Agent Automation: Optimizing a Call Center’s Most Important Resource

By John Hird

Call center managers, no matter if they are inbound or outbound, are always challenged to provide better services for their clients that can lead to customer satisfaction, as well as increasing revenues, while performing these activities more efficiently and at lower costs. Highly successful call center managers attack these challenges with relentless focus and never-ending efforts to improve their performance in three key areas.

Call Center Management Goals

Call center industry analysts monitor, analyze, and summarize the challenges facing call centers. Different analysts may monitor various call center business segments, but when the top three goals of call centers are measured, analysts consistently focus on the importance of:

  • Increasing productivity and efficiency
  • Increasing customer satisfaction
  • Increasing revenues

Call Center Management Challenges

Increasing Productivity: Increasing productivity means handling more calls and successfully fulfilling each phone transaction with existing resources. Industry analysts estimate that approximately 70 percent of the total expense of a call center is agent costs. This implies that improving agents’ transactions, workflow, and operation will provide the largest productivity gains in the call center.

Improving the productivity of agents, however, has become quite a challenge. In today’s call centers, agents may use multiple and complex applications to process a single customer call. CRM applications, communication tools, and workflow management software add significant complexity to agent’s transactions. Market studies have shown that agents in more than 80 percent of call centers use three or more applications to process a single call. These same studies have shown that agents may end up spending more than 20 percent of their call duration just to access the information they need to process the call. When agents are required to “remember” every step of various transactions for diverse clients, they are prone to make mistakes, lengthen the call duration, or transfer the call to a more skilled agent.

What about introducing new agents to your call center?  How long does it take for agents to learn their workflow for various clients?  How much time and energy is wasted when new agents fail to achieve results?

Known as “agent desktop complexity,” this is the cause of significant costs, lengthened trainings, inefficient agent operations, costly agent mistakes, customer dissatisfaction, increased call duration, and agent dissatisfaction. Additionally, such complexity prevents call centers from effectively taking advantage of new industry trends, such as virtual call centers, where calls are distributed to the most competent employee, even if they are outside of the call center or an agent-at-home.

Agent productivity improves when the agent desktop:

  • Presents unified screens with populated customer information and history
  • Automates agent’s workflow and script
  • Assigns calls to the person most capable of handling the job
  • Eliminates the need for the same data to be entered multiple times and in different screens
  • Automates agent communications with customers or other parties through voice, email, file transfer, or fax

Automated agent desktops not only improve agent speed but prevent agents from making costly errors.

Better agent desktops not only shorten agent training time but promote first call resolution, enabling agents to handle caller issues during the initial call rather than transferring callers to different agents or even worse, requiring callers to call back to get their issue resolved because the results of the first call were not satisfactory. Job satisfaction is increased for agents that resolve caller issues and agents that “own” the caller experience. Unified agent desktops produce happy agents that provide better service and reduce agent churn.

Call centers are also delivering complex services that require multiple applications for their agents. Business applications such as order entry and dispatching are good examples where agents that can quickly handle all aspects and exceptions to the workflow deliver much improved operational efficiencies.

The Caller Perspective: Small improvements can deliver dramatic benefits. Callers want their calls to be handled quickly. Customers get irritated when they experience long hold times, get transferred to multiple agents, have to repeat their information, or don’t get their issue addressed. When customer needs are not met, calls get escalated to supervisors, call times are increased, and more call center resources are consumed. Call center managers are further taxed by investigating angry caller incidents, working with customers to regain satisfaction, explaining these incidents to their call center clients, and working with the agents to reduce future angry call incidents.

Increasing Revenue: Increasing call center revenues requires more than handling a larger volume of calls. Providing better service enables high performing call centers to charge higher rates. Demanding clients value caller satisfaction and will pay top rates for excellent caller satisfaction. Also, in today’s world, many clients have stringent compliance requirements. Strict adherence is mandatory, and exceptions can result in severe penalties to the client. Worse yet, the client may leave.

Call Center Management Solutions

What tools can the call center manager deploy to achieve these goals?  How can the call center manager improve this most valuable resource – the agent?  How can the call center manager address the workflow challenges agents are faced with?  How can customer satisfaction be maintained during peak call times or when calls overflow to other agent groups?  Are these tools cost effective, and are they available for the small and midsized call center?  Can agent automation be easy to operate?

The most important solution to optimize agent performance is a unified and automated agent desktop. The purpose of these desktops is to unify and automate the agent processes to handle many types of calls. Critical desktop functions include:

Intelligent Job Assignment: Job assignment may sound like a straightforward process, but it is actually one of the hottest topics in the call center market. In normal operation, calls get distributed to the best available call center agents with the appropriate skills. But what happens when events such as catastrophes, special campaigns, etc. occur that cause call demand to far exceed available agents? A solution to meet these overflow situations is call center virtualization. Virtualization is a process where calls can overflow to other resources such as other departments, remote agents, or even other call centers. Unified and automated desktops enable these “virtual” overflow agents to process these calls with minimal training and a greater improvement in quality than overflow agents without smart desktops.

Agent Dashboards: Agent dashboards provide a high level view of the call workflow and the steps for completion. The agent dashboard provides a summary view of the workflow steps. As the agent progresses through the call, the dashboard presents the current status in the workflow. If the agent needs to go back to an earlier step, the dashboard is a convenient indicator of an earlier step and when finished, the agent can simply resume the workflow without getting lost.

Call Scripting: Call scriptingwith a unified agent screen and prepopulated transaction information is the method for automating the workflow of a customer interaction. Call center administrators can script the process to fulfill customer interaction for each client or activity. Scripting includes defining agent prompts, agent questions, and agent answers. “If/else” results lead the agent down the workflow with the caller. Scripting enables the agent to provide answers, collect data, take messages, and schedule follow-up steps.

Communication Center: Many customer interactions result in the need to communicate with other entities as well as the caller. Industry analysts refer to agents that are empowered with such desktops as “universal agents” or “smart agents.”  Smart agent desktops automate these communications. Emails, faxes, and pages can be automated, and the messages can be automatically generated as the agent performs the workflow. Communication automation delivers dramatic improvements in agent efficiency and greatly reduces errors.

High performing call centers are more productive, experience higher customer satisfaction, and make more money. Agents are the fundamental resource of call centers. Thus, optimizing agent workflows dramatically improves call center performance.

Automating agent workflows reduces training time, reduces errors, and reduces call durations. Shorter calls and fewer errors dramatically impact call center productivity. Unified and automated agent desktops improve customer satisfaction by speeding up access to data, eliminating redundant steps, and reducing the need to transfer calls to other departments. Better customer satisfaction and improved productivity yield improved financial performance.

Call scripting coupled with intelligent call distribution, unified presentation of data to agents, and automated communication that is integrated with important business applications is now available to small and mid-sized call centers so that they can benefit from affordable automation tools previously available only to large call centers with complex back-office systems and IT organizations.

John Hird is vice president of product management at OnviSource Inc. He has had a track record of delivering award winning solutions to the call handling industry for over twenty years. He can be reached at john.hird@onvisource.com or call 800-311-3025.

[From Connection Magazine September 2007]

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