From Brian's Desk

Contact Center Excellence – Stand Out From The Crowd

Archive for the month “October, 2013”

Why Chat isn’t the Right Solution

In order to improve their resolution rates, reduce on-hold time and talk time, many call centers have implemented a chat tool, or taken advantage of the company’s chat tool.  Chat offers a number of advantages in the call center environment, and indeed centers can make some progress towards improving the aforementioned metrics.   Simple chat tools work in a one-on-one fashion, where SMEs, or Subject Matter Experts, are named individuals with identified subject matter skills, available to chat.  To make finding them easier, they might be given chat names like “George Billing SME”.  When a front-line agent needs help moving a conversation forward, he or she initiates a chat with an SME.  Presumably the SME is better able to answer the question, and in real-time can provide an answer to the front-line agent who is on the phone or perhaps in an external chat with a customer.  This eliminates the manual hand-raising or flag waving for a supervisor that may or may not be an SME for every type of call.  Or the placing of the caller on hold while the agent tracks down someone who can provide an answer.  Many chat tools can also support chat ‘rooms’ so that an agent can join a chat room and have access to several potential people who can answer the question.  Chat rooms are also a much better approach to the one-on-one nature of simple chatting.  No longer does an agent need to find out who is available right at the moment to help with a billing question, whether it is George Billing SME, or Sally Billing SME for example.   The agent just knows that they need to go to a Billing chat room and some SME will be scheduled to be in the room available to answer their question.  Chat tools can also be one-to-many as in the case of broadcasts.  This is typically one-to-every however, as typical chat tools don’t allow for the logical grouping of chat users.  So, chat is a solution for communication in the call center, but is it the right solution?

The short answer is no.   Implementing a chat tool in the contact center is akin to bringing a knife to a tank battle.   Many chat tools would like to be a full communications solution, but they simply fall way short of what is needed in the call center.   Do you have reporting available with a chat tool that tells you how many chat requests were answered within 30 seconds?  How many were answered successfully?  Can you tell which agent or agents are using chat most often and for what reasons?  Do you know the percentage of time your chat rooms were unoccupied (no SME)?   Real-time assistance is a process, and as a process it needs to be managed from an operational and quality point of view.  Real-time assistance also interacts and supports (or maybe not) other processes, such as Quality Assurance, Knowledge Management and Training.  Reports from your real-time assistance application should be able to tell you if particular agents need more training on a specific topic, and should be able to tell you if the knowledge article for a recently announced new service is readable, understandable, and leads to a positive outcome.  Transcripts of chats should be available for the QA process, just as ticket details and voice recordings are.   Requests for communication or real-time assistance should be routed based on center-defined attributes such as call-type and skill-level-needed.   Screen view or even takeover by the SME should be part of the solution, as should the send/receive of files.

A full-functioned communication solution is needed.   I happen to like Concourse from Adaptive Engineering (see flaggandassociates.com).  But, whatever solution you choose, bring a tank to a tank battle.

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Complexity – the Devil in the Call Center

Complexity is one of the biggest issues I see in call centers today.  Complexity leads to all nature of problems; longer handle times and more training hours and hence higher cost, increased variability and inconsistency, decreased staff engagement and lower FCR and thus lower customer satisfaction, lower sales and thus lower revenues.  That is why I term complexity the Devil in the Call Center.

I typically see two monitors on every service agents desktop when I visit a call center.  I always ask why, and get the same answer; “we have too many applications our service agents need to reference, and we run out of real estate on a single screen”.   Before I get into all of the evils complexity brings to the call center, let me try to explain how we, as an industry, got here in the first place.

Technology was supposed to help the call center.  Indeed it has.  Call center infrastructure is out of the dark ages of proprietary hardware and software with specialized switches, specialized signaling algorithms, and a tight coupling between the switch and just about everything else in the call center.   Technology has indeed provided very good solutions – CRM for marketing operations, ERP applications, fulfillment applications, order management applications, and the list goes on.  That’s the problem.  Technology has created a large set of point solutions, great for the productivity of the department that primarily uses them, but all of them converge at the call center.  The service or sales agent is left with the task of being the grand conductor, orchestrating access to the right applications at the right time, and using them for the right purpose.  This takes quite a bit of grey matter, hence training is one component of increased costs to the call center due to all of the complexity.  Let’s examine the other effects of this complexity.

When service or sales agents must be the grand conductor, time is taken to perform the conducting and errors are made which require the agent to redo steps in their call process.  Time is taken deciding which application is the one to use, time is taken locating the application, signing into the application, and copying and pasting account numbers or other identifiers.  All of this time equates to a higher AHT for the call center, and hence higher costs.  I already mentioned the increased training costs that are driven by complexity.  So much time and effort is spent by the call center leadership team to eliminate costs for hardware, software and people.  The people costs are typically not the real issue.  All of the times that complexity introduces add up, and frequently add up to over 15%, sometimes over 20%.  The problem is, how do you measure the lost time?  Try a time and motion study in your call center, either watching live agents or voice and screen recordings.  Even if the agent is not or does not appear to be struggling with the complexity, you are still losing time to it.  Do the study.  Get a Lean consultant to assist in finding all of the activities or keystrokes that agents are performing that do not add value.  The primary culprit will be complexity, and the fact that the agent needs to be the grand conductor.   The next time you think your staff to be too expensive, hold a mirror to your agent desktop and ask if it is easy to use, easy to navigate, is efficient and effective.

The human element in any operation is the element that drives variability or inconsistency.   There are a variety of reasons variability is bad in the call center, but the principal reason is meeting customer expectations.   Significant variability in the operations equates to significant variability for the customer who has a fixed expectation.  I have a white paper that explains what variability is, why it is a problem, and how to manage it at http://flaggandassociates.com.

Think of all of the metrics and corresponding targets your agent are trying to react to and meet.  I have several posts and an entire chapter in my book Contact Center Excellence devoted to employee engagement in the call center.   Healthy levels of engagement are vital in a people-driven business.  How engaged do you believe your agents are when they are given targets but the tools they are provided do not allow them to meet the targets?  This is one of the surest ways of getting to a disengaged environment.  Needless complexity leads to frustration and the feeling that the tools you are given are second-rate and do not allow you to do your best.  Consequently you become either just disengaged, or worse yet, actively disengaged.   Actively disengaged employees further compound the problem of higher costs and lower customer satisfaction.  Again, I refer you the chapter in the book or posts in this blog for further exposition of the dangers of poor engagement.

First Call Resolution, or FCR, will suffer with increased complexity.  If the service agent needs to hunt for the right information, which may be in one of 5-10 applications, each with a different user interface and each with a different way to find an answer to a question, FCR can suffer dramatically.  The service agent needs to quickly and efficiently be able to find the correct answer to a problem or query.  Trying to work within the confines of 5-10 application simply doesn’t enable this to happen.  What call centers typically do is spend inordinate amount of time on training so that the agent can answer simple questions or resolve simple issues given their training and only reference the applications for complex problems or issues.  This rarely helps much.  There is just too much complexity for agents to retain what is needed.  Invariably the agent becomes frustrated, and so does the customer.  A symptom of this is Time On Hold.  If the agent had an efficient and effective desktop, there would be little need to put the customer on hold (usually done so the customer will not hear the agent frustration as they dig through n applications).

Everything above that pertains to your service agents also pertains to your sales agents.  Complexity will lead to an inefficient call, and any hesitation or ‘break in the action’ while the sales agent switches applications becomes a point of debarkation, in other words, hang-up.  Also, longer AHT means fewer calls, and hence fewer sales opportunities.

It should be clear that, indeed according to my opening salvo, that complexity is the devil in the call center.  It leads to all sorts of consequences, from higher costs, to lower customer satisfaction, to lower sales.  It leads to disengagement and attrition, and all of their downstream effects.

A future post will examine what can be done about the complexity devil in the call center.  Can it be minimized?  How?  Stay tuned…

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