• October 1, 2004
  • By Coreen Bailor, (former) Associate Editor, CRM Magazine

12 Ways to Boost Productivity

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1. Give Employees More Than a Paycheck
Providing incentives has been a mainstay of boosting agent productivity, but today contact centers are finding new ways to reinvent this classic strategy. Take the Scotts Company, for example. The lawn-and-garden products firm creates a real-time, ongoing incentive by delivering online reports that allow its customer service representatives (CSRs) to see how well they are doing in comparison to their coworkers. "If we present this information to them, the vast majority want to do better," says Ed Billmaier, director of consumer services. "It's a natural incentive we found to get them motivated to say, 'Here's where I am. Look how much better everybody else is doing.'" And they take action to boost their own performance.

Using a fun twist on a more standard motivational tool, ClientLogic's Port Arthur, TX, facility started a contract this past April with a drink and snack machine vendor to receive "vendor bucks," replicated dollar bills used specifically for the machines. "I get [$200 to $300 worth] every month," says Roger Shilow, site director of the Port Arthur location. "I can use them for spot recognition awards, so when we have specific calls that we've listened to or specific behaviors that we want people to duplicate, we can recognize people on the spot by handing out vendor bucks." Since implementing this low-cost incentives program, the facility has reduced its turnover 49 percent over the same time period last year. 

2. Provide Better eSupport Channels to Promote Self-Service
Self-service. The strategy can put a smile on the face of any contact center manager striving to boost productivity by diverting customer interactions away from live agents. "One of the primary call center productivity initiatives has been to give callers clear choices to use other channels to obtain their answers," says Jon Anton, Ph.D., director of benchmark research at Purdue University's Center for Customer-Driven Quality. Channels like Web self-service, email, interactive voice response systems (IVRs), and Web chat. "There are many times when a customer does not need to talk 'live' to an agent," Anton says. "The question is simple, the answer is easily found through self-service, and the customer is happier with the speed and accuracy of these alternative channels."

People's Bank offers self-service via its Web site and voiceover response units (VRUs). "We're very pleased with the service that our VRUs provide in terms of customers being able to get information they want without having to wait in line or go into a queue or go talk to anyone if they don't want to," says Scott Hurlbert, manager of e-business and call center operations. "It has a high rate of being able to answer people's questions straight off the bat."

Judy Nelson, first vice president, Merrill Lynch Global Private Client Services and Technology, says that Merrill Lynch strives to provide clients with a choice of access channels from live associates to an IVR to Web and email. "Self-service has been a prime focus, and service options for clients have grown year over year within these various channels," Nelson says. "Since 2002 close to five percent of associate-assisted volumes have shifted to self-service channels." 

Another channel, automated messaging, has also increased productivity at Merrill Lynch, according to Nelson. "Opportunities to provide information up front to clients through prerecorded messaging often answers seasonal [or] event-driven inquiries and eliminates the need to speak to an associate," Nelson says. "In one instance, scripting in our voice response system reduced representative call duration by 75 seconds."

Automated messaging is a great productivity tool for outbound contact, as well. It can help organizations reach a significantly larger number of customers for proactive service than having agents make calls to them. Electric Insurance, a benefit provider to GE employees, uses Envoy's automated messaging as part of its retention initiative. "In the past we utilized two representatives to call out to our customers prior to their renewal period just to touch base with them, see if they had any questions, have that positive touch point," says Lisa Michel, customer service manager. "But what we found was that if we could automate that process and utilize Envoy to make those communications for us, we can get at more customers and it'd be more of an impact to our retention." 

Electric Insurance experienced about a 3 to 4 percent improvement in the retention rate of its best customers, so the next step was to focus on those customers "in terms of these proactive communications," Michel says.

3. Identify and Curb Call Sources
One way to help deflect calls to other channels is to monitor calls for commonalities. Better monitoring and tracking systems also allow for better record keeping and routing. Electric Insurance recently developed a contact tracking system, built internally, to allow management to identify the types of calls the company was receiving in its customer service center. "We found that there are three types of calls that drive about 85 percent of our call volume, and from there we will identify process improvement opportunities to drive some of those calls either to the Web or to the IVR," says Jack Schumaker, vice president of call center operations. Since implementing the approach in June 2003, Electric has seen a 15 percent drop in call volume. 

4. Integrate Service Channels
One mainstay of productivity in the call center is first-call resolution. And one way to improve resolution rates is to integrate service channels. Yorkshire Water discovered this firsthand. "Yorkshire Water implemented Amdocs ClarifyCRM to integrate and manage all customer-facing activity, capturing over two million phone, email, fax, and letter customer contacts annually. [We also created] personal profiles and [provided] contact center agents with a single view of the customer," says Kathryn Lewis, contact center manager at Yorkshire Water, the world's ninth largest water utility. "These steps allowed call centers to quickly and easily address customer needs on the first call, access work scheduling and mobile workforce systems in real time to expedite appointments, and increase call competence surrounding all pertinent products and services." Today more than 70 percent of customer calls are resolved on the first contact and more than 95 percent of callbacks are completed in 30 minutes.

5. Give Calls to the Right Agent
Dating service eHarmony uses routing technologies to increase productivity. "We have a bridge that's been built from the eGain contact center application [we use] into our main database and our custom application that does customer lookups," says Greg Steiner, eHarmony COO. So at the point of contact the system routes customers "to the appropriate party in our organization," he says.

"We're trying to use a lot of technology in the e-support channels," Steiner says, "specifically, to improve the productivity of our agents, the accuracy of response, and the timeliness of the response." Since implementing the system about 15 months ago eHarmony has seen a nearly 40 percent increase in productivity.

6. Get Comfortable
Just because agents spend much of their day focused on the phone and the computer screen doesn't mean they aren't affected by their surroundings. The design of a contact center can significantly affect agents' productivity. 
Yorkshire Water's sister company, Loop Customer Management, uses its contact center layout to reflect its open culture, which directly translates into productivity gains. "There are no individual offices within Loop's sites and all staff, including the management and director teams, work within an open-plan environment fully integrated in the contact center," Lewis says. "The benefits are clear, with Loop enjoying high retention, motivation, and empowerment resulting in performance improvements in our teams."

Contact center provider Affina has turned the traditional office setting backwards to boost productivity at its centers. "Offices are in the middle and CSRs are next to the windows," says Valerie Ferguson, Affina operations manager. "Ergonomically that's fabulous." Agents also have their own large desks that they personalize, which can help to increase the overall morale, according to Ferguson.

But comfortable seating is not the only productivity tool. Managers should also consider adding visually stimulating elements to their centers.

ClientLogic's Port Arthur site uses a red light system to handle complex requests. "When we get an instance where we're asked to not transfer customers over to that queue, we simply flip the light switch, the light comes on, and everybody can easily see that this is a time period where it is going to be service- and cost-prohibitive to transfer the customer," Shilow says. "That absolutely increases productivity, because now we don't have to have a customer who's waiting unless they absolutely want to."

Although the Port Arthur center started using the red light system only about a couple of months ago, in the first week there was an 18-second decrease in average handle time, according to Shilow.

7. Send Agents Home
Cubes not comfy enough? Let agents work at home. Using home-based agents provides increased flexibility to both agent and center, while improving productivity and boosting morale. By using Voice-over IP technology, select Tower Travel agents can work from home. "We're open from six a.m. to ten p.m. [and] nobody wants to work until ten p.m. in office, " says Mike Foster, manager of technology development. "But if they're a home-office agent...[working from one p.m. to ten p.m.] is not as big a challenge as if they had to be physically in an office on a second shift." Tower uses the home-agent program as an incentive for highly productive agents. Once they are allowed to work from home, they must maintain that level of productivity in order to continue to do so. The possibility of being called back to work at the contact center spurs agents to maintain a high level of excellence.

8. Support Agents With eLearning
A better-trained staff equals a more productive team. And training that happens at the desktop can double that productivity by reducing agents' time away from their phones and providing value during any downtime. This is why contact centers increasingly are implementing computer-based training for their agents. 

Electric Insurance implemented MaxIt's computer-based training program, LearnerWeb, to better train their employees and lessen the frequency that representatives are pulled off of the phones. According to Kimberly Koury, Electric Insurance's manager of new policy sales, the biggest advantage of using that technology is that the form can have representatives "go through the training on their own when it's convenient for the team, the departments, and for them. We'll typically attach a quiz at the end that will help us understand if they've really attained the information." 

Computer-based training is especially effective for improving Electric's close rate. "We've seen an eleven to twelve percent improvement in our close rate, which has allowed us to sustain our growth levels despite twenty percent fewer leads than we received this time last year," Electric Insurance's Schumaker says.

9. Build Better Systems for Finding Answers
Few things are more frustrating to both customers and agents than not having access to the information necessary to resolve an issue. Not surprisingly, an increasing number of companies have a comprehensive knowledge base. But users need intuitive access to that data.

Scotts uses a horticultural class to prepare its agents to use its knowledge interface, which has been dubbed Power Center. "There's no way a person could possibly memorize what they need to know to do the job in two weeks. So the Power Center...is really one of the most important aspects of what we do," Billmaier says. "We train [agents] on how to find the information in the system easily and quickly, and that's critical."

Agents use reason codes to find answers in Power Center. For instance, if a customer calls with a question regarding weed control, "our representative would type in the word weed in the reason code field and do a search, and instead of seeing 1,000 reason codes, they see five that are associated with weed control," Billmaier says. While the search can also be applied to products, "the idea is to get the right person to the right information [and] to the right products, and [answer] the questions quickly," Billmaier says.

Natural language search engines also make it easier for agents to find the right information quickly. Ultimate Software, for example, uses natural language searches as a way for users to search information, including FAQs. "Autonomy's knowledge management solution has given our support representatives and customers the ability to program natural searches of multiple repositories with only one click," says Heath Propper, Ultimate's technical services manager.

10. Speed Communication
Another method for getting information to agents quickly is instant messaging (IM). Best Software, for example, uses internal IM as an add-on to its knowledge base. "[Instant messaging] allows us to do work...while we're online with a customer," says Ron Taylor, vice president of customer support. Rather than transferring a customer or escalating the call, agents will in some cases use instant messaging to speed the process of getting customers answers during that initial contact. "We probably reduced some forms of transfer by five or ten percent," Taylor says. 

11. Institute Quality Assurance
Better-performing agents are generally more productive agents. Using tools like quality monitoring can go a long way to building productive behaviors. Carlson Marketing Group, for example, uses Witness Systems' eQuality to record calls and examine call behaviors. "This tool allowed us to increase the number of monitorings, and it also increased our overall satisfaction ratings," says Tom Falkowski, director of customer care. Although Falkowski attributes some of the increase to incentive programs, he says that the Witness tool along with IEX's Agent Webstation have generated a 15 percent reduction in cost and a 25 percent increase in overall call activity.

According to Taylor, another eQuality user, the ability to look at calls and call length lets his customer support management team "...glean what we can from [eQuality] about [top] agents, and transfer that knowledge and those techniques to the rest of the staff or the staff that might be struggling a bit on [either] the quality side or the productivity side." Since using eQuality, Best has seen productivity increases in the realm of 12 to 20 percent and customer satisfaction scores increase 10 to 12 percentage points.

12. Keep Agents on Schedule
Conquering the peaks and valleys of call volume can be a huge boon to call center productivity. Workforce management tools help ensure the right number of agents are on call at the right time.

Foremost Insurance Group is one company that has seen its call center productivity increase as a direct result of workforce optimization. "Foremost was experiencing rapid growth that was increasingly complicating our business," says Nancy Treul, senior vice president of marketing. "Taking the conventional approach of focusing on one problem at a time just wouldn't cut it." 

Foremost chose Opus Group for a workforce optimization solution to plan simpler and more accurate schedules. "The transition to [having] multiple shifts and to have employees bid for shifts was new for us," Treul says. "The Opus consultants helped us transition each center to their methodology." Foremost's workforce management group was trained on how to use Opus Groups schedules, as well as how to incorporate those schedules into Blue Pumpkin's Director Enterprise, the scheduling software Foremost uses. The workforce management group was also trained on how to "update forecasts and make changes to shifts as our business needs changed," Treul says.

Since implementing a workforce management strategy, Foremost has seen productivity increase 24 percent, service level improve more than 120 percent, average speed of answer drop to 18 seconds, abandon rate fall by 85 percent, and cost per call decrease 40 percent.

Creating the right schedule is vital--communicating that schedule is just as important. 

Carlson Marketing Group uses IEX's Agent Webstation workforce-management tool in conjunction with incentives to promote schedule adherence. "We know that one of the biggest barriers to achieving [schedule adherence] was not knowing what your schedule was," Falkowski says. "If an agent checked their schedule on a daily basis, they would end up getting 25 points. These points equate to ultimately 10 cents, but by checking their schedule we actually had an impact of that overall adherence to schedule." Through the IEX tool, Carlson had a 3 percent overall increase in schedule adherence.

Contact Assistant Editor Coreen Bailor at cbailor@destinationCRM.com

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