On-Call Case Study: Finding a Profitable Solution to a Time-Consuming Problem

Teleservice Company Achieves an 11 Percent Bump in Ongoing Monthly Billing

By Janet Livingston

Many teleservice companies have clients with on-call staff that must be reached for callers’ emergencies and urgent situations. Knowing who to contact and how to reach them seems like an easy situation, yet it seldom is. Here are some of the issues in play:

  • On-call responsibilities change often, rotating between staff, so that no one burns out or becomes overburdened. Contacting the correct person at the assigned time is essential.
  • Not everyone should attempt to handle every type of urgent situation. Instead of one person trying to serve as a generic on-call solution for everyone, the better resolution is to direct caller needs to specific on-call employees according to their expertise. This means having multiple employees on call, and the associated need to determine which on-call person to reach.
  • A third level of complication arises from the contact preferences of each person on call: home phone, cell phone, text, email, and so forth. The preferred method also can vary depending on the time of day and the day of the week.
  • On-call assignments can change with little or no notice, often at the last minute. Keeping everyone apprised of the latest developments can be a formidable challenge.

Now multiply these four issues times the number of clients with on-call staff, each with different paradigms, expectations, and levels of complexity. The result is a dizzying matrix of ever-changing variables and complicated scenarios demanding unrelenting compliance from clients. Handling on-call schedules and the associated details with accuracy presents a never-ending problem for teleservice companies – one that requires many people to handle.

Yet finding a successful solution to the on-call dilemma can turn a key source of frustration into a significant source of revenue. Here’s how this happened for one teleservice company.

The Problem: Too many errors occurred trying to reaching clients’ on-call personnel. Often this was not the fault of the call center, but rather stemmed from client miscommunication or noncommunication. Even so, these mistakes resulted in a disproportionate number of customer service inquiries and dissatisfied clients who ultimately cancelled their service.

Without a comprehensive solution to address the problem of maintaining accurate and up-to-date on-call personnel, this problem would continue to drain resources and cause issues.

The Past: Common industry attempts to correct this on-call dilemma have resulted in complex solutions that only somewhat addressed this pain point. An unfortunate side effect in doing so was increased labor costs, often by a couple of FTEs (full-time equivalents), without any offsetting revenue to cover the increase in expenses. Sadly these initiatives fell short of fully addressing the problem.

A common alternate approach was an attempt to streamline this issue by offering a one-size-fits-all solution. While this covered those clients with the most basic needs, it failed to provide an acceptable solution for those clients who didn’t fit into this one box. This was completely unacceptable in an industry that conditioned clients to expect mass customization of their service to meet their specific needs and exacting expectations. Service complaints escalated, and client cancellations skyrocketed because of this failure.

Furthermore, in an attempt to appease high-profile (or loudly complaining) clients, exceptions were made to the standard solution. This resulted in staff confusion, an increase in errors, and the eventual disregard of the standard set in place, thereby returning the teleservice company to its original untenable situation.

This scenario has played out over and over in teleservice call centers around the world.

The Challenge: A comprehensive solution was sought to address frustrations at an established West Coast call center and meet their clients’ growing expectations. Offering bilingual service and focusing on government and education verticals, the call center had a felt need in this area, especially for clients that fell outside of these two primary markets.

The objective was to develop a clear process for clients to submit on-call information that would encompass the full spectrum of their needs, while reducing staff errors, decreasing the number of FTEs dedicated to this issue, and providing additional revenue in the process.

This seemed like an impossible challenge, but with ingenuity and persistence, the call center found a solution that mixed automated technology with personalized customer service and worked in tandem to address these needs.

The Results: Once implemented, noticeable results occurred quickly with appreciative agents, relieved customer service staff, and happier clients. Because of this initiative, monthly revenue increased 11 percent. This is a month-over-month increase that will continue indefinitely.

This initiative was repeated at a smaller operation in the southwestern United States with similar results. A third implementation at a multilocation teleservice conglomerate is under way with the potential to surpass the success of the first two.

When we see problems as opportunities, we can focus on maximizing the potential they present. The results are improved operations, happier stakeholders, and increased revenue.

Janet Livingston is the president of Call Center Sales Pro, a full-service call center consultancy. Contact Janet at contactus@callcenter-salespro.com or 800-901-7706.

Call Center Ergonomics: A Case Study of Design Excellence

By Rick Burkett

If you were to ask the average person on the street to describe their idea of a call center, you’d probably hear the words stressful, noisy, and unfriendly. For designers and architects, these issues should be at the forefront when approaching any call center project. This was certainly the tactic my company took when we were hired to design a new call center for an email, event, and social media marketing agency headquartered in the Boston area.

The rapidly growing company wanted to build a new backup call center in Loveland, Colorado. The property was located in a light industrial park setting, so the basic exterior architecture was already established and under the control of the developer. However, we were able to slightly alter the design to suit our client’s needs.

As with any call center job we handle, our primary goal was to make it more than simply a sea of cubicles. One of the major design features that helped to break up the monotony of the space was creating a central spine that would make the office feel united. To accomplish this, we placed all the common areas in the middle of the space: kitchen, conference room, and manager offices. For these areas we utilized different colors, brighter materials, glass, and subtle lighting to create islands of social activity that would feel like the office hub.

In addition, a large data center component was part of the requirements. Data centers can bring a great deal of noise to a space, so it was critical that the work environment be minimally impacted to ensure high quality communication with callers. We incorporated noise mitigation elements, such as a full-height, acoustically engineered separation wall that prevented the constant hum from the data center from being an issue. Within the space we also integrated as many “soft” sound-absorbing materials as possible. Locating the data center properly in relation to the rest of the space was critical, so we made sure we maintained openness and unobstructed views.

One of the unique attributes of this particular client was that – even though they knew what they wanted – they allowed us to explore a variety of design alternatives. This resulted in features such as glass floor-to-ceiling windows that brought a great deal of natural light into the perimeter areas where the call center reps were situated. This connection to the natural environment proved to be a huge boost to productivity and employee satisfaction. The spectacular view of the Rocky Mountains was certainly a nice benefit for the agents.

A sense of community and belonging also plays a key role in making workers happy, so for the individual call center stations, we went with a honeycomb pod configuration. These clusters of workstations help create a teamwork-based environment, since each individual pod tends to develop a personality of its own. Since feeling like a member of a distinct community also helps with agent productivity, we used low partitions so views were not obstructed and co-workers could see each other. The entire design was based on making the employee experience as positive as possible. As with most of our call center projects, we incorporated an outdoor area with access to sunshine and shade, where the employees could decompress when needed.

Good ergonomics, acoustics, lighting, and some creative license made for a great workspace. The original project size was a 60,000 square-foot space with room for 430 agents. We designed it for future expansion, making it 80,000 square feet with room for 520 agents. The call center has now been open for three years and has continued to grow, filling the additional space and now operating near capacity.

Rick Burkett, AIA, NCARB, LEED® AP, is an architect with over twenty-five years of experience and a partner at Burkett Design. Rick specializes in the design of call centers.

[From Connection Magazine May 2013]

Global Telecommunications Leader Outsources Web Chat

By Jim Iyoob

Although an Internet presence has the power to revolutionize an industry, many companies are finding that customers are leaving their websites without purchasing. However, studies show that the customer experience is significantly improved by providing online chat service representatives to answer questions, provide additional information, and resolve customer issues. These studies further revealed that companies investing in chat programs not only received a phenomenal increase in their conversion rates but also were able to reduce their inbound call volumes by more than 20 percent.

The Challenge: E-commerce companies know that it is an ongoing challenge to convert website traffic to paying customers. In fact, studies show that 60 percent of online visitors abandon the checkout process due to complicated service orders, unanswered questions, and unexplained charges. A leading telecommunications provider is a case in point. They wanted to increase online sales and overall conversions in order to meet their aggressive revenue goals. They also wanted to ensure a great customer experience online. In their competitive field, they could not afford to lose a single customer or sale.

Existing Solution Riddled with Issues: The telecommunications provider developed an internal Web chat sales channel, staffed by highly compensated representatives, to meet the needs of their growing online customer base. These dedicated agents were available to answer questions and help close sales through this online chat solution. Unfortunately, though, this solution didn’t meet their objectives. The agents’ close rates were lower than expected and customer feedback showed that they weren’t meeting their CSAT (customer satisfaction) objectives either. They had service levels of only 70 percent. Yet, while they weren’t meeting their objectives, the cost-per-chat contact of $3.51 was well below their cost-per-sales call, which was a nice cost savings. The company needed to find a way to optimize this low-cost sales channel while meeting their sales goals and CSAT objectives.

Solving the Problem Required the Perfect Solution Provider: The company had several options for tackling this issue. They could grow internally and invest in training for their in-house team, or they could outsource to a vendor who specializes in chat sales and customer service. The telecommunications provider was hesitant to outsource because they wanted to preserve their brand and ensure a great customer experience. “Could a third-party vendor really provide the same level of service as we can in-house?” The management team decided to test the waters. They searched for an experienced vendor to help them capitalize on the potential customers browsing the website and tested them against their internal solution. They looked for a partner with a strong background in chat sales that could be up and running quickly with strong results. Their partner needed to be available 24/7 and be able to scale very quickly.

The Selection: After a thorough search, the telecommunications company made their selection.  Not only did the agents have proven success in chat sales, but they also offered other practices and had additional experience, including:

  • World-class training
  • Faster response times
  • Quick staffing ramp-up
  • Deep business intelligence
  • Quality monitoring
  • 24/7/365 capabilities
  • State-of-the-art technology
  • Integrity

A Successful Trial: The telecommunications provider was pleased with the results during the trial period, including:

  • Reduced the cost-per-chat session, allowing an even greater savings on this already low-cost sales channel
  • Met their SLA (service level agreement) of 85 percent and outperformed the internal team
  • Achieved 15 percent close rates, outperforming the internal team on a regular basis
  • Generated more sales per hour than the internal team
  • Met the average order value goal and exceeded the internal team’s average order by 12 percent
  • After the initial trial, averaged 89 percent in customer satisfaction rates
  • After the initial trial, reached close rates as high as 20 percent some months, surpassing the previous goal of 16 percent

Based on the results of the trial, the company transitioned the entire Web chat project to this outsourcer. The project expanded from six agents during the trial to more than 200 agents today. Over the past twelve months, chat volume has grown by 90 percent and is expected to increase further as customers continue to move to this contact method. Today, the call center is providing the company with stellar sales and customer experience results along with a 97 percent service level.

[From Connection Magazine September 2010]

Case Study: Contact Center IVR and Call Recording Improves Customer Service

By Candy Mizer

The United Kingdom’s South Gloucestershire Council was created in 1996 as part of the country’s plan for the organization of local government. It was formed from the previous districts of Kingswood and Northavon and part of the former County of Avon. As a unitary authority, it now provides all the services that in other places are operated by separate district and county councils.

The Challenge: To obtain advice from the council, the public had to call many different numbers to reach contacts for similar services. This process was not only inconvenient for callers but also inefficient for the council.

The Situation: The council recognized that their customer service could be improved by offering themed contact centers where the same telephone number is used to reach agents handling calls that fall under a certain category umbrella. In turn, the public could then call just one telephone number for similar services.

The Results: After evaluating a number of products, the council made their final selection based on performance, value, ease of use, and support. The Interactive Voice Response (IVR) capabilities of the selected system offer a large range of menu welcome messages and options designed specifically to match callers to a specific department based on business needs. Using skills-based routing, the caller is directed to the most qualified agent based on the caller’s answers to prior IVR questions.

Therefore, a combination of automated attendant and live agents are used in conjunction with call recording for both business efficiency and advisor training purposes. “The reporting facility gives us a pattern of calls throughout the day and enables us to use our help desk advisors more effectively,” explained Janet Faire, finance and support services manager at South Gloucestershire Council. “The reporting function is also used to assist help desk advisors to obtain their National Vocational Qualifications.”

With fifty-five current contact center agents, the Council is looking to expand over the next few years and is in the process of having all inbound calls handled through the system. Future implementation activities include the extension of call handling to all Council email traffic, as well as the integration to Microsoft CRM.

Customer Reviews: “The Teltronics solution has helped us become more efficient, enabling us to dramatically increase our call answer rate from 25 percent to 85 percent,” explained Brian Goalby, contact center project manager. “Replacing switchboard operator services, the goal is to direct a single caller to the appropriate person in a timely fashion.”

Candy Mizer is the director of marketing communications at Teltronics and provider of the OMNIWorks solution.

[From Connection Magazine May 2010]

Designing Country Operating Models for Global Customer Service: The Case of Mexico

By Matt Jackson and Shannon Curley

The art of unlocking the potential of a country for call center operations can be directly tied to the operating model that is implemented in that country. The model must seek to optimize and enhance the capabilities of the market and reduce or accommodate the challenges or constraints that limit the market’s potential. Success lies in the ability to navigate around the country-specific challenges presented to an employer contemplating market entry and direct investment. This article focuses on Mexico to illustrate some of the typical business model considerations that a company must look at when expanding to a nearshore or offshore market.

The Case of Mexico: Nine years since Y2K, questions concerning the capabilities of nearshore and offshore markets being able to support call center activity have been mostly answered. While the evolution of “what” (business processes) are supported “where” (country and/or city) continues to undergo refinement, it is fair to characterize the ability to conduct work from an alternate country as proven.

Early adopters of nearshore and offshore markets utilizing both captive and outsourced models continue to seek new opportunities for where to support business operations to serve high cost countries (such as the U.S., the U.K., and Germany). While Asia – and in particular India and the Philippines – will continue to see significant call center investment activity, there is recognition that locations in the Latin American theater have merit for such activities even when the geography is typically unable to provide the same structural costs as found in Asia. Latin America is finally experiencing increased levels of direct investment because of an ongoing need for more global delivery capacity, desirable English language capabilities, bilingual capabilities, and a desire to limit travel. Mexico is one such location that has received increasing attention in recent years by both Fortune companies and global outsource service providers. It is also a location that reflects some of the unique challenges a company will encounter when expanding into a country where English is a second language.

Who: First and Foremost, Sourcing Language: The limited availability of bilingual professionals dictates that sourcing English capabilities is the primary and fundamental driver for customer service operations in Mexico. This limited pool of talent mandates a clear understanding of “who” in Mexico possess the language skills required to support English operations.

Candidates for English customer service positions can be divided into two main profiles: university students and bicultural individuals that have exposure to English beyond an in-Mexico educational setting. Each profile possesses unique characteristics, including economic background, English proficiency, career objectives, and physical location.

Where: Few Options, Many Trade-Offs: There are two main considerations concerning “where” in Mexico to establish operations: macro considerations and micro considerations.

Macro considerations are related to the selection of a city in which to support call center operations. Considering both geographic and population size of Mexico, there are surprisingly relatively few locations that are capable of supporting call center operations in scale. Options can be reduced to a handful of cities able to provide a concentration of the candidate employee profiles discussed above.

Potential locations can be classified in the following three groups: established, emerging, and pioneering. The difference between these classifications is due to the number of call center operations in the market, the competition for talent, and the availability of talent. Mexico City and Monterrey are two examples of established markets supporting companies such as Teleperformance, Atento, HSBC, Client Logic, GE, Chrysler, and Teletech. Pioneering markets include cities such as Chihuahua, Aguascalientes, and Hermosillo.

Micro considerations are related to the selection of where within a city to support an operation. In addition to identifying a city able to support customer service operations, it is also necessary to recognize that the exact location of a facility within a city is a fundamental contributor to the success of an operation. Due to the unique characteristics of the employee profiles that will staff an operation and commutation capabilities and patterns, two main considerations require contemplation when choosing a site for implementation: proximity to talent and access to the site. For example, university students typically do not own vehicles, and as such, a key requirement for a facility is access.

When: Timing Market Entry – To Pioneer or Not to Pioneer: The limited number of locations able to support significant bilingual operations creates a fundamental trade-off for companies seeking to establish operations in Mexico. This trade-off can be characterized as choosing to “pioneer,” (entering a noncompetitive market that has smaller quantities of available talent) versus entering an “established” market (characterized by a bilingual talent market but also higher levels of competition for the talent). It is important to note that Mexico lacks a location that could be considered “low-hanging fruit,” an undiscovered talent-rich market that is sustainable for an extended period from a labor perspective.

How: Designing the Right Model: There are many choices to be made in designing the right business model in Mexico, but all considerations should be focused on how to attract and retain talent. A successful business model will take the following into consideration: targeted employee profile (university student versus experienced professional); compensation (standard monthly wage versus pay-for-performance model); benefits (traditional fringe benefits versus cash rewards); flexibility (part-time schedules versus full-time); pipeline development (no university interaction versus active collaboration); image (low versus high investment); and implementation (existing facility versus build-to-suit). Each country and each city provides a range of options within each consideration, and it is important for a potential investor to identify the exact combination that will create success.

What: Anticipating What You Will Encounter: Depending on the business model designed to support who, where, when, and how, Mexico will provide a range of potential operating environments. While nothing in Mexico provides an easy solution for bilingual customer service needs, an accurate understanding of the market is required in order to be successful. There are six key operating considerations for call center operations, and a company must understand what conditions are likely for each consideration, given their business model. Considerations include labor costs, anticipated turnover, ability to scale employees, degree of competition for talent, crime risk, and total capital investment required.

In Conclusion: Developing an operating model appropriately aligned with a country-specific success formula in a nearshore or offshore market notably improves the probability of success. Unfortunately, many companies do not conduct the appropriate amount of due diligence before establishing operations in a city that is new or unfamiliar to the project team. A typical consequence is an unsustainable or significantly challenged business proposition, increased one-time costs, delayed return on investment, challenges in scaling and sustaining operations, and possibly a generally less-than-satisfactory experience in the market.

Evidence indicates that appropriate due diligence will typically result in the development of a customized country specific business model that contributes to the achievement of company business and financial and operating objectives.

Matt Jackson is consulting partner in Cushman & Wakefield’s Business Consulting Group, with fifteen years experience in assisting corporations with the global configuration and optimization of corporate operations to achieve revenue, margin, and innovation objectives. Shannon Curley is a consultant in Cushman & Wakefield’s Business Consulting Group and has experience with both global and domestic clients.

[From Connection Magazine December 2009]

VoIP Case Study: The JCF Story

As shared by Kevin Ryan and Chuck Boyce

The Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) has become a force that must be reckoned with for each call center owner, manager, and IT professional. The technology has moved past the early adopters stage and must be integrated into the long-term strategic plan. For early adopters, there were bigger risks, many trials, and some nice rewards.

JCF Communications had been serving customers in the Austin, Texas area since 1979. When the company was acquired, the new owner was faced with the challenge to accelerate the growth of the business. The company quickly discovered that it would be nearly impossible to expand and meet their growth targets within the local market with their limited budgets. After some initial research, JCF decided that the path of most certain success would be to expand into other markets. They decided they would look for acquisition and merger candidates within the state.

With the first two deals lined up, the next question was how to integrate these sites into the business to achieve the best possible returns. They decided to consolidate all the traffic onto a single, centralized Amtelco Infinity switch and a set of supporting servers. Further research led the team to select VoIP to route the callers to the switch and provide a talk path for the agents located in the remote offices. Two years later, the team can share valuable lessons learned.

Don’t go into the woods without a guide! VoIP is highly specialized and requires a knowledgeable team to assist with the design and deployment of the network. Combining voice and data on the same physical network opens up new concerns for single points of failure. Routing and prioritizing the traffic flow is critical to ensure that the network is tuned to provide an acceptable level of service for the data with the highest possible voice quality.

JCF Communications selected Chuck Boyce from Brandywine Technology to supplement the in-house teams’ knowledge. The Brandywine Technology team was able to plug in the right expert for each stage of the process, from network engineering, VoIP configuration, telecommunication analysis, and carrier selection. They assisted with selecting the equipment platform and managed the sourcing and setup of the VoIP equipment. Once the systems were in place, resources from both companies carried out an extensive testing protocol to test the network and all of the related components. The team spent nearly six weeks of design and testing to integrate the first node on the network.

Spend the money and install redundancy: To work within the budget constraints certain redundancy were not immediately installed, but were planned for later deployments. On occasion, some of those decisions turned out to be costly. Kevin Ryan describes JCF’s experience, “We tried to save money and it came back to bite us. You should have a backup component in the rack for every item you’ve installed.

“Additionally, order a secondary data circuit. This does not need to be a full pipe, however; we use a business-grade cable modem. The network suppliers like to pull maintenance on these circuits in the middle of the night. They don’t imagine it will cause an inconvenience at one a.m.  After all, who is going to care if the circuit goes down for a few hours from one to three a.m.? Therefore, you simply switch over to your backup circuit. It will not give you the same quality, but at one in the morning you don’t have much call traffic or bandwidth utilization.”

Make sure with work with vendors that can support you 24/7: It is important that the suppliers and companies you choose to partner with will be available to support your business on a 24/7 basis. Be sure to detail and negotiate in advance what your expectations are for shipping replacement equipment and response times.

Do not perform any software upgrades without first contacting your supplier: One bad upgrade, performed in the middle of the night, can have a large and widespread ripple effect. Even if everything initially looks okay, you should plan on a “burn-in” period for rolling out changes to your entire network. Things that appear to be working at two a.m. with perfect test calls can look much different when eight a.m. rolls around and the call volume increases dramatically. After a particularly grueling experience, Kevin adds, “You would think that after twenty years on the manufacturing side I would know this!  Live and learn.”

Secure the host location: When a call center decides to move to a centralized infrastructure, it becomes vital to secure the host equipment room with the appropriate UPS, generator, climate control, redundant components, and spares. This need prompted JCF to seek out a collocation facility to house their growing data center when they outgrew their current equipment room. Compared to the cost to upgrade all of the components required to support their growth plans, a managed collocation facility in their carrier’s central office made the best sense. This will reduce the amount of capital investment required, and provide a potential tax benefit by moving this to an operating cost.

Networking is the fast track to growth: Since the initial network was put into place, two additional sites have been brought online, and the team now has a playbook on how to manage the addition of a new location. Each of the lessons learned have become integrated into their procedures. They strive to do each one better, faster, and more efficiently than the previous site.

JCF has experienced a very positive impact on their business by integrating a VoIP networking strategy into their business plan. They report that for a comparatively nominal cost they have been able to quadruple the size of their operation while centralizing the core management team and technology infrastructure.

Kevin Ryan is the owner of JCF Communications; he may be reached at 512-458-5321 or kryan@jcfcommunications.com.

[From Connection Magazine November 2007]

Case Study: Star Contact Implements VoIP

By Joanne Lowy

As the Spanish-speaking market inside and outside of the U.S. continues to becomes more lucrative, companies are looking for more efficient and effective ways of serving Hispanic customers across North and South America. Now, with a VoIP switching platform, Panama-based call center outsourcer Star Contact can now help them do so.

One of the biggest challenges historically faced by companies doing business in Latin America has been the multi-national fragmentation of the Hispano-American market. Companies doing business in this region have had to maintain offices, communications equipment, and staff in each of these countries. That’s been expensive and inefficient, since it eliminates economies of scale. Maintaining a small presence in each country also creates labor inefficiencies as staff in one country may be relatively idle, while staff in another country is overloaded.

Star Contact’s solution is to use VoIP to cost-effectively “funnel” calls from every country to a single, centralized Spanish-language call center in Panama City. This allows Star Contact to provide its corporate clients with a virtual presence in each country, while gaining the efficiencies of scale that result from pooling all calls to a single facility.

“With VoIP, we can provide our clients with local in-country phone numbers anywhere in the world and then inexpensively route those calls to our main call center,” explains Jason Laffrey, Star Contact’s director of IT and Business Process Management. “We can allow them to provide their customers with excellent service delivery at reduced cost while at the same time maintaining the healthy operating margins we need to be profitable.”

Necessity and Invention: Laffrey and Star Contact originally investigated VoIP-based call routing after one of its biggest local customers in Panama, Copa Airlines, began looking for a better way to support English and Spanish-speaking customers in the United States. Connecting a toll-free U.S. number to an offshore call center in Panama enabled both the airline and Star Contact to provide that support at a much lower cost-per-agent. Once the model was proven, it was extended to Central America, the Caribbean, and South America.

According to Laffrey, the benefits of a centralized call center extend well beyond labor cost savings. With its entire staff and all of its calls located in a single facility, Star Contact can more readily apply capacity wherever and whenever it’s needed most. “When every agent can take a call from any country, you can more easily respond to the periods of peak activity that occur when circumstances or special promotions drive up traffic from a particular geographic market,” says Laffrey. “That flexibility also allows us to dynamically allocate our staff resources to different customers as their needs fluctuate from day to day and week to week.”

Another advantage in keeping everybody under one roof is control. With all agents for all countries in one place, Star Contact can more closely monitor their performance and keep them updated with each client’s changing business information – which is essential for clients like Copa that have to keep customers informed about flight and ticket availability. “Hands-on management is really essential,” notes Laffrey. “You can’t do that if your agents are scattered all over the Americas.”

The Right Technology: Unfortunately, not everything went smoothly when Star Contact first started using VoIP. At first, Star Contact used time division multiplexing (TDM) equipment that required multiple devices in each location and was not reliable enough. “When you have a bunch of equipment in different locations, you run into a real problem when things go wrong,” says Laffrey. “It’s just not that easy to get a technician out to a remote office in an emergency.”

Laffrey adds that those outages weren’t good for Star Contact’s client relationships: “It’s not good when your client informs you that there is a problem with your phone service. That’s the kind of thing you want to know about and fix before they find out about it.”

Then Star Contact adopted Quintum Technologies’s Tenor VoIP technology, which turned out to be far more effective. First, the switching architecture only required one device in each location and those devices turned out to be much more reliable than their predecessors. The management software also ensured that Laffrey was alerted if there was any kind of hardware problem.

The switches allowed Star Contact to provision failover measures in the event of a network problem. For remote offices connected to the Panama City facility via leased lines, the switches automatically switch over to a virtual private network (VPN) connection. For remote offices connected via a VPN, the switches can automatically route calls over the public switched network until the problem is resolved. The “automatic failover capabilities are very valuable when it comes to maintaining service continuity,” says Laffrey. “That’s not something you can find in other VoIP switches.”

A Growing Opportunity: Based on its initial success with Copa, Star Contact has extended its centralized call center services to other clients. The power of its new value proposition is underscored by the fact that its Panama City call center has grown 400 percent from 200 to 800 agents in the last three years. Plus, thanks to the efficiencies offered by its new model, the actual volume of business it has been able to support has grown even faster than that.

Star Contact has also used its VoIP capabilities to introduce a variety of calling and paging services to business and consumers throughout Latin America. Because VoIP allows Star Contact to reduce its call-carrying costs, it can offer these services at very competitive prices and still maintain good profit margins. With the buying power of the Hispanic consumer growing every day – especially in the United States – and with the new economics being created by today’s highly reliable VoIP technology, Laffrey sees no slowdown in sight for the growth of his company.

“There is tremendous synergy between today’s large-scale demographic shifts and recent advances in call center technology,” declares Laffrey. “If you’re willing to change your business model and infrastructure investments accordingly, you can ride those twin waves to a very, very bright future.”

[From Connection Magazine May 2007]

Call Center Case Study: Scheduling to Meet Goals and Satisfy Agents

By Trevor Readinger

For most call centers, there’s a delicate balance between meeting service level and efficiency goals and ensuring that employees are satisfied with their schedules. As an outsourced call center, Taction has obligations to its clients to meet specific service levels. We must also run the call center in a profitable manner. Meeting client obligations and maintaining profitability are our first scheduling goals. Our second scheduling goal is maximizing employee satisfaction.

In twenty-three years of operation, Taction’s scheduling policy has changed with technology, new clients, and staff. It shares many of the attributes of successful scheduling policies at other companies. Consider that a scheduling policy should:

Have buy-in from everyone affected: The people who carry out the policy must understand it and support it. The folks in Human Resources have to hire according to it. Team Leaders need to be able to answer agents’ questions and help them work within the policy. The scheduler needs to create schedules while managing employee information and special requests.

Be easy to follow: A scheduling policy should be easy for the scheduler and employees to follow. One way to do that is to put good tools in place. Years ago, Taction used manual spreadsheets which had to be retooled every time small things changed. Later, we shopped for and chose workforce management software that made life much easier for our scheduler. Keep in mind any limitations of the scheduling software. For instance, you might not want to offer rotating weekends if your workforce management system doesn’t include that option.

Support the company’s values: If lifelong learning is one of your company’s values, your scheduling policy should be flexible when it comes to allowing agents to pursue everything from college classes to continuing education. If community service is a strong value, schedules should include room for agents to volunteer on a regular basis or get involved with company initiatives.

Support the company’s goals: Your policy might reward agents who meet certain goals. Performance-based initiatives can include making the fewest errors, having perfect attendance, or generating the most revenue via selling, up-selling, cross-selling, or selling a spotlighted item. It may be a tenure-based policy that lets agents who have worked at the company longest get first pick of the available fixed schedules.

Give agents tools to change their own schedules: At Taction, agents have the option of shift swapping, which they do via company email or by word of mouth. They also can request time off in advance. Because Taction meets contractual service levels, we tend to overstaff slightly rather than staff exactly to our forecast. To help amend this and to give employees yet another tool to manage their own schedules, we have a “Go Home Early” list. Agents may add their names to the list if they wish to, and if the call center slows down, the list is executed to reduce staff in a way that will increase employee satisfaction whenever possible. It also means that the call center is adequately staffed, not overstaffed, thus helping us maintain profitability.

Be posted at a clearly defined time: Finding the right posting horizon can be tricky. The shorter the horizon, the more closely aligned the schedule will be with the forecast, but the less warning agents will get about their schedules. Conversely, a long horizon may give agents a heads-up on their schedule, but it also means it’s less likely to meet the forecast. The forecast accuracy/time frame should help ensure that business objectives are being met. Employee feedback can help determine if schedules are being posted at an adequate horizon.

Posting schedules in advance is a key ingredient to employee satisfaction. Just as agents expect to be paid regularly, they expect to see their schedules posted at a set time. We post a week in advance. The schedule is posted at the end of the week for the start of the second week following.

Once your scheduling policy is in place, you must ensure that those affected by it have been educated about it, that the policy is applied consistently and fairly, and that there is flexibility in the policy to handle unforeseen circumstances. So, once the policy is in place, things to consider include:

Education: The policy must be well documented and it must be easily accessible to everyone in the organization. Policies can be spelled out in more than once place: employee handbooks, which are given to every new agent; on the company intranet, if there is one; and tacked to a notice board in a common area, such as the break room or cafeteria.

New hires should get a written copy of the scheduling policy, perhaps in their employee handbooks, and they should also have access to someone who can answer their questions. Our scheduler meets with every training class to tell them about the policy and to answer questions and address expectations ahead of time. There should be no surprises for employees when they see the first schedule go up or when they first ask for time off.

Consistent and fairness of application: Consistency is a critical element of a scheduling policy. The policy must be applied to all agents consistently and fairly. Making exceptions to the rule – in how the policy is applied or to whom it is applied – should be very carefully considered. Special treatment undermines the morale of others.

Post the schedule at a consistent time and in a predetermined place that employees can depend on – in their email, on a bulletin board, in their folder at their Team Leader’s desk, and so on. This allows agents to arrange their lives outside of work in a more satisfactory manner.

Flexibility: In the end, the scheduling policy is a guideline; there will be exceptions. Sometimes doing the “right” thing means ditching the policy. If an agent’s spouse or child or parent becomes critically ill, that agent’s ability to meet the schedule falls by the wayside. Obviously, it’s important to have a backup system in place for these events. A first line of defense is to send all agents an email asking if any of them wish to volunteer to fill the suddenly empty shift.

Your scheduling policy probably won’t be quite like any other call center’s scheduling policy. What works for your agents may not work for someone else’s. But a few key ingredients will help you schedule smoothly: buy-in from those affected, ease of use, support of the company’s values and goals, ways to empower agents to change their own schedules, a set posting horizon, consistent and fair implementation, and flexibility when it’s called for.

Trevor Readinger is the operations manager at Taction. Taction is a contact center that takes orders and literature requests, up-sells and cross-sells, answers FAQs, and performs telesales for DTC and B2B clients. Trevor Readinger can be reached at trevor.readinger@taction.com.

[From Connection Magazine April 2007]

Case Study: Appointment Scheduling Deployment

The AnswerNet Network, a contact center outsourcer, has made its online appointment scheduling service even easier to use. The new application, which has been rolled out to their 55 contact centers, has a simpler navigation for contact center agents, resulting in shorter calls. The useful drop-down menus help to limit agent error.

The appointment service also features a more accurate and intuitive dealer lookup tool that enables agents to find dealers that are closest to callers’ locations. This information will save customers time and gas, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will say “yes.” The new tool is even more client-friendly. Clients can change and update their own contact and availability information; this feature frees up agents so that they can handle more calls and appointments.

AnswerNet can now format the appointment box to show only the information clients want it to gather; the tool also allows for fields to be optional or required, based on clients’ wishes. The service is flexible enough to meet clients’ specific needs, such as having schedules faxed instead of emailed. The system enables its agents to set appointments for clients up to two years in advance and create standing appointments for their customers. It can also send clients and customers automated confirmation emails, with customized text and date/time of sending.

The enhanced service has been pleasing clients with its ability to handle inquiries from their customers and in relaying key information to their staff.    “With the addition of the AnswerNet Scheduler, I now have a way to save time and money by having AnswerNet make appointments for my clients,” said one professional counselor based in the Southeast. “This program, if requested, will also send automatic email reminders to my clients alerting them of upcoming appointments and since it is Web-based, I am able to check my schedule from anywhere that has Internet access.”

“Appointment setting is a great value-add service that a vast range of businesses and organizations can, and are, benefiting from. Our clients include attorneys, bed and breakfasts, beauty salons, contractors, consultants, field repairs, limousine and taxis, the medical community and door to door sales,” said Gary A. Pudles, President and Chief Executive Officer, The AnswerNet Network. “The improvements we’ve made to our service will make it even more versatile and valuable for customers.”

[From Connection Magazine September 2006]

Customer Satisfaction Program Garners Award-Winning Results

By Randy Anderson

Like any contact center for hire, we at Taction put our reputation on the line – literally – thousands of times every day. Taction is the phone, email, and fax “voice” of customer support and sales for its clients. We know that lasting, profitable relationships are based on delivering consistently positive customer experiences. The entire company, from management to agents, feels strongly that we are a high touch and high-quality contact center, but all outsourcers say that, don’t they? We needed proof in order to ensure that we were actually fulfilling the Taction mission.

To make sure we were reaching our goals in both areas of client satisfaction as well as agent satisfaction (which is the number one indicator of end-user satisfaction), Taction turned to the Omega Management Group Corp., specialists in helping companies boost revenue and profits by implementing loyalty management strategy programs that increase customer and employee satisfaction.

Over a period of several months, the companies worked closely to create a customer and employee satisfaction program tailored to our specific requirements. The partnership turned out to be somewhat historic when, in 2006, Taction became the first and only contact center to earn Omega’s prestigious NorthFace ScoreBoard AwardSM. Launched in 2000, the award is presented annually to companies who, as rated by their own customers, achieved excellence in customer satisfaction during the prior calendar year.

Omega’s methodology measures customer satisfaction levels for companies on a 5-point scale at least twice during the year in such categories as technical support, field service, sales process, customer service, product quality, account management, and training. The NorthFace ScoreBoard Award winners are companies who, based on survey responses from their own customers, achieved a 4.0 or above out of a possible 5.0 score in any category measured.

Seeking Out the Voice of the Customer: To be included in that elite group of successful companies, Taction’s senior management made winning the NorthFace Award a top priority. That rally made it easier to focus the team on the goals of the satisfaction program and survey specifics rather than just saying “let’s raise our client survey score” without explaining the business reasons for doing so. Taction pursued the award to prove to ourselves and others that we truly do provide a great customer experience as an easy-to-work-with partner.

We educated our people on the survey questions and how their jobs played a role in the ratings our customers would give us. We were happy to see that our culture as an employee-friendly, high-quality place to work was apparent to our clients.  As the survey process continued, we could use the data to see the extent to which our clients’ views matched our perception.

Taction implemented Omega’s Customer Satisfaction and Retention (CARE) program at the beginning of 2004 in order to assess existing levels of customer satisfaction with its services and staff. However, Taction was not eligible for the NorthFace Award until 2005, when it had participated in the survey for the required twelve months.

During this time, Omega conducted transaction and relationship phone surveys with our current clients along with semi-annual Web-based surveys of the entire employee population. Omega presented results and recommendations periodically to our executive team and we used Omega’s ScoreBoard display system to post documentation associated with the CARE process for all to see.

Omega also surveyed a sample of our former clients to ensure we learned about their experiences as well. This insight proved helpful and allowed us to focus more clearly on the client impact of our processes and operations in order to keep current clients from becoming past clients.

Heeding the Voice of the Customer: Based on the results of Omega’s customer surveys, there were areas of exceptional customer satisfaction as well as actionable feedback in some areas that scored lower. The good stuff:

  • 100% of respondents would recommend Taction as a contact center solution
  • 94% consider Taction a best-in-class solution
  • 100% (with a rating of 4.1 out of 5) are satisfied with the professional attitude and courtesy of Taction’s agents.

Based on the comments provided, there were specific areas for improvement that stood out. These concerned accuracy of information provided, timeliness and accuracy of reports, and various pricing considerations. Even though these areas were still in the satisfied category, they weren’t in Omega‘s “loyalty zone” of  4.0 out of 5.0 scale.

The surveys, and Omega’s analysis, provided needed validation that we were properly focused in terms of client and employee needs and that we were allocating dollars where they were improving service and support in areas of greatest importance.

For example, on the initial benchmark survey, we found the level of employees affirming the culture and work environment to be fantastic. We also learned everyone wanted more communication about the business. As a result, we’ve made deliberate attempts to widen the channels of communication by taking such measures as increasing the number of informational meetings and letters from the president’s office to the team.

From the client survey, we learned that clients not only rated their account managers with high marks, but they also gave high marks to the reports provided. This discovery led us to shift valuable internal resources to other projects that had lower scores.

The benefits of this loyalty management program are paying off. As a result of the survey findings, Taction now can make course adjustments quickly to address any issues that arise, and can continue to stay the course in areas rated with high scores.

We wanted to work with Omega because we knew they were committed to helping their clients attain the highest levels of satisfaction from their customers and employees. We now have solid, unbiased proof, in the form of the NorthFace ScoreBoard Award, that we have fulfilled that promise.

Going forward, we at Taction plan to continue working with Omega. Client and employee surveys will continue and more client trend data will be gathered. We’re always looking for more insight into what our clients want so we can continue to deliver our Taction Value better and more consistently, one experience after another.

Randy Anderson is VP of Client Services at Taction. Taction is a provider of contact center services. Randy Anderson can be reached at randy.anderson@taction.net.

[From Connection Magazine June 2006]