Tag Archives: Managing Call Center Agents

How to Manage a Remote Contact Center Team



By Chris Robinson

As any contact center leader knows, managing a team of agents is not for the fainthearted. This is even more challenging with agents working remotely. Deploying excellent technology will help to dramatically improve your customer experience (CX), but to create an entirely frictionless experience, you also need great people.

Finding the Right Contact Center Manager for Your Team

Business leaders know that finding a contact center manager with a can-do attitude is critical to the customer service journey. Being able to cope with a high-pressure environment, whether on the contact center floor or having to spur on the troops remotely, has never been more important. 

Regularly talking to agents and maintaining two-way communication—whether face-to-face, over the phone, via email, or a messaging channel—is key to motivating individuals. Taking the time to listen and engage with people improves productivity. Indeed, a study by York University psychologist Faye Doell found that those who “listen to understand” have better, happier relationships with others. 

A supportive manager will know that giving co-workers and employees the space to communicate fully and openly means that they’re more likely to become part of the team, make suggestions, and collaborate on projects.

Being a good listener means that your contact center manager will create the right chemistry across the team, whether that’s managing twenty agents or over one thousand. An ability for resourcing campaigns properly will also help to further alleviate team stress, while a sound knowledge of the call center technology supporting the work is important. If you’re going to invest in technology, you want to ensure that every member of the team can use it to its full potential.

The phrase “Zoom fatigue” is becoming a real issue for remote workers, so do everything you can to streamline video calls. Click To Tweet

Leading by example, demonstrating their own abilities, and creating a stress-free environment means that any capable contact center manager will inspire those around him or her. When you support your team, you inspire loyalty, which in turn should help to reduce agent churn—something that’s a challenge in the contact center world. 

According to Cornell University, the average cost to replace an agent is between five and seven thousand dollars, with entry level employees being the greatest number to leave (27 percent). Furthermore, contact center workers are absent for 8.2 days a year. That’s higher than any other industry. 

You have the power to not become a statistic and to enhance the agent experience within your contact center, whether locally or remotely.

What Does Great Contact Center Management Entail? 

Making the right hires, providing the necessary training, and supporting agents with great technology will dramatically enhance CX. To accomplish this, consider these management strategies:

  • Hire Smart: Employ the right people and make sure that the onboarding process is as smooth and as informative as possible. This will go a long way in maintaining a happy and productive environment.
  • Use Information: Embrace the data that you collate to help determine what works best for your customers and staff, as well as identify any underperforming areas.
  • Offer Incentives: Rewards and initiatives tap into our basic human needs. This can encourage superior performance and help keep agents motivated.
  • Promote Rest: Breaks have always been important in a call center environment but are even more important now with people working remotely or in strained circumstances. Ensuring that employees get time away from screens and calls will help keep all engagements in perspective.

Ultimately, being able to drive efficiencies through stronger management practices and behaviors will pay dividends. 

Top Tips for Managing Remotely

  • Speak to Your Team Every Day: Communicate with them either as a group or individually. Make the conversations informal and not all about work.
  • Be Available: There’s a fine balance to being available and always being “on.” Manage your time and let people know when it’s an appropriate time to catch up if they need to talk, whether that’s about personal or work-related challenges. Encourage them to do the same with their colleagues.
  • Empower to Harness Trust: Don’t micromanage your team. Outline responsibilities and make sure the entire team is aware of who is supposed to do what. Agree with them about what work they need to do and set realistic deadlines. Then trust people to get on with the task at hand and don’t chase them ahead of the deadline.
  • The Right Tools for the Job: Make sure your remote team has the right setup when working remotely. You may need to ask IT to carry out health checks on their devices and make sure they can use all their software easily. Arrange refresher training for any areas where the tools cause frustration.
  • Calendar Cleanse: Review meetings (i.e., video calls). Discuss whether they’re required, who needs to attend, and who can have their time freed up to address more important things.
  • Introduce Some Process: The phrase “Zoom fatigue” is becoming a real issue for remote workers, so do everything you can to streamline video calls, keeping the time spent short and productive. Have an agenda for every meeting, take minutes, and if you have to share a presentation, share it with people prior to the meeting (not ten minutes before) so they have time to review and can prepare any relevant feedback or questions. This will shorten your meeting time, and you will start to be more productive and less swamped by too much information and not enough time.
  • Make It Fun: There will be times where some members of your team feel upbeat while others struggle, and vice versa. Introduce a few fun ways where you can meet as a team but ask people what they would like to do. Remember, enforced fun is no fun.

Making the right management hires, providing the right training, and supporting your agents with great technology will dramatically enhance your CX. In a time where customers expect more, supporting your agents with the right infrastructure will not only deliver significant savings, but will also increase profitability. 

Chris Robinson is the director and executive chairman of Awaken Intelligence. He has been at the forefront of omni-channel communications for the last two decades. During this time, he has been instrumental in developing solutions that blend the best in contact center processes, unified communications, and cloud computing technologies into a powerful outsourced business offering used by many clients across a variety of sectors. 

Enhance Contact Center Operations in a Shift toward Remote Models



By Matt McConnell

The coronavirus pandemic affects employees across every industry. This has forced frontline workers to drastically adapt their work styles to adhere to social distancing, while many typical on-premise office staff have shifted to a work-from-home model. For most employees, this move to teleworking doesn’t call for much more than a Zoom account and a stable internet connection.

Transitioning contact center agents, however, to work from home can present problems, especially if their company isn’t prepared for remote operations. They might lack the infrastructure and processes to effectively make the shift. This opens the door to challenges that will plague agents and managers alike. Fortunately, there are solutions to ease remote contact center operations and supplement the roles of agents and managers.

Understanding the Issue

This rapid transition to remote work has made routine tasks such as agent training, managing adherence, and maintaining engagement more difficult for operations than in a physical contact center. With a tethered contact center model, where agents work remotely but live near the contact center, in-person training and coaching may be more manageable. But managing adherence and ensuring engagement will be a challenge. 

A natural progression for contact centers to flow from physical to tethered and eventually to remote models might have been more helpful in the transition. But what happens now that circumstances have removed these first two options? Companies, forced to leapfrog the tethered model, move directly to the remote operations. But without the right systems in place, this can put added stress on agents and managers, as well as lead to a dip in efficiency across the board. 

A survey revealed that 55 percent of industry professionals believe a remote workforce will become permanent within the contact center operations. Click To Tweet

Many contact centers report record levels of call volume since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. They need to maintain peak efficiency despite the challenge thrown their way. Workforce automation (WFA) can alleviate many of these issues, allowing agents and managers to execute their roles from home just as they would in a physical contact center.

Empowering Agents

Data-driven automation is essential in managing a contact center with a remote workforce. Specifically, a platform can use real-time insights to ensure an engaged and connected workforce—this is despite agents and managers being miles apart. Even with surging call volume, in-the-moment data can keep agents on track to hit key performance indicators, while automatically updating schedules to account for breaks, training, and coaching. Real-time notifications can go directly to agents at the opportune time to share company-wide updates, inquire if they need help, prompt breaks, offer overtime, or supply more training.

For many agents this will be the first time they have worked from home. This change of scenery could present a challenge. Stress is at an all-time high for contact center agents, and a combination of increased volume, potentially upset customers, and adapting to new remote processes can lead to increased burnout and poor performance. In fact, 52 percent of contact center staff believe their company isn’t doing enough to prevent teams from burning out. 

Managers can help to improve staff morale by increasing the frequency of communication to ensure multiple daily interactions with agents. Despite today’s unexpected circumstances, using automation to boost interaction and engagement can enable agents to succeed.

Driving Value

Workforce automation is also a vital tool to push cost-savings to the bottom line during this pandemic. The crisis has forced companies to shift agents remotely—with the need to ensure that, despite the isolated nature of their new environment, there was no lag in productivity. With well-established WFA software, managers can know that handle times are in check and agents are logging on for their remote shifts. WFA monitors call volume in real-time. Any adjustments to staffing can occur automatically without manager intervention due to predetermined rules.

Automation supports the role of the manager, which frees them to focus on more strategic initiatives. They can prioritize the well-being of the agent and concentrate on coaching and engagement. This is a sustainable option to ensure consistent performance and productivity, regardless of external variables.

Many companies have been late to make these needed adjustments. They are playing catch-up in terms of their contact centers in the face of coronavirus concerns. But it isn’t too late to adopt workforce automation to combat the uncertainties of the pandemic and supplement the work of agents and managers. 

A survey revealed that 55 percent of industry professionals believe a remote workforce will become permanent within the contact center operations. This means that organizations should view the current operational landscape as the inflection point toward a future of remote work and look to automation as a catalyst for enhanced operations and happier agents.

Matt McConnell is the chairman, president, and CEO of Intradiem.

Agents Working from a Kitchen Table—What Could Go Wrong?



By Michael Frendo

Remote contact center agents who work from home were already a growing trend in our industry before COVID-19, but the pandemic accelerated that trend as social-distancing mandates prevented employees from working in centralized call centers. There are incredible stories about how quickly and deftly contact centers made the transition to work-from-home settings, with organizations redeploying their teams and the IT systems for remote work in a matter of days and even hours. Seemingly overnight (and often literally overnight), organizations went from having some remote agents or no remote agents to a 100 percent remote contact center workforce.

Accelerating toward a New Normal

This is a pivotal moment in the industry because COVID-19 fast-tracked a shift that was already growing. The industry will never fully go back to the centralized model that dominated before. There are simply too many factors that make a work-from-home model a sensible one for a far greater percentage of contact center workers than in the pre-COVID-19 era. 

When a remote contact center worker steps away from their laptop, who else can see the screen and view confidential customer or patient data? Click To Tweet

One factor is simply the excessive cost of building out and operating contact center space. These are high-cost environments, and each seat comes with a price tag that every call center manager knows all too well. The cost model for remote workers is dramatically lower. Organizations looking to reduce costs will be hard-pressed to ignore that difference. 

Another major factor that means the work-from-home model is here to stay is the accelerating use of gig workers for contact center work. Gig workers supply a flexible workforce: they are purely remote workers who never set foot in a contact center setting. This trend alone is shifting the balance of the industry’s workforce away from a centralized environment.

Work from Home Concerns

For these reasons, a significant percentage of the industry’s workforce will continue to work from home, and that percentage will continue to grow over time. It makes too much economic and operational sense, but there is a catch. There are thorny security and confidentiality issues with this model, particularly for industries that must follow regulations such as HIPAA, PCI, and other mandates. 

When a remote contact center worker steps away from their laptop, who else can see the screen and view confidential customer or patient data? Who else has access to that system? Is the remote worker following best practices to protect that information? Even in the controlled environment of a centralized contact center, protecting that data is a challenge. The dangers only multiply in a remote setting.

The industry has done its best to mitigate these risks with processes and point solutions that bolster security and confidentiality. These, however, are superficial fixes that don’t truly solve the problem. They also happen to annoy customers and make agents far less productive. 

An Identity Crisis

The problem is that our industry has been treating the symptoms rather than the underlying issue. This fundamental concern is a lack of trust in the identity of customers. In an electronic world, how can you verify that the person you are about to give contact support to is truly who they claim to be? This identity problem affects every aspect of data center operations. It drives the need for complex security processes that make customer interactions longer and more costly. 

This provides a poor caller experience. It makes deploying remote workers chancy and adds risk to the investments companies make to try to shore up the remote work scenarios. This creates an unacceptable amount of customer friction, which call centers try to counteract by accepting far more fraud than they otherwise would. It is not just an identity problem. Given how much it costs our industry, it is a full-blown identity crisis.

A series of technology advancements are converging at the same time to finally make it possible to address the underlying identity issue. Collectively, these technologies take the burden of identity verification off of contact center agents by shifting that responsibility to an integrated combination of biometrics, voice recognition systems, zero knowledge networks, and other technologies that authenticate identity in ways that are far more accurate than social security numbers and mothers’ maiden names. 

Combining Technologies

Each of these technologies is reaching maturity at an opportune time for this shift in the contact center industry. You may know about many of these technologies individually—or even taken part in pilot projects to deploy them—but the real impact comes in combining them. They are greater than the sum of their parts, and they solve in a fundamental way the identity crisis by providing instantaneous verification of a customer’s identity without the need for agents to actually see any private information about the customer.

This combination of technologies gives the agent an assurance that customer is who he or she claims to be, and it frees the agent to focus on providing customer support without the need for any of the traditional security questions. This is a major leap forward in security and confidentiality for workers in a call center setting, but it is a true game changer for remote agents.

 Companies using remote agents would no longer need to worry about that confidential information appearing on a remote worker’s screen. Solving the identity problem eliminates all these privacy and confidentiality risks of remote work scenarios.

Outcomes

It’s important to note that there are significant benefits to this beyond just making remote work settings more secure. With trusted identity, contact centers can solve the no-win trade-off they have been making for decades between fraud prevention and serving customers without irritating them. 

Customer interactions are secure and confidential without elaborate and annoying security processes. This allows for faster resolution to customer inquiries, which is critical in a business where time is money. 

In one large contact center, every second saved on a customer service interaction reduced the need for forty agents across their contact centers. That means every minute they shaved from interactions reduced the need for 2,400 agents. That’s a tremendous cost savings. Better identity verification also has the benefit of reducing the amount of fraud, which businesses reluctantly accept to keep customer friction at a tolerable level for customers.

Summary

The industry has been treating the symptoms of ineffective identity verification for far too long. Our industry is finally at a place where technologies are giving us a way to truly solve the underlying issue, and it is coming at a time when the shift to remote work makes this more important than ever.

Michael Frendo is the CTO of Journey, whose trusted identity platform solves digital identity issues from the network up throughout the complete user journey. He founded the influential VoIP Forum. Michael earned a PhD in electrical engineering from McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada.

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.