Tag Archives: Call Center Management Articles

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.

Are Insurance Call Centers Putting Customer Data at Risk?



By Ben Rafferty

Imagine if you had to read your PIN out loud at the ATM to make a transaction. With the possibility of someone overhearing and maliciously using your information, this notion is unthinkable. So why is it still commonplace for call centers to ask customers to read their card numbers, sensitive authentication data (SAD), and other personally identifiable information (PII) over the phone?

A recent secret shopper survey of leading insurance companies’ call centers unveiled that insurers are inclined to use the outdated, risky practice of asking customers for verbal confirmation of payment card details. In fact, ten of the top insurance companies in the United States anonymously surveyed said that they require customers to read their card numbers out loud to pay for insurance services over the phone. Moreover, four out of those same ten insurers admitted that customer services representatives (CSRs) read card numbers back to customers. Although many customers and CSRs may not think twice about verbalizing sensitive data, there are far too many risks involved. And, given the 371 percent increase in data breaches in the insurance industry, and the 113 percent increase in call center fraud, insurers cannot afford to be complacent.

Inside, or CSR fraud, is a real threat. As customers read their information aloud, the CSR could be copying it down for fraudulent use. Without clean rooms (no bags, pens or paper, or cell phones) and other stringent security measures, there is no telling what the CSR may do when exposed to sensitive data. Also the customer may be reading the information aloud in a public place, such as the grocery store. Who knows who may be listening and jotting down their information? Insurers who practice stop/start or manually scrub recordings of PII are noncompliant. Click To Tweet

When it comes to call recordings, the verbal confirmation of card numbers poses additional security concerns. This survey showed that eight of the ten insurers record calls, but how (and if) they remove PII from recordings varied. Some CSRs said they rely on a program to automatically block card details from the recording as callers talk. Others said PII is manually removed from the recordings after the call is completed. One insurer said they randomly record calls and keep recordings for thirty days before deleting them. Overall, it was also clear that CSRs were unaware or uninformed about how to shield sensitive information from recordings.

Unfortunately, the problem goes beyond the ambiguity and lack of a standardized approach to avoiding capturing card details. Most notably, a common method of removing card details cited in the survey was some form of “stop/start” or “pause and resume,” whereby the call recording is stopped, paused, or muted, either manually by a CSR or automatically. It is then restarted, resumed, or unmuted once sensitive information is captured. Stop/start systems are particularly inadequate, as the CSR is still exposed to verbalized information and in some cases is also responsible for pausing and resuming the call recording. Here there is opportunity for CSRs to misuse the system, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

What if the CSR pauses the recording to leave out portions of the call while he or she engages in fraudulent behavior? Or what if the CSR accidentally forgets to pause the recording? This could log sensitive information, leaving it vulnerable in the event of a data breach.

On top of these risks, the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), which governs all card payments, explicitly prohibits the recording of card security codes and the manual intervention of staff to remove data from recordings. Thus, insurers who practice stop/start or manually scrub recordings of PII are noncompliant.

Fortunately there is a simple security solution for call centers in the insurance industry and beyond, and it involves de-scoping the call center. This is most effectively accomplished by using dual-tone multifrequency (DTMF) masking technologies. Such solutions allow customers to enter payment card information on their telephone keypad and shield the numbers from the CSR and recordings by replacing DTMF tones with flat tones. Payments are sent directly to the payment processor and never touch the call center’s systems. These technologies enable call centers to keep customer data safe and out of their infrastructure, thereby reducing the risks associated with a reputation-damaging data breach. This also cuts compliance costs.

Because insurance call centers hold so much PII, from credit card numbers to social security numbers, it is in the companies’ and their customers’ best interests to ensure that their security and compliance efforts are in order—before it’s too late. This begins with making the practice of reading payment card numbers aloud over the phone a thing of the past.

Ben Rafferty has fifteen years of experience of delivering speech recognition, IVR, and contact center automation on CPE and hosted platforms. At Semafone, Rafferty is responsible for the smooth deployment of solutions into hosted environments and for the overall management of Semafone’s hosted offering.

AI: On the Right Path but Not Yet Real



By Donna Fluss

It’s hard to find a product today that doesn’t claim to use machine learning to provide artificial intelligence (AI). The funny thing is that while the marketing has changed, most of the products have not. It’s amazing how so many products have supposedly morphed into AI-based solutions overnight, despite little evidence of any product development effort. This, of course, means that most of these solutions do not offer AI, and what we’re reading in their marketing materials and websites is merely aspirational messaging.

AI Today

To be fair, it’s going to be hard for a vendor to attract attention today if they don’t claim to use AI to improve the performance and output of their solution. Given the choice between purchasing a product that continues to do what it always did or one that uses AI (which typically means machine learning) to enhance its capabilities, most people are going to go for what they believe to be the latest and greatest cutting-edge offerings.

The problem is that most of what people are buying is hype, and this is going to result in disappointment as enterprises realize that AI is still in the early stages of commercialization. The potential is great, but the current generation of technology and applications are far from fully AI-enabled. As I look through the market, the vendors who are closest to delivering AI-enabled applications are selling a great deal of professional services with each solution to build out their products.

A Push for Improvements

The driver behind the AI revolution is the need for productivity and quality improvements, which are important for all enterprise applications and essential for people-intensive front- and back-office service organizations. Imagine a voice self-service solution, also known as an interactive voice response system (IVR) that self-corrects when it realizes customers are dropping out at a certain point in the script (application). If machine learning were applied, the solution would identify the issue by itself and then make a change to the appropriate components of the script without human intervention.

Another great use of AI would be to embed it into an automatic call distributor (ACD) to improve and optimize routing. Imagine an ACD that continuously enhances its routing algorithms, ensuring that the right transactions are delivered to the best-suited agents or associates. These examples sound great, but they are not fully-baked today. Most of what is currently referred to as AI are business rules created and modified by humans. These approaches are not new, although there are changes in how they are being applied and rolled out as vendors strive to make their solutions more intelligent and AI-ready.

The Past and the Future

The first AI application I was introduced to over thirty years ago was knowledge management (KM), and it’s a perfect example of how AI is not yet ready for prime-time commercialization and adoption in enterprise applications. KM is still an ideal application for machine learning-enabled AI, as the number-one challenge with these applications is keeping them up-to-date. If AI worked, this would have been addressed years ago; more development work is still needed before AI can truly drive the processes in enterprise solutions.

DMG is bullish on the current AI revolution. What’s different this time is that companies in many IT sectors are making investments to try to embed AI-like capabilities in their solutions. The benefits for the contact center technology market are going to be tremendous, even though it will take a few more years before AI is ready for prime time.This generation of systems is not yet fully AI-enabled, but it is on the right path. Click To Tweet

 Final Thoughts

AI is driving a much-needed round of investment in many systems and applications for various IT sectors, including contact centers. AI is not yet ready for broad commercial adoption, but the push to include it in many solutions is driving vendors to rethink their application logic and deliver a new generation of technology that is easier to implement and use, as it is designed to be smarter and faster than anything that came before.

Many of these solutions, including intelligent virtual agents (IVAs) and robotic process automation (RPA) applications, can deliver significant productivity and quality improvements, even though the underlying technology is not true AI but typically a basic form of machine learning. This generation of systems is not yet fully AI-enabled, but it is on the right path, and many of these solutions are generations ahead of the twenty to thirty-year-old systems that many companies are using.

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.

Will Customer Service Chatbots Ruin the Contact Center?



By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineBots, sometimes called chatbots, are applications used to automate responses to social media and online inquiries. The purpose of bots is to speed answers to customer information requests. And they do this automatically. They’re programs, after all. They can do in seconds what it might take a person minutes to handle, or even longer if the message gets stuck in a lengthy queue.

Chatbots respond quickly, expedite communication, and relieve customer service staff from handling basic inquiries. What does this mean to contact centers and their staff? Could chatbots signal the end of the contact center as we know it? Could chatbots signal the end of the contact center as we know it? Click To Tweet

Although it’s easy to imagine these chatbot programs one day taking over a contact center and sending all the agents home because they have no work left to do, this is unlikely. Go back through the history of the call center industry; every year or two we see some new technology coming along that carries the threat of devastating the call center. So far it’s never happened.

Although emerging technologies have served to change how the call center operates, in most cases these innovations have opened new opportunities to serve customers and provide more work for agents. Historically, these technologies have not been disruptive but enabling.

Bots are not a threat to contact center agents but a tool that can aid in communication, assist contact center agents, and speed answers to customers. Just as web self-service and FAQ sections on websites help customers resolve problems, so too will self-learning bots. And though online self-service was heralded as the end of contact centers, this proved false, with frustrated users demanding to talk with people to resolve their most difficult problems. Bots will have the same effect.

However, as the saying goes, “To err is human, but to really foul things up requires a computer.” Bots could accomplish this too. They are, after all, self-learning. What if they learn the wrong thing? What if they reach an errant conclusion and then perpetuate it, spreading their misinformation to thousands of people?

Who will suffer the fallout? The contact center will, as agents field calls, emails, and text messages from confused customers who were led astray by erroneous bots. Who’s going to fix the mess? Contact center agents, that’s who: real people solving big problems caused by well-meaning technology that’s run amuck. This possibility, though likely, will only happen in isolated cases.

Yet there’s a bigger issue at stake. Unlike a typical computer application that can only do what it was programmed to do, bots have an element of artificial intelligence built into them. They can grow, they can evolve, and they can change. They could take over! Though this may sound like an intriguing plot for a sci-fi thriller, it’s a possibility, even if far-fetched. But if bots take over and turn customer service into a nightmare, it will be the contact center agents who come to the rescue and save us all!

My attempts at humor aside, bots present more opportunities than threats. We need to implement them to better serve our customers. Let the bots do the easy things—just like we expect from self-service, FAQs, and interactive voice response—so that contact center agents can focus their attention on the more challenging inquiries. In this way, bots will take some of the drudgery out of routine contact center chores and defer to real people for the really interesting work.

In all likelihood, chatbots will not ruin the contact center industry. They will empower it to become more.

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.

Three Steps to Ensure That Live Chat Agents Support Your Brand Identity



By Tony Medrano

AI and machine learning are more than just trendy buzzwords. In many industries, including e-commerce, rapid advances in Artificial Intelligence and machine learning are giving companies huge competitive advantages right now. These technologies power live chat agent communications and help companies scale faster than ever before. However, if your brand is your most valuable asset, you want to make sure that your live chat agents support your brand identity, not tarnish it, before you set them loose on potential customers.

Brand conscious e-commerce companies find that chat agents have an increased impact on customer satisfaction, build a more resilient brand identity, and foster lifelong customers, while freeing up chat team leaders to tackle unique issues. Empowering human chat agents with these insights from machine learning enables brands to make the strongest emotional connection with customers.

1. Understand Your Customer’s Expectations: The first key to training live chat agents is to make sure that your agents have a solid understanding of what the customer’s expectation is when using live chat. After all, you cannot exceed expectations until you know what the expectations are. A live chat agent is not a replacement for an entire customer service team. Click To Tweet

Customers who opt for live chat most often want immediate service, clear answers, and positive interaction. Fast service is not enough for most customers. They’re used to texting with friends and getting an immediate response. Your live chat agent needs to be able to react right away.

The way your live chat agent responds is important as well. They need clear answers they can act on to questions they ask. This means that answers should have direct links when appropriate and incorporate information specific to the customer. If you can personalize customer service, you’ll improve brand loyalty.

A live chat agent also needs to make the customer feel good about the interaction. You already know people buy more when they are in a good mood. This means your live chat agent not only needs to be efficient but also friendly. This includes using appropriate greetings, asking if the customer has any other questions, and ending a chat session with an appropriate sign off.

2. Understand Your Brand’s Identity: Brand-conscious e-commerce companies have these goals:

  • Present a correct representation of the brand
  • Offer high-quality service for each customer interaction
  • Communicate accurate information about products and logistics

Are you a luxury brand that fosters attention to detail about your products? Are you a big box e-retailer working in many verticals that prioritize order size and a flexible return policy? Communicating your brand identity to live chat agents is crucial to ensuring that your customer service strategy represents you correctly.

A high quality of service ensures that chat conversations reinforce customers’ positive brand associations while increasing the chances your brand is top of mind for your customer base. Achieving these tenets of brand identity through live chat will strengthen brand recognition, association, and loyalty.

Often a customer service interaction falls into one of two categories: product information or logistics. The former interaction likely occurs before a customer has made a purchase. The customer may need more information about a product before deciding to buy. The latter interaction usually occurs when the customer is ready to check out or already has. They may have a question about the purchase process, shipping, or product delivery.

3. Understand the Role of Your Live Chat Agent: It can be difficult for brand conscious e-commerce companies to provide immediate service while communicating accurate product information. When accurately representing a luxury product to support a purchasing decision, for example, a chat agent’s accuracy trumps the speed of the interaction.

The good news is that brand-conscious companies prefer using in-house customer service agents, eliminating many possible pain points. It’s easier to maintain brand voice when chat team leaders are in contact with other brand representatives in the company. Furthermore, the quality of interaction is facilitated by increased monitoring of chat conversation management. Chat team leaders can communicate immediately with superiors to adjust human resources to meet contact center traffic.

Solutions: Develop Proper Management Structure: The biggest mistake a brand can make with live chat agents is expecting them to do too much. A live chat agent can solve most of the customer service issues that come in. However, a live chat agent is not a replacement for an entire customer service team. A live chat agent can deal with 80 to 90 percent of customer queries. But if you try and force your live chat agents to deal with things that require too much improvisation or that the agents do not have authority to handle, you will trigger negative customer interactions.

If you are clear that your live chat agent will only deal with a specific set of issues, then you can train them to quickly get assistance from a team leader when issues are beyond the scope of their power or authority to resolve. Few things are more frustrating for a customer than spending fifteen minutes on live chat only to find out that the chat agent needs to bring in backup. This situation can often be avoided by training live chat agents to know when it is time to escalate the chat for resolution.

If you don’t want your e-commerce company to be left behind, you need to synthesize an AI and machine learning tool with your live chat training to improve your brand’s identity online.

Tony Medrano is the co-founder and CEO for RapportBoost.AI, provider of a suite of live chat agent training solutions that use advanced machine learning and deep conversational analysis to organizations to guide their human customer success and chat sales teams to build stronger connections with customers. He can be reached at tony@rapportboost.ai.

10 Reasons Call Center Coaching Fails to Improve Customer Experience and Employee Morale and Performance



By Melissa Pollock

Call center coaching has long been a challenge for both outsourced and corporate contact centers alike. Here are ten top causes that contribute to stagnant customer experience, waning employee morale, and disappointing performance improvements.

1. No Agent Availability for Coaching: Given the inherent pressures in call centers to achieve high agent availability and reach service-level targets, there is little time available for off-line training or coaching.

2. Lack of Time to Coach: Call center supervisors, team leads, and QA representatives who are typically responsible for coaching contact center agents don’t have time for coaching—either at all or not in the necessary frequency. In many cases, frontline leaders are over-tasked with a multitude of reporting, escalations, and performance management duties. Plus they often have too many direct reports. Sometimes these competing tasks take away from coaching time. Sometimes coaching is a personally distasteful task, so other work provides easy justification to procrastinate or avoid it.

3. No Commonly Accepted Coaching Model: There is often no coaching model to structure the coaching conversation. Each coach has strengths and challenges in different parts of the conversation. But without a structure it’s difficult for managers to identify these areas. It’s even more difficult for employees to follow the coaching conversation. Without a common language to discuss, understand, and evaluate coaching effectiveness, employees, coaches, and leaders all have limited insight.

4. No Standardized Coaching Process: There is often no standardization of the overall coaching process. These include a lack of expectations, evaluation, frequency, methods, behaviors, documentation location and formatting, follow-through steps, timelines, processes, and individual coaching efficiency or effectiveness. In the absence of well-established, communicated, and supported processes, coaching becomes a more casual and overly corrective kind of activity.

5. Underdeveloped Coaching Competency: Coaching occurs, but the quality of results suffers based on the coaches’ competency. In so many cases, newly promoted coaches (QAs, team leads, supervisors, and managers) are promoted from within. Though this is a wonderful practice, it only works when coaches receive proper training and tools. Being top performers may have earned them promotions, but their prior roles likely had little to do with leading and developing people. Millennials want to be more than just workers; they want to matter in the bigger picture. Click To Tweet

6. Not Based on Observing Actual Work Performance: In this scenario coaching is conducted without first observing actual work performance. Instead it’s based on metric outcomes without any analysis of correlating behaviors; there is no discussion of what actions are successful or unsuccessful in producing the desired outcomes. Without behaviors, there can be no coaching. Instead the conversation sounds more like a reinforcement of requirements, which ends with an empty agreement to improve.

7. Insufficient Relationship and Trust Building: Coaching occurs, but the quality of the relationship and subsequently the coaching interaction suffer based on the coaches’ interpersonal skills. If it’s all business and there’s no time spent connecting—talking, asking questions, listening, and trying to understand interests and concerns—then coaches don’t know what’s important to each person and therefore cannot demonstrate interest. And without being able to establish a genuine human connection, there’s little incentive for employees to invest much in return. Millennials, in particular, say they want to be more than just workers; they want to matter in the bigger picture.

8. Unbalanced Feedback: Coaching occurs, but it is too heavily focused on corrective feedback or challenges. Appreciation, recognition, and praise aren’t given or are given ineffectively. Few people know how to praise well; without behavior-specific positive reinforcement, there’s little incentive to course correct as requested, except for compliance-driven fear over job security.

9. Ineffective Follow-Through: Coaching occurs, but the timeliness of results suffers based on coaches’ lack of follow-through. Having a productive coaching conversation but then never checking back, or doing so a month later, makes it clear there is no accountability to force change. Even worse, some coaches check back but focus their comments on changes that still need to be made instead of first acknowledging and appreciating the progress already made.

10. Post-Coaching Failure: Coaching occurs but does not result in behavior change or performance improvement. Few contact center leaders can answer who their best high-performing coaches are, and even fewer can speak to the specific behaviors and practices that make those individuals good coaches. But how many leaders observe their coaches while they coach and then coach their coaches? Beyond that, how many leaders themselves are experienced at evoking willing behavior modification? In the absence of knowledgeable training and mentoring, coaches do the best they can with whatever prior experience they have and whoever they’re able to watch coach.

There are proven approaches for remedying each of these coaching effectiveness challenges, but as with anything, acknowledging the current state and understanding the causes are always the first steps.

Melissa Pollock is a practitioner of human and organizational learning and development and operational process improvement. She has twelve years’ experience with contact centers, specializing in creating transformational change through communication, alignment, and structure of processes and employee development practices. Her joy and skill in evolving leaders into better communicators and coaches has resulted in turnaround performance in centers around the nation. Mrs. Pollock is known for inspiring and organizing positive vision and change; she has a stellar record of strategic interventions that have strengthened engagement and improved overall performance and quality. Visit AmplifAI.com to learn how AI and machine learning are driving improved coaching and performance.

Keep Your Call Center from Suffering a Privacy Incident



By Sachin Kothari

Call center managers have plenty to worry about. Just recruiting and keeping staff, watching margins, and managing stakeholders (external or internal) can keep you busy.

In addition, you know privacy and data protection are rapidly becoming major issues for any organization gathering or using customer data. The last thing you need is a privacy incident to mar your organization’s reputation or lead to aggrieved customers.

You might even be pitching breach remediation work as part of your business plan. That pretty much becomes moot if you have an embarrassing breach yourself. Therefore it’s vital to know where a call center’s vulnerabilities are and how to prevent them. The breach experts all say the same thing: Speed matters. Click To Tweet

Social Engineering: Terms like phishing, spear phishing, and whaling all refer to the practice of criminals misrepresenting themselves to employees—even high-level employees (the whales)—and convincing them to give away important information of their own accord. While movies and television might make hackers into scheming geniuses behind souped-up laptops, a simple phone call is almost all they need to get some unsuspecting employee to hand over a username and password or other compromising information.

Luckily the solution is relatively simple: Train, train, train. Employees must understand how important it is to stick to your policies about how information is handled and think critically about what it is they’re being asked to do for a customer. Most phishing techniques are apparent once you know what to look and listen for.

In truth, it’s likely some of the good training you’ve given your employees—designed to help them deliver great customer service—has created good intentions that can have bad results.

Consider the case of an important client calling a frontline call center employee and explaining that he wants to make some adjustments to his account. Suddenly, right in the middle of verifying his identity, this big fish says that he must take an important call and explains that his assistant will finish up.

Of course, this woman doesn’t know her boss’s credentials. That’s silly. He was just there on the phone, right? This shouldn’t be a problem. No one would fault that call center employee’s instinct to be helpful and make sure this assistant gets the important changes accomplished. This is an important client, and the assistant sounds nice and seems harried.

Of course, the call center employee has just found herself victim to a data breach.

Teach your employees about these scenarios and emphasize the importance of verifying identity according to your policy, without exception. Hackers are smart. Give them even the tiniest bit of personal information, and they can exploit it.

Who Can See What?: Even in today’s digital world, people need to write things down when working with customers. It’s a part of the call center job that will likely never go away. Make sure there’s a policy in place for destroying that piece of paper. How handy is your shredder?

Unless the shredder is in steady use, the janitorial staff could be selling client info to the highest bidder. Ideally your cleaning personnel has training and knows to destroy compromising information pronto, but custodial staff are often third-party vendors. Does your contract with them require training in information handling?

You should also make sure that your call center employees don’t have keys to every digital door. Invest in software that redacts information based on role and scenario. That way employees only see the information necessary for the call they’re handling.

Procedures for Escalation: Perhaps the most common issue is a lack of proper plans for what to do should something bad happen. What does your employee do if she gets a call from a customer saying someone has accessed their account? Does that employee know where to go for help?

The breach experts all say the same thing: Speed matters. The faster your security team knows that something is amiss, the faster they can act.

Just a single sign of improper access could mean a typhoon is coming. Maybe your security team recognizes a hot new piece of malware and knows how to quickly contain it. It’s vital that all employees, from frontline staff and shift managers right up to the chief information officer, know what the response plan is. 

Conclusion: Unfortunately, this is just the start. There are books that address this issue in detail. I hope you have auditing capabilities and smart procedures in place for screening potential employees to make sure they are who they say they are. If not, you should start by addressing this.

Regardless, the simple message is this: People make mistakes. They make more mistakes, however, when they don’t have any training to help them avoid making them.

Privacy and data security should be standard at call centers, no matter where you’re operating. Otherwise you might find you’re not operating at all.

Sachin Kothari is CIPP/US and director of online privacy and compliance at AT&T.