Small Call Centers in the Multichannel Age

By Susan Hash

For smaller call centers, the struggle to do more with less has been a longtime management ordeal. And as larger centers barrel ahead with the transition to a multi-channel environment, the necessity for small operations to keep pace with the types of service options being offered has added new challenges.

Even managers of large call centers are finding that it’s difficult to develop multi-skilled agents who can effectively interact both verbally and via email. Many are easing into e-service with separate groups of phone and Web agents. However, that’s a luxury most small call centers can’t afford. Their limited staff size dictates the need for agents to wear multiple hats – to have both product knowledge and the ability to handle customer access channels.

Not long ago, just finding adequate technology solutions was a major obstacle for small operations. And the struggle’s not over yet. “Even though technology is not the issue it once was, it’s also not the magic bullet that will solve your management problems,” Henry Dortmans, president of Toronto-based Angus Dortmans Associates Inc., a consulting firm specializing in telecommunications and call center operations. “It takes the same skill mix for managers to run a small center as it does to run a large one. You have to deal with people and money matters, as well as technology.”

Automation helps to ease call load: That’s not to say that technology hasn’t had a positive impact. Hancock Bank in Gulfport, Miss., evolved its call center over the past two years from a paper-oriented operation to an efficiently automated one. Its 26 agents currently handle 50,000 to 55,000 calls each month. The call volume was previously up to 70,000 calls, but the center was able to cut inbound volume by promoting its voice response unit (VRU), said Jeff Theiler, the company’s vice president of direct banking. “We’re able to keep 83 to 85 percent of our customers in the VRU.”

The online enrollment process for customers is automated, as well, which also helps to ease inbound traffic from the website.

Currently, four of Hancock Bank’s agents are trained to respond to incoming email, although Theiler’s ultimate goal is to have all agents handling both voice and email transactions. But for now, he added, “We’re only getting 15 to 30 emails a day. It’s not a significant portion of our volume compared to 2,000 phone calls a day.”

Getting staff up to speed: templates are key: Can agents who have been hired and trained for phone interactions make the transition to written electronic communications? Probably not all, but with the use of email response templates, managers can create standard structures for email responses that will allow agents to respond to the most common inquiries, while messages that require a more in-depth response can be routed to those with a higher level of email skills.

InTelegy Corporation, an onsite call center outsourcing organization, operates several small call centers with about 10 agents. According to Peggy Moretti, executive vice president of marketing, the centers have had good success managing Web inquiries and email responses by using templates, and rotating agent schedules so that each one spends a one- or two-hour period answering emails each shift, hopping back on the phones when call volumes spike. “We have a process to review those responses that don’t fit within the typical FAQs, whereby reps forward responses to their supervisors for review prior to sending them,” she added. “The supervisors also go into the ‘sent’ mailbox to monitor emails, rate reps, and provide feedback.”

Absenteeism hits hard: Absenteeism and schedule adherence issues – such as agent attrition – can wreak havoc on small centers’ service levels and agent morale.

State Capitol Credit Union (SCCU) in Madison, Wis., doesn’t have a strict schedule-adherence policy for its 20-seat call center. Instead, the focus is on on-call wait time goals. Every agent must be available or interacting with customers for six and a half hours out of every seven-and-a-half-hour shift – with an hour allowed for wrap-up time.

“We look at averages, not minutes,” said Nancy Kalsow, the company’s call center manager. “It’s structured more as a goal.” If an agent doesn’t meet a particular shift goal, there is no penalty — instead management tracks the averages to pinpoint agents who may not be meeting goals consistently and to determine why.

SCCU also has an attendance policy that’s well liked for the most part, Kalsow added. If agents have more than 56 hours of sick time left at the end of the year, they can convert it to vacation time or pay. “It’s a three-to-one conversion,” she said. “For the right person, that adds a lot of value.”

Since there can be a higher sense of camaraderie in smaller centers, educating agents on how workload and colleagues are affected by absenteeism is also effective, said Hancock Bank’s Theiler.

Hire appropriately and setting realistic expectations: Since smaller centers rely on flexibility in staffing matters, having a well-thought-out hiring process is critical. “If you want to move to multi-access type arrangements, you have to back up your criteria to the hiring stage,” said Dortmans.

Only last year, InTelegy Corp. recruited its agents based mainly on their phone skills, said Moretti. The company has recently adjusted its hiring process – no matter who it’s staffing for – to include written skills. Moretti points out that reviewing the hiring and evaluation process is a very simple first step for smaller centers to take.

“It’s very beneficial to hire with the expectation that a rep can handle both types of communications,” she said. “You may determine later, after monitoring and evaluating the agent, that a particular individual is better on the phone than with email or vice versa, but you don’t necessarily want to limit somebody. And let’s face it, when call volumes spike, you need that flexibility.”

Another issue to address upfront in the hiring process is the opportunity for growth and advancement, said Dortmans. He suggested asking candidates where they see themselves in four years. If advancement options are limited in your center, look for potential agents who are interested in gaining knowledge, skills and who are looking for variety in their work.

“The advantage of a small center is there’s more challenge in the work. The disadvantage is limited promotions,” he said.

Make training a strength: Another opportunity to set new hires’ growth expectations is with the initial training process. “Promote cross-training early – don’t just phase it in,” suggested Dortmans. “But don’t overcomplicate it either. Small centers don’t have the time, nor is it worth it, to over-document the training process. One of the benefits of a small call center is the ability for agents to do live, hands-on training instead of having to read a manual.”

While offering less static, more interactive training processes can help to get new agents up to speed more quickly, consistency is important. “Two years ago, our training process was that a new hire sat down with an agent and learned everything he could from that person,” said Hancock Bank’s Theiler. “The problem was we had 15 different agents training the new hires differently. Not everybody knew the same policies and procedures.”

The current new-hire training program is a consistent six- to eight-week process that combines classroom, lecture, and mentoring with games, role-play scenarios, and certification testing.

More access channels will increase caller expectations: What type of impact will the increase in customer access channels have on small centers? It will be the same as with any size center, said Dortmans. “Callers won’t care if you have five agents or 500. They’re going to want to deal with you the same way they deal with other companies. That will make it even more difficult for those with fewer agents who need to do more.”

Online specialists as an alternative career path: One way small centers are creating potential career paths for agents while managing online access channels at the same time is by developing new, attractive call center positions. Take State Capitol Credit Union. The call center developed a new agent position – with a new job description – to be the primary source for text-chat, said Kalsow.

The call center has also created a Service and Systems Integration Specialist position, which was filled by a former phone agent. The specialist is responsible for helping the center find ways to use its system more efficiently and to improve response time, as well as playing “an integral part in text-chat and email implementation,” Kalsow said.

Similarly, at Hancock Bank, “We’re going to be dedicating a team leader to focus on online banking and email support,” Theiler said. The lead will assist with tracking statistics and reporting, and screening outgoing email for accuracy and grammar.

The age-old issue: combating agent attrition: While agent turnover is a significant management issue for any size call center, high attrition can be especially devastating to a small center. “When you’re in a small call center, if you lose two or three people, you’re just hammered,” Theiler said.

The use of e-contact channels is contributing to high turnover for smaller centers that are still paying minimal wages. “It’s changing the types of people you need, which changes the salary structure,” says Theiler. “The biggest challenge is finding the right quality person for the type of money you want to pay.”

Last year, InTelegy Corp. conducted a survey to find out why agents were leaving call center positions. The top two reasons were compensation and management.

“In our service centers, we’re looking at ways to create a compensation plan that has ‘kickers’ for retention over time and for certain goals that a team or entire center hits,” Moretti said. She urges managers to compare their compensation structures to other internal departments. “When you look at how the skill sets have grown in the call center, they’re similar to the same skill sets in other departments – communication skills, systems skills, and product knowledge – and they should command a pretty decent salary.”

In addition to benchmarking compensation, in order to justify the cost of a pay adjustment for your agents, she suggests tracking staff replacement costs and demonstrating how lowering turnover will save money.

To combat the second major reason for agent attrition, Moretti recommended training frontline supervisors on people management skills. “In many ways, the frontline supervisor is the make-or-break position in a call center,” she said. “If they’re good, with great leadership and communication skills, they can build a great team and develop their people. That’s priceless – and it’s an area of investment that pays off handsomely.”

The InTelegy study also found that several other issues had significant impact on agent attrition. Managers should consider asking themselves the following questions. Do agents:

  • Feel like they have a career path?
  • Feel like they have growth opportunities?
  • Feel valued in the organization?
  • Have contact with senior management?
  • Feel like they’re a part of the company mission?

“Those are many of the intangible things that managers can address which can make a huge difference to frontline agents,” Moretti said.

Susan Hash is the editor-in-chief of Call Center Management Review. She has been a business journalist for 15 years and has received several journalism awards for reporting on the customer service industry. She can be reached at susanh@incoming.com.

[From Connection MagazineOctober 2003]

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