The Power of Conversation: We May Be Looking at Productivity All Wrong

By Holger Reisinger

When was the last time you heard someone rave about his or her experience with a customer service representative? If you can’t recall, it’s not surprising. According to my company’s research, 80 percent of customer service workers say they deliver “superior” service. Yet only 8 percent of customers agree. Where’s the disconnect? It’s centered on the productivity of the worker.

The performance of traders, advisors, call-center employees, and customer service representatives is typically measured by tracking volume of calls, time between calls, and number of breaks. Instead, the emphasis should be on improving employee concentration and efficiency through discovering the power of conversation. At most companies this could close the gap between the most and least productive employees by 47 percent. 

The Importance of People: To supplement live operators, more and more companies are automating customer service functions, but I would argue that this is not the answer. Interacting with an automated recording often inconveniences and angers customers. Anyone who has ever walked through the multistep automated customer service menu only to finally be redirected to a person can probably agree that the experience is frustrating at best. While there is a time and a place for automated calls, such as allowing customers to check bank balances or make payments, we gain much with human communication.

Only a human being can actively listen, understand nuances, and seek information that directly correlates to a customer service problem. This means that customer service representatives have the potential to transform the customer experience. Humans can empathize, solve problems, and help make decisions, unlike a prerecorded machine.

Humans can have a dialogue. Through the power of conversation, employees can encourage brand loyalty and promote a positive brand reputation.

Statistics to Consider: While conversations are an important business tool, organizations put themselves at risk of losing business when they use customer service representatives who lack training in the power of conversation. A few stats to consider:

  • Eighty-nine percent of customers will leave a brand for a competitor after a negative customer experience.
  • Poor service entices up to 91 percent of customers to rescind their business, and that’s not limited to poor service from automated systems.
  • Customers angered by poor service not only leave a brand, they also share their negative experiences with up to fifteen other people.
  • Conversely 73 percent of consumers say they will love a brand if they receive friendly and helpful service on the phone.

Data like this reinforces how critical it is for organizations to put the time and effort into training employees to deliver a positive, memorable experience. With this in mind, it’s shocking to find that only 12 percent of marketing budgets address servicing existing customers.

Deal with Distractions: In addition to small budgets, the changing office landscape also contributes to call center worker challenges. In the move to create open and collaborative office spaces, employers are introducing new and bigger distractions. In fact, a quarter of call center employees count interruptions from colleagues and a loud workplace as their biggest distractions. Trailing not far behind, the number of calls and emails each day are also cited as a major distraction and stressor.

As if a noisy environment isn’t challenging enough for delivering quality customer service, 73 percent of decision-makers in call center environments say there’s an increase in the complexity of customer interactions. Today’s customers are well educated on their problem before contacting the brand. Through an increase in technology, customer service is expected to be available online via chat, email, over the phone, or via text. Increased complexity means there is an even bigger need for concentration on the task at hand.

Some Simple Suggestions: Calls have an important place in the organization, and they aren’t going away any time soon. In fact the length of calls is expected to increase by 40 percent in the next five years. The open and collaborative office space isn’t likely to go away any time soon either. So what can an organization do to help their employees battle distractions and stay focused?

A few tricks that we uncovered include:

  • Stay hydrated: Our research found the most productive call center agents were 22 percent more likely to say “bottoms up” to a glass of water than the least productive. A recent study in the U.K. found that one in five office spaces has about 25 percent relative humidity—nearly that of the Sahara Desert. It’s no surprise that productive agents are more likely to stay hydrated when you consider how difficult it would be to concentrate on a conversation with a parched mouth and itchy throat from nearly four hours of talking (in the desert) each day.
  • Control noise: The most productive call center employees have the right supporting tools to help them stay on task, including noise-canceling technology to drown out the open office buzz and hone in on what the customer is saying.  
  • Improve posture: Shifting posture throughout the day was another key factor that separated the most and least productive call center employees. Encourage employees to be mindful of their posture and move as needed instead of focusing on the number of calls they can zip through in an hour. You just might find that actual productivity and the number of happy customers increases.

Boosting customer satisfaction doesn’t require an overhaul of the way your organization operates. Call center employees and their human touch have and will remain vital in creating value for customers and delivering high-quality service. Instead, smart companies are providing working conditions that enable concentration and help service representatives overcome top challenges to productive calls. With the right tools and support in place, organizations can finally realize the full power of conversation.

Holger Reisinger is SVP of Business Solutions at Jabra.

IVR Optimization Improves Service and Reduces Costs

By Donna Fluss

In many customer service contact centers, the interactive voice response (IVR) system handles approximately 55 to 95 percent of the calls, depending on the vertical and the effectiveness of the system. An IVR can save companies millions of dollars; a typical customer service call handled by a live agent costs $3.00 to $6.50, while an IVR transaction costs $0.03 to $0.25 per minute.

IVRs are so good at deflecting routine calls from agents that companies often take them for granted and do not give them the attention they deserve. The issue is that over time, business requirements and customer expectations change, while many IVRs do not. This costly oversight can be addressed with a small and continuous investment in your IVR application.

DMG research shows that both baby boomers and millennials prefer to use self-service solutions to resolve an issue, but they will interact with a live representative when the automated tools are not successful. This indicates great potential for self-service solutions: Companies can improve their customer experience (CX) by enhancing their IVR. When an IVR is well designed, easy to use, and effective in giving callers the information and answers they need, it’s no longer an issue of customers tolerating the IVR; it becomes a preference instead.

A small ongoing investment in your IVR will make a major contribution to your contact center or enterprise’s bottom line. As importantly, since self-service is a valuable step in the customer journey and plays an influential role in the overall CX, keeping an IVR current, relevant, and easy to use is a necessity for your brand. An IVR optimization initiative delivers significant benefits because it enhances the customer experience while reducing operating costs and improving agent engagement.

IVR optimization efforts are intended to address many activities, such as identifying and eliminating impediments that prevent callers from completing a transaction, improving the process flow to make it easier for callers to address their needs, enhancing grammars (for speech-enabled solutions), replacing outdated and awkward phrases, reducing the number of times a phrase is repeated, and changing the pace of communication.

The enhancements required during an optimization effort depend on a business’s current needs, which change as the market and consumer expectations mature. If a company is willing to develop a personalized and adaptive IVR application, the benefits will be even greater, but this may require an investment in new technology in addition to a major usability refresh.

Customer expectations have changed since the early 1980s when IVRs were first rolled out. These days, many callers are happy to use an IVR, and many even prefer it for simple activities—if it is well designed and allows them to quickly and easily conduct business and transfer to an agent when necessary.

Visit to see IVR optimization return on investment (ROI) models that show the monthly and annual savings that can be achieved by enhancing your IVR self-service solution. You can also find best practices for building an IVR optimization program to deliver ongoing benefits to your customers and organization.

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.

Vendor Profile: American Tel-A-Systems (Amtelco)


Amtelco is proud of its long history of innovation and serving customers, and that innovation and service will continue as its focus in 2017.

Amtelco is a leading supplier of call center and messaging systems in the telemessaging and healthcare industries due to its commitment to serving the needs of customers with advanced technology and solutions. Amtelco President Tom Curtin states, “At the very core of Amtelco is our reputation for innovation. Many great products come from Amtelco, and many of these products and features are the result of listening to our customers. Amtelco celebrated its fortieth anniversary in 2016, and we are excited by the prospects for the next forty years.”

Partnering with Customers: Amtelco is focused on advancing solutions by partnering with customers. Amtelco works closely with its customers, both through direct communication and the National Amtelco Equipment Owners (NAEO) and the Telescan User Network (TUNe) organizations.

Amtelco and NAEO coordinate on innovations and communications about new developments through the NAEO future direction committee, with Amtelco represented on the committee by Kevin Beale, vice president of software, research and development; Greg Beale, vice president of customer services; and Alan Tucker, director of software, research and development.

Amtelco and TUNe coordinate on innovations and ongoing communications with Bob Vornberg, Telescan’s general manager and director of product development, leading those efforts.

Communications: Amtelco is committed to providing ongoing communication and updates to customers through monthly Amtelco Insider newsletter articles, regularly scheduled webinars, and NAEO future direction committee webinars.

Customer Service: Amtelco is committed to providing the best possible customer service with one of the largest customer service teams in the telemessaging industry. The customer service department demonstrates this commitment by staffing Amtelco’s help desk at the corporate headquarters in McFarland, Wisconsin, from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., central standard time, with a demonstrated standard for answering calls within three rings (eighteen seconds).

Beyond standard support hours, service calls are dispatched immediately to an on-call Amtelco support engineer equipped to address any issue. Amtelco has a demonstrated track record of responding to after-hours support calls in thirty minutes or less. Amtelco provides a customer service Web portal for customers to access product documentation, training videos, software updates, and technical resources and documents.

Research and Development: Research and development and innovation are a primary focus for Amtelco. Amtelco has one of the largest research and development groups in the telemessaging industry, and it is dedicated to advancing Amtelco’s software solutions by working closely with customers and the NAEO and TUNe organizations. Amtelco builds solutions that offer advanced features while maintaining simplicity of administration and system management, with comprehensive integrations through Web service APIs, database integrations, HL7 electronic medical record integrations, and IP switching integrations.

Reliability: Reliability and maximum uptime are a primary focus of Amtelco solutions. Amtelco’s Infinity Intelligent Series has a demonstrated uptime of 99.998 percent with an average annual downtime of less than ten minutes during 365 days of nonstop, twenty-four-hours-a-day call processing.

Amtelco has numerous examples of call centers that have had continuous operation of their system with no extended periods of downtime, including a hospital with continuous operation for seventy months, another site with continuous operation for forty-four months, and a third location with continuous operation for twenty-nine months.

HIPAA and PCI Security: Amtelco maintains a standing security working group that is comprised of director-level and managerial-level representatives of every department in the company. This group is charged with monitoring the compliance of Amtelco’s business practices and product offerings with federal, state, local, and international privacy and security regulations, including the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and Payment Card Industry (PCI).

Spectrum: The Telescan division of Amtelco offers the Spectrum call center and messaging system which includes a skills-based ACD, voicemail, call recording, messaging, and dispatching. Spectrum includes the Prism II software-based switch.

Infinity Intelligent Series: The Infinity Intelligent Series platform has been a leading call center and messaging system in the industry since its introduction. The combination of Infinity switching, skills-based multichannel ACD, call recording, and voicemail with the advanced applications of the Intelligent Series have enabled Infinity call centers to grow and prosper with advanced industry capabilities. The long history of the Infinity Intelligent Series reflects Amtelco’s commitment to continue development of and support for its products without forcing customers to migrate to new platforms.

Genesis Intelligent Series: The Genesis Intelligent Series elevates the Infinity switching platform with software-based switching. It provides a skills-based ACD for more than five hundred agents, call recording and playback, full motion video capture of agent screens, voice processing, text-to-speech conversion, conferencing, the simplified soft agent interface, and a mobile-friendly user Web interface.

The key to the Genesis Intelligent Series is the simplified administration and management of all call center applications within the Intelligent Series supervisor. This reduces errors, administration time, the time required to activate new clients, and maintenance overhead. It reduces or eliminates the need to contact Amtelco for support, and it increases revenue through reduced labor and faster client activation.

The Genesis Intelligent Series is an entirely software-based solution. This enables deployment in a virtual machine environment. Virtual machine deployment provides simplification of server utilization and maintenance to improve reliability and reduce overhead costs.

The Genesis Intelligent Series is perfectly suited for cloud applications. This enables deployment of the solution in cloud environments such as Amazon AWS and Microsoft Azure. Cloud implementation reduces premise-based equipment and overhead and provides flexibility and reliability by capitalizing on the cloud provider infrastructure.

MergeComm Automated Dispatching: MergeComm automated dispatching elevates capabilities of the Intelligent Series by adding automation to the process. MergeComm reduces errors and saves labor by automating inbound message and outbound dispatch activities. MergeComm enables receiving inbound messages via email, Web service API, SMS text message, TAP page, WCTP page, HL7 record from an EMR platform, and phone call. MergeComm automates outbound dispatching with automated retries, escalations, and dispatching for individuals and groups.

Web and Mobile Solutions: Amtelco’s Web solutions provide end-user access to directories, on-call schedules, messages, reports, and call recordings. Amtelco introduced the miTeamWeb mobile-friendly Web interface in 2016 to provide an interface that can be accessed equally as well from a personal computer, tablet, and smartphone.

Secure Smartphone Messaging Solutions: Amtelco provides secure smartphone messaging with the miSecureMessages solution. MiSecureMessages provides the ability to send and receive messages securely using Android and Apple mobile devices and personal computers. MiSecureMessages is tightly integrated with the Intelligent Series applications to enable sending messages to users and receiving updates from users, including read receipt and replies. This provides true interactive two-way messaging.

AmtelcoCustomer Commitment: The combination of Amtelco’s products and customer support ensures the success of Amtelco’s customers. Amtelco wishes to thank its customers for partnering with them and looks forward to an even brighter future in the years to come.




Five Customer Service Pain Points a UC Solution Can Solve

By Adam Kramer

More than 70 percent of consumers say that valuing their time is the most important thing a company can do to provide them with good service. When a customer calls into your business with an issue, a poorly designed or outdated phone system can throw the customer over the edge, and you can quickly lose them.

Understanding the most frustrating experiences customers have with a business’ phone system is the best way to design a solution that enhances customers’ experience by solving their issues quickly and efficiently. Here are five of the most common customer pain points with a business phone system and the ways a unified communication (UC) solution can solve them:

Proper Staffing: Customer Pain Point 1: Inadequate staffing and long hold times. The customer might say, “I’ve been on hold for over five minutes. Maybe you should hire more people.”

The UC Solution: Managers can correlate agent staffing with call reports, which show heavy- and low-volume call times during the day. Appropriately staffing call center agents based on call volume reduces on-hold time for customers, enables issues to be resolved faster, and cuts costs.

Helpful IVR: Customer Pain Point 2: Confusing phone menu or interactive voice response (IVR). A poorly designed IVR is a frustrating experience for customers, yet the majority of businesses have just that: an outdated, unhelpful, confusing IVR. The customer might say, “I pushed two for support, and it transferred me to sales. Can I please speak to a manager now?”

The UC Solution: IVR was designed for several reasons: to enable customers to help themselves without involving an agent, to route customers to the correct agent who can help them with whatever they need, and to provide general business information.

A solid UC solution will provide businesses with several options for their IVR needs, including stock voice prompts, music on hold, extension setup, and integrations allowing for more advanced features and capabilities. With the correct tools, businesses can create a helpful IVR flow that will reduce customer frustrations and get them the information they need faster.  

Screen Sharing: Customer Pain Point 3: Lack of communication mediums to work through a technical issue. The customer might say, “There’s a little box and a confusing pop-up thingy. I wish you could see what I see.”

The UC Solution: A Web-based solution allows for collaboration among internal and external users (customers and agents) without the need for plug-ins, separate applications, or passwords. All users need is an Internet connection. Some customer issues are hard to explain without visually seeing what’s happening. In these cases the right UC solution allows employees to share a customer’s screen or host a live video session to walk a customer through an issue or demonstrate a feature.

No Repeating Needed: Customer Pain Point 4: Having to repeat information. The customer might say, “I already entered my case number, so why are you asking for it again?”

The UC Solution: In addition to a well-designed IVR, CRM integration enables an agent to view detailed customer records as soon as the call comes in, including recent case numbers. If there is an issue, the agent can identify the appropriate person to handle it, check to see if they’re available, send them an instant message to alert them about the call, and then route the call.

While the IVR provides options for customers to be directed to the appropriate person, the CRM screen pop provides the agent with information about the customer. With these two UC features, the agent should have a good idea of who the customer is and how they can help them before they even engage in conversation.

Agent Support: Customer Pain Point 5: Lack of proper agent training. The customer might say, “You aren’t understanding me! Let me talk to a manager!”

The UC Solution: Barge and whisper features allow a manager to interact on a customer call by joining the conversation (barge) or speaking to the agent without the customer hearing the conversation (whisper). These features are also useful when training new call center agents on the appropriate (and inappropriate) ways to handle customer issues. These conversations can be recorded and filed in agents’ personnel folders or used for future training sessions.

With the proper implementation, unified communication solutions can address these five customer pain points and help improve call center efficacy in the process.

Adam Kramer is product manager for Digium’s Switchvox business communications solutions. He is responsible for strategy and development of the Switchvox product line.

Beyond the Call Center: Meeting Expectations of Consumers Across Generations

By Christian Szpilfogel

The proliferation of digital devices and always-on networks have entirely transformed how many of us approach and interact with nearly everything in our lives—how we arrange transportation (Uber), how we answer random questions (Google and Siri), and how we communicate with one another (emojis and messaging apps). Why would we not expect to interact with all organizations this way? It’s fast, convenient, and natural for many of us. Isn’t this what we expect from our favorite brands? For example, Amazon’s 1-Click® checkout process is arguably a key reason it’s one of the world’s ten largest retailers. But few organizations offer seamless communications within their digital touchpoints.

Knowing your customer has always been important to business success. Given these newly heightened expectations resulting from digital advancements and trends, understanding how your customer wants to interact with your brand is more important than ever. Gartner, Inc., an information technology research company, predicts the competition for customers will be dominated by customer experience by the end of the decade. Will your organization lead the way in connecting its specific customers’ preferences to communications strategies or follow its rival?

Who Is Today’s Customer? Identifying your customers and their preferences is a fundamental first step in developing your strategy. Making this complex, today’s consumers span a number of generations—ranging from the post-war era to trendy teens and “tweens”—each preferring a different way to communicate with each other and with businesses. And because many or even all of them are your customers, it is important to identify and overcome the challenges you’ll face personalizing interactions with members of each generation.

As you evaluate each key demographic, consider the most traveled customer journeys encountered with your organization and how interaction preferences may differ at various touchpoints. As an example, simple transactions may be preferred over text messaging by Generation X, while financial consulting calls for voice or video.

Consumers in their mid- to late-eighties certainly don’t have the same buying or communications preferences as teens. Acknowledging these differences and personalizing services across the generational spectrum will allow you to excel at customer experience. In order to do so, you must consider trends found within and across these generational groups.

Customer Journeys: Surprisingly, there is a wide gap between organizations’ views of customer satisfaction and what is reported by customers. This has attracted top business thought leaders such as McKinsey and Co. to examine the root cause; a leading one is the difference in how each party views interactions with the other.

Organizations tend to develop and monitor processes at each discreet touchpoint. For example, a customer searching the company website for information is one discreetly managed touchpoint. The resulting web chat for more information is another; the submission of an online purchase form, yet another; and sending the bill, still one more. In many instances, each touchpoint is owned by a separate manager, staffed by a different team, and measured by a distinct key performance indicator.

Customers see all this as one interaction, which management leaders have come to call the customer journey. In your customers’ eyes, making a purchase is a single event. While three of the four touchpoints may have been handled perfectly, failing in the fourth one renders the entire journey dissatisfying. Without taking a holistic view of the journey, simply emphasizing two opposing key performance indicators at two different touchpoints may set the system up for failure.

Mature Customers and Their Journeys: Once you know your customers, you can segment how each key demographic approaches the highly used customer journeys. A banking institution may start with retirees and people peaking in their careers, as these demographics consume more services and hold higher balances than younger generations. Considering retirees, the highly traveled journeys may include receiving investment advice and managing IRA accounts. Their preferred touchpoints are probably paper or email statements, voice calling, in-person visits, and even video chat. Not only will these modes of communication be more generally preferred by the target demographic, but the sensitivity and complexity of the information transmitted are inappropriate for text messaging and SMS. And forget about social media.

Digital Natives Prefer Mobile and Social: Younger generations overwhelmingly prefer using their smartphones to do just about everything. This ranges from shopping online and surfing the Internet to keeping in touch via text, checking email, Twitter, or Instagram. A recent study showed that younger smartphone users (ages 18 to 29) primarily use their phones to avoid being bored. Unlike older generations, they rarely use them to make phone calls but instead prefer texting, tweeting, or using a digital app to execute everyday tasks such as ordering a pizza; calling to place the order is considered a last resort.

When considering customer journeys for this demographic, think digital. The more automated, digitized, and in-app the touchpoints are, the better. If you can, insert hooks into social media platforms to post winning moments in real-time. When that perfect pair of shoes is customized and ordered, help your proud customer tell the world.

It’s Time to Move Beyond Simple Call Centers: Most of today’s consumers are self-reliant and happy to manage their relationships with businesses using minimal human interaction. They expect the flexibility and convenience of communicating using the methods of their choice anytime, whether that’s the Internet, mobile apps, email, text messaging, social media, or even a phone call. Companies unequipped to serve customers as they wish will not remain competitive for long.

Christian Szpilfogel is the VP of Strategy at Mitel.

Transform WFO to CXM

Developing a Long-Lasting and Positive Customer Experience

By Ray S. Naeini

It’s not about customer service anymore; it’s about customer experience. Today’s enterprises strive to develop long-lasting, positive experiences with customers. However, traditional WFO (workforce optimization) solutions alone are inadequate in resolving CXM (customer experience management) challenges. CXM requires certain fundamental paradigm shifts in serving and interacting with today’s customers:

Inside-Out Versus Outside-In: Enterprises have used a variety of WFO and workforce management (WFM) solutions to better serve customers to develop customer satisfaction. They drive this with their internal business processes with the intention of externally creating customer satisfaction – the inside-out method. Unfortunately this is inadequate to enable them to successfully implement a true CXM to deliver a positive customer experience. Therefore, an outside-in method is needed, in which enterprises first focus on understanding customer experience and sentiment to determine the internal optimizations. This is essential given today’s customers’ extensive use of digital and social media to communicate.

Capture All, Analyze All: CXM can be more successful when:

  • One hundred percent of customer experiences are captured at every touch point and every channel used by customers; sampling does not provide sufficient insight.
  • A systematic analysis of all captured interactions is conducted in order to produce actionable knowledge and trends obtained from the outside that could determine internal actions to create a positive customer experience.

Capturing all interactions and transactions from every customer touch point creates massive amounts of data, which requires big data management technologies.

Produce a Holistic View: Multichannel analytics can assist managing big data by automatically analyzing captured data from each channel and producing actionable knowledge. Nonetheless, there remains the challenge of associating and encapsulating relevant data from multiple channels to produce cohesive actionable knowledge, creating a holistic view across all channels.

What You Don’t Know: Enterprises can be caught off guard when they use multichannel and cross-channel analytics merely to look for specific subjects they know about. Cross-channel analytics equipped with trend analysis is required to discover the building up or diminishing of trends, which is critical in understanding the tendencies and inclinations of customers.

Seamless Customer Experience:Consistency across channels, sometimes called omni-channel customer experience, is a major driver in developing positive customer experiences. This means that customers may start with a self-service channel, such as the enterprise’s website, and then transition to an assisted service such as chat, email, or agent with no reduction in the quality of their experience. This can be accomplished by understanding customers’ general behaviors while using each individual channel to holistically view the customers’ experience, with the ability to drill down. Such insights can then be used to align each channel to offer seamless customer experience.

Unify Enterprise Silos: Omni-channel customer experience requires the unification of enterprise data silos to capture the customer experience at every touch point to analyze and continuously improve customer experience in a customer’s journey throughout the enterprise. This includes telecom platforms (PBX, IVR, voicemail, and Internet access), customer interaction, and transaction applications (CRM and WFO). Unification can directly benefit the enterprise in increased productivity, the resolution of problems, and the discovery of true customer sentiment, and the voice of customer (VoC).

Are These Initiatives Enough? The simple answer is “no.”

The fact is that all initiatives related to improving customer interactions when the customer is actually connected to the source of the service (such as an agent) are only half of the solution.

The other half is provided by optimizing the service routing and all entities engaged in the routing of the service to the right supplier of the service as efficiently as possible. These entities include network routing elements, ACDs, IVRs, PBXs, service centers with specific capacity, and skill sets or capacities to process customer service requests.

 Cognitive CXM: The overall initiatives introduced in this article can create a foundation for developing a true CXM solution. However, solutions can be continuously and automatically improved when operating as a learning machine. This continuous acquisition of knowledge and trends related to customer sentiment and the entities providing services to customers is called a cognitive CXM solution – the ultimate CXM outcome.

Ray S. Naeini is the CEO and chairman of OnviSource, Inc.

Nine Tips for Top-Notch Customer Service Leadership

Finding the Right Contact Center Leader Is Key in Order to Realize Success

By Brian Costanzo

Customer-centric companies make the customer-care function a strategic asset, both in terms of how they interact with customers and how they use data, insights, and feedback. Customer-centricity, however, does not just happen. In fact, for some firms customer focus is more of an aspirational slogan than a practical reality. Transforming routine contact center service into true customer advocacy takes strong executive leadership.

Leadership is easy to say but sometimes difficult to find. Luckily there are good indicators for picking contact center executives with the necessary leadership skills. Here are nine characteristics to keep in mind when making this critical selection:

1) Buys into and shares a company’s vision for customer-care delivery: Vision starts with the business owner or CEO, but the contact center leader must understand and embrace it. A great executive will walk away from opportunities where there is no “meeting of the minds” for how customers should be treated and how this treatment will evolve in the future.

2) Operates on both the strategic and tactical levels: Siobhan Tautkus, a principal at Manchester, New Hampshire-based Abbott Executive Search, confirms that the contact center executive needs to have both strategic and tactical skills. “What good is a vision if you can’t implement it?” she asks.

To Lisa Oswald, senior vice president of customer service at Travelzoo Inc., “A successful contact center executive is one who can master both strategy and execution, someone who can visualize the future and then build and operate an efficient system to deliver it.”

3) Solves problems and produces quantifiable results: Whether the issue is high turnover, inadequate staff development, lagging quality, or other potential contact center challenges, top executives will have a data-driven story to tell. “Anyone who puts their time and energy into their profession is absolutely going to measure the results of what they’ve done,” says Tautkus. “No employer can afford to hire someone who flies by the seat of their pants.”

4) Exudes confidence and will stand up for customer care: When it comes to selecting effective contact center leadership, high-energy candidates definitely have the edge. Part of this is a matter of interpersonal style. Leaders naturally attract attention for their bearing, presentation, and ability to be direct, straightforward, and articulate. They also must be willing to stand their ground.

According to Richard Shapiro, president of the Center for Client Retention, “Customer care is one of the most important departments in the company, and it is critical to have an advocate who will fight for staffing, training, and technology to support the department.”

Lisa Oswald at Travelzoo adds that great leaders are set apart by their ability to inspire, motivate, and communicate.

5) Takes business ownership of IT systems affecting customer care: The contact center executive need not be a techie per se, but reasonable technical acumen should be part of the package. The leader’s knowledge and skill, according to management consultant and author Scott Klososky, extends to creating tech strategy, picking vendors, overseeing technical projects, and utilizing data analytics. The contact center must proactively lead when moving to a next-generation technology platform. According to Klososky, “This is [the contact center’s] set of tools, and it must not be dictated or chosen by IT people or operations people.”

6) Has cross-functional and multi-industry experience: If delivery of customer care is a strategic differentiator for companies, customer-care experience should be a career differentiator, too. Executives should not be pigeonholed in a customer-care department. Rather, an executive’s experience in marketing, operations, or other business areas can contribute to a stronger customer-care program. The same goes for multi-industry experience.

According to Richard Shapiro, “I believe there is tremendous value in having a background in various industries. Service is service, and loyalty is loyalty; building stronger customer relationships should always be the goal in any industry.”

7) Matches channels to circumstances: In going multichannel, the right customer-care leader will be focused and selective. “A company’s multichannel strategy has everything to do with the product – what are you selling or servicing? – and the demographics of the audience,” says Lisa Oswald. “Consumer preferences – where and when your customers want to be serviced – should dictate channel strategy. For instance, the go-to-market service strategy for a new online game is likely to be very different from a luxury goods retailer.”

8) Never settles for good enough: Few companies have reached customer-care nirvana. There’s always room for quality improvement, and a great leader will never be satisfied with the status quo. As Siobhan Tautkus says, “The good person is constantly looking at the KPIs and saying, ‘We need to move the goalpost.’”

9) Makes demonstrable contributions to the bottom line: Customer care is not a profit center, but there are ways to show return on investment in customer-care programs. According to Shapiro, these include measuring whether loyalty or purchase intent have been impacted, reducing negative social media postings, and enhancing business reputation.

Consider these nine characteristics as you consider your next customer-care leader.

Brian Costanzo, CAE, is president and CEO of SOCAP International, the nation’s association of Fortune 1000 customer-care executives.

The Phone Is Dead – Long Live the Phone

By Jeremy Starcher

As consumers go, we’re a self-sufficient bunch. If we can figure out how to hook up streaming media services to the dozen devices in our homes, get a refund on an online purchase through a chat session, or troubleshoot our Wi-Fi network through online support forums, all without requiring the help of live voice resources, we’re likely to take that option. And if you’re part of the mobile-first generation, you may not even remember a time when the 800 number was your only option.

So why do some customer interactions still require a live conversation? In Forrester’s December 2015 Customer Lifecycle Survey, respondents indicated that use of the voice channel increasingly evolves as an escalation – not a primary – service channel.

Often this means that consumers have exhausted their digital efforts. It can also mean that the interaction may be a complex inquiry, an emotional reaction, or a time-sensitive issue.

Regardless of the reason, these types of interactions provide a unique opportunity to learn more about customers’ behavior and can give insight into the kind of content customers need to stay online.

These interactions also present a new problem. Customers are tech-savvy and familiar with online personalization. How do you help them cross the digital divide when they need to speak with you and still maintain that personalization they’ve come to expect? More than ever before, it’s critical to transition these interactions the right way to protect the customer experience and your company’s efficiency.

Rebooting Customer Service: Businesses have focused on creating great digital experiences in response to the ubiquity of smartphones and the growing adoption of consuming content digitally. As a result there is the potential to view the voice channel as yesterday’s solution and the last resort.

Guess what? Customers feel the same way. But nevertheless we continue to see the need for supporting voice interactions.

The key is to break out of traditional thinking: Change the way we view live voice service. Reboot the idea that the voice channel is dying. Embrace the opportunity that speaking with someone using our digital channels provides us.

What could we learn if we connected a customer’s online experience with a voice interaction and, better yet, resolution? What insights could be acted on if we had a complete, end-to-end view of a customer’s online efforts and the resolution required and received inside the contact center?

The best way to accomplish this is to seamlessly transition customers from an online interaction to a voice interaction when and where appropriate. When implemented correctly, a well-placed “Call Me” option can create immediate value to customers and your business.

For the customer, it removes the hoops and hold time associated with a live call while increasing overall satisfaction. For the business, the data associated with the “Call Me” request can be transformational regarding efforts to understand how the customer ended up on the voice channel, providing new insights into how to optimize the digital experience.

Consider your customers. An increase in tech-savvy customers means an increase in the customer types who have already tried to solve their own issue by using your online FAQs, Googling possible fixes, and logging into the support community.

If these customers have an unresolved issue, they are less likely to follow your service 101 template. This includes IVR, on-hold messages, and agent scripts. These customers want a personalized experience designed to take into account all the options they have already tried.

They expect you to know their history, both from a CRM point of view and a recent activity point of view. If they visited your website, logged on to their account, surfed your FAQ page, text chatted with a rep, and still weren’t able to solve the issue, they want you to understand the entire context. They certainly do not want to repeat any of those steps with a live resource.

IVR cannot help solve this problem. A well-designed routing platform with hooks into CRM, billing, and other systems cannot help. You need to intentionally transition these customers to a voice channel in order to provide the key to understanding their entire experience. You need to tie their online, digital experience with the resolution they received from your contact center.

With a simple click of a button, you can give your customers the experience they desire while linking together their digital and voice paths to resolution. This provides you with an omnichannel view of the customer’s entire journey.

Omnichannel, Uni-View: The primary issue facing organizations isn’t how to capture customer data. Rather, the challenge lies in how to use this existing information to create a positive customer experience and to learn how to optimize the digital experience.

Information is already being collected from nearly every imaginable system: CRM systems, purchase interactions and transactions, POS data, websites, loyalty programs, mobile devices televisions, digital and social media, subscriptions, and gaming systems.

To effectively use information to create a positive experience in the voice channel, data associated with customers and their recent activities need to be accessible to the agent. To enhance their experience in your digital channels, you need visibility into problem areas where content may need to be edited or page mapping may need to change to optimize the likelihood of customers resolving their issues.

Imagine an agent who is empowered to help customers based on their personal experiences with the brand. Personalized information – such as which Web pages a customer recently searched or how long he or she spent on the mobile app before calling – are valuable data points that can create a richer and faster interaction.

Understanding customers’ past interactions and timelines are also key to accommodating each customer’s unique situation. The easiest way to provide that data is directly between systems. Transitioning a customer from your online channel to your voice channel allows you to link the two experiences together.

For example, sending the session ID associated with the customer’s online visit allows your data scientist to link these two experiences together. This bridges both worlds and gives a view into customer behavior you never had access to before.

Rather than view the voice channel as a last resort, the way many consumers do, companies that see the voice channel as an opportunity to learn more about customers’ online patterns of behavior are in a position to maximize the effectiveness of their digital channels.

It may seem counterintuitive, but placing a “Call Me” button in your digital channels might be the best option to lower your customers’ overall need to use the voice channel.

Jeremy Starcher is vice president, callback cloud, at Virtual Hold Technology.

Delighting Your Customers

By Donna Fluss

Last year was a wonderful year for the world of service. It was the year that executives finally realized (or accepted) the important role of quality service in building their brand and differentiating their company and offerings. This has been reflected by a willingness to invest in initiatives to enhance the customer experience.

Just as important, management now also acknowledges that delivering outstanding service, including sales, is not just the responsibility of their service organization or contact center. Instead, great service needs to be an integral part of a company’s culture, the overarching operating imperative that guides every employee’s interactions with customers and prospects and dictates how departments work with each other.

Below is a list of ideas for building a corporate structure dedicated to delighting customers. Some of these can be accomplished by changes in best practices, organization, and training, while others require major investments in people, processes, and technology. Many of these suggestions are strategic and will have a broad impact on your company, while others are tactical.

DMG recommends selecting two or three from the list and including them in your plans for the remainder of this year:

  1. Make It Easy for Your Customers to Conduct Business: This is an extensive and ongoing initiative that requires a company to review and analyze every step of the customer journey
  1. Look at Business from Your Customers’ Perspective: Stop trying to force your customers to adapt to your business practices; they are going to do things the way they want, with or without your cooperation.
  1. Personalize the Service and Sales Experience: Figure out how to give every customer or prospect what they want.
  1. Be Transparent: This is both strategic and tactical. Train your employees to “own” customer service: if something’s wrong, fix it; if it’s good make, it better.
  1. Take Down Organizational Silos: If your organizational structure stands in the way of progress, it results in extra effort for employees and customers; it’s time to take it down and rebuild it.
  1. Enhance Your Self-Service Solutions: There are new and effective self-service capabilities and apps. It’s time to update five- to ten-year-old applications, particularly if they are your primary interface to customers. Look at interactive voice response (IRV) and websites, too.
  1. Go Social: Social media is the least expensive focus group and method for capturing the buzz about your company and competitors. It’s also time to use social media for social customer care.
  1. Build Customer Engagement: Reach out and interact with your customers in their channel of choice; be there for customers when they want or need you.
  1. Actively Listen and Acknowledge: Create a closed-loop feedback process to solicit and respond to feedback from customers and prospects.
  1. Deliver Random Acts of Kindness to Your Customers: Let your customers know you appreciate their business.
  1. Create Customer-Friendly Rewards Programs: Use rewards and incentives to show your customers you appreciate them and their business.
  1. Encourage and Reward Employee Advocacy and Engagement: Invest in your employees; they are your best advocates.
  1. Fix Known Problems: Identify and fix any problems; all companies have them. Reward and recognize employees and customers for helping you resolve issues.
  1. Reward Innovation: Recognize and reward new and creative ideas and concepts.

These are a few of the initiatives companies should consider on an annual basis. The most customer-friendly organizations are not those that think they have all the answers, but rather those that are willing to work with customers to find new approaches and solutions.

Donna Fluss is the founder of DMG, a vendor-independent research and consulting firm that analyzes contact center and back-office technology and best practices. Contact her at with any questions you may have or to learn how to make today’s innovative and powerful technologies and best practices work for your organization.

[From Connection MagazineMarch/April 2016]

Five Little Words

By Sherry Gouel

In this age of the Internet, websites, and social media, our process of gathering information has drastically changed over the past decade. Any information we need is at our fingertips – just a few clicks away. While technology is great and certainly has its benefits, I remember a time where, without hesitation, I could pick up the phone and speak with someone in customer service. Yes, I’m dating myself, but there was something nice about hearing a human voice at the other end of the phone, and it was especially nice to hear the words, “How can I help you?” These five words would produce a sigh of relief in the anticipation of finally connecting with another human being who would understand my dilemma and make it all better.

I’m not underestimating the convenience of today’s technology. Most often I go to websites and search for information; usually the answers are there. I have often used Web chat to ask a question or confirm an answer, but sometimes the answers are not so obvious. Some websites encourage you to email your questions, promising a reply within twenty-four hours.

But there are times where I just want to speak to someone instead of typing on a keyboard, and I always appreciate the companies who provide a customer service telephone number on their website. Even so, if I do call the chances are I will be placed on hold for several minutes, listen to the company’s promotional ads, and be reminded that I can visit their website for faster service. I appreciate the convenience of the Web, but websites will never replace the reassurance of the human voice. No matter how much technology evolves, the Internet will never match the human connection, emotion, and empathy that go along with the words, “How can I help you?”

So how can the call center industry compete with technology? The purpose of call centers is providing services that outperform machines. Agents in the call center industry take calls all day to answer client questions and help with an endless list of predicaments. The voices that answer these calls are important. Their voices convey the comfort of the human connection, and this is a valuable element.

In this day of everything digital, call centers remain in the business of people talking to people. Regardless of its stated purpose, calling into a call center has a customer-service component. The voice on the other end of the phone should communicate to the caller, “How can I help you?”

Every call that comes in is different in nature; therefore, agents provide a truly personalized service to each caller. Their tasks go beyond just taking a message or answering a question. They provide a human touch to an ever-expanding digital world.

I sometimes watch kids who text as fast as I can speak, and I’m not sure whether to feel awe or sadness. This new generation is constantly trying to find ways to access instant information. We are prompted to type a question or submit a request electronically rather than ask another person for answers or assistance. And we’re all becoming more comfortable doing so.

It’s important for the call center industry to continue to provide the human touch to our clients. As the scale tips more toward everything digital, hearing someone say, “How can I help you?” is more than just five little words. It’s a small reminder that there is still some human left in humanity.

Since 1993 Sherry Gouel has been in charge of marketing and sales support at Szeto Technologies, a company that has provided telephony solutions since 1986. She can be reached at 888-421-3737 or

[From Connection Magazine – January/February 2016]