Tag Archives: Managing Call Center Agents

Making Robotic Process Automation Positive for Employees



By Donna Fluss

Robotic process automation (RPA) is a logical approach for companies to improve productivity and quality. The three primary categories of RPA solutions are:

1. Attended: RPA can “sit side-by-side” with an agent or employee at their desktop application and assist them with their tasks. This could include looking up a knowledge article based on the screens an employee visited or completing a form by populating data from internal or external data sources. 

2. Unattended: RPA can fully automate handling work that does not require the cognitive capabilities of a live employee, such as processing accounts-payable transactions. 

3. Hybrid: When an attended RPA solution initiates an unattended RPA transaction, such as when an agent processes a credit card charge-back, it is a hybrid application.

Companies that deliver these three types of RPAs are Automation Anywhere, Jacada, NICE, OnviSource, Pegasystems, UIPath, and Verint. Blue Prism is known for concentrating on unattended automation. Prospects should be aware that all these solutions are different, as are the close to one hundred others in the market. 

Communicate clearly and frequently about the plans for rolling out RPA and the opportunities it will create for employees.  Click To Tweet

Typical differentiators in the RPA market include providing the ability or having experience in: 

  • supporting attended, unattended, and hybrid automations
  • providing real-time employee guidance and next-best-action recommendations for attended RPA
  • automating end-to-end mainframe processes 
  • delivering artificial intelligence (AI)-based capabilities such as automated discovery and prioritization of future automation opportunities

The RPA Challenge

RPA makes sense to executives and managers, but it represents a major threat to the workforce, as many employees fear robots will replace them. Companies that want to succeed with RPA, which is a necessity if they want to remain competitive, need to address and calm their staff. Keep in mind that RPA will be an “elephant in the room” and will negatively impact employee engagement unless management properly addresses it. 

Best Practices for Employee Buy-In

The way to handle employee concerns regarding RPA and the real fear that a robot will replace them is to get their buy-in. While this may sound like a daunting task or quixotic goal, explain to employees that RPA offers many benefits. 

While it’s true that these applications will replace low-value activities performed by some workers, they will also become personal assistants for others, taking on the tedious and repetitive activities that employees dread. 

Here are a few best practices to help companies with the challenge of reassuring their employees.

1. Hire and Promote from Within: Companies need to create new job functions to support an RPA implementation. This typically includes business analysts to design the RPAs, IT coders to build and test them (or a separate group of resources for testing), administrators to manage them, and technical and operational managers as well as project managers to oversee the initiatives. 

DMG recommends that you give people within your company an opportunity to fill these new positions. I’m frequently pleasantly surprised by the talent and skills of contact center agents, many of whom took the job to get their foot in the door after college or returning to work. 

2. Invest in Retraining: As the only given in many contact centers is that things change, good agents are likely to be highly flexible and open to retraining. Work with your vendor of choice and identify or build training classes. This can transform a perceived negative into a strong positive, particularly if employees receive raises to go along with their new job responsibilities. 

3. Clearly Communicate Intentions: Workplace rumor mills are dangerous, and bad news, or what workers consider bad news, travels quickly. To avoid this happening and negatively impacting the morale of a department or company, communicate clearly and frequently about the plans for rolling out RPA and the opportunities it will create for employees. 

Final Thoughts

RPA, robots, bots, intelligent virtual agents, and similar solutions intended to improve productivity and quality are here to stay. It’s not a question of whether your company will use them, only one of timing. Invest a little extra effort to get your staff on board, and it will go a long way to speeding up the success and benefits of these initiatives.

Donna Fluss is president of DMG Consulting LLC. For more than two decades she has helped emerging and established companies develop and deliver outstanding customer experiences. A recognized visionary, author, and speaker, Donna drives strategic transformation and innovation throughout the services industry. She provides strategic and practical counsel for enterprises, solution providers, and the investment community. 

How Call Centers Can Support VA Healthcare



By Bronson Tang

In Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare, connecting effectively with service providers through multiple channels of communication is the key to implementing better patient experiences and minimizing costs. Optimized call center operations can play a crucial role in achieving these goals.

These days, VA healthcare providers are becoming more patient-centric, thus raising the demand for call centers. With an increased expectation for patient-retention initiatives, appointment scheduling, and communications with referring medical professionals, health centers must keep pace with new communications technologies. VA healthcare providers can extend their support to the patients by using call center services. This reduces call volume and results in more effective patient care by staff.

Healthcare and the VA

The level of convenience and the service offered to patients is different when VA healthcare providers use call center technology as a part of their practice. Most importantly, patients will always have continuous access for assistance.

Patients today have options. They can always find another provider. That’s why every phone interaction must strive to be perfect. Click To Tweet

Hospital management is an important responsibility. Therefore, it’s necessary to ensure the smooth functioning of the complete process. Hospitals need to take care of everything from equipment management to the maintenance of records for the smallest details. In this condition, a medical call center can help a hospital by handling activities such as record maintenance, appointment setting, patient follow-up calls, and appointment reminders. In addition, call center agents can also use email to check in with patients on a regular basis.

Customers satisfaction has always been critical for businesses. This is applicable for VA healthcare providers as well. Providing accurate information to a patient is important since the well-being of the patient depends upon the services they receive. Therefore, automating the complete process can be one of the major requirements hospitals should address. On the other hand, hospitals should also ensure that the personnel employed by a customer service center are familiar with patients’ needs and have the skills and expertise to address different situations.

The call center also brings improved customer satisfaction to hospital employees because it enables them to complete tasks and still provide service to veterans. Call center agents help check veterans in, assist them with the self-service kiosk, and call them to remind them of their appointments.

A Focus on Customer Satisfaction

Call centers have improved customer satisfaction with VA healthcare by answering calls from patients to VA healthcare professionals and then directing them to whoever needs to call them back. If veterans are sick and need immediate medical attention, call center staff can help. With the call center answering all incoming calls, VA healthcare primary care teams can provide better customer service to veterans.

When patients call their doctor’s office, the last thing they want to deal with is a cranky receptionist or, just as bad, be stuck on hold. Healthcare call centers can respond quickly to patients, reduce the burden on administrative staff, and help improve the patient experience.

Without the constant interruption of phone calls, VA healthcare physicians can focus on the tasks at hand. This means that proper billing coding, prescription refills, diagnostic authorizations, and chart preparation all receive more focus.

Scheduling efficiency also improves. When you have a dedicated call center staff, fewer scheduling mistakes will occur, resulting in less rescheduled or missed appointments. Centralized call center staff also know which doctors are at what locations on any given day. This eliminates the possibility of a patient calling the Middletown office looking for Dr. Smith (who only works in Somerset) and hearing the words “We don’t have a Dr. Smith.”

Call Center Capabilities

Call centers bridge the gap between the front and back offices by maintaining administrative activity records of patients and prescriptions, which are often inefficient and difficult to manage. Call center services can prioritize and proactively distribute this work anywhere in the organization. Call centers can also provide business intelligence that improves operational efficiency, meets SLAs, and measures regulatory compliance.

Currently, many medical staff are doing multiple jobs, including answering a variety of patient calls: general questions, upcoming appointments, and benefit coverage. A VA healthcare call center opens communication within departments by outlining what needs to be collected, establishing a hand-off process, and ensuring accountability.

A healthcare call center helps ensure that every patient is set on a positive path. Patients today have options. They can always find another provider. That’s why every phone interaction must strive to be perfect. If patients have an urgent need, they should get an appointment the same day. A quality call center will work with patients to make sure their experiences are positive. Companies who fail to train well often deliver bad service, with rude agents or agents that lack the level of sympathy, empathy, or professionalism that patients expect.

For many physicians, the biggest pain point is their daily practice management issues and challenges, such as a lack of staff. They simply don’t have the number of administrative staff to efficiently operate. And on the clinical side, it’s the same; they’re strapped. Healthcare call center support can remove the burden from both sides. It is an ideal situation for physicians and their entire practice.

A Focus on Quality

A quality call center helps retain patients. When patients are helped in their time of need, they return. That’s the biggest ROI for any physician or practice.

But again, there’s also help for the administrative and clinical staff. A call center can work with them to ensure that they get the right appointment for each patient. An experienced agent can handle the entire transaction and allow the clinical team more time with their patients. This helps every patient get into the office and lets practitioners engage with patients who will return for care.

Call centers provide proactive engagement and notifications. Proactive customer service in VA healthcare is a challenging objective for providers and physicians. Despite their personal commitment and the available technology, there are obstacles when trying to move to a proactive health model. Offering customer assistance through multichannel transactions can prevent customers switching to other options. In addition, keeping members informed of the progress so they don’t have to make a call improves loyalty and ultimately the bottom-line.

Summary

The focus your healthcare organization staff is to collect the necessary information and improve patient satisfaction. A call center is an excellent way to handle this.

Call centers must deal with the continuing challenge of recruiting and training excellent personnel and attempting to increase retention rates. To improve service, management must constantly communicate with both employees and customers in an interactive, multidimensional process. In the global marketplace, improvement of service is not an option—it’s a matter of survival. A call center can help.

Pulsar 360

Bronson Tang is the marketing manager at Pulsar360, Inc. He has ten years of experience in digital marketing and has worked in the telecommunications sector for four years. He is the author of the book, The Tao of Business. Pulsar360, Inc., with origins dating back to 2001, is an established Unified-Communication-as-a-Service (UCaaS) provider with a comprehensive set of offerings it has provided to over 160 medical centric call centers including: cloud-based enterprise-class call center IP PBX; premise-based IP PBX, Session Initiation Protocol (SIP)-trunking, business continuity disaster recovery solutions, T38 Faxing that meets HIPAA, GLBA, and other industry compliance regulations and carrier services.

First Aid for Burned-Out Teams



By Kate Zabriskie

Even in the best of times, creating and maintaining a high-functioning team is hard work. Consider these perspectives about workplace teams: 

The team is exhausted. They’re burned-out, and you are too. You don’t know if the team can recover. Everyone’s been working at 150 percent for over a year—at least most everyone has.

More change? Really? We’ve been through three major transitions in as many months. Everyone is on edge. I’m pretty sure Susan is going to quit.

Team? We work in the same building, but that’s about where it starts and stops. I’m hoping to get out of here soon.

When the team is burned out, the task of managing them becomes harder, but you can do it. Follow these five first-aid steps to heal burned-out teams.

Recognize that you need to over-explain and repeatedly share information. Click To Tweet

Step One

The first step is accepting a list of truths.

Truth One: People have different levels of buy-in, a range of professional goals, and varying home/work demands.

Truth Two: Not everyone experiences burnout in the same way, nor is work always distributed evenly in most organizations. Some people are more burned out than others.

Truth Three: Great teamwork will compensate for a lack of resources in the short term. However, teams stretched too thin for too long will begin to show signs of stress.

Truth Four: If the leader doesn’t believe in what the team needs to accomplish or isn’t working as hard as he or she can to bring the team over the finish line each day, team members will know it and react in a range of ways—most of which are neutral at best.

Truth Five: Transparency matters. People don’t like not knowing, or worse still, being lied to.

Truth Six: Too many changes at once usually don’t go over well unless there’s a logical flow to them. This includes a sense of fairness about the change, along with the absence of unnecessary chaos or drama.

Truth Seven: Elephants in a room stay there if they’re allowed to. If a team is not prepared to operate with candor and address any unspoken issues, there’s only so much you can do to save the group.  

Truth Eight: Team members’ perceptions of the team’s condition are their truth. You may have plenty of data to argue to the contrary, but until people are ready to listen and believe what you show them, what they currently think is what is.

Step Two

Once you have a firm understanding of the basic truths, the next step is taking a hard look at what’s working, what isn’t, and why. 

  • Does everyone understand and buy into the team’s mission? 
  • Is work distributed fairly? 
  • Are some people doing more than they should have to do and others doing less than they should? 
  • Are people resentful of each other? 
  • Is there drama, and do you know the source? 
  • Is the team’s burnout a recent phenomenon, or has its decay been long term? 
  • Is the burnout caused by internal factors, external factors, or a combination of both? 
  • Have those in positions of authority misled or lied to people in the past?

These questions are just the beginning and provide some ideas to start with. In fixing burnout, asking the right questions is as important, if not more so, as acting. A good list of questions will help reduce the likelihood that you are treating symptoms or curing the wrong disease.

Step Three

When you think you have a good grasp of the situation and have verified your findings with others, it’s time to think about what could be. A quick way to imagine a different state is to work through some more questions.

  • Why does our team matter to the organization, and what value do we offer?
  • How do we want to feel about our work?
  • What gets us excited about our work, or what do we enjoy?
  • What changes do we need to our work product, our work processes, or our people interactions?
  • What needs to stay the same?
  • What level of performance do we need from each team member?
  • What are we going to do if those levels aren’t met?
  • What additional resources do we need?
  • What does success look like?
  • What can we do to encourage transparency and communication?
  • How will we celebrate improvements?

Step Four

With a clear view of the present and a possible future, the next step is prioritizing. In most cases, burned-out teams don’t burn out overnight. Often the process is long and marked by a series of declines, bad luck, and unfortunate circumstances. Consequently, the recovery process is often long. In fact, the team may never realize some of the elements identified in step three. 

Most recoveries don’t happen overnight. The trick is to keep the truths discussed in step one in mind as you prioritize a plan of action to get from the reality you uncovered in step two and the future you envisioned in step three.

Step Five

The final step in the recovery planning process is creating a deliberate communication plan. Recognize that you need to over-explain and repeatedly share information. Once is not enough. Also, not all recoveries are linear. Your team will have some good days and some bad ones. What’s important is making progress in the right direction over time. After a series of successes, everyone who is still with the group should feel a little less burned out and a lot more excited about their work.

With these five steps identified, you’re positioned to provide some immediate triage to your team members who are battling burnout. Burnout can be pervasive throughout an entire company, so get your first-aid kit out as soon as you pick up on the problem, and mitigate the issue before it negatively impacts your operation.

Kate Zabriskie is the president of Business Training Works, Inc., a Maryland-based talent development firm. She and her team help businesses establish customer service strategies and train their people to live up to what’s promised. For more information, visit www.businesstrainingworks.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.

Overcoming Call Reluctance, Part Two



By Kathy Sisk

In part one we discussed the first weakness of call reluctance: agent fears. Now we’ll discuss prospect’s fears.

Most outbound agents don’t receive training to help them handle their prospect’s fears. In many instances, agents are not even aware of these fears. They fall into three categories:

  1. The Approach: What does this salesperson want from me?
  2. Pre-Purchase Insecurity: What if I later regret my decision?
  3. Post-Purchase Remorse: What have I done?

To address this, agents need training to improve their approach. This enables the agent to be more sensitive to and address the prospect’s fears. 

Before training agents on scripting, you must first sell the benefits of using a script. Click To Tweet

Most agents are uncomfortable using a canned presentation, and so are prospects. However, scripts are necessary, especially when working with multiple projects, training a newly hired agent, or to remain in control during the presentation. Scripts also provide more consistency in the performance levels of the campaign. 

The Benefits of Using a Script (Call Guide)

Before training agents on scripting, you must first sell the benefits of using a script. I do this using my “road map” story:

“A script is like a road map. If you were to travel to an unfamiliar city, would you go without a map? Of course not. If you did, it would take longer to arrive at your destination. So it is with your presentation. You start from a beginning point and a destination you want to reach. Not having a script, a format to follow, or a call guide lets your prospect take you on a detour where you do not want to go. If you do not have a map (a call guide), it will be difficult to get back on track. Not using a script gives your prospect greater control of the outcome. Ultimately you are not able to meet the objective of the call.”

The truth is, after thirty minutes of experiencing negative activity with the prospect gaining control, agents lose interest and their self-esteem spirals downward. Eventually this can affect other agents in the call center too.

Next time we will discuss scripts and how to best use them when making outbound calls and overcoming call reluctance.

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

Caught in the Cross Fire: Contact Rates Continue to Decline



By Dean Garfinkel

A recent initiative launched by the FCC called Robocall Call Processing (RCP) was intended to combat illegal robo-calls. Unfortunately, an unintended consequence of RCP is the accidental blocking of legitimate calls from companies trying to reach their customers via an outbound phone call. In fact, as an industry, we’re seeing an approximate 30 percent decrease in outbound call answer rates within the last nine to twelve months.

What Outbound Call Centers Should Know About RCP

I recommend a more tailored approach called “personalized calling strategies.” These are program-specific strategies intentionally designed to mitigate the effects of RCP and maximize answer rates Click To Tweet

The RCP initiative gives carriers the power to “block or label” any call on their network that they believe to be unwanted or a robocall. Carriers rely on data provided by unregulated third-party analytics companies to identify these types of calls on their network. The practice of blocking or labeling occurs when a carrier opts to block a call from ringing on their customer’s phone or replaces the caller ID name display with an arbitrary label, such as “Scam Likely” or “Robocaller.”

The RCP initiative does not require transparency from carriers, which means you’ll never know, or receive notification, when an outbound caller’s calls are blocked or potentially mislabeled. In some cases, carriers are returning false busy signals and network congestion signals or even routing calls directly to a recipient’s voicemail.

RCP does not hold the carriers and analytic companies accountable. So with a mislabeled or incorrectly blocked call, it’s impossible to pinpoint the provider responsible, since most calls involve multiple carriers: the originating carrier, the transit carrier, and the terminating carrier. In addition, it’s not feasible to get your caller ID numbers correctly labeled or unblocked, since there is no designated point of contact.

In addition, the FCC has given carriers and analytics companies unwarranted discretion over what constitutes an unwanted or robocall without requiring standardization. This often results in mislabeling or blocking important calls from companies trying to reach their customers, as well as significant inconsistencies across carriers.

These unfair practices cost outbound contact centers significantly, especially when you consider the time and resources spent by agents redialing numbers that get the same result: a busy signal.

What Outbound Call Centers Can Do to Protect Themselves

In the new era of RCP, the old tactics used by outbound call centers are even less effective, such as rotating or swapping out numbers in wholesale. The old tactics don’t address the technology that is driving RCP and therefore, they don’t offer protection.

To address this, I recommend a more tailored approach called “personalized calling strategies.” These are program-specific strategies intentionally designed to mitigate the effects of RCP and maximize answer rates. When implemented correctly, they offer the best protection I’ve seen.

Briefly, a good personalized calling strategy contains four steps:

  1. Evaluate how many phone numbers in your outbound call list are in each state or area code. Try to minimize the number of dials to a single area code or calling area when possible. Analytics companies look at the volume of calls you’re placing to an area’s telephone subscriber base.
  2. Look to see if your caller ID numbers have any complaints. Complaints to the FCC, FTC, or state agencies, as well as negative postings on social media, are public information and can be used against you.
  3. Make sure the phone number you’re using for caller ID is a real phone number. It seems basic, but it’s something you should double-check. Be sure you answer the incoming calls too; this will help minimize complaints.
  4. Look at your outbound calling pattern and minimize retries to the same phone numbers within a short period of time. The best practice is to establish a maximum attempt rule by day, by week, and by campaign.

Work to Establish a Fair Playing Field

Until we agree upon a universal definition and approach to nuisance calls, RCP will continue to foster an environment where inconsistency across carriers and significant errors are inevitable and acceptable. PACE (Professional Association for Customer Engagement), a leading force behind the Communication Protection Coalition (CPC), hosts quarterly meetings dedicated to combating robocalls.

CPC meeting attendees represent all industry stakeholders, including carriers, analytic companies, relevant associations, and contact centers. While representatives from the FCC continue to attend these meetings, they do so simply as observers. As an industry with so much at stake, we need to continue to proactively work through the CPC to ensure that our voice is heard.

For more information, visit http://www.paceassociation.org/coalition.

Dean Garfinkel is the president of Quality Voice & Data, a leading enhanced telecom solutions provider to the telemarketing and call center industry. Dean’s passion for creating value-added solutions for his clients has resulted in numerous solutions that are industry-standard and used by most Fortune 500 call centers and their call center vendor partners. Reach Dean at dean@qualityvoicedata.com or 516-656-5115.

Is Your Call Center Ready for Anything?



How to Survive When Receiving Twice the Calls or Having Half the Staff—or Both

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Running a call center is hard, at least doing it right. Even under normal conditions, managers struggle to balance traffic and staffing levels while maintaining high quality and minimizing complaints.

But what happens when conditions aren’t normal? If you’re slammed with calls for an extended period, how will you fare? What happens if several agents can’t make it into work? What if the remote access portion of your system goes down, leaving your local staff to deal with everything?

One solution is to ignore the risk and hope nothing abnormal happens. But eventually, something abnormal will occur. It might be a weather event, a natural disaster, or a manmade crisis. Use your imagination—it’s easy to see that any number of things that could cause call traffic to spike or your staffing levels to drop. In fact, these both could happen at the same time. How well could your call center manage trying to handle twice the number of calls with half the staff?

Preparation today will help achieve success for tomorrow. Click To Tweet

Here are some ideas:

Multilocation

call center

If the source of the problem that moves you from normal to not normal is local, having a multilocation call center is one easy solution—provided that the other call centers are far enough away to not have the same scenario affect them. Of course, this strains the other call centers in the network, but more locations and more agents to share the load reduces the negative impact.

Remote Workforce

Many call centers use some work-at-home agents, whereas others prefer all staff to work from one centralized location to allow for better management. Regardless, allowing staff to work from a remote location during a crisis is a key way to minimize the impact. This could provide options for staff unable to make it into the office, as well as make it easier for staff not scheduled to login and help.

Strategic Partners

Having multiple locations and allowing staff to work remotely are key solutions to deal with abnormal call center scenarios. However, these tactics only go so far. To supplement these two approaches, form strategic partnerships with other call centers that can help during an emergency. But select a call center partner geographically distant from you. If you’re on the coast, work with one who is inland. If you’re in the north part of the country, find one in the south. If you’re east, go west.

Vendor Solutions

Check with your vendor to see what disaster mitigation solutions they offer. They may be able to help you better handle a not-normal call center situation. They could also recommend strategic partners for you to work with.

Outsourcing

If you’re a corporate call center, you may want to arrange with an outsourcing call center to help during a crisis. And if you’re an outsourcing call center, you know how this functions, so work with another outsourcing call center to help you.

Automate

Regardless of your paradigm to provide people to help people, sometimes automating portions of your call response will serve callers better than by not answering their phone calls at all or making them wait in queue a long time for the next available agent.

Plan Now

The key to make any of this work is planning. When things are going along normally for you and your call center, it’s the ideal time to come up with solutions for when normal goes away. Don’t wait for a crisis to hit and then scramble for answers.

Preparation today will help achieve success for tomorrow, even under less-than-ideal situations. When disaster strikes, you’ll be glad you have a plan to deal with it.

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.

The Ultimate Call Center Service for Contractors



Leveraging Third-Party App Technology

By Darlene Campbell

Technological advances continue to amaze me as I have watched the definition of service evolve over the past decades. Whether you compare a world of pagers to a world of texting or customers now controlling their own on-call schedules with direct access to their call centers systems, it has been astonishing.

In recent years our call center, ICG, embarked on a partnership to support a specialized industry: concrete repair specialists. As part of this process, my call center was introduced to a unique SaaS App software service called Estimate Rocket offered by Logical Engine Inc. Estimate Rocket is an app that automates the estimating process for contractors. It’s highly robust and has a built in CRM as well as an e-marketing platform. Integrated with Google maps and Quick Books, it can be described as a dream for that industry.

The vision we presented was the ability to interface with the contractor’s Estimate Rocket program. Then we could:

  • Allow any call center agent to accept calls or emails in response to the contractor’s promotion or advertising
  • Load the data directly into the contractor’s CRM
  • Provide information about the service by automatically activating a drip campaign of email to the contractor’s prospect
  • Schedule the estimate for the contractor

The poster child for this service is Affordable Mudjacking in the greater Kansas City area. Owner and entrepreneur Zach Poland saw the vision and the opportunity, so he ran with it for maximum efficiency of his operation. We now handle most Affordable Mudjacking’s inbound prospect communication, provide their prospects with basic information about the service, in some cases vet the viability of the prospect and schedule their estimators. In effect we have migrated from a call center to become Mr. Poland’s front office operation, and we are indispensable to his business.

WIIFM

Every business marketing and sales course suggests you answer the question “what’s in it for me” for all parties in a business relationship. Let’s review the benefits for both the contractor and the call center.

Contractor Benefits

  • A consistent, professional, 24/7 prospect experience that exceeds expectations
  • A consistent estimating process that allows for ease of training and instant fulfillment, as estimates (including photos) are emailed to prospects while an estimator is on site—with a mere click to accept the work and lock in a contract
  • Elimination of all costs associated with prospect inbound management and estimator scheduling
  • Better quality consistently delivered with efficiency, which increases capacity, scalability, imaging, closing ratios, and profitability

Call Center Benefits

  • Increased functionality and capacity to handle more types of client calls
  • Longer call duration
  • Development of a partner versus vendor relationship
  • Relationship longevity
  • Improved profitability

The Potential

Estimate Rocket has modules for concrete repair specialists, spray foam specialists, painters, and more. Its generic version can be used by any business doing estimates, with free-form data entry capability. In the case of Affordable Mudjacking, we have been instrumental in allowing this firm to schedule estimates when prospects aren’t home. This fact has changed the business and reduced their cost per sale.

We’ve learned to look beyond our own systems and seek ways to embrace tech used by our clients to grow our business. Click To Tweet

Estimate Rocket is only one example of the power of app technology and the acceleration of technical influence on business delivery. These tools need not be in competition with a call center environment. Through this we’ve learned to look beyond our own systems and seek ways to embrace tech used by our clients to grow our business.

Darlene Campbell is the president of Information Communications Group, a 24/7 multilingual call center based in Leawood, Kansas.

Hiring and Training CSRs for Digital Contact Center Work



By Doug Taylor

In today’s world, customers have become accustomed to serving themselves. This phenomenon may have started with fuel. With the notable exception of New Jersey, customers have been pumping their own gas for decades. Self-service quickly spread across other industries. ATMs have all but replaced drive-through services at banks. Self-service checkout lanes are proliferating in grocery stores. Even post offices have kiosks where customers can weigh items, buy postage, and send items, all without the assistance of a customer service representative (CSR).

Why the proliferation of self-service options? It’s all about time and efficiency. People believe they can do things faster themselves, and most often they can. They also want to be able to complete transactions—whether at the bank or grocery store or hundreds of online locations—when they want to.

Emotional intelligence is about being socially aware, self-aware, and able to recognize the effect of emotions on behavior. Click To Tweet

Self Service and the Contact Center

This trend toward self-service has moved into the contact center industry as well. Modern contact centers are offering digital channels, such as interactive voice response (IVR) menus, websites, chatbots, SMS, and even social media sites, to give customers as many options as possible to find information and complete transactions in the ways they prefer.

Digital channels offer customers an avenue for completing simple tasks online. But when those tasks are more complex, customers need to talk to a CSR. Customers can certainly pay car insurance bills online without assistance, but if they want to change the amount of coverage they have on a vehicle, add additional vehicles, or report an accident, that often involves speaking to a person. That means the CSRs taking those calls must be trained and ready to handle these complex questions. They also need the soft skills to handle the emotions that come with a higher level of question.

The New Breed of CSR

CSRs are now expected to answer and assist with increasingly complex questions. They are also speaking with customers who have looked for answers online and come up short.

These CSRs need better training than their peers of just a few years ago to help the digital-first customers who are contacting them. They can’t simply read answers from a script, as customers have already found that online. CSRs must be able to think critically and act quickly. In addition, CSRs with high emotional intelligence (EQ) can sense what a customer feels and how to respond appropriately.

Just as CSRs need new skills, contact center managers need to adapt the processes they use to hire and train new CSRs. Hiring for more complex skill sets means looking for different attributes in individuals. It also means using distinct training methods to ensure that new CSRs can help customers with complex tasks.

How to Hire New CSRs for Digital Contact Centers

In general, it is easier to teach and prepare people in areas in which they are already strong. This holds true with contact center recruiting. Hiring managers should seek individuals who have a natural inclination to help others. This service mind-set cannot be taught.

For digital contact centers, CSRs need to have excellent critical thinking skills and a high degree of emotional intelligence. While people can be taught ways to improve critical thinking and problem solving and can learn strategies to improve their ability to read emotions in situations, it’s easier for trainers and managers to start with recruits who already have some ability in these areas.

Scenario-based questions help assess potential hires for critical thinking, EQ, and problem-solving skills. To assess, a hiring manager might give a potential hire the following situation: A customer calls into the contact center because his card is declined at a point of sale. When looking at the system, there appears to be no reason for the card to be declined.

What step would the potential hire take? In assessing critical thinking, hiring managers aren’t looking for a correct answer. It would be nearly impossible for a potential hire to know the correct steps to take for that specific contact center. They are looking for potential hires who go beyond the response: “Sorry, I can’t help you with that.” Managers should look for potential hires who state that they would ask customers and themselves questions to get to the root of the problem. Managers look for that way of thinking.

Additionally, emotional intelligence is about being socially aware, self-aware, and able to recognize the effect of emotions on behavior. Hiring managers screen potential hires for EQ by observation and through behavior-based questions.

To help determine EQ, a hiring manager can ask, “What are your two biggest strengths?” A person with a high EQ is self-aware and gives an answer that matches everything else the interviewer has observed. If she says, “I’m very outgoing, and I like to meet new people,” yet spends the entire interview sitting on her hands and whispering answers, she may not be very self-aware. Although it’s ideal to hire someone with a high degree of self-awareness, if she has a service mentality and excellent critical thinking skills, a few lessons in reading emotions will help bring her up to speed.

How to Train New CSRs for Digital Contact Center Work

For digital contact center work, trainers begin with defining the desired mind-set. They explain that CSRs must use critical thinking and problem-solving skills to be successful. Prior to self-service, contact center work involved reading scripts and learning workflows to assist customers. Since customers are taking care of simple issues themselves, a CSR’s priority is now unpacking a given situation before figuring out which solution to apply.

Situation-based training works best when preparing CSRs for digital contact center employment. Trainers can give new hires a scenario and then talk them through the process of solving the problem, pointing out tools they use along the way. As they progress, new hires practice with calls coming in from a trainer in another room. CSRs then move to a nested environment, where they take live calls with a seasoned CSR nearby to provide support and take over if needed.

To assist new hires in learning to read customers’ emotions, trainers play ten-second recorded clips of the beginning of calls. Trainees identify each caller’s state of mind and determine the best approach to take when communicating with that caller.

Since different callers require different approaches, CSRs must be prepared to change the way they interact with customers based on what they hear. Take the declined credit card at the point of sale, for example. If the customer calls in when being declined at a business lunch, he may be demanding and frustrated. A CSR would approach this caller differently than a person who calls in from a family reunion and wants to chat for thirty seconds about seeing relatives for the first time ten years.

In the first scenario, CSRs would use an “all business” approach to quickly reinforce that they understand the problem and get to work by asking questions to diagnose the situation. If CSRs use that approach with the second caller, they risk offending someone who has just shared a personal story and seeks acknowledgment.

A third caller may be hesitant and doubt he even has an issue. This caller needs reassurance that the problem is real, and the CSR can solve it. Acknowledging customers’ emotions helps diffuse the situation, since people ultimately just want to be heard.

To Sum Up

Scenario-based training is the most effective method to train new contact center agents and prepare them to serve customers. Critical thinking and problem-solving skills can be taught. While EQ is a level of intelligence, CSRs can work on developing skills to improve the way they read and serve callers.

Hiring managers can also use situation-based questions to determine which potential hires have a high EQ and a natural aptitude for critical thinking. They can also use an interview to assess whether an individual is self-aware and has a service mentality.

Combined, these attributes help hiring managers make the most intelligent decisions in staffing digital contact centers.

Doug Taylor is vice president of operations at HighPoint Global, which helps government agencies elevate citizen experiences, whether calling, online, or in person.

Three Pieces of Key Information Your Call Center Is Missing Without Machine Learning



By Dan Somers

With the amplification of social media, as well as the ease and increase in the ability for customers to complain, issues can quickly turn into operational and PR crises. Yet this is just the beginning; issues happen every day that cause customers to interact with contact centers. The intended customer experience can be impacted by taking up unallocated resources to deal with day-to-day issues.

Here we look at three ways machine learning can be applied within a contact center to unlock key data that can ensure the intended customer experience is achieved.

Call center crises resulting in high customer churn or dissatisfaction can often be prevented with enough early warning. Click To Tweet

1. Sentiment Analysis 2.0

Typically, the richest and most actionable feedback generally has a negative sentiment. However, this can be buried within feedback that traditional sentiment analysis identifies as positive overall. As a result, key customer feedback that could drive positive business change is being missed. A review such as “the food was brilliant, and I loved the atmosphere, but the service was terribly slow!” would have only one sentiment considered. Therefore, the actionable insight, “slow service,” is ignored, leading the business to miss out on a change that could potentially have turned this satisfied customer into a huge promoter.

The accuracy of items sold as sentiment analysis that are billed as 90 percent are sometimes as low as 40 percent accurate. The latest machine learning can identify multiple sentiments within text, so no valuable feedback is missed. What’s more, it can do so in near real time in an automated fashion.

2. Concepts, Not Keywords

Until now AI has not been advanced enough to deal with the subtleties of how different people voice different issues and how to make sure you’re not missing key insight as a result.

Existing analytics typically identify keywords within customer feedback. Not only does this fail to consider the myriad of ways different customers may describe different issues, but the overarching concept or message might be missed. This issue arises when a concept or feedback is implied instead of using explicit keywords. We need to understand what is driving that keyword or sentiment and not merely act on the word itself. This driver can get ignored without machine learning.

For example, a hotel chain may pick up keywords such as clean, dirty, noisy, but the driver behind these keywords might be unconnected to the issue itself. The reference to noise might be external to the hotel, or dirty could refer to a specific area of the hotel that could be easily resolved if the full picture was known.

For example, a restaurant customer stating, “By the time my meal finally arrived, the food was cold,” may be flagged as “cold food,” when in fact the driver was “slow service.” Therefore, the appropriate action is to increase speed of service. Machine learning can provide the missing link between multiple words and patterns, giving a much clearer picture of the full concept behind a piece of customer feedback, not just keywords in a silo.

3. Early Warning and Root Cause

Call center crises resulting in high customer churn or dissatisfaction can often be prevented with enough early warning. Unfortunately, current tools cannot identify negative sentiment patterns in text feedback early enough or accurately enough to allow preventative measures to be put in place.

By way of an example, digital communications company O2 had a specific issue in May 2018 with their Priority Offers promotional activity. The allocation of tickets for a popular music event at the O2 Arena for its customers was reduced, and this caused a huge influx of enquiries to their contact center.

Interestingly, this correlated precisely with an increase in customers complaining that they “couldn’t get a response” from customer service as well as “took too long” and “poor customer service.”

Furthermore, there were three categories of churn identified from the public data:

  1. Customers saying they were going to leave the provider
  2. Customers saying they could not make a purchase because of an issue
  3. Customers who made a public recommendation not to use this provider

There is a clear correlation on these three items between all forms of churn and the issues noted above.

Keyword and sentiment analysis had been applied and was not able to discern any of these insights. All it could do was pick up known keywords and generate a sentiment score. It would require an analyst to discern why there were increases or decreases in satisfaction, and this would not be an effective early-warning system.

By adopting machine learning, the company could discern in real time the topics people were talking about instead of just keywords. Fixes could be applied immediately, thus preventing more lost bookings, and they could divert more customer care representatives to the call center to deal with the increase in calls, thus lowering response times. The crisis was entirely preventable.

Using machine learning to implement an early warning system can tangibly reduce customer churn, increase customer lifetime value, and improve customer satisfaction.

Dan Somers is the CEO at Warwick Analytics, providing a machine learning platform for text and voice of customer data.