only make a minor dent in your attrition problem. You know that because you've already tried investing in culture, perks, and gamification. You’ve carefully picked managers who genuinely care about their teams, but the problem persists. 

Not many people want to be a Support agent for the rest of their lives. 

They view the job as a stepping stone. Maybe they want to further their career in customer Support, or maybe it’s just a foot in the door so they can make a lateral move to another career field.  Regardless of the specifics, it means high turnover is always going to be the case. Improvements may be possible, but busting your butt trying to fix it is probably only going to make a small, marginal impact that won’t really change the big picture.

Part 3 – How High Turnover Creates the Agent Expertise Gap 

One of the real kickers of having an inevitable high turnover is that your expertise is constantly walking out the door. You spend a bunch of time training and ramping up agents, knowing full well that most are just going to leave 6 or 12 months later. All the knowledge of the company that you’ve built up in your agents’ minds, gone. Again and again, over and over, off to another company or another role. 

You’re left with new agents. They’re not as proficient as your old experts. They don’t know what to say. They’re regularly stumped by customer problems. Every Support leader is trying to crack the code on telling agents what to say and how to help customers effectively, while also knowing that most agents aren’t going to last years.

We’ve given this phenomenon a name: the “Agent Expertise Gap”. 

Many agents just don’t have the expertise to answer questions quickly, correctly, and with empathy. If agents don’t know what to say to resolve the problem, transfers and escalations are the go-to solutions. Sadly, these all directly increase AHT, decrease FCR, and usually have a negative impact on CSAT. If you have tenured agents, they may know what to say in every situation, but they’re being asked to do more work (because the newer folks don’t know how to help). 

In addition to high employee turnover, the Agent Expertise Gap is often exacerbated by three other factors:

  1. Company processes are changing frequently - how can an agent remember what is the most up-to-date thing to say or process to follow if it changes all the time?
  2. Situations are complex - how can an agent remember how to troubleshoot a scenario that requires “10” conditional if/then steps?
  3. Companies have “30+” SKUs - how can an agent remember how to answer questions for so many products and nuances? 

Part 4 - The Traditional but Costly Way of Fixing the Agent Expertise Gap

The traditional approach to solving the Agent Expertise Gap is to put the new agents you hire into a long training program, including ramping over several months and receiving ongoing training about updates. Many companies will send their batch of new agents to a hotel or office for weeks to get trained on how to respond to customers, how to use their internal tools, and so on. They’re often given some binders or online articles for reference. Often, the training is specialized by topics. It can be by problem type (e.g. billing) or by product type (e.g. by SKU). 

After initial training, these new hires do some shadowing of expert agents or get thrown into the fire, even though they’re probably not ready to perform well in live customer inquiries yet.

After a month or two, then the agents might get put into a second training intensive for a couple of days or weeks to learn some new topics. Several months after that, they likely get considered as fully ramped up. But that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily able to answer all customer conversations without escalating, transferring, or putting customers on hold in many situations. And let’s not forget the ongoing training that happens when there are updates to products, processes, or policies. Your business isn’t static, so agent knowledge can’t remain static.

This way has traditionally been accepted as the cost of doing business in customer Support. But in talking with hundreds of Support leaders, many of us have now come to agree this model is a huge waste of money and effort. High turnover rates make it incredibly costly. 

Think about it: you’re spending weeks or months to train and fully ramp an agent, and yet many are going to leave in 6 or 12 months. There are so many additional costs in this kind of training and ramp model too – the trainers’ time and salaries, the rental space for where you’re doing the training, the agents’ time away from customers, and the fact that you must repeat the whole process over and over and over.

Part 5 – How Vendors try to Solve the Agent Expertise Gap

Plenty of vendors see this Agent Expertise Gap, and they all have their angle on how they can help. 

Deflection Vendors

Some vendors look at this and just say to try to deflect or automate as much away from the agents as possible. Their hope is that self-help tools, knowledge bases, AI, or automation will reduce the number of tickets that agents need to handle. This can help, but it’s probably only going to reduce your ticket volume by 20%, maybe 50 or 60% if you have a lot of low-hanging fruit. It’s most valuable for simple requests, like sharing hours of operation, handling password resets, and other basic tasks. Agents often get tired of helping with these mundane requests anyway, so while these products are helpful, they still leave you with 40-80% of tickets that need to be handled by human agents. One of Zingtree’s products, Customer Self Help, fits in this first deflection category.

Agent Assist Vendors

Other vendors will focus on helping your human agents solve tickets more efficiently by helping them find info faster. This also works very well for simple inquiries from customers. For instance, telling someone when their order is going to arrive. The “agent assist” vendor will help the agent remember how to look up the arrival date in the system.

However, the majority of questions that agents get when there’s some up-front deflection technology means that the majority of the tickets that are left for human agents are actually moderately to severely complex. The answers to these inquiries are going to be more complicated and may need multiple if/then logic steps. If that’s the case, the agent assist will fall flat, so the agents will have to resort to putting customers on hold, searching through knowledge base articles, and hoping that they find the right few sentences from a multi-page article that fit the specifics of the customer’s request.

Coaching Vendors

Some vendors will focus on coaching agents to perform better. This can be helpful for the agents growing in their people skills. But at some point, how many tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars do you want to invest in heavy coaching if you know that half of your agents will be gone in a year?

Agent Workflow Vendors

Some vendors will focus on guiding your agents through workflows, call scripting, or decision trees. These often guide your agents with bite-sized steps through customer conversations. By giving agents the exact or directional words to say, combined with conditional if/then logic, troubleshooting any situation becomes easy. This type of product shines when you have many questions that an agent 2 weeks on the job wouldn’t be able to answer otherwise. 

This type of product aims to make every agent feel like an expert quickly, even though they haven’t memorized anything. Companies that implement this type of product typically slash agent ramp time from weeks to days, while also seeing reduced handle times and fewer transfers or escalations. Zingtree’s main product, Agent Conversational Workflow software, fits in this category.

Part 6 – How Zingtree Fits In

Now you hopefully have a better idea of how each vendor is pitching different ways to solve the same Agent Expertise Gap. While Zingtree’s products may fit into some of these categories, there are a few things that make us unique. 

First, Zingtree plays really well with many of these other vendors. Instead of a straight-up competitor, Zingtree often helps fill in the gaps where other products fall short: 

  • Already have an AI chatbot or help center? Great, use Zingtree after the ticket can’t be deflected and the person wants to speak to a human. 
  • Already have an agent assist tool? Cool, use Zingtree alongside it. 
  • Already have a coaching tool? Super, use Zingtree to codify best practices for all agents to follow based on your best agent’s conversations.

Zingtree’s Agent Conversational Workflow software is a combination of three things:

  1. Intelligent knowledge & scripting - It’s more than a suggestion engine for what to say. You can build scripts and guides so that you activate knowledge and process by delivering the right content in the context of the conversation.
  2. Automation workflows - Auto-fill CRM fields based on customer answers or agent actions. Also, initiate actions like SMS, emails, webhooks and escalations based on triggers and responses within the workflows you create.
  3. Integrations - Embed Zingtree in your favorite CRM or contact center platform to dynamically pull/push data between the two from a single screen.

All of this is powered by a decision tree engine that allows you to create sophisticated logic in a no-code manner—meaning you won’t be reliant on your IT or Engineering team. Once you’ve launched Zingtree, our advanced reporting allows you to leverage analytics to optimize your flows and manage team performance.

Using Zingtree activates knowledge so that agents don’t need to search through pages of knowledge base articles. Make every agent an expert with Zingtree.

Reach out to start a free trial if you want to give Zingtree a try. We can also help you build a business case or ROI calculator to help you get buy-in for a budget for a product like Zingtree. Lastly, thanks for reading; hope it helped you!