From Brian's Desk

Contact Center Excellence – Stand Out From The Crowd

Archive for the tag “customer service”

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 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.

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.

What IS customer service really?

I typically like to boil a complex thought down to it’s respective “essence”.  However, I am very mindful of Menken’s “for every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, elegant…and wrong”.  I recently pondered the thought ‘customer service’.  What IS customer service anyway?  What does it really mean?  We say we supply services and have a service portfolio that we manage based on customer feedback.  I’ll buy that, but why do you have services for your customer to begin with?

With Menken’s quote firmly in mind, I see customer service as nothing more than moving a customer through a process.

A service can be something I pay for, in which case the provider of the service has added some sort of value to the process.  An example is paying for an expedited passport.  I pay a service provider to take my application to a passport office and stand in line for me to get my passport expedited.  I can do it myself, but the provider adds value to me because it would cost more in time and money for me to travel to the passport office and stand in line.  The provider is moving a customer (me) through a process (passport expediting).    Clearly, if the value the provider is adding to the process does not outweigh the cost of doing it myself, I won’t need the provider.  Another similar example is customs processing, where I pay for a provider with expertise in customs laws, regulations and processes to move me through the customs process. The principle value add being to make the process simpler for me, the customer.  An extreme example is shipping, whether through FedEx, UPS, DHL or through USPS.  I could put the package in my car and drive it to its destination.  Depending on where the package is going, it could be much more costly for me to get the package to its destination than to let a provider do it for me.  They provide value by saving me time and money.  Therefore, whether through proximity to a passport office, access to expertise, or economies of scale, providers add value while they move a customer through a process, and the value needs to exceed the cost.

What about non-fee services, services provided to customers of a firm?  The same basic definition holds; the customer service function is there to move a customer through the firm’s processes.  Keep in mind, this could be self-service as the definition still holds.  Next, think about value-add.  What value is your customer service function adding while moving a customer through your process?  Are you making a complex process or set of processes easier for the customer?  Are you saving them time or money?  You need to be able answer this question, or your customer service is of questionable (or no) value.

Once you are able to answer the question, take the next step.  Why do you need to add this value to move a customer through YOUR process?  Are your processes too complex?  Do you require expertise from your customer to be able to move through your process?  What exactly is the value you are adding, and why do you NEED to add it?  Do this for all of your services in your ‘service portfolio’.  You might be surprised at what you find.

Engagement Affects Not Only The Contact Center

We call center leaders and practitioners frequently talk about engagement, or the lack of it, and the effects on the contact center; higher attrition, lower FCR, lower customer satisfaction scores, etc..  However, the impacts to the business far outweigh those to the contact center.  Consider your average revenue per contact, and then consider how many poor interactions your actively disengaged agents are having, and the resulting loss in revenue.  Or, consider the number of purchased product questions you receive in your contact center, and how many poor interactions your actively disengaged agents are having, resulting in product returns or lifetime loss of revenue in your retail outlets.  Consider all of the calls escalated by your actively disengaged agents, resulting in higher back-office costs.

It shouldn’t be only the contact center leadership that is concerned with the level of engagement in your contact center.  We can easily measure the impacts to the contact center; higher attrition, higher shrinkage, lower FCR, lower NPS or sat scores.  But all of this really pales compared to the lost revenue, lost loyalty, lost customers and higher product returns that result from engagement issues in the contact center.

I devote an entire chapter in my book, Contact Center Excellence (available on Amazon and other outlets), to engagement; what it is, why it is important, and how to improve it.

Contact Center Big Data

Big Data seems to be running in a pretty tight race on the media-scope with virtualization, right behind Cloud (my previous post).   What is Big Data?   Put rather simply, it’s a collection of data that is too large and too complex to be housed in or processed by a data base management system.   Typically, Big Data is a combination of existing data sources that are somehow related.  The task of analytically processing the Big Data is to discover latent or unobvious relationships  between sets of data, to discover ‘business truths’ if you will.

Big Data is not only structured, record-like data, but unstructured data as well.  Consider all of a company’s emails in it’s email management system.  There may well be important relationships and suppositions one can make if all of the emails could be read and understood.  Fortunately, tools are now available that allow an enterprise to consider such a task. Without software tools, the task could take untold resources and time in a large enterprise, and the return on the intelligence gained is likely to pale in comparison to the cost.

We clearly have a large amount of unstructured data generated within the contact center.  Chat transcripts, emails, ticket documentation, and voice recordings.  Data and voice analytics software is now available to allow the contact center organization to discover much more about the company’s customers than nearly any other organization within the company, probably the only exception being POS (point-of-sale) data.  But even POS data does not capture product likes and dislikes, and brand sentiment like contact center data.  And, powerful as these sources are by themselves, bringing together the POS and contact center data can lead to further discoveries, ‘business truths’ and ‘customer truths’.

I made the case in an earlier post (http://bit.ly/SUMVkl) that instead of call or contact shedding to cut costs, the contact center should be encouraging customers and potential customers to call or make contact via chat, email, SMS text or otherwise.  Where are we shedding to?  An IVR?  Self-service on the web or a self-service mobile app?  How much valuable data is being lost when we do so?  Let’s consider that the contact center agents are frequently one of the least paid groups of staff you have;  how much more expensive is it for marketing to have these customer conversations?  I contend the more data you have from your customer, the more intelligence you have about the customer, the more ‘truths’ you can discover.  An IVR is mostly a one-way conversation, and how many call centers are recording the IVR interactions?  Web self-service can give you clicks and potentially point out shortcomings in the self-service process and information.  However, you are left guessing about sentiment, likes and dislikes.

Big Data right now is a key competitive differentiator as few know what it is and how to use it to best discover ‘truths’.  Are you going to be a leader or a follower?

Is Cloud-Based For You?

The weather report for the contact center industry is – mostly Cloudy.   The promises from the vendors are all there; let us manage your call center hardware and software so you can focus on managing your business, it’s lower cost and faster to implement, you get on-demand capability, you get automatic failover.   In general the promises are valid.  IF your cloud vendor has a full contact center solution or sharply delineated functional boundaries and IF you don’t need to integrate with your back-office applications, then Cloud might just be appropriate.

A full contact center solution entails everything; the phone switch or PBX, the IVR, the ACD, the agent desktop, the eMail system, the chat application, call and screen recording, knowledge base, real-time monitoring, and workforce management.  Anything less is not a Cloud contact center solution, it is a point solution.  A Cloud solution that delivers a call into the center is a point solution.  To the extent it is functionally complete and has few integration points it could be useful.  If your center is an integrated multi-channel contact center, the point solution needs to not only deliver calls, but chats, eMails, and any other inbound channel you have.  That point solution also needs to handle your outbound channels.  I call this a contact management solution.   Integration is the enemy of Cloud solutions.  If you are looking at a Cloud-based contact management solution and it doesn’t have all of the functionality mentioned above, you are left with integration that is potentially expensive to develop and implement, and potential run-time latency problems.

Desktop Cloud puts the agent desktop or CRM application in the Cloud.  As previously stated, integration being the enemy of a Cloud solution, the desktop Cloud has little practical advantage for the contact center.  It needs to integrate with the contact management solution, it needs to integrate with a screen/voice recording solution, with the WFM solution, potentially the company’s eMail application and chat application in addition to back-office applications and databases.

For the same reason the Desktop Cloud has little practical value, other solutions sometimes disguised as Software-As-A-Service, or SAAS, that provide point WFM, KB or QA solutions also provide little or no value.  There is simply too much integration work required.

Even for the full Contact Center solution, integration requirements with back-office applications and databases can sway a decision.   Dig deeply into vendor claims regarding integration.  Press them for examples and current customers.  One problem is finding a full Contact Center Cloud solution.  No software vendor does it all.  They need to partner and integrate, but this will be done in the Cloud so that a full solution can be offered.  This is typically al-a-carte and done on a customer-by-customer basis.

Primarily what I see on the market are either Call Management or Contact Management Cloud solutions.  Again, focus on clean integration and clean handoffs.  You will typically need integration with the agent desktop and with quality recording applications.  Ensure your requirements relative to response and latency are well understood by your vendor.

Cloudy is okay, just make sure the Cloud doesn’t rain on your parade.

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