Is "Agent" Offensive to Contact Center Professionals?

Updated: Apr 1

Written by Jeremy Watkin and Community


Dear contact center agent: What if I told you that if you come to work for us you can do the exact same job as you’re doing now but we’ll instead call you a customer service hero, guru, rockstar, or ninja? Are you sold?


In all seriousness, I recently had a conversation with someone who voiced their disdain for the term “agent” when referring to a customer service or contact center professional. Having used that term often throughout my career, I was taken aback upon hearing a dissenting opinion. This led to a discussion in the CX Accelerator community about the best name for such a role.


While agent and representative are traditionally accepted titles, they may carry a stigma for some, which has led to the use of newer terms as mentioned above. What’s wrong with the traditional terms? And are new titles any better? Let’s see what the community said.


It’s about the job, not the title


Maria Ebrahimi, Customer Experience Manager at 101 Commerce, isn’t offended by the term “agent” and actually prefers it. She says:


“I think naming conventions like superhero and ninja demonstrate that a company does not value customer service and they are trying to rename the position to make it seem fun and appealing - whereas the job itself should be appealing to the right person. It’s a red flag the same way ‘we work hard and play hard’ is in a job description. You’d never make a job description for a ‘Product Manager Ninja’ so don’t do it for customer service.”


Is it possible that contact center leaders need to spend less time trying to put lipstick on a pig and more time improving the job and the employee experience? Becky Roemen, CX Consultant and CX Accelerator Board Member thinks so:


“Is the word ‘agent’ the problem or is the problem how we treat those with the ‘agent’ title? A common thread when leadership wants to change the title of contact center workers is that they're looking for a quick fix, and a change of title in the contact center is not going to change the behavior of everyone else in the organization. If the contact center floor is itching for title changes, leaders should do the work to find out why they want title changes, what they feel would accurately reflect their role, job duties, etc.”


Be careful about confusing agents and customers


Robert Reid, Director of Product Management at SecurityMetrics prefers the commonly used title “Customer Service Advisor” saying, “titles like ninjas and heroes actually confuse people, especially customers.” While it might only seem like a minor confusion, can you imagine contacting a company for support and they tell you to go talk to a superhero? You might respond with “how is a superhero going to help me sort out my billing issue?”


Or you are at a party and someone asks you what you do for work. You say, “I’m a ninja!” and they respond with, “Oh, so you’re a person trained in ancient Japanese martial arts and employed especially for espionage and assassinations.” That’s the Miriam Webster definition. While the person likely knows you don’t wield a bo staff and nunchucks at your day job, using a common language matters. The job title should translate across the industry and customers should know that the person they are speaking with represents the company and can solve their problem.


When assessing job titles, consider what the title communicates about the employee. Yael McCue, Lead Implementation Strategist at Guru says, “job titles should be broken up into “associate” or “specialist” depending on their skill level.” Another way to delineate this in contact centers is front-line agent, subject matter expert (SME), tier 1,2,3, team lead, and so on. Within the organization, this helps everyone know who to go to for assistance with certain matters and can communicate a certain level of expertise and experience. As a bonus, it can also communicate a career path to agents which is key to their engagement.


Context is critical


A possible reason for a stigma around the term “agent,” or any job title for that matter, is when it’s used to communicate that one person or position is less important than another. Jeremy Hyde says:


“I use team member, coworker, or colleague often — especially if using team member won’t confuse who I’m referring to and I don’t need to be role/title specific. I do this not because I think agent is offensive or in any way demeans the person, but instead to try to show I value that role just as I do all others.”


Having worked in organizations that used terms like colleague to refer to employees, regardless of role and title, I believe this is a great way to communicate that each person has value. The temptation when referring to contact center agents is to place a “the” in front of the term to make it very clear that you are referring to the front-line staff. For example, if you catch yourself saying “the colleagues,” or “the associates,” or “the representatives” you might as well just call them “the agents” because you are using the term to refer to a specific group of people, not the collective group of employees at your organization.


Customer service ≠ customer experience (CX)


In the CX Accelerator community, which has a large representation of customer service professionals, we spend a significant amount of time discussing the fact that while customer service is certainly part of CX, it’s not the entire CX. A huge portion of a customer’s experience with a brand occurs outside of an interaction with customer service.


That’s why it’s a bit perplexing as to why a company would rename their customer service team a CX team. Kaye Chapman, Learning and Development Manager at Comm100 states that when companies do this, “it's so hard to look for CX jobs when those are mixed up among them.” Managing CX and influencing the customer journey from end to end is often a cross functional role or team in organizations. So imagine looking for a CX position and having to sift through a bunch of jobs labeled CX that are actually customer service roles.


Make no mistake, customer service is a critical function in the overall CX. And I can certainly appreciate the desire to help customer service professionals understand their importance and impact to the CX. But does that mean that the responsibility for CX rests solely on your customer service team? What about product, sales, marketing, and engineering?


Conclusions


Based on the discussion and opinions that have been shared, we can boil the position down into succinct bullet points:


  • The term “agent” is not offensive. It’s just a name, and along with representative, advisor, and a handful of others, translates well across most organizations and industries. Furthermore, these terms stress the importance of representing a company and brand to customers. That’s an important role. What matters most is making “agents” feel valued.

  • Changing job titles to ninja, rockstar, guru, hero, and others, while mostly harmless, is a waste of time if leaders aren’t also evaluating the roles themselves to create a better experience for those employees.

  • If you want to communicate equality across your organization, the way you treat your employees far exceeds the name you call your employees — assuming that name is respectful and within an industry accepted range of terms. This requires intentionality lest you fall into the habit of talking about a certain group of employees in a manner that implies that they’re subservient to everyone else.

  • A CX role should influence the entire organization, not just customer service. To label your customer service team as the CX team could significantly limit the CX effort and strategy for your company or possibly add to the confusion as to who’s responsible for the CX.


If you currently work in a contact center or have worked there in the past, I’m curious to know your thoughts as you stumble upon customer service job postings with catchy titles? Are you more or less likely to apply and do you feel like it elevates or detracts from your view of the job in any way? Let’s keep this conversation going in the CX Accelerator Slack community.



Jeremy Watkin is a CX leader, contact center veteran, and Product Marketing Manager at 8X8. He is an avid learner, and is constantly giving back to the CX and Customer Service community through his writings.  You can see his work featured on Customer Think, Customer Service Life, and now CX Accelerator!

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