Tag Archives: Customer Service Articles

Asking Questions to Enhance Strategic Thinking



By Jill J. Johnson

The foundation of effective strategic thinking and strategy development is knowing how to ask the right questions. Learning to ask the right questions can be difficult because most people only know how to ask superficial questions that require easy answers. Asking challenging questions allows you to be more impactful in critical situations, have a greater influence on outcomes, and help your organization achieve greater results.

Ask Questions That Matter

The level of uncertainty in today’s business climate is driving major challenges for most leaders. To be an effective leader, you must fully understand the overall strategic goals of your enterprise and key leadership. Use these goals as the framework to align your thinking.

Understand the critical market forces impacting your business strategies so you can determine the questions to answer. What critical market forces are at play in your industry? Are there forces evolving around you that have the potential to impact your survival or growth opportunities? Consider what it will take to grow revenue, expand profitability, improve job satisfaction, enhance productivity, or increase customer retention. How does each of these areas impact the questions you should consider? Structure your questions to challenge the critical issues impacting your ability to achieve these goals.

Three Critical Categories of Questions

There are three categories of questions to evaluate when focusing on strategic thinking. These questions allow you to scan the various elements impacting your enterprise. They include reviewing what is going on internally in your organization, exploring external market forces creating new challenges or opportunities, and a review of your organizational relationships. 

Here are some examples of the types of questions to consider for each level:

Internal Scan: Ask detailed questions about your customers and their evolving needs. 

  • What is the impact of your ownership, culture, and stage of your business life cycle? 
  • Where are the sources of your profitability and capital resources? 
  • What are your leadership capabilities? 
  • How deep is the expertise of your team? 

Make sure you fully understand the key strategies of your organization and the opportunities you have to implement them.

External Scan: Consider the impact of various market forces on your target market and opportunities. 

  • What is happening demographically? 
  • How is your competition influencing your target market’s expectations on service, cost, and quality? 
  • What generational influences impact your ability to compete for your customers? 
  • What are the risks of remaining status quo?

Relationship Scan: Consider the status of the strategic relationships and partnerships you and your enterprise have developed. 

  • How do they impact your opportunities and create new challenges? 
  • Can you tap into other resources they offer or leverage them to achieve your goals? 
  • What are your internal relationships and how can you use them to impact success?

Constructing Your Strategic Questions

Focus your consideration of the questions on the key components impacting your enterprise growth or survival. Your questions should follow the format of who, what, where, when, why, and how. They should be action-oriented. As you answer them, they should provide clarity to your strategic direction and focus. This will guide you into areas needing more research.

Align your questions to address critical business issues. Your questions should help clarify the most critical priorities for your organization. Break these into levels of importance: top, short-term, and ongoing. Also consider the time-horizon for the impact: short-term, mid-term, or long-term. 

By understanding the time priorities, you can categorize your strategic questions to align them with the key external market forces impacting your ability to achieve your goals. Aligning your questions with the external market forces provides you with a deeper level of critical thinking. As you elevate your critical thinking, you can link questions to impact your overall enterprise strategies.

Make sure your questions require some research or reflection. Questions that elicit a “yes” or “no” response are not strategic. Ask provocative questions to encourage deeper thinking. This will bring a higher level of critical thinking to your planning. If your team cannot ask tough enough questions, find an outside advisor or consultant who can provide insight.

Getting Answers to Improve Your Strategic Insight

Often you will have to do some research before you can develop your questions. Think of this as your homework. The right preparation ensures that you will ask better questions. Look to industry associations as a good starting source for insight about emerging issues and challenges. Study how your competitors tackle challenging market forces.

Questions that elicit a “yes” or “no” response are not strategic. Ask provocative questions to encourage deeper thinking. Click To Tweet

Consider your options for obtaining the information that will allow you to confidently address your questions. Outside resources can be an objective source of obtaining information. If you keep this research role internal, work carefully to minimize any bias you might inject into it.

Identify the key metrics you should be monitoring by analyzing industry data. Tie your questions to what improves or impacts each of these metrics. Your questions should consider what impacts your profit margin, return on capital employed, return on investment, and return on assets. If you don’t understand these terms, learn more about them.

You will never have all the available data to answer all your questions. The goal is to obtain enough data to make reasonable judgments or clarify the next layer of questions.

Final Thoughts

Asking questions that matter will build your confidence, and others will be more open to work with you. Learning to ask challenging questions allows you to be more impactful in critical situations, have an influence on outcomes, and help achieve greater results. Thinking strategically is a skill set you must actively work at trying to improve. Find resources to help you learn and practice your critical thinking skills. Building your strategic mindset takes time, discipline, and focus.

What critical questions do you need to ask to improve your business?

Jill J. Johnson is the president and founder of Johnson Consulting Services, an accomplished speaker, an award-winning management consultant, and the author of the bestselling book Compounding Your Confidence. Jill helps her clients make critical business decisions and develop market-based strategic plans for turnarounds or growth. For more information, please visit www.jcs-usa.com.

The Next-Generation Interactive Message Exchange


Startel, Professional Teledata, Alston Tascom

By Bobby Bennet

Contact center clients today no longer focus solely on customer service through phone calls. Prospective clients looking for a call center will evaluate your company’s business strategy and technology. Your prospects have specific needs to meet their customers’ expectations, and they want to know that you can provide them with the tools necessary to accomplish this.

In an increasingly online world, companies now expect their call center to provide customers with an omnichannel experience. They are no longer satisfied with only email, fax, short message service (SMS), paging, and voice communications. As millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Generation Z (born between the mid-1990s and early 2000s) increase their presence in the workplace, so does the demand for alternate means of communications. 

Millennials and Gen Z have grown up with the internet and cell phones. They demand quick satisfaction when contacting a company with minimal effort on their part. When they contact a company for a new service, they’re not calling. Rather, they’ll pick up their phone to use web chat or text the company’s phone number. These are features that most major companies have in place today but have been missing within many call center applications for too long. 

Web chat works in most every stage of the customer lifecycle.  Click To Tweet

Mainline texting and web chat are no longer technologies customers may one day want. They’re features that the marketplace demands. On average, Americans text twice as much as they call. Ninety-five percent of texts are read in less than three minutes of being sent, and 33 percent of American adults prefer text to all other forms of communications. Sixty-seven percent of Americans would rather text about appointments, reminders, or scheduling rather than receive an email or phone call, according to the Zipwhip State of Texting 2019 Report. 

SMS Enabling Business Lines

New technology enables SMS and multimedia message service (MMS) on business lines and toll-free numbers for both the contact center and its customers. Imagine having the ability to manage your customer’s text messages the same way you currently do with their voice calls. Adding artificial intelligence and rules-based routing constructed from the interactions and answers of the person texting can populate automated responses that limit or even eliminate agent involvement. 

Enabling SMS for a business can provide customers with a clearer line of communication. Medical offices that send out appointment reminders via SMS a few days in advance with an option to cancel have drastically reduced their number of no-shows. This small change has allowed revenues to increase as well as customer satisfaction with their contact center.

Web Chat 

Web chat is now the norm when communicating with many corporations in the United States. Most of us are accustomed to this growing trend among businesses. A web chat system allows users to communicate in real-time using easily accessible web interfaces, eliminating the need for users to install and learn specialized chat software. 

Many websites now include a live chat button in the bottom corner of the page. This makes it easy for customers to get information about a product, receive assistance, or have questions answered by a live agent. Web chat works in most every stage of the customer lifecycle. 

Email Chat

Email chat is the same concept as webchat except in the form of an email message. An agent can receive an email and respond with the appropriate answer or a predetermined response.

Social Media

Social media for customer service, while not as prevalent as other interactive message exchange mediums, will soon be a mandatory feature for call centers. As millennial and Gen Z demographics increase, we’ll find a growing desire for contact through social media outlets such as LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. People may respond more positively to a discount offer on social media versus a phone pitch. 

Mass Notification

Mass notification is yet another tool that can provide additional revenue to a contact center. The purpose of such a system is to reach a targeted audience quickly with real-time information. Mass notifications can quickly inform your targeted audience of critical events such as mass casualty incidents, inclement weather, campus alerts, and other emergency-related incidents that require immediate attention. 

There are many nonemergency business applications as well. Uses include company announcements, scheduling requests and changes, marketing messages, billing notifications, appointment reminders, community announcements, school-related announcements, and service interruptions.

If you’ve not already done so, today is the day to plan for the next-gen interactive message exchange.

Startel

Bobby Bennett is the western regional sales manager for Startel (startel.com), a leading provider of best-in-class contact center solutions. He has been in the contact center industry for more than twenty-five years. Startel recently released its platform-agnostic GenIMX solution, which provides contact centers across all platforms the ability to add SMS-enabling LAN lines, web and email chat, and mass notification. 

Customer Service Makes the Difference



The Way Companies Deal with Customer Issues Has Future Implications

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan-customer service

A day and a half into my week, and I’ve already endured three major customer service issues from three vendors. Their responses could not have been more different.

One issue was with a global company that whisks money around the world in seconds. Usually, everything works flawlessly. But if there’s a hiccup, they leave customers hanging. I’m left with filling out an online resolution dispute form. 

Doesn’t Care

At best they get back with me within a week, never hours or even a few days. At worst they told me it would take one to three months. Since it only took them three weeks, I suppose I should be grateful. This week’s issue needed a quick resolution, so I didn’t bother to contact them. It only took the person I sent money to and me an hour and a half to figure out a workaround resolution on our own.

This company is hard to reach. I suspect it’s part of their business model. Deprioritizing customer service seems to work for them. They’ll surely retain market share until someone matches their features and provides good customer support. Then they’ll wish they had given customer service more attention.

Puts Forth a Good Effort

The second episode occurred with an even larger global company. People often complain about their customer service. As for me, they always try to help, and they often succeed. That’s not a grand endorsement, but it’s far better than the first company.

I have no doubt but a company's success and growth come from their excellent customer service.  Click To Tweet

Though hard to find, this company gives two customer service options: email and call back. If my question isn’t time-critical or I must convey a lot of detailed information, I opt for email. They respond within twenty-four hours, usually two or three.

However, they encourage phone support. I complete a short form online (picking the right options is the hard part), verify my phone number, and click submit. My phone rings within seconds, and I’m connected to a person within a minute. That person usually resolves my issue on that phone call, without transferring me. 

This time, after spending hours trying to figure things out myself, I contacted them. But I reached the wrong division. The woman instructed me to contact a different group. I don’t know if she couldn’t transfer me or didn’t want to.

The second person was hard to understand, and the audio level was low. For each point, I had to confirm multiple times to make sure I understood correctly. Her words often seemed to contradict what I thought she just said. Eventually, we got through everything, and I obtained the information I needed. As a bonus, it turned out to be correct.

Though this company pushes people to self-service solutions, they do provide personal customer service. From my perspective, they succeed in most instances. However, their smaller, nimbler competitors outshine them in this area, and the company’s market share is shrinking.

Customer Service Excellence

The third incident was with a financial institution. Over the weekend, they upgraded their website and online banking services. They clearly communicated the timetable, what was involved, and what to expect. Despite their meticulous planning, glitches occurred. Though I needed to download a new app, I had trouble finding it on the App Store. This took an hour to resolve. I spent another hour trying to navigate their new interface, configure it correctly, and accomplish the one urgent banking task I had to do.

At one point, I found myself locked out of my account. This required calling them to reset it. Unlike the other two organizations, this one wants people to call. They have their number promptly displayed on every page of their website and each page of their statements. Someone answered on the first ring. Her enthusiasm sounded like this was her first call of the day. Without coming across as haggard or rushed, she reset my password, stayed connected as I logged in, and asked if she could help me with anything else. It was a remarkable experience.

Renowned for their excellent customer service, this successful, rapidly growing, mid-size financial company has won awards and received national recognition as a leader in their sector. 

I have no doubt their success and growth come from their excellent customer service. 

Why don’t other companies get this?

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.

Using Speech Analytics to Improve Customer Relationships in the Call Center



By Jeff Gallino

Here are answers to some questions I often hear about call center speech analytics.

Question: What’s the biggest trend you’ve seen when it comes to managing customer relationships, and how has that evolved over the past five to ten years? 

Answer: With the rise of digital transformation, we’ve seen a major shift in consumer preferences, and customer experience (CX) has arguably replaced traditional marketing in terms of becoming the number-one brand differentiator. More companies are realigning their business strategy to focus on delivering exceptional CX. This is because customer demands for personalization, innovation, and consistency are on the rise. 

As a result, it’s never been more critical for companies to understand the voice of their customer—not only within the C-suite but across all levels of their organization. Sure, companies have more opportunities to connect using email, live chat, social media, and other channels. But we’re seeing many organizations spread themselves too thin, thereby actually doing more harm than good. While it’s critical in today’s digital and omnichannel world to stay agile, companies must remain focused on what is truly important: building and nurturing customer relationships. 

Q: What are the main factors that lead to customer churn? 

A: Resulting in an estimated deficit of 136 billion dollars per year, customer churn is a sore spot for most US businesses. The good news is that it’s entirely avoidable. 

Speech analytics technology provides a holistic view into 100 percent of customer interactions. Click To Tweet

From an agent standpoint, the answer is much more fundamental than one may think—40 percent of consumers just want someone to listen to them. However, many agents fail to deliver on that simple request, as only 23 percent of callers feel listened to. Another major factor when it comes to delivering an unsatisfactory experience is the agent’s inability to show empathy. 

The emotional state of the caller at the beginning of the call is a tough situation for agents—regardless of their level of emotional intelligence—as 42 percent of callers arrive annoyed, 28 percent arrive upset, 22 percent arrived confused, and 17 percent arrive angry. Yet despite these strong emotional tendencies, 43 percent still express the need for a more polite and caring representative.

As for as the role played by the call center itself, sticking to the status quo just isn’t working anymore. Whether outdated scripts, ill-advised metrics, or a lack of knowledge in general, legacy call center management methods aren’t up to speed with the demands of today’s consumer base. 

Customers not only expect solutions to their problems, they want solutions in a timely manner with minimal disruption. When management fails to arm agents with the tools, training, and resources necessary to do their job, they’re only contributing to the problem. 

Q: What kind of insights does speech analytics offer? 

A: There’s no one-size-fits all definition for speech or engagement analytics, but at its core, speech analytics is a way to generate insights from conversations. But it’s much more than a transcription tool. It automates the process of listening to customer interactions, regardless of the communication channel used. This allows agents to make accurate and informed decisions based on customers’ needs. 

Speech analytics takes the unstructured data directly from both ends of the conversation and turns it into structured data. Once in this format, sophisticated categorization and tagging methods allow for searching and analyzing of information. These are all built in accordance with an enterprise’s unique business objectives. While this sounds like a lot, it streamlines the process and offers speed to actionable insights, which random call sampling would have missed. 

Take sales effectiveness, for example, and think of the behaviors of your most successful sales agents. This technology can create scores leveraging those behaviors, transfer that into historically proven, interactive suggestions, and automatically provide feedback and guidance to agents, which eventually raises top-line revenue.

Q: How do agents benefit from this technology in real-time versus post-interaction? 

A: Whether it’s on the back end for management purposes and corrective action, or on the front lines of the conversation to improve accuracy and compliance the first time around, agents benefit from speech analytics by receiving timely guidance and accurate feedback to help them improve performance. This results in increased first-call resolution rates, shorter average handle time, and increased customer satisfaction. 

For example, say a customer is becoming increasingly frustrated with the agent’s responses, or lack thereof. Based on preconfigured verbal or acoustic measures, agents can receive alerts to take a suggested action, such as an offer to save a customer from churning, or be immediately redirected to a supervisor to correct the problem. Companies can also track the customer journey across channels, so consumers don’t have to repeat the problem. This allows for a more personalized interaction.

When used for post-interaction analysis, speech analytics technology can track trends and make root cause discoveries to improve contact center performance and business intelligence across the enterprise. This is a direct result of agent’s receiving feedback on 100 percent of their calls. This gives them praise or coaching on performance to make them more equipped to address similar situations in the future.

Q: What is the difference between speech analytics versus traditional customer feedback methods? 

A: Surveys and net promoter scores (NPS) face limits by the number of responses they receive, accumulating a response rate of anywhere between 5 to 15 percent. Therefore, they’re limited regarding the story they tell. This is mostly because they will never be able to show you exactly what’s going wrong and how to fix it. Sure, they offer a glimpse into customer satisfaction, but they only skim the surface. 

Simply put, you can’t improve NPS and overall CX without first understanding the root cause of the problem. In addition, these feedback methods only offer a glimpse of the customer’s perception of your brand. You can’t rely on these methods alone to revamp your CX strategy. However, speech analytics technology provides a holistic view into 100 percent of customer interactions. This allows for a consistent, accurate analysis of a variety of performance indicators such as effort and empathy.

Jeff Gallino is the CTO and founder of CallMiner, a software company that develops speech analytics software. Founded in 2002, it’s headquartered in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Unified Communications: How Endpoint Management Delivers the Goods



By Jeff Kalberg 

Enterprises, now working diligently to execute on digital transformation, are adopting unified communications (UC) as a means of enhancing competitiveness and collaboration. Yet it must come with a deployment that brings more productivity, not additional time and headaches for the end-user and for IT. For unified communications to reach its highest potential, enterprises need to address how endpoint management factors into the equation and how it can help support the business objectives of UC.

In today’s culture of a mobile, often remote workforce, endpoints delivering an optimal user experience is the engine behind unified communications, working at a level of effectiveness the enterprise needs to compete digitally. The world has changed from a static desktop environment to one of OS (operating system)-powered endpoints serving a workforce accustomed to using a multitude of devices.

Endpoint management is essential to unified communications succeeding because it:

  • provides easy, secure access to UC devices, virtual apps and desktops, local and mobile apps, and content across devices and networks.
  • delivers a consistent user experience so an employee can access the UC tools and applications they need to do their job well, regardless of device or location.
  • simplifies IT operations with profile management, app layering, and hybrid and multi-cloud management.

As enterprises add more elements to the unified communications mix, such as interactive whiteboards, even chatbots, advanced endpoint management is a critical factor in helping ensure that the breadth of UC technologies can deliver on their promise of collaboration and productivity.

Citrix Call Center Case Study

Enterprises also need to prepare now for technology enhancements in unified communications. Click To Tweet

Citrix itself has made inroads in deploying unified communications for its operations. Its Citrix call center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, had several challenges: aging laptops, the need for a reliable, always-on end-user experience, and improved security. It also needed an intelligent OS that could support Citrix Workspace and integrate with UC elements like Skype for Business, teams, and headset hardware. Not a small task. 

To provide its 120 inside sales representatives with UC and other tools they needed, Citrix found its answer in a Linux-OS-driven endpoint solution. By relying on purpose-built, Linux-based endpoints, Citrix can benefit from improved security, and management simplicity it may not otherwise realize. Now, regardless to what physical workspace an inside sales rep is assigned, in conjunction with Citrix Workspace, the user can access all the applications they need. Additionally, for the road warriors, employees can use a mobile USB drive that provides smart boot technology to ensure validity of the OS to prevent manipulation and malware attacks. 

Unifying all Citrix call center hardware endpoints to a common read-only operating system that is identical across platforms has proven to be of great value. “The reliability of the solution ensures that our inside sales representatives have uncompromised and secure access to mission-critical apps they need to perform at their best,” said Kurt Heusner, vice president, SMB digital transformation sales, Citrix. 

Future Proof 

Three factors in unified communications will continue to advance: 

  1. The desire of enterprises to rely more on the endpoint for UC-related applications 
  2. The increased need for security on all devices 
  3. A plethora of emerging technologies that will find their way into the overall UC category

Citrix noted that as part of its OS-endpoint deployment, they plan to eventually run web conferencing directly on Linux-powered endpoints. “The vision is that any Citrite can walk into any conference room, log into their web conferencing system, and conduct a meeting,” Citrix said.

The lines will continue to blur between peripheral devices and what an advanced, Linux-OS endpoint can do. As legacy hardware is repurposed, software-defined endpoints will be the answer to keeping pace with UC progress.

As devices proliferate, along with applications, preventing malware and other attacks is top of mind for enterprise IT and security teams. It’s crucial that endpoint software and management solutions offer features such as single sign-on, two-factor authentication, and fingerprint readers for effective risk mitigation.

Enterprises also need to prepare now for technology enhancements in unified communications. AI-driven chatbots are already in use at call centers, but internal AI conversations between call center reps will be the future. Imagine conversations run on Linux-OS powered endpoints and integrating AI into communication and collaboration. That is the future.

Jeff Kalberg is the chief technology evangelist at IGEL, which provides endpoint management and smart boot technology solutions.

Vendor Profile – Startel


Startel, Professional Teledata, Alston Tascom

The Unification: Startel, Professional Teledata, and Alston Tascom

It was only two years ago when three companies with long, rich histories in the evolution of software for telephone answering services were united. Startel and Alston Tascom’s resumes go back to 1980, while Professional Teledata started in 1983.

Since the merger in September 2017, Startel, Professional Teledata (PTD), and Alston Tascom (Tascom) have expanded their product offerings and expertise. Here’s a look at some of their latest innovations.

Secure Messaging Gateway Powered by Startel

As messaging technology has grown and evolved, healthcare organizations have been presented with many secure messaging applications from a wide variety of providers. In some cases, a single organization may have multiple platforms used in various departments and locations.

The secure messaging gateway, powered by Startel, allows users to send and receive electronic protected healthcare information, or ePHI, to the most popular messaging providers—OnPage, TigerConnect, DocbookMD, Twistle, Mediprocity, DocHalo, pMD, HipLink, Telnyx, Imprivata, TelmedIQfrom one HIPAA-compliant application.

Startel's Secure Messaging Plus allows users to send and receive electronic protected healthcare information, or ePHI, to the most popular messaging providers. Click To Tweet

Secure Messaging Plus 

In today’s mobile and fast-paced world, the use of secure messaging applications has become the preferred channel of communication among business and institutional professionals as well as technicians in the field. It’s quicker, more efficient, and less invasive than a phone call. Because of that, Startel offers Secure Messaging Plus.

Accessible from the web or an application downloaded to one’s smartphone or tablet, Secure Messaging Plus (SM+) offers a secure, HIPAA-compliant way to safely exchange sensitive information via text. Users experience all the benefits of texting, but in a secure manner and environment. With Secure Messaging Plus, users can:

  • Maintain compliance: Stay HIPAA, GLBA, and SOX-compliant with messages and attachments that are encrypted in transit and at rest on devices using SM+ as well as on the servers which house the content prior to expiration. Startel also undergoes an extensive annual HIPAA audit to ensure it has met or exceeded compliance standards.
  • Control message expiration: Set messages to expire at a predetermined time or when marked as read or filed. Messages that do not have a defined expiration will expire within the originating subscriber’s default number of days, not to exceed thirty. This feature offers users an additional layer of security.
  • Send attachments: Securely send and receive attachments such as voice recordings, audio, and image attachments for better collaboration with colleagues. This is a key feature for physicians and staff to consult on patient files.
  • Track message status: Subscribers can know when a message from their device has been sent, viewed, read, and filed. Using SM+ in conjunction with the Startel CMC, messages and their content are fully tracked, archived, and encrypted. Administrative personnel can generate real-time reports based on several criteria, including duration of time and subscriber use.
  • Forwarding of messages: Prior to sending a message, users can indicate which messages can be forwarded. Administrators can also enable certain accounts to not allow message forwarding.
  • Group response and messaging. When replying to a group message, users can choose to reply directly, either only to the sender or to the entire group.

Flex Agent Interface 

Startel took their agent interface to the next level with Flex AI (FAI). This new design allows agents to process calls easily and quickly by allowing them to move vital information where they need it. Designed with dockable windows, FAI allows agents to take full advantage of large and multiple monitors. 

Startel recognizes the continued need for simplicity and efficiency within their community. Classic AI will still be available in future CMC versions to support the needs of those call centers who choose not to transition to FAI.

SS 2.0 Deployment

The Startel softswitch routes calls based on skill level, queue priority, and user-defined scenarios. In addition, it also provides real-time status of contact center activity via the Startel dashboard. The softswitch resides on a Linux server and uses software to route calls, eliminating the hardware needed in legacy switches and creating a more reliable platform with fewer points of failure. The softswitch includes Startel’s embedded voicemail and voice logger solutions, eliminating the need for separate servers and expensive cards for integration.

In Startel Softswitch 2.0, a new call return feature allows callers to opt out of a queue and request a callback when an agent is available. Upon the request, a call is generated to wait in queue. When the agent answers, the agent is asked if they will accept the callback call. If accepted, the agent is connected to an outdial attempt to the number left by the caller. If the agent does not accept, the call goes to another agent.

The Startel softswitch is more reliable, because it uses servers with redundant drives and power supplies, and there are fewer points of failure. A second softswitch server provides redundancy and disaster recovery for the switch, voicemail, and voice logger, and it can even deploy at a second location, giving additional options to enhance business continuity.

The dashboard gives an organization a real-time view of traffic and SLAs via a PC on the network, a remote PC, a smartphone, a tablet or even a large flat-screen TV mounted in the contact center.

Organizations now capture more accounts by offering services that their competition cannot. The Startel softswitch uses open architecture software protocols, which enables companies to develop integrations into third-party software.

Secure web access to voicemail, voice logger, and system dial plan provides easy access for programming and enables remote diagnostics, soft fixes, and software uploads.

The Startel softswitch is a native SIP platform, enabling the integration of SIP-trunking and utilizing the latest VoIP protocols while also allowing the use of analog, T-1, and PRI circuits as well.

TBS Payment Portal

ThePaymentPortal.com is a hosted, online, secure e-commerce site where a company’s accounts can access statements, view invoices, and pay bills at their convenience. It is an optional feature for Professional Teledata’s accounts receivable billing system, Total Billing Solution 3 (TBS3). The system requirements to run ThePaymentPortal.com are:

• Total Billing Solution version 3.1

• Advantage Database Server version 11.1

• An updated TBS3 license, one for each database

• A USAePay account for each TBS3 database to collect payments online

The Customer Spot 

The Customer Spot (TCS) is the self-service customer portal where Startel, Professional Teledata, and Alston Tascom users can create new cases, track existing cases, access the knowledge base for relevant company and product resources, and stay up to date with company news and announcements

Custom Branded Resource 

Need some marketing materials to help grow your brand? Startel has created a variety of marketing materials that they will brand for customers to grow their contact center, call center, or telephone answering service. This is possible because Startel knows they are not just a vendor to their customers—they are a valued partner. Startel recognizes that their customer’s success is tantamount to their own success.

What’s Next? 

Startel

Stay tuned for Project Nova and more exciting innovations from Startel.

Three Tactics to Transform a Call Center into a Care Center



By Gina Tabone

Healthcare strategists must lead the campaign to transform call center agents into caregivers and move from a call center mentality to a care center functioning as the doorway to an organization. Medical call centers have evolved over the past decade from call centers to contact centers to the current title of centralized access center. The goal for the patient is a seamless connection to a call center agent equipped to resolve any need presented within the confines of the first call.

Agent positions are often entry-level, which they historically abandon once they are eligible to bid on a higher-paying, more prestigious role within the organization. What a shame that frontline call center employees do not realize the immense value they play in the continuum of care and their potential impact an exceptional patient experience.

Change, as usual, must happen. Here are three easy-to-implement tactics to begin transforming the mind-set of call center agents from telephone operator to a caregiver acknowledged as a vital contributor in the continuum of care.

1. Communication

Healthcare chatter and verbiage flood nightly news reports, political rhetoric, and patient newsletters. It’s hard enough for industry leaders to comprehend what’s being said and expected, let alone the people on the front line doing the work.

There is nothing more motivating than realizing that the work one does is meaningful and makes a difference. This is most true in the delivery of healthcare. No matter what the role, everyone interacting with a patient can contribute to a positive experience. Here’s how:

Every level of management is most effective when present and visible to those working on the phones. Click To Tweet
  • Messages must be clearly stated from the top-level leadership involved in the call center transformation. Be honest and frank. Leadership is supportive but must be mindful of the ever-present business impact of every department.
  • Tell agents: “You are very important to our organization, and your contribution to the organization is unique and essential.”
  • Think of the call center as the front door to the organization. Agents are the ones answering the knock at the door.
  • Agents have the power to communicate either “Hello, welcome; we are expecting you,” or slam the door in a patient’s face by being robotic, irritated, and impatient.

2. Collaboration 

Caregivers working in a centralized communication operation don’t have a group of patients specifically assigned to them. Rather, they are there to provide a plethora of services to the patients from a variety of locations, specialties, practices, providers, or payers. The role they play augments the meaningful care provided in an office or clinic setting. Efforts must focus on viewing the call center caregivers as a vital component of the outpatient team.

  • They are the first point of contact for new patients. They can convey compassion and trust in the initial interaction as a precursor of what to expect in a face-to-face visit with a clinician.
  • First point-of-contact caregivers set the tone for what to expect from the organization. Hopefully, they demonstrate a flawless, coordinated experience by being a knowledgeable person who has the skills and resources to satisfy their current need.
  • It is valuable for call center employees to spend a day with the clinic team and for the clinic staff to spend a day shadowing the call center caregiver. Bonds are forged, and there is an appreciation for the work each group performs.

3. Circulate 

Call center leadership is not a stationary job. Every level of management is most effective when present and visible to those working on the phones. The environment is dynamic and requires constant supervision and direction.

  • Seeing team leads, managers, and higher-ups walking around and interacting with staff builds confidence and is a sign they’re available when needs arise.
  • Wireless headsets allow for designated support staff to move about, mingle with agents, and overhear calls that may benefit from a higher level of intervention. It’s a defensive method for avoiding a potential problem—or even worse, a discontented patient.
  • Call center leaders who take live calls for a portion of their workweek can lead by example.
  • Circulating staff are there to advocate for the best possible patient experience, while at the same time nurturing and engaging the caregivers.

There is a need to develop a platform of soft skills training that teaches call center caregivers how to convey interest, concern, and competency to callers. These tactics are fantastic ways begin the transformation of a call center team into a care center team.

Gina Tabone, MSN, RNC-TNP, is the vice president of strategic clinical solutions at TeamHealth Medical Call Center. Prior to joining TeamHealth, she served as the administrator of Cleveland Clinic’s Nurse on Call 24/7 nurse triage program. 

[This article first appeared in AnswerStat, answerstat.com.]

Five Realities of Contact Center Customer Service Reps



By Kim Houlne

There’s nothing like real-world experience to put on-demand customer service in proper perspective. To gain more insight, Working Solutions recently surveyed several thousand of its remote contact center agents across the United States and Canada. Their responses and experience offer insight into the realities of frontline service today. 

While a number of these workers came from brick-and-mortar call centers, many also moved into virtual customer service from a wide variety of corporate and commercial jobs. Click To Tweet

1. Agent Age

The survey results show that more than half of the respondents (57 percent) were ages thirty-four to fifty-four, with an additional 18 percent reporting between fifty-five and sixty-four. Fewer than one in five was under thirty-four, with a mere 3 percent under the age of twenty-five. 

More than half of the respondents were college graduates with practical work experience.

For instance, Jennifer, an on-demand agent in North Carolina, works on a client program that provides learning-enhancement instruction from pre-K to high school. She has a degree in finance and once worked as a director of a preschool. On one occasion, she received a call from a mother in New York City with a son in preschool who was desperate to help him read. Drawing from her background, Jennifer was able to help the woman find an appropriate educational program.

2. Agent Experience

Respondents most often reported sixteen years or more of experience in customer service delivery (37 percent). An additional 26 percent reported six to ten years of experience, with 15 percent having been in the business for eleven to fifteen years. (The rest had less than five years of customer service experience.) Clearly, more experienced agents are migrating to the virtual world to work. 

Sophisticated customers expect this level of experience. In today’s connected world of ready search and online purchasing, consumers can access lots of information and buying options that don’t require customer support. On-demand agents most often come into play when situations become too difficult for self-service solutions. At that point, buyers need the help of a more mature, well-versed agent to navigate the complexities.

Another example: Kathleen began working from home in the late 1990s after several years as a customer service representative in the offices of Continental Airlines and DuPont. Afflicted with polio as a child, Kathleen now deals with later complications that make remote work a much more practical option. She serves on a client program for a corporate travel booking site. Once Kathleen received a call from a businesswoman at 11:00 p.m. who was in Paris and needed a flight early in the morning to return home to the United States. As Kathleen searched for a flight, the woman fell asleep. She could hear her snoring and kept holding—for thirty minutes. Eventually, Kathleen texted her the new flight reservation.

3. Agent Location

More than half of the agents reported they chose to work from home to take advantage of the flexible hours (57 percent). Another 14 percent said they preferred an entrepreneurial lifestyle that allowed them to manage their own resources and career paths. (The rest had other reasons.) 

While a number of these workers came from brick-and-mortar call centers, many also moved into virtual customer service from a wide variety of corporate and commercial jobs. This real-world experience makes these agents knowledgeable about the work and lives of the customers they serve.

Case in point: Barb managed her own travel agency for ten-plus years. She knew the business inside out. When her family needed more attention, Barb gave up running the brick-and-mortar business. Today, she’s a remote travel agent plying the trade and applying her well-honed skills as an on-demand call center agent. Plus, the entrepreneurial style enables her to balance family needs and work from home. 

4. Geographic Location 

After forsaking offshore call centers in recent years, many businesses now know onshore service providers provide more culturally attuned agents to their customers. The current hot spots for hiring remote workers are Atlanta; Miami; Dallas-Fort Worth; Chicago; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Orlando.

This widespread, home-shore availability of contact center workers is especially important when customers want to speak with someone from their own region. Recently, a client that makes products marketed to a specific Northeast US region requested agents from there, believing they would relate better with its customers. Having an onshore network of on-demand agents made this possible.

5. Requisite Skills

When asked to identify the most essential skill for successful customer service, almost half (44 percent) pointed to empathy and understanding as the most critical. Third among responses was problem-solving or conflict resolution (25 percent), topped only by knowledge of company products and services (31 percent). Clearly, among educated and experienced agents, connecting with the customer comes first.

For example, twenty years ago Teresa began her role as an on-demand customer service agent. She’ll tell you that the key to customer service is showing compassion and knowing you can make a difference. Today, Teresa works for a client that provides assisted-living services for seniors and others. One day a young woman called, distraught because her father was ill and unwilling to accept his limitations. Based on experiences with her own dad, Teresa felt empathy for the caller. Teresa shared what she’d learned with the woman, telling her to comfort him, remember the good times, and see this as an ongoing life process. With care and understanding, Teresa helped this caller better care for her father.

Final Thoughts

The realities of today’s customer care call for an experienced agent workforce to serve clients and their customers. Even as artificial intelligence (AI) self-service increases, intelligent agents will be needed to pick up where technology leaves off. Customer service that blends high tech and high touch will be required to serve and satisfy.

Kim Houlne is chief executive of Working Solutions, an on-demand contact center outsourcer.

Understanding the Importance of Decision Triggers in Selling to Your Prospects



By Jill J. Johnson

A key component of effective target marketing involves developing deep insight into how the decision-making process influences your prospects to make their purchasing choices. For organizations working with diverse customer needs, moving your prospects from “I’m interested” to “I’ll buy” is a complex process. What’s significant and how this will impact each of your prospects in their buying decisions can vary. These buying decisions may also impact how they view the value of buying additional services or other resources you offer.

Understanding how your target market makes decisions is fundamental to more effectively promoting your products and services. It’s essential for you to understand your prospect’s decision-making process and what triggers their buying decisions to move your sales more quickly to a “yes.” Insight into what triggers your prospects in their decision-making process allows you to adapt your messages to highlight the unique characteristics of concern to them. You want to adapt your sales approach to their needs rather than using a cookie-cutter approach. By tailoring your promotional strategies, you can enhance your opportunities to win the sale or deepen your relationship with your potential customer. You can use this insight to carefully craft your sales approach to meet their unique needs and concerns.

Your goal is to keep them engaged with you and moving forward toward completing the sale and joining your customer ranks Click To Tweet

Each Prospect Has Unique Decision Triggers

Knowing what will move your prospects forward in a sale is just as important as knowing what is holding them back from saying yes. Decision triggers can range from stress about the costs of your product or service and not understanding the value-add you offer to believing they need support for the decision from a trusted member of their leadership team. In your sales approach, you need to utilize probing questions to isolate how they will make their decision about investing in buying a product or service from you. You must also uncover and understand the motives of who else is involved in making the decision.

Do the work to understand what decision triggers are at play with your prospective customers and with the other key stakeholders they rely on for support. Knowing how to activate or neutralize these triggers will provide you with vital insight on how to adjust your sales-messaging tactics. Once you understand their decision triggers, you can determine what you should provide your prospect so they can move forward with their decision to buy from you. 

Navigate the Decision Continuum

As you move your prospective customers through their decision continuum, consider what your goals are each step of the way. If they reach out to you via your website or email, your goal is to get them to talk with you in person. If they ask you for information, determine what information they really need and what you can follow up with if the sale is going to take longer than one interaction. Your goal is to keep them engaged with you and moving forward toward completing the sale and joining your customer ranks, both now and long-term. 

Understanding how to navigate a prospect along their decision continuum requires you to probe carefully about what is important to them and their key stakeholders. In this process, you identify their critical decision triggers while gaining an understanding of how to incorporate this insight into your sales approach. 

All too often when a company or organization has been around a long time, the process of selling to prospects becomes stagnant. Use decision insight to make sure your messaging is fresh, unique, and clearly matched to the evolving needs of your prospect. It might be time to reassess and revise your messaging to ensure you’re hitting the hot buttons of your prospects and matching your approach to what they’re most concerned about. This approach will get them to buy and stay with you beyond the initial sale. 

Decision Triggers Drive Sales and Promotional Strategy

Listen carefully to the words your prospective customers use and how they describe their needs and concerns. This insight can help you shape your sales messaging back to them in ways that mirror their words. As you match your sales messaging to where they are on their decision continuum, you will have a better understanding of how to highlight key product or service features or benefits. This approach leverages the decision triggers to your target market to match what matters most to them. By specifically tailoring your messages to your prospect’s decision triggers, you can significantly increase the potential for achieving the sale. What you offer only matters if it matters to your prospective customers. 

Once you understand the decision triggers driving your sales prospects, you can tie it to the rest of your promotional strategy. You can incorporate your deep customer insight into all your collateral materials, advertising, public relations stories, video clips, website, and social media. These communications messages can reinforce how you want your prospective customers to respond to your sales messages. If there is a disconnect anywhere in the decision continuum, you’re at risk of not achieving the sales success you desire.

Final Thoughts

By incorporating insight about your prospective customer’s decision triggers, you can help your prospect gain confidence that your product or service will truly benefit them and make a difference in their life or business. They will have more confidence in buying from you because you will have tied your presentation to their concerns. 

As a result, your prospective customers receive reassurance that your products or services can and will effectively meet their needs. Using your prospect’s decision triggers will make your sales cycle more efficient. It will result in more sales, help you build superior customer relationships, and boost customer satisfaction when you deliver on what you promised. 

Jill J. Johnson is the president and founder of Johnson Consulting Services, an accomplished speaker, an award-winning management consultant, and author of the best-selling book Compounding Your Confidence. Jill helps her clients make critical business decisions and develop market-based strategic plans for turnarounds or growth. Her consulting work has impacted more than four billion dollars’ worth of decisions. She has a proven track record of dealing with complex business issues and getting results. For more information, visit www.jcs-usa.com.

The Ten Commandments of Creating Lifetime Customers



By Tra Williams 

Everyone has experienced this scenario at one time or another. What you thought was going to be a simple, everyday transaction for a product or service turned out to be an experience that earned your lifetime loyalty as a customer. Sadly, this doesn’t happen very often—which is exactly why it’s so surprising when it does happen.

Today’s consumer-driven environment focuses intently on instant availability, and for good reason. More than ever, customers want immediate access and lament any speed bumps between them and the conclusion of a transaction. Immediacy has become the golden calf of customer satisfaction. Customers continually worship the quickest solution with frequent patronage, but the results of that lust for instant gratification has come at a painful price. The line between optimization and true innovation has been blurred as the customer experience has been sacrificed on the altar of speed.

Escaping this cult of self-satisfaction, where “likes” pass for loyalty, requires you to rewrite the rules of comparison. Don’t allow the value of your product or service to be determined by an outside metric. Instead, change the game and redefine what the word value means to your customer.

Here are the ten commandments of value creation and earning a customer for life.

1. Reduce Technology

In today’s world of technology immersion, the human touch matters more than ever. Each escalation of technology reduces human interaction. Each reduction of human interaction is a missed opportunity to earn a lifetime customer who judges the value you provide by metrics that you define, not just speed. 

The time, money, and productivity lost on a hire who is inconsistent with a company’s culture is immeasurable. Click To Tweet

When someone takes the time to provide personal enhancements to an individual experience, that’s impressive. You can’t cut through white noise with more white noise. Remember, innovative technology is usually meant to optimize our lives. Therefore, you can purchase service optimization, but not service innovation. Real service innovation comes from the people within an organization, which brings us to commandment number two.

2. Focus on Frontline Staff

Your frontline staff who interact directly with your customers are the most important people in your organization, not the owner or the VP. It’s the frontline employee who is friendly and patient, smiles all the time, and remembers customers’ names and business needs. Ultimately that person will make or break a company. Make sure your culture emphasizes treating your frontline staff with the time and attention they deserve, and they will treat your customers the same way.

3. Pursue Real Relationships with Customers

Recognize that the relationship you have with your customers should not be transactional. Of course it’s important to look for opportunities to make the transaction simpler, easier, and more pleasant for the customer. But it’s also imperative that you add value to their lives in ways that are unrelated to the transaction. Look for ways to be a resource, not just a provider.

4. Develop a Customer-First Culture

Culture is binary. You’re either in or out. It starts with a slow and methodical hiring process. The time, money, and productivity lost on a hire who is inconsistent with a company’s culture is immeasurable. Take your time and hire the right people. Then focus on their development. They in turn will grow the business. Customer loyalty comes through people, not despite them.

5. Cultivate Reciprocity

We are hardwired to do more for those who do things for us. When it rains, Chick-fil-A’s employees wearing ponchos run to people’s cars when they pull in and hold an umbrella over them while they walk inside. And then they escort them back to their cars when they have finished their meal. It’s no wonder their average unit volume is three times the average of most QSRs while only being open six days a week. Cultivate reciprocity.

6. Eliminate Policies

“I’m sorry, ma’am; that’s just our policy.” In business, no one should ever utter those words. They reveal to your customer that your culture values adherence to arbitrary rules more than customer satisfaction. You should have only one policy, which is to do everything within your power to exceed your customers’ expectations.

7. Empower Your Team

If you’ve followed commandments two and four, this one should be easy. Every team member should feel empowered to do what is right in each specific situation. “Let me ask my manager” tells your customer that you don’t trust your employees’ discretion or decision making. And if you don’t trust the people you hire, why should your customers trust that they will have a consistently great experience?

8. Celebrate Everything

Everybody loves a winner, and nobody wants to be on the losing team. Customers want to feel like the money they spend is making the world a better place. Publicly celebrate your wins, your anniversaries, your employee accomplishments (both in and out of work), your growth, your community engagement, your awards, and your achievements. Did one of your employees just get her master’s? Have a baby? Compete in a triathlon? Celebrate it. This commandment has the added advantage of developing both employee and customer loyalty. 

9. Raise the Stakes

Service innovation inherently means that you challenge the assumptions of traditional expectations. On the flip side of this coin is the realization that doing something new is also a new opportunity to fail. Fortunately, studies show that customers value your effort nearly as much as the result. As such, they are incredibly forgiving of failure, providing you made every effort to succeed. So challenge your team and yourself. Raise the stakes. Go big. Consistent yet average is still unimpressive.

10. Have a Mission

People aren’t motivated by what; they’re motivated by why. If your goal is to make tons of money and eventually go public, you’ve missed the point. Where you spend your money is a major part of your identity. Customers align themselves with organizations that mirror who they are, or at least who they’d like to be. Therefore, the motives that drive your organization also drive your customers’ loyalty. Without a mission, you and your customer have no why.

Conclusion

Embrace these commandments. Carve them in stone and bring them down from the mountain. When you arrive, if you find your team obsessed with the golden calf of immediacy, tell them this: In today’s world of instant gratification, do not worship speed. When speed becomes the only metric by which you judge service, true service becomes irrelevant. Instead of conjuring up new ways to complete a transaction faster, make the experience so amazing that the customer will never want it to end. 

Tra Williams is a speaker, business consultant, and author of the forthcoming book Feed Your Unicorn. He is a nationally recognized thought leader in small business, franchising, leadership, and entrepreneurship. Tra works with people, professionals, and organizations to help them define success on their own terms and build the framework to sustain it. For more information, visit www.TraWilliams.com.