Category Archives: Articles

How To Overcome Your Biases Toward Chatbots

By Bob Grohs 

Chatbots are becoming increasingly responsible for assisting with customer service queries. Most customers have already used chatbots, whether they are aware of it or not. In a 2021 survey of over 1,000 chatbot users, some 47 percent of respondents said it’s possible they have mistaken a chatbot for a live service agent and another 11 percent said they weren’t sure. Of these users, 69 percent said they would often or always use a chatbot if it could resolve their issue more quickly. Yet, there were still holdouts, showing that even consumers with positive chatbot experiences harbor biases. 

Just because consumers have hesitations doesn’t mean businesses should. As the importance of customer support continues to rise, it’s time to dispel any reservations you have about investing in chatbot technology for your business. Here, we will address common chatbot biases, consider misguided perceptions, and discuss why the pros outweigh any cons. 

Bias 1: Chatbots Try to Come Off as Real Human Agents

For this first point, we need to delve into the debate surrounding chatbot disclosure. A 2019 study produced evidence of a phenomenon known as the “negative disclosure effect.” When companies disclosed to customers that they were interacting with a chatbot rather than a human, results showed a 79.7 percent reduction in sales. This is due to customers perceiving bots as less knowledgeable and less empathetic. 

However, consumers unknowingly interact with chatbots all the time. The same study found undisclosed bots to be just as effective sales agents as proficient human agents. And they were four times as effective as inexperienced agents. 

So, what’s the best way forward? 

Across-the-board disclosure of bots. Through mass exposure, customers will become accustomed to working with chatbots, and their bias will dissipate. They will learn that positive interactions with chatbots are the new norm. Openly disclosing chatbots will help build trust with your consumer base and ensure ethical chatbot use in sales. Companies should consider naming and depicting their bots in a way that makes it clear to the consumer that they are interacting with artificial intelligence (AI). 

Bias 2: Chatbots Don’t Understand Natural Language

This is a common misconception. Leading AI chatbots have built-in intelligence and understand what people mean—what their intent is—regardless of how it’s phrased. This is known as natural language understanding (NLU). In addition, AI chatbots can continue to learn and improve their accuracy in understanding customers over time with their built-in machine learning capabilities.

Chatbots can learn from every chat or email attached to a successful ticket or case resolution. The bots can also pull information from external sources to create optimized answers. These sources are often public knowledge content, such as help centers, FAQs, and manuals. 

NLU is already a powerful technology that will only become more sophisticated in the future. Chatbots can learn how to understand misspelled words, and the best ones can even understand poorly phrased questions. 

As NLU develops, customers will soon overcome the bias that chatbots can’t understand varied human language.

Bias 3: Chatbots Don’t Provide Relevant Customer Insights 

Many businesses use chatbots to answer quick and simple questions, leaving more complex problems to the humans in customer service. As chatbot technology advances and can process more sophisticated cases, you can tap into the data and insights gathered much more efficiently. 

Chatbots are a first line of defense in your customer support stack. They can quickly pinpoint issues, gaps in your knowledge base, and product defects. Immediate customer feedback from a chatbot dashboard helps support and customer experience management (CX) leaders understand what their customers are doing in real time and react more quickly and effectively. 

Today’s chatbots can identify frequently used words or recurring topics in support tickets and attach search labels or tags to them. This process makes it simpler to categorize queries and issues for easier prioritization and actioning.

Bias 4: Chatbots are Expensive to Install

Installation may seem costly, but only if you are thinking in the short term. In just a few months, the benefits will more than cover the up-front costs. 

Integrating chatbots with customer relationship management (CRM) software and other forum software platforms will result in a huge reduction in ticket volume. This can eliminate the need for adding contact center staff or outsourced solutions, even as you grow. 

In addition, customers want quick answers. The speedy, accurate responses generated by chatbots mean an increase in satisfied customers who are more loyal and valuable to your brand over the long run.

Fully integrating bots with other platforms and making them available 24/7 will ensure that any small problems will find efficient, easy solutions. This frees up human customer support to respond to more complex, time-consuming issues and to better address spikes in requests during traffic peaks. 

It’s Time to Overcome Biases and Invest for the Future

It is understandable to have reservations about how chatbots might impact customer service. But many of the biases we hold toward chatbots are misinformed. In reality, next gen chatbots can be powerful customer service tools that hugely improve the customer experience. Chatbots can hold valuable insight that only AI has the capacity to produce. In addition, with NLU development, their role in customer service is only going to grow. 

The installation and integration costs are worth it. Boost customer service with chatbots, and reduce unresolved tickets and customer turnover. Your return on investment will speak for itself.

Bob Grohs is the director of marketing at Solvvy, a next gen chatbot and automation platform. Bob has been in marketing and product management roles at top technology and SaaS companies for twenty years.

Dealing with Staff Shortages

Tips to Achieve a Full Schedule for Your Call Center

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

For years many call centers have faced an ongoing challenge to fully staff their operation. But over the last year and a half this quest has become even more difficult, with an increased number of people opting to stay home and not work. But this doesn’t mean the task of finding all the staff you need is insurmountable. You can conquer staff shortages.

Here are some tips to better fill your call center agent schedule. 

Avoid Short-Term Gimmicks to Counter Staff Shortages

Tales abound of large signing bonuses, referral fees, and unsustainably high hourly rates. These may get warm bodies in your door, but will they complete training? And if they finish training, will they stick around?

And when existing staff hears of the lengths you’ve gone through to fully staff your operation, they may resent these new hires for the incentives they received, perks that you didn’t offer them. They may resent you too. This disappointing attitude can negatively affect their work and their longevity.

Instead of pursuing short-term tactics, which will produce long-term grief, consider pursuing the following options that are more sustainable.

Embrace Work at Home to Add Employment Flexibility

You have home-based agents or are considering it as an option. But have you fully embraced it? Though it may be wise to start out small and proceed with care when it comes to managing a remote workforce, you must make a full commitment for this to work on a large-scale. This may be the easiest solution to counter staff shortages.

Target Underutilized Labor Markets to Find Qualified Agents

Most call centers prefer to hire in their local labor market. They do this even though they have a work-at-home model. This makes sense from a logistical standpoint. It eases training, technical support, and management. It also allows them to gather in person for meetings and to sometimes work out of your office.

Yet there are probably nearby labor markets that aren’t as close and are underserved. Though not as common as they once were, they’re still geographic areas that have more qualified workers than viable jobs. Dig into these markets and you will likely mine some great employees.

Another type of underutilized labor market isn’t bounded by geography but by circumstance. Some eager and qualified workers are homebound for assorted reasons. This might be a lack of transportation, limited mobility, or social anxieties. But these people can still do an excellent job at phone work from the comfort and safety of their homes. And they’re waiting for a chance to prove themselves to you.

Consider Going Out of State to Embrace Areas with Lower Living Costs

Though you add another layer of payroll complexity when hiring staff in a different state, it may be worth the extra effort. Look for regions with a lower cost of living. Workers in these areas may have a correspondingly lower compensation expectation. If it costs them less to live, they won’t need to earn as much from their job to have a satisfactory lifestyle. 

Review Your Compensation Package 

A common first response to dealing with a labor shortage is to pay more. Yet I list this last because it’s the last thing you should consider. Yes, your hourly rate or benefits may be holding you back from getting the employees you need and retaining the ones you want to keep. Don’t, however, sweeten your compensation package without pursuing the above options first.

Yes, some call centers underpay their agents and suffer as a result. If your hourly rate is less than that of most other comparable positions, you need to pay more. You may need to add benefits to what you currently offer too.

As you do this, however, don’t make the mistake that most every employer makes when they increase their hourly rate or enhance benefits. If you pay more, expect more. 

I repeat: if you pay more, expect more. Don’t pay more to hire the same caliber people that you always have. Increase your expectations and tighten your screening processes. There are qualified people out there, but you won’t encounter any if you’re not expecting to find them.

Staff Shortage Conclusion

Though staffing challenges are part of the call center industry, you can take steps to better deal with finding and keeping the employees you need to run an effective operation. Avoid short-term hiring gimmicks, embrace home-based staff, seek under-tapped labor markets, consider out-of-state hiring, and update your compensation package.

When you do these things with focus and intentionality, you’ll be more successful in hiring and keeping great telephone agents.

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.  Read more of his articles at PeterDeHaanPublishing.com.

How Will Fraudsters Adapt to Robocall Legislation?

By Robert McKay

Officially enacted by the FCC on July 1, the STIR/SHAKEN (Secure Telephone Identity Revisited /Signature-based Handling of Asserted Information Using toKENs) framework will help telephone carriers combat the scourge of fraudulent robocalls that cross their networks by verifying and authenticating the source of those calls. The goal of this legislation is to help rebuild the trust that consumers once had in the phone channel. 

This will make it easier to distinguish legitimate calls from questionable ones while enabling carriers to track down the criminal organizations abusing their networks. STIR/SHAKEN has already demonstrated that it can make high-volume calling campaigns via automated caller ID spoofing less effective and, hopefully, much less common. 

STIR/SHAKEN Creates New Hurdles for Fraudsters

Caller ID spoofing has been a staple in the fraudster’s toolbox for the better part of the past two decades. While more sophisticated groups write their own software or modify existing code, countless available apps and tools are available for purchase on black market deep web forums. It gives criminals easy access to methods that present any number as the originating calling number for their fraudulent calls. This allows them to easily impersonate real customers by having a legitimate customer’s phone number displayed when calling into a contact center. 

Until the implementation of STIR/SHAKEN, these organizations on the receiving end of a spoofed call could not easily authenticate a customer with their phone number alone. Now a criminal will have to work much harder to keep spoofed calls from raising suspicion and receiving a low attestation, a mechanism by which the originating service provider verifies the call’s degree of trust by the ID and calling number. 

It also helps mitigate account takeover attempts via call spoofing by flagging calls as questionable before they reach an IVR or call center agent. That said, there’s little doubt that fraudsters will evolve. The question is, “How?”

Criminals Are Masters of Adaptation

While we can’t say for certain how bad actors will evolve their techniques, history has shown us that they will find creative ways to respond. Fortunately, we already have a sense of how criminals will react to STIR/SHAKEN. Prior to enacting the standards in STIR/SHAKEN, a variety of third-party tools were available to help carriers and their customers distinguish legitimate calls from those that are likely spoofed. 

Although these tools had their shortcomings (such as a higher volume of false-positive calls, which tagged legitimate calls as suspect) they did succeed in making it more difficult to spoof calls at scale. To avoid these tools, many fraudsters adopted virtual calling services to continue their attempts at account takeover fraud over the phone. Most phone calls originate from unique physical devices such as a mobile phone or landline device. Virtual services originate calls from mobile apps, personal computers, and even PBX systems. Many can be used anonymously from anywhere in the world—the perfect tool for a criminal. Virtual apps have been particularly attractive in this category. 

There are large players such as Skype and Google Voice, both of which require identifying information when creating an account. Criminals are obviously keen to avoid this. However, extending beyond the long shadow cast by Skype and Google Voice are hundreds of smaller virtual call services that allow fraudsters to preserve their anonymity during account creation. 

Criminals have flocked to these services that enable them to place authentic looking calls from anywhere in the world using any area code of their choosing. Not only do these services preserve anonymity and limit call tracing, but because they originate from apps that are not spoofed, they can receive a high-level STIR/SHAKEN attestation. 

Criminals are already gravitating to virtual call services, with fraud attempts using virtual apps rising sharply over the past eighteen months. Market studies, such as the State of Call Center Authentication survey, also demonstrate a rapid adoption of virtual call apps to target call centers. As STIR/SHAKEN makes it more challenging to successfully place spoofed calls, expect to see an increasing number of criminals turn to virtual call services.

5 Proactive Considerations That Look Beyond First-Generation Caller ID Spoofing 

The enactment of STIR/SHAKEN was the result of a broad cross-industry collaboration that will undoubtedly make call spoofing more difficult for criminals. But expecting it to prevent all future fraud is dangerous thinking. Inbound call centers will need to anticipate the alternative paths and vectors criminals will use to conduct their illegal activity. 

Such considerations should include:

  1. Remember that the original intent of STIR/SHAKEN was to create a framework to help call tracing and reduce the utility of robocalls, not to protect against all potential vectors of fraud. 
  2. Invest in call evaluation systems that can improve the identification of virtual call technology and, within that segment of calls, isolate calls coming from virtual apps. 
  3. Partner with a phone call validation service to share information on attack patterns so your organization stays current on the latest virtual tools used by criminal networks. While the number and nature of these tools vary widely, efficient and timely information sharing within the call center industry can hamper their effectiveness. 
  4. Deploy services to identify and stratify risk of virtual calls. Then develop call flows to treat callers using high-risk virtual apps appropriately. Consider employing risk-based, stepped-up authentication practices, routing callers to agents that specialize in high-risk engagements, and within this context, limit the scope of activities a flagged caller can perform. 
  5. Monitor for other behavioral partners that can signal an account takeover attack, such as a recent number reassignment and anomalous calling patterns. Of course, remain vigilant for spoofed calls too, as enterprising fraudsters will identify new ways to mask their identity.

Conclusion

The STIR/SHAKEN framework will go a long way toward improving consumer trust in the phone calls they receive. 

As an added benefit, STIR/SHAKEN should also make it more challenging for fraudsters to take over consumer accounts. However, if past is indeed prologue, we know that fraudsters are an enterprising bunch and will work assiduously to evolve their methods and techniques. 

While these methods may change, by thinking proactively and investing in the right tools and processes, inbound call centers can better prepare for an unknown future.

Robert McKay is the senior vice president, risk solutions at Neustar, Inc.

Driving Enterprise CX with Contact Center Applications

By Donna Fluss

The pressure is on for enterprises to improve their customer experience (CX). Executives are trying, and many have spent more to enhance their CX in the last couple of years than ever before, displaying their willingness to invest in improving their performance, perception and brand. This is particularly important now that service quality is one of the primary—and sometimes only—differentiator between what most consumers consider to be commoditized products and services. But the investments are not fully resolving their service problems, based on the rising level of complaints about customer service in the market, as contact centers are only one of the many departments within companies that participate in the customer journey. 

Investing to enhance contact centers is an excellent and overdue first step. Whether it’s an evolution, transformation or a combination of both, the new direction will benefit companies, employees, and their customers. This underscores the growing importance and contributions of contact centers in enterprises, and these investments and changes couldn’t come soon enough, as the quality of customer service seems to continue to degrade with each passing year. What’s ironic is at the same time executives are recognizing that they have a service issue, many are claiming to receive higher and higher Net Promoter Scores. Something is clearly out of sync and needs to be fixed, but it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why service quality keeps getting worse. 

Some people are blaming the pandemic or the work-at-home situation, but these recent events are not the cause. There were major service issues long before COVID-19. Other industry thought leaders have identified the explosion of digital channels as a reason why the quality of service seems to be falling like a rock. While this is a contributing factor for enterprises that previously handled only calls and are now scrambling to support digital interactions, it’s not the primary cause of poor service quality. 

One of the most significant drivers of the increasingly inadequate service experience delivered by many companies is rapid growth. Companies scaled up and added new customers at a much faster rate than they built out their service organizations and contact centers. Their hope (or bet) was that fewer customers would want service, but it seems that the opposite is happening. With each passing year, customers are demanding more and a higher touch service. This a reality that companies need to accept and address. 

C-level executives in many companies hoped to fill the contact center resource gap by increasing agent productivity and providing self-service solutions. The technology vendors are doing their part and, during the past two years, have delivered a new generation of smart and artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled contact center systems and applications that are more productive, but it’s not enough. Consumers’ appetite for help and information is outpacing the productivity improvements. So, other changes need to be made if companies want to put an end to their rapidly deteriorating service experience. 

Getting Service Back on Course

It’s great that executives are investing in their contact centers at a rate never before seen, and that they are making commitments to improve the agent experience. But this is just a necessary first step in righting the servicing and CX ship. 

Companies that want to create lasting improvements that position them to deliver a consistently outstanding customer experience need to identify the reasons why customers are unhappy and reaching out for assistance at an increasing rate. This means that enterprises must find a way to track and measure all aspects of the customer journey—what happens throughout the customer lifecycle, from their first touch at the website through product retirement or replacement. 

An ideal way to address this issue is to roll out contact center applications throughout their organization. By design these solutions give them the visibility and insights they need to identify and resolve service issues and bottlenecks across the enterprise. Contact center applications should become standard productivity tools for most, if not all, enterprise employees. 

The AI-enabled omni-channel routing and queuing engine should replace unified communications (UC)/unified-communications-as-a-service (UCaaS) solutions. Workforce optimization (WFO)/workforce engagement management (WEM) capabilities, including recording, quality management, interaction analytics, workforce management, robotic process automation and customer journey analytics, need to be put in place to give managers better employee oversight and clearer understanding of customer needs and wants. 

Customer relationship management (CRM) solutions need to be available to all employees so that they have the information they need to make the right decisions up front, instead of leaving it to the contact center and customer service departments to fix after the fact. 

Final Thoughts

It’s time for enterprises to transform their perspective about customer service. For this to occur, companies need to alter their culture. Instead of saying that they care about CX and put customers first, they must demonstrate their commitment in every department in their company. The tools and know-how are available to deliver an outstanding CX cost effectively; the unknown factor is how long it will take executives to accept the inevitable and put in motion the changes necessary to convert to a customer-centric mindset, one dedicated to great service across the enterprise. 

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

5 Simple and Proven Ways to Retain Customers

By Kelly Doyle

Did you know that retaining existing customers is far more cost-effective than acquiring new ones? It’s true. Substantial research shows that focused efforts on retaining customers are more profitable. 

So, the question is, why do many businesses often focus more on acquisition efforts than to keep their customers happy and loyal? If customer retention is not at the forefront of your business’s strategic plan, it should be. Here’s why.

Customer acquisition costs are five times that of retention costs. According to Invesp, 44 percent of companies focus on customer acquisition compared to only 18 percent on retention. So why are most businesses hyper-focused on new customer acquisition? We have it backward. 

According to customer acquisition and retention marketing stats, the success rate of selling to an existing customer is between 60–70 percent. In comparison, the success rate of selling to a new customer is typically less than 20 percent. Furthermore, a study cited by Harvard Business School found that increasing customer retention by just 5 percent could yield profit increases between 25–95 percent. 

Through taking care of your biggest asset—your existing customers—you will develop a loyal customer base that becomes your prime source of new business. 

Here are five simple ways to retain existing customers. 

1. Proactive Renewals 

The best way to retain customers is by reaching out to them before their current contract expires to offer a renewal. Proactive calling keeps more customers, and most customers appreciate the reminder. 

Many companies offer special benefits to existing customers, so a pre-expiration call is an excellent time to remind them of these essential benefits, which might be the reason they signed up in the first place. In addition, calling current customers creates a personal connection, which they will appreciate. 

2. Reinstate Lapsed Customers 

Frequently, customers allow their contract to expire without realizing it. How many times have you called a former customer only to discover they didn’t know their contract lapsed? This is a perfect time to offer a special promotion to them. 

Convenience is essential. Always make the renewal process easy by allowing payment directly over the phone. 

Of course, this all sounds great, but what if you don’t have the time to make these calls? Consider bringing in call center professionals. Time is money, and outsourcing calls is an ideal way to make the most of both. 

3. Win Back Former Customers 

When you have dormant customers or former customers not currently using your services, the personal interaction of a courtesy call may be the key to win them back. 

According to LearnSmart, the main reason your customers leave is they no longer perceive value in what you offer. As a result, they stop service—or even worse—begin to look to your competitors. However, frequently the cause of customer abandonment is well within a company’s control. It often comes down to effective communication and successfully highlighting products and services that set you apart from others.

Perhaps your company has new offerings. A touchback call is a perfect time to let dormant customers know about what’s new. Strategically reach out to them, let them know you value them, and remind them of the benefits of continuing a relationship with your company. 

Do not be disparaging, but make sure they know the differences between you and your competitors. Then, finally, seal the deal with a special offer for coming back. 

Last, if you dropped the ball in the past, admit it. Own your mistakes and be sincere. Your former customers may want you back as much as you want them back, but there may be some hard feelings. Nothing breaks down the walls like an apology, taking ownership, and a sincere promise to make it right.

4. Effective Account Management 

Account management is about retaining your customers’ business and helping them grow with your products and services. Take the time to learn about the customers you support, identify their goals, and the role you play in helping them meet and exceed these goals. 

Sometimes this requires out-of-the-box thinking, but the key is to identify why they choose you over your competitors. What value do you bring that others cannot? 

Answering these questions requires you to reach out to your customers often, by phone, to learn their needs, wants, goals, and objectives. In doing so, you become an increasingly valuable business partner, resulting in a more mutually beneficial relationship. 

5. Promotions and Blitz Campaigns 

Is there currently a sale or promotion running on products or services your previous customers bought? Of course, we all receive promotion emails. However, have you thought about the personal impact of a phone call? 

During special promotions, call centers can contact customers, knowing your current promotion and sales offerings. Phone calls may significantly increase sales because they are more personal and create a sense of urgency and excitement about the promotion. 

Conclusion

Retaining customers is not always on the mind of business owners. Companies frequently take their customers and the business they generate for granted. By using one or more of these five simple ways to retain customers, you can start to increase your retention rate significantly, enjoy higher profits, and drive brand loyalty.

Customers have a choice of where to do business, and in today’s increasingly competitive environment, it’s more important than ever to make customer retention a top priority.

Kelly Doyle writes for Quality Contact Solutions (QCS), a certified woman-owned business enterprise and an industry leader in call center and telemarketing services solutions, including B2B and B2C programs. QCS offers many telemarketing services and turnkey outsourced call center services that augment sales and marketing programs. 

Vendor Profile on TAS Marketing

TAS Marketing

When you think of TAS Marketing, the thought comes to mind of a husband-and-wife team, Steve and Christine Michaels, who have been serving this industry since 1979. Known then as TAS Consultants, they sold all types of ancillary equipment such as the ACI remote printer, TAStrix, the AVI training system, and a DC-7 billing system. 

Steve and Chris Michaels

To really know your customers, Steve and Chris felt that they had to meet them face-to-face by travelling to every state or attending all the ATSI conventions and regional meetings. “I have seen a lot over the years but seeing the birth of a baby lamb in Joanne Milton’s kitchen up in Maine topped the list,” says Steve. 

Getting to know these people created a family of sorts and Steve is usually the one they call when bubbles are stirring in the industry. Steve has taken out several individuals who were scamming his classified clients out of equipment and in some cases an entire service. With Mr. Michaels help and the FBI, these individuals are now behind bars.

Raymond Baggarly said, “Every time I see Steve, he has a new system, product, or business for sale . . . and at seventy-three he is still working; wish I had his energy and inspiration.” His other job is tending to the Hobbits and running the trolls off, when necessary, along with being the curator of his new photographic art gallery. 

The brokering segment of the business came about when RJ Chaffee, the broker at the time passed away. Steve called RJ’s son who is also named RJ, to see if he was going to take over for his dad. RJ said he wasn’t. Thus, a new business was born. TAS Marketing has sold over 500 services in over forty years. Steve had been called him the ”answering service expert” by the Business Reference Guide.

Steve first got his feet wet when he started an answering service himself. He charged $145 for an 8-5 service, Monday through Friday. No weekends. Not knowing what others were charging, they were getting a premium even in 1986. 

Besides selling equipment, the Michaels helped spearhead and start ATMS (Association of TeleMessaging Suppliers) and presented several TAS Conventions hosted by the vendors. The first keynote speaker was the noted Dr. Norman Vincent Peale who packed the convention hall with a standing ovation.

Steve and Chris moved several times from Palo Alto to Ft. Bragg, CA. They moved to Colorado for two years and ended in Montana where they live on a 100-acre ranch and offer a world-renowned getaway called “The Shire of Montana.”

Steve and Chris Michaels

Steve mentioned that he is now working with the kids of parents he sold equipment to many years ago. “If he did such a good job selling my equipment then,” said one satisfied client, “then I trust him to sell my answering service [now].”

Some TAS owners have the foresight to provide Steve’s phone number and email address to their CPA and attorney in case of an accident or sudden death, which happened to an individual in Illinois while out jogging. His estate left instruction regarding liquidating the business, alleviating that extra burden from his wife.

 Mr. Michaels was also the founder and publisher of the Connections magazine for ten years until selling it to its current owner.

Starting out as TAS Consultants, Steve attended his first trade show in New Orleans with a new briefcase (he still has it today) and a tape recorder where he interviewed all the vendors and compiled a book entitled, The TAS Equipment Analysis Report. The book gave those with switchboards an idea of how the computerized equipment worked. At the time, 87 percent of the industry used the old dependable cordboard from Ma bell. Moving to new technology was a big step for these answering services.

TAS Marketing’s vision to put buyers and sellers came together in a very fruitful way since Mr. Michaels knows most of the sellers in the industry and can make the transaction a win-win experience.

TAS Marketing

Learn more about TAS Marketing or contact the Michaels at 800-369-6126 or tas@tasmarketing.com.

Call Center Innovation Provides Fresh Opportunities

Develop a mindset of ongoing change to produce meaningful results

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Most call center owners and managers want to see innovation in their call center. They yearn for leading-edge solutions that will promote quality and drive client loyalty. These are lofty goals. And they are also equally hard to realize.

In truth, connecting call center innovation with actionable outcomes presents a challenging situation. So, instead of seeking big, revolutionary business overhauls, look for simpler ways to integrate innovation in the day-to-day operation of your call center.

Each time an innovation opportunity presents itself, don’t first seek ways you could tap it to revamp your operation. Instead look for ways call center innovation can provide incremental change to what you already have. Here are three considerations.

1. Enhance Existing Services

With each new opportunity that presents itself, consider how it can enhance what you’re already doing. This is simply looking for new ways to do what you’re currently doing better.

For example, when voicemail first came on the scene, the industry assumed automated message taking would replace people doing the same thing and would do it for less. Yet these fears were unfounded.

Yes, this did happen to a small extent, and some visionaries built new businesses around this ground-breaking technology, but most operations adapted the technology to enhance what they were already doing. The result included voicemail message retrieval, customized greetings, and personalized auto answer to list a few common innovations.

Each one expanded what the call center could do. So, look for these types of opportunities with each new solution that presents itself.

2. Offer New Services

Another consideration when call center innovation presents itself is to consider what new services you could offer because of it. This is what many outsource call centers did when voicemail came along. 

They continued offering their agent voice services as they always had. And they now had a new service using voicemail technology: automated message taking and delivery.

Voicemail didn’t replace what they were doing but added to it in the form of a new service.

3. Expand into New Markets

Sometimes an innovation can allow you to expand into new markets. For example, as answering service software became more sophisticated, it allowed its users to move into telephone order taking, appointment setting, and database integration.

Conclusion

Call center innovation need not happen in huge, revolutionary jumps. We can better apply innovation as manageable tweaks on a consistent basis over time. This is the best and easiest way to find new opportunities for your call center.

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

The Truths of System Hardening

Startel delivers best-in-call contact center solutions

By Shawn Griswold

Today you must take initiative to deal with security and system hardening. Flying under the radar, hoping and praying you will be okay, is no longer an option. Cybercrime is exploding. Crimes like exfiltration, ransomware, extortion, and sale of personal data are on the increase, and they are even being combined.

Previously threat analysts were only worried about ransomware, now they must worry about the ransomware actors exfiltrating data: turning around and locking us out of our own system, and then threatening to sell our information if we don’t pay. And they do sell data if the victims don’t comply. Sites like Klep exist to sell data. 

Why do they do this? For one, it’s safe for the bad actors. The countries that harbor these threat actors will not prosecute if they don’t harm anything within their own country. In Russia, for instance, where many of the threat actors attacking the U.S. reside, threat actor’s software can check the localization of a computer, and if it resides in any of the former soviet states, the software will automatically uninstall itself. They know better than to do business in their own backyard. But they can attack the United States all they want, and they will never face prosecution. So, it is a safe crime for them. 

As far as money goes, just to give you an idea, is a company called Darkside. It was in the news recently. The FBI blamed it for carrying out a ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline, which crippled fuel delivery across the Southeastern United States. Darkside made $17 Million in seven months. It’s very profitable. Darkside began as a software company that provided services. Revel makes even more than that. 

It’s an easy business. Darkside took all the work out of creating ransomware. You can go on to a webpage, order your ransomware software, customize it for the environment you need it for, create it, and deploy it. You don’t even need to know how to write ransomware. 

Tools stolen from government hacking teams are used to commit these crimes. Equation Group, the hacking arm of the National Security Administration had malware code stolen by another hacking group called The Shadow Brokers and is now being used to commit crimes globally. As these tools have been stolen and released it makes things so much easier for the criminals.

From 2018-2019 ransomware attacks increased by 300 percent in the United States. In the first nine months of 2020 it has increased an additional 400 percent.

The other thing to keep in mind is that for those under a regulated environment such as HIPAA, PCI, ITAR, and FERPA, it really doesn’t matter. Ransomware equals a breach. And breach means disclosure. These are the things we try to avoid.

One of the biggest attack points we are seeing is VPN. This year alone, VPN attacks have increase over 2,000 percent. The number one way these threat actors are getting into corporations is by attacking people’s less secure home networks. Ultimately your security is no better than the end point. For example, the Colonial Pipelines breach came because of a compromised username and password for a user’s home VPN. The threat actors got ahold of it, and they did $5 million dollars in ransomware damage, plus the subsequent security costs to the company in mitigating future attacks. 

Another scary example occurred at the Oldsmar Water Treatment Plant in Florida. According to federal investigators an outdated version of Windows and a weak cybersecurity network allowed hackers to access the water system and momentarily tamper with the water supply. 

So, what can you do? Use system hardening.

What is system hardening? These are steps you can take to make your cyber security system more secure than what a default installation provides. You may be surprised that most systems are insecure by default for the sake of user convenience. Many companies want to make their software easy to use and easy to set up. But that doesn’t make it secure. 

For example, by default Microsoft Windows does not have the password lockout turned on. You need to go in and manually set it so that hackers can’t just “brute force” their way into your system. By default, it does not have password history turned on. So even if you tell it to change the password every thirty days, your old password will still work unless you turn on password history. As your passwords keep changing, you are only adding more opportunities for hackers to guess a password. 

These are the types of security measures you need to harden.

Anti-Malware and Anti-Virus

This should be mandatory and set to automatically update. Scans should also run automatically. Likewise, they need endpoint protection and intrusion protection. They need to do a certain amount of firewall and exfiltration. They just can’t let anything go out the door. 

If you are running in a domain where you have control over all the endpoints, you can investigate installing a central managed server where all the definitions are downloaded to it and then pushed out. Completely take it out of the hands of the agents or end users. This is a pain but cleaning up after a ransomware attack is far worse. The average cost of cleaning up after a ransomware attack is around $1.2 to 1.5 million. 

Web Proxy

Do not allow agents to browse the internet freely. Create and maintain whitelists or required internet sites.

Firewalls

Companies put a lot of time and effort into securing what is on the outside trying to get in, but they don’t put the same energy into securing what’s inside trying to get out. Many companies hinge everything on the hacker never getting in. But there are multiple ways they can, and once inside what security plans do you have in place? 

Focus on inside to out as much as you would outside to in. You must assume they will get in. This is what the hackers are relying on. That once they can get in, they can exfiltrate the data without any barriers. Therefore, your inside to outside rules must be well defined and only allow outgoing traffic that is necessary.

Updates and Patches

You must apply all high and critical updates within thirty days of release to maintain security compliance. For example, the NotPetya virus caused $10 billion in damages because users did not apply a critical patch. If you are running in a domain, it is highly recommended that you use the Windows Server Update Service. The WannaCry virus was launched out of North Korea and was successful because nobody heeded the warnings from NotPetya and did not patch. This sort of security laziness is the initial cause or shortcoming of many system breaches. Do not delay these patches. 

And if Windows releases a patch outside of their normal patch cycle you should apply it immediately. If they feel it’s critical enough to offer it outside of their normal patch cycle, then you can be sure the virus is bad. They only do that when things are critical.

Vulnerability Scanning

Vulnerability scanning is an inspection of the potential points of exploit on a computer or network to identify security holes. A vulnerability scan detects and classifies system weaknesses in computers, networks, and communications equipment and predicts the effectiveness of countermeasures. Some places where you can have this done are www.OpenVAS.org and www.tenable.com

Other Best Practices

Rename the default administrator and disable the account. Do not make it easy to hack a known default administrator account. You should always rename it to something other than administrator. The first account that a threat actor would want to access is the admin login. Don’t make it easy to find. Also, keep the system security group as small as possible. And do not allow users to run as local administrators.

It is also highly recommended to use a Server 2021 or later Active Directory Domain. This centralizes the management of authentication and access. Update group security policies per NIST or CIS standards. Once again default policies are not secure. For more information visit www.nist.gov or www.cisecurity.org

Harden web servers to meet OWASP standards. For more information go to www.owasp.org. Also look at www.ssllabs.com.

Educate Your Agents

Another thing many security admins take lightly is educating their employees about security risks. You should train your workers so they understand the risks involved with browsing the internet or opening spam emails. 

One way many security admins are gauging their workers knowledge and adherence to rules is to send out a faux phishing email from an anonymous source to see how many people click on it. You can even offer incentives to get that click rate as low as possible.

Conclusion

If there is one thing you should be learning from all of this is just how easy and risk free this crime is. For many hackers the only security protocol they must contend with when hacking your system is figuring out your name and password. Once inside they can easily move about. But if you take the steps mentioned above you will make it harder for the hacker. 

Many hackers are lazy and do not have time for redundant security measures. Once they realize how slow their progress will be, many will just give up. This is not because it is impossible but because it will require extra work. 

While we cannot guarantee a failsafe security system, we can make it harder for the hackers to hack.

Startel

Shawn Griswold is the security analyst for Startel Contact Center Solutions. Shawn has been involved in software engineering for over thirty years and has been providing cyber security for Startel for the last six.

A.I. Will Not Replace Customer Service Agents

By Jennifer Lee

There’s a common misconception that technology will disrupt customer service the way it disrupted manufacturing. Using robots to assemble more cars or blenders per hour than human labor solved a mechanical problem, and it did displace workers. 

But customer service is a human activity, not a mechanical one. Call center agents solve problems for an endlessly varied stream of human customers thanks to their uniquely human capacity for empathy and situational dexterity—traits that no robot has today or will have anytime soon. 

We should think of technology as a boon to human agents, not a threat. Customers need to feel understood, and technology can help by liberating and amplifying agents’ uniquely human skills. The right technology—more specifically, artificial intelligence (AI)—empowers agents to apply a stronger “human touch” and solve customer problems faster and more efficiently. 

Technology and Artificial Intelligence

It’s important to make a distinction between technology and artificial intelligence. AI is an advanced form of technology capable of learning and applying that learning to subsequent challenges. Assembly line robots can be programmed to perform predictable tasks repeatedly, but they can’t learn how to deal with a dynamic task. Most robots are technology, not AI.

Technology is also a mechanism that delivers the product of AI. Take the automated call distributor (ACD) system, for instance: Technology delivers an incoming call to the first available agent, but with the addition of intelligent capabilities, AI dynamically matches agents and customers to achieve the most optimal outcome. 

Technology has improved efficiency and performance over the years, but the emergence of AI-powered intelligent automation is raising the bar for contact center performance even higher. These centers generate massive quantities of time-sensitive data each day. Human labor could potentially process that data, but it would take hours, days, or even weeks, and by that time it wouldn’t be useful anymore. 

Intelligent automation is capable of processing all that data in real time and leveraging it to take immediate actions to solve problems that agents, managers, and administrators were previously unable to identify, let alone solve. 

Satisfied Agents, Satisfied Customers

Until now, technological innovation has focused overwhelmingly on customers. That’s obviously a good thing, but resolution of customer problems is no longer enough. 

Intelligent automation goes a step further, solving problems that frustrate agents and impact the service they deliver. When a call comes in just before an agent’s break is due, the agent’s frustration at losing that break may have a negative impact on the caller’s experience. 

But intelligent automation will take that pending break into account, prompt the agent to go to break a few minutes early, and update the WFM schedule—all automatically. By removing this underlying driver of agent dissatisfaction—something no technology has thus far been able to do—intelligent automation safeguards agent satisfaction and contributes to more consistently positive customer experiences. 

The pandemic proved that robots cannot and will not replace human customer service agents. The hunger for human contact remains strong, as evidenced by the fact that call volume has risen sharply since the start of the pandemic and increases in call handle times as customers seek a comforting voice during turbulent times. 

No robot can engage in discussion about critical health insurance or financial issues with a distressed customer; only a human is capable of the kind of empathy needed to properly handle these sensitive issues.

Long Live the Human Touch

We’ve seen that when people have tough problems to solve, they prefer dealing with people. This is confirmed by the existence of a popular website, dialahuman.com, which explains how to circumvent the maddening IVR systems used by so many organizations and reach a human more quickly. 

Moving forward, organizations must equip their contact centers with the flexible technology necessary to support customer service operations under new circumstances created by the pandemic. That technology should be cloud-based, scalable, accessible, and easy to use. This will allow companies to pivot to remote agents and continue to support customers under the tough circumstances of the past eighteen months, and it will also allow them to manage the hybrid workforce likely to dominate contact centers in the coming months. 

Powered by AI, intelligent automation delivers a consistent work experience to both remote and in-center customer service teams. It strengthens agent engagement by removing traditional sources of frustration and makes it easier for agents to deliver all the flexibility and empathy necessary to solve the tough problems of their human customers. 

AI is not a job killer; it’s a customer service enhancer. Contact centers should embrace its ability to make the agent’s work more engaging and the customer’s experience more satisfying.

Jennifer Lee is the chief strategy officer at Intradiem. She has twenty years’ experience in the contact center industry. Throughout her career, Jennifer has served in a variety of roles in the contact center space, including operations, quality, workforce management, and client services. For the last four years, Jennifer led the customer success organization at Intradiem, where her team was pivotal in achieving the historic milestone of one billion automation actions.

Why Appointment Setting for Insurance Agents Makes Perfect Sense

By Steve Korn

Like most other industries, the insurance industry is not exempt from clients closing their doors, being acquired, or losing someone to competition. In addition, industry statistics indicate fewer businesses buy group health plans, workers comp, and even general liability insurance. 

Considering it can take over two years to convert a new commercial insurance prospect into a client, appointment setters for insurance agents have been vital in keeping agencies healthy and thriving.

Keep Business Flowing

Let’s use a fictitious independent commercial insurance agency as an example. The agency has a few satellite offices or now, post-COVID, fifty insurance producers working to keep that pipeline full of new business. 

  • What are the best ways to keep the flow of prospects strong? 
  • How do you maintain the present level of business and increase sales?

Indeed, no one can argue that referrals are essential, and most agents do an outstanding job of nurturing those referrals and working them into quotes and eventually new clients. But, in most cases, referrals are not enough. 

Insurance Agents Need Appointment Setters

Our pretend insurance agency and its producers need to aggressively pursue new business that very well may not be aware they exist in the crowded insurance field.

Whether their emphasis is property and casualty, group health, workers comp, or even supplemental insurance, uncovering new prospects must be a top priority. 

So, the question becomes, what is the best way to accomplish that?

Let’s say our agency decides to put that responsibility on the producers themselves. There will likely be a flurry of activity for a couple of weeks, then it will slowly die out until nothing is happening. 

In most industries, producers in the insurance world are like salespeople; their strengths lie about anywhere other than cold calling. They want to get on a call, discuss coverages, and review pricing because they have that knowledge and are comfortable with those discussions. 

The problem is they don’t set appointments. 

Appointment Setting Benefits

Our fictitious insurance agency can decide to set up their own internal call center to prospect for new business. Or they can outsource it.

The job of an outsourcer is to call a list of prospects, get the decision-maker, determine if the prospect meets the insurance agency’s minimum qualifications for the type of coverage, and schedule an appointment. Nothing more. 

Appointment setters don’t talk about coverages. They don’t discuss costs. They aren’t licensed, insurance agents. Instead, their focus is on setting appointments with qualified prospects and moving on to the next call. 

Uses for Appointment Setting

It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a larger agency with dozens or hundreds of producers working either from a centralized office or a smaller size. 

 Consider using an appointment setter for:

  • Calling a group of clients set to renew within a 90-day timeframe—that someone inside the agency may not have the capacity to contact—to arrange an appointment to review coverages. 
  • Target an industry-specific list of businesses where you may have a competitive advantage or more expertise. 
  • Clients that may not have renewed their policy within a specific timeframe.

Also, let’s not forget that appointment setters are great at reaching out to current clients about add on or supplemental products. The possibilities are endless. Appointment setters for insurance agents can have a quick conversation with a client or prospect to help keep the pipeline for the agency full.

Steve Korn is a business development executive for Quality Contact Solutions. His experience spans forty years and includes ownership of his own call center for over twenty. Contact Steve at steve.korn@qualitycontactsolutions.com or 516-656-4198.