Controlling Your Technology Destiny in the Contact Center

In the August 2013 edition of Contact Center Pipeline, Brian Hinton writes, “while IT might hold the keys to technology delivery and support, the contact center must use technology wisely to achieve business goals.”  At first, this seems to be a simple enough statement; however, it is really quite loaded once you start to break it down.  First, you have the relationship between IT and the contact center itself.  As Hinton explains, it can be easy for IT and contact center managers to reach a stalemate when trying to manage technology.  IT employees are often the subject matter experts; however, it can be unfair for contact center employees to rely on IT to provide a full picture of what is possible.  Hinton offers some suggestions for contact center managers to take the first steps in ensuring optimal technology usage in the contact center.

Close the knowledge gapAs a contact center manager, you can empower yourself by understanding the industry and the technology available.  Attend conferences, network through associations or other groups, read trade-specific material, and talk to your technology vendor.  The more information you can gather about contact center technology, the better equipped you will be to target specific areas of improvement for your center.

Establish requirements for technology expansionConsider ways that you can use technology to enhance your current business goals.  Are there technology solutions that will help you better measure performance metrics and KPIs?  Is there a technology solution that will enhance your workforce management strategies?  Can you utilize technology platforms to improve your IVR or ACD systems?  Key components of this part of the process are to define metrics that align with your performance goals and to specify action-oriented response processes.

Prioritize As you broaden your knowledge of contact center technology options and begin to grasp requirements that fit your specific contact center, you will be able to prioritize the specific priorities.  You can identify which of targeted areas of contact center improvement align with technology solutions.

Once you have prioritized your requirements, you can then meet with IT.  Collaboration at this point allows you to share your exact technology needs with the technical expertise and insight from your IT partners.  As Hinton writes, “the contact center has to own the effective use of technology… but, successfully achieving goals depends on IT and the contact center working together collaboratively to implement technology together and to continue learning together.”

Real Time Performance Management: Coming of Age in 2013

Real-time analytics has been a keyword in the contact center for some time now, but Paul Stockford argues in a January 2013 Contact Center Pipeline article that everything we thought we knew about “real-time anything as it applies to the contact center is wrong.”  In “Real-Time is the Real Deal,” Stockford writes that real-time no longer means soon after, and that the definition can now fully align with the term; real-time analytics will now mean information measured the exact second that it occurs. 

I suppose that seems like a small difference, but it can have a major impact on how data is used in your contact center.  If you are constantly tracking data that has already happened, you are constantly reacting to situations that have already occurred.  Access to truly real-time data can allow both contact center managers and agents to be more proactive and to adapt to the situation currently at hand. 

In his research, Stockford found that 51% of respondents were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the time it was taking to share performance metrics with managers.

He also discovered that 90% of customer service executives found value in sharing real-time metrics with agents.  Using real-time performance reporting solutions, such as those built on LightLink, gives you the capability to capture performance information as it happens, allowing you to make adjustments to queues and schedules on the fly.  You can create custom queries to display the metrics that are critical for success in your contact center, and send the data instantly to a variety of display options.  A well-implemented real-time performance management system will allow you to effectively utilize real-time analytics, even as the term comes to achieve its true “right-now” meaning!

A Key Lesson in Social Business

The November issue of Information Week included “7 Lessons in Social Business,” by Debra Donston-Miller and David F. Carr.  The article focused on maximizing the “use of social media and social software with employees, customers, and partners;” there was a specific focus on seven companies that are leading the way as social businesses.  While each of their seven lessons can be applied in some way to the contact center, it was lesson number two that jumped out at me as particularly relevant to the partnership between contact centers and Inova Solutions:

“Use metrics to measure progress.”

In the example provided as part of this lesson, management at McKesson, a pharmaceutical distributor and healthcare information technology company chosen as a social business leader, identified “specific gains as a result of making purposeful use of social networking technologies and measuring the impact.”  McKesson has used social business to help unify its support as it has acquired new products over the years.  Since implementing social business technologies, mangers at McKesson have tracked specific metrics, such as average speed of answer and same-day resolution, and witnessed drastic improvements. 

Contacts and communications through social media outlets can (and should) be tracked and measured.  When integrated into the contact center, communications such as tweets and Facebook posts can be routed to agents, who can then monitor and respond as necessary; social media communications can be integrated and responded to just like calls, emails, and chat sessions.  

Clearly social media is here to stay; a critical lesson for creating a successful ‘social business’ is effectively using metrics to measure progress in your contact center.  Using LightLink, you can extract and monitor standard metrics across multiple systems and locations, create custom KPIs mapped directly to your organizational goals, and track data to gauge impact on the overall organization.  Even better, you can do all this in real-time and deliver it to multiple digital display options and customized dashboards!  The key is understanding what metrics and KPIs are available, determining who should see them, and identifying the best method to deliver the data. 

Making Sense of Big Data in the Contact Center

Jay Minnucci writes in his white paper Call Center Performance Metrics:  Shaping Tomorrow’s Reporting Strategy, “the entire purpose of metrics [is] defining opportunities to make the greatest positive impact.”  In today’s contact centers, it is no small feat to identify and manage the increasing array of data available, let alone to use that data to define opportunities that will have a positive impact on the key measures of business success!  With the focus squarely on the customer experience, contact center managers are going beyond the typical statistics from ACDs   and constructing, integrating, and analyzing custom metrics specific to their environments and service level goals.  And this is just the start.  Organizations are leveraging other supporting data metrics to provide more intelligence and measurement from platforms such as callback, outbound dialing, and workforce management applications as well as cross-channel touches from chat and other social media streams.  Add other enterprise ‘mash-up’ data from various operational data sources to the mix and it can make your head spin.   One thing for sure, Big Data, with its opportunities and challenges, is happening in the contact center.

The standard contact center metrics remain the backbone for center success.  Certainly understanding the tried-and-true metrics such as calls waiting, agents available, abandoned calls, and expected wait time will always be beneficial in understanding both the real-time and historical picture of what’s happening in your center.  However, organizations are both redefining standard metrics to better match their goals and adding new enterprise data sources to bring more intelligence into the center.  To more easily think about these data sources, Inova likes to categorize them in six primary buckets:

  • Custom Metrics – This category is greatly influenced by the other data categories since areas like outbound calling and social media responses bring their own set of numbers to the equation.  But even with standard data available from ACDs you can create custom metrics using the Data Analyzer function within Inova LightLink software to better measure your specific performance and objectives.  The Data Analyzer tool can easily calculate averages, max and median times, etc., so that specific services levels and metrics can be created.  Abandoned call percentage and custom services levels across all separate and disparate platforms are examples that are possible.  Custom equations such as removing calls that are dropped within a few seconds before determining average handle time are also easy to create.  Having this ability allows managers to look at all of the types of information available and then to select the specific data views that will best support their needs as well as the needs of other line of business owners and organizations.
  • Associated contact center data sources – Many contact center managers now integrate and display real-time data that is either directly associated with their contact center (Ex: outbound calling or callback applications) or directly affected by data coming from the contact center (Ex: workforce management platforms).  Using the latter example, managers can combine schedules and skill queues for quick analysis of workforce alignment; or integrate messages to automatically announce additional shift availability when the WFM system detects a preset threshold for understaffed periods.  In blended inbound and outbound environments managers and agents can get quick status views about proactive outbound or loyalty campaigns.
  • Result-oriented data – Contact centers strive to be viewed not as cost centers, but as profit centers responding quickly and intelligently to customer needs – cross-selling and up-selling products and services, and keeping customers satisfied.  As such, managers want to understand metrics in terms of the real costs to run their centers and how performance affects overall profitability. They want to know more than just how many calls the center took and how quickly, but how this number applies to the top and bottom lines and overall customer satisfaction.  To do this, some companies are displaying real-time snapshots of sales measures vs. objectives as a way to motivate their agents, correlate their efforts to the success of the business, and identify real opportunities for improvement.  They are also measuring more customer experience related metrics such as agent generated holds, task completion rates and abandoned rates for example.
  • Behind-the-calls data – Most contact center managers would like to know what, exactly, is behind their call types and volumes; they want to be prepared for situations like sudden call spikes or an onslaught of similar topic calls.  To do this some have begun to incorporate operational data, sometimes referred to as enterprise ‘mash-up’ data, into real-time reporting views.  Incorporating this operational data on LCD screens and desktop applications provides a first-hand view, allowing managers and agents to prepare for potential changes in their environments.  The status of a current product promotion, technical issues with an online catalog, or an alert at a utilities company center to drops in power or water pressure would all be example indicators for an increase in call volumes related to specific issues, allowing for more proactive management of the center.
  • Cross-channel data – With all of the new ways that companies and customers are interacting, you likely have access to a growing number of data platforms:  emails and chats with customers as well as social networking interactions or statuses.   Harnessing this cross-channel data is critical for managing the customer experience.
  • External / Environmental data – Your Inova real-time reporting solution can integrate data from the outside world as well such as weather, traffic, and news.  For some contact centers, this information can sometimes be a lifesaver:  consider again the utilities company incorporating live severe-weather feeds to make real-time staffing decisions.

In the end it’s up to leaders of each organization to determine what data should be accessible and viewable in real-time.   For so many obvious reasons, real-time data is critical for understanding what is happening right now in the center; it allows leaders to make decisions that can have immediate impact toward achieving stated goals and milestones.   Integrating custom metrics and data from peripheral and core operating sources is key for producing a 360-degree view of how your contact center is delivering value to your business and, more importantly, to your customers.  As Minnucci wrote, “the contact center landscape is changing and the manner in which we keep score — our metrics — will need to change to keep pace with all this activity.”

Look for more detail in the future on the value and the ability of LightLink to present powerful business views and insights from these varied data sources.

Where to start with call center data analysis?

Those of us with analytical minds love to get our hands on data. Especially when that data is untapped…perhaps tracked and reported but never truly understood or implemented in any meaningful way. This is often the case in call centers, where agents and managers suffer from information overload. With real-time and historic data constantly streaming into the center from various sources- automatic call distributors, workforce management systems, social media, and countless other sources- it can be easy to let data analysis fall by the wayside. In this case, many call center managers miss the opportunity to use that data to improve the customer experience, agent efficiency, and ultimately, the bottom line. But with the right tools and insight, you can sort the wheat from the chaff.

When just starting to make sense of your data, it’s important to identify the call center metrics that are most important to your organization. This may include abandoned calls, average wait time, or first call resolution, and will be different for each center. For example, some centers place a high value on short handle times because agent efficiency allows more transactions to take place. However, in another business model based on relationship building, short handle times may be considered rushing loyal customers off the phone. So it’s up to you, but make a list of your most important KPIs.

Next, determine where you can access these KPIs. Most likely, they’re already available on the existing middleware solution in your center. It’s easy to extract that data in real-time to the output device of your choice. For the initial stages of analysis, I’d suggest a simple desktop or mobile application that allows managers to see real-time charts, graphs, and tables of key metrics. With sophisticated applications, you can even plot the data against your goal numbers, and set alerts when threshold conditions are met. If you elect to roll this real-time reporting framework out more globally at your company, you can choose to display this same data on a call center LCD display or LED wallboard in the sight line of agents.

Historical reports are also important, but try not to get bogged down by the sheer amount of data. Look for trends in your key performance indicators as well as red flags.

And remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Your call center reporting strategy will take time to develop, and it’s perfectly acceptable to design and implement in stages. The whole project will seem less daunting if you choose one item to focus on each month.

Personalizing the Customer Experience

There has been a big focus lately on personalizing the customer experience, especially on the digital stage.  New ways of tracking, especially through website usage, can provide mountains of data about customer locations, preferences, purchases, and even computer type and so much more.  This data can then be used by marketing and customer service to create a custom user experience.

In many cases, this customization is welcomed by the customers.  When I call my favorite catalog retailer, I love being greeted by name with a follow up question about my satisfaction with a recent purchase.  And, after all, email blasts from a hospitality company about the best local happy hours are not particularly relevant for my 90+ year old grandmother.

However, the effort to personalize can all too easily cross the line and begin to irritate, or even spook, your customer.   Consider these two red flags when reviewing your organization’s efforts to personalize your customers’ experiences:

Does the effort pigeonhole the user?  Most people don’t like to be assigned to certain categories, since human nature insists that we are all distinct individuals.  Along the same lines, a customer may resent being pigeonholed into a specific user category; just because they buy a box of diapers online, does not mean that they want all future shopping experiences to categorize them as a parent of small children.  People are not simply parents, singles, seniors, etc., and they will likely resent most efforts to classify them into one specific role.

Does the effort indicate that you know “too much” about the user?  People also value their privacy, even if it is somewhat of an illusion.  While I know that some companies could probably give a full run down of my life down to the smallest detail, I don’t necessarily like it and I definitely don’t want to be reminded of it with any frequency!  For example, it is certainly possible for pharmaceutical companies to track a shopper’s online pharmacy orders and then send free samples, publications, or other information related to the medical condition; however, this could certainly make many users uncomfortable.

In a contact center, it would be helpful if your agents understood your organization’s overall goal regarding personalization.  Just because all of the data is on a screen before an agent, doesn’t mean that she needs to share her knowledge of the customer’s entire history and preferences!  By sharing the overall goal with your agents, you can help ensure a positive and personalized experience for your customers!

Data Reporting and Analysis in the Contact Center

An article by Kelly Liyakasa in the August 2012 issue of CRM Magazine delves into the challenges associated with tracking and utilizing call center metrics. Not only is incoming data more complex than ever, but companies aren’t sure how to best display the information or who should be charged with its interpretation and use.

For example, many companies understand that social media is a powerful tool for connecting with their customer and prospect bases. However, it is such a new medium that there are few established protocols for integrating social media monitoring and outreach into the contact center strategy. Since every company’s goals are different, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for tackling social media analytics. Focused training from a social media consultant can yield big dividends in terms of developing and implementing an effective communication strategy.

Liyakasa notes in her article that a recent survey suggested 40% of C-level executives find unstructured social media data difficult to interpret, and 46% don’t have time to interpret data in general. These statistics, while not unsurprising, are indicative of a larger problem with how companies are handling the large quantities of incoming customer service data. In addition to social media, the average contact center also must monitor metrics from automatic call distributors, email, chat, and internal operational statistics.

Data reporting and display technology, such as call center wallboards, dashboards, and digital signage, can simplify the data dilemma by making incoming customer data easy to see and act on in real time. Contact center LCD digital displays are capable of simultaneously displaying call queue stats as well as RSS feeds of social media mentions of your company. Supervisors can set condition-based alerts to notify agents when certain actions should be taken.

As for where the responsibility falls for CRM data monitoring and analysis, it has to come from within the contact center. Nobody understands customer communication better than this department, and they are the ones best suited to come up with a strategy. However, don’t expect anyone to add this monumental project on to their existing duties, or it will never happen. Carve out a dedicated data analysis position so that the appropriate time and effort can be put into it. The investment will pay dividends when your data is being utilized effectively.

Customer Service for Mobile Users

The prevalence of smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices is on the rise, and the customer service industry must adapt to this new way of doing business. A recent survey conducted by Avaya found that 57% of customers are likely to use a smart phone app for customer service. That’s a growing number that your contact center can’t afford to ignore.

So is your company equipped with an easy-to-use mobile app that meets customer needs? Brian Hillis from Avaya suggests on a recent blog that even though many companies are jumping on the mobile app bandwagon, the majority are not designed to be seamlessly integrated with call center operations. He writes, “among the flood of mobile apps for self service, few offer direct conduits to contact centers. Bridging the gap between your app and your contact center is an opportunity to differentiate your business.”

The first step is to design an app that improves the mobile user’s experience. Or if you already have one, evaluate its functionality. Can users do everything on the app that they want to do, including contact an agent quickly and easily if the need arises? Is there a self-service portal that actually answers user questions, or does it send them in an endless loop of browsing? The best way to answer these questions is to set up a focus group and watch actual users utilizing the app. Where and when did they get frustrated? Was it easy for them to navigate to customer service options? If not, back to the drawing board.

The next step is to watch the metrics of mobile app usage closely. Use reporting tools to discover what features customers are using, and what they aren’t. Are users downloading the app at all? If not, you may consider running an awareness campaign letting customers and prospects know what features are available with the app and how those features translate to a better customer service experience for them. Finally, equip your call center agents to respond to mobile app inquiries and integrate this into your center’s daily activities.

How is your customer service department staying current with mobile device users?

Successfully Implementing Customer Service Chats

I’ve noticed an increasing trend lately for websites to offer the option to “chat” with customer service representatives.  Personally, I love this option and will choose it over an email or a phone call any time I can.  I find it to be much more efficient, as the agent can presumably manage multiple chats at once rather than only one phone conversation, and the resolution is also more immediate than email exchanges.

As much as I love the feature, I find that I’m often frustrated by its implementation on some sites.  Just from my own experiences, I’ve identified a few best practices that can make chats more customer friendly:

If you choose to offer chats, place that contact option in one place on your site.  My favorite photo ordering site does offer the chat function, but it only pops up sporadically.  It’s not always available on the Contact Us or Help pages.  I find it quite frustrating to search around for something that I KNOW was there before, only to find that it is nowhere to be found!  As a user, I would prefer that the option always be in the same place, even if it is disabled at some times.  Of course, it would be great if there was a note that agents are not available for chats at that time; or, if agents were always available!  Either way, customers wouldn’t drive themselves crazy looking for the mysterious chat option.

Once a customer is engaged in the chat, ensure that the disconnect time is reasonable.  I’ve been in the middle of a detailed chat with an agent and changed windows to check an email, only to return seconds later to find that my session had been closed.  Understandably, some limit must be placed on the customer’s time away, but it should not be unreasonably short.

Add a notification or other functionality to the chat window to let the customer know when the agent has responded.  When I’m engaged in a chat, I’m aware that I’m likely not the only customer being assisted.  Since I’m generally working on several different things at once, I can keep myself busy in another window until I receive a response.  However, I’ve been disconnected more than once because I didn’t realize there was a response.

Save all chat conversations to the customer’s file.  On occasions where my chat is disconnected or can’t be resolved, I’ve chosen to call the contact center for final resolution and am thrilled when I find that the information I’ve already communicated in the chat is accessible to the phone agent!

Overall, I’ve found chats to be an efficient way to manage many of my customer service comments, questions, or problems.  Integration of a few key practices can make this tool even more universally beneficial!

Fewer Supervisors, More Agents?

ICMI recently polled their constituents about what drives their staffing decisions, specifically the call center supervisor-to-agent ratio. Nearly half of the respondents reported that budget constraints are the primary driver. This leads me to believe that fewer supervisors are left to handle larger groups of agents, regardless of workload. It’s the familiar “do more with less” mantra that sounds great in the boardroom but is so difficult to make work in real life.

One way to grapple with this problem is to automate the tasks that your supervisors currently do manually. Why waste time constantly checking the real-time call center reporting data as it comes through your Cisco or Avaya ACD? Instead, set up your data display hardware (such as contact center wallboards) to change colors when pre-defined thresholds have been met, or alert you via email or pop up message that an action needs to be taken.

Utilize a call center management dashboard application to put all your important metrics in one central location, so you don’t spend precious time sifting through multiple reports to find and share the data you need. Give online access to management or other colleagues so you don’t need to brief them on what’s new…they can see real-time updates right on the dashboard as they happen.

When there are too many agents for one supervisor to handle, consider delegating some supervisory roles to experienced agents. Break them up into small groups and make one agent you trust in each group the point person for training questions and day-to-day tasks. This “senior agent” position may need to come with a small bonus or increase in benefits, but it’s still cheaper than hiring additional supervisors.

At the end of the day, fully utilizing the technology you already have is the most cost-effective way to make your supervisor’s role more manageable. Call the companies that manufacture the products…they likely have training programs or tips for optimal utilization of their systems. They may offer new ideas to streamline your operations and cut down on tedious supervisory tasks.

When your supervisors are managing more agents than intended, they are likely to get overwhelmed and job satisfaction may suffer. Keep your good employees by finding ways to reduce their workload and still get the job done.