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Contact Center Excellence – Stand Out From The Crowd

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Employee Engagement Improvement Step 7

You made it!  This is the last step, step 7.  This step is the final one, but no less important than the others.  It basically is – give your employees the tools they need to do their jobs.  This includes the break area(s), eating room(s), and training facilities, and it also means workarea and technology.

Call centers, especially where agents work non-traditional shifts or hours, need to have the proper facilities for the agents.  Break areas with comfortable seating, industry and recreational reading material, and snack/drink vending machines at the very least.  Room designated for eating, with refrigerators, microwave ovens, and food-oriented vending machines is needed.   Get input from your employees, better yet have them form a working group, give them a budget, and have them design the space and get approval from their peers.

Training and bullpen (post-training but not yet ready to take calls without assistance or supervision) facilities need to be designed for optimal learning.  The same technology available on the floor should be available in the training and bullpen areas.  Have your training team work on the design for the areas, and get employee input and management approval.

Agents workarea should be designed so as to foster line-of-sight across the call center, or at least a team within the call center.  I still see too many call centers with agents in high-wall cubicles, which foster neither adequate supervision or role-modeling with your best agents.  The workarea should be large enough so the agent is comfortable and able to hear and speak without distraction.  Headphones are good, wireless headphones are great.  Many centers ‘stack’ workareas, in other words the workarea is shared among agents across shifts.  If this is the case, ensure adequate, lockable storage for personal items.

Having the largest impact on employee engagement is the technology they are provided.  One of the easiest ways to damage employee engagement is to give the employee a list of metrics and targets to hit, so that their raises, promotions and rewards are tied to their ability to hit the targets consistently, and then provide technology that does not allow them to hit the targets.  The technology simply must support the agents and their ability to be efficient and provide quality results.  I still see too many call centers where the agents have two monitors on their desktop.  This may simply be a practical or security consideration in a BPO call center, but for non-BPO centers, there is simply too much complexity as the agent needs to access too many applications, constantly switch between them copying and pasting data.  You should seriously consider agent desktop unification to hide some or all of the complexity.  I cover this in more detail in another post (https://brianjflagg.wordpress.com/2013/10/02/complexity-the-devil-in-the-call-center/).  Having the right tools also means having a robust knowledgebase and guided workflows, and having access to the same technology or applications your customer is using.

Typically, right behind benefits as a perennial dissatisfier on the company annual survey is working environment.  Putting a call center in an office setting with high-wall cubicles, inadequate break rooms and eating areas, and with technology that does not help the agents achieve their numbers is a sure recipe for poor employee engagement.

This is the final step in the 7 step approach to improving employee engagement.  Bear in mind that these steps are not all serial.  The first 3 should be done in order, but the next 4 should not be done in isolation in a serial manner.  Do them in parallel.  So, what re you waiting for? Get started!  Know that help is available: http://flaggandassociates.com

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Employee Engagement Improvement Step 6

We’ve now been through the first 5 steps to improving employee engagement in your call center.  The foundation has been laid (steps 1-3), the walls are up (steps 4 and 5) and now it’s time for the roof (steps 6 and 7).  Unfortunately, I see many call center leaders start and pretty much end with step 6, recognize employees.  There is a difference between motivated employees and engaged employees. Motivated employees will continue to perform according to standards as long as they are rewarded. They are emotionally invested in the reward, not the organization.  They are roughly analogous to mercenaries who will charge up the hill, not for king and country, but for the money.  It is difficult to tell the difference between motivated and engaged employees as long as the rewards are a given, in other words it is easy to claim a reward.  You see it; call centers with so many rewards and recognition programs that it appears you have walked in on a Barnum and Bailey show rather then a call center.  Awards for the day, awards for the week, awards for the month, awards for the quarter, and on and on.  Workstations are plastered with ribbons, certificates and trinkets. Pictures of those recognized cover the walls.  As long as the circus atmosphere continues, the marginally engaged (those in the middle) will be content and motivated. They will place their value and their reason for being at work on the rewards.  What about the actively engaged?  They may view the circus atmosphere as amusing and fun, but over time will begin view all of the rewards as unnecessary and actually being a drag on productivity.  What about the actively disengaged?  They are receiving the fewest rewards, but when they receive them they will be motivated for a time.  The size of the reward will determine the length of time they are motivated.

How does a call center become a circus?  The leadership may look around and wonder, ‘how did we get to this point?’  It’s all about process.  The call center needs a process, that includes employee input (remember step 5), to develop and create new rewards programs, and also a process to prune or eliminate rewards programs.  Without a process that the employees have helped develop, there is resistance to eliminating programs; it looks like a takeaway.  Without a process, and not wanting to lower motivation, managers just keep piling on the programs.

As for motivation versus engagement, engaged employees are invested in the organization’s success through its values, through understanding the value of the organization to the company and their value to the organization by linking operational metrics to value. You see where this is going; employees are motivated by rewards but engaged through executing all 7 steps in this series.  Rewards and recognition is just one step in the improvement of engagement.  Note that it is step 6 rather than step 1.  Rewards and recognition cannot be the driver (foundation) of an engagement improvement program.

When your process does call for another rewards program, make sure it is SMART – Specific to a behavior, based on Measurable results, Actionable (or reinforcing a desirable behavior), the reward is Relevant to the employee, and the reward is Timely.

As a leader, I want you to be watchful for programs that reward with time off of the phone (or chat queue or email queue).  This sends the message that time on the phone is somehow punitive.  That is clearly the wrong message to be sending.  This practice also takes your best and actively engaged off of the phone and away from the workspace, therefore unable to be a mentor and model of good behavior.  Beware also of the reward to be able to work from home.  Again, you will be removing your best models, your best examples from the workplace, thereby reducing the number and percentage of actively engaged employees in the workplace.  If you do want to reward employees with time off the queue, have them leave the call center area.  Make it a ‘special project’.  Have the employee shadow a support team in the call center, or a back-office team.  Give them a deliverable and recognize the deliverable.  That way the special project becomes the reward rather than ‘time off the queue’.  If you do send employees to work at home as a reward, you need to have a program in place that has them coming back into the center either after a time limit or periodically.  When they are away, ensure mentorship programs are still being followed, so they continue to be a mentor.

Work towards engaging rather than just motivating employees.  Ensure programs are SMART and that you have a process-based approach to develop and to expire reward and recognition programs.  Always remember that step 6 should be approached with the other 5 steps firmly in place, so that rewards and recognition programs support the values of the organization, the value of the organization, are based on open and honest communication, and take advantage of employee input.

Employee Engagement Improvement Step 5

So, you have identified your actively engaged employees, developed and shared your statement of values, understood the value of your call center to the company and linked it to your operational metrics, and you have developed and established a robust, open and honest communication function.  Your next step is to develop an approach and process for gathering employee input.  A key to improving engagement is for the employees to know that they have and voice and it is being heard.  This directly connects management and leadership with the remainder of the organization.  Employee input and feedback shines the light on oppressive programs, practices and initiatives, and on inefficient, poorly-designed processes.  This input and feedback also connects employees to inclusion in opportunities and growth.  What you really want to foster is the latter.  Management and leadership need to know if what they are doing is wrong or where inefficiencies exist, but you really want the organization focused on positive input, from ‘this is what is wrong’ to ‘if only this one thing could be changed, we would be more …’.  Or, shown leadership overtly asking ‘we are considering doing X, what do you think?’

Some point to the annual employee opinion survey as the mechanism used within the organization to gather employee feedback. From me you get an aghast look and ‘are you kidding?‘  If your attrition rate is anywhere near average, you are more than likely to include employees that have been on board less than 3 months and whose opinions are coming from who knows where, and are likely to miss those that attrit that could well have given meaningful input.  Too many annual surveys also ask questions on topics that are non-negotiable either at the organizational level or even the company level.  I recall every opinion survey I took while employed by Fortune 100 companies always included questions regarding benefits. As always, benefits scores came in lower than the target. Leadership’s response?  Well, they just don’t understand the benefits they are getting, and if they did, would be more satisfied with them.  Which led to the annual department meeting to tell employees all about their company benefits.  And, of course, if you were absent, you got a 1-1 with your manager about benefits.  This ‘you asked for it’ mentality was applied to all areas of the survey.  Action plans were required whenever a topic fell below a certain level, often leading to dozens of action items with plans for all manner of busywork for the organization, plans that had a life of about 3 months that were then typically shelved until the next survey.  At the company level, the annual employee opinion survey does have merit, and allows for focus on the big nuggets at the company level. However, as one proceeds down through the organization and lands in the call center, the annual survey has little utility.

You should strongly consider a quarterly employee survey in your call center, a survey very different from the 80-90 question waterfront company annual survey.  Work with your Human Resources or Organizational Development department to choose 9 questions from the annual survey that focus in on engagement, such as recognition and rewards, working conditions, trust in leadership, right tools for the job, and opportunity for advancement.  Add a 10th question on overall satisfaction.  Why a quarterly survey with 10 questions?  Simple; over 3 years you have 12 set of data points on topics that really matter to the organization rather than 3 data points that cover the waterfront.  You also have a much smaller and more focused set of action items on problem areas that are directly, or nearly so, under your control, are refreshed every 3 months, and are therefore much more likely to really see progress.  Of course, always ensure your action plans are SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely).  Another byproduct of quarterly surveys is that people like it when you ask their opinion.  Asking it more often, in a relevant and focused manner will by itself raise the satisfaction of the employees.

Even quarterly surveys don’t address the day-to-day annoyances of those on the front lines.  Call center agents will take 30-100 calls per day, and therefore have 30-100 opportunities to encounter poorly designed call center applications or processes, or poorly designed or executed back-office processes, or perhaps even poorly communicated or understood company policies.  Of course the problem is that the front-line employees are, as the saying goes, ‘too busy cutting down trees to sharpen the saw’.  So what happens at ground level (typically invisible to supervisors and managers)?  Agents on the front line develop process workarounds.  And they share these workarounds and soon the practices and processes management believes are being followed, are not.  Unless QA catches these workarounds, they could actually be damaging the company, and could even be causing legal problems for a call center operating in a regulated environment.  The trick is, how to get this level of input from those busy taking the calls, or how to know when the saw blade is dull so that something can be done about it.  The bigger trick is, how does management deal with the input?  500 call center agents taking 75 calls per day yields 37,500 opportunities a day.  If even 1% of these opportunities yields a suggestion for improvement, that’s 1875 suggestions in a 5-day work week.  There are two facets of the solution; make the process (and supporting tool) simple, quick and easy to use, and empower the front-line agents to bring only the most impactful suggestions forward.

Gathering and managing suggestions is one area where technology can be a major help.  Get employee input on a process and tool that supports easy and quick entry of the problem and suggestion, allows the employees to comment on and improve the suggestion, and allows for the highest impact (most popular) suggestions to rise to the top to be dealt with by management.  Forums and discussion lists are two approaches, and many more are available.  Develop the process first, and then build the tool that supports the process.  Always get front-line agent input and feedback as you develop the process and tool.  The process should allow for discussion on the problem and suggestion, and at some point, a vote on the suggestion.  Those suggestions that receive more than a clip-level of votes should be brought to management’s attention.  This step of gathering employee input then has a huge side benefit of fostering employee empowerment, crucial for engagement improvement.  Just be certain your process doesn’t end there.  It needs to include management action on the suggestion items that come forward, otherwise the suggestions tool will quickly move to dust-gathering status.

The communication vehicles covered in Step 4 will also be a great source of employee input and feedback.  Another huge benefit of a well-designed and executed suggestions process is that you can funnel all of the other input through that process.  In other words, if a suggestion for improvement is brought up in an employee roundtable, ask if the idea has been entered into the suggestions process, and if not, recommend that it does.  This will ensure employee input on all of the suggestions, and reduce or eliminate the ‘back-door’, because if the employees know about a back door, they’ll use it, and your roundtables will quickly become a dumping ground for everything that is deemed to need management attention.

So, get to work on your quarterly survey, and get to work on your suggestions process and supporting technology!

Employee Engagement Improvement Step 4

You’ve made it to step 4 of the series on improving engagement in your call center!  A vital component of any improvement initiative or program, especially one focused on improving engagement, is communication.  Not just any communication, but open and honest communication, and delivered in a way it will be received.

If you are a call center senior leader, and you do not have a Leader Blog, start one this week!  Allocate (that means block off on your calendar) 30 minutes a week to write about what is on your mind.  Challenges, opportunities, status on key initiatives, ‘shout outs’ for great customer service stories, the future, virtually anything that is important to your employees.  Be careful about allowing comments to your Blog posts; you may get more input than you can deal with, and there are likely better avenues for feedback.  No reason to wait!

Do you have a Newsletter?  Have one, either paper or electronic or both.  Share awards, rewards and recognition.  Share positive letters or emails from customers.  Choose an agent or supervisor and do an in-depth personal story or profile.  If online, include photos of everyone in the organization, especially if your employees are in multiple locations, or if some are home-based.  Have someone skilled in media or communications craft the newsletter; the degree of quality will be proportional to readership.

I have found that senior leader roundtables are an effective way to connect with all levels of the organization.  Schedule weekly roundtables, choosing 5-8 front line agents.  Be sure you have a scribe at the roundtable to take notes, todos and follow-ups.  Do not include supervisors or managers!  Use the time to talk candidly about the ‘state of the state’ in the call center, what might be going on within the company or industry.  Ask for questions, comments, points of frustration.  After the roundtable, have your scribe summarize the meeting and communicate with the attendees, thanking them for their time and input.  When choosing the agents for the roundtable, go back to the list you made in step 1.  Ensure you have some of your actively engaged employees present.  This will help ensure you have an audience that is not wholly hostile.  You may also want to have periodic roundtables with your supervisors, especially if you are at least one level removed from them.  Otherwise, the meeting is called a staff meeting.  Again, only include supervisors, not higher level managers.  Be open and honest during the roundtable meetings.  If they are viewed as simply a checkmark in an improvement initiative, you’re better off not holding them at all.

Lastly, ensure you have regular town hall meetings.  This can be a challenge in a call center as you cannot simply take everyone off of the phones for 30 minutes.  You may have to repeat the meeting several times, and at several locations.  So, I wouldn’t propose doing this every month.  However, don’t make the town hall meeting an annual event either.  The town hall meeting is an excellent place to improve the level of engagement, even though it may only do so in the short term.  It is a great way to keep momentum for your overall improvement initiative or program.  These meetings should be fun, maybe even have brief departmental competitions mid way through the meeting.  They are meant to ‘rally the troops’, and as you plan the meetings with your direct reports, make sure to keep this as a primary objective.  You have the opportunity to move some of the tacitly engaged to the actively engaged camp, and some of the actively disengaged into the tacitly engaged camp.  This is not the time or place to drone on about KPIs, this is the time to talk up the value you are driving to the company (Improvement Step 3).  Better yet, have a CxO or very senior executive talk about this.

To net, communication is absolutely a key linchpin in your engagement improvement arsenal.  Without a great effort here, the other 6 steps will not have much effect on engagement.

Employee Engagement Improvement Step 3

Now that you have identified your actively engaged employees, and have developed and started communicating your organizational values, it’s time to understand and communicate your Value.  Wasn’t that step 2 you say?  No, that was about values – emotional statements that excite and energize the organization.  Here I mean what is your value to the company.  If your operation is your company, i.e. you are a call center outsourcer, or BPO, your value is pretty clear.  The company’s ROA, or Return On Assets, is your ROA, the company’s margin is your margin, and the company’s customer satisfaction is your satisfaction.  If you are not a BPO, your value to the company is less straightforward, more indirect.

Notice the measures I called out above.  I did not call out AHT, FCR, Schedule Adherence, ASA, Abandonment Rate, or any of the other 25 or so operational measures.  Why?  Your COO or CFO doesn’t care about them.  Consider the use of Strategy Maps, first proposed by Kaplan and Norton 25 years ago.  They proposed 4 perspectives on organizational strategy; Financial, Customer, Operational and Organizational.  The first two perspectives they labeled external and the other two internal.  Simply put, measurements that support the internal perspectives are just that; internal.  While important for the operation of the call center, and certainly supportive of the external view measurements, the COO or CFO really doesn’t care.  They care about the external measurements, again, ROA, Margin and Customer Satisfaction.

Too many call center leaders spend their communications resources telling the organization why the operational measurements and subsequent targets are important, which is not bad in itself, but don’t link these operational measurements to the financial and customer measurements, and communicate performance against these external view measurements.  To improve employee engagement, call center leadership must link those measurements the agent is scored against to the measurements (and results) that show how the call center contributes to the company.  As an aside, when you get senior company leadership to come into the call center and give a ‘state of the union’, if you have not provided this linkage to everyone throughout the organization, your employees are not going to have clue what the senior leader is talking about.

I add one call center measurement to the list, because I believe it is so vitally important to the company; employee engagement.  I have a rather simplistic model, supported by a spreadsheet “calculator” you can get at the downloads page of flaggandassociates.com, that shows the financial impact of engagement in the call center, and shows an up to 8 fold impact on the company.  So, if you are loosing $1mil of efficiency in the call center due to low engagement, the company is losing up to $8mil, with potential long-term brand damage.  Senior leaders within the company should be very concerned with employee engagement in the call center.

Once again, communication is key to improving engagement.  Ensure your actively engaged have a very good understanding of the numbers and linkages so that they are your advocates.

Your at step 3 of 7.  Hang in there!

Employee Engagement Improvement Step 2

The second step to improved engagement is to develop and communicate your Values.  Unless your company is a call center BPO firm, it is likely that Values are developed and communicated at a company level.  Unless your company is a call center BPO firm, it is likely that Values are developed and communicated at a company-wide level, well above the call center organization.  It is important for the call center to be aligned with company Values, but they are typically too high a level to rally the call center troops.

The senior leadership in your call center should develop its own Values.  Keep them simple, but at least incorporate these key components into your statement of Values:

Employees – speak to how the organization values its employees, such as “employee are our number 1 asset”, because in a cal center they are!

Customers – speak to how the organization values its customers, such as “customer satisfaction is at the heart of everything we do”, and it certainly should be!

Continuous Improvement – how the organization fosters a continuous improvement culture.

Once developed, communicate your Values whenever possible.  And, as leaders, you must constantly live the Values, otherwise the employees are likely to become cynical, eroding engagement.  You might also want to include words projecting honesty, openness and integrity if they are not already in your company Values.

Develop a set of Values that have emotional energy and you will have a great start with your engagement initiative.  Then, get your actively engaged employees (remember Step 1) and they will help the rest of the employees get on board and help make you successful.

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.

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…

To Platform or Not to…..

We have witnessed an enormous level of vertical integration within the contact center platform industry over the past several years.   The PBX vendors of the 90’s moving backward into IVR, ACD and agent desktop; the knowledge management and QA vendors of the 2000’s moving forward into the agent desktop, workforce management, ACD and even CRM.  This has occurred primarily through acquisition.  Cisco is a good example of the former, KANA and NICE are good examples of the latter.   There is a general software industry belief that this single platform approach is better.  Look at Oracle, IBM, HP. Whether it’s a single SFA platform, single marketing automation platform, or a single I/T service management platform, it appears that the ‘single platform’ approach is better, because that’s where the big guys are going.  And, if you can’t buy it, then build it.  That is the approach of many as well, such as inConcert and inContact.

The theory goes that a single, integrated platform is better.  The integration work of cobbling together a number of software solutions is done once, or the platform was built from the bottom-up to ensure tight integration.  That’s the theory, what about reality?  Well, they don’t always match up.  In fact, they seldom do.  Let’s consider vertical growth through acquisition first.

There is a long history of software start-ups that are innovative, nimble, and very responsive to the market that are acquired by a large software company, and the match is not one ‘made in heaven’.  It seems the once ‘cool’ software that underwent frequent change to capture the attention of the marketplace just ins’t so any more. So, what happened?  Acquisition is not about simply integrating software.  And, this is where acquiring companies, and the marketplace, often seem to have a huge blind spot.  Acquisition is about integrating culture, processes, practices, methodologies, architectures, and platforms.  All too often, it is the acquiring company that believes they ‘do things correctly’ and the smaller company (the one that is more profitable, innovative, customer-centric, etc.) needs to adjust to the larger companies culture, processes, etc..  Moreover, this integration is not a simple and fast-moving process.  It may well take years to do all of the necessary organizational and technology integration.  In the meantime, roadmaps are confusing at best and the principal aim of marketing, sales and support is in giving customers and potential customers assurances that ‘it will all be better in the end, just wait and see’.  There is also the problem of trying to grow into a competitive marketplace.  Sure, there remain some companies that have created an innovative niche in the contact center technology space, such as SmartAction.  But, these are few and far between.  When a company makes the choice to move into a vertical space, take workforce management for example, there are a good number of very competitive products.  By choosing to acquire one of these, the company now essentially cuts itself out of the market for the contact centers that have made investments in competing workforce management products.   Does this mean growth by acquisition is necessarily suboptimal at best, and just plain bad on average? That topic will be covered in an upcoming post, but essentially it depends on where the product and the vertical is from a lifecycle standpoint.

What about those companies that integrate from the bottom up, i.e. they develop the entire vertical scope of capabilities themselves, ensuring tight integration?   Well, I have worked in a large multi-product company, and I can assure you that this is largely fantasy.  Multiple product groups, if not managed very closely with integration a key consideration every step of the way and without a strong central governance, spend an inordinate amount of time trying to line up with all of the other product groups.  The coordination of core architectural changes, release schedules, bug fixes, cross-product customer requirements and the like slows progress and nearly ensures a great number of compromises along the way to a single platform.   What typically emerges is a ‘jack of all trades, expert at none’ set of products that work well together. Is it possible for one company to be the industry leader in IVR, agent desktop optimization, multi-channel ACD and real-time management, workforce management, knowledge management and quality management?  I  have yet to find one.  For call centers that are not looking for state-of-the-art, best-of-breed and are content with a good (potentially) integrated platform from a single company, this approach may be acceptable.  If the contact center is expected to deliver competitive advantage, then it clearly is not.

Is there an alternative?  I contend that contact center software products that are strong in a particular capability or set of capabilities and have, as their chief design point, the ability to easily integrate, are more attractive then the single-platform product sets.  As a contact center technology leader, I should have the ability to choose a set of industry-leading products that can easily integrate which provide me competitive advantage in my particular industry or market.  If these products easily integrate, I should be able to replace products when my situation, market or industry changes to allow me to keep or grow my competitive advantage.  So, how is the contact center software industry doing in terms of integration as a key differentiator?  In my view, not very well.  Is this because they can bring a high-priced services team to bear to enable integration?

I would like to hear from my readers.  What frustrates you currently about your contact center solution?  Have you been in integration purgatory for too long,, believing the promises of the vendor sales team that ‘it is just a simple matter of integration’ is not really simple?  Are you stuck with a platform vendor confused by the product roadmaps that sometime in the future get you to where you want to be?  I want to hear from you.

Why People Follow

When considering leadership, it is a good idea to understand why people follow, for if you think you are leading but no one is following, you are out for a nice walk.  So, why do we follow?

That is a very interesting question.  Another very interesting question is; why do we follow someone?  After all, the nature of the object of our following can take on many guises. We can follow an idea such as a religion or political affiliation, we can follow rules because there are penalties assessed if we do not.  We can follow directions, because I certainly know that the entertainment unit I bought at IKEA last week will turn out very different from the picture on the box if I don’t follow the directions.  Or, if I don’t follow the directions given by my oftentimes annoying GPS app, it will be very unlikely that I will reach my destination.
I brought up following ideas and directions to illustrate a point; there is a variety of reasons why we follow.  Consider the following list (feel free to replace what with who):
I follow because…
  1. If I don’t I will experience pain or loss
  2. If I don’t I will not fulfill my desired outcome
  3. I believe that what I am following is correct
  4. I believe that what I am following is good
  5. I believe that what I am following is greater than I
  6. My beliefs, morals and goals are aligned with what I am following
  7. I can learn from what I am following and it will make me better

There are probably dozens of similar statements one can make as to why they follow.  Look at the list above and notice three very distinct groups or reasons.

The first two reasons are me-focused, in a negative sense.  In other words, if I don’t follow, some punitive action will result.  Whatever is leading is doing so by coercion.  How does this manifest in the workplace?  In a word, management.  I am pretty sure you have heard or read about the differences between managing and leading.  Management exists to utilize resources most efficiently while achieving or exceeding goals.  The tools of management are measurements, targets and performance evaluations.  Employees do not follow managers.  They are told what to do and they follow the rules and directions of managers, and they know their performance in terms of how well they follow rules and directions will be evaluated.  To net, managers lead by coercion.  There is no ‘buy-in’ from the employee, no emotional attachment to the rules and directions imposed by the manager.  The manager does not have a vision, does not have strategy, does not have a plan.  The manager has rules and directions to follow, a way to measure if the rules and directions are being followed, and a way to evaluate that performance against a standard.  Now, before I continue, and to make all those reading this article who are in a management position not feel so bad, let me make the distinction between the position of manager and the role of management.  The picture above of the role of management is based on the theory of management, and describes a pure command-and-control environment.  Those in the position of management, post-1900, partly play the role of manager and partly play the role of leader.
The next three reasons are leader-focused, whether that leader is a person, and idea or an organization.  At the root of leader-focused reasons is trust.  Any reason that you can add to the list that begins with the phrase “I believe that what/who I am following is…” is based on trust.  You have imbued the leader with a quality you see as positive.  You follow because you have placed value on the leader, and that value is based on trust.  The leader has some type of charisma.  As long as the leader exhibits this quality, you will follow.  As soon as the leader takes an action that does not follow this quality, you will cease to follow.  This falls into what I call ‘crowd-following’.  The role of the leader is to show that he or she has a quality they believe important to as large a group as possible.  But, is this authentic leadership?  Clearly an example of this type of leader is the elected government official.  They view their job is to craft a set of qualities into their ‘brand’, a set of qualities that appeals to the largest number of their electorate.  One could argue, assuming the leader takes that set of qualities fully into their role of governing, that this is the bedrock of democratic principals.  I’ll leave to the reader to decide and comment on how the ‘takes that set of qualities fully into their role of governing’ applies to their elected leaders.  Now, I am not stating that this type of leadership is bad.  The problem comes in when things go too far and the trust is measured and coerced, in essence trust becomes managed.  I just love the questions on the dreaded annual employee satisfaction survey that ask about trust.  We have all seen what happens when the ‘trust score’ comes in too low.  Managers try to manage it, try to coercively improve it.  This leads to a downward spiral, and not a slow one.
The final two reasons turn the focus again to ‘me’, but this me-focus is now a positive focus.  It is a ‘what I want from a leader’ instead of ‘how I am being measured to perform’.  The focus is not so much as trust in the leader to do the right thing for the organization and for me, but specifically ‘this is what I expect from you as leader’.  However, there must be some level of trust in a leader.  It says ‘what I believe in is aligned with what the leader believes in’.  This is different than a single quality or set of qualities a leader takes on to appeal to as large a group as possible.  This is personal, or me-focused.  The focus is on my interests, my beliefs, my morals, my goals.  This focus and the last reason, learning, places the leader in a position of servant and teacher.
What should we, as leaders, make of all of this?  First, recognize that although management is quite different from leadership, both really are needed.  Any organization that operates solely in just one of these three groups is deficient and will not excel.  Leadership is difficult, which is why there are so many books devoted to it.  It is also very personal to a given organization.  The right balance between leadership by coercion, charisma or by being servant and teacher is often difficult to find.  And, leadership is dynamic.  Just because you think you found the right mix for today doesn’t mean it will be the right mix for tomorrow.  Forces both internal and external to the organization are always present.  These forces will dictate the right balance point.  The insight and recommendations from others will certainly help the leader find his or her way to the right point, but leaders should take comfort knowing that there in no prescription, no single book that will fit their particular set of circumstances.  A quote I frequently use, that seems appropriate for this subject comes from H.L. Menken; “For every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, elegant, …..and wrong”.

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