Welcome to the first installment of our “Customer Service Heroes” series, where we invite inspiring customer service leaders to share their advice for running successful teams. Axel Kruse is the managing director of Axel Springer Kundenservice GmbH, where he leads the news media national customer service operation for the leading digital publisher in Europe, Axel Springer. 

With three decades of experience that include directing customer service operations at Microsoft and Amazon, he has been at the forefront of the industry’s most transformational challenges and advancements. In this post, Axel explains why he is so committed to inspiring and motivating his customer service workforce—and how he is using technology to increase job satisfaction, not just efficiency. 

With technology progressing exponentially in fields such as AI, service automation, natural language understanding and processing, cloud-based CRM, and more, I hear a lot of excitement about the future of customer service these days.

Having spent well over 20 years in customer service myself, I fully agree. Times have never been more exciting in our line of work. We are in a golden age of customer service. Not because – as technology advocates often hyperbolically insist–technology can do everything humans can do, but because technology has finally matured enough to meaningfully improve the role of a contact center agent.

First, it is important to recognize the situation of a call center agent. The work itself has not changed that much over the years and definitely has not become easier. Call center employees work in a high-pressure, high-volume environment. The work is demanding, often emotionally draining and the pay—while much better in some countries than others— is often relatively low. This is the reality of the job, and the context you should never ignore.

So, while much lip service has been paid to the importance of human employees, what too often gets overlooked is leadership’s responsibility to create meaning, inspiration, and excitement for every member of your global customer service team.

And the good news is that new technology can help us drive agent satisfaction by moving away from a “butts in seats,” cost driven, transactional model to a new world of “agent centric” agile support operations as a key driver for great customer experience and success. 

In this new world of customer service, here is how I think about employing technology to complement and inspire—rather than compete with—human teams.

Start with Empathy 

First, work with your existing workforce to understand why they do their job. You must do the legwork and you must really listen. While some people chose the job because they truly love helping people (and they are, ultimately, the archetypes you want to hire), others may tell you that it is a stepping stone while they think about their next career move, and they simply need the money. 

It takes time well spent to understand each team member’s motivation and personal situation, but once you understand the context of your employees’ lives, you can think realistically about how to create a sense of motivation and purpose in doing the job. This is hard to achieve in the day-to-day call center environment. Promotions, raises, and bonuses can only go so far and typical team structures of 10-20 agents per team lead make it hard to rise through the ranks. We found, however, that factors such as freedom, flexibility, and being in control of their own work are much more powerful and sustainable drivers of agent satisfaction. Fortunately, today’s technology makes it much easier to address these drivers than in the past.

Empower your agents – Self organizing teams and collaboration

Anyone who has worked with me in the past few years has heard my goal of changing the traditional hierarchical setup in high-volume consumer support centers. Instead of transactional call center factories, I see a big potential in matching self-organizing, collaborative agent teams with customer segments similar to B2B account management setups. 

This means a fundamental paradigm shift in role definitions for management and agents. It also requires a greater investment in skill and personal development compared to the current setup. The agents need to be empowered and held accountable, while at the same time management’s role is about removing any barriers in the team’s way. Great examples for this approach are T-Mobile with their Team of Experts approach, or the “people over process” culture combined with strong consumer science at Netflix.

Though, admittedly, implementing this kind of structure is still something of a holy grail for most customer service organizations—especially with the pandemic creating a new crisis that demands so much attention—I believe it is the future of customer service.

Use of new service technologies – Agent and “Cobot” as an unbeatable team

Automation and new technologies have enabled us to create an agent-centric work environment that addresses individual drivers such as flexibility, empowerment, and personal development as much as organizational development and service improvements in various areas. 

When we started our first automation initiative at Axel Springer Kundenservice, we got many questions around the technology. Our workers’ council was concerned about the potential loss of jobs, our financial controller got excited about the cost savings, and internal clients liked the chance to increase speed/service level and reduce human errors in our service operations. 

Fast forward to today. We have integrated two robotic process automation (RPA) bot runners –or “Robbie and Roberta” as our agents call them – seamlessly into our operations. We have transitioned boring and repetitive tasks from our agents to their non-human counterparts, resulting in higher job satisfaction and more interesting work for our agents. Throughout the whole process, we kept informing the team about our objectives and the benefits of the new technology. We often have discussions today where agents ask our RPA leader if “Robbie” can help them take over maniacal tasks for them.

Our “Axel Springer Kundenservice mobile office in a box” is a key differentiator in a marketplace, where agents to this day typically work on stationary PCs in cubicles or open plan offices. With this setup, we moved our entire internal operations from our central location into the mobile office within days of the first coronavirus lockdown in Germany last year. Each agent now has a personalized bag with their own laptop, second screen, and peripherals to work from any location they prefer. This, combined with the freedom to work at flexible times whenever possible, resulted in significantly reduced attrition and absenteeism, while boosting employee motivation. 

We complemented this setup with a cloud-based collaboration suite, CRM system, and telephony, and are in the process of creating a fully digitized employee engagement and learning journey. For example, we moved away from traditional top-down knowledge delivery to a self-managed learning journey that is enriched with microlearning and eLearning tools, and elements of gamification such as skill badges, quizzes and competitions.

Conclusion

It’s a fun and exciting time to be in customer service. The arrival of new technologies, new leadership frameworks, and the strategic importance of great service are all drivers for truly human-centric service operations. The secret is putting the agents as much as the customers in focus. 

Companies who see and treat contact center agents and service reps as part of their unique selling proposition and value driver rather than a costly resource will be leading this transformation. Or, in other words: Happy Agent – Happy Customer!