Increasing Retention Through Emerging Communications Technology

By Christine J. Holley

“When factoring in recruiting, hiring, training, orientation, productivity and potential lost sales, the costs associated with replacing an agent can, in many environments, approach or surpass annual compensation.”

– Brad Cleveland, Incoming Calls Management Institute

What is the Connection? Ask a dozen different contact center managers and they will all tell you that attracting and retaining qualified agents is one of the biggest challenges that they face. While the causes of attrition involve numerous factors, including poor screening, low compensation, and insufficient training, a critical element that is often ignored is the impact of communications technology on employee satisfaction.

Just as communications technology can be used to significantly improve customer loyalty, it can also be used to improve employee loyalty. Consider that contact center agents alone account for up to sixty percent of a company’s total operating costs, retaining staff can prove to be a significant competitive advantage. The trick is selecting a communications technology that can be built around employee needs – not the other way around. With the introduction of an emerging communications architecture based on open standards and a unified platform, this technology is finally here.

Unified Communications Technology: Often called unified or “all-in-one” communications technology, contact centers are using this technology to improve job satisfaction for employees. This emerging technology is fast-becoming mainstream based on its open, unified design that offers contact centers the type of flexibility and investment protection that proprietary communication devices have failed to deliver.

Unlike disparate systems of traditional solutions, unified communications technology is software-based and uses a single platform to process phone calls, faxes, emails, and Web interactions. Products based on unified communications technology offers an increasingly broad set of applications, including digital switching capability, interactive voice response, automatic call distribution, Internet text chat, and other applications designed to increase efficiencies, enhance customer service, and reduce operating costs.

Increasing Productivity: Employment studies show that productive workers are happier workers. Unified communications technology helps to increase agent productivity by providing a graphical user interface from which agents can view caller information and easily perform call control operations by simply clicking buttons such as “transfer,” “record,” and “conference.” No longer do agents have to memorize long touch-tone digit combinations for simple call control operations. This same interface enables employees to set status options such as “At Lunch,” “In A Meeting,” or “Call Forward” so that agents can more quickly and easily locate other employees.

Unified communications technology also simply integrates to customer relationship management software so that call control buttons can be embedded in a CRM window that automatically “pops” on the agent’s desktop computer. This enables agents to perform call control from a single screen.

According to Jason Loucks, information systems manager for Michigan-based Adventist Information Ministry, this single interface can significantly affect productivity by reducing data entry and giving agents immediate access to customer information. “Our agents have reported increased satisfaction since we installed our unified communications-based product,” says Loucks. “They feel really empowered by having information at their fingertips and we’ve noticed improved call handling by eliminating the need for agents to enter basic information such as names and phone numbers. When you are taking between 2,000 and 5,000 calls a day during peak periods like we do, this sort of productivity gain is huge.”

Unified communications also includes a universal in-box where agents can view and process all message types, including voice mails, emails, faxes, Internet text chat, and Web callback requests. By eliminating the need for agents to run from the phone to the fax machine and back to their computers for messages, time is saved and the task of managing messages is greatly simplified.

Chris Judd, chief information officer for J4/NTS Marketing, a Virginia-based outsourcing call center, pointed out that “Unified communications technology enables IT staff to conceal multiple user interfaces, windows and programs so that agents can focus on their skills as communicators and not have to worry about being computer experts. Our unified communications-based product has greatly alleviated agent frustration and simplified the job of administrators by giving them a graphical user interface for adding lines, changing security settings, and performing a host of other tasks quickly and easily.”

Spreading the Workload: Unified communications technology makes it easy for contact centers to set flexible rules for how calls, faxes, emails, and Web interactions are distributed among agents. Called “intelligent routing,” interactions can be routed, for instance, based on agent skill level, longest available agent, or even the interaction medium that best suits a particular agent. For those agents capable of handling multiple interactions, thresholds can be set to allow for a higher number of simultaneous interactions or even mixed interaction types.

The benefits of this sort of intelligent routing are many, says Glen Davidson, founder of PATLive, an outsourced contact center based in Florida. “By spreading work more evenly among our agents – including agents in geographically dispersed sites – and by eliminating multiple transfers, unified communications technology has helped us to mitigate against agent stress while giving other agents increased compensation opportunities by handling multiple interactions,” says Davidson. “Put simply, unified communications-based products enable contact centers to tailor the work around the agent for increased employee morale and improved customer service.”

Improving Feedback: Unified communications technology also includes flexible recording and supervisory capabilities that can reduce training time and improve performance. For instance, a software-based recording mechanism can be programmed to record every third interaction for new agents, and every twelfth interaction for more seasoned agents. It can even be used to record all interactions of a certain type – for instance, interactions that include form-filling – to reduce paperwork and ensure accuracy.

A real-time supervisory console also enables supervisors to monitor the length of time an agent spends on a call, total log-on time, and other variables. Combined, these capabilities help to ensure “best practice” call handling, which can save up to 29 percent agent talk time and reduce “wrap time” by up to 66 percent.

Enhancing the Work Environment: Finally, unified communications technology supports remote agents so that companies can offer a work-at-home option to help attract and retain agents. This option includes the added bonus of cost savings. In fact, contact centers can save approximately two-thirds the facilities cost by using at-home agents. With an Internet connection and a phone line, unified communications technology enables agents to participate in ACD queues, transfer calls, create conference calls, and perform the same tasks as on-site agents – all without the customer ever knowing that the agent is off-site. Plus, supervisors can monitor these agents the same way they monitor on-site agents so performance is assured.

This feature is so powerful that it has even prompted some companies to change their business model. Says Don Casler, information technology director for Colorado-based contact center, Education Sales Management: “The remote capability of our unified communications-based product has permitted us to focus on our core business instead of things like real estate, furniture, and fixtures. Our remote ‘flex’ employees can now handle inquiry calls, provide customer service, and even manage departments from the comfort of their homes. This has made recruiting much easier and has improved job satisfaction while reducing agent stress. Looking back, I honestly can’t imagine how we got along without this technology.”

Final Word: It is often said that the goal of technology is to simplify our lives. While traditional telecommunications technology certainly fulfilled this goal when phones and fax machines were agents’ only tools of the trade, as new communication mediums have infiltrated contact centers, these same technologies are proving to complicate, not make easier, the lives of employees.

Instead of continuing to bolt on new applications to an already balkanized architecture, unified communications technology has started from scratch with the idea that the form of the communication should not matter. By enabling contact center employees to focus on their business, this technology is, once again, fulfilling the promise to simplify lives and, in turn, enrich the jobs of all who use it.

Christine J. Holley is the Market Communications Director for Interactive Intelligence (Nasdaq: ININ), a developer of multi-channel interaction management software. Ms. Holley has worked in the IT industry since 1994 and began freelance writing in 1992; she can be reached at christine.holley@inin.com or 317-715-8220. Interactive Intelligence can be reached at 317-872-3000 or www.inin.com.

[From Connection MagazineJuly/Aug 2002]

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