Tag Archives: Call Center Management Articles

The Modern Contact Center

Trends Driving Customer Service and Experience

By Aakash Kumar

Today’s customers require new and varied ways of interacting with businesses. The traditional call center has proven ineffective and is therefore becoming obsolete. In a dynamic, tech-savvy, digital world with consumers demanding excellent customer relations, a fixed number of phone agents working standard shifts doesn’t efficiently or effectively meet stakeholder needs. 

Traditional Contact Centers Must Evolve Beyond Phones and Full-Time Agents

Traditional contact centers are inherently constrained by the number of available stations. Whether an organization uses an internal contact center staffed by a set number of employees or an outsourced model, its ability to handle spikes and react to market changes (a worldwide pandemic, for example) faces constraints.

Prior to COVID-19, those limitations were not ideal, but managers continued to apply existing scheduling tools semi-effectively. Companies were able to hire seasonal employees and create schedules based on history or forecasts tied to marketing plans such as holiday rushes or new product announcements. Months prior to these anticipated increases in consumer calls, training was developed and schedules adjusted to meet predictable surges in call traffic. 

Organizations relied on past records to create forecasts to plan for their staffing needs. As expected, they were often over or understaffed leaving consumers unhappy with their service or product which, in turn, affected revenue. 

This is no longer the case. Businesses must now be prepared to shift in a moment, adapting instantly to changing circumstances. It may be prudent to consider outsourcing the call center functions to a firm specializing in flexible contact centers powered by the modern workforce.

Every city, state, and country faces its own combination of government restrictions and consumer behaviors, and all those elements can evolve daily. From surviving through imposed lockdowns, severe weather events, volatile governments, and the boom in online shopping, organizations need to be able to react quickly to maintain quality customer service.

The Modern, Digitally Diverse Contact Center 

Two interdependent trends define the modern era of customer service: 

  • The expectation of an always-on, digital customer support experience
  • The importance of that experience to consumers’ buying decisions

In 2019, 78 percent of customers reported that they preferred to use different channels depending on their context. That number has continued to grow since COVID-19 forced so many interactions online. Now most of the purchasing process happens digitally, and consumers want to engage with brands via chat, social channels, and email. 

Consumers continue to migrate to digital customer service offerings because the experience is convenient and faster. 

Ninety percent of customers rate an immediate response as important or very important when they have a support question, and 82 percent expect immediate answers to their sales and marketing questions. Consumers define “immediate” as thirty minutes or less, a measurement that shrinks each year. In addition, 40 percent of consumers prefer on-line self-service options rather than communicating with customer support agents. (This, however, implies 60 percent prefer the telephone.)

The consumer’s experience makes a significant impact on future buying decisions. Consider these statistics:

  • Fifty-one percent of customers will no longer do business with a company after just one negative experience.
  • Ninety-three percent of customers are more likely to purchase again from brands with exceptional customer service.
  • Fifty-nine percent of customers care more about customer experience when they decide what company to support or buy from than they did prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and another 38 percent care the same as they did pre-COVID, which was already high. 

Given these numbers, “waiting for the next representative” is a tremendous cost to the business.

Four Ways to Modernize the Customer Contact Center 

Consumers now demand immediate customer support, on their preferred channel, which is rarely the phone. It’s clear that traditional call centers must evolve into modern, multi-channel contact centers that can adjust on the fly and keep up with today’s always-changing climate. 

A successful modern contact center requires four things:

1. Able to react quickly: It’s impossible to accurately forecast agent needs in three, six, or twelve months in this dynamic, globally interconnected environment. Once dependable forecasting models can no longer be trusted. Organizations must find a more flexible option for staffing their contact centers that enables them to react quickly—within hours and days, not months—and across multiple channels.

A flex model contact center provides the ability to manage increases and decreases in demand to improve utilization and reduce costs. Businesses can adjust their workforce hourly, daily, weekly, or monthly. 

2. Good talent: An exceptional customer experience depends on the people who provide it and the processes that support them. 

Tens of thousands of people became used to a new work model while working from home during the past year. Those individuals are now looking for flexible, remote work. Organizations that embrace a remote contact center model can build a strong bench that brings new skills into the agent pool.

3. Multi-channel approach: It bears repeating: modern consumers demand customer support that spans digital channels. 

Diversifying across the digital landscape benefits businesses as well. Highly skilled workers can span multiple channels at once, providing coverage across any vehicle that a customer may choose. With skilled talent, businesses gain the opportunity to create a contact center where agents can answer phones, respond to emails, tweets, Facebook messages, chats, and other channels. 

4. Automation and self-service: Remember, many consumers don’t want to talk to anyone at all. Automation and self-service, often powered by AI, will continue to grow as efficient and often preferred outlets for customer service. 

Summary

Organizations that plan to modernize their contact centers should consider how to combine the best people with the best technology to optimize their customer service capabilities. 

Aakash Kumar founded Shiftsmart to execute his vision of empowering today’s rapidly expanding labor workforce to maximize their employment opportunities and help usher in a future where they can work exclusively based on their preferences. Along with providing strategic thought leadership, Kumar is responsible for developing and ensuring that Shiftsmart’s “people-first” philosophy is pervasive throughout all aspects of the company’s relationships and technology.

6 Tips to Improve Your Call Center’s Brand on Social Media


Startel delivers best-in-call contact center solutions

It’s no secret that the use of advanced technology and social media is empowering potential clients and team members like never before. This empowerment is requiring call centers to refine their social media strategies to attract the best quality job candidates as well as nurture lasting relationships with clients.

By Vince Vitale

Here are some tips to help refine your social media branding so that you can attract and keep new clients and team members.

1. Be Personable

Social media forums like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter help promote your company culture and humanize your brand. Engaging infographics, photos of company events, smiling employees, and captivating content contribute to that.

Present your business as having a friendly and welcoming culture. This helps attract talented candidates, but it also appeals to prospective clients and customers. 

Be genuine. People can easily tell when a call center is just giving off a perception rather than living and breathing the culture. One place you can start is by referring to staff as “teammates” rather than employees. It’s easier for team members to believe in their stake in a company while those dubbed “employees” don’t retain that same perception of themselves.

Be professional, but don’t hesitate to inject humor and personality into photo captions and content. Just make sure it’s appropriate and relevant. It is all part of humanizing your brand.

2. Use Team Created Content

User-generated content involves posts and images created by your audience, which in many cases, especially at call centers, is your team. This demonstrates how much they enjoy being part of your company.

Engaging with the company on social media should not be mandatory but do encourage participation. Suggest posting group photos at company events and outings. Recommend that team members share these images on their own social media accounts as well as your company’s. Consider offering incentives like rewarding the post with the most likes. 

Do not set unnecessary barriers to the content your team members can contribute. Providing a glimpse behind the scenes allows potential team members and customers alike to better understand what your company culture is all about. So if there is something in your office you don’t want your audience to see, fix it. 

Too many barriers will lead to less posting.

3. Showcase Your Team Members

A post with a picture always garners more engagement than plain text.

Content, videos, and photos of those who receive Team Member of the Month recognition, win industry-related awards, celebrate a work anniversary, or make positive contributions to the community make team members feel appreciated and positively promotes your call center’s culture.

Remember to get permission before posting photos of your team, especially before tagging and sharing on their personal Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and other social media profiles. Consider having them sign a waiver on the first day of employment that is valid for the team member’s entire time at the company. 

4. Engage

Don’t just look at posts. Responding to comments represents another opportunity to reflect a positive company culture; it lets followers know you notice them and value their feedback.

A key element of building and maintaining a positive company culture is reflecting your values by how you interact with existing and prospective customers as well as team members.

Listen to your customers and engage in conversations regarding your brand. Create content and hashtags on social media that communicate the “why” factor of your service. Your customers are constantly conversing about their issues, experiences, reviews, and much more about anything and everything. 

The trick is to have sharp ears and a vocal mouth. 

+Invest in social media management applications to help find relevant conversations you should be aware of. Hootsuite for example allows you to set up, monitor, and manage all your social media accounts in one place. It also has a neat feature called “Social Media Listening” that allows you to track key phrases and terms across other users posts. This can be an excellent way to bring in new clients. Other paid platforms with similar features include HubSpot, Marketo and Social Pilot. There are also plenty of free alternatives, but features vary.

Social media is where many customers directly interact with their brands regarding doubts and queries. As much as you may want to overlook negative comments, never miss an occasion to cultivate a better relationship with your customer by responding to both positive and negative interactions. 

Simply informing customers on social media of protocols is the best way to interact with those who are upset. When things become complicated it’s best to handle the problem offline. 

5. Video is King

Instead of relying solely on online job sites, expand your reach by creating videos to post on your social media forums. Engaging videos display your company’s energy and enthusiasm. 

Another strategy many call centers use is the creation of a behind-the-scenes video tour with graphics and music. It gives clients and potential team members a snapshot of places you deem worthy of highlighting in your office. 

Keep in mind that call center customers are interested in exactly who answers their calls. Wherever possible, post real people from your call center and not stock footage of actors. Stock photos can cause people to ask, “What are you hiding?” So be careful. 

6. Implement a Diverse but Consistent Social Media Strategy

If you visit a company’s social media platform and notice the latest posts were from a year ago, chances are you will not return. Call centers must remain active with their audience on a regular basis. Develop an editorial calendar, and post regularly with relevant and engaging content.

Start conversations that will attract visitors and give people a reason to return. Writing general posts that ask readers for their insight and viewpoints can foster more engagement then just telling clients what to do. 

A consistent experience for customers across all channels is essential in promoting your call center. The voice of your posts should reflect your call center’s values. The overall tone, regardless of the matter, must be steady and clear. You must cross-check the consistency between what you tell customers on social media and what you communicate over phone or email.

Final Thoughts

If you don’t have a social media plan in place, don’t despair. You can implement a sound social media strategy within hours. The best place to start is in highlighting your team and your accomplishments. Start small and before you realize it your plans will grow.

Startel

Vince Vitale is the marketing director for Startel, a leading provider of best-in-class contact center solutions. He has over fifteen years of marketing experience in education, urgent care, and the call center industries. Before his years in marketing Vince worked in journalism as a writer, producer, and reporter for several TV news stations.

5 Reasons to Implement Call Center Scripting


Amtelco banner

By Amtelco

One of the first person-to-person connections a customer makes with an organization is often through a phone call. Whether the caller’s intent is to schedule an appointment, ask a question, or another reason, the way an agent handles that call plays a key role in customer service and satisfaction. Every phone call is an opportunity for the agent to uphold an organization’s values and provide excellent service. 

Call center scripting helps agents guide customers through phone calls by asking the right questions and providing the right answers. Once the scripts have been programmed into the call center software, agents simply read the prompts and follow the script. Call centers that implement scripting benefit from reduced errors, increased productivity, decreased training time, consistency, and improved customer and agent satisfaction.

1. Reduce Errors

Scripting removes the guesswork by providing agents with the right answers to caller questions. Scripting ensures the agent collects the right data from the caller, the caller receives the most updated information, and the correct action occurs at the end of the call. 

For example, a Midwest company has a call center that uses scripting to manage 850,000 calls per year. The call center supports multiple departments that have departments within departments, so their scripting needs can be quite complex. However, their staff, who may have limited or no IS experience, can easily build customized scripts for any type of call for any department in as little as twenty minutes.

2. Increase Productivity

Call centers typically receive hundreds if not thousands of calls every day. Instead of putting the caller on hold and searching for answers, agents whose call centers use scripting have the information they need in just a couple of clicks. This allows call processing in a matter of seconds. 

“Two-thirds of consumers report that the most frustrating aspect of getting customer service is waiting on hold or having to explain the same information to multiple representatives.” HubSpot Research Consumer Customer Support Survey, 2018.

Scripts help ensure the call center agent gets the right data from the caller, reducing the need to make a return call to request more information or to make a correction in the information provided.

3. Decrease Training Time

Agent training progresses more quickly when scripts are involved. With decision making programmed into the script, new agents can be trained to handle any kind of call in less time. After programming, the system easily guides agents through each call, and provides them with a custom script with the exact information they need, at the time they need it.

4. Promote Consistency

When the call center agent is the front line of an organization’s customer service, what they say matters because they could be creating the customer’s first impression of the organization. Scripting can use language that adheres to the organization’s policy. For example, an organization can include an empathy statement the agent reads before ending or transferring a call. 

Scripts also keep the agents from violating any regulations because they know the next thing to say. And it ensures the agent always keeps the customer’s needs first.

5. Increase Customer and Agent Satisfaction

Efficient and accurate call handling makes everyone happier. Callers no longer need to wait on hold for agents to track down answers to their questions. The agent instills confidence in callers through a series of logical questions to provide clear, succinct answers. Customers can trust the correct entry of their details when the agent is able to read the information back to them without errors. 

Because scripting helps reduce call times and the need to put callers on hold, agents are more likely to meet their goals for number of calls answered per day, length of call, length of hold times, and other metrics deemed significant by their organization. Teams who meet and even exceed their goals report greater job satisfaction and reduced stress. 

Scripting also simplifies the agent’s job, however complicated it may be. 

Summary

When it’s time to choose a scripting program for your call center, look for software that is easy to edit and integrates with your other systems for further efficiency and accuracy gains. 

Amtelco logo

Amtelco and Telescan have a strong history in the telemessaging industry and were founded in 1976 to provide communication solutions to the answering service and medical messaging industry. In operation in all fifty of the United States and more than twenty countries, Amtelco and Telescan focus on providing call center solutions that meet or exceed customer expectations and are backed by top notch service and support. Amtelco and Telescan systems and software process millions of calls every day. By working closely with customers, Amtelco and Telescan continue to develop innovative features and products. 

The Future is Human: Tapping Video Technology as a Call Center Solution



By Craig Radford

In today’s fast-paced and ever-diversifying American society, keeping your call center’s best practices attuned to the needs of all customers can be overwhelming. There are so many languages, communication modalities, and cultural nuances to consider. Customer service and satisfaction have always been an important part of call center work, but with today’s younger consumers making purchasing decisions based on whether a brand or business reflects their own inclusive values, being culturally responsive can mean the difference between gaining a loyal customer and losing one forever. 

One essential piece of ensuring your company is as inclusive as possible is to focus on accommodating callers with disabilities. Deaf and hard-of-hearing customers are largely left out of the conversation about customer service, which means your business is missing out on an entire consumer base.

Capture Lost Business

Though America’s 11.5 million deaf and hard-of-hearing people represent an $86 billion dollar market share, many businesses are unsure how to best serve these customers. The lack of information and training surrounding optimized customer service for the deaf and hard-of-hearing can be frustrating for both callers and agents. Agents who are unprepared for communicating with deaf callers are likely to experience wasted time, skewed metrics, and unnecessary escalations and callbacks. 

One of the main sources of confusion is the use of third-party relay services by deaf customers. As the name suggests, these services relay information between deaf and hearing users. In a text-based relay model, a typist facilitates a conversation by transcribing the hearing person’s speech, then reading the deaf person’s typed message aloud. 

In the more popular Video Relay Service (VRS) model, an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter translates between spoken English and ASL via video call. In both models, the process of transcription or translation takes time and leaves repeated opportunities for miscommunication, especially if the interpreter is unfamiliar with company lingo or call context, which is often the case. 

Cloud-based contact center tools provide the capacity to move seamlessly between modes of communication, like jumping from a telephone call to a text-based chat box, to best serve callers’ preferences. But what if this technology went beyond two-dimensional? What if we eliminate the middleman altogether in interactions with deaf customers? What if a caller could in effect “press one” for English, “two” for Spanish… and “three” for American Sign Language?

American Sign Language Differs from English 

Just like spoken languages, ASL developed organically between people over centuries and is a separate language from English. It has its own grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and cultural context different from, and uninfluenced by, English conventions. In fact, ASL shares more structural similarities with French Sign Language or even spoken Japanese than it does English. 

While many deaf people are bilingual in ASL and English, some deaf people struggle with written English proficiency, just as some hearing people who are bilingual struggle with written proficiency in their second language. 

For the deaf community, this issue is exacerbated by language deprivation, caused by long-standing discrimination and substandard access to educational resources. While English text-based chat boxes may be useful for some deaf clients, for others they remain a frequent source of frustration and miscommunication. 

Implementing an ASL-fluent Team

Providing deaf representatives who are fluent in ASL and trained in company-specific terminology, either by hiring deaf employees or contracting with a specialized ASL call center, is already making tremendous changes: call centers that have ASL-fluent representatives shortened call times by 33-42 percent and increased deaf customer engagement by 300-533 percent. In one case study, Google found that providing an ASL-speaking representative resulted in 83 percent shorter average handle time when compared to using relay services.

Integration Video Communication Between Agent and Caller 

Deaf customers are already using videophones to make calls. So why not leverage the benefits for those callers? For a customer, being able to see a representative restores the element of human connection that only face-to-face interaction can truly offer. For a representative, being able to see a caller can provide valuable context on who that customer is and eliminate friction that stems from miscommunication. 

Psychologists studying human communication concluded that that just 7 percent of meaning comes from words themselves. Thirty-eight percent of the information we pick up on comes from voice tone and volume, and the majority, 55 percent, is from body language. This means traditional phone interactions miss out on more than half of communication potential. A video interface reintroduces a person’s natural use of body language and gestures into call center communication, offering not only a more organic communication experience, but a more efficient one as well. 

The Future of Call Centers Is Visual and Human-Centered

Using video makes spatially-oriented tasks that are typically hard to describe—like demonstrating a product’s functions or explaining which buttons a caller needs to press during a troubleshooting process—intuitive and fast. Video calls also give representatives and callers the ability to screenshare or demonstrate solutions using the product as a prop. 

Agents can show users a button or how to navigate to a site tab, instead of having to explain the step-by-step process. And callers can show agents the errors or problems they’re encountering. A quick game of customer show-and-tell can cut costly minutes off call times, without negatively affecting the value of a customer’s experience and making sure their needs are being met.

Summary

The future of call centers is multi-dimensional: a change that mirrors our evolving society and allows companies to be more inclusive and accessible than ever. Whether it’s using the latest technology to better serve deaf and disabled customers or just having a more individualized customer service experience for any customer, cloud-based computing and video calling can be a momentous change agent. 

With it, call centers can continue to highlight their best asset: human connection.

Craig Radford has been shaping the advancement of the deaf community for more than 20 years. Craig helped launch Connect Direct, a subsidiary of Communication Service for the Deaf (CSD), where he is the vice president of strategy and business development. He works with organizations to help their customer service teams to eliminate the need for third-party translation. Craig has championed the creation of jobs specifically targeted for qualified deaf candidates.

Improve Hiring Results with Blind Auditions

By Donna West

Anyone who has ever seen The Voice knows blind auditions are often surprising. The audience knows that the very big voice is coming out of that very tiny girl, but the experts don’t. The guy with the shaggy looks might have the voice of an angel. The blind audition wipes out all prejudices and concentrates on what is important—in this case, the voice.

Dismissing Qualified Candidates 

In all areas of life and work we form opinions about the people we meet as soon as we see them. This occurs before they ever open their mouths. We often miss many excellent job candidates because their appearance sets them up for failure. Their clothes might be untidy or inappropriate. They may need a haircut or wear dreadlocks. Or they have piercings that give the interviewer a bad impression. 

We’re programmed by our own backgrounds and experiences to reject as unworthy some of the styles that others embrace. And it is certainly the prerogative of every employer to choose the culture they want in their business. 

That said, do we unintentionally disregard candidates who are eminently qualified to work in our answering services and contact centers? A friend will not hire anyone who has visible tattoos. Another person abbreviates interviews they consider a waste of time because the applicant is wearing jeans and deemed “not serious” about work. A nervous interviewee may not make eye contact and we disqualify them.

A Shrinking Labor Market

In a world where job candidates are dwindling, despite (or perhaps because of) unemployment, many businesses may stand to improve hiring processes by implementing blind auditions. The jobs offered by an answering service can be perfect for people whom society deems a misfit for whatever social reason. 

We can find the skills we need in people who choose video games as their passion, who wear neon nail polish—a different color on each finger—prefer green hair, or who have gauges in their ears and tattoos up their necks. 

Our industry can offer remote work to people who are afraid to leave their homes or can’t sit for hours at a time as in a typical office job. We can offer split shifts and uncommon schedules. We should let our agents’ compassion, their understanding, and their voices drive our hiring decisions. We should listen and judge our candidates’ attributes by how they could benefit our callers’ needs. 

If we strive to hire people who are computer literate and caring, the guy who tries to eke out a living by streaming live on YouTube might be the perfect candidate. Or the soldier with mild PTSD. Or the mom with kids at home who still needs an income. Our jobs are comparable to waitressing for an actress. Ours is the perfect reality job for those who are trying to live the dream or waking up from the nightmare.

If we seek employee longevity, let’s regularly seek nontraditional applicants who might offer a symbiotic relationship: someone sweet-natured who knows their way around a keyboard. Someone who appreciates the opportunity to work from home and live their life according to their own vision. 

Donna West is president of Focus Answering Service, which she founded in 1987. She began her second company, Business Calls, Inc., specializing in education and communication for the TAS industry two decades ago. She is a pioneer and thought leader, an award-winning speaker, writer, and educator within the telecommunications service arena. 

2020 Contact Center Retrospective

By Donna Fluss

What an amazing year 2020 was. We’ve never seen anything like it and hope we won’t again. Despite all the challenges, a lot of good things happened, including in the world of contact center. Here are six positive mega trends that emerged during the dark hours of the pandemic. All these developments are here to stay and will continue to play a key role in contact centers for the near future:

1. Work-from Home

When the pandemic hit country after country, many companies were ordered by their governments to close their offices. Contact centers were some of the most successful in getting their employees home and back to work. Contact centers all over the world, those with anywhere from ten to thousands of agents, demonstrated their flexibility and agility, along with the amazing commitment of their employees by being there for their customers.

2. Shift from Traditional Retail to Ecommerce

The world has gone virtual. Anything that can be done virtually, including things most people thought highly unlikely, like doctor’s appointments, has moved to the web or video. The need to socially distance has driven people and organizations to be highly creative as they figured out how to make the best out of demanding situations. 

Retail organizations have taken a major hit. Many retailers, particularly those that could not respond quickly enough to the increasingly virtual world, have gone bankrupt. Store traffic is down and unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels for years. The transition to the web is not unexpected, but the demise of many of the traditional retailers was accelerated by the pandemic. 

3. Digital Transformation

After years of talking about digital transformations, companies are being forced to do what they should have done years ago. They are building out digital channels to address the needs of their customers. Though consumers are expressing an increasing preference for interacting in these channels, voice calls are not going away. However, they are increasingly viewed as the channel of last resort. Digital transformations are proving highly beneficial for customers, companies, and their employees. 

4. Artificial Intelligence-based Self-Service Capabilities

Self-service has become the channel of choice for customers in many countries, as surprising as it seems. Customers increasingly prefer to interact with effective self-service solutions that allow them to take care of their business without the assistance of live agents. 

Artificial intelligence (AI)-based conversational systems are automating and speeding up the handling of all kinds of interactions. The key to success, however, remains being able to connect with a live agent, when necessary. 

5. Automation Solutions

Intelligent virtual agents (IVAs), virtual agents (VAs), robotic process automation (RPA), and workflow have emerged as essential enablers for enterprises. These solutions automate activities and tasks that do not require the cognitive capabilities or decision-making intelligence of live employees. These concepts have been around for years, but what is new is the ease with which they can be applied to all types of business challenges. 

These solutions allow companies and government agencies to reduce dependence on outsourcers by eliminating the human element in low-value tasks previously handled by mostly low-wage workers. The benefits for enterprises are clear, as is the opportunity that these solutions are creating for much higher-level employment opportunities. 

6. Analytics-Enabled Quality Management

After over fifty years of performing quality management (QM) the same way, which was highly people-intensive, even when supported by an application, AI-enabled speech analytics is now able to automate and greatly improve the process. Analytics-Enabled Quality Management (AQM) solutions are game changers for companies. They can now “listen” to 100 percent of their voice and digital interactions to gain an understanding of why people contact them and see which of their automated and live agents are doing a good job in handling the interactions and where changes are needed. 

AQM also reduces dependence on manual QM processes, which have not been effective for the last five-plus years because companies could not afford to properly staff this function as contact volumes increased. AQM was important before the pandemic forced employees’ home to work, and it has become mission-critical for contact center employees and other functions since then. 

Bottom Line

The pandemic has changed the world as we know it, but many of these changes are good and will have positive and lasting benefits for society, companies, customers, and employees. AI and automation are the common themes in these six megatrends. 

The pandemic accelerated their rollout but not their viability. The companies that are going to come out of the pandemic well-positioned to succeed in whatever the new normal looks like are those that are taking the actions needed to move thoughtfully into the digital future.

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. 

How AI-Powered Technologies Can Help Reduce Contact Center Agent Burnout

By Seb Reeve

The global pandemic has put more pressure than ever on every one of us. Healthcare workers face untold challenges in treating patients, and not just those who become sick with COVID-19. Grocery store, delivery, and restaurant workers, now rightfully seen as the essential workers they are, must overcome their own fears and risks as they continue to work through a crisis. Contact center and office workers now work from home, trying to balance the demands of their careers with the demands of their families, many of whom are now schooling from home too. 

And as more consumers shift their typically in-person interactions into more virtual and online spaces, the changes have likewise put more pressure on contact center agents to respond to a rising number of calls in an uncertain environment. Working in these high-stress environments—in combination with longer working hours—means many agents are at risk for burnout.

Burnout Basics

Burnout, according to the Mayo Clinic, is a “special type of work-related stress,” marked by physical and emotional exhaustion, a sense of reduced accomplishment, reduced productivity and effectiveness on the job, and even dramatic consequences for overall health and wellbeing. 

From a business perspective, agent burnout often leads to turnover, which is extraordinarily expensive, often about 20 percent of the employee’s salary. In an industry with turnover ranging from 30-45 percent, preventing burnout is not simply good for people, it’s good for business.

Preventing burnout is incumbent on all of us. It can start with small, people-first strategies, such as encouraging teams to disconnect and recharge, as improving communication and feedback, and managing workloads to ensure they’re within appropriate boundaries. 

Investing in technology platforms can go a long way toward supporting agents and helping to prevent burnout. Providing the tools and technologies that help everyone do their job better will not only optimize employee workloads, but it can also alleviate the stressors that contribute to burnout. It’s also worth considering which technology platforms no longer serve agents or the organizational vision, and instead add unnecessarily to agent workflows on a day-to-day basis.

Technologies That Alleviate Burnout Stressors

Today’s contact centers can choose from a range of technologies that help agents do their jobs better and more efficiently. For example, artificial-intelligence-powered solutions such as virtual assistants can shorten call handling times by engaging a broader audience and answering repetitive questions. With a digital, automated interface, the virtual assistant can engage callers in natural conversation—either via voice or text—to respond to requests and answer questions with personalized responses in a self-service environment. When a live agent is needed, the virtual assistant uses skills-based routing to deliver the caller to the best agent to handle their issue.

Enabling the virtual assistant not only delivers prompt, live assistance to customers, it frees agents to handle the more complex, high-value calls that matter most and are most meaningful.

Similarly, automated customer service messaging platforms can help engage customers, providing immediate answers to their inquiries, again while alleviating the burden on live contact center agents. Proactive notifications built into these platforms can deflect the number of inbound calls to a call center, which has the added benefit of supporting customer service efforts. 

Preventing Burnout

AI-powered technologies also provide the analytics and reporting to improve live engagements and deliver frustration-free customer experiences. Analyzing 100 percent of call center customer interactions provides visibility into trends, outliers, and opportunities to build, train, and coach a high-performing contact center team—one that’s free from many of the stressors that can contribute to burnout. 

Beyond supporting agents with AI-powered technologies and tools that can reduce burnout, these solutions can contribute to a healthier bottom line—from improved customer service and digital experiences to reduced employee turnover. 

Seb Reeve is the Market Development VP at Nuance Communications.

Encryption 101: The Past, Present, and Future of Data Security

Startel delivers best-in-call contact center solutions

By Matt Bogan

You’re aware of the need for data encryption. However, you may not have a clear picture of how it works.

Cryptography—the study of secure communications—is a complex field of science, intersecting a wide range of disciplines and constantly evolving. Cryptography predates computers, with roots reaching back to ancient Greece and Egypt. It’s believed that Julius Caesar sent secure messages to his most trusted staff by replacing each letter of the alphabet with the letter three places after it: A became D, B became E, and so forth. This method of data encryption is sometimes called a Caesar cipher. By the ninth century, mathematicians applied statistical analysis to defeat simple substitution ciphers such as the Caesar cipher. Thus we have perhaps the first historical instance of an encryption algorithm being cracked.

As long as we’ve needed to encode information, there have been others wanting to decode it for nefarious reasons. In WWII, Allied cryptanalysts working to crack encrypted Axis communications are widely credited with shortening the war by months or even years. 

Today, computer scientists called “white-hat hackers” work to defeat existing encryption protocols to identify weaknesses before they can be exploited. The complexity of encryption algorithms and the protocols that implement them have increased dramatically. Despite that, having an uncrackable encryption remains hypothetical. 

Instead, data security aims for a moving target: difficult enough to crack with present technology that it’s astronomically unlikely anyone would be able to. Yet available computing power continues to increase, turning unlikely into likely. A protocol that today would be considered too complex for even a supercomputer to crack in any reasonable amount of time may be trivial to defeat on consumer-grade hardware in a handful of years. 

DES (Data Encryption Standard), a protocol developed by IBM and implemented by government agencies and militaries around the world as recently as the early 1990s, was cracked in less than a day in 1999 by a cluster of thousands of computers working together. By 2016, it was cracked by a single computer using off-the-shelf components, and today, using advanced cryptographic attack methods, DES can be defeated in under a minute with hardware you can pick up at your favorite big-box store. Like their ninth-century counterparts using mathematics to peer behind the curtain of simple substitution ciphers, modern cryptanalysts apply the latest technological advances to accomplish what was previously impossible.

If everyone’s motive in defeating encryption was altruism, this discussion might be academic, but this is not the case. Far from the image of loosely affiliated teenage malcontents portrayed in popular media, hacking in the twenty-first century is big business. With backing from organized crime syndicates and foreign governments, the goals are a lot more sinister than causing a little digital mischief. Your data is a battlefield, and encryption is the arms race. 

The cryptographically secure lifespan of a common algorithm known as MD5 was roughly a decade, and the SHA-1 algorithm fared only slightly better. Concerns over vulnerability have contributed to tech giants like Apple, Google, and Microsoft deprecating protocols based on them. The 1.0 and 1.1 versions of TLS (Transport Layer Security) have recently joined Caesar ciphers and DES in the boneyard of obsolete cryptography. These methods once seemed functionally impenetrable, but with subsequent technological advancements, they now offer only moderate inconvenience to a well-resourced attacker. 

With the successors already being subjected to the scrutiny of security professionals on both sides of the battle, we can be sure more encryption methods will eventually join them. With the target of “safe enough” advancing, as businesspeople, solution providers, and individual consumers, it’s critical to ensure we keep pace.

Ask your vendors what they’re doing to stay current with the latest data encryption advancements. Remember that not all encryption is equal. Older products relying on encryption methods that were state-of-the-art when they were originally developed are unlikely to offer much protection against an attack today. 

When assessing products to sell to your clients or use in your own business, keep in mind that marketing terms such as secure and compliant are only as meaningful as the person or organization making that claim. Savvy consumers should look for products that have been audited by independent security experts. And once you have purchased a solution, make sure you keep it current with vendor-recommended updates. It’s the only way to be certain your data will be as safe tomorrow as it is today.

Startel

Matt Bogan is the product manager for Startel, a leading provider of best-in-class contact center solutions. He has been involved in the contact center industry for over fifteen years. Startel’s upcoming CMC 16.0 release incorporates the latest in encryption technology.

How Can Your Contact Center Help the Homelessness in America?

By Traci Haynes

Homelessness in America occurs in every state and has many causes. According to the January 2017 Point-in-Time (PIT) count by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the most recent national estimate of homelessness in the United States identified 553,742 people experiencing homelessness. The PIT count is a count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons on a single night in January. Like all surveys, the PIT count has limitations. Results are influenced by the weather, availability of overflow shelter beds, the quality of the volunteers, and the level of engagement of the people being interviewed. 

Most of this population lives in some form of shelter or transitional housing. However, approximately 35 percent live in places not meant for human habitation. The nature of homelessness makes it difficult to quantify the true size of the homeless population, not to mention the PIT methodology (although generally acknowledged to be the most accurate way to establish valid trend data). It is challenging to calculate the exact number of individuals who are homeless, because many live in hidden areas in parks, vehicles, or abandoned houses, and because numbers fluctuate based on weather.

Health Problems Faced by the Homeless

Homeless individuals are at a relatively high risk for a range of acute and chronic physical and mental illnesses. Some health problems precede and may contribute to homelessness, while others are often a consequence of being homeless. And homelessness complicates the treatment of many illnesses. 

One example of a health problem that can cause homelessness is a major mental illness, such as schizophrenia. Without therapeutic interventions and supportive housing arrangements, such an individual may become homeless. 

Another example is an accidental injury, including job-related injuries. Even with benefits under employer programs, these individuals may experience major economic costs leading to loss of housing.

Diseases of the extremities, skin disorders, malnutrition, degenerative joint diseases, dental and periodontal disease, communicable diseases, and the possibility of trauma are other health problems that may result from, or frequently occur in, the homeless population. Medical care and treatment for acute or chronic illness can be extremely difficult. 

Bed rest may be nonexistent for a homeless individual who has no bed or only has a bed in a shelter at night. Special diets and medication adherence are impossible to maintain for a person who is homeless.

Contact centers have long been known for assisting their organizations in offering triage, coaching, remote patient monitoring, and care management for an identified population. Some contact centers have also assisted other community agencies or services in filling a need or gap. 

Triage Call Centers Can Help Address Health Concerns of the Homeless

So, we all know homelessness exists, and it is a tremendous problem, but what does that have to do with triage call centers?

A community triage contact center at EvergreenHealth in Kirkland, Washington, implemented a program around 2000, in which they began to offer low-level acuity triage for their regional 911 dispatch centers. The dispatchers would go through their algorithms with the caller, and once they ruled out any emergent or urgent issue, the caller was offered the option of speaking with a nurse. If the caller preferred, she or he could be connected with an appropriate unit or the individual could be transported to the Emergency Department (ED). This program proved a tremendous success in both caller/patient satisfaction and dollars saved.

A study was published in 2015 for a comparable 911 program in two cities with similar outcomes. MedStar in Fort Worth, Texas, provided nine months of 911 call data, and LMEMS in Louisville, Kentucky, provided thirty-four months of 911 data. The study reported that the 911 program had a significant reduction in callers routed to the Emergency Department (ED) at a cost savings of 1.2 million dollars in payments, as well as a decrease in emergency ambulance transports resulting in a cost savings of $450,000 and a resultant increase in access to alternative care. Overall, patient satisfaction was 91.2 percent.

As a result of the involvement with the regional 911 dispatch centers, the contact center was asked to become involved with yet another identified need: the growing population of homeless individuals. County shelters and housing facilities for the homeless population needed a resource for individuals with low to moderate acuity symptoms, when medical or nursing personnel were not on-site. The fire department was handling 90,000 incidents per year, which resulted in overuse or misuse of the emergency medical response (EMR) system. And while the county shelters were not most of the calls, they were a contributor. 

Addressing the Concerns of the Homeless

A critical concern to the homeless individual is whether they will lose their shelter bed for the night if they are transported. The fire department is not authorized to make a medical diagnosis on the scene, to provide advice or guidance about disease management, to make a referral to other medical resources, such as a primary care doctor, or to provide transportation anywhere except an ED. 

The contact center had the system and tools in place to assist the RN with the individual at the county shelter’s assessment and make recommendations of care. “Right care, right place, right time” is the fundamental premise of contact center RN triage. Their service provided a much-needed solution to an ongoing gap in care. They currently support five dispatch centers in providing contact center RN triage for thirteen shelters.

The contact center educated the staff at the shelters and facilities. They provided training on when to call 911 (a red flag list) and when to call the contact center’s health line. Each homeless individual received HIPAA information that included “understanding and agreement that a copy of the information discussed during the call interaction would be shared with the residence so that they may further assist the individual with their care.” 

The workflow included one number for all facilities to dial into the Healthline contact center. The case manager and the resident had to be available at the time of the call. The RN in the contact center triaged the individual, and then the case manager determined the best non-EMR transportation based on the disposition. The triage note was then faxed to that facility. 

Challenges included the individual wishing to remain anonymous, the individual being a vague or poor historian, individuals declining triage or the recommendation, availability of OTC meds, and individual psych/social needs.

The Results

Eighteen months after the start of the program, the facility staff was queried, and all were either very or somewhat comfortable in knowing what situations required 911. Over 85 percent of the staff felt the service was especially important to the facility. 

By far, the majority felt that the nurses at Healthline were very knowledgeable (83.33 percent). More than 85 percent also felt that the nurse line process was easy to use and felt that the residents were satisfied with the service. Most of the staff felt very satisfied once the resident had talked with the nurse, and 100 percent indicated the importance of having the service available 24/7, adding that it was practical and helpful to the residents in the facility.

Traci Haynes MSN, RN, BA, CEN, CCCTM, is the director of clinical services at LVM Systems, Inc., and has been involved in the contact center industry for over twenty-five years. (Traci thanks Cheryl Patterson, BSN, RNC—TNP, clinical manager—quality and education, Healthline, for her contributions to this article.)

Lockdown Initiatives

By Kathy Sisk

In my forty years in the call center industry, I have gone through many challenges, but none as distressing as in the past year. We can feel sorry for ourselves, or we can be intentional to make wise use of our time. Yes, we should relax and have fun when we can, but it doesn’t pay our bills. Therefore, balance is essential to move forward.

Here are some items for call center owners and clients to consider during lockdown:

  • Get your house in order. Not your living quarters, but your business. Organize your office, your desk, your laptop, and your thoughts. 
  • Consider relocating staff to work from home. Sure, it’s a hassle, but when you are not able to pay your overhead, the hassle is a moot point.
  • If required, get permission to go to the office and grab those PCs, headsets, and anything else you need. None of us knows what to expect, so it is best to think about the worst-case scenario and plan for it. 
  • If your infrastructure is not already in the cloud, work with a vender who can get you there. If you have an outbound operation, there are reliable resources that can get you up and running in less than an hour.
  • Relocate staff in an area they can work from. Several centers I work with rented a house where their employees live and work from. 
  • If your staff is unable to process calls remotely, use the downtime to create curriculum and train your employees to learn as they wait to return to work. 
  • Spend time to generate additional campaign opportunities and set up the campaigns now in preparation for when restrictions ease. 

These are some of the ideas I have incorporated into my company, and fortunately we have not been affected financially as others have. In fact, I have hired additional employees to cover the growth my company experienced during the lockdowns. Proudly, my staff is working full-time, generating sales, setting up campaigns, and onboarding centers with mostly at-home agents. 

Taking these steps will help us now and prepare us for whatever the future may hold.

[Due to increased business demands, this is Kathy’s final column for Connections Magazine. Please thank her for the scores of articles she’s written for us over the years.]

Kathy Sisk, founder and president of Kathy Sisk Enterprises Inc., is a trainer and consultant, contributing thirty-five years of expertise to the telemarketing, sales, and customer service industries.