Tag Archives: Call Center Management Articles

Why Call Centers Are Important for Your Branding Strategy



By Guy Dilger

For many business leaders, branding means the company logo, website, sales material, direct marketing, social media, and online content. Devoting resources and marketing activities to these types of communications is important to creating brand awareness and sales opportunities.

However, it’s not just the company’s marketing that creates a brand. Every touch point in the customer journey becomes part of a buyer’s perception of the company’s brand.

Call Center as a Brand Experience

One department that may require a portion of the branding budget but is often overlooked is the inbound call center or customer service department. For many customers who purchase products or sign up for services online, the call center is the only human interaction with a company. This is especially true for online and e-commerce companies that don’t have a physical presence.

Consumers and decision-makers are more likely to judge and create an impression of businesses based on the over-the-phone service. That’s the reason it’s crucial for businesses to incorporate their branding into their customer service and call centers.

Companies make major investments to support call centers and customer service departments. This includes telecommunications technology, customer response management software, training, and scripts. But does the call center training cover the company’s brand standards and personality? Are the founder’s story and company mission part of the scripts? Can the team easily insert the company’s unique value proposition and point of differentiation for the products and services into customer conversations? All these key message points shape the buyer’s brand experience, which influences customer acquisition, retention, loyalty, and lifetime value.

Call Center Agents as Brand Ambassadors

When an insufficiently trained call center or customer service representative focuses more on ending a customer call rather than solving the issue, the company takes a hit.

First, this tarnishes the brand. That interaction had a greater impact on the customer’s perception than a scheduled message from the company’s CEO. Second, all the marketing, product development, and innovation were made ineffective because of a frustrated call center agent. Even worse, that unsatisfied or angry customer may choose to post a negative review or rant on social media.

Ensuring that your call center and customer service department are properly trained and engaged is the best way to avoid these types of interactions. An engaged call center pays for itself in improved productivity and reduced turnover of customers and employees. This communication allows an opportunity for a resolution, rather than seeing a complaint or negative review online. Click To Tweet

Essential Training Elements

Key elements of the call center training include:

Empathy: Prospects and customers call because they need information or have an issue. Some call center agents and customer service representatives mistakenly use a falsely cheery phone voice. Call center agents and customer service representatives need to be sensitive to the fact that customers may be confused or upset. After the caller explains the reason for the call, the first response is sincere empathy. The company’s brand personality and brand voice should guide the tone of this initial interaction.

Ease Anxiety: Next, ease the caller’s anxiety by reassuring them that they have called the experts and solution providers. At this point, the call center agent should consider thanking the customer for calling. This communication allows an opportunity for a resolution, rather than seeing a complaint or negative review online. A calm, confident, and reassuring attitude will go a long way in easing communications and clearly understanding the issues.

Educate: Once the issue is defined, the call center agent can provide information and guidance for the next steps. Guidelines for various scenarios and scripts with key message points provide the greatest support for the agent and result in faster resolution. Some companies provide checklists, step-by-step instructions, links to the company website, and other resources to address their customers’ needs.

Enable Follow-Up: After the call, a brief online survey or follow-up email continues to improve the brand experience. Marketing and sales leaders may consider a follow-up phone call to make sure the issue was resolved and offer an additional customer touch point.

In some cases, business leaders “mystery shop” their own call center, take customer calls themselves, or listen to recorded conversations. Getting customer feedback and monitoring performance will ensure that the call center is part of the brand experience.

Guy Dilger is the vice president of product and marketing at Plain Green. With twelve years of experience designing marketing strategies for Fortune 500 companies and financial technology brands, he is known for generating engaging content and compelling concepts that resonate with targeted consumers.

Important Forecasting Considerations for Inbound Contact Solutions



By Rich Hamilton

The heart and soul of most companies is their inbound contact solutions operation (their inbound call center, including voice, email, text, and chat). This vital department within an organization has an opportunity to get key customer insights, and the call center interactions often make or break the customer relationship.

Have you ever sat on hold, trying to get through to a company, and finally gave up, never to interact with that company again? Making sure your inbound contact solutions operation is properly staffed is important. Whether this is a first impression or an angry customer giving the company one last chance, each inbound contact is vital.

Forecasting call volumes and appropriate staffing and scheduling is critical. Keep in mind that there are some sophisticated algorithms used to forecast call volume and the needed workforce to answer those calls. I’ll focus more on the data that needs to be considered. Here are the key data points used for forecasting and scheduling: call volume, average handle time, absenteeism, service levels, and occupancy rates.

Now that we have listed the key data points, let’s break these down and look at a few other considerations for workforce forecasting and planning for any inbound call center operation.

Historical Data

Data is king. The best place to start is with data from the past. The more data you can get your hands on, the better. The key metrics to focus on are call volume and average handle time. Look at these metrics by day, week, month, and time of day. If possible, instead of just looking at the last couple of months, consider the same period over the last several years. This especially will be helpful in industries where there are seasonal call volume changes (think Christmastime for anyone selling consumer products).

Looking at call volume and average handle time will give a good picture of the number of FTEs you’ll need in your inbound contact solution. This will get you about 80 percent there.

Don’t forget to look at absenteeism. You will need to know what percentage of your workforce may call out sick on a given day. This can be hard to forecast, but with enough data at least you can forecast more precisely. For example, let’s say your call center needs to staff twenty FTEs for Monday. Based on your absenteeism, historically one person calls out sick on Mondays. Wouldn’t it be prudent to schedule twenty-one FTEs on Monday, so that when the one person calls out sick, you still have the right number of call agents to handle the expected call volume?

There are still a few more factors we need to consider to get the whole picture, which we will discuss in the following sections.The heart and soul of most companies is their inbound contact solutions operation (their inbound call center, including voice, email, text, and chat). Click To Tweet

Future Events

Not only do you need to look at metrics from the past, but you also need to look at any events happening in the future that are out of the ordinary.

Marketing and Company Initiatives

The marketing department might plan to send out an email announcing a new product or a new promotion that they predict will increase call volume.

Weather

This one is tougher, but it could affect you in a couple different ways. One would be if your industry relies on the weather. Maybe there will be extra snow forecasted over the next month, and your call center takes ski resort reservations.

The other way is how it affects your employees. Increased snow may mean your absenteeism will be higher than normal, so schedule more employees to cover all the inbound calls.

Other Events

These events could be specific to an industry or a specific group of industries and the amount of calls the call center will receive. It might be a new federal law that affects a certain industry and the volume of calls they will receive. For example, when HIPAA was first implemented, healthcare providers received more calls, and the calls were longer than normal.

Management Expectations

Each call center has specific metrics from management that need to be adhered to. These metrics might include service levels (the percentage of calls to be answered within X amount of time) and occupancy rates (the percentage of time actively working on calls, including talk time and after-call work time). The higher the service level required, the more call center agents needed to answer phone calls. Higher occupancy levels mean you won’t need as many call center agents, but it also means agents will burn out faster, and sometimes it is difficult to achieve higher occupancy levels and higher service levels if the call volumes aren’t consistent.

But you’re still not done. Here are some more considerations to keep in mind as you identify the inputs for forecasting and scheduling for your contact solutions operation.

Human Resources Policies

HR policies concerning required break times and lunchtimes will impact your workforce management and scheduling plan. Obviously, there is a huge difference in scheduling when a call center agent has a thirty-minute lunch versus a sixty-minute lunch. Other HR policies could include union rules that dictate start and stop times for shifts, and possibly when the breaks would need to occur (after so many hours of work).

Agent Skills

If your call center has multiple departments, this adds another level of complexity. Calculating call volume and average handle time, along with the other considerations, will have to be done for each department because the skill required will vary most times from department to department.

When scheduling, it’s good to know which call center agents are cross-trained. I’m not saying that you can count a call center agent for both departments if they are trained for both, but at times when one department is slow, and another is busy, knowing that a few agents can help with the overflow is helpful.

Forecast and Workforce Management Resources

Typically, the larger the organization, the larger the budget for workforce management software and systems. Smaller inbound contact solutions operations typically get by with spreadsheets.

Conclusion

Whether you have access to sophisticated forecasting and workforce management software or you’re working with Excel spreadsheets, you’ll find this aspect of the business is equal parts math and art. In my organization, we often gain a little more flexibility by adding some outbound calls into the queue. This helps justify more staffing while getting a higher occupancy rate.

 

Rich Hamilton is the director of marketing and product development for Quality Contact Solutions, a leading outsourced telemarketing organization. Rich works to bring new products to the teleservices and call center market. In addition, Rich is a telemarketing compliance guru with a Customer Engagement Compliance Professional (CECP) certification. Contact him at rich.hamilton@qualitycontactsolutions.com or 516-656-5105.

Fill Your Contact Center Seats with Passion, Not Just People!



By Tom Cunningham

World-renowned soccer superstar, Mia Hamm, once said, “If you don’t love what you do, you won’t do it with much conviction or passion.” As leaders, it’s not only our job to achieve the goals set before us but to assemble a team that will turn goals into reality. Far too many of us have the mentality of just “getting people in seats” instead of taking the time to find the team members who have the passion and drive to achieve our key performance indicators (KPIs) and make brand ambassadors of our customers along the way.

We get hundreds of resumes that sum up a potential team member’s education, job history, tenure at each stop, and what they accomplished along the way. It’s impossible to gauge the person’s passion and fit within our culture by reading resumes. It’s a process that can become monotonous at times when we search for the checklist of required qualifications and skills based on a sheet of paper. Do we see this person fitting in with our culture? What are they passionate about? Click To Tweet

The sad part is that we have been trained to accept this as the way the recruiting process has always been done. We typically look for two or three things that seem to align with our job qualifications and duties, interview potential candidates with age-old questions—which many applicants have researched online for tips or make up stories to fit what they think we are looking for—and decide if we should choose them to fill one of the available seats.

This mentality has us in a vicious cycle where we are always in the hiring mode, dealing with people who only show up for a paycheck, or, worst of all, are detrimental to our culture. To combat this issue, my team and I have evolved our hiring process over the last year to approach it as if we were looking for the next Mia Hamm to lead our team onto the field.

How did we do this? We put our culture and core values at the forefront of our recruiting process. Yes, we still must go through resumes and review an applicant’s basic information to ensure they meet the required qualifications, but we don’t talk about their job history or technical aptitude in detail until the final round of the process. We can always teach our platform and business model, but we can’t teach passion or change an applicant’s character.

Phone Interview

The first step is the phone interview. During this phase, we talk about our core values with the potential candidate, outline each value in detail, and explain how each value affects every aspect of our team members’ workday. From employee evaluations to each interaction on the phone with a customer, our core values will be the judge of an employee’s success, so it’s critical applicants understand that from the beginning. We share with our applicants the following examples of how we rate our employees:

  • You have passion, drive, and perseverance.
  • You show respect to others, no matter what position you hold within the company.
  • You understand that every opinion is valuable and that great ideas can come from anyone.
  • You seek opportunities to learn and further your understanding of our business.
  • You share knowledge and experience with others in a constructive way.
  • You contribute positively while in meetings.

Providing concrete examples of what the applicant would be evaluated on during our phone interview process has filtered out many people just looking for a job where they can occupy a seat. It lets them know it will be impossible to hide within our center and merely collect a paycheck.

Instead, applicants know up front that we will be looking at them every day—from their performance on the phone to how they engage with every staff member in the company—to gauge if they are successful members of the team. This approach either energizes applicants to become more excited about our company or it drives them away to find an employer who will accept their desire to do the minimum.

Play a Game

The second step is where we interview the applicant for culture fit and determine if they have the passion to help us deliver the greatest customer service possible. Applicants come to the office dressed in their best, with crisp copies of their resumes, expecting the same old questions they have heard repeatedly.

Surprise! We casually greet them at the entrance, conduct brief introductions, and lead them not to a conference room but to our break room. Once there we enthusiastically ask, “What game are we going to play?”

Once applicants get over the shock of what they just heard, we invite them to put their resumes, ties, purses, portfolios, and jackets on a couch and choose between pool, air hockey, supersized Jenga, or Connect Four.

During this phase of the process, our goal is simple: Do we see this person fitting in with our culture? What are they passionate about? Finally, how did they adapt to our environment versus the old, traditional interview process? It’s a time to pull back the layers and see who this person is and what they are all about. We ask questions such as:

  • Do you consider yourself a nerd? Why or why not?
  • Do you prefer DC or Marvel or neither? Why?
  • What do you like to do for fun or to relax?
  • What does customer service mean to you?
  • What is the greatest customer service experience you ever had and why?
  • What is the latest book you’re reading? Tell me about your favorite parts and why?
  • What core value have you connected with the most during your career? Why?
  • Do you prefer Apple or Android? Why?

Spending some time playing whatever game they have chosen while making conversation with these types of questions is the catalyst of our evaluation process. Does their tenacity, passion, and drive about their personal and professional lives translate to what we seek in an employee? If the consensus is yes, only then do we set up a sit-down interview with some of our other leaders within the customer service department.

The Interview

The sit-down interview is when we look at the candidate’s resume and technical aptitude. If we believe they can learn our platform, we’ll give them the chance to join our team. However, instead of making this phase the quintessential part of the interview process, it’s the conclusion.

This process has led to two main changes. First, we turn away a lot more people than we hire compared to the past. Second, we have yet to lose anyone to attrition during the training phase.

Have the courage to do something different. Not only will your results be different, they will be rewarding.

Tom Cunningham is the North American director of SAAS Operations at PerfectServe. Tom has over twenty-two years of call center operations management experience. He can be reached at 865-719-6960 or Tcunningham@perfectserve.net.

Are You a Call Center or a Contact Center?



Consider the implications of the call center versus contact center debate

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineIn Connections Magazine we use the terms call center and contact center interchangeably. Some authors who write for us are content to use the more traditional label of call center, while others prefer the more accurate label of contact center. Other authors seem to not care and use both phrases in the same piece, I suppose to provide variety or maybe to subtly communicate that the labels don’t matter.

Some Definitions

The term call center is a descriptive one. It’s a centralized place that receives or makes phone calls. This label has served our industry well for several decades.

Nevertheless, most call centers have expanded their service offerings to handle more than just telephone calls. They may also process email and text messages, as well as perform various social media functions. Some also handle faxes and snail mail. These go beyond the meaning of the word call, with contact being a more inclusive description. Hence we get the term contact center.

Nevermind that in both scenarios, the word center emerges as a misnomer, since many call/contact centers have decentralized their operation. Instead they have a distributed workforce, with staff no longer in a single location. Should we make another adjustment to our industry’s label to find something even more accurate than contact center? I’ll leave that for others to ponder.What counts the most isn’t the label we self-identify with, but the quality of the service we provide. Click To Tweet

Effective Communications

Though I don’t have the data to back it up, nor do I really care to know conclusively, more people seem to understand call center than contact center. When people ask me what Connections Magazine covers—since the title could apply to a multitude of subjects—the phrase call center pops up in my explanation.

Some people nod with understanding, even though they function outside the industry, while other people give me a confused look as if I just spoke gibberish. I fully suspect that if I told them Connections Magazine covers the contact center industry, I’d confuse them even more.

Therefore, sticking with the label of call center, even though it’s no longer as accurate a description as it once was, is the best way to communicate with people outside the industry. When effective communication is the goal, using the term call center is the best way to accomplish that.

Strategic Branding

People who contend that the term contact center is best may be purists who want to use an accurate label (but then they’re only halfway there until they figure out how to deal with the no-longer-accurate use of center). However, I suspect most people who insist on the label contact center do so for branding purposes.

For their brand they may want to distance themselves from the negative public opinion about call centers, courtesy of the people who did it badly and soiled the reputation of the entire industry. I get that. But unless everyone in the industry decides to be ethical and do their work with excellence, the contact center label risks becoming just as toxic as call center to those folks who’ve had bad experiences.

Another branding reason to use contact center instead of call center is to emphasize an operation that handles multiple forms of communication beyond just phone calls. But with most call centers having already expanded to cover additional communication channels, I suspect that most people who want to hire a call/contact center already know that the labels don’t really matter anymore and that they can get the service they require regardless of what providers call themselves.

Moving Forward

I’m not attempting to end the call center versus contact center debate. First, I know I never will, and second, it doesn’t really matter. What counts the most isn’t the label we self-identify with, but the quality of the service we provide.

So the next time your organization dives into the “are we a call center or a contact center” debate, shift the focus of the discussion from words to action—actions that produce quality service and heighten our industries public perception. That’s what really matters.

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.

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.

Why Telemarketing Programs Fail, Part 5



By Kathy Sisk

This is the final segment of “Why Telemarketing Programs Fail.” Our wrap-up looks at script branching, the agent learning curve, supportive communication, and appropriate follow-up.

Script Branching

Branching allows agents to take other avenues to meet the same objective, which is to close the sale, make an appointment, or generate a lead. Branching is always preplanned and allows agents to go off script and be creative. The outcome is the same, but the process is different.

Agents need to understand the process of branching, which is covered in basic training. Branching allows agents to use their skills and techniques to guide the call using a more personalized approach.

This challenging process, however, takes practice for agents to perfect. Being able to branch is what differentiates one agent from another as far as productivity; it’s why one agent may have an 80 percent conversion rate while another has only a 20 percent conversion rate.Providing agent feedback is key. for succesful telemarketing programs. Click To Tweet

Agent Learning Curve

Often either the client or the center doesn’t allow enough time for the learning curve to develop so the call success rate can improve. With every campaign, there must be ramp-up time for agents to gain confidence with the project. Too often the client or call center management expects immediate results. Then the client will prematurely terminate the campaign, or the project management team gives up before the agents can perfect their work.

Allow time for adjustments and script enhancements. It’s ideal to let agents tell you how they think you can improve the program. Often agent feedback is key.

Supportive Communication

Establish clear communication between agents, supervisors, and the client regarding successful or unsuccessful calls. Always take time to review the campaign results and consider necessary changes.

Appropriate Follow-Up

Interaction between management, agents, the project manager, and the client is essential, particularly when information is given regarding the progress of the campaign. Open communications between agents and managers is vital in reaching a more successful outcome.

To help ensure that your telemarketing campaigns succeed, consider these four pitfalls and work to avoid them. Also review the items in the first four parts of this series to produce better results faster.

Kathy Sisk Enterprises Inc. has forty years of experience providing call center setup, reengineering, assessments, training, script development, and project management services to centers globally.

Automation Success Requires Human Involvement



By Dan Somers

Automation and artificial intelligence (AI) can help save contact center costs, but primarily it increases customer satisfaction by speeding up responses and reducing customer efforts. Contact center automation falls broadly into three categories:

  1. Speeding up or automating the helpdesk agent (staff who capture and triage queries)
  2. Speeding up or automating the case handler (staff who resolve queries)
  3. Increasing self-service automation (chatbots, searchable FAQs, and self-help tools)

AI Challenges

Certain limitations of AI cannot guarantee the accuracy expected by customers, however. Some of these limitations are temporary, such as the comprehension capabilities of speech recognition, which will continue to improve. But other limitations relate to how machine-learning robots work.

All machine learning relies on studying real-life training data to predict or classify current data. The training data needs to be “labeled”—that is, it must have an outcome or class (tag) assigned to it, as judged by a person. For example, if a query comes in that says, “My server has crashed and is showing a blank screen,” then the chatbot will assign the best label it has in its training set, which might be “server crashed.”

However, in this example, a label of “faulty screen” might be assigned instead. The customer would be annoyed if the bot attempted to address a faulty screen issue instead of a server crash. This is an example of potential ambiguity. Furthermore, new issues will appear from new product launches, changes in quality, and evolution in the market. Lastly, the way people describe or view the same problem is more variable for certain issues than others.

Human-in-the-Loop

The only safe way of deploying bots within a contact center is to have a human-in-the-loop. This person will validate what the bots are doing, preferably with minimal impact to the customer.

So, who and where is the human-in-the-loop? It turns out that there are four general ways for humans to validate some or all of the process:

  1. A helpdesk agent can validate suggested responses before sending.
  2. The customer can validate that the response—or the question they asked—was comprehended.
  3. A third-party solution provider can check the performance of the bots and curate the process; this might be an internal or external data science team.
  4. The knowledge base manager can check the bots for satisfactory performance.Automation of contact centers yields promise, although not without humans-in-the-loop to maintain its performance. Click To Tweet

Considerations of Humans-in-the-Loop

There are pros and cons of different human-in-the-loop approaches. Some of these points are technical in nature but have substantial implications.

Agent: Some solutions on the market have AI recommend the next “best response” for the agent. The agents validate the response, not the categorization. For example, if two queries—“The strawberries I bought were tasteless” and “The strawberries I bought made me sick”—both lead to the same recommended response, “We’re sorry; please accept our voucher,” then the categorization models will degrade as they are not being updated with the accurate root cause.

Also, the insight generated by the models won’t allow executives to monitor product quality, design, and usability to then generate the self-service tools that can reduce contact center traffic. With this solution, other humans-in-the-loop will still be required elsewhere.

Customer Validation: If customers provide the required validation, it is scalable, but customers may not like having to correct their original query or the responses. If the query produces a new category, then there must be a process to deal with it. Fundamentally, the system cannot be relied upon with just these humans-in-the-loop.

Solution Provider: This is the status quo for most machine-learning deployments in real-world environments: a data science team, either internally or a third-party, sets up, curates, and retrains the models on a regular basis to maintain their performance. The pros are that these are the only humans-in-the-loop required. The cons are that these professionals are in short supply.

Knowledge Base Manager: This role has the most hidden potential benefit for having a human-in-the-loop. In a nontechnical environment, they will provide business rules on how to handle queries, as well as the training, trouble-shooting guides, and fault tree analysis to resolve issues.

In terms of their day-to-day role, they will be aware of product launches and modifications, but they also can use the rich insight of the labels coming from the contact center (both triage and resolution) to make improvements to both the knowledge base and the process. This includes updating the FAQs so customers can better use self-service. Also, this insight can inform other functions, such as product quality, product design, and customer experience, to help guide improvements.

Optimized Learning

A new approach that only requires a few humans-in-the-loop can exist because of a new technology called optimized learning. This is a form of machine learning that builds models but invites training from a human in such a way to minimize human input and still provide maximum performance. It is ideal for spotting new signals and improving existing ones.

Optimized learning doesn’t need to be in-line and suffers from none of the downsides of other approaches. Instead, it requires a fraction of the labeling otherwise required, even in a changing environment. The implications of this are profound. It means that a call center would only need to retain a few agents after the automation implementation, and they would handle the training that the optimized learning invited them to do in an offline capacity. This would maintain the models for labeling queries to generate both automation and insight, thus speeding up and reducing issues.

The rest of the automation would come from the rules originating from the knowledge base manager, as informed by the bots. This paves the way for improving chatbots and self-serve, searchable FAQs to free up contact center staff.

Conclusion

Automation of contact centers yields promise, although not without humans-in-the-loop to maintain its performance. There are many different flavors for human-in-the-loop AI automation. With new technology appearing, an optimized system is possible with a minimum number of humans who don’t need any data science skills. There is now no reason why the contact center of the future needs to look like those of the present. The same applies for the customer experience too.

Dan Somers is the CEO of Warwick Analytics, which provides call center automation solutions to address voice of customer (VoC) data, chatbots, service desks, and complaint handling.

Artificial Intelligence and the Call Center



Predict Who Is Calling and Why

By Nancy Lee

Artificial intelligence (AI) is intelligence demonstrated by machines, in contrast to the natural intelligence displayed by humans. In computer science, AI research is defined as the study of intelligent agents: any device that perceives its environment and takes actions that maximize its chance of successfully achieving goals. The term artificial intelligence is applied when a machine mimics cognitive functions generally associated with the human mind, such as learning and problem solving. Artificial intelligence algorithms improve their performance automatically through experience by finding patterns in a stream of input, such as telephone automatic number identification (ANI) information.

AI in the Call Center

Artificial intelligence is nothing new to Amtelco, which started developing a unique dataset for predictive call handling in 2005—the Intelligent Series (IS) Clairvoyant Agent feature. The latest iteration of this development is the innovative IS predictive intelligence feature. Predictive intelligence uses the ANI for a call to recognize the caller, eliminating the need for operators to reenter information. Predictive intelligence determines who is calling and the most likely reason why.

Predictive intelligence enables the call center system to learn with each call it receives and progressively improves the performance of subsequent tasks.

Time-Saving Features

Predictive intelligence saves a tremendous amount of time for both operators and callers. Operators simply select the reason for the call from the list, helping ensure error-free information.

For multiple callers from the same phone number, predictive intelligence sorts the list of callers by the number of times each person has called and displays the list in a pop-up box. The most frequent caller from a number appears at the top of the list. The operator can quickly choose the current caller from the list, and predictive intelligence retrieves that caller’s information from previous calls. For each caller, the list of reasons for previous calls displays with the most frequent reason for calling.

The textbook for teaching the call center system about predictive intelligence is comprised of a script template, an SQL server database separate from the IS system database, and an administration script for managing the database. The script template is the starting point for creating new predictive intelligence functions within existing scripts and using it to direct the disposition of the call. The separate database makes it possible to track callers and their reasons for calling and provides information about past calls to the script. The administration script is a user interface that enables supervisors to easily create a customized list of reasons for calling without having to access the database.Artificial intelligence gives the adage 'live and learn' new meaning for call center systems and their human operators. Click To Tweet

Looking to the Future

Although advanced AI could replace or reduce the need for human interaction, reducing the workload on call centers by answering simple or commonly asked questions, it could also enhance human interaction to improve and streamline the customer experience. This would retain the personalized aspect of calls that human interaction provides while augmenting it with AI technology to provide higher-quality service.

Voice recognition technology can be coupled with artificial intelligence capabilities to offer adaptive response suggestions to operators based on key words and phrases. This would reduce wait times and enable agents to instantly respond to a wide variety of caller needs with appropriate solutions.

Tone and voice analytics can gauge customer satisfaction and agent friendliness and enthusiasm to help provide individualized performance assessments. This form of AI also could monitor agent and customer call temperaments in real time, alerting managers when a situation escalates and allowing them to listen or step in if necessary.

Artificial intelligence gives the adage “live and learn” new meaning for call center systems and their human operators. And there seems to be no limit to what call center systems can learn to make life easier for call center agents.

AmtelcoNancy Lee is in marketing and advertising at Amtelco, a developer and supplier of call center and communications solutions located in McFarland, Wisconsin. Contact her at nlee@amtelco.com

Be Careful What You Say



People judge the company we represent on every single phone call

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineI once had a call center agent work for me who had a compulsion to offer commentary at the end of every call. Her comments ranged from snarky to crass. Occasionally she voiced her opinion a bit too quickly, before the caller had hung up or while the voice logger was still recording. In addition, her unfiltered diatribe irritated her coworkers in adjacent cubicles. Eventually we reigned in her problematic habit, but I don’t think we stopped it altogether.

A Need to Vent

I get that sometimes we need to vent. But this should be a rare event, not a common occurrence. And most certainly the caller should never be privy to our opinions, such as this agent’s thoughts about callers’ intellectual abilities or the nature of their parentage. Sometimes we need to go out of rotation for a moment to gather our thoughts and recalibrate our focus before we dive into the next call. And on the rarest of occasions, an agent may require an unscheduled break.

If you work in a call center, you know that this post-call commentary happens. You may even do it yourself, perhaps in your mind or maybe under your breath, but it shouldn’t happen out loud. That’s simply unprofessional—doubly so if the caller hears even a fragment of it.Each call is an opportunity to impress the caller and draw them into your company. Click To Tweet

Recently I experienced the other end of this. I had called a company, and afterward I heard the agent’s commentary—about me.

Be Careful What You SayAs we said our good-byes, but before I could hang up, she sighed and whispered, “What a nice man.”

My mind went spinning. First was the shock that she spoke before disconnecting our call. Next was that I experienced the caller’s side of hearing an agent’s post-call opinion. And third was that I had done nothing to earn the positive label she gave me. Though I deserved no credit, I hoped the rest of her day was a little bit better because of our interaction.

In all my years in the call center industry, I can’t remember an agent making a positive statement after a call. Either it’s negative, or it’s nonexistent.

Callers Talk About Agents Too

What agents may not realize is that callers do this same thing when it comes to agents. Here are some things I’ve thought or said after a call:

“I don’t think they have a clue.”

“What they said made absolutely no sense.”

“I have no expectation they’ll ever follow through.”

“Maybe I should call back and talk to a rep who actually knows what’s going on.”

When I—and every other caller—make these statements, they might be addressing the agent, but they’re not really about the agent. They’re about the company the agent represents.

Every Call Matters

That’s why every call matters. Each call is an opportunity to impress the caller and draw them into your company. Alternately every call has a potential to drive them away. Unfortunately it takes several good calls to counteract one bad one.

Over the years I’ve experienced both good calls and bad. I often share these examples so we can all learn from them and do better. One call stands out as the best of the best. It was a help desk call that lasted over an hour. As the rep worked to resolve my software issue, she kept up a rapport-building conversation.

Most help desk agents politely place callers on hold while waiting for various tasks to complete. This one didn’t. She maintained an engaging dialogue with me—though I mostly listened, and she mostly talked. She told me how much she liked her job and what a great company she worked for. We talked a little bit about the general area where she lived and the climate—a perfect fit for her. She also shared other tidbits that were neither too personal nor uninteresting. Throughout it all she exuded positivity, and her infectious demeanor rubbed off on me.

The call ended, but the memory of it stays with me. Now, many months later, I’m dismayed to admit that I no longer remember her name. But I’ll always remember the company she worked for.

That’s a lesson for us all.

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.

Opportunity Calling: Tapping into Disability Recruitment for Call Center Staffing



By Keith Meadows and Kevin McCloskey

Companies understand that there is no more critical point of engagement than between customers and call center representatives, yet employee turnover rates range between 30 and 45 percent in the call center environment, and nearly 40 percent of employers have challenges hiring qualified employees. In reality a talent pool of people exists that remains underutilized, even though it includes job seekers with a diverse range of education, degrees, professional certifications, work experience, and skills: people with disabilities.

What Is a Disability?

It is important to understand the wide range of people this talent pool represents. One in five people in the United States have some type of disability, and many face challenges in getting hired. The term disability includes people with hidden disabilities such as depression, PTSD, anxiety disorders, and ADD/ADHD. It also includes developmental disabilities such as Down syndrome and physical disabilities that impact mobility, dexterity, vision, or hearing. A final group includes disabilities due to medical conditions, injury, or aging, such as Parkinson’s, stroke, traumatic brain injury, or cancer.

While it might seem that most disabilities are physical and visually apparent, 70 percent of all disabilities are hidden. A large percentage of individuals with disabilities include those “aging into disability” for the first time, as well as veterans with disabilities returning to the civilian workforce. Some well-known celebrities with hidden disabilities include Justin Timberlake, Olympic record breaker Michael Phelps, and Apple’s Steve Jobs.

Disabilities do not discriminate; they cut across all dimensions of diversity including gender, race, and ethnicity. Within the disability population is an even larger range of experience, education, skills, and knowledge.

Business versus Charity:

Contrary to the historical view that hiring people with disabilities is a charitable thing to do, leading companies such as PepsiCo, Synchrony Financial, Aramark, and Staples have demonstrated that diversifying a workforce has a tremendously positive business impact.

Call centers that have implemented a comprehensive disability recruitment strategy to fill crucial talent gap realize beneficial results. When hiring, managers spend less time interviewing. Turnover is lower, productivity is higher, savings are achieved, and there is more time to develop and support current employees.

Market Value:

In addition to attracting an untapped talent pool, there is a market opportunity for companies. When companies hire people with diverse perspectives, they can inform product and service development, advertising, and customer service to engage diverse customer markets. Currently people with disabilities are the largest minority in America, with a combined annual spending power of 645 billion dollars. Additionally, seventy million families have a least one member with a disability. Family, friends, and allies are fiercely loyal with their purchasing dollars and will support companies who hire those with disabilities by consciously selecting their products and services over competitors.

Case Study: Pepsi ACT:

Pepsi ACT (Achieving Change Together) was developed as a best-practice model in attracting and hiring talent with disabilities across PepsiCo. It has been implemented in nine locations in the US, including a call center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In this call center, there are two sides of the business: sales and equipment repairs.

Partnerships were developed with surrounding community-based organizations, including the state vocational rehabilitation offices, workforce centers, and others to create a three-day training course for job seekers with disabilities interested in a call center career. Job seekers could choose to apply directly to the job opportunities or take advantage of the training course.

The training consisted of interview preparation, soft skills practice, call center education, and personalized Q&A sessions with Pepsi HR professionals. The process resulted in job seekers being prepared and ready for consideration, and in turn, new employees ready to work. More than fifty people were hired. The retention of the employees proved to be above average, and the recruiting team cut their interview-to-hire ratio by half. A bonus was a surprise visit from former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, along with national and local recognition.

Case Study: Synchrony Financial:

Launched as a pilot in Synchrony’s business operations center in the Dayton, Ohio, area, attracting and hiring people with disabilities has become a part of the company’s day-to-day recruiting strategy. The initial focus was on roles with anticipated workforce growth, including customer service representatives who assist cardholders with a myriad of services and collections representatives.

Both roles require positive customer service, patience, problem solving, and empathy. The pilot resulted in sixty hires within the first year and recently expanded to the Phoenix, Arizona, operations center, where seventeen new employees with disabilities have been hired.

Results:

Companies show a 14 percent higher retention rate among the employees hired with disabilities than overall in the same roles. They have also seen an increase in self-disclosures by 50 percent (which are important to compliance for corporations with federal contracts) and a strengthened workforce diversity. This also reflects a positive workplace culture where employees feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work.

How Do Employers Do It?

Companies have several ways to connect with job seekers with disabilities. Cultivating talent partnerships is an important part of creating strong talent pipelines in the community. Corporate consulting services are available to create customized, inclusive, hiring strategies and forge these talent partnerships.

Call center managers also can take the following steps:Family, friends, and allies are fiercely loyal with their purchasing dollars and will support companies who hire those with disabilities by consciously selecting their products. Click To Tweet

  • Conduct research within your geographic recruitment community. There often might be fifty to seventy-five community-based organizations in your area. It is important to start wide to identify partners who can connect you with job seekers who meet your talent needs.
  • Utilize those partnerships to increase your pipeline of talent through a variety of pre-application engagement activities. These can be on-site informational sessions, call center-specific trainings, or simply a guide to help partners prepare their referrals prior to application. This leads to qualified and work-ready candidates heading your way.
  • Post open positions on employment websites for people with disabilities; this is a great way to begin building a new pipeline of talent. For instance, more than 300,000 people with disabilities visit the Disability Solutions online career center every month to find a job.
  • Give feedback through open communication. Focus on talent acquisition and retention. It is reasonable for a business to expect a new employee to arrive day one with the requirements and abilities to perform the job, but expecting new employees to know everything it takes to be successful with your company right away is not. Smart employers focus on developing talent.
  • Provide natural supports, mentors, and ongoing training to develop the best employees and promote retention.

People with disabilities represent both a talent and customer market that call centers should engage with for success. As with any new effort, getting started can be the most difficult part. Companies who are leading the way and seeing positive results have developed a strategy, communicated their commitment both internally and externally, and committed the resources to effectively attract and reach out to job seekers with disabilities and partners with community organizations. Ready to get started?

Kevin McCloskey is the director of partnership development and Keith Meadows is the hiring and engagement consultant at Disability Solutions, a division of Ability Beyond. Disability Solutions is a national nonprofit consulting service headquartered in Connecticut that partners with corporate clients to hire job seekers with disabilities. For more information visit www.disabilitytalent.org and www.disabilitysolutionstalent.org.