• September 22, 2010
  • By Koa Beck, Editorial Assistant, CRM magazine

11 Tips to Conquer Contact Centers

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Paul Stockford asks a lot of questions. 

In his role as the research director of the National Association of Call Centers, Stockford surveys the association’s membership about changes in the industry and advances in technologies and processes. When it comes to improving efficiency and increasing return on investment (ROI), Stockford notes, agent performance is always atop the list, but a new player is taking on a more influential role. 

“Desktop analytics is a new technology that I think has a lot of potential for growth over the next three to five years,” Stockford says. “Agent-desktop software and performance management are proven technologies that are available now and have a demonstrable [ROI]. These are the technology solutions that the industry is ready to embrace and is now paying attention to.” 

Contact centers have increasingly turned to online self-service, as well, a factor Anand Subramaniam, vice president of marketing at contact center and customer service specialist eGain, partly attributes to the economic climate. “One of the things they’re doing here is to provide contextual self-service at the point of escalation,” Subramaniam says. “An example is to show a short, highly relevant list of possible answers to a question, just when customers attempt to escalate to a chat or email agent from the Web site—a more expensive proposition for the business. As part of their optimization, contact centers are starting to assess the effectiveness of self-service by also including how many chat sessions or emails are avoided or ‘deflected’ through self-service.”

Subramaniam also argues that the best-in-class contact centers are tackling optimization through the use of a balanced scorecard tactic, assessing quality and revenue metrics in addition to traditional throughput ones such as average handle time. 

A proposed 25-cent-per-connection federal tax on offshore calls—see “A Tax on Every Call?,” for more—has many contact centers considering domestic alternatives, with work-at-home agents (WAHAs) considered among the most cost-effective. Even without the tax, increased productivity rates and reductions in hardware maintenance—representing hard-to-ignore multimillion-dollar savings—have helped bring WAHAs to the forefront of the discussion. (See “And They’re Off!,” May 2008, and “There’s No Place Like Home,” October 2008, for more on the offshoring and WAHA movements.) 

Daniel Hong, lead analyst of customer interaction at Ovum, notes that, due to smaller budgets and limited in-house expertise, many enterprises are choosing to invest in hosted contact centers to decrease capital outlay and tap into a wide range of technologies. 

“Understanding how to make incremental changes in contact center operations to optimize customer care and control long-term costs without disrupting service delivery is the key determinant to success for implementing a hosted contact center,” Hong writes. “By doing so, enterprises are in a better position to build a high-performance customer service strategy that leads to long-term success.”  

We’ve gathered suggestions in the past (“Serving Up Service Strategies,” August 2009), all of which remain valid, but many of the following 11 recommendations also take environmental impact into account in helping you maintain a successful (and profitable) contact center.

1). Don’t Overlook the Desktop

Stockford says that, of all the technologies that survey respondents reported having funded for purchase in 2010, the one cited most often was agent-desktop software—an offering that he says is often overlooked because it fails to fit neatly into the mainstream categories of performance management technologies. But there’s a reason companies continue to allocate resources to the desktop. 

“There’s a lot going on at the desktop that is overlooked,” says Stockford, who is also the founder of Saddletree Research. Small problems, such as pages freezing up or an agent’s disregard for keyboard shortcuts, can disrupt calls, prevent problem resolution, and affect customer satisfaction. 

Among the potential problem spots for agent-desktop software, Stockford points to one in particular. “There’s a lot of opportunity there,” he says, “for improving customer service, [and] for helping the agents improve their job performance, which leads to greater job satisfaction.”

2). Get a Customer Interaction Hub

As the channels for customer interaction continually expand (chat, text, phone, email, and now Facebook, Twitter, and other social media venues), the heavily hyped 360-degree view of the customer becomes more critical than ever. 

A customer interaction hub (CIH) relies on a single repository that provides agents a view of all interactions through a unified desktop. 

“CIHs have knowledge bases, workflow, analytics, business rules, and administration on the same foundation,” Subramaniam says. “[That enables] consistent, knowledge-enabled customer service across channels—and reduced total cost of ownership—by not having to administer multiple disparate interaction management and knowledge management systems.” 

Having disconnected silos of interaction can irritate customers, particularly when asking them to repeat information to recreate the context of the call. Placing all interactions in one dashboard spares the customer from re-explaining her problem or inquiry, leading to faster resolution.

3). Implement a Comprehensive Knowledge Base

Industry experts agree that one size does not fit all when it comes to information searches, so creating several varieties of guided help is the best bet. The basics include FAQs, a folder tree for browsing questions, and a search option. The ability to handle questions of greater complexity, however, can improve pre- and postsale scenarios such as product comparisons. 

According to Subramaniam, the ideal knowledge-enabled self-service should function like a human advisor, recommending the appropriate purchases for anyone who might be perusing the Web site for information. A series of relevant questions can focus the search: “Do you travel internationally?” “Do you need Bluetooth?” “What’s your budget?” In the end, serving up information to suit customer interaction frees up agents who, in turn, will require less training time.

Creating a strong Web self-service model that customers access from their own homes can significantly reduce unnecessary field service, cutting not just high customer service costs but also environmental impact such as carbon emissions. Subramaniam includes an example of such an effort in his “7 Attributes of Highly Green Customer Service Contact Centers”: A home-appliance manufacturer’s knowledge management system, guided by case-based reasoning, greatly reduced field visits and saved $50 million annually. 

A comprehensive knowledge base, Subramaniam writes, can also prevent unwarranted product exchanges and returns. “Such exchanges and returns are often caused by subscribers’ inability to figure out how to use the product,” he writes, “and contact centers’ inability to resolve the problem.” These misunderstandings can lead to unnecessary inspections, remanufacturing, and product shipping. 

4). Make Proactive Customer Service Calls

Informing customers of product recalls via text or email frees up contact center resources, allowing agents to be more productive with problems of greater complexity. Tackling large-scale announcements with proactive customer service can secure a contact center’s productivity in times of crisis—with noncrisis benefits as well. 

Subramaniam cites as an example a prescription-services client that “uses unified proactive notifications across multiple channels [such as] email, SMS, and voice to alert members [of] prescription drugs [that are] ready for pick-up, prescriptions running out that need to be renewed, [or] cost savings by buying the drugs from a specific store versus other stores in the neighborhood.”

Proactive customer service calls can also be used to alert customers when an out-of-stock item becomes available or during “rain-check scenarios,” reducing unnecessary store visits and decreasing the carbon footprint. 

5). Integrate Front- and Back-End Systems

Providing agents with quick access to previous orders and past complaints is essential, according to Subramaniam. Having access to the back-end systems, specifically to update account information, can speed wrap-up time and improve levels of customer satisfaction. Some vendors, including eGain, now promise “out-of-the-box” integration with leading back-end systems such as CRM, enterprise resource planning, and enterprise content management solutions. 

Technology still plays a role, of course—and emerging offerings promise to ease the integration process. When choosing to integrate, for example, Hong writes that “enterprises should leverage session initiation protocol and unified communications.” 

6). Use Simultaneous Chat and Agent Co-browsing

Lag time between chat responses should provide agents with ample opportunity to carry on multiple conversations, but Subramaniam recommends no more than three concurrent chats to prevent an agent from getting too engrossed or preoccupied with one customer. Taking advantage of canned responses and autosuggestions can save additional time for agents. 

An agent might also cobrowse with a customer to create a rich multimedia experience. Cobrowsing can not only help that customer perform a desired transaction, but can sometimes elevate her interest in other products and services. Like Web self-service, agent cobrowsing can reduce visits to retail stores, eliminate unnecessary product returns, and increase customer satisfaction by addressing pre- and postsale questions. 

7). Optimize on an Ongoing Basis

Avid attention to analytics can help you focus on weak spots, as well as alert you to potential pitfalls, but some dashboards are more time-sensitive than others. 

Make regular use of optimization dashboards to pinpoint problem areas and highlight places in which performance can be improved immediately. Meanwhile, operational dashboards can help streamline multichannel interaction queues in real time. 

Other dashboards, Subramaniam says—such as content performance or customer satisfaction dashboards—can be checked less frequently, “to give adequate time to get a critical mass of data for meaningful analysis.”

8). Blend Your Agent Roles

Training agents to handle various channels—creating what are known as unified or blended agents—can vastly improve productivity, Subramaniam says. When agents get free time between calls, they can assist in chat sessions or do some cross-selling or upselling. 

Blending agent roles, Subramaniam observes, allows “agents to be good in both service and support.” He warns, however, that success in agent blending is determined not only by each agent’s basic skill set but also the sophistication of your customer interaction systems. A deficiency in one or the other can create more problems than achievements. 

9). Secure Email Communications

Of the seven attributes comprised by what Subramaniam calls a “highly green” contact center, email security may be number one, effectively reducing environmental impact by eliminating most paper-based communication. 

In what Subramaniam describes as the “pull” approach to email, customers receive email alerts that require them to log in to a portal before securely viewing information. In the preferred “push” approach, he says, encrypted information is decrypted when an email is opened, sparing customers the need to log into a Web portal at all. 

In his tip list, Subramaniam cites a bank that provides secure email boxes for its customers. Using authenticated self-service portals, customers can view account information and initiate or check on the status of service requests, greatly reducing the need for postal communication.

10). Take Advantage of At-Home, Outsourced, and Seasonal Agents

Gartner research shows that WAHAs are 40 percent more effective than their commuting counterparts—and diminish a contact center’s carbon footprint. In addition to decreased hardware costs, WAHAs have higher rates of retention and first-call resolution, improve customer satisfaction, engage in more upselling, and experience fewer call hang-ups. (See “There’s No Place Like Home,” October 2008.) 

According to The Telework Coalition, an education and advocacy organization, 100 WAHAs can save a business close to $13 million annually over five years—that’s $20,000 per employee per year. Cloud-based customer service provider inContact, for one, claims that switching to WAHAs has led to annual savings of $3.4 million.

Subramaniam recommends Voice over Internet Protocol technology (VoIP) to reduce employee commutes, connecting customers to agents working elsewhere. Describing VoIP as easy and cost-effective, Subramaniam says the technology is considered the best in agent routing. Subramaniam says one eGain client uses a combination of agents—at corporate contact centers in addition to outsourced agents located across the United States and internationally. This multichannel approach to customer service increases the number of agents working from home and reduces the contact center’s environmental footprint. 

11). Improve Your First-Visit Resolution

Repeat service visits to a customer’s home or business can be costly and negatively impact the environment, but on-site visits can’t be avoided entirely. Subramaniam advises deploying contact center knowledge to sales representatives, allowing service issues to be handled on the customer’s first visit by the bricks-and-mortar operation. 

An effective knowledge base can catch additional follow-up questions a customer may have upon taking the product home, and can answer inquiries she may have about other products seen in the retail location. And Subramaniam maintains that customers who do need to speak with a representative about an inquiry are better served by an efficient contact center with a high rate of first-visit resolution.

Despite ongoing economic difficulties, the looming possibility of a tax on overseas calls, an ever-expanding array of customer interactions, and agent-desktop difficulties, these approaches—blending your agents’ roles, securing your email communications, using environmentally conscious methods to connect with customers—can help avert many a crisis. In the end, however, the only way to truly conquer your contact center is to choose the approach that works best for you.

Editorial Assistant Koa Beck can be reached at kbeck@destinationCRM.com.

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