Tag Archives: Managing Call Center Agents

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.

Three Ways for Contact Centers to Maintain Post-Holiday Momentum



By Ben Bekhor

For retailers and contact centers, the holiday season doesn’t end January 1. The fact is, post-holiday sales, gift returns and exchanges, and questions about setting up new devices, toys, furniture, and more keep customer experience (CX) centers humming well into the new year.

Combined with the wide plethora of digital options consumers have to connect with brands (including in-app messaging, social media chatbots, voice assistants, and more), contact centers can expect a higher-than-average number of consumer touch points during the post-holiday season.

The challenge is keeping employees motivated and engaged once the holidays are over, which is critical when you consider the steady rate of low unemployment and resulting labor shortage. In truth, it’s a challenge contact centers need to address proactively if they want to retain the top talent they worked so hard to win ahead of the holiday season.It’s important that contact centers endeavor to make CX agents feel they can share in their employer’s successes and reap the rewards of their labor Click To Tweet

While wages are always an important contributing factor to employee happiness and retention, the fact is there are multiple avenues through which contact centers, and the brands they represent, can boost employee satisfaction year-round. Options include continuous learning, alternative pay options, and long-term incentives.

Here are three ways contact centers can look beyond wages to retain top talent and keep post-holiday momentum alive:

Invest in Growth for Lasting Engagement

Learning and development (L&D) is one of the primary benefits applicants seek when evaluating a potential employer. However, more than half of companies do not have L&D programs in place to train workers for skills of the future. This naturally sets in motion fears and rumors of job automation and displacement. However, artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to create more jobs (133 million by 2022) than it’s poised to displace (75 million by 2025).

The post-holiday season is the perfect opportunity for contact centers to skill up employees to work alongside AI-driven tools—chatbots, voice assistants, or automated texting—if they want to stay relevant, maintain a highly skilled workforce, and beat out competitors. Walmart, for example, has invested nearly $3 billion in training, education, and higher wages. Their training programs boast a strong focus on technology, as well as a blend of traditional classroom learning with experiential, on-the-job training. As the nation’s largest employer, this means providing hundreds of thousands of US employees with skills they might not have acquired otherwise.

Contact centers may also consider offering continuous learning opportunities in the form of massive open online courses, which offer instruction on a wide variety of subjects such as coding, business management, and languages. These enable CX agents to stay engaged in their day-to-day tasks while improving skills in areas that foster their long-term growth within CX. Additionally, L&D offerings create an opportunity for agents to grow into promotions (and, inherently, higher wages), which in turn allow contact centers to benefit from a more professionally driven and motivated staff.

Prioritize the Perks That Matter to Individuals

While high-profile brands such as Amazon and Disney are paving the path for even more competitive hourly wages for customer service representatives, contact centers might consider offering alternative pay options to retain top talent—either instead of or in addition to increased wages.

Perks and benefits most sought after by employees include flexible hours or remote work options—favored by 38 percent of employees according to a recent survey by beqom; incentivized bonuses, such as more paid time off or cash prizes as the result of high resolution numbers (that is, resolved inquiries); and personalized benefits, which enable employees to better achieve work-life balance, such as on-site childcare, fitness reimbursements, or tuition assistance.

What’s key is for contact centers to leverage relevant employee data (ascertained through AI-driven compensation management platforms, or even employee surveys) about the types of benefits that would most support employees’ individual needs and, as a result, help to ensure their long-term employment. Remember that people are interested in certain benefits at different stages of life. For example, a Gen Z employee might appreciate tuition assistance as part of their compensation package, whereas a late-millennial might be more geared toward higher 401(k) matches.

Consider Long-Term Incentives for Loyalty

Contact centers that want to retain workers and keep them motivated long-term should explore long-term incentives (LTIs). Sweetening 401(k) plans with higher matches or increased vesting over time, as well as profit sharing or deferred cash, can be critical to ensuring the longevity of top talent. What’s more, employees will have the incentive to stay if they feel their employer has their long-term financial security at heart.

LTIs also incentivize employees to focus on (and hopefully surpass) specific performance goals. For example, profit sharing might be a benefit exclusive to employees that exceed performance metrics, while sabbatical programs might only become available to employees after they’ve achieved a certain status or worked a certain number of years at their contact center. The goal of LTIs in terms of achieving employee retention is to align employee needs with the contact center’s expectations for individual job performance so employees feel that they are recognized and valued contributors to their contact center’s success.

These strategies to foster growth, personal balance, and long-term financial security are three easy methods for contact centers to leverage year-round, but they are critical steps to deploy when employee motivation slumps after the busy holiday season. When it comes to incentivizing workers to maintain productivity after January 1, it’s important that contact centers endeavor to make CX agents feel they can share in their employer’s successes and reap the rewards of their labor. Doing so helps contact centers retain the top talent they need to make the post-holiday season a success and grow a dedicated, motivated, and high-performing staff for many years to come.

Ben Bekhor serves as vice president, human resources, Americas for Sitel Group, a leader in the delivery of traditional and transformational customer experience management—business process outsourcing (BPO). Bekhor oversees all aspects of HR operations for the US, Canada, Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, and Colombia, including compensation and benefits, talent acquisition, talent management, and learning and development.

Important Forecasting Considerations for Inbound Contact Solutions



By Rich Hamilton

The heart and soul of most companies is their inbound contact solutions operation (their inbound call center, including voice, email, text, and chat). This vital department within an organization has an opportunity to get key customer insights, and the call center interactions often make or break the customer relationship.

Have you ever sat on hold, trying to get through to a company, and finally gave up, never to interact with that company again? Making sure your inbound contact solutions operation is properly staffed is important. Whether this is a first impression or an angry customer giving the company one last chance, each inbound contact is vital.

Forecasting call volumes and appropriate staffing and scheduling is critical. Keep in mind that there are some sophisticated algorithms used to forecast call volume and the needed workforce to answer those calls. I’ll focus more on the data that needs to be considered. Here are the key data points used for forecasting and scheduling: call volume, average handle time, absenteeism, service levels, and occupancy rates.

Now that we have listed the key data points, let’s break these down and look at a few other considerations for workforce forecasting and planning for any inbound call center operation.

Historical Data

Data is king. The best place to start is with data from the past. The more data you can get your hands on, the better. The key metrics to focus on are call volume and average handle time. Look at these metrics by day, week, month, and time of day. If possible, instead of just looking at the last couple of months, consider the same period over the last several years. This especially will be helpful in industries where there are seasonal call volume changes (think Christmastime for anyone selling consumer products).

Looking at call volume and average handle time will give a good picture of the number of FTEs you’ll need in your inbound contact solution. This will get you about 80 percent there.

Don’t forget to look at absenteeism. You will need to know what percentage of your workforce may call out sick on a given day. This can be hard to forecast, but with enough data at least you can forecast more precisely. For example, let’s say your call center needs to staff twenty FTEs for Monday. Based on your absenteeism, historically one person calls out sick on Mondays. Wouldn’t it be prudent to schedule twenty-one FTEs on Monday, so that when the one person calls out sick, you still have the right number of call agents to handle the expected call volume?

There are still a few more factors we need to consider to get the whole picture, which we will discuss in the following sections.The heart and soul of most companies is their inbound contact solutions operation (their inbound call center, including voice, email, text, and chat). Click To Tweet

Future Events

Not only do you need to look at metrics from the past, but you also need to look at any events happening in the future that are out of the ordinary.

Marketing and Company Initiatives

The marketing department might plan to send out an email announcing a new product or a new promotion that they predict will increase call volume.

Weather

This one is tougher, but it could affect you in a couple different ways. One would be if your industry relies on the weather. Maybe there will be extra snow forecasted over the next month, and your call center takes ski resort reservations.

The other way is how it affects your employees. Increased snow may mean your absenteeism will be higher than normal, so schedule more employees to cover all the inbound calls.

Other Events

These events could be specific to an industry or a specific group of industries and the amount of calls the call center will receive. It might be a new federal law that affects a certain industry and the volume of calls they will receive. For example, when HIPAA was first implemented, healthcare providers received more calls, and the calls were longer than normal.

Management Expectations

Each call center has specific metrics from management that need to be adhered to. These metrics might include service levels (the percentage of calls to be answered within X amount of time) and occupancy rates (the percentage of time actively working on calls, including talk time and after-call work time). The higher the service level required, the more call center agents needed to answer phone calls. Higher occupancy levels mean you won’t need as many call center agents, but it also means agents will burn out faster, and sometimes it is difficult to achieve higher occupancy levels and higher service levels if the call volumes aren’t consistent.

But you’re still not done. Here are some more considerations to keep in mind as you identify the inputs for forecasting and scheduling for your contact solutions operation.

Human Resources Policies

HR policies concerning required break times and lunchtimes will impact your workforce management and scheduling plan. Obviously, there is a huge difference in scheduling when a call center agent has a thirty-minute lunch versus a sixty-minute lunch. Other HR policies could include union rules that dictate start and stop times for shifts, and possibly when the breaks would need to occur (after so many hours of work).

Agent Skills

If your call center has multiple departments, this adds another level of complexity. Calculating call volume and average handle time, along with the other considerations, will have to be done for each department because the skill required will vary most times from department to department.

When scheduling, it’s good to know which call center agents are cross-trained. I’m not saying that you can count a call center agent for both departments if they are trained for both, but at times when one department is slow, and another is busy, knowing that a few agents can help with the overflow is helpful.

Forecast and Workforce Management Resources

Typically, the larger the organization, the larger the budget for workforce management software and systems. Smaller inbound contact solutions operations typically get by with spreadsheets.

Conclusion

Whether you have access to sophisticated forecasting and workforce management software or you’re working with Excel spreadsheets, you’ll find this aspect of the business is equal parts math and art. In my organization, we often gain a little more flexibility by adding some outbound calls into the queue. This helps justify more staffing while getting a higher occupancy rate.

 

Rich Hamilton is the director of marketing and product development for Quality Contact Solutions, a leading outsourced telemarketing organization. Rich works to bring new products to the teleservices and call center market. In addition, Rich is a telemarketing compliance guru with a Customer Engagement Compliance Professional (CECP) certification. Contact him at rich.hamilton@qualitycontactsolutions.com or 516-656-5105.

Need Responsive, Fast-Flex Customer Service?



Get Real with On-Demand, Virtual Contact Center Solutions

By Kim Houlne

Forget real time. Business today runs on get-real time. Enabled by in-the-moment experiences. Catering to rising consumer expectations. To remain relevant, companies require fast-flex service and responsive customer care.

Contact centers operate within this immediacy and expectancy—some with limitations. For instance, brick-and-mortar call centers are restricted by square footage and number of seats. Available talent is confined to local ZIP codes. And at times these centers find themselves in harm’s way when hurricanes or blizzards blow through.

By contrast, virtual contact centers are mobile and move with the business. As demand fluctuates, they turn ever-ready expertise on or off from anywhere, accommodating upticks and downturns. More fluid, these remote resources often are outsourced as stand-alone operations or auxiliary workforces to in-house teams.Extending the brand with qualified customer reps who get it. Got it. And that’s good for clients and their customers. Click To Tweet

Get It? Got it. Good.

With contracted agents on the job and in reserve, work can shift as seasons change, market trends rise and fall, and unforeseen circumstances dictate. By itself, being virtual isn’t enough, however.

Success relies on proven, on-demand processes—from recruiting to onboarding to agent development—and a steady supply of quality reps to sustain performance. Needed are industry-skilled agents who are quick studies and think fast, with rapid-fire service that’s right out of the movies. Like this:

Customer: “I’d like to get in, get on with it, get it over with, and get out. Get it?”

Agent: “Got it.”

Customer: “Good.”

Get Real

Those lines, taken from the classic Danny Kaye film, Court Jester, exemplify the essence of stellar service: delivered promptly, as expected. For contact center clients, the get it?—got it—good, or G³, approach, is as strategic as it is well-timed for their customers. This means quick-turn solutions supplied by agile agents.

Such an on-demand model reduces overhead, eliminates capital expenses, and elevates service. Unlimited in scope, agents scale up or down for everyday operations, seasonal surges, and long-range projects.

The question is: How does a business achieve such workforce flexibility and responsiveness? One answer: Outsource with an on-demand contact service provider with the wherewithal to get real.

To be sure, this requires due diligence to get, if not guarantee, a good return on investment (ROI). Clients should do vetting up front to ensure that the service provider has the means and motivation to:

  • Recruit and retain remote agents with coveted skills
  • Immerse them in a client’s culture, business, and brand
  • Invest in their ongoing development for long-term ROI

Pay the Price—Now or Later

What it comes down to is whether a service provider looks at agents as an investment in a client’s success or merely sees them as a business expense to be passed on. Whatever the perception, outcomes will reflect the level of commitment and customer satisfaction scores.

Consider this: IBM Watson reports that “the overall turnover rate for the call center industry is between 30–45 percent, and each individual turnover can cost a company upwards of $6,440.” Now, let’s multiply it out, with 100 agents on an account. A 30 to 45 percent attrition rate adds up to $193,200 to $289,800. Gone.

That’s a three-way loss: wasted money, high attrition, and sullied service. The provider, client, and its customers all lose.

An Investment, Not an Expense

Regardless of how much self-service automation occurs, high-quality agents remain core to contact center services. Why? Because customers want to talk with agents to resolve problems too complex for chatbots. So, to avoid double-digit turnover and poor service, doesn’t it make good sense and ROI to value agents?

Virtual contact center operators know that remote agents, as independent contractors, work where they want. Their skills are in demand, just like the on-demand services they provide. That’s a given in the gig economy.

So the best working relationship, then, should be quid quo pro—with benefits shared among the provider, agents, and clients alike.

A high-functioning, on-demand workforce takes three things:

  1. A caring culture to attract the best agent applicants
  2. Know-how to educate and engage agents in a client’s business
  3. Ongoing investment to retain agents and build client relationships

Caring Culture Connects

These days, with record low unemployment and savvy digital workers, a low-scoring workplace—be it virtual or brick-and-mortar—probably is at a loss to find and keep talent. If a company doesn’t care, why even apply, much less stay?

Look no further than the jobsite Glassdoor, where employees and contractors rate companies and their leaders. Not only are those reviews read by job applicants, they’re also scanned by would-be clients wanting contact center services.

Face it: if workers aren’t happy, it’s a good bet they won’t be pleasing a client’s customers. That’s why a worthwhile work environment, especially a remote one, needs intelligence on three levels: emotional intelligence complemented by artificial intelligence and intelligent agents—or I³.

G³ * I³ = (G * I)³

Together they equal customer service, which is essential.

Becoming the Client Brand

When a company outsources, it entrusts not only customer service, but its entire brand to a contact center provider. As such, agents need to be immersed in the culture and business—becoming the brand.

Brick-and-mortar call centers normally have subject-matter experts who onboard agents. That’s okay, within limits. Usually it involves one-way classroom lectures or repetitive webinars. At best, by-rote instruction creates a workforce of automaton agents, whose knowledge extends only as far as the lessons taught.

Interactive by design, a virtual contact center classroom goes further to do more. Here, teaching is led by degreed educators who adapt a client’s training to an online education platform, such as Canvas, a learning management system.

To engage agents, curriculum is broken down into micro-learning (PowToon), interactive experiences (Umu), or gamification (educaplay). The result is agents who role-play real-life, customer situations and don’t parrot canned responses by rote.

Investing for the Long Term

Client services and products continually change. Upgrades occur. New products are introduced. Add to them e-commerce that accelerates every aspect of business. Contact center agents must evolve with these changes, if not anticipate them.

Continuing education, complemented by an agent community website, are essential for ongoing development. Remember that $6,440 turnover cost per agent? Odds are the agents who left were given short shrift or felt adrift after their initial onboarding. And bye-bye is the by-product.

High agent attrition atrophies any business. So, when contracting contact center service providers, ask them: “What’s your retention rate?” Three years is a good average. The best contact service providers have agent tenure ranging up to five, ten, and even fifteen years. Clearly, they invest in agents for the long term.

In the end, outsourcing contact services isn’t about adding bodies—be they brick-and-mortar or remote. It’s about extending the brand with qualified customer reps who get it. Got it. And that’s good for clients and their customers.

Kim Houlne, CEO and president of Working Solutions, pioneered virtual contact center services in 1996.  Before founding the company, she held senior management positions in consulting. A graduate of the University of Georgia, she delivered a 2016 graduation keynote address

Can’t We All Just Get Along?



By Sherry Gouel

Hiring the right person for a job is one of the most difficult tasks business owners face. There are so many factors to consider: experience, reliability, work ethic, honesty, professionalism, and the list goes on. Adding the wrong person to your team can be detrimental to the daily work environment, but it’s not really possible to predict if a candidate will work out.

There is another important question to keep in mind during an interview. Besides work skills, does this candidate have people skills? It’s one thing to complete a task well, but can this person work with others?

As with any new job, there is always a training period. A worker can eventually learn the necessary skills to accomplish their work, but if they don’t get along with their coworkers, it will affect the mood around the office. Call center agents must be team players, and tension between workers has a negative effect on the office atmosphere. Having staff that gets along and works well together reflect well on the business and how clients are treated. Having staff that gets along and works well together reflect well on the business and how clients are treated. Click To Tweet

Inclusiveness is an important factor in the workplace. An employee can be great at their job, be punctual, professional, and reliable, but if they cannot integrate with coworkers and be part of the team, it’s unlikely their employment will last. We’ve all met someone that for inexplicable reasons we cannot connect with. We might say, “They just rubbed me the wrong way” or “Their attitude just irritates me.” First impressions happen quickly and are difficult to change. We don’t set out to feel negatively about anyone, but it’s difficult to change our minds about our initial dislike. We tend to avoid this person and make no effort to give them a chance to prove themselves differently.

This lack of connection is difficult to change. It’s best to be proactive by looking for initial signs of friction during the interview rather than finding out a month after hiring them. Getting staff members involved in the interviewing process may help reduce future problems by testing the dynamics between existing staff and new additions. This doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be problems, but it may detect tension that could cause problems.

While no one knows if the candidate will be the right fit, there are a few things that can help. First have a list of questions to ask. Then, keep in mind that while part of the interview process is determining how comfortable and confident you feel talking to this candidate, you aren’t the only one that should be doing the interviewing.

Have existing staff join in to see how they relate to the candidate. It is often during small talk that we get to know and connect with another person. Following the interview, ask your staff how they felt about the interviewee; listen to their feedback and read between the lines. If you’ve narrowed down your choice to a few people, have your staff weigh in on this decision. It will hold them partially accountable in making sure this person gets the proper training and helping them to succeed.

Imagine a different scenario if your staff is not included in the hiring process and the new employee either lacks the people skills or doesn’t connect with coworkers. Will there be any effort to help the new worker feel part of the team? On the contrary—they may do things to exclude or alienate the new employee, hoping to make them quit. Losing employees and having to hire new ones comes with a cost.

If including staff members in the interview process is difficult, then extend the interview time by showing the candidate around the office. Stop at a few stations and allow some of your staff to show the candidate what the job consists of. All it takes is a few minutes of interaction to allow your staff the chance to meet the potential candidate and have a say in the hiring.

No one can predict whether a newly hired worker will be the right candidate, but these steps can better the chances. While a recruit may appear perfect on paper, remember that compatibility with the existing staff is just as important.

Sherry Gouel handles sales and marketing support for Szeto Technologies.

Lead Your Team to Success



By Elizabeth McCormick

Whatever the project or initiative, a successful outcome requires focused leadership. Here are five tips to assure that your leadership and team directives match the result you envision.Who does your project most affect, and who needs to know about the progress? Click To Tweet

1. Know Your Destination: When you begin with the end in mind, you have a distinctive vision of your desired direction and destination before instructing your team to launch. It doesn’t matter how big or small your project is. If the direction, intention, or desired outcome isn’t clear, it will be tough to move your team to your goal. Assume nothing, clarify everything, and have it in writing. If some aspect is open to interpretation, close that loophole, or better yet, ask your team to contribute to the ownership of the project by being open to their quest for clarity.

2. Engage Your Team: Once you have communicated the objectives to your team, start by having team members restate the goals and desired outcomes in their own words. Confirm and clarify often. This naturally highlights any variance between intention and perception. You can also use this opportunity to start fleshing out the project, brainstorming with the team, and adding detail to the project. This will help jumpstart the comradery as your group begins working together as a team toward a common goal. It will also enhance the collaboration necessary to ensure that proper communication can take place from beginning to end.

3. Plan Your Work and Work Your Plan: Once everyone is on board and the team is headed in the right direction, be sure you have established the proper safety devices, benchmarks, and signposts for you and your team, so that if there is any drifting off course, it will be recognized and realigned quickly without much time or effort wasted. Make sure work is broken down into manageable, measurable, short-term goals to aid in motivation and increase productivity. Work organized into logical segments also aids focus and self-management of direction.

Complex projects lend themselves to digressions and diversions. Spelling out where you should be, and when, keeps efforts centered on the essential goals originally intended.

Another way to encourage motivation and productivity is to take the time to get to know your team and their strengths. Don’t randomly dole out tasks; be strategic in aligning tasks with specific gifts and skills, allowing team members to take control of their part of the project.

4. Own Your Results: As a leader, it’s your attitude, stamina, direction, commitment to the project, and work ethic that establishes the environment and culture of your team, as well as the success of your project. If you are unclear of your destination, you can be sure your team will have a tough time understanding the purpose of the project and the direction you are trying to communicate.

One of the biggest reasons people drift, get distracted, and are taken off task is that the purpose for their assignment isn’t strong enough to keep them engaged. If this is happening, recognize it and take some time to clarify your purpose and destination. Then let your team know you wish to communicate better as you share your vision more clearly and effectively with everyone involved.

Sometimes the best of plans don’t achieve the intended results. It happens. Maybe it was due to misinformation, miscommunication, not enough research, too many agendas, a drastic change in the economy, or an unexpected shift in trends, to name some of the ever-changing facets of being a leader in business.

Regardless of why it happened, own the results. Empower your team to help you assess what went wrong, develop the proper benchmarks and guardrails to prevent that from happening again, and then map out a new plan.

5. Share Your Progress: For most people there’s (hopefully) an effective boss who helps ensure that there are proper reports on progress, with the responsibility to follow up. What happens, though, when you’re the boss? Who does your project most affect, and who needs to know about the progress of your company, your goals, and your overall destination? Stakeholders? Staff? Clients? Other departments?

Regardless of who your project affects most, it is important to communicate, collaborate, and share your progress. Your strategic plan very well could be a thing of beauty, worthy of a business textbook. The marketing department, however, may have new information that invalidates an initial premise or puts your data out of date. Informing them only at completion risks the success of your entire project. Or your biggest clients may be ready to sell their business and retire, which now means your project is underfunded.

Include progress updates to those your plans will impact, so that changes can be incorporated along the way. Sure, detours are inconvenient, but navigating them minimizes backtracking and maximizes the effectiveness of your efforts.

Successful Outcomes:

With the direction of your project embedded in the planning and with contingencies made for changing conditions, you’ll soon see that the extra work in project planning serves to increase productivity. When the path is clear, your direction is plotted, and your plan is in place. You and your team can achieve success.

Elizabeth McCormick is a keynote speaker specializing in leadership, sales, and safety presentations. She is a former US Army Black Hawk pilot and the author of The P.I.L.O.T. Method: The 5 Elemental Truths to Leading Yourself in Life! For more information, please visit www.yourinspirationalspeaker.com

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



By Tony Medrano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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