• May 2, 2005
  • By Coreen Bailor, (former) Associate Editor, CRM Magazine

Making a Clear Connection

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The days of interacting with customers solely through the telephone are long gone for the majority of today's companies. With the emergence of channels like email, Web chat, interactive voice response (IVR), and online self-service, call centers are adopting such technologies as they reach for fresh approaches to nurture customer relationships to help pilot their progression toward becoming contemporary multichannel, multipurpose contact centers. But keeping up with increasing customer demands while strengthening customer connections takes more than just beefing up the selections on your multichannel menu. Seamlessly integrating your channels, although an undoubtedly hard-hitting challenge that most contact centers struggle with, is a cornerstone of multichannel success. Consider these five process-oriented strategies to make your road to integration less bumpy. Make Sure Multiple Channels Is Right For Your Business Deploying and then integrating your assorted customer touch points may seem like a fruitful stride toward understanding your customers' experiences, but moving from a call center to a contact center is not a one-size-fits-all decision. Before you plunge into a multichannel strategy, ask your customers if they even want the channels you are considering--avoid running the risk of having a solution that won't be used. If you assume that your customer base will accept the channel, you may improperly calculate your ROI and total cost of ownership, substantially shortening the channel's life span. "Most people believe that if they provide a service and build a channel users will come and use it just because it's there, when in reality users need to be convinced of the usefulness before they adopt it," says Esteban Kolsky, a research director at Gartner. In some cases it may even make more sense to stick with a single channel approach to managing your customer interactions. If your business revolves around providing an immediate service to customers in delicate circumstances, your surefire touch point should be the phone. But if you pine for incorporating additional channels into your company road map, consider implementing them as supplementary solutions for supervision and training purposes. AAA Arizona's call center, for instance, which fields road service calls for the entire state (nearly 1 million inbound calls annually), uses the phone as its primary customer interaction channel to meet the urgency of its customers' inquiries, but relies on channels including email and chat as internal communication and management tools, according to Gary Gibbs, vice president for service delivery for AAA Arizona. Aspen Systems, a call-and-contact center operator for clients in industries including education, government, and health, has clients that begin with one channel and others that want several channels out of the gate. "Typically we add channels as programs evolve," says Amy Frazier, manager of technology solutions for Aspen Systems. "Particularly as they move to self-service, channels like chat become support channels to help assist the self-service environment." Regardless of your method, only implement channels that reflect both your company and customer needs. "It's a matter of figuring out how to balance the channels on a macro level," says Chris Selland, industry analyst at Covington Associates. Give Customers Choices
All too often organizations force their customers to communicate via the company's preferred low-cost interaction channels by not making more expense-heavy choices just as accessible. Online self-service is the premier channel of choice for most organizations, but steer clear of shutting out customers who aren't as Web-engrossed, or you may watch your once unwaveringly loyal customers defect to your competitors. "Customers want to be able to interact in their channels of choice when they want, and those organizations that don't do that will be disappointing their customers," says Donna Fluss, principal at DMG Consulting. Consider the multichannel integration strategy adopted by global financial institution ABN AMRO Services Company (AASC), which encourages its self-service initiatives without reducing its ease of access through the phone. Its contact center, which handles voice, email, Web chat, and Web self-service for its customer base of upper-level financial executives, supports its CashPro Web product, an online solution that enables end users to perform treasury management activities like cash management and foreign exchange transactions. CashPro Web is powered by eGain Communications' eService Enterprise (E3) solution, and to support it the company provides an online training and support tool, CashPro University, which handles about 750 calls on a weekly basis. "Typically the calls that we get are, 'How do I do this? Where do I find this?'" says Milton Santiago, senior vice president of electronic banking products at AASC. So "we have deployed within our self-service environment...a true enterprise knowledge base." For instance, customers can turn to RITA, or real-time Internet technical assistance, a self-service unfailingly available virtual agent that answers general questions pertaining to CashPro Web. And to further boost its share of online volume, the company implements promotional campaigns for its Web-based channels through its most popular touch point, the phone. "When you call our call center, and if all agents are currently busy, we promote within the waiting queue a message that lets you know how long the chat wait is," Santiago says. By finding the optimal balance between self-service and live agents, while providing its customers with multiple touch points, AASC dropped its incoming calls by 30 percent to fewer than 150, despite having more than 42,000 corporate users. "Give customers the details to make the right choice of channel to use for the right application at the right time," says Jon Anton, director of research at BenchmarkPortal. Match Agents With the Right Channels Not every customer service representative (CSR) can be WonderAgent, capable of commanding both your oral and Web-intense channels. Agents equipped with flawless phone skills may be clueless when it comes to handling emails or chat sessions, so be sure that your agents can handle double duty before tossing them into a blended environment. "Don't force agents to do what they are not prepared to do, and if you do want your agents to handle multiple channels, train them properly," Fluss says. Srinivas Penumaka, director of product marketing for Genesys, encourages managers to zero in on properly scheduling multichannel-skilled agents. You must "forecast the needs for these types of interactions and make sure that you have the right number of agents coming at the right time--rightstaffing, no understaffing and no overstaffing," he says. Aspen Systems, whose technology suite includes Genesys Workforce Management and Contact Navigator, takes this personnel approach to correctly staff its 16 contact centers, primarily because of the maximization capabilities. "When you're talking about some of the metrics of call center management and you can truly integrate your channels, it allows you to hire those agents that are somewhat a notch above [their coworkers], because the solution requires them to multitask," says Don Shopland, manager of customer and information services for Aspen Systems. "The utilization efficiencies you gain by moving to a blended environment typically outweigh your costs." You may enhance agent morale by expanding responsibilities while keeping your labor costs in check, but to identify your best possible workforce composition, consider customer preferences that may help determine whether you want to hire and train agents to handle multiple channels, or to designate particular agents for specific channels. For instance, if your customers are near nausea at the thought of speaking to an agent with an accent or if you require more flexibility, consider offshoring less-touch channels like email and Web chat, and onshoring or nearshoring your phone calls if you opt not to keep your contact center operations in-house. "Once you have your overall multichannel vision and you have a road map, there's certainly still the open topics of insourcing, cosourcing, and outsourcing," says Tom Johnson, a managing director at BearingPoint. "Cosourcing for extended hours, multilingual capabilities, [and] level-two problems or even level one, are certainly ways to drive your cost out...[and] give you expanded capabilities and competencies without taking on the fixed costs." A growing number of companies are considering home-based agents as an element of their channel vision. AAA Arizona turned to virtual contact-center service provider WillowCSN to incorporate telecommuting agents, mostly to handle call overflow. "It's just very difficult [to find people who] will work two hours in the morning for morning rush hour and two hours in the evening for evening rush hour...so it's made a big difference in the quality and performance of us delivering service to members," Gibbs says. Provide a Complete View of the Customer For contact centers sincere about multichannel integration, presenting agents with the tools necessary for a holistic view of the customer across channels, along with customer history, has to be a component of their integration strategy. "What you often find in the call center is, half the time the agents should be dealing with the customer [but instead] they're dealing with the complicated user interface of their application, and the calls are taking two times longer than they should," Selland says. "In the typical call center you see--much less frequently than you would imagine--the truly unified agent desktop, whether it's from a single vendor or patching it from multiple vendors." Your Way Communications, outsourcer for small and start-up companies, opts for the piecemeal approach of various vendors to handle its voice, Web chat, and email needs, including Five9's Virtual Contact Center solution for its IVR and inbound and outbound calls. "All of these systems are Web-based and they can all easily integrate with each other, so it's not as hard as it used to be, with tons and tons of development time," says Todd Allred, cofounder and president of Your Way Communications. If you decide to buy from a single vendor, consider if you are comfortable with relying solely on that company for your multichannel needs. If you are leaning toward the best-of-breed approach, think about the level of consistency you are delivering to your agents, who have to flop from application to application to get a more cohesive view of customers. Either way, mull over how quickly you can get your agents trained on your user interface. "If you're training call center representatives and you have some that are jacks-of-all-trades, it would be great for them to have one screen for them to look at," Allred says. A unified view of your customers will make your agents' lives easier and alleviate customer headaches stemming from repeating their issues as they move from channel to channel. Without an all-angle view "they have to retell their stories every time they go to the contact center," Johnson says. According to Fluss, however, the concern surrounding the complete view of the customer comes from the lack of best practices within organizations: "When a customer interacts in email and then they move to the phone, they want that agent to know what they did in email or vice versa, and one of the big issues in organizations today is they don't always consolidate or present their agents with a single view of the customer," she says. "Enterprises need to develop best practices, but the pity of it is, [although] best practices do exist in the industry...organizations aren't investing the time and energy properly." Be Consistent Don't expect to keep customer frustrations at bay without providing consistent information and processes across all channels. If you allow your customers to carry out a task via your phone, give them the opportunity to perform that same function on your Web site. For example, Kolsky says, "you're able to buy a ticket from an airline virtually anywhere--from an agent, at the airport, on the phone, via the Web site--but you can only return on the phone through an agent. If you're going to offer a specific process through one channel, you need to find a way to offer it through another channel." Consistency must not solely span the information and process you supply your customers. Look out for discrepancies between the information available to your customers and what is on hand for your agents. "Make sure that regardless of the channel your agents are using, the information that they have is the same that the customers can have," Fluss says. "If you're using self-service and you have a knowledge base underlying that self-service application, I'm begging people to keep it up-to-date. [Otherwise] your agents end up getting burnt and your customers end up getting burnt." Contact Assistant Editor Coreen Bailor at cbailor@destinationCRM.com 7 Tips for Putting the Pieces Together The steps necessary to ensure that you have a smoothly operating, large contact center are virtually the same procedures that apply to its smaller likeness, just with a few tweaks. Read on for how to keep your small center in tip-top shape. 1. Establish a Standard Operations Approach Put metrics in place to determine if your contact center is meeting and surpassing your expectation levels. "The majority of small-to-midsize call centers don't define their own key performance indicators," says Sanjay Mehta, Five9's senior vice president of customer care and operations, and "they must manage it on a quantitative manner on a regular basis to see how the call center is performing." 2. Find the Right Channel Mix for You and Your Customers Small contact centers must keep an even more watchful eye on their already tight budgets. To get the biggest bang for your buck, determine what channels and solutions will match both your and your customer's needs. "Look at your own customer base and assess their channel preferences," says Anand Subramaniam, vice president of marketing for eGain Communications, and "start with the single most popular channel, and then add other channels incrementally over time." 3. Leave Room for Expansion Make sure that your platform is flexible enough to allow for growth. "The idea is not to lock into a situation so that, if today you started with a ten-agent call center and tomorrow your need grows to twenty-five, your platform is scalable to take you from ten to twenty-five," Mehta says. 4. Bring the Right People on Board Hiring the right agents is important in any contact center, but in a small-stature center, bringing in the best customer service representatives needs to be a priority. If your agents don't have the right skill set to interact with your customers, the experience will leave them searching for alternative providers. 5. Train, Train, Train Make sure your agents have the interpersonal skills needed to communicate with your customers, but also make sure they are well versed on your products and services. "A smaller team means they are going to run into many more situations, and the more prepared they are on the fundamentals, the better they'll do on the exceptions," says Tom Johnson, a managing director at BearingPoint. 6. Provide the Proper Tools Supply your agents with high-quality technology that lets them effectively do their jobs. "The technology you give them has to be easy to use, because if it's difficult to use there's going to be a large learning curve, and it's going to get them frustrated," says James Southworth, director of East Coast sales and one of the founders of Five9. 7. Keep Agents in Good Spirits Once your agents are hired and trained, make sure you provide them with a pleasant work environment. Their contentment will show in how they interact with your customers. --C.B.
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