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Specialized Contact Center Agents vs. Generalized Contact Center Agents: Which is a Worthy Fit?



Regardless of what anyone does in today’s high paced world, one thing we all unanimously can agree on is that – ‘we all are wrestling with time, or rather the lack of it’!

The long and the short of this premise is that it has rubbed notably onto the contact center industry. Effective time management seems to be the buzzword for contact center agents, at a time when the industry is betting big on the colossal power of customer experience and an Omnichannel environment.  

It is no surprise that with the rapid digitalization of contact centers, the role of contact center agents also has evolved manifold. This is largely driven by the customers’ burgeoning expectations. Over 80% customers want their issues to be resolved in a single conversation. Naturally, this translates in expecting a single contact center agent to attend to all of a customer’s concerns, without transfering the call/interaction to another department, or putting them on hold, while the agent looks for an answer.

This is precisely why the industry came up with the idea of Generalist Agents or Universal Agents, while also keeping Specialised Agents in the fray.

So, who are Generalist Agents?

Generalist, Universal, or Super Agents all mean the same, and they function around the logic of ‘multiple skills’ or a broad array of skill sets. This essentially means that these contact center agents are able to perform multiple tasks single-handedly – be it tech support or up-selling, and moreover they are able to communicate through various mediums of communication – phone, email, social media, chat, etc. Furthermore, they can double up to cover some back-office tasks too.

In a PageGroup survey, 23% of people said the economic climate was responsible for their role becoming more generalist.

So, how do Businesses stand to gain from Generalist Agents?

Providing awesome customer experience has increasingly become the focal point for almost all businesses, and this is why the presumption is that Generalist Agents will add more business value.

Let us take a look at how Generalist agents bring more to the table for the contact center industry:

  1. Better First Contact Resolution Rates: Owing to their extensive skill sets, Generalists can drastically reduce the need for call transfers. Thereby, improving the First Contact Resolution Rates of contact centers considerably.
  2. Handing Multiple Issues in a Single Call: If a customer calls in with a issue such as ‘non-updation of cashback points’, and then wants to know more about the various offers that will soon go live, a Generalist Agent can easily attend of both the customer troubles.
  3. Greater Workforce Management: Generalists can handle almost all calls, and this result in more efficient workforce management, as there is much lesser need for coordination among team members. Productivity also gets a significant boost, because metrics like occupancy rate are higher in such a set up.

Now, let’s backtrack a bit, and talk about Specialist Agents:

While I was doing reading more about Generalist Agents, I realised that probably the only difference with Specialists in terms of employability is that Specialist Agents are mostly single-skilled. In other words, Specialists are contact center agents who are experts in handling a particular type of problem/concern.

While the general conjecture is that Generalists are better than Specialist Agents, there are some clear areas where the latter trumps the former. 

  1. Full Issue Resolution: Due to their expertise in a specific skill set, Specialists are better equipped to tackle the most difficult customer problems effectively, that fall under their area of proficiency. Thereby, in some cases, these contact center agents are more likely to gain full issue resolution, as compared to Generalists.
  2. Reduced Need for Training and Coaching: Specialist Agents usually focus on a limited number of subjects, and therefore the training required is a great deal lesser. This makes Specialists perfect for businesses who hire employees with little or no understanding about the product.

All said – I was of the view that Generalists hold the edge over Specialist Agents… until I noticed the some non-bargainable shortcomings.

  1. Expensive and Difficult Training: Generalists need to be at the top of the game with updated knowledge on products/services, customer base, industry data and trends, etc. Therefore, the requirement to constantly train and coach them on a wide range of subjects is quite high. Moreover, extensive training also leads to time management issues.
  1. Overwhelming Knowledge Burden Leads to Demotivation: PageGroup’s research states that 38% employees have a negative impact on work-life balance and 25% of them feel that increased Generalist responsibilities are having a negative effect on their motivation levels.

These are the few alarming reasons why very few organizations have been able to operationalize Specialist Agents, in spite of an Omnichannel setting.

The Way Ahead: Will one Trump the other?

Limitations aside, more than 50% employees with Specialist skills now consider their job to be mostly Generalist – says a recent survey. This is regardless of the fact that they were initially employed for their niche skills.

According to Alyson Pellowe, managing consultant at People Vision – organisations are keen to bring in specialist support as and when needed and are prepared to pay for it. Organisations need more from their people with less money.

Does this point to a certain inclination towards Generalist Agents?

Perhaps, but at this juncture it will be pretty foolhardy to derive any conclusive thoughts, as the industry lacks a definite direction in terms of their wants with Specialist or Generalist skill sets.

As Oliver Watson, managing director at PageGroup aptly puts it – “The ideal workplace should have a balance of specialist and business skills but we seem to have reached a tipping point where unique skills are being eroded.”

What are your views on this discussion that seems to be a dilemma for most customer-centric organizations? Let us know in the comments below.

Also Read: 5 Ted Talks to derive Remarkable Customer Service Lessons



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