Importance of Live-Agent Support in an Automated Era

9 minute read, posted on 09/23/2023, by Lauren Kindzierski

Banner - The importance of live agent support in an automated era.

Balancing Consumer Channel Preferences, Effectiveness, and Availability

Long gone are the days when consumers had no other choice but to call for support.

Multichannel experiences are improving and in high demand. In recent survey results, EITK and VXI’s 2023 CX Trends and Insights Report revealed that, in the past 12 months, nearly 80% of respondents had taken a multichannel care journey, including phone, chat, in-person, SMS, social, and/or self-help channels.

For the past three years, companies have offered multiple channels to demonstrate flexibility and maximize convenience. Yet certain channels are more costly than others, and some issues are more efficiently resolved on specific channels.

In today’s economic climate, offering multichannel simply for the sake of convenience is under scrutiny. Companies are evaluating how they are using each channel, particularly live-agent ones.

With the average cost per call averaging $2.70 – $5.60, the live-agent phone channel reigns as one of the most expensive support delivery methods. Brands are making it more difficult to access these valuable resources. Some companies, such as Apple, Frontier Airlines, and Squarespace, have stopped offering unlimited, free phone support.

In reality, the live-agent phone channel is often the route consumers go to get their most challenging issues resolved. According to the CX Leaders Trends and Insights Report, most consumers start engaging with a brand using text-based channels but end the conversation by phone, presumably because they can’t find a resolution elsewhere.

Chart - In which channel did your multi-channel engagement begin/end?

Excerpted from VXI and EITK’s 2023 CX Leaders Trends and Insights Report

In this “State of Customer Service and CX: The 2023 Achieving Customer Amazement (ACA) Study”, Shep Hyken found that 76% of customers would be willing to go out of their way to go to a company that has better customer service. About 86% of EITK survey respondents said that the CX is “important” or “very important” in shaping their opinion of a brand.

Cutting corners on the voice channel option, or eliminating the channel altogether, is certainly tempting, but risky. Consumers want choice – and a live agent is the clear preference. Containing costs while meeting consumer expectations always requires careful assessment — and compromise.

Walking the Channel Choice Tightrope Is Harder Than It Looks

Companies and consumers alike are of differing opinions, maturity, and readiness to embrace advanced CX technologies.

Different generations, for example, tend to favor certain communication methods (e.g., Baby Boomers prefer in-person or phone conversations, and Millennials are partial to text-based exchanges).  However, the generational differences aren’t necessarily substantive. Hyken’s 2023 survey revealed that all age groups’ interest in phone-based customer service increased compared to 2022. Last year, just 60% of Gen Z preferred the phone but, this year, that percentage jumped to 75%! The numbers are similar for Millennials.

Undoubtedly, brands need to watch and evolve with consumer demographic preferences but, even with Millennials overtaking Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation, the need for live-agent care endures. While there are clear channel favorites for each generation, consumers of all ages want the option and convenience of using other means at their discretion.

Making it easy to switch between channels is important, too. According to Gartner, customers don’t mind switching channels as long as their issue is resolved in a single, continuous interaction. Channels are simply a means to achieve a desired outcome; resolving a consumer’s problem as quickly as possible on the first channel they use is key to maximizing customer satisfaction (CSAT) and loyalty.

Indeed, many consumers claim that the number one way to improve multichannel experiences is to create a faster, less complicated process while making live agents with improved communication skills and deeper levels of product/service understanding far more accessible (EITK).

Infographic - What could the customer care team you interacted with have done differently to improve your overall multichannel experience? (Select all that apply.)

Excerpted from VXI and EITK’s 2023 CX Leaders Trends and Insights Report.

More than ever, it's critical to offer channel choice while guiding consumers to the route that's more likely to resolve their issue fast, inexpensively, and satisfactorily.

Gartner has gone so far as to map consumers’ goals with the channels that are typically most effective to achieve them. For a right-channel strategy, however, this general mapping may be useful only as starting point. With contact drivers, demographics, and customer journey stage also coming into play, companies may need to delve deeper.

Compromises, Smooth Live-Agent Hand-offs, and Soft Landings Are Key

In navigating a customer service era chock-full of possibilities, most brands choose to interact with consumers via multiple channels to please the broadest possible audience.

Unfortunately, multichannel tends to put more pressure on agents to multitask and resolve.

According to Washington Post, vanishing phone support is driving customers crazy. Contact numbers are hard to find, wait times are long, repetition is required, and bots are rampant, which “…is not simply inconvenient. It’s contemptuous.”

When consumers actually do reach a human, they are more likely to be exasperated, leaving agents to diffuse negativity before they can even begin to unravel the original product or service concern.

Issue complexity is increasing as lower-level interactions are automated. The stakes are higher for live-agent support.

Up to 68% of EITK’s polled consumers are willing to consider paying extra for better support. Hyken found that 47% of consumers would pay more if they knew they would receive great service. Those are significant numbers!

All of this means that brands who truly care cannot misstep or take their foot off the pedal when it comes to investing in live-agent support and channel optimization. They need to understand consumers holistically (including “moments of truth” where they lose faith in the brand) and place live agents at the key touchpoints.

In many ways, when it comes to service delivery, the needs of brands and consumers are in direct opposition. As in any "negotiation," compromise is key. An objective, third-party, CX advisor (or mediator!) may help with channel choice orchestration and optimization.

Equipping Agents for the Automated Era Is Counterintuitive, But Necessary

Getting automated and agent-assisted channels working together will enable all parties – consumers, brands, and agents – to move forward with ease. But the hand-off between channels must be smooth.

Investing in agents to handle complex interactions, counterintuitively, may be part of the cost-savings compromise – especially when consumers receive guidance on the channel most likely to yield first-contact resolution.

Modern CRM systems, analytics, and agent-assist prompts can aid in channel transitions. But, ultimately, salvaging loyalty after a consumer has already made previous resolution attempts falls on an agent’s shoulders. Role-playing via a training simulator may be particularly effective in providing hands-on experience in a safe environment.

The best training simulators easily can be configured to step agents through the most common – or the most extreme – on-the-job scenarios. And they can be self-paced and set up to assist agents with phone- and text-based transactions – and the hand-offs across channels.

Clarity of communication and product knowledge are some areas in which EITK survey respondents prefer that companies invest in consumer experience in 2023. A simulator can help with many of these areas.

For a billion-dollar furniture and home décor e-tailer, VXI transformed the client’s live chat and SMS interactions from mediocre to memorable with the help of a simulator.

The team tailored the training to guide agents through a variety of product and service scenarios, focused on striking the right balance between canned and authentic messaging. The impact was a boost to NPS scores, with VXI agents exceeding the client’s targets by 148% for live chat and 129% for SMS.

The team tailored the training to guide agents through a variety of product and service scenarios, focused on striking the right balance between canned and authentic messaging. The impact was a boost to NPS scores, with VXI agents exceeding the client’s targets by 148% for live chat and 129% for SMS.

The Value of Live-Agent Support Persists as the Pendulum Swings

In 2022, Forrester commented, “The pendulum is swinging from automation to increasingly important touchpoints powered by human agents.” Analysts there believe that “Service delivered by human agents (not robots) is what drives positive customer outcomes. The pendulum is finally swinging back from hyper-automation to human-led conversation, but we’ve got some work to do.”

Infographic CX Pedulum

This is completely in line with Hyken (who found that consumers of all ages now prefer people over digital) and EITK (which found that 83% of respondents had had a positive experience with a customer care department, and they attributed that positivity to agent friendliness, eagerness to help, and level of knowledge – not bots).

In reviewing reports from some of today’s leading CX analysts and surveys, delivering a differentiated CX in 2023 is all about balance. Continually investing in live agents – while perfecting self-help and bot-driven technologies and orchestrating a cost-effective channel journey – enables brands to sustain CSAT levels and loyalty.

With expressed concerns around bots’ and AI’s ease of usability, security, brand disconnectedness, and lack of resolution, consumers continue to communicate their preference for easy access to a human, for now.

Strategic channel choices with well-prepared, well-placed agents who can address some of a brand’s most serious concerns can ensure a smooth transition to the tech-dominated contact center of the future.

Contact us at any time to speak to a CX advisor about EITK’s 2023 CX Leaders Trends and Insights Report, our channel orchestration capabilities or our agent training simulation tool.

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