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The September/October 2018 Issue of Connections Magazine

The September/October 2018 Issue of Connections Magazine, covering call centers and the teleservice industry

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[Connections Magazine is proudly published by Peter DeHaan Publishing Inc, Peter Lyle DeHaan, editor.]

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What Is a Great Customer Service Department?



By Tom Cunningham

If you took a random survey of companies across the globe and asked them if they had a great customer service department, what do you think they would say? Many would say they do. But if you took the customers of those same companies and asked them the same question, I bet you would get a different answer.

Most customers do not have what they would consider a great experience. Somehow, as leaders, we might tell ourselves comforting lies to protect ourselves from unpleasant truths. Instead you need to figure out how to close that gap between the goal of excellent customer service with how customers perceive your efforts—which is your company’s true customer experience.If you make your core values a living, breathing culture in your company, you are well on your way to creating a great customer service department that will set you apart from your competition. Click To Tweet

Make Core Values Real

The first thing is to put policies, procedures, and training into place to deliver on your company’s core values. Many times I walk into a customer service department and see strong, powerful words, developed by the company through extensive effort, with the expectation that the department will follow them.

When I ask employees to recite these core values, I usually get a deer-in-the-headlights look. When I dig deeper and ask how the company measures these core values, they either shrug or say, “I don’t know.” If I ask the leaders of the customer service departments the same questions, I get the same response ninety-nine times out of one hundred. The company has put so much time and energy into developing these ideals, only to have them end up being just words on a wall.

Do you want to be more? Do you want to create a great customer service department?

If so, it will take a lot of work, but you will create something that only a few brands have achieved. It hinges on bringing your core values to life within your customer service department. Unless you can support an action or decision by your core values, you do not do it, period. All brands with great customer service departments treat their core values as more than just words on paper. They invest time and resources to ensure each employee has a clear understanding of those values and how they directly interweave with their job.

Ask Key Questions

The second thing is to ask the following questions:

  • What are the typical measurements and response times in your industry?
  • What are your competitors doing about customer service?
  • What level of service are your customers accustomed to?
  • How can your brand continue to delight your customers?

If you can’t answer these questions, you have some work to do. Study your industry, become a secret shopper, and learn the habits and behaviors of your customers. When you approach customer service this way, you establish a differentiator from your peers that will create a great customer service department.

While working with a CEO, I did some secret-shopper tasks on their brand and their competitors. What I found was eye-opening for that executive team. The industry was set up as an omni-channel, which is simply a multichannel approach to sales that seeks to provide customers with a seamless shopping experience. I took each avenue and tested their brand against their competitors.

They returned social media messages anywhere from twenty-two hours to eleven days later. They answered email messages anywhere from two hours and forty-five minutes to eight hours and eleven minutes later. Both sets of results left me underwhelmed.

Not only was the time between my inquiry and their response subpar, but in most cases, it wasn’t helpful at all or they simply told me to call customer service. The question I asked them was simple: “Why would you offer this channel if you were merely going to tell me to call customer service or not provide me with the information I requested?”

If I were a real customer, I wouldn’t have followed up. When I called each brand, the hold times were either short or I was on hold for over five minutes. However, each call was bland at best and left me, the customer, to do the work after they made their suggestions. The goal is to make the customer effort seamless, and the company did not deliver.

Set Expectations

Finally, with this information, I invited the CEO to consider the following to wow the customer.

  • What channels did they want to use and commit to so they could be most effective: social media, email, chat, or phone?
  • How quickly will they respond to customers on each channel?
  • To close out a request, what turnaround time are they going to communicate to their employees and customers?
  • How will they behave when dealing with customers? Consider tone, language, attitude, empathy, and so forth.
  • Who in the company is responsible for customer service?

These queries are just the first in a series of questions and actions for a brand to consider when a company starts its journey to create a great customer service department. Too many brands settle for just good enough. Is that what you want for your brand, your employees, and your customers? I hope the answer is no.

Conclusion

If you’re looking to create something special—a lasting brand in a competitive market with the needed customer service experience and your success as a company—it all starts with you as the leader. You must be willing—through communication, training, and execution—to hold yourself, your leaders, and your employees up to your core values.

If those values are simply words on paper, your customer service department will never be anything more than a job where people do what they must to collect a paycheck and keep their job. However, if you make your core values a living, breathing culture in your company, you are well on your way to creating a great customer service department that will set you apart from your competition and put you on par with the best in the world.

Tom Cunningham is the North American director of SAAS operations at PerfectServe. Tom has twenty-two years of call center operations management experience. Contact Tom at 865-719-6960 or tcunningham@perfectserve.net.

The Bots Are Coming!



Automated and AI-Driven Programs for Business

By Elena Langdon

Automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are all the rage these days—for good reason. The technology behind once too-good-to-be-true tools like facial recognition and 3-D printing has advanced rapidly. Many of us own or pine for smart devices and use dozens of apps a day for personal purposes. So what about business? How much can automation and AI boost productivity and profit at work? And what are the no-go zones for this exciting area of development?

First, Some Terms

“Automation” and “AI” are often used interchangeably, but there are important differences. Automation refers to processes that can be undertaken through a chain of events that trigger each other without human interference. We’ve seen it in manufacturing for decades. Simple contemporary business examples are Hootsuite or Buffer, programs that help automate a business’s social media participation.

AI refers to machines undertaking processes and making choices on their own, based on their programming and what they learn from it. There are different levels of AI, and the most powerful two—levels at which a machine can understand human thoughts, and be self-aware, respectively—have not been reached. So what can be accomplished now?

The Digital-Assistant Revolution

While C-3PO from Star Wars or Ava from Ex Machina are not in our immediate reality, AI is a driving force behind many business applications.

Personal digital assistants such as Siri and Cortana are good examples of AI-driven programs that can boost productivity, save time, and facilitate our lives. With one of these programs, you can delegate scheduling, play music, and check the stock market, all without typing, thanks to voice recognition capabilities. Pen, paper, and typing can be eliminated from the entire process.

Google Duplex is a more recent digital assistant that takes automation to a new level. It makes calls to humans to schedule appointments, request information, and order food. Instead of speaking with a typical robotic tone, Google Duplex mimics real speech patterns and uses fillers such as “um” and “hmm.” Plus, this bot interacts with human responses and can carry on a conversation. For this reason, its reception so far has included a mixture of awe and trepidation.The more complex the task, and the more it involves human reasoning,the less likely it will work for business. Click To Tweet

Proceed with Care

Caution might be needed for that type of digital assistant, especially from ethical and privacy standpoints. Should a human receptionist know that he’s talking to a machine? Is he being recorded so Google can learn from the exchange? Nevertheless, most of the tasks accomplished by Google Duplex involve little personal risk. If your haircut gets scheduled at the wrong time, it would be a nuisance but not a big loss.

However, you should approach some types of AI-driven programs with caution when it comes to business because of the risks involved. For example, in language translation, the technology can’t yet match the human capacity for communication. Automatic translation engines are great for getting the gist of a letter or website, but using them for business can result in embarrassment, misinformation, and even financial loss.

Most companies put time and money into writing compelling and clear texts; foreign-language copy requires the same attention. Despite recent advances in deep learning, machine translation is not like Google Duplex—it does not sound human, and it’s much less eloquent. More importantly, accuracy is seriously compromised with automatic translation—just think of all the menus with indecipherable items such as “The water fries the potato” and signs saying, “Beware of safety.”

Apply the same caution for verbal translation or interpreting, which has made headlines with programs that combine machine translation with voice recognition. Holding a conversation with someone in a language you don’t know by using “translator earbuds” might work for casual exchanges with inconsequential outcomes. However, if you need to speak to an employee about her performance or to an international branch manager about next quarter’s sales goals, you cannot rely on AI to accurately transmit your message. Between speech recognition flaws, cultural differences, and the incredible creativity behind any human being’s speech, it’s best to stick to a professional interpreter for bilingual business communication.

Lawyer Up or Bot Up?

If creative speech is one reason not to trust the machines, what about legal discourse? Does it make sense for a business to rely on automated contract-writing programs or document-reviewing apps? As with many machine-based applications, such programs can work, albeit in a limited context for limited purposes.

AI-driven programs will review legal documents at a fraction of the cost of a lawyer. This review process takes humans significant time, and lawyers take years to master it, yet computers have apparently learned the skill. That said, even apps’ websites make it clear that the apps will not provide legal advice and should be used only for the specific purpose of reviewing documents.

The formulaic language and boilerplate nature of legal documents lends itself well to AI and frees up time and money for actual legal strategy. In some ways, it’s like translation—you can get some entry-level tasks done, just not anything that requires tactics or nuanced meaning. And of course, nothing involving any risk to your business.

Look Both Ways Before You Leap

So the next time you see an ad for a new app that looks like a miracle cure for what’s ailing your business, by all means, don’t ignore it. There are many good applications for automated and AI-driven programs. Just be sure to research the program and consider its uses. The more complex the task, and the more it involves human reasoning, the less likely it will work for business—at least in an all-encompassing manner. Work patterns and skills are certainly changing, but the bots aren’t taking over just yet.

 

Elena Langdon is a certified Portuguese-to-English translator and interpreter and an active member of the American Translators Association (ATA). The American Translators Association represents over 10,000 translators and interpreters across 103 countries. For more information on ATA and to hire a translation or interpreting professional, please visit www.atanet.org.

Size Considerations for Selecting an Outsourced Call Center



By Nathan Teahon

Outsourced call centers come in many shapes and sizes. In fact, a call center is similar to a person, with each one having their own strengths and weaknesses. Evaluating those strengths and matching them with a client or program is a crucial first step in having a successful inbound, outbound, or omni-channel call center program.

But where does size fit into this equation? Is a bigger call center always better? Surely a call center with five hundred seats is better than one with seventy-five, right? The answer isn’t so clear, however, and in many circumstances that might not be the case. Here are the top factors to consider when evaluating if an outsourced call center is the right size for your program.Evaluating the strengths and matching them with a client or program is a crucial first step in having a successful call center program. Click To Tweet

Small Fish in a Big Pond?

When looking at the size of an outsourced call center, it’s important to evaluate the size of the inbound or outbound program you’re looking to place. Let’s say your call center program is going to require five agents to start and has the potential to be ten ongoing. A call center with five hundred seats is certainly going to have no issue taking on that effort, but will that ten-person program be meaningful to them? Where is it going to rank in terms of priorities for the management staff, and what chance does it have in getting access to the call center’s top-tier agents? Is that campaign going to be treated as a small fish in a big pond?

A ten-person program is potentially going to be much more meaningful for a seventy-five-seat call center. At any time, it could make up 13 percent of the total seats in that center versus just 2 percent of the seats in the five-hundred-seat center. It’s a much higher priority to the management of that outsourced call center and, as a result, is more likely to get the attention it deserves.

Of course, this can work in the opposite way as well. A campaign that requires fifty seats isn’t going to be a good fit in that seventy-five-seat center. The agents will likely be overextended and will struggle to keep up with the quality demands of the program. This leads to the next point.

The Scalability Factor

While it’s important that the size of the campaign is something that will be meaningful to the outsourced call center, it’s also important to consider if the capacity of the center can keep up with the anticipated growth of the program. There’s a balance that must be sought between ensuring that a program is meaningful and a priority for a center versus growing a campaign to a point where the center can’t keep up with the staffing requirements.

Outgrowing a single call center location or team isn’t the worst thing in the world, and it doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t use that outsourced call center. It isn’t uncommon to spread call volumes across more than one location (either with the same company or a different outsource call center). Adding a second call center team to ensure that you have the best possible agents on the program, while also having some healthy competition, can be a great thing. It’s important to be aware of your options to ensure long-term success.

Organizational Capacity

In addition to the number of seats, the size of the call center can have many pros and cons. With a small call center, you need to evaluate if they have the technological wherewithal to meet the program’s requirements. Additionally, while a ten-seat program may be more meaningful, it’s also important that they have the proper management bandwidth to properly support the program from a training, supervision, and quality assurance perspective.

A larger call center, in theory, is more likely to not have those issues. However, some larger call center organizations have so much red tape that it doesn’t allow them to move nimbly, including being able to make sure you reach your goals within a short time frame. These are things to evaluate; they aren’t true to every small or large center, but these generalities can often be correct.

In the end, size is just one piece of the puzzle, but it’s a piece that needs to be evaluated.

Nathan Teahon is the vice president at Quality Contact Solutions, a leading outsourced call center organization. He grew up in the business and intimately knows and has played every position in the field, including supervisor, quality assurance, call center manager, program management, account management, and call center psychologist. Nathan can be reached at nathan.teahon@qualitycontactsolutions.com or 516-656-5133.

Need Responsive, Fast-Flex Customer Service?



Get Real with On-Demand, Virtual Contact Center Solutions

By Kim Houlne

Forget real time. Business today runs on get-real time. Enabled by in-the-moment experiences. Catering to rising consumer expectations. To remain relevant, companies require fast-flex service and responsive customer care.

Contact centers operate within this immediacy and expectancy—some with limitations. For instance, brick-and-mortar call centers are restricted by square footage and number of seats. Available talent is confined to local ZIP codes. And at times these centers find themselves in harm’s way when hurricanes or blizzards blow through.

By contrast, virtual contact centers are mobile and move with the business. As demand fluctuates, they turn ever-ready expertise on or off from anywhere, accommodating upticks and downturns. More fluid, these remote resources often are outsourced as stand-alone operations or auxiliary workforces to in-house teams.Extending the brand with qualified customer reps who get it. Got it. And that’s good for clients and their customers. Click To Tweet

Get It? Got it. Good.

With contracted agents on the job and in reserve, work can shift as seasons change, market trends rise and fall, and unforeseen circumstances dictate. By itself, being virtual isn’t enough, however.

Success relies on proven, on-demand processes—from recruiting to onboarding to agent development—and a steady supply of quality reps to sustain performance. Needed are industry-skilled agents who are quick studies and think fast, with rapid-fire service that’s right out of the movies. Like this:

Customer: “I’d like to get in, get on with it, get it over with, and get out. Get it?”

Agent: “Got it.”

Customer: “Good.”

Get Real

Those lines, taken from the classic Danny Kaye film, Court Jester, exemplify the essence of stellar service: delivered promptly, as expected. For contact center clients, the get it?—got it—good, or G³, approach, is as strategic as it is well-timed for their customers. This means quick-turn solutions supplied by agile agents.

Such an on-demand model reduces overhead, eliminates capital expenses, and elevates service. Unlimited in scope, agents scale up or down for everyday operations, seasonal surges, and long-range projects.

The question is: How does a business achieve such workforce flexibility and responsiveness? One answer: Outsource with an on-demand contact service provider with the wherewithal to get real.

To be sure, this requires due diligence to get, if not guarantee, a good return on investment (ROI). Clients should do vetting up front to ensure that the service provider has the means and motivation to:

  • Recruit and retain remote agents with coveted skills
  • Immerse them in a client’s culture, business, and brand
  • Invest in their ongoing development for long-term ROI

Pay the Price—Now or Later

What it comes down to is whether a service provider looks at agents as an investment in a client’s success or merely sees them as a business expense to be passed on. Whatever the perception, outcomes will reflect the level of commitment and customer satisfaction scores.

Consider this: IBM Watson reports that “the overall turnover rate for the call center industry is between 30–45 percent, and each individual turnover can cost a company upwards of $6,440.” Now, let’s multiply it out, with 100 agents on an account. A 30 to 45 percent attrition rate adds up to $193,200 to $289,800. Gone.

That’s a three-way loss: wasted money, high attrition, and sullied service. The provider, client, and its customers all lose.

An Investment, Not an Expense

Regardless of how much self-service automation occurs, high-quality agents remain core to contact center services. Why? Because customers want to talk with agents to resolve problems too complex for chatbots. So, to avoid double-digit turnover and poor service, doesn’t it make good sense and ROI to value agents?

Virtual contact center operators know that remote agents, as independent contractors, work where they want. Their skills are in demand, just like the on-demand services they provide. That’s a given in the gig economy.

So the best working relationship, then, should be quid quo pro—with benefits shared among the provider, agents, and clients alike.

A high-functioning, on-demand workforce takes three things:

  1. A caring culture to attract the best agent applicants
  2. Know-how to educate and engage agents in a client’s business
  3. Ongoing investment to retain agents and build client relationships

Caring Culture Connects

These days, with record low unemployment and savvy digital workers, a low-scoring workplace—be it virtual or brick-and-mortar—probably is at a loss to find and keep talent. If a company doesn’t care, why even apply, much less stay?

Look no further than the jobsite Glassdoor, where employees and contractors rate companies and their leaders. Not only are those reviews read by job applicants, they’re also scanned by would-be clients wanting contact center services.

Face it: if workers aren’t happy, it’s a good bet they won’t be pleasing a client’s customers. That’s why a worthwhile work environment, especially a remote one, needs intelligence on three levels: emotional intelligence complemented by artificial intelligence and intelligent agents—or I³.

G³ * I³ = (G * I)³

Together they equal customer service, which is essential.

Becoming the Client Brand

When a company outsources, it entrusts not only customer service, but its entire brand to a contact center provider. As such, agents need to be immersed in the culture and business—becoming the brand.

Brick-and-mortar call centers normally have subject-matter experts who onboard agents. That’s okay, within limits. Usually it involves one-way classroom lectures or repetitive webinars. At best, by-rote instruction creates a workforce of automaton agents, whose knowledge extends only as far as the lessons taught.

Interactive by design, a virtual contact center classroom goes further to do more. Here, teaching is led by degreed educators who adapt a client’s training to an online education platform, such as Canvas, a learning management system.

To engage agents, curriculum is broken down into micro-learning (PowToon), interactive experiences (Umu), or gamification (educaplay). The result is agents who role-play real-life, customer situations and don’t parrot canned responses by rote.

Investing for the Long Term

Client services and products continually change. Upgrades occur. New products are introduced. Add to them e-commerce that accelerates every aspect of business. Contact center agents must evolve with these changes, if not anticipate them.

Continuing education, complemented by an agent community website, are essential for ongoing development. Remember that $6,440 turnover cost per agent? Odds are the agents who left were given short shrift or felt adrift after their initial onboarding. And bye-bye is the by-product.

High agent attrition atrophies any business. So, when contracting contact center service providers, ask them: “What’s your retention rate?” Three years is a good average. The best contact service providers have agent tenure ranging up to five, ten, and even fifteen years. Clearly, they invest in agents for the long term.

In the end, outsourcing contact services isn’t about adding bodies—be they brick-and-mortar or remote. It’s about extending the brand with qualified customer reps who get it. Got it. And that’s good for clients and their customers.

Kim Houlne, CEO and president of Working Solutions, pioneered virtual contact center services in 1996.  Before founding the company, she held senior management positions in consulting. A graduate of the University of Georgia, she delivered a 2016 graduation keynote address

Balancing Technology and the Human Touch



By Richard McElroy

The contact center has come a long way since the 1960s when automatic call distribution (ACD) technology was first introduced, leading to the development of call centers. What started as a way for customers to get billing information or make requests significantly evolved as technology became more robust. With the addition of interactive voice response (IVR) technology, outbound dialing, and intelligent call routing, the contact center became a hub for the voice of the customer. And the industry continues to innovate to drive a better customer experience.

As new technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and analytics, continue to shift the way we interact with customers, the question becomes: by 2025—or in the not-so-distant future—will the contact center become an unrecognizable department that relies solely on technology to give customers what they want and need? And more importantly, will we call that progress?

The answer is far more complex than a simple yes or no. As we approach 2025, technology will continue to disrupt call centers and how companies interact with customers. The companies that find the balance between technology and people will be the ones that win.

Continued Technology Adoption

Over the past decade, advancements in analytics have opened new ways for companies to gain insight into customer wants and needs. For example, many companies use speech analytics to understand voice-of-the-customer data on both an individual and aggregate level. In addition, AI has begun to permeate the contact center, manage the influx of interactions, and meet increased customer expectations. Eighty percent of businesses plan to implement chatbots by 2020. However, overall adoption of AI is already lagging behind market projections.

There are a variety of reasons why companies aren’t adopting new analytics or AI technologies. Some companies take an “if it isn’t broken, there’s no reason to fix it” approach, while others simply haven’t realized the value of contact center data. According to a recent report, 39 percent of business leaders admit to relying too heavily on one single data point, and only 12 percent of organizations use contact center insights to inform decisions. In addition, MIT found that while 85 percent of companies believe AI is beneficial, only 20 percent have incorporated it into business processes.

As companies struggle to implement these technologies, business leaders are missing out on critical insights about customer behavior. In the meantime, customer expectations continue to grow. In fact, 83 percent of buyers expect to be immediately routed to the most knowledgeable agent, but not just over the phone. They want to communicate via web, social, email, text, or any other channel. Customers also want a personalized experience, and the contact center must meet those demands.It’s important for contact centers to balance the convenience of technology with the personalization that only humans can bring. Click To Tweet

The 2025 Approach

While AI implementations have not met predictions, this will change in a few years. It’s estimated that by 2025, AI technology will support 95 percent of customer interactions. Other advancements, such as sentiment analysis and predictive analytics, give companies additional insight into what customers are saying and feeling, which helps them identify what customers want.

However, it’s important for contact centers to balance the convenience of technology with the personalization that only humans can bring. Technology should inform agent behavior, not replace it. Even in 2025, customers will still want to talk to a human; it just might be after they ask Alexa for help first.

According to a recent Calabrio report, 74 percent of customers are more loyal to a company if they can speak with a human being, and 58 percent of customers believe that picking up the phone and talking to an agent will allow them to get the best and most efficient service. The message is clear: people still want the human connection. Agents are, and will continue to be, the backbone of the modern contact center.

With new technology, contact centers will be less reliant on humans for lower-level inquiries, and—thanks to customer insights—contact center employees will be better informed and more valuable than ever. Not only does this better enable agents to engage in more complex solutions that technology can’t resolve, it also will free up people to do what they do best: establish emotional connections and build deep relationships.

Putting Humans at the Center

In 2025, the contact center will continue to be the epicenter of customer interactions, but contact center agents will be knowledge workers. Their jobs will be less about scripts and answering simple questions and more about navigating complex systems, data, and information.

To succeed, agents must be brand ambassadors and critical thinkers who are assisted by sophisticated technologies. When enabled by the right technology, agents will build connections with customers that create loyalty and drive revenue.

As companies adopt and embrace analytics and AI in the contact center, that technology will be a critical driver of the business decisions that exceed customer expectations. However, companies must implement those technologies with purpose and understand when technology can replace people and when it can’t. Agents can, and will, provide remarkable service that machines will never replicate.

Richard McElroy leads Calabrio’s Center of Excellence for Analytics based in Vancouver, BC, Canada, as well as Calabrio’s Innovation Center. With twenty years of high-tech and business intelligence software industry experience, Richard is instrumental in evolving the development and marketing of Calabrio Advanced Reporting—a multitiered contact center business intelligence platform that delivers data integration, reporting, analytics, and information management capabilities.

Vendor Profile: Startel and Professional Teledata


Startel, Professional Teledata, Alston Tascom


In September 2017 Startel and Professional Teledata (PTD) merged with Alston Tascom (Tascom) to further expand product offerings, broaden markets, and enhance technical resources and expertise. Since then it’s been full speed ahead. Over the last several months, the combined company has unveiled a new unified brand and revamped website, launched new customer resources, welcomed a new chief customer officer, formed a unified product advisory board, and successfully completed a HIPAA assessment. These initiatives support the combined companies’ commitment to deliver greater value to their customers, employees, and the contact center industry.

Greater Value through a Unified Brand

Startel, PTD, and Tascom revealed their new unified brand and revamped website to users at their first combined user group conference in April.

The new branding follows Startel’s 2015 merger with PTD and 2017 merger with Tascom. The new brand is visually represented by uniting all three company logos and includes the addition of “Powered by Startel” to the PTD and Tascom logos.

In conjunction with the new visual branding, content previously found on three separate company websites is now located on a unified site: startel.com. The website includes all product information, a timeline of the combined companies’ history, and an overview of the three user groups.

Startel, PTD, and Tascom’s president and CEO, Brian Stewart, believes the new unified brand will go a long way to reinforce the company’s unity and communicate their efforts.

Greater Value through Unified Customer Service

Appointment of a New CCO: Startel, PTD, and Tascom proudly announced the addition of a new senior-level management position in May when Renita Dorty joined the company as chief customer officer (CCO). Dorty is responsible for all aspects of the company’s customer service strategies and will provide a comprehensive view of the user experience to create initiatives focused on maximizing customer retention, developing more efficient processes, and facilitating client communications.

Dorty has more than thirteen years of experience in the contact center and telephone answering service industry, most recently as the executive vice president of Nationwide Inbound Inc., a full-service customer contact center that provides telephone services and live customer support for businesses across North America.

Having worked with Dorty at Nationwide Inbound, Stewart knew that her unique qualifications made her the perfect fit for this new role. “She is a highly skilled management and operations professional and has a strong background in the customer service industry. We are thrilled to have her join the team at this exciting time in the development of the unified companies,” continued Stewart.

Since joining the team, Dorty has standardized the company’s process for call handling, implemented a new monthly Tech Tips newsletter for customers, and is leading the charge on unifying departments, projects, and procedures.

Launch of a New Marketing Resources Center: The combined company recently launched a Marketing Resources Center, making promotional materials available to its customers. The Marketing Resources Center is a web-based repository housing a variety of promotional videos, flyers, infographics, and user guides that can be branded for use by the companies’ clients to promote the solutions and services provided by their contact center.

The Marketing Resources Center came to fruition by request of customers. After receiving requests for assistance to help them sell their services and provide them with tools to assist them in doing so, Startel, PTD, and Tascom are thrilled to offer this needed and value-added service to all its customers.

Launch of a New Customer Portal: The combined company unveiled a new customer portal, The Customer Spot (TCS), at the user group conference in April. TCS allows Startel, PTD, and Tascom clients to open new support cases, track existing cases, and view the status of all cases associated with their account. Users can also access a knowledge base of product information, manage their account, and stay current on company and product updates.

Stewart believes that sharing the company’s resources and knowledge is the key to helping its customers achieve greater success with their software solutions. “Given the nature of the contact center industry and the fact that the company’s customers are located around the world, it is essential that we provide users with one central platform that they can access 24/7 at their convenience,” said Stewart.

Since its launch, several hundred Startel, PTD, and Tascom customers are now taking advantage of TCS. The company plans to further expand The Customer Spot’s self-service functionalities to ensure that its customers have everything they need to be successful.

Greater Value through a Unified Product Strategy

Startel, PTD, and Tascom have formed a unified Product Advisory Board (PAB) consisting of twelve individuals selected to represent each of the company’s respective user groups. The primary responsibility of PAB members is to provide input related to the combined company’s strategic product planning.

“Our vision of the PAB is to have customers share how they are using our products in the real world and for the company to share with PAB members our current plans and future directions,” said Stewart.

Startel, PTD, and Tascom are working with the unified PAB to help set future product direction. Feedback generated from the PAB will assist the company in building the next generation of products.

Greater Value through Unified Security Measures

In April, Startel and PTD successfully completed their HIPAA assessment. This marks Startel’s fourth and PTD’s first assessment for HIPAA compliance which reinforces the companies’ commitment to protecting consumer data and privacy.

SecurityMetrics, a global leader in data security and compliance, performed the third-party compliance assessment. Following an evaluation of Startel and PTD’s office locations, data centers, and software solutions, SecurityMetrics determined that the companies’ implemented policies and procedures fulfilled their obligations under HIPAA and HITECH. Both companies received scores of 100 percent for compliance posture of administrative, physical, and technical safeguards as well as organizational requirements. Next year’s HIPAA/HITECH assessment will include Tascom and its operating environment, data center, and solutions.

“HIPAA security and compliance are top priorities for us,” said Stewart. “We look forward to continuing to deliver contact center solutions and services that help our customers grow their business and safeguard electronic protected health information.”To provide greater value across the board to its customers, employees, and the contact center industry. Click To Tweet

What’s Next for the Combined Company?

In July, the company kicked off a four-part webinar series focusing on providing its users with an overview of the strengths and unique features of each company’s platform. Each presentation includes perspectives from users as well as product experts from the respective company. The fourth and final webinar of the series, which is scheduled for mid-September, focuses on what’s next as the companies continues to work together on a unified product roadmap. The theme of unification will carry on as the combined company delivers on its commitment to provide greater value across the board to its customers, employees, and the contact center industry.

StartelTo discover more about Startel, PTD, and Tascom solutions, visit www.startel.com or call 800-782-7835.

Knowledge Management in the Era of AI



By Donna Fluss

The knowledge management (KM) market is experiencing a resurgence, driven by the artificial intelligence (AI) revolution. The funny thing about this is that over thirty-five years ago when KM first came to market, it was presented as AI. Today it is viewed as an essential contributor to AI solutions, as the knowledge base is a great source of the data needed to feed AI.

KM Market in Transition

The KM market has changed a great deal in the past few years, with a lot more innovation under way and expected in the near future. There is still a lot of work to do to make it easy to implement and be able to use KM on an institutional basis, but organizations are starting to address these issues as they are on the critical path for some of their automation and AI initiatives. Vendors are now willing to make investments and enhancements in their KM solutions as they see the potential of a large payback.

The entire concept of KM and what these applications do is changing. For years KM remained a relatively consistent function and application. Organizations that invested in KM applications spent lots of time finding and loading the data and trying to get their employees—particularly those in contact centers, customer service organizations, technical support functions, and field service—to use the solutions. The problem was that it often took so long to load up the system that some of the data was out of date by the time employees accessed it. I’ve visited many companies where employees would rather do a Google search than use a KM solution, as the information on Google was much easier to find and more accurate.

Innovation in the KM Market

KM vendors that have come up with creative ways to address these issues are realizing the rewards for their efforts. Customers buy their solutions at a rate never seen in the past. Here is a list of some innovation and distinguishing features among the leading KM solutions in the market:

  • KM methodologies, like knowledge-centered support (KCS) and other best practices, are being embedded within the applications, which help organizations succeed with the solution.
  • KM solutions allow and even encourage their users to access a variety of sources to participate in knowledge creation, including customers, communities, and crowdsourcing. (They also provide a variety of ways to speed up vetting the data and development of new knowledge articles.)
  • The addition of natural language understanding and natural language processing (NLU/NLP) technology is speeding up and automating the data acquisition process.
  • AI and machine learning technologies are becoming integral components of KM solutions, helping companies improve data integrity, find data gaps, and create new content. (Human beings currently support these processes.)
  • Vendors use responsive design techniques to deliver knowledge to the various audiences that need the information, in device-appropriate layouts with optimized navigation. This makes it much easier for users to rapidly access and consume the knowledge.
  • Knowledge is being delivered “at the speed and flexibility of Google,” which is a significant change for this sector.
  • Gamification techniques are being used to track and reward knowledge contributors and knowledge users.

These are just a few of the enhanced features that users will find in leading KM solutions, and there is a great deal more innovation on the way.Give employees a method to rapidly find and access the information they need to do their jobs better, more accurately, and faster Click To Tweet

Final Thoughts

KM has awakened to a new reality: one where enterprises, not just their service organizations, are receptive to the concept of a single source of enterprise knowledge. The race is on to automate many front- and back-office functions using robotic process automation (robots or “bots”), intelligent virtual agents (IVAs), and other self-service technologies to fully automate the handling of inquiries. There is also a growing recognition of the need to give employees a method to rapidly find and access the information they need to do their jobs better, more accurately, and faster. The new generation of KM solutions is ideal for addressing these challenges, but DMG cautions prospects to assess them carefully, as each one has distinct strengths and opportunities.

Donna Fluss is president of DMG Consulting LLC. DMG just released its first report covering the KM market. For more than two decades Donna has helped emerging and established companies develop and deliver outstanding customer experiences. A recognized visionary, author, and speaker, she drives strategic transformation and innovation throughout the services industry. She provides strategic and practical counsel for enterprises, solution providers, and the investment community.

Embrace the Intelligent Virtual Agent


Onvisource


The Promises, the Challenges, and the Pitfalls

By Ray Naeini

Adoption of intelligent virtual agent (IVA) or chatbots is a popular topic in today’s industry, as it can offer a broad range of benefits to both enterprises and their customers. A survey published by DMG Consulting in January 2018 showed that “increasing use of self-service” is one of the top three “enterprise servicing goals for 2018.” IVA uses artificial intelligence to automate customer service for chat or audio interactions with customers. It has the potential to operate as, or improve the performance of, live agents. Today’s customers mostly prefer self-service, especially through digital channels. IVA is a promising solution for improving customer satisfaction.

Automation Is Inevitable and Evolutionary

Automation has been a progressive, irreversible, and unstoppable trend. Automation has made drastic changes to our way of living and doing business. A few decades ago, customer service started with live switchboard agents manually connecting customer calls to the right customer service agents. In the 1980s live switchboard agents were replaced by interactive voice response (IVR) that could automatically prompt questions and route calls. IVA is the next evolutionary step in automation, going beyond the IVR functionality. It penetrates deeper into the enterprise organization and further automates various functions of customer service.Today’s customers mostly prefer self-service, especially through digital channels. Click To Tweet

Benefits of IVA

IVA offers a broad range of compelling benefits. It can assist live agents with real-time access to knowledge management systems, improving the quality and the speed of service. In certain cases, it processes customer service requests directly without the need for a live agent. In general, IVA can significantly improve the quality and the speed of the service while reducing live agents’ workload or payroll costs. It also reduces enterprise challenges related to live agent staffing, training, and retention.

IVA is available 24/7 from anywhere and can offer consistent customer service with an unlimited, real-time access to information during customer engagements. It automates repetitive tasks and can assist with or take over sophisticated customer service transactions. It supports multichannel via text-based chat or audio-based interactions. The use of IVA can go beyond customer service to benefit other departments such as sales and marketing for customer surveys or lead generation and qualifications.

Artificial Intelligence Is the Brain Behind IVA

What makes IVA smart enough to intelligently automate customer service is its use of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies. AI is a broad concept that started in the mid-1950s. It promised delivering intelligence similar to the human brain through progressive technological milestones. Advancements in mathematical modeling and natural language understanding, combined with faster and more cost-effective computers, make each technological milestone more capable of offering solutions to real-world problems.

The first two AI technological milestones that provide real solutions are called machine learning (ML) and deep machine learning (DML). The concept is to create mathematical models capable of continuously receiving, parsing, and categorizing a vast amount of relevant or training data to progressively increase the capabilities of the computers in natural language understanding, image processing or recognition, medical diagnostics, and so forth. This is similar to the basic functions of the human brain, as we were born with an inherited ability to continuously receive enormous amounts of data through our senses and then parse and categorize the information.

The use of ML and DML in IVA mainly focuses on natural language understanding (NLU) to converse with customers. In an IVA driven by ML, the data is analyzed and categorized by trying to understand the intent of the data (conversation) and extract the information associated with the intent (called entities) to prepare a response. The more intents and entities are analyzed and categorized, the more intelligent the IVA becomes. The ML approach, however, has certain limitations due to its single-layered analysis. In a DML-driven IVA, the data is analyzed by multiple layers or stages (using technologies such as neural network), and then at the end a collective scoring of the results from all layers is used for categorization.

IVA Challenges and Pitfalls

While IVA can deliver many benefits, it also creates challenges. Experiences related to the deployment of disruptive technologies tell us to avoid the hype of IVA and focus on applying it to each specific application systematically and progressively. IVA requires continuous training using a significant amount of valid and relevant data to improve its accuracy and performance.

We should also remember the pitfalls of early deployment of IVR that created significant customer dissatisfaction and try to avoid those mistakes. IVA deployed in a contact center environment should be capable of seamlessly integrating with the contact center’s overall workforce optimization (WFO).

OnviSourceRay Naeini is the chairman and CEO of OnviSource.

The Failure of New Customer Discounts



Companies Focus on New Customer Acquisition and Then Encourage Customers to Leave in Two Years

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineMy family just completed our biennial cell phone switch. We’ve been doing this like clockwork for two decades. We pick the company that offers the best price and switch to that one. Two years later our rates jump, and no amount of pleading results in a package we can accept. So we switch carriers.

Of course, the same thing happens with our internet service provider and our cable TV/satellite provider. They also entice us with low introductory rates and then methodically jack up our bill every chance they get. We’re on a two-year cycle with them too.

Loyalty Goes Both Ways

new customerI’d prefer to find a vendor I can stick with and not change every two years. All they need to do to earn my loyalty is to offer fair prices. But they don’t. They give sweet deals to new customers as they gouge their current ones. They apparently value new business more than existing business. Don’t they know it costs several times more to gain new customers than to simply keep the ones they have? They should, but their actions don’t show it.

They prove their disloyalty to me with their unfair pricing. This causes me to be disloyal to them, and I have no regret about leaving them for a better deal. They’ve trained me to act this way.

The Burden on Customer Service Staff

Each time we switch a provider, we make multiple calls and even visits to each potential vendor, gathering information and looking for potential shortfalls in their service package. Of course, we foolishly start with our existing provider, but they’re not interested in keeping our business—at least not yet.

As we proceed, we take time with our existing provider and then all their competitors, including the one we eventually select. Our existing provider spends time with us to lose our business. Our new provider spends a couple of hours to close the deal and transfer our account. That’s a huge investment of time to obtain an account they won’t keep. In addition, all the other providers waste time with a prospect they won’t land.

The Impact on Customers

As customers, we spend a lot of time analyzing our options. Then we expend more time switching providers. But the biggest investment of our time is programming and learning our new technology, be it our phones, video entertainment, or internet access. Maybe someday I will gladly accept my bill doubling to avoid the agony of switching. Or maybe not.It costs several times more to gain new customers than to simply keep the ones you have. Click To Tweet

Churning Customers Is a Futile Business Model

If companies worked harder to keep the customers they have, there wouldn’t be so much pressure to gain new ones. They wouldn’t have to offer their new-customer incentives, which are likely at or below cost. They wouldn’t have to spend as much money on marketing. And their sales and customer service people could avoid a lot a of needless effort that produces no results.

Too Late to Make a Difference

Most of the time, once we switch providers, our former provider then makes a last-ditch effort to “win back” our business. But they’re too late. We’ve just gone through the agony of considering our options and doing a thorough spreadsheet analysis. We’ve gone through the pain of switching. We have shiny new equipment, which looks promising—once we learn how to use it. And now they think they can keep our business? No way. The only way we’ll do business with them is in two, four, or six years as we go through another cycle of selecting a new provider.

Though these service providers will persist in their insane cycle of customer acquisition and churn, your company doesn’t have to. Make sure you don’t follow their foolish example.

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.