Keeping Balance in the Center

Organizations no longer have to choose between efficiency and effectiveness as contact center technology evolves. Here, five approaches to service and efficiency equilibrium.

Engage in a conversation with a handful of contact center managers and you ll find many of them struggling with the common problem of keeping costs down and service levels up. In fact, cost reduction and increasing efficiency continue to top their list of concerns. For those who aren t concerned with these issues, don t think your customers haven t noticed. Overall customer patience for bad service is waning. According to a report by Dimension Data released early last year, callers in 2004 were willing to wait up to an average of 65 seconds before abandoning a call, down 6 seconds from 2003 s average. The growing impatience is led largely by North American customers. The results of another benchmarking report by the same firm released in November 2005 reveal while Asia-Pacific and EMEA callers are willing to wait 72 seconds and 67 seconds, respectively, North American callers are much more impatient, willing to wait just 37 seconds. There doesn t have to be a trade off between great service and efficiency as contact center technology continues to evolve. If your contact center efforts are unbalanced, consider these five approaches to achieving service and efficiency equilibrium. 1. Locate On-The-Spot Experts Immediacy is king in the contact center, but in some instances answers to questions require the expertise of another CSR or an expert from outside the contact center. Searching for the appropriate, available resource can eat up a significant portion of time. That will change with the growing interest in presence technology as a medium for agent communication. Spearheaded by instant messaging, its most well-known form, presence technology helps the right people communicate with each other at the right time and in real time- via the right channel by identifying who is available and in what capacity--for example through phone, email, or Web chat. With presence tech you are aware that your expert in engineering is available and available via cell phone or available via email, says Joe Outlaw, principal analyst for contact center solutions at Current Analysis. Through presence you have a vision of the availability of these non--call center experts. Using these ad hoc expert agents creates three potential opportunities, according to Outlaw. The first is in cost savings, primarily due to bolstered first-call resolution rates and solving customer problems faster. The second is in the boost in customer satisfaction and loyalty, because they are pleased with how inquiries are handled. Last is in increased agent satisfaction, as more customer issues can be resolved during the initial call. However, there are caveats. By shipping calls out of the contact center you can also potentially balloon your costs off the chart if you route a call out to somebody who has not been trained to answer things succinctly, Outlaw says. According to Dimension Data, organizations can take three times as long to resolve calls transferred out of the contact center as those handled internally. And it doesn t necessarily guarantee you lower costs because these resources can be expensive, Outlaw adds. One of the keys to making presence work, however, is to ensure that your center continues to have control and visibility. One possible way is to have agents actually log in to the contact center so that the ACD is tracking their availability, Outlaw says. Also, provide them with some level of training so that they can handle calls as close to how a well-trained CUR would. 2. Get to the Root Each day contact centers record loads of valuable customer information, but the manually intensive, time-consuming process of listening to even just a sample of calls is a daunting task. As a result, much of the information gets overlooked. Juicing up call recording efforts with call mining and speech analytics functionality, however, helps centers take raw calls and format them into structured information. The outcome is the ability to more efficiently spot call trends while gauging agent performance and customer satisfaction. Speech analytics enables organizations to conduct root cause analysis--identifying what s causing these people to call your call center, says Ken Landoline, principal analyst of Saddletree Research. This is an important issue, as it will help companies avoid an increase in calls to the contact center that don t need to come in. Vendors that deliver speech analytics capabilities through internal R D or partnerships include CallMiner, Envision Telephony, Nexidia, NICE Systems, SER Solutions, Utopy, Verint, and Witness Systems. Sheila McGee-Smith, president and principal analyst of McGee-Smith Analytics, describes an example of a call center that deployed a combination of call recording and speech analytics and found that a large proportion of calls included silences of more than 20 or 30 seconds. Those silences often meant that agents were confused about how to address the customer s issues and were vainly searching for solutions, she says. Identifying that a problem existed...was the first step in solving a costly problem. Unless you looked at it you would never know, and then once you identify it you can say, How do we fix this? Nancy Jamison, principal analyst at Jamison Consulting, takes a similar stance: The real benefit comes if you can chain together your contact center data so that you can improve the entire workflow process. It s a way of looking at all the business analytics to improve business processes. 3. Virtualize Contact Center Operations Hiring and retaining top-notch agents remains a conundrum for contact center managers and supervisors, but IP telephony and VoIP adoption can lessen some of the difficulty. Centers can step outside of geographic borders and spruce up their labor pool with remote, home-based agents. In fact, according to IDC, the number of U.S. at-home agents will almost triple, from an estimated 112,000 to more than 300,000, by 2010. Alpine Access, LiveOps, VIPdesk, West, WillowCSN, and Working Solutions are some of the home-based CUR providers that are influencing the market s growth, according to IDC. Many organizations employ home-based agents to handle after hours and overflow inquiries, as well as seasonal spikes. Part of the allure of the home-based model for international and domestic companies is the agents fluency in regional language and knowledge of regional culture. Home-based agents may also help boost agent productivity and retention rates, which reduces your new hire and training costs. With IP s easier to recruit agents when they re easily [able to work from home] because people don t want to drive to downtown Manhattan to work in a call center, Landoline says. It s too expensive. IP, as well as hosted contact center technologies, also enables contact centers to virtually expand. [We ve seen] how some of our clients have been able to leverage emerging technologies whether it s VoIP or others, for enhanced agent routing to really virtualize that call center environment, says Julien Courbe, managing director in BearingPoint s financial services technology group. With VoIP and...multimedia routing engines--that s a huge opportunity and very few people have tapped it, adds Lori Bocklund, president and founder of call center consultancy Strategic Contact. 4. Refresh Opt-In Outbound Efforts Chances are you ve experienced some form of proactive, outbound communication if you have a home phone. Although it has typically been used by organizations for collections notification and as a telemarketing tactic, outbound communication is gaining traction as a cost-conscious way to strengthen service levels. Everyone talks about knowing your customer, knowing their needs, and being proactive, and that s exactly what it does, Bocklund says. Some vendors that deliver proactive capabilities include CenterPost Communications, PAR3 Communications which acquired outbound communications provider EnvoyWorldWide in 2005-, and SoundBite Communications. With the exception of collection notifications, which will be made whether or not a customer signs up for the alerts, consider making proactive communication available on a sign-up basis to avoid annoying customers who don t want to receive notification. Airlines, for example, use proactive communication to alert passengers of delayed flights by notifying them through their channel of choice. Credit card issuers also use this functionality to send notices to customers when they near or exceed their balances. This prevents customers from having to call them, saves companies money, and adds to the effectiveness, because customers love that, Bocklund says. Part of that effectiveness, however, potentially lies in revenue generation depending on the application deployed. With collection notification, for example, automated, outbound communication may prompt inbound calls to a collections agent, which may result in payment arrangements. Bocklund says, You ve got them on the phone, and you get the process streamlined and hopefully drive that revenue in. 5. Optimize the Workforce The days of communicating with potential and current customers exclusively through the phone and direct mail are over. Many centers have embraced channels like IVR, email, and Web chat, trying to find progressive ways to keep pace with growing consumer demands. Integrating your multichannel operations is an essential element to contact center success, and essential to maximizing this strategy is a blended environment. A blended approach can double as an effective, cost-efficient workforce management strategy, but take heed: Not every agent is equipped with both the verbal and written skills needed to field your phone and Web inquiries. Before placing your reps in a blended situation, properly train them to handle multiple touch points. Source: