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The Empathetic Frontline

Release Date: March 12, 2024 • Episode #307

Great customer experiences comes from great employee experiences. It’s something we’ve discussed in several past episodes of this podcast and you can listen to our CX plus EX episodes on cxleaderpodcast.com. But how can you improve employee engagement for a large group of front-line employees, say a call center or large customer support operation? Host Sara Walker welcomes Victoria Stephens, director of client and payment experience at Flywire, a global payment software company, and a CXPA 2023 Emerging Leader award winner, for a discussion on equipping frontline employees for customer experience success.

Learn more about Flywire.

Victoria Stephens

Victoria Stephens
Connect with Victoria


Feedback from Employees

“We always love to receive feedback and promote that continuous feedback loop across our agents. Specific to this topic, we recognize the need to revolutionize how we assess agent performance, utilizing both the quality assurance program along with a workforce management tool. And part of the implementation of both, really came from friction areas that our agents saw. At the start of our conversation, we had mentioned root cause analysis. And this type of thinking is something we really strive and promote within our agents to think about, to achieve in their 1 to 1 interactions with customers.”

Empathy is a key soft skill

“So with soft skills, we identified a few key areas, no brainers with customer support, such as effective communication; having the, uh, excellent language skills to equip our global team. But what we really honed in on was the soft skill of practicing empathy.”


Support agents are the front line of many companies interactions with their customers. What can companies do to ensure their success?
How do we have that great balance between quality of work, empathetic approach, as well as efficiency? Being able to streamline, automate what is simple that frees up our agents time to be able to focus on key moments. Being able to add that empathetic, that human element really creates that deeper level of relationship building with our customers.
How companies can optimize the customer’s experience through employee engagement on this episode of The CX Leader Podcast.
The CX Leader Podcast is produced by Walker, an experienced management firm that helps our clients accelerate their XM success. You can find out more at walkerinfo.com.
Hi everyone, I’m Sara Walker hosting this episode of The CX Leader Podcast, and thank you for listening. It’s never been a better time to be a CX leader, and we explore topics and themes to help leaders like you develop great programs and deliver amazing experiences for your customers. Great customer experiences come from great employee experiences. It’s something we’ve discussed in several past episodes of this podcast, and you can listen to our CX + EX episodes on cxleaderpodcast.com. But how can you improve employee engagement for large groups of frontline employees? Say maybe a call center or a large customer support operation? Victoria Stephens is the director of client and payment experience at Flywire, a global payment software company. She’s also one of the 2023 Emerging Leader winners from the CXPA. Victoria, welcome to The CX Leader Podcast.
Hi Sara, thank you so much for having me today. Looking forward to our conversation.
Yeah, absolutely. As I teed up there in the intro, we’re going to be focused on talking about how companies can optimize CX through support agents, those frontline employees, and how those customer experiences are so closely tied to employee experiences. I think a good way for us to dive into this topic would be maybe for you to just give, by way of introduction, a little bit more information on Flywire and maybe yourself, your background, and how you got started within your CX function at the organization.
Yes, absolutely. Happy to provide a brief introduction. Um, so my background begins actually in education, working abroad in Spain. I was really drawn to the international aspect of customer experience, um, and really started my career in the support function. Um, so within customer customer service at Flywire, um, Flywire is a global payments enablement company. We combine our proprietary global payments network, next gen payments platform, and vertical specific software to deliver complex payments for our clients and their customers. Um, throughout my time there, um, again started in the customer service role, which I found quite interesting, quite dynamic. And being able to speak day in and day out with our customers, um, quite interesting, both on the payer side as well as the client side and interacting with those from around the globe. Um, and really found it fascinating how each type of customer, their location, their unique background, um, really made them have different and unique needs, um, from their grew within the organization. And I currently oversee our client and payment experience team, which is a global department of around 100 employees. Um, this includes both the customer support function as well as our CX operations. So that unique perspective, um, really is great to be able to drive change across many disciplines. We have our payment operations function that gives great insight into our transactions and what type of friction areas our customers might see when completing complex payments. We also have customer service, as I mentioned, but then also functions such as quality assurance, content and tools. So very excited today to speak a little bit about how we have been able to optimize the agent experience and how that really has added great value for our CX strategy. Um, with our team, many of our frontline associates, um, doing excellent work, we recognize that they really serve as that first entry point into a customer’s interaction with our company. Um, so adds really great value in partnering, um, customer service with unlocking the potential of agent experience to overall enhance CX. Um, so looking forward to diving more in and happy to walk through some of the pillars of our robust program we defined.
Yeah, that sounds amazing. Yeah, I think it’s wonderful when you hear that kind of some of the broader CX functions within an organization is also very closely tied to, um, frontline employees and how you’re driving that, as you said, with the first interaction or maybe the, um, at least most recent interaction that a customer has had with your organization is such a key connection point. So it makes a lot of sense when they’re connected, but it’s not always the case. Right? So, um, I think that that’s always a, a good thing. When Flywire decided to improve or maybe set out to improve some of your core CX functions and specifically wanted to focus on or drive that improvement through that agent experience, what were the major areas that you were looking to tackle or where did where did the focus start out?
Yep. Yep. Absolutely. Um, so we recognize quite early on that our agent team, um, really was the eyes and ears into the evolving needs of the customer. And they often hear quite quickly if something is going well or if something isn’t going quite so well. Um, so we love to lean on them for great ideas and opportunities about our products and services. Um, at Flywire, we began by setting out four distinct pillars to help drive, change and enhance our CX. Um, the first was centered around performance management. So that involved looking at our quality assurance program. Um, how that might link to coaching and training opportunities for our agents to increase their quality of support, but then also help to identify different areas in our processes, whether that’s gaps or friction areas within the product. Um, and then define a system for ongoing metric tracking that was tied to performance management at the individual level, but then also at the team level to link the two together. Um, it allowed us to tie CX initiatives, some of our CX KPIs directly to business objectives, but then provided that increased layer of transparency to our agents, of how all of it ties together and how their direct interactions on the floor, as we say, really do impact the customer experience. The second pillar is relating to personal and professional development. Uh, we wanted to ensure that there was professional growth opportunities for our agents and to support them in the development of both their soft and more technical skills, knowing that it greatly impacts the customer themes such as empathy, um, interpersonal skills, and particularly for our organization, that cultural awareness piece.
Um, so with personal and personal and professional goal setting. Um, we aim to utilize the smart method. So having specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time bound goals. Um, and that paired with quarterly check ins with people managers really brought together a layer of accountability. The next piece was surrounding a recognition program. So understanding that great performance should be recognized. Um, it demonstrates tangible outcomes and even provides other agents with examples of how, um, an exceptional customer interaction looks. Um, and that layer of competiveness for the program to serve as a great incentive. And then last but certainly not least, we found tool optimization as well as breaking down silos in communication. A strong and defining pillar. Um, enhancing the feedback loop from those that were feeling these customer and client interactions. Um, really great insights in how they are able to identify failure points. Um, and really dive into the customer complaints in a pinpointed way. Um, that in turn, helped us to serve as a partner with some of our other departments, whether that’s product or global payments teams, to reduce friction areas and overall enhance our customer experience. Um, so the way I like to look at it, we like to help our agents help our customers. Um, and really see the great benefit that brings to the customer’s overall.
Yeah, that’s a very comprehensive approach, certainly to kind of how, you know, you can be supporting the agents who ultimately want to support the end customer, but then all the rich insights you can bring back to your product team or kind of root cause analysis for maybe issues that are being experienced that are outside of that agent’s direct control, too, right, in the interaction. Because I think that that’s so key, you know, and your four pillars seem to me at least on initial interaction, kind of to split the difference between the two. Right? There’s the opportunities that the agents have to make sure that the customer feels, feels heard and understood. And some of those appropriate responses and certainly the cultural sensitivity to a global organization like yours, I do imagine, is a big part of that. But then also, how do you make sure that you’re arming those agents with the right material and ability to, you know, further push through some of those feedbacks that, you know, aren’t something they’re going to be able to solve in the moment, but can appropriately address with the right, you know, resources behind them, or give the customer that confidence that it’s going to be looked into as a part of this conversation. So a very comprehensive approach. And it’s, um, interesting to see kind of how that plays out within an organization like yours. Specific to your quality assurance program, you know, how did you decide then what areas to focus on? Are those insights that you were drawing from, you know, maybe macro level themes that you were taking from some of your QA processes? And, um, you know, maybe in advance of that are a lot of your support or agent interactions happening, um, over the phone digitally maybe help us understand kind of what that looks like and how you were able to draw on some of those themes that you wanted to tackle.
Um, so to start, we, um, thought critically about the more challenging aspects of performance management and overall reviewing quality. Um, so that, um, brought certain challenges, such as efficiency in how graders were able to look at the various interactions. Um, another piece of that is the segmentation and the necessary localization that came with, um, a vast customer base and then really needing to refine the approach for our industry of financial technology, recognizing we might have, um, more challenges or sensitivity surrounding compliance protocols, process adherence, or top of mind as well. Um, so an example of that. Um, just going back to the segmentation piece. Um, our customer support team fields inquiries from all contact channels, whether it’s chat, phone, um, as well as email. Um, within our global team we have um, some regionalization, um, such as our US team. Um, but they do support various pair inquiries, customer inquiries from other locations to provide that round the clock support. Um, so being able to effectively train and QA our US team, who may be supporting an inquiry from a customer in China, comes with a complexities there. Um, so developing the necessary structure for the QA program around that, combined with the coaching aspect that comes as the second tier, um, was really top of mind. Um, with that, we started by outlining what tools would we need to effectively, um, build the structure, whether it was something we could do within a Google sheet.
Did we want to go with a third party vendor? So depending on a business’s need or size of team, those factors should be taken into account. Um, additionally, we looked at the types of reviews. Ultimately, we decided on a multi-pronged approach to have onboarding, quality reviews, global quality reviews, and target targeted quality reviews. Um, so what that means is having a unique scorecard and unique criteria depending on what type of agent we have or what type of customer inquiries they’re servicing, to really be pinpointed with feedback we were providing. Um, with that specific product and market focus, it really ties into segmentation and some of our key strategy where what solutions were implementing across our payers located in India, um, vastly different to what strategy we might have for, um, our payers located in China. Um, and then last but not least, um, thinking critically about our team members involved along the way. Um, knowing we have some profiles of our senior members who would serve as graders, associates who are receiving the feedback. Um, ensuring that it was smooth, streamlined and in the right cadence. Um, just to ensure that comprehensive assessment and, um, quite interesting to see some of the outcomes there where, um, what specific feedback we provided the agents. Yes. Added value and increased their level of support, but then also being able to pinpoint, um, on some of the common trends to inform training needs for the wider team.
I’m curious, does your program involve, um, you know, feedback from the employees directly as far as how they how prepared they feel from either the resources they’re provided to deal with the customer interactions on those front lines or maybe, um, changes that are put in place as a result of some of these, uh, quality assurance measures. I’m just curious how, um, informative maybe those agents are in the development and future iteration of your robust program.
Yeah. We always love to receive feedback and promote that continuous feedback loop across our agents. Um, specific to um, this topic, we recognize the need to revolutionize how we assess agent performance. Um, utilizing both the quality assurance program, um, along with a workforce management tool, um, and part of the implementation of both, um, really came from friction areas that our agents saw. Um, at the start of our conversation, we had mentioned root cause analysis. And this type of thinking is something we really, um, strive and promote within our agents to think about, to achieve in their 1 to 1 interactions with customers. Um, so some of the, um, different details they’ve spotted have led to an internal process update, a product enhancement. Um, to put it more concretely, um, one of our China associates noticed friction with our document verification process, so was able to utilize their localized knowledge of the market, um, to work one for one with our product team to say, hey, why don’t we update this aspect of it in terms of content associated with it within our tools? Um, but then also, um, bearing in mind the longer term customer journey and payment journey that went behind the scenes.
Um, I’m glad that you mentioned that, Victoria, because you said something earlier that I wanted to ensure that we circled back to, which was where you are doing these quality assurance checks, you know, along the customer journey. Onboarding, for example, is one that I know you mentioned is is a spot where you’re doing these QA analyzes. So help us understand how Flywire came to determine the points within the customer journey where you wanted to do these quality assurance checks. And maybe for any of our listeners who are sitting here with this podcast and thinking, you know, I’ve got major improvements I would like to do to my frontline agent interactions, but I’m a little bit at a loss of where to start. How did you come about, you know, where you guys wanted to begin your QA listening at Flywire and what would be your recommendation to anyone listening today that is thinking, you know, where do I begin?
My response to that would be first and foremost rooted in the data. So we looked at kind of two sides of it. The data that came out of our contact reason metrics and then also data relating to the agent experience. So starting with that first bucket and being able to report on trends based on what were some of the top questions that were coming into our support function. So we could segment that throughout the various aspects of the customer journey, whether it was prepayment, post payment, and then really be quite pinpointed with what that translated into training opportunities and part of the QA process. Likewise as well, conducting feedback surveys for employees, for agents in this case really provided great insight to to understand where in their experience with our company, whether it was when they were first starting out, when a new product was launching, where do they find it challenging to keep up with some of the changes? So an example of that might be a new payment method launching or a change in regulation. So based on their feedback and some of the details we saw are relating to their satisfaction metrics, we were able to understand where to tackle.
Yeah. That’s awesome. It’s it’s so interesting to hear, you know, the, the connection that your organization and the focus that you all have behind making sure that, you know, the agent interacting with the customer on those front lines is as skilled as he or she could possibly be in receiving whatever the the client’s concern or issue is in that moment, but also making sure that they have the appropriate resources to respond to that effectively. And if they didn’t, for whatever reason, at that point in time, that you all are learning from that as a company in terms of, you know, how you can prevent that happening in the future, which is just a very sophisticated approach to how to, uh, tackle CX along the front lines. Um, and it’s just really cool to hear, you know, uh, live examples of how that’s happening within your organization. And certainly something I think a lot of our listeners are going to be able to, um, to resonate with or aspire to. So it’s great insight.
Right? Absolutely.
We’ve talked a lot about this conversation, just how interconnected those two pieces are, right? The the resources at hand and the skills to deal with the challenges. Um, speaking a little bit more about maybe the more of the soft skills side of things when it comes to agent coaching. And I know you’ve talked a lot about your organization’s global presence and the sensitivity to that. Are you able to narrow it down to kind of key soft skill elements that are a direct area of focus for, for your organization? Or maybe more broadly, what you think is is really crucial in terms of agent effectiveness on the frontlines?
Yeah. So with soft skills, we identified a few key areas. Um, no brainers with customer support, such as effective communication. Um, having the, uh, excellent language skills to equip our global team. But what we really honed in on was the soft skill of practicing empathy, recognizing there are three main types of empathy that are agents would need to be aware of and practice throughout their interactions with customers. Um, so to provide examples of those, there is cognitive empathy, which speaks to the ability to understand someone’s perspective effectively. Our agents putting themselves in the customer’s shoes. Um, in addition to that, there’s emotional empathy. So the ability to feel what someone else is feeling. Um, and then thirdly, compassionate empathy. So having compassion and using that to take action to help based on your understanding of the situation. Um, so there’s definitely a balance that needs to be maintained between those three and definitely, um, a unique soft skill and training required to achieve that. Um, so with that emotional empathy is an example. Can foster connection better communication. Um, cognitive empathy might be used to better understand a friction point in the customer situation. And then using and leaning into that compassionate empathy helps us to drive meaningful actions and takeaways to benefit the customer. Um, so this is valuable in CX, where at times we might think solely of the metrics. Um, or hone in on things such as customer satisfaction. Um, but I feel it’s quite important to think of empathy as a key driver for customer loyalty. It allows us to connect with customers, allow them to feel respected, understood, and deeply valued. And that’s what we aim to coach our associates and agents through.
Yeah, I’m smirking over here behind the microphone because, you know, empathy, emotional intelligence. Those are feeling heard I think are such a, um, core tenant of, you know, even thinking as a customer myself, if I ever have to interact with a company’s support function, like that’s such a key, um, intangible, I guess, uh, in terms of how how a customer experience, uh, for contacting, um, a frontline organization can turn into a positive or at least be met, um, met or neutralized, I guess, for the customer’s need. And I find that always so interesting because in today’s, you know, world, everything is, you know, you hear about artificial intelligence or how do we automate. And certainly speed and ease of resolution are two other key kind of, uh, markers, I would say, of an ideal support interaction. But that emotional intelligence and the idea of empathy is something that is really not able to be replicated by any sort of artificial or automated functionality. So I’m curious, uh, do you have a take on that or maybe how to how to marry the two? And is that a topic that you’re regularly coaching agents on or thinking about in terms of how they play in the sandbox together within your frontline organization and the processes you have stood up?
Right and something we are continuously thinking through. How do we have that great balance between quality of work, empathetic approach as well as efficiency? So I see it as being able to streamline, automate what is simple, straightforward, something that can be perhaps more quickly resolved via self-service. That in turn creates a positive customer experience because someone, um, can get the answer they need quite quickly, um, without needing to wait for a response time. Um, but in turn, that frees up our agents time to be able to focus on what I like to call key moments. So those complicated interactions, or ones that require input from our internal teams to action or review, and those key moments, being able to add that empathetic, that human element, um, really creates that deeper level of relationship building with our customers. Um, imagine someone is going through the onboarding experience for the first time. They want to learn the ins and out features of a new product or service. Um, that is perhaps not best served by someone, um, speaking to a chat bot or going through the AI automations. Um, but being able to jump on an onboarding call with an agent with an associate to understand the nuances, put a friendly face behind the company, um, that will ensure that the onboarding experience goes smoothly. Um, but that stays in someone’s mind throughout their utilization of the products and services of a company.
Yeah, absolutely. I think that that is an a great example of how the two can be married and really utilize to their strengths, as far as, you know, what’s the right mix of of automation and ease and what’s the necessary kind of human touch in any sort of a frontline or support interaction. Well, Victoria, thank you so much. We’ve had so much great fodder and discussion. I think, like I said, when I introduced the topic on a on a very, you know, thrilling kind of way to think about how employee and customer experience diverge and especially when they diverge in, you know, what can be very high stress moments on the front lines and learning about what you’re doing there, um, is just a, I think, going to be a great resource for our, our listeners today. So we thank you so very much for for joining us. We’re about at that point where we try to distill all of the great conversation we’ve been having. And if you could provide one tip, one trick to our listeners, what we call the take home value when it comes to optimizing customer experience on the front lines, what would you leave our listeners with?
I would hone in on this key take home value, which is to lean into empathy as we had in our discussion today. Empathy really is a huge piece of what our customer service team does. But really, that translates to how we are thinking about the employee experience. It ties into how we want to treat our customers with that empathetic approach, that personalized approach to understand what friction areas they might be having or how they might be interacting with our products and services. Um, as well, empathy piece, I feel is closely tied into, um, empowerment. So empowering customer service agents to be authentic in their role. Um, and in turn, that builds great relationships with customers. Um, so being able to trust in their training, um, that we’ve provided to them, equipping them with the right tools to provide refreshing, authentic experience to customers, um, that’s ultimately what customers crave. Um, and then also trust in support teams to deliver meaningful feedback loops to drive CX strategy. Um, digging deeper into the metrics along the way.
An excellent take home value. Thank you so much, Victoria. Victoria Stevens is the director of client and payment Experience at Flywire. Victoria, thanks for being on The CX Leader Podcast.
Thank you very much, Sara, for your time today.
Victoria. If any listeners on today’s episode wanted to maybe get in touch with you to follow up, ask a question about any of the advice that that you shared here, what would be the best way, maybe for them to reach out?
Yeah. Yes, absolutely. I encourage anyone interested to continue the conversation to reach out via LinkedIn. You can find me by searching my full name, Victoria Stephens.
Excellent. Thanks so much. And to any listeners out there that would like to talk to Walker about what you’ve heard on this podcast, or maybe how our organization can help your business’s customer experience. Feel free to email us at podcast@walkerinfo.com. Remember to give The CX Leader Podcast a rating through your podcast service and leave us a review. Your feedback will help us improve the show and ensure that we’re delivering the best possible value to you, our listener. Check out our website cxleaderpodcast.com to follow the show and find all our previous 300 plus episodes. There we’ve got our podcast organized by series and a link to a blog that we update regularly. The CX Leader Podcast is a production of Walker. We’re an experience management firm that helps companies accelerate their XM success. You can read more about us at walkerinfo.com. Thank you for listening and remember, it’s a great time to be a CX leader. We’ll see you next episode.
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