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July/August 2020 Issue of Connections Magazine

The July/August 2020 Issue of Connections Magazine, covering call centers and the teleservice industry

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CM July Cover

Should We Strive to Return to What Was or Move toward a New Normal?

Decisions We Make Today Can Better Prepare Us for Tomorrow

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

As writers pitched their article ideas for this issue of Connections Magazine, everyone, it seemed, wanted to talk about coronavirus and Covid-19. While I want the content of this magazine to address relevant, real-world situations, I also didn’t want to let the topic take over every page. I’ve had a similar quandary about what to address in this column, wanting to share content of value for both today and tomorrow.

We’re now moving away from the severity of the coronavirus impact, even though it is still a factor in our everyday existence. Each person must decide for themselves the best way to move forward. Each call center faces the same dilemma.

Many people long for a return to normal. I get that. Many more, however, wonder if we ever will. Instead they see us moving toward a new normal. Though we may lament this as a loss, we can also celebrate it as an opportunity for our call center operations. Here are some examples we can embrace as our new normal.

We may lament this as a loss, we can also celebrate it as an opportunity for our call center operations Click To Tweet

Distributed Staff

Though by definition a call center is centralized, requirements for social distancing or the need to self-isolate have pushed our centers of operation to become decentralized. Some call centers have already embraced this concept, while others have fully implemented it. However, in our new normal, we’ll see a decentralized workforce occur at an accelerated rate. 

Now is the time to fine-tune our remote staff practices and management. Some call centers do this in preparation for a possible second wave of the pandemic, while others see it as a way to enhance their operation for better outcomes.

Flexible Technology

In the past decade, we’ve seen a gradual shift from premise-based technology to on-demand, internet-delivered solutions. This technology goes by different names, with its proponents debating the various distinctive differences. But the inescapable fact is that this move away from premise-based call processing platforms supplies increased flexibility for call centers.

With this flexible solution, no longer does a call center agent need to remain tethered to a station at one location. And the complexities of turning up a new station at a different site have disappeared to become a nonissue. 

With these various online solutions, anyone with an adequate computing device and an internet connection can log into their call center to process calls. Anytime, anywhere accessibility affords call centers maximum flexibility in deploying their staff as needed. 

Work-At-Home Reality

This crisis has shown what I’ve known for twenty years: there is value in working from home. Aside from the obvious benefits of no commute time, zero travel costs, and minimal dress code considerations, there’s the benefit of being able to continue working in a safe, socially distanced environment. 

Though working in a home office at times has its challenges, the benefits are huge, especially during a pandemic. As many people faced layoffs, reduced hours, or health risks by continuing to go to work, home-based workers continued business as normal. This takes us to another significant point.

An Ideal Industry

As nonessential manufacturing closed and most service businesses ground to a halt, the ability of call centers to tap home-based workers allowed them to continue serving their callers. And for those that had already embraced this operational model or had the flexibility to move to it quickly, their callers didn’t know the difference.

Parting Thought 

Though I hope not, we may again experience a repeat of government-mandated self-isolation to stave off the impact of a pandemic. Isn’t it great to know that the call center industry is perfectly poised to embrace such a reality, if or when it occurs? 

As coronavirus restrictions ease in most parts of the world, don’t strive to return to normal. Instead look forward to the amazing benefits of embracing a new normal.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.

Do You Have Right System to Sustain A Remote Call Center System



By Scott Mainwaring

As customer service representatives (CSRs) at contact centers begin to find their stride working remotely, it’s imperative that managers spend this time evaluating the sustainability of their new system by creating an open dialog about working conditions, obstacles, and performance trends. While each call center and organization is going to be at their own unique point on the change curve, leaders should use these conversations as a means to identify gaps and define what success may look like in this new scenario.

Here are some key questions to help managers navigate conversations with remote call center agents.

Can the CSR Do Their Job from Home? 

First, for some agents, working remotely might not be possible. Whether those agents voluntarily opt out because they can’t endure the solitary nature of remote work, they’re taking on increased family responsibilities that conflict with work, or they share a space that isn’t conducive to the privacy requirements of the job, managers should be prepared for attrition. For employees who began in the office environment and then shifted to work at home, managers should expect that only about 25 percent of their team will truly succeed.

As a manager, when you connect with your team members, ask probing questions to understand how each CSR is faring and the unique challenges they’re facing. This gives you the opportunity to collaborate on solutions, deepening your relationship. It will also provide you with a better sense for which team members have the capacity and interest to work remotely.

If these conversations give you the sense that you may face high attrition, assess creative staffing solutions that fit this new, ever-changing environment. This could be an opportunity to test variations on your staffing model (such as adjusting shift times, split shifts, or the makeup of the shift) or your team makeup (moving part- or full-time workers who need a change to a different employee category). The idea is to play with what you’ve got to better meet the needs of your team.

Do Agents Have the Necessary Tools to Work from Home? 

When your team works from one location, they enjoy streamlined processes for communicating company news, sharing training resources, and providing access to the technology that enables them to perform their job seamlessly. 

Remote work, however, requires managers to be much more deliberate on these fronts. Managers should assess whether their team has the necessary tools in place to remotely assess and guarantee that a comparable experience can exist outside the call center. 

As CSRs move beyond the initial obstacles of getting set up, establish regular touch points to ensure continuity. In uncertain times, the important frontline role CSRs play becomes greater. Managers should use this time with the CSR to reinforce that importance and its impact to the company’s reputation, customer satisfaction, and customer lifetime value. You’ll notice that when CSRs feel valued, they bring more value to your customers.

Have You Set Clear Expectations?

A recent CX Insight report found that having a defined adjustment period goes a long way to ease the transition. Is there a grace period for assessing the CSR and their level of performance? If so, how long?

To execute a customer-first approach, managers must first care for their agents. Given ever-evolving conditions, managers must make a commitment to communication—and what might at times feel like overcommunication.

This includes setting clear guardrails related to the transition and overall CSR performance. As the expression goes, “Happy agents yield happy customers.” A significant part of this happiness stems from leaders who makes sure the agents understand what success looks like (often through repetition) and guides them through reaching goals. Whether expressed via email, phone, or video call, establishing mutual agreement with individual direct reports is imperative to maintaining a close leader-agent partnership.

What Do the Metrics Reveal? 

Once you have expectation alignment and completed the adjustment period, it’s time to consider CSR productivity measurements. This is not about stringently holding team members to pre-work-at-home numbers. At first, watching the metrics is more about observing trends, which are hopefully trending upward.

Pay close attention to five key metrics on an agent’s scorecard:

1. Customer Satisfaction Score (CSAT) is the metric we all pay attention to. And while there are plenty of new external factors impacting customers—personal stressors, longer wait times due to high demand—there are an equal number of opportunities for CSRs to surprise and delight customers by showing empathy and patience. Make sure to equip agents with resources to manage difficult calls.

While we typically see higher CSATs for remote agents as compared to their brick-and-mortar counterparts, managers should not use those metrics as a baseline. Instead, focus on identifying outliers. If you see steady scores across the team with one or two individuals experiencing significant drops, spend some time with those team members, investigating what may be the cause. 

2. First Call Resolution could decline. Look at individual performance in context to the broader team. If there is an overall drop in average FCR across the entire team, then there are broader issues at play.

3. Quality Assurance Measures address the basics. Assess agent performance on key items such as caller verification and information accuracy. Misses on core functions may be indicative of further shortcomings or lost opportunities with customers.

4. Agent Utilization focuses on time logged-in and time on the phone with customers as key productivity indicators. Expect CSRs to be on target.

5. Average Handle Time can be tricky. Don’t consider it in isolation, because of the number of variables, but watch if it’s trending upward. AHT connects to CSAT. For high AHT, discuss tactics to bring it down.

Tracking these metrics will show how well an individual agent is thriving in a remote role. They also serve as a leading indicator of the overall remote contact center performance. 

5. Are Agents Getting the Attention and Information They Require? 

According to an ICMI article, overcommunicating during uncertain times is key to agent success. While one CSR might prefer weekly video meetings over daily conference calls, another could require greater one-on-one interaction and real-time responses from their manager. As a leader, how are you addressing your agents’ well-being and individual needs?

Managers will need to flex a different set of skills—like connecting with an employee over a video conference—but when you nail the people piece of the puzzle, you will increase retention and improve the bottom line.

While everyone’s situation is unique, it is a leader’s job to know what their team needs and how to help them. Whether it’s fostering a stronger social connection or taking extra time to explain recent corporate communications, make sure you are aware of individual engagement levels and needs during this volatile time.

If you are a good listener and demonstrate empathy, you should better understand the needs of your team and individual performers. Yes, the onus is on you, but it’s also an opportunity to double down as a leader. Become a better, more visible manager—one that’s more accessible and open than when you shared a roof. 

Conclusion

From adjusting staffing models to providing individualized strategies for agents in need, taking the time to understand the variables and connect with the individual will help your team navigate the months ahead as they work from home.

Scott Mainwaring is with Spinnaker Consulting Group.

How Banks Can Manage High Call Volumes



By Robert McKay

As financial institutions close their lobbies and discontinue in-person service to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, contact centers are seeing dramatic increases in call volumes. While growing numbers of customers use digital banking solutions for basic operations, during these unsettling times many turn to the phone channel to complete transactions, obtain assistance with sensitive financial dealings, and confirm the status of accounts and loan processes.

According to data compiled by Neustar, between January 21, when the first US COVID-19 death occurred, and mid-March, some of the nation’s largest financial institutions experienced a 36 percent increase in overall inbound call volume. Retail banking divisions offering direct consumer-facing financial products, such as mortgages and vehicle loans, saw an even greater spike in traffic, with call volumes up 43.4 percent. As a result, some customers experienced long wait times, leading to frustration for both callers and agents.

The same solutions that help reduce call overloads and excessive customer wait times—well-designed IVR systems and accurate caller authentication Click To Tweet

To compound the challenge, social distancing measures led many banks to transition their call center agents to remote work, creating an additional layer of compliance and productivity concerns. So what steps are banks taking to enable their contact centers to deal with the elevated level of calls, while providing customers with a secure and positive experience during this chaotic time? 

Enhancing the IVR System

The first step in ramping up a call center’s capacity to accommodate high call volumes is generally to optimize the interactive voice response (IVR) system to increase the number of calls it can process. Banks take a closer look at their IVR call-flow design to ensure the user experience is intuitive and can provide answers to a wider array of inquiries. This includes questions customers may have due to the logistical impact of branch closures and to the economic impact of the pandemic.

Banks must reexamine authentication methods if a large share of inbound calls cannot receive full verification without agent intervention. Voice biometrics and device-based authentication, for example, can quickly and accurately confirm callers. This creates a frictionless experience that allows most customers to conduct their business entirely through IVR. And when the need for agent involvement arises, IVR authentication ensures the agent has the account information ready. This largely eliminates time-consuming identity interrogation. 

Containing more calls within the IVR system reduces the pressure on call centers, while facilitating faster service for all customers.

Investing in Call Center Agent Well-Being and Productivity

Most financial institutions’ business continuity plans call for redeploying operations to areas unaffected by a disaster. But faced with a global pandemic, many organizations have had to mobilize in unexpected ways. This includes transitioning call center agents to working from home. To maintain smooth operations in their inbound communication networks, banks have made extensive investments in equipment and software solutions. This provides agents with access to the programs and processes that ensure compliance with government regulations and anti-fraud measures.

Many banks have also found that they must hire more call center staff, as working from home decreases the productivity of agents who must care for ill or elderly family members or young children home from school. This requires additional employees to compensate for this decrease in productivity, which is due not to lack of diligence or enthusiasm but to the unique nature of this pandemic. Both financial institutions and their employees must have realistic expectations of productivity levels under these circumstances.

It’s also important to remember that call center employees are the people on the front lines, calming frantic customers and helping them execute important transactions. In addition, banks must recognize that their employees may experience increased professional as well as personal stress during this time.

Analysts and call center managers regularly report that call center agents’ job satisfaction is related to their ability to effectively do their job. Banks can support their employees’ effectiveness by routing lower-priority calls to the IVR system so agents can spend their time on high-value interactions. Financial institutions should also equip agents with all the tools they need to work from home. This includes a high-speed internet connection. 

And for agents who make outbound calls, this means ensuring that customer relationship management databases have up-to-date phone numbers. Customers could miss essential information if banks don’t take this crucial step for outbound dialing. 

Mitigating Fraud

Mitigating fraud is another important aspect of smooth call center operation. In times of crisis, criminals inevitably attempt to take advantage of the chaos. Fraudsters are targeting consumers directly (the Federal Trade Commission has issued an official warning about scams related to COVID-19) as well as attacking call centers. Call centers have historically been the weak link when it comes to account takeovers because human agents can be socially engineered by creative fraudsters and call centers are staffed by customer service professionals who naturally have a strong desire to help callers solve their problems quickly. 

With larger call volumes and more agents feeling harried and anxious, the risk of fraud increases. Fortunately, the same solutions that help reduce call overloads and excessive customer wait times—well-designed IVR systems and accurate caller authentication—can help combat fraud as well. Biometrics and device-based authentication technologies can reduce the time agents spend verifying callers, provide a more secure environment, and decrease the number of legitimate calls inadvertently directed into the call center’s fraud queue. Now more than ever, it is important to deploy fraud specialists at call centers in the most efficient manner possible—investigating actual fraud attempts versus legitimate customer calls incorrectly flagged.

Conclusion

As financial institutions assess the reasons for increased call volumes and long wait times, they need to ask themselves several questions. Are most customers talking to agents because they have complex needs to resolve, or could a better-designed IVR system handle their questions? Have banks made adequate investments in staffing and agent productivity, considering the challenges of working from home? And are agents spending time asking security questions when technological solutions could provide faster and more accurate authentication?

Ultimately, the pandemic-related branch closures may help hasten the transition to digital banking for some customers. This entire episode will amplify the need to press forward with omni-channel strategies. For the foreseeable future, however, the phone channel is here to stay, and overloaded call centers may be the catalyst financial institutions need to implement more effective, efficient, and streamlined approaches that strike the right balance between robust authentication and low friction in the customer experience, while maximizing IVR use.

Robert McKay is the senior vice president of customer identity and risk solutions, Neustar.

A Concise Guide for Outsourcing Success, Part Four



By Kathy Sisk

Once you select the agency you feel most confident in and the contract is signed, the real challenge begins; you must manage the venture. This includes preparing to transition calls to them and overseeing ongoing performance. 

The following three practices will help you effectively manage your outsourcing venture:

Take whatever steps you need to ensure that the outsourcing venture remains transparent to your customers. Click To Tweet

1. Take Control from the Start 

Assign a management team from within your call center or organization to oversee the outsourcing venture and openly communicate with the agency on a regular basis. This includes selecting the specific account management team at the agency that will manage your account. 

Some call centers opt to have one or more of their managers work on-site at the agency to closely supervise the activity each day. Take whatever steps you need to ensure that the outsourcing venture remains transparent to your customers and that they receive the best possible service that is representative of your organization.

2. Provide or Oversee All Training

Your company is responsible for ensuring that the supervisory staff and agents at the agency receive all necessary training to handle your specific account. Have your management team or internal trainers educate the agency’s supervisors and trainers on your products and services, upselling and cross-selling preferences, call scripts, and incentives. The agency’s staff can then deliver the same training to its agents under your supervision. Or you may want your manager or trainer to provide such training to the assigned agents.

3. Evaluate the Agency’s Performance Regularly 

Ensure that the agency sends your management team regular reports on call statistics, agent performance, and customer feedback. Also make sure your management team provides the agency’s managers and agents with any necessary feedback and additional training as needed. 

In addition, if possible, have your management team visit the agency often and get directly involved in the monitoring process; however, this can be done remotely. Don’t be afraid to request a particular agent or supervisor be removed from your account if you are not satisfied with their performance.

[In the next issue, we will wrap up this series with a look at some additional topics.]

For more information about setting up, reengineering, outsourcing, and project managing your call center operations, Kathy Sisk Enterprises can help you. They have over forty years’ experience with satisfied clients and centers across the globe.

The Importance of a Secure Messaging Platform



By Nicole Limpert

COVID-19 has made huge impacts on our health and day-to-day life throughout the world. The virus has been overwhelming to all, but particularly among the teams who are supporting and caring for those who are sick. Now more than ever, secure messaging platforms are critical to ensure communications are sent securely and quickly across these care and support teams. Here are the top three reasons why a secure messaging platform is an essential tool during these unprecedented times.

1. Communicate Sensitive Information Quickly

Whether you’re an operator relaying an important message or a doctor tending to a patient, fast and reliable communication is critical to ensure the safety and well-being of those involved.

Hospitals should consider updating their pager system to a secure messaging platform. Pagers have been shown to waste a considerable amount of time among healthcare teams. Compared to legacy paging technology, secure messaging can save staff up to two minutes per message.

Secure messaging offers features such as persistent alerts, event-driven notifications, critical alerts, and high-priority settings Click To Tweet

When it comes to the safety of sensitive information, a secure messaging platform is paramount. Most secure messaging platforms use end-to-end encryption, which can ensure that personal health information (PHI) in the form of text, photo, video, and audio stays secure. Look for a secure messaging platform that doesn’t store messages on the device. Also critical is being able to remotely disable the app on lost or stolen devices to prevent unauthorized access.

2. Accountability with Time Stamps and Reports

It can be difficult to stay organized and keep a level head when things are moving quickly and staff is getting overwhelmed. Imagine that you’re a doctor, and you just sent a message to a lab tech via a secure messaging app requesting some lab results for an ICU patient. With the app, you can see if your message was sent successfully and when the lab tech read the message. Time stamps add an extra level of reassurance and accountability to your team, which is critical in times of crisis.

Most secure messaging apps also keep track of all message activity. This should include an audit log and a message log, complete with message histories, showing to whom messages were sent, when the recipient read the message, and who replied.

3. Urgent and Emergency Notifications

During times of crisis, it can be easy for alarms, notifications, and messages over a public address system to overwhelm healthcare workers. Conversely, some hospital staff may fall victim to alarm fatigue. One study records an average of 1.2 alarms are heard by a nurse every sixty seconds, or as many as 359 alarms per medical procedure. In addition, recent studies estimate as many as 90 percent of alarms in critical care settings are either false or clinically irrelevant. This leads healthcare providers to believe that many devices are crying wolf, delaying practitioner response time when a real emergency occurs.

To combat the effects of alarm fatigue, secure messaging offers features such as persistent alerts, event-driven notifications, critical alerts, and high-priority settings to ensure that vital messages receive a prompt acknowledgment.

COVID-19 has placed an elevated level of responsibility and pressure on healthcare and call center staff. These demands become easier with the help of a high-performing secure messaging platform that can meet their needs to combat the disease and ensure the safety of patients. 

Amtelco

Nicole Limpert is the marketing content writer for Amtelco and their 1Call Healthcare Division. Amtelco is a leading provider of innovative communication applications. 1Call develops software solutions and applications—such as their miSecureMessages secure messaging platform—designed for the specific needs of healthcare organizations.

How to Super Charge Your Customer Experience Remotely



By Jeff Singman

According to a recent research report by SalesForce, 84 percent of customers say the experience a company provides is as important as its products and services. The same study found that nearly 80 percent of customers expect consistent experiences across channels with the same capabilities and contextualized engagement based on earlier interactions. Furthermore, 73 percent expect companies to understand their needs and expectations. They want a personalized experience.

The report also found that 62 percent of respondents now expect companies to adapt based on their actions and behaviors, yet only 47 percent say companies are living up to these expectations. According to these results, companies were already struggling to meet customers’ expectations prior to the coronavirus pandemic. If this is truly the case, how will they fare post-pandemic?

Allowing employees to work from home offers significant benefits to both the company and their staff. Click To Tweet

COVID-19 has had an impact on so many areas of our lives: economic, health, education, and business. Many organizations have succeeded in enabling their employees to work from home. But what about the staff responsible for customer success and support? Moving their contact center operations to a remote model can be a costly and logistically difficult challenge, especially for small and medium-size businesses. 

A recent study conducted by analyst firm Nemertes Research found that across key verticals such as healthcare (70 percent) and retail (68 percent), employers are planning to allow their contact center employees to continue to work from home following the coronavirus pandemic. So, what does this mean long term for contact centers and their ability to serve their customers remotely? It means there must be an innovative approach to how contact centers succeed in this “new normal.”

Traditional on-premise enterprise contact center platforms may not have the capabilities to provide adequate support for remote employees. Additionally, many of these platforms can’t process omni-channel interactions, or they make it cost-prohibitive to do so. If you already have a conventional on-premise platform in place, upgrading to the latest multichannel features requires additional capital outlays, special training, and expertise, making the platform even more difficult and expensive to manage and scale.

Newer cloud-based contact center solutions can help companies of all sizes avoid equipment cost and complexity, modernize customer engagement, and support remote workers. But many systems target large-scale contact centers, with advanced capabilities such as multichannel communications and chatbots, with a price tag beyond the reach of many businesses. Worse still, many cloud contact center solutions require six-figure professional services engagements just to begin.

But there are solutions on the market that are easy to set up, can integrate with existing contact center platforms, and are affordable. These solutions can enable a company’s contact center employees to offer world-class customer service and support regardless of where they work.

Platform Goals

When searching for a modern contact center solution, that solution should empower companies to:

  • Eliminate the cost and complexity of traditional on-premise enterprise contact center platforms. Ideally it would be cloud-based, so there’s no need to buy or install any on-site equipment or special-purpose software.
  • Eradicate the expensive professional services required to get the contact center up and running. The solution should be easy to deploy and manage, and require no complicated setup, plug-ins, or configuration.
  • Deliver an affordable, comprehensive collection of cloud-based communications and collaboration services. You want a solution that delivers immersive customer experiences, including video, screen sharing, social media, and web integration, as well as traditional phone calls. Cloud platforms provide the latest features in real-time with no costly upgrades or downtime. 
  • Remove the need to buy costly agent hardware or specialized software that you must install on every agent’s computer or laptop. Agents should be able to easily log on from anywhere, engage with customers, and access all features and services.
  • Elastically scale and add capacity on demand as business requirements dictate. For example, departments or work groups should be able to temporarily add agents to support promotional campaigns or seasonal traffic spikes.
  • Protect and extend existing investments. Look for solutions that give you the option to deploy it as a stand-alone solution or one you can integrate with legacy call center platforms.

No solution is perfect, but those that have these features and functionalities will help ensure that companies not only have satisfied customers, but also happy employees. The Nemertes study also found that there was a direct correlation between employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction. For companies that keep agent turnover at less than 15 percent, there is a 26 percent improvement in customer ratings, which is huge. 

Additionally, allowing employees to work from home offers significant benefits to both the company and their staff. For the company, the most significant benefit includes real estate cost savings. According to national averages, the cost of office space per agent is about $8,300 per year, and a fifty-agent contact center saves more than $200,000 per year in real estate by allowing employees to work from home part-time. 

In the Nemertes survey, the reasons companies cited for allowing employees to continue to work from home included: 

  • Fifty-seven percent of companies said it will improve agents’ quality of life, which could in turn lead to lower turnover rates (and lower turnover rates means happier customers).
  • Forty-six percent said it will prepare agents for future disasters. The pandemic made many companies realize they are not ready for a major disaster (such as another pandemic, terrorist attack, or weather event).
  • Thirty-six percent said it is better for the environment to allow people to work from home.
  • Thirty-four percent said the technology works better than they thought.

The bottom line is that we must rethink the way we work. Having the right solutions will be critical in ensuring the success of the contact center industry moving forward. The good thing is that there are cost-effective solutions available today that will allow the modern contact center to super-charge the customer experience, regardless of where their agents work.

 Jeff Singman has been a vice president with Kandy/Ribbon Communications since January 2016. A serial entrepreneur, his experience includes IT, security, telecom, and software solutions, with depth in industries including media, entertainment, financial, and healthcare verticals.

Enhance Contact Center Operations in a Shift toward Remote Models



By Matt McConnell

The coronavirus pandemic affects employees across every industry. This has forced frontline workers to drastically adapt their work styles to adhere to social distancing, while many typical on-premise office staff have shifted to a work-from-home model. For most employees, this move to teleworking doesn’t call for much more than a Zoom account and a stable internet connection.

Transitioning contact center agents, however, to work from home can present problems, especially if their company isn’t prepared for remote operations. They might lack the infrastructure and processes to effectively make the shift. This opens the door to challenges that will plague agents and managers alike. Fortunately, there are solutions to ease remote contact center operations and supplement the roles of agents and managers.

Understanding the Issue

This rapid transition to remote work has made routine tasks such as agent training, managing adherence, and maintaining engagement more difficult for operations than in a physical contact center. With a tethered contact center model, where agents work remotely but live near the contact center, in-person training and coaching may be more manageable. But managing adherence and ensuring engagement will be a challenge. 

A natural progression for contact centers to flow from physical to tethered and eventually to remote models might have been more helpful in the transition. But what happens now that circumstances have removed these first two options? Companies, forced to leapfrog the tethered model, move directly to the remote operations. But without the right systems in place, this can put added stress on agents and managers, as well as lead to a dip in efficiency across the board. 

A survey revealed that 55 percent of industry professionals believe a remote workforce will become permanent within the contact center operations. Click To Tweet

Many contact centers report record levels of call volume since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. They need to maintain peak efficiency despite the challenge thrown their way. Workforce automation (WFA) can alleviate many of these issues, allowing agents and managers to execute their roles from home just as they would in a physical contact center.

Empowering Agents

Data-driven automation is essential in managing a contact center with a remote workforce. Specifically, a platform can use real-time insights to ensure an engaged and connected workforce—this is despite agents and managers being miles apart. Even with surging call volume, in-the-moment data can keep agents on track to hit key performance indicators, while automatically updating schedules to account for breaks, training, and coaching. Real-time notifications can go directly to agents at the opportune time to share company-wide updates, inquire if they need help, prompt breaks, offer overtime, or supply more training.

For many agents this will be the first time they have worked from home. This change of scenery could present a challenge. Stress is at an all-time high for contact center agents, and a combination of increased volume, potentially upset customers, and adapting to new remote processes can lead to increased burnout and poor performance. In fact, 52 percent of contact center staff believe their company isn’t doing enough to prevent teams from burning out. 

Managers can help to improve staff morale by increasing the frequency of communication to ensure multiple daily interactions with agents. Despite today’s unexpected circumstances, using automation to boost interaction and engagement can enable agents to succeed.

Driving Value

Workforce automation is also a vital tool to push cost-savings to the bottom line during this pandemic. The crisis has forced companies to shift agents remotely—with the need to ensure that, despite the isolated nature of their new environment, there was no lag in productivity. With well-established WFA software, managers can know that handle times are in check and agents are logging on for their remote shifts. WFA monitors call volume in real-time. Any adjustments to staffing can occur automatically without manager intervention due to predetermined rules.

Automation supports the role of the manager, which frees them to focus on more strategic initiatives. They can prioritize the well-being of the agent and concentrate on coaching and engagement. This is a sustainable option to ensure consistent performance and productivity, regardless of external variables.

Many companies have been late to make these needed adjustments. They are playing catch-up in terms of their contact centers in the face of coronavirus concerns. But it isn’t too late to adopt workforce automation to combat the uncertainties of the pandemic and supplement the work of agents and managers. 

A survey revealed that 55 percent of industry professionals believe a remote workforce will become permanent within the contact center operations. This means that organizations should view the current operational landscape as the inflection point toward a future of remote work and look to automation as a catalyst for enhanced operations and happier agents.

Matt McConnell is the chairman, president, and CEO of Intradiem.

How to Manage Unrealistic Customer Expectations



By Deeksha Dadu

Ask any customer service representative about challenging calls, and they’ll have much to share. Chances are at least one example will be about dealing with a customer’s unreasonable demands. The first instinct is to simply deny the customer when they make an unrealistic request. However, doing so risks upsetting the customer and losing their business. 

Managing customer expectation is an art, but to decode this you must first understand why customers make unrealistic demands. This usually happens when they aren’t aware of your rules, policies, and practices. They don’t understand what your limitations are and what you can or cannot do for them. 

Being transparent in your communication will reduce unrealistic customer expectations. Click To Tweet

Often their expectations hinge on an overpromising sales pitch, which is why they ordered your product or service without spending much time reading your policies. Or it could be they know your policies but still try to take advantage of you.

Be Transparent

Being up front about your policies is an essential step to build trust with your customers. If your sales team makes unrealistic promises and the product team fails to live up to those promises, customer service is bound to encounter that gap in expectations. If they can’t bridge that gap skillfully, customers will stop using your services and leave a negative review, making your company look bad in front of potential customers. 

That’s why it’s essential that your sales team set realistic expectations. It’s better to under-promise and over-deliver. Clearly state your exchange and return policies, product features, and so forth. Publish those on the website and social media pages. Communicate them through pamphlets and company literature as well. 

Most importantly, train customer service representatives to be up front with customers instead of fabricating stories or playing the blame game. They should explain why they’re handling an issue in a certain way and patiently educate customers on what to expect. This will help set reasonable expectations and avoid such conflicts.

Empower Employees 

Arm your customer support representatives with alternative solutions when customers ask for something that is not feasible to give. This is equally applicable if a call center outsourcing partner provides your customer support. These employees are the first point of contact for customers when they have an issue. Support must provide a direct or indirect resolution to the problem and counter any unrealistic expectations the customer might have. The response could range from providing a replacement of the product or offering an extended warranty.

Know Your Ideal Customer

Any company that sets out to sell a product or service, needs to conduct thorough research first. Here are a few steps:

  • Try to understand the product through the customer’s lenses. Which needs does it cater to? How does the product add value to their life?
  • Know your target market. What is the age group of your customers? What is their income? Are they entrepreneurs or students? Where does your ideal customer reside? Where does he or she work?
  • Figure out in which season or at what time the customer buys your product.
  • Determine the decision-making process of your customer. Which part do they focus on before making the purchase?

Communicate with Empathy

Every customer service manager will want employees to understand what the customer is trying to convey. It is hard unless you are deeply empathetic toward what a customer needs. Listen to what the customer is trying to say rather than take a hard line with them. Then the customer will open up to you and trust you to solve their problem. 

For this to be effective, you must talk with the customer and listen to every detail of their experience. Be empathetic and show emotions ranging from surprise, sorrow, anger, and shock to being apologetic. Ask them questions rather than just be another customer service representative answering with a mild “OK.” 

What if the customer has already made up their mind about stopping use of your services? What if they had huge expectations and quietly left when you were unable to meet them? How do you ensure that you meet your standards each time and live up to the customer’s expectations too?

First, to understand a customer’s psychology, review old emails and chats. Try to find what irked them in the first place and what made them calm down. Was it your mistake? 

As you do this, seek to understand what the customer is going through. Realize that a customer decided to place their trust in you. If your company made the error, be apologetic with the intent of retaining that customer. If you come across as uncaring, you will lose the customer.

Ask pointed questions to address their fears. For example: “Are you worried about our service quality?” or “I get a feeling that you’re skeptical of our company. Is there anything I can do to alleviate your fears?”

This will help you to understand what the customer is going through. After that, you can tell them how your product is going to solve their problems, along with its limitations. Being transparent in your communication will reduce unrealistic customer expectations.

Establish Realistic Goals

A customer service manager must be clear about their methodologies and set measurable targets for both parties. For example, a customer might demand, “I want both the laser printer and the printing paper delivered tomorrow.” You know it isn’t a realistic expectation, so you tone down their demands. You come up with a measurable target and say, “I will get you the perfect size of paper delivered by tomorrow and the printer one day after that. I will also help you set up the printer and install its drivers.”

This sounds like an attainable goal if you have done your research and know your strengths. If the customer approves of this, you will have countered unrealistic expectations and set reasonable goals for your company at the same time.

Share Expectations

A company must provide customers with the timeline of their processes. Let’s assume that a customer paid for premium membership to a job portal. It’s the company’s responsibility to provide details about the strategy they will implement, the number of companies they will send the customer’s resume to, the length of time involved, and the likelihood of landing a job. 

The company must delve into its client history and product escalations to make sure they come up with attainable targets and set reasonable expectations. It’s important that a company keeps clients informed. Moreover, it’s important to listen to the client’s suggestions, remembering that it is their money you are working for.

Connect as Requested

Be honest and transparent when communicating with the customer. If a customer wants regular contact and progress updates, provide this. Contact them through email, phone, and chat to alleviate their concerns. If the customer trusts you, they won’t challenge every part of the process. This will establish goodwill.

Conclusion

Customer service representatives must address apprehensive clients. It can get tricky if they hold unrealistic expectations. Follow these steps to successfully address client concerns.

Deeksha Dadu is the co-founder and marketing head for LiveSalesman, a multilingual call center offering support in over thirty European and Asian languages, all delivered by native and bilingual agents. 

Agents Working from a Kitchen Table—What Could Go Wrong?



By Michael Frendo

Remote contact center agents who work from home were already a growing trend in our industry before COVID-19, but the pandemic accelerated that trend as social-distancing mandates prevented employees from working in centralized call centers. There are incredible stories about how quickly and deftly contact centers made the transition to work-from-home settings, with organizations redeploying their teams and the IT systems for remote work in a matter of days and even hours. Seemingly overnight (and often literally overnight), organizations went from having some remote agents or no remote agents to a 100 percent remote contact center workforce.

Accelerating toward a New Normal

This is a pivotal moment in the industry because COVID-19 fast-tracked a shift that was already growing. The industry will never fully go back to the centralized model that dominated before. There are simply too many factors that make a work-from-home model a sensible one for a far greater percentage of contact center workers than in the pre-COVID-19 era. 

When a remote contact center worker steps away from their laptop, who else can see the screen and view confidential customer or patient data? Click To Tweet

One factor is simply the excessive cost of building out and operating contact center space. These are high-cost environments, and each seat comes with a price tag that every call center manager knows all too well. The cost model for remote workers is dramatically lower. Organizations looking to reduce costs will be hard-pressed to ignore that difference. 

Another major factor that means the work-from-home model is here to stay is the accelerating use of gig workers for contact center work. Gig workers supply a flexible workforce: they are purely remote workers who never set foot in a contact center setting. This trend alone is shifting the balance of the industry’s workforce away from a centralized environment.

Work from Home Concerns

For these reasons, a significant percentage of the industry’s workforce will continue to work from home, and that percentage will continue to grow over time. It makes too much economic and operational sense, but there is a catch. There are thorny security and confidentiality issues with this model, particularly for industries that must follow regulations such as HIPAA, PCI, and other mandates. 

When a remote contact center worker steps away from their laptop, who else can see the screen and view confidential customer or patient data? Who else has access to that system? Is the remote worker following best practices to protect that information? Even in the controlled environment of a centralized contact center, protecting that data is a challenge. The dangers only multiply in a remote setting.

The industry has done its best to mitigate these risks with processes and point solutions that bolster security and confidentiality. These, however, are superficial fixes that don’t truly solve the problem. They also happen to annoy customers and make agents far less productive. 

An Identity Crisis

The problem is that our industry has been treating the symptoms rather than the underlying issue. This fundamental concern is a lack of trust in the identity of customers. In an electronic world, how can you verify that the person you are about to give contact support to is truly who they claim to be? This identity problem affects every aspect of data center operations. It drives the need for complex security processes that make customer interactions longer and more costly. 

This provides a poor caller experience. It makes deploying remote workers chancy and adds risk to the investments companies make to try to shore up the remote work scenarios. This creates an unacceptable amount of customer friction, which call centers try to counteract by accepting far more fraud than they otherwise would. It is not just an identity problem. Given how much it costs our industry, it is a full-blown identity crisis.

A series of technology advancements are converging at the same time to finally make it possible to address the underlying identity issue. Collectively, these technologies take the burden of identity verification off of contact center agents by shifting that responsibility to an integrated combination of biometrics, voice recognition systems, zero knowledge networks, and other technologies that authenticate identity in ways that are far more accurate than social security numbers and mothers’ maiden names. 

Combining Technologies

Each of these technologies is reaching maturity at an opportune time for this shift in the contact center industry. You may know about many of these technologies individually—or even taken part in pilot projects to deploy them—but the real impact comes in combining them. They are greater than the sum of their parts, and they solve in a fundamental way the identity crisis by providing instantaneous verification of a customer’s identity without the need for agents to actually see any private information about the customer.

This combination of technologies gives the agent an assurance that customer is who he or she claims to be, and it frees the agent to focus on providing customer support without the need for any of the traditional security questions. This is a major leap forward in security and confidentiality for workers in a call center setting, but it is a true game changer for remote agents.

 Companies using remote agents would no longer need to worry about that confidential information appearing on a remote worker’s screen. Solving the identity problem eliminates all these privacy and confidentiality risks of remote work scenarios.

Outcomes

It’s important to note that there are significant benefits to this beyond just making remote work settings more secure. With trusted identity, contact centers can solve the no-win trade-off they have been making for decades between fraud prevention and serving customers without irritating them. 

Customer interactions are secure and confidential without elaborate and annoying security processes. This allows for faster resolution to customer inquiries, which is critical in a business where time is money. 

In one large contact center, every second saved on a customer service interaction reduced the need for forty agents across their contact centers. That means every minute they shaved from interactions reduced the need for 2,400 agents. That’s a tremendous cost savings. Better identity verification also has the benefit of reducing the amount of fraud, which businesses reluctantly accept to keep customer friction at a tolerable level for customers.

Summary

The industry has been treating the symptoms of ineffective identity verification for far too long. Our industry is finally at a place where technologies are giving us a way to truly solve the underlying issue, and it is coming at a time when the shift to remote work makes this more important than ever.

Michael Frendo is the CTO of Journey, whose trusted identity platform solves digital identity issues from the network up throughout the complete user journey. He founded the influential VoIP Forum. Michael earned a PhD in electrical engineering from McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada.