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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.
For the rest of the March 2006 issue of CRM magazine please click here
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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 CSR 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 CSR 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 telephony...it'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. US Airways Gets a Lift With Proactive Communications US Airways understands the importance of keeping costs at bay, without suffering dips in its service delivery. The airline's manual approach to notifying customers about booking confirmations, flight delays, and cancellations was taking its toll on the company. "When you've got a manual agent calling a customer based on a schedule change or another operational change to their ticket, you've got to [ask]: Was the customer home? Did you get them live? Did you leave a message?" says Tiffany Glass, director of e-commerce and interactive marketing at US Airways. "[There was] really no record of that." In search of a solution that could aid its cost reduction/sales generation efforts while linking operational, promotional, and transactional initiatives, US Airways selected PAR3's notification solution. The implementation began with proactive voice alerts in 2003 and then expanded to email. With PAR3's ability to deliver in a hosted model, as PAR3 upgrades, US Airways upgrades. The notification solution lets the carrier communicate directly with its customers, not just notifying them of changes, but also creating potential cross- and upsell opportunities. The clickthrough rate on promotional cross-sell opportunities in emails has nearly doubled as a result. The carrier has also increased customer outreach between 200 and 300 percent, while significantly reducing costs. If a customer requests a live agent the customer's information is passed on, which can cut call length. And US Airways now has a way to automatically track notifications. Glass says the airline plans to take its deployment to new heights, once some internal kinks are ironed out. "We're in a merger situation [with America West Airlines] and we're trying to merge customer service levels. We've got to first stabilize that and then take this to the next level." --C.B. Making the Grade With Presence The Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) is a nonprofit association that promotes educational excellence for the more than 1,000 school districts in the state of Texas. Its inefficient call-handling process in the nonprofit's small call centers, however, needed to do more homework. TASB's five call centers staff 108 agents in total. When no agents were available to field a call, callers were put on hold with no information on estimated wait time or other ways to contact the association, according to Rick Tillotson, TASB's manager of telecommunications. The result? Repeat calls and increased outlay. "A lot of these [repeat calls] were teachers who were calling in between classes," Tillotson says. "They didn't have the time to sit there and wait." When a CSR needed to transfer a call to a financial analyst or other TASB associate, or to step away from his or her workspace, the agent had to manually track down other employees. "The only way to [see who was available was] to stand up and literally shout out 'Can someone else watch the phones and wait to see [if] anybody answers back?'" Tillotson says. Tillotson examined several contact center vendors, "but everything was designed and priced for the big call centers," he says. TASB ultimately chose its switch vendor, Siemens, and went live with Siemens HiPath ProCenter Agile in February 2004, becoming the vendor's first field trial of the IP-ready solution. Since then, however, TASB has continually upgraded, most recently in January 2006 to Version 6.5. Presence and collaboration tools are integrated in Agile, enabling TASB to more effectively leverage its associates and better serve its members. If no agents are available, callers are given the estimated wait time for an available agent and options for emailing their inquiry or leaving a voicemail message. As a result of its deployment, TASB has seen its call-abandonment rate drop by 61 percent and call length decline by 25 percent. Perhaps just as important, however, has been the boost in agent satisfaction. "They're also able to see the statistics [of] the group and see their own statistics, so they don't feel like [they are] getting every call that comes in," Tillotson says. "It really empowered those agents. That helped their attitudes and that translates into good customer service." --C.B. Contact Associate Editor Coreen Bailor at cbailor@destinationCRM.com US Airways Gets a Lift With Proactive Communications US Airways understands the importance of keeping costs at bay, without suffering dips in its service delivery. The airline's manual approach to notifying customers about booking confirmations, flight delays, and cancellations was taking its toll on the company. "When you've got a manual agent calling a customer based on a schedule change or another operational change to their ticket, you've got to [ask]: Was the customer home? Did you get them live? Did you leave a message?" says Tiffany Glass, director of e-commerce and interactive marketing at US Airways. "[There was] really no record of that." In search of a solution that could aid its cost reduction/sales generation efforts while linking operational, promotional, and transactional initiatives, US Airways selected PAR3's notification solution. The implementation began with proactive voice alerts in 2003 and then expanded to email. With PAR3's ability to deliver in a hosted model, as PAR3 upgrades, US Airways upgrades. The notification solution lets the carrier communicate directly with its customers, not just notifying them of changes, but also creating potential cross- and upsell opportunities. The clickthrough rate on promotional cross-sell opportunities in emails has nearly doubled as a result. The carrier has also increased customer outreach between 200 and 300 percent, while significantly reducing costs. If a customer requests a live agent the customer's information is passed on, which can cut call length. And US Airways now has a way to automatically track notifications. Glass says the airline plans to take its deployment to new heights, once some internal kinks are ironed out. "We're in a merger situation [with America West Airlines] and we're trying to merge customer service levels. We've got to first stabilize that and then take this to the next level." --C.B. Making the Grade With Presence The Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) is a nonprofit association that promotes educational excellence for the more than 1,000 school districts in the state of Texas. Its inefficient call-handling process in the nonprofit's small call centers, however, needed to do more homework. TASB's five call centers staff 108 agents in total. When no agents were available to field a call, callers were put on hold with no information on estimated wait time or other ways to contact the association, according to Rick Tillotson, TASB's manager of telecommunications. The result? Repeat calls and increased outlay. "A lot of these [repeat calls] were teachers who were calling in between classes," Tillotson says. "They didn't have the time to sit there and wait." When a CUR needed to transfer a call to a financial analyst or other TASB associate, or to step away from his or her workspace, the agent had to manually track down other employees. "The only way to [see who was available was] to stand up and literally shout out 'Can someone else watch the phones and wait to see [if] anybody answers back?'" Tillotson says. Tillotson examined several contact center vendors, "but everything was designed and priced for the big call centers," he says. TASB ultimately chose its switch vendor, Siemens, and went live with Siemens HiPath ProCenter Agile in February 2004, becoming the vendor's first field trial of the IP-ready solution. Since then, however, TASB has continually upgraded, most recently in January 2006 to Version 6.5. Presence and collaboration tools are integrated in Agile, enabling TASB to more effectively leverage its associates and better serve its members. If no agents are available, callers are given the estimated wait time for an available agent and options for emailing their inquiry or leaving a voicemail message. As a result of its deployment, TASB has seen its call-abandonment rate drop by 61 percent and call length decline by 25 percent. Perhaps just as important, however, has been the boost in agent satisfaction. "They're also able to see the statistics [of] the group and see their own statistics, so they don't feel like [they are] getting every call that comes in," Tillotson says. "It really empowered those agents. That helped their attitudes and that translates into good customer service." --C.B. Contact Associate Editor Coreen Bailor at cbailor@destinationCRM.com
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To contact the editors, please email editor@destinationCRM.com
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