Multi-Skilling – Benefits and Drawbacks

In 1776 Adam Smith wrote:

“The Greatest improvements in the productive powers of labour seem to have been the effects of the division of labour”.

Putting this into the context of the contact centre, this is the single slilled or specialised agent who is more efficient due to shorter AHT and needs less training. In today’s contact centre’s we have moved away from Adam Smith’s theory and it’s no longer unusual to have cross-trained agents in order to maximise workforce efficiency.
Cross-Training usually takes two lines of thoughts, either across Product (i.e. everyone will be able to Sell the product and provide customer service) or across function e.g. as a Sales agent you are able to sell a product but you can’t provide Customer Service. 
There is no right or wrong operating model and over time I tend to see contact centre target operating model strategy swing between thinking in this space. Certainly both have their strengths and weaknesses, and this has to be weighed against considerations such as the number of products, how long it will take to cross train an agent, where in your particular industry economic cycle you are, and whether there is commercial value in specialising agents on a certain skill. 
Interestingly according to Callcentrehelper 2017 white paper the number of contact centres that are focusing on multi-skilling currently is on the decrease, dropping by 10% in 2017. This is compared to a 2016 Call Centre Helper survey, where around 80% of contact centres had already realised the economic benefits of a multi-skilled workforce – with half of the industry multi-skilling “nearly all” of their agents. 

What are the benefits of Multi-Skilling?

From a workforce planning perspective, Multi-Skilling in the inbound call centre remains a desirable option because it produces economies of scale (sometimes referred to as ‘pooling efficiencies’), and reduces the need for the agent to transfer the call, consequently improving the customer journey and productivity of your workforce.
Pooling Efficiencies – Pooling efficiencies are made through reducing the amount of time an agent needs to be in available to answer the next customer call. The number of agents that need to be available and waiting for a call in order to meet desired service levels is an important element of meeting desired Service Level goals because calls do not arrive one right after the next, but instead arrive simultaneously or whilst others are being answered. The basic premise is that the greater the size of the pool the smaller the requirement for the agent to be available waiting for a call. So, the reverse being true, economies of scale is achieved through having a larger number of calls being answered by a larger multi-skilled workforce.
Reduced Transfers – In a scenario where an agent receives a customer contact that they are untrained in, if they will have to hand that customer off to another trained agent. This is not only a poor customer journey but from productivity or more specifically call length perspectives, failure demand is created whenever a customer has to be transferred to another agent.

What are the drawbacks of Multi-Skilling?

“a Jack of all trades is master of none” – This usually constitutes the core argument against multi-skilling especially when it comes to skills that are commercially valuable to an organisation. When an agent must represent multiple products or brands, there’s the potential that the experience and/or commerciality may be impacted. 
Training Costs & Skill Degradation – Training and continual learning can be costly in the cross-trained model especially if the contact centre typically has high employee turn-over. In order for a multi-skill model to work properly, agents have to be almost as strong on their secondary skill as their primary, which can often be difficult to realistically achieve when dealing with smaller volume skills. 
Increased AHT – It is abundantly obvious that a more varied selection of queries requires more knowledge, which in turn will result increased call time due to an Agent being less familiar with the process needed to deal with that query.
“The Ever Sinking Queue” – When skill priorities have been set a different level within an ACD, its possible for the higher priority calls to jump the queue of those of a lower priority and if you have not correctly staffed the lower priority call will never actually reach an agent.

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