Your customers are used to immediate service. Within minutes, a tap in an app can get them their favorite pizza to eat. Their favorite show is probably streaming on their favorite device right in their living room.
In a world where an array of entertainment and professional services is just a few clicks away, patience is thin. Customers expect the service and support they receive from your contact center to be just as easy and seamless.Ninety-six percent say that a negative customer experience would affect their decision to purchase from that provider in the future.
IVR systems, self-service channels, and chatbots are all part of the equation when it comes to customer service management. But those tools cut both ways. By the time a customer lands on the line with your customer support team, every other option was unsuccessful. They’re frustrated, and it’s up to the members of your service team to sort things out — again, fast.
And those service desk agents are likely feeling frustrated, too. Their whole day is filled withmore challenging cases since the easy stuff is already covered. Implementing stronger self-service options can take off some of the load. But you still need to understand that the calls that do come in will be the most difficult to handle.
With that in mind, the question becomes what is the best way for your service team to provide customer support? With the traditional tiered support model, or by introducing the swarm support model?
Tiered Support: Playing Ping Pong
In a tiered model, cases are moved from generalist agents to specialist team members in increasing steps.
It works like this: customers contacting the help desk are ushered to a tier 1 agent. This agent handles most of the known, most common issues. If it’s a more complex issue and tier 1 can’t resolve it, the incident is escalated. The next level of specialist on the team has more expertise to offer.
Customers rise through the ranks of knowledge until they get to the person who can resolve the incident. Most organizations use a tiered approach, that caps at three or four levels. Though five-tier customer service teams aren’t unheard of!
Pre-self-service and pre-on-demand everything, it worked. Generally speaking, most questions were basic ones that the initial service desk agent could answer. The upper-tier agents were fed only the new or complex cases. The majority of customers left satisfied after one call, with only a handful needing a bump up the ladder.
And Then Everything Changed
Self-service and other service management technology like IVR and chatbots now deflect many basic calls. Tiered support falls apart.
The easy stuff’s been answered already. More customers need to move beyond tier 1 and get bounced up the chain. With all the shunting between tiers, customers end up frustrated. Escalation is time-consuming. Because there is little tier collaboration, customers must repeat their story over and over with each new agent they reach.
Add to that, some of those customers would rather not be speaking with a customer support agent to begin with. Talking with a human is preferred forsome customers. (52% of baby boomers say they’ll drop a brand if they can’t speak to a person to solve an issue.) But 40% of Gen Z say they will abandon a brand if they can’t resolve an issue on their own.
Your support team feels the pain, too. Tier 1 agents do little more than ask the same repetitive questions and forward calls up the chain. This prevents them from learning how to provide proper technical support or how to resolve complex issues themselves. Higher tiers end up feeling overwhelmed with higher volumes than expected. Lower tier agents don’t get a chance to develop their skills. Or learn new ones via training or collaboration with specialist team members.
Case Swarming: Playing Catch
Case swarming disrupts this three-plus decade legacy of customer service management — with good reason. It can also be called the Swarm model or anIntelligent Swarming ℠ model.
Pared down, an Intelligent Swarming model is a tier-less service structure. Customer support tickets are pooled. Each member of the swarm team can pick the ones they’re best suited to handle. The swarm team members who opt in then “ own ” the case until resolution, using two options:
- Using their own skills or expertise to find an answer, or
- Collaborating with experts across your organization when they need assistance.
Go even further, and you’ll find service organizations using intelligent, AI-powered matching to pair individual cases with a swarm of agents who are most likely to have the interest, skills, or knowledge necessary to provide the necessary technical support or solve a specific incident.
More Hands Make Lighter Work
This collaborative support model is a perfect approach for those increasingly complex cases because it considers the talents of your customer service team. It also enables collaboration with other swarm members and subject matter experts, across areas like finance, product, operations, sales, legal and more. Particularly difficult cases may be brought to the backlog swarm, a collaborative space that brings together experts across departments.
No longer is your service team compartmentalized, where those at the “ top ” of the hierarchy feel they’ve moved “ beyond ” customer interactions. Instead of knowledge being hoarded away in departmental silos, it is stored on a service cloud, available to any team member who wants to grow in their roles or for future self-service content. Agents working within the swarm model have more… well… agency over their roles, as they are free to choose what challenges they’d like to tackle, what they’d like to learn more about, and how they’d like to grow within the organization.
Customers win, too, because they don’t bounce around between agents. With agents self-identifying which cases they take, customers interact with just one agent — and are more likely to get an answer the first time, without all the waiting, queueing, and bouncing.
It’s no wonder companieslike Salesforce are adopting (and sticking) with the swarm model over tiered support. The Technology and Services Industry Association (TSIA) reports that30% of its members currently use case swarming, a number that’s grown more than 8% in the past year.
And It’s Gaining Ground
Fifteen years ago, customer service simply wasn’t backed by the kinds of tools we have available today. But with service innovation around advanced collaboration and AI, service is shifting quickly. Particularly when it comes to cracking that difficult nut: delivering quality service at scale, the way customers want it, without wasting their time.
Let’s illustrate that in the context ofKnowledge-Centered Service, or KCS.
In a tiered support model, all that juicy knowledge about complex cases and never-been-seen-before issues gets locked away in silos. And in a silo, it may never be captured and used to improve your self-service content or internal knowledge database. If you don’t have a way to surface those solutions, they’ll never serve your agents in the future when the same issue pops up again.
Beefing up your self-service channels to deal with the increase in upper-tier cases isn’t in the cards, either. If you aren’tconnecting all of your relevant data — including case information and resolutions — you’ll struggle to identify where your team members need a boost, much less provide content that’ll help customers solve their own issues.
Connecting Agents and Knowledge for Customer Satisfaction
On the other hand, within an Intelligent Swarming model,Slack and search make for a powerful duo that allows for the creation and maintenance of organizational knowledge base. Here’s how they work together to make customer service more effective:
- Slack connects agents with expertise from around your organization. When team members need assistance with customer issues, they have immediate access to the people with the right knowledge. A quick back-and-forth later, and the agent has the answer they need.
- AI-powered search then indexes those conversations, so the next agent who looks up that issue on your knowledge database can access that conversation and get their answer right away. Not only that, but connecting information about resolved issues from Slack with your knowledge database can help you build stronger self-service content.
No black holes of knowledge. No frustrated customer support agents. And no (well, fewer) cranky customers.
Is There a Happy Medium with Case Swarming vs Tiered Support?
Unfortunately, basic case swarming isn’t always the answer. Tossing every customer incident willy-nilly into a generalized pool of swarm members and waiting for the agents to pick and choose from the chaos? Could be a rather noisy approach.
One solution is to use a hybrid support organization which works like this: a traditional tier 1 agent takes the initial call, and if it’s a basic question, it gets answered right away.
If not, that agent gathers information, routes the case through to a swarm and then acts as a middle person between the customer and the swarm members. There’s still friction, but it’s less than you’d get in a fully-tiered system.
But that doesn’t necessarily solve the issues of satisfaction or speed. Customers are still left waiting for answers, and tier 1 agents are still limited to repetitive work with few professional development opportunities.
Injecting Intelligence into the Swarm
To be truly effective, your swarming model needs to be intelligent. That means it’s backed by technology like:
- Swarmer identification andintelligent case assignment that understands who your agents are, what the customer issue is, and funnels cases through to only the support agent whose profiles are best fit to answer
- Knowledgemanagement that wraps around all of your most valuable troves of knowledge, including real-time conversations on platforms like Slack.
- Unified search that surfaces only the most relevant information to your customers when they’re looking to self-serve — and to your agents when they’re checking their knowledge database.
The Intelligent Swarming methodology, while certainly innovative and effective, isn’t a cure-all. It also isn’t perfect for every company and every situation. Making the move from a tiered support model to an intelligent swarm requires quite a shift in terms of company culture, workflow, processes, technology and more.
But when your customers can access the support they need with the same minimal effort that it takes them to choose a movie to watch, you’ll see the benefits first-hand.
Looking for ways to offer better self service? Check out our research-backed tips for building an effective case submission process, one that bakes in case deflection.
And if your company uses Slack, you should think about looking into indexing all of that valuable (or at least hilarious) conversational content .
*Intelligent Swarming℠ is a service mark of the Consortium for Service Innovation™.