Should CSRs be Specialists or Generalists?

In yesterday’s Coffee Time Links, I linked to Ginger Conlon’s post that asked the question if call centers should have specialist CSRs or generalist CSRs. She recounted a conversation with Genesys COO Paul Segre who stated his belief in the mythical benefit of turning call center agents into generalists. To his credit, Segre made exception for small call centers who may not have the luxury of creating multiple queues of specialized agents.

In general (does that make me a generalist?), I agree with Segre. As a call center grows, it becomes expedient to create functional queues in which CSRs can specialize in a certain task. As the sheer number of these specialist queues proliferate, it becomes increasingly important that companies address the oft ignored issues of call routing and interdepartmental transfers. Companies often make the mistake of creating these specialist teams with an eye to shaving call time and the bottom line and ignore the larger issue of customer satisfaction as customers get passed around from team to team trying to find their way to the right specialist.

Another part of the issue is CSR ability and personality. Ten years ago I remember the latest, greatest fad was "cross-training", in which CSRs would be trained to handle multiple specialties – turning them into generalists. This trend was most disastrous in call centers where customer service agents were cross-trained to be sales agents and vice versa.

Good sales agents are good at sales for a reason – they are motivated by the art, competition and challenge of the sale. They don’t want to be problem solvers (unless it means selling the customer something to solve the problem). They don’t have the patience for it, their frustration grows faster than the customers, and they are convinced that while they are listening to this customer vent there is a commission out there somewhere that just went into somebody else’s pocket.

Good customer service agents are good at customer service for a reason – they are motivated by serving and helping others. There is an intangible reward that they get from turning an irate customer into a grateful customer. They don’t want to sell someone something. Sales requires making some people uncomfortable and, quite often, being rejected. They couldn’t take it.

Providing teams of "special agents" to handle customers is definitely a winning strategy for call centers that have the size and numbers to make it happen. Just make sure that you get the right people in the right specialties, and most important – make sure that you’re not forgetting your customer, who needs to be able to be routed quickly, simply and efficiently to the proper special agent.

If you’re not driving customers to the proper specialist – you might just be driving them crazy…and right out the door.

  3 comments for “Should CSRs be Specialists or Generalists?

  1. January 29, 2007 at 10:15 am

    Great post, Tom! Expect a trackback from me shortly.

  2. January 29, 2007 at 3:17 pm

    Tom, I completely agree with your take on CSR Specialists vs. Generalists. In addition, I think we need to take into consideration the fact that many centers have offloaded their “simple” call requests to self-service through the IVR or Web. These types of calls were perfect for a generalist who could field a gambit of basic inquires. Now I’m finding that calls reaching the center are more detailed and complex as customers are able to take care of the easy requests on their own.

  3. January 29, 2007 at 5:04 pm

    Oh man, Connie – you’re hitting the proverbial nail on the head with your comment. In fact, your experience is supported by research. I posted about it a few months ago:
    As more customers self serve – calls making it to the agents are more complex and demand more time (wreaking havoc on call centers who are using out-dated ACT models!).

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