The Case for Unified Real-time Mobility on the Cisco Cius

Recently, Cisco unveiled the innovative Cisco Cius, an ultra-portable, mobile collaboration business tablet that offers access to essential business applications and technologies.  It delivers the most portable, powerful, reliable, and secure communications, computing, and collaboration experience for a device of its kind, according to Cisco literature.

With a myriad of real-time reporting options already in use on agent desktops, is there a case to be made for contact center stats on the Cius?  Single, monolithic CRT monitors of the ‘90s begat dual, or in some cases tri-LCD monitor setups at agent desktops.  Real-time queue statistics on LED-based telephony equipment begat the modern IP telephony system capable of statistics, call monitoring information, multimedia, and video content.  Factor in smartphones capable of retrieving, or more often “pulling” KPI data from a middleware solution or the ACD itself, and your average CSR is faced with up to five reporting devices within an arm’s-length of her headset.  It’s a crowded desktop, indeed.

Where does the Cius fit in?  Is there room for such a device on the agent desktop?  Does it offer benefits beyond desktop monitors, IP phones, and smartphones?  Consider the capabilities:

  • Virtual desktop client enables highly-secure access to cloud-based business applications.
  • Android operating system, with access to Android marketplace applications.
  • Collaboration applications including Cisco Quad, Cisco Show and Share, WebEx, Presence, and IM.
  • HD video (720p) with Cisco TelePresence solution interoperability for lifelike video communication with the simplicity of a phone call.
  • 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, 3G/4G data and Bluetooth 3.0 help employees stay connected on and off-campus.

One can argue (and I intend to!) that the Cius indeed does fill a niche on the agent desktop, taking the best of other reporting options and consolidating them into one standalone device.  Today’s contact center agent is more mobile than ever.  With contact center and CRM data flowing from the cloud more so than ever, why should the agent be tethered to traditional desktop reporting solutions?  Why would the Cius NOT be a good fit for mobile agents?

In 2010, tablets are all the rage.  Take the Apple iPad, for example.  Enough said.  Industry analysts galore forecast explosive growth over the next 24 months.  I suspect that business tablets like the Cius will extend the role of the inbound contact center agent to full-time customer advocate (as it should).  With tight integration to telephony equipment, cloud-based data sources, and a wealth of Android developers itching for a slice of the Cisco contact center market, I see the Cius as a homerun in the contact center.  Agents of the future, be prepared for a ground-shifting device coming your way shortly.

Software Development Principles

Developing software requires us to make decisions that have short and long term consequences.  We are a value-driven organization and try to evaluate cost vs. benefit at all layers of the organization.  This list represents a core set of principles I use to guide my decisions during software development.

  • Simplicity first – in design and thought
    • Don’t assume anything HAS to be complex. If there is a simpler option, discuss it.
    • Don’t assume the requirements are right or can’t be changed.
    • Think about the “why,” even when the “what” or “how” seem obvious.
  • Maintenance (fixing and incremental change) is a huge part and cost of development.
    • Always think about long-term costs, especially when there seems to be an easy fix and a deadline is looming.
    • If it isn’t required, then don’t do it (YAGNI – You aren’t going to need it).
    • If you write code that makes you feel dirty, you will probably regret it later.
  • Structure, organization, naming and consistency are important.
    • Structure everything in layers; including projects, namespaces, classes, and functions.
    • Code must be readable and include comments or be self-documenting.
    • Naming should tell you what it is or what it does.  A lot of effort goes into naming and we still often get it wrong, but spending less time on it won’t make it better.
  • Look before you leap
    • Look for existing solutions, and see what has already been done.
    • Don’t assume starting from scratch is the best option.
  • Testability
    • Design for testability from the  start.
    • Unit tests are good – but understand where they get the most value.
    • Using unit tests for Graphical UIs and external interfaces may not be worth the cost.
  • Performance
    • Think about memory usage and management.  Constructing objects has a cost.
    • If you start by writing efficient code, then you never learn bad habits and won’t pay the costs later.
    • String usage, logging, and loops can all be done very inefficiently.
    • It is a lot easier to focus on profiling the algorithms when the code is already efficient.

Call Center Blogs Worth Bookmarking

Since we developed a few months ago, I’ve become more active in the blogosphere. I’ve discovered several great web sites and blogs that help me keep up-to-date on the latest contact center news and discussion. Thought I’d share a few of my favorites:

  • Cisco’s Contact Center Blog – Cisco is an Inova partner, so we like to keep a close watch on their latest innovations. They have some great discussions about how to best leverage your Cisco system.
  • Avaya Insights Blog – Avaya is another Inova partner and a major player in the industry. If you utilize Avaya, it is a good idea to check out their contact center-related blog topics.
  • The Service Level Group Blog – Our friend Tim Montgomery pens this blog, and shares some great insight on improving service in call centers. You can also check out the white paper that Tim wrote for Inova a couple years ago.
  • The Readerboard – TMCnet writes an interesting blog that discusses contact center and CRM views and analysis.
  • Contact Center: Unplugged – Aspect’s contact center blog tackles some interesting topics, including a recent post on best practices for managing agents’ performance.
  • Interactive Intelligence Blog – This blog takes the cake for most frequent updates, and their posts always seem relevant to contact center key issues. Worth a read.
  • Inova Resource Library – Okay, this is not a blog, but it’s still a great spot for call center white papers. And we hate it when companies ask you to fill out a form to access their resources…so we don’t do it. All white papers are available online for free, and you don’t need to trade your contact info to get them. Our latest white paper discusses the challenges of remote agent management.

And of course, keep coming back to this blog –! We add new articles nearly every day, and topics range from call center technology to HR best practices and much more.

Did I miss anything? Do you know of any great call center resources I haven’t mentioned?

Multimedia in the Call Center

When explaining to people what I do for a living, I will occasionally find that my audience checks out when I start talking about call wait times, abandonment rates, and service levels. While it’s entirely possible that I just can’t keep an audience’s attention, I like to think that it’s something much more basic than that. You see, a person that doesn’t live their day-to-day life in a call center can have a difficult time grasping just how vital call center metrics are to maximizing productivity.

Fortunately, I’ve got a trick up my sleeve. In my years as a Technical Project Manager, I’ve come across some pretty amazing and ingenious uses of the Inova solution within the call center environment. Several of the most amazing feats that I’ve seen accomplished with our software involve the inclusion of video/multimedia. Some usages may be simple and straightforward, but plenty of surprising and attention-grabbing ideas are cropping up out there in the LightLink universe.  A common trait that I have found amongst all of these ideas is that they do a really great job of keeping CSR’s eyes on the screens and attentive to the current state of the call center.

Here’s a quick summary of some of my favorite uses:

Weather– This is one of the easier-to-configure video sources. This one requires that the customer has a television feed integrated into their Inova system, but that is largely becoming the rule rather than the exception with our rollouts. A common example of the video usage would be a Broadcaster client view that runs once an hour to coincide with their local television network’s regularly scheduled weather forecasts.

Traffic – This one isn’t too much of a departure from the weather forecast, but it tends to utilize a non-local video source. Of course, I’m talking about traffic cameras. This is a view that tends to see usage only during specific parts of the day. As the shift nears an end, a view with several traffic cameras might play to offer crucial information to the call center workers about their trips home and elsewhere. One unexpected, but certainly appreciated perk that I’ve heard about from this was that workers were tending to work a little later when they saw heavy traffic on their routes home. In the end, the company enjoys the benefit of a temporarily more heavily-staffed call center, and the worker avoids the stress, discomfort, and wasted fuel costs of being stuck in traffic on their way home.

Televised Events – Holidays aren’t the only time that it can be frustrating to be an employee in a 24/7/365 call center. Whether it’s the Olympics, the World Cup, or the Super Bowl; sometimes employees have to miss world-attention-grabbing events due to work. This can definitely lead to a downturn in morale and the overall workplace mood, at the very least while those events are still taking place. I’ll never forget an after-hours call I received during the Super Bowl, and how stunned I was to find the customer on the other side of the line in a great mood considering the fact that he was working during the big game. As it turned out, they had the Super Bowl playing in their Broadcaster client views! Due to the game, it was a slow evening in the call center, and they found it to be a great morale boost for the dedicated employees that had to report to work that evening. The best part of all was that combined with the low incoming call volume, productivity and service levels didn’t seem to be negatively impacted; but everyone was having a great time at work!

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Social media monitoring: What it is and why you should do it

One of my first blog posts for was about monitoring social media in the contact center.  I discussed three key ways contact centers can monitor social media in a very strategic way:

  1. Set goals and objectives
  2. Determine metrics
  3. Use a free, or paid, monitoring tool

I was thinking about this post and wondering if I had perhaps jumped the gun a bit.  Working in the marketing world I hear about social media monitoring everywhere— webinars, trade publications, newsletters from marketing vendors and the list goes on and on.  “Social media monitoring” is probably one of the newest and biggest buzzwords to drive businesspeople crazy.  If you’re a call center manager or supervisor, this monitoring task has likely rolled down from upper management and landed squarely on your shoulders as a customer service initiative.  If it’s not your responsibility yet, it probably will be soon.

So before you start planning your approach, what exactly is this social media monitoring thing anyway and why is it so important?

Monitoring various social media outlets (like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, digg, blogs and so on) is simply keeping a “virtual ear” open for mentions of your company.  In some cases this could also include high profile employees, like Apple’s Steve Jobs.  Tracking what people are saying online about your company is crucial.  For one, customers are no longer telling one or two people about an experience with your company, they’re telling hundreds, thousands and sometimes millions of people over the Internet.

There are countless examples of frustrated customer online rants going viral.  One of the more entertaining is United Breaks Guitars (caution- the chorus will probably replay over and over again in your head) which is now a trilogy of music videos by a musician who checked his guitar, only to have it broken, while flying United Airlines.  The original video went viral on YouTube and has been viewed more than 8 million times.  Only after the video received national attention did United offer compensation for the broken guitar.

Having a social media monitoring system in place allows companies to proactively reach out to customers ranting and raving about a negative experience.  Take Best Buy’s twelpforce; employees scour the Twitter universe for people in need of tech advice.  Best Buy proactively reaches out to them and answers their questions via Twitter.  I can’t think of a better way to position the Best Buy brand as a customer service leader and tech expert.

Social media monitoring provides a great way for you, the contact center manager, to contribute to the bottom line by proactively reaching out to disgruntled customers and improving potential customers’ perceptions of your company.  All of this can be easily, and inexpensively, accomplished.  See my first social media monitoring post for advice on getting started and post your questions and comments below.

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Recapture Poor Customer Service Losses, $243 at a Time

According to a 2009 international consumer survey from Genesys Labs and Datamonitor/Ovum, the cost of customer service in 16 major industrialized economies causes businesses to lose a total of $338.5 billion per year when customers defect and abandon their purchases as a direct result of poor customer experiences. A total of 8,880 consumers, at least 500 from each country, were selected from all ages and income groups and surveyed for the report. Consumers surveyed reside in: Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Czech Republic, France, Germany, India, Italy, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, the U.K., and the United States.

Why did customers defect? Common responses included:

  • Self-service that is not intelligently integrated with assisted service
  • Being trapped in automated self-service
  • Being forced to wait too long for service
  • Having to repeat themselves
  • Representatives who lack the skills to answer their inquiry

The average value of each lost relationship across all countries surveyed was $243 per year. Losses were defined as transactions taken to a competitor (63 percent of the total) and transactions abandoned entirely (37 percent of the total).

Contact centers can and do influence this cost. As the front line of the company, the inbound call center’s role can be considered the protector of hundreds of thousands or even millions of these $243 relationships. Agents are the individuals who are guarding the bank, $243 at a time. Are you treating each call or contact as if it could be worth $243 to the company?

According to the Department of Consumer Affairs, 82-95% of unhappy customers will come back if impressed and actually refer five new customers. The case for win-back is obvious.

Some thoughts on winning back your defected customers:

Be Sorry for the Right Reasons
Be sincere in your concern for the customer and say sorry the correct way. Be sure to first find out from the customer your reason to be sorry. Be active in your listening and create empathy. When saying you are sorry, say exactly what you are sorry for.

Present a Clear Plan of Action
Make sure the customer knows what you are going to do to correct the situation for them. Ninety-five percent of making things right for the customer involves making them aware that you are taking action to make a difference for them. Explain to them the actions and timelines you need to take to make things right for them.

It’s important that you let the customer know that you appreciate their business and want them to come back. Remember, if you did everything right during the win-back process, not only will they come back, but they will tell other people to do business with you. Use challenging customer service situations to win back your customers and build your business. In the long-run, you’ll not only win back that $243 relationship, but you’ll extend the lifetime value of that customer through referrals and add-on sales and service opportunities.

Our Latest “Green” Initiative: Recyclable Packaging Materials

Recently we took another look at our costs to manufacture, package and ship the products we make here at Inova.  Luckily we were able to find a few new alternative packaging options that could reduce our costs per unit shipped.  In this round, however, we wanted to make sure we looked at our options with a “green” eye.

Our packaging materials suppliers quoted a variety of packaging alternatives that met the different product size and suspension requirements. Unfortunately, none were 100% recyclable. One, for example, used cardboard (desirable), but had a strip of clear poly attached that would need to be removed to make it easy for the consumer to recycle after unpacking the product (undesirable).  One proposed Styrofoam (unacceptable).

We eventually settled on a reasonably priced LDPE based product, but it was not labeled for consumer recycling (PET1 or PET2), and therefore couldn’t be introduced to the stream easily by the consumer.  So the thinking caps went back on, and we landed on what we hope will be a workable, affordable solution.  We’re going to include a self-addressed postage-paid USPS mailing bag in the box, and ask our customers to stuff the end caps in the bag and send them back to us.  We calculated the annual cost of the USPS account, the return shipping charges, and the printed bag itself.  We then offset those costs with the reduction in costs from the reduced quantity of new end-caps purchased.  In the end, we’re going to give back a portion of the savings we found in alternative packaging…but still feel it’s the right thing to do.

We estimated 10% of our customers would participate in the return program.  However, if our customers participate in returning the end-caps at a rate greater than 10%, we’ll be driving down the fixed annual cost of the USPS account with each additional return.  This of course, keeps the cost of the product down as well.  We’re hoping they will all elect to participate in our recycling program…and we’ll keep you posted (sorry) to let you know how we’re doing.

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Soccer’s Impact on the Call Center

Having played soccer for most of my life, I get pretty excited when the World Cup rolls around every four years.  I love watching the games and relish the ‘football’ passion that the media and all of my friends develop for a few weeks, even though it’s only temporary.  With the exception of the vuvuzelas and a few too many cards in the final, this tournament has not been a disappointment:  The US team put on a decent show (although I still think they should have beat Ghana), and the quarter- and semi-final games were about as exciting as they come.

Today, as I was cleaning off my desk, I came across a somewhat dated article in Information Week magazine about the additional load the World Cup would bring on South African Tourism.  The article outlines the changes anticipated with the tournament:

  • Nearly 300,000 soccer fans traveling to South Africa
  • Fewer tourists visiting for wildlife reserves
  • Influx of first-time visitors
  • More tourists traveling independently within the country, since games are taking place in nine cities
  • Visitors seeking real-time assistance

The article goes on to discuss the huge challenges associated with ramping up for such an event and then, just as importantly, discarding the burden when the tournament ends.  The global marketing of e-marketing at South African Tourism is quoted as saying that they had to turn the “call center inside out to handle calls.”

During major events such as these, I’ve always been so focused on the event itself, that it never really crossed my mind what a huge, but temporary impact, would be felt by tourism call centers.  It raises many questions about how call centers can effectively manage such unusual situations.  I wonder how Toronto managed the winter Olympics?  In the end, how effective were the efforts of South African Tourism’s call center in meeting the needs of travelers and, subsequently, in the scaling down their efforts?  Can call centers use the same techniques in day-to-day operations?

Henschen, Doug.  “How to Ramp CRM Up – And Back Down.”  Information Week. 21 June 2010:  22.

The Customer Isn’t Always Right

Many companies live by the old adage “the customer is always right.” However, anyone who has ever worked in a call center or other customer service environment knows that this is not the case. There will always be people trying to abuse the system…to get a refund after they’ve used an item, to get a discount on their bill, or to simply be rude but expect nothing but politeness in return. As a contact center manager, you are doing a disservice to your CSRs to always side with the customer, no matter how unreasonable they are being. If you never back up your own reps (especially when they’re right), they will likely pack their bags and take their talents elsewhere.

I am convinced that some of the rudeness that customers bring to a customer service call is directly related to the impersonal nature of the interaction. It’s much easier for customers to be rude and demanding to someone they’re not looking in the eye. To some customers, the rep is not a real person with a job and a mortgage and perhaps a headache at the end of the day, and they may not abide by the common courtesy rules that may otherwise apply in a face-to-face interaction. The scripts we give to reps often make them sound even more robotic and less human or relatable. In that case, what about Skype or other forms of videoconferencing as a medium for customer-agent interaction? Does this simple, visual reminder that a human being is on the other end of the line encourage a more courteous dialogue?

So where’s the happy medium? How do you balance the priorities of agent retention and customer service when chronically difficult customers are on the line?

What Say, Part 2 – OnTime Clock Terms and Definitions

I wrote before about my efforts to understand the jargon that come with being a technical writer with essentially no technology background.  I’ve recently worked on some FAQs for Inova’s OnTime Clock and have a new list of terms to share!

  • 10/100 BaseT Cable – A complicated term for a pretty common item:  an Ethernet cable.  It’s best broken down to understand the entire term:
    • 10/100 identifies that the port supports two different Ethernet speeds: 10 or 100 megabits per second
    • BASE is short baseband.  Basically, each signal can use a single frequency on the wire.
    • T indicates that each pair of wires is twisted together.
  • Cantilever Mount – A mount on the left or right side of a device, allowing it to be mounted on the wall.
  • DHCP – Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol; this is a communications protocol that lets network administrators manage and automate the assignment of IP Addresses on an organization’s network.
  • DNS – Domain Name System; this is the way that Internet domain names are located and translated into IP Addresses. A domain name is a meaningful and easy-to-remember “handle” for an Internet address.
  • Flush Mounting – Mounting style that allows a device to be backplate-mounted so the face of the device is flush with the wall.
  • Host Name – Unique identifier for a device on a TCP/IP network, making it easier for users to identify and remember the specific device.  For example, the name can refer to the device location (3rdFlrConRm).
  • IEEE 802.3af PoE – The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) created the standard in 2003 to Identify power supply standards for PoE devices.
  • IP Address – Unique identifier for a device on a TCP/IP network.  For example:
  • Midspan Power Injectors – Allows users to upgrade existing infrastructures so that PoE applications can be used.
  • NTP – Network Time Protocol; allows for time synchronization of computers within a network.
  • Pendant Mount – A ceiling mount, where a device is suspended from the ceiling.
  • PoEPower over Ethernet; PoE provides a means of delivering DC power to Ethernet connected devices.
  • SNTP – Simple Network Time Protocol; used to synchronize time on computers
  • Surface Mount – This is a simple flat wall mount identified for devices.
  • Telnet – A network protocol and a software program that allows users to remotely access the command console of a computer over a network.
  • Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) – Device that provides emergency backup power when the primary source fails.
  • VOIP phones – Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) phones; allows for the delivery of voice communications over the Internet.

Quite frankly, I wish I could implement NTP within my “network” of friends and family; it seems like it would be a sure way to eliminate any excuses about being tardy due to clocks being set differently!