Tag Archives: Managing Call Center Agents

How to Keep Remote Agents Engaged

By Jennifer Lee 

In 2020 BP (Before Pandemic), contact center agents typically spent their days navigating between upset customers and harried supervisors. Stress was often high, but the supporting structures of office and colleagues in proximity usually made it manageable. Then the pandemic sent agents home to work, cutting off those vital support structures.

The good news is that intelligent automation technology was already proving effective at helping customer service centers increase engagement, reduce costs, and boost productivity. The better news is that it also provides the connection, camaraderie, and shared culture that agents need to stay engaged while working remotely.

Connection: Teamwork Starts Here

There’s certainly some truth to the notion that “people quit their bosses, not their jobs.” But those bosses are not always to blame. Often, they’re just overwhelmed, and simply unable to avoid passing some of their burden on to agents.

Manual execution of repetitive tasks is a big part of the problem, eating up time that could otherwise go for training and coaching, which not only improve agents’ skills but also nourish the vital connection between agents and supervisors. But when call volume spikes, training and coaching are quickly put aside. This can leave agents feeling like their professional development is not a company priority, which may in turn cause them to disengage from their work. The complexity of scheduling training and coaching in the context of unpredictable shifts in service-level demands got a lot more difficult with the addition of a remote workforce into the mix.

Intelligent automation attacks this problem from two angles: First, automating time-consuming, repetitive tasks yields back time that agents can dedicate to customer service, or to training. Second, an AI-based solution able to process millions of data points can detect idle agents or a dip in calling demand in real time, and immediately deliver offers to complete training or coaching opportunities. This helps maintain the vital connection between agents and supervisors even when they don’t share an office. 

Camaraderie: We Are Family

A shared sense that “we’re all in this together” has always been a useful antidote to the unrelenting pressures of call center work, especially for extroverted agents who thrive on personal contact. In the office, physical proximity made it possible for agents to compare notes and share stories with each other, or for supervisors to detect troubled agents and call team huddles to correct personal or process problems that arose. But that’s impossible when the whole team is working remotely. 

An AI-based, intelligent automation solution—integrated with ACD and WFM systems and able to monitor activity in real time—can quickly identify struggling or idle agents and send offers of assistance, training, or other ways to reestablish occupancy. Armed with real-time visibility into call flow and agent activity, supervisors are free to focus more on the human side of being team leaders. When supervisors and agents engage each other as human beings, it strengthens their shared commitment to working together to deliver the high-level service that customers demand.

Culture: Appreciation Creates a Virtuous Circle

Customers demand a lot, and agents get an earful whenever a customer feels poorly served. That’s not fair—the problem is seldom within the agent’s control. To counteract agents’ exposure to the wrath of unhappy customers, companies need to cultivate a culture of appreciation in their customer service departments. Sending messages of recognition for a job well done, birthday wishes, or offers to leave early when call volume falls off reminds agents that they’re valued as people as well as agents. This contributes to their sense of belonging, which in turn deepens their commitment, which in turn results in better customer service. And around and around.

Intelligent automation encourages this virtuous circle. An AI-based solution, monitoring activity in real time, provides a dashboard of relevant stats—agent performance, relative seniority, and call volume—that helps supervisors guide distribution of the personal, morale-boosting messages mentioned above. 

Conclusion

Agents are often the face (voice, really) of a business, interacting directly with customers who are rarely calling to give a compliment. Anybody can have a difficult day or moment, but when an agent does, it may cost a business a customer for life. And thanks to social media, that negative impression can be amplified further and faster than ever before.

A contact center agent’s job was already stressful, and the shift to remote work has removed the connection, camaraderie, and office culture that helped make that stress bearable. But intelligent automation technology reestablishes these vital links and enables customer service departments to thrive in the post-pandemic business world.

Jennifer Lee is the chief strategy officer at Intradiem.

Paying Attention to Agent Well-Being Will Improve Your Brand



By Donna Fluss

The pandemic has had a dramatic impact on contact centers, most of it positive. As described in DMG’s new report, Contact Centers in a Post-Pandemic World: A Strategic and Tactical Guide to the Future, COVID-19 has accelerated digital transformation by two to six years. This is driving major upgrades and enhancements in existing operating systems, expansion of digital channel support, a self-service replacement cycle, as well as investments in new artificial intelligence (AI) and automation-enabled applications. All these activities were long overdue for contact centers and, if executed properly, should enhance the customer and agent experience and improve productivity.

An Agent Perspective 

The pandemic is also driving enterprise and contact center executives to consider the ramifications on agents of having to deal with consumers. While, in general, customers are pleasant or at least civil, the negative conversations (both voice and digital) take a toll on agents. Studies show that in normal times, fewer than 5 percent of interactions are difficult, but in troubling times, like during a pandemic, the percentage is much higher. 

The degree of difficulty in handling live interactions with customers varies based on many factors, but the challenge is incredibly significant when an agent cannot do anything to fix a situation. This occurs when an agent must uphold a company policy that they agree is outdated or unfair. Another scenario occurs when a customer, mistreated by someone else in the company, takes out their frustration on the agent. Or when a customer experiences something traumatic that they dump on an agent, just to mention a few common scenarios. I have joked for years that contact centers double as free counseling centers. Unfortunately, it’s not funny for the agents who must deal with these tough situations. 

Sure, training can help agents handle tough situations, but agents are human, and it’s going to impact them. Many an agent will talk about how one bad customer ruined their day. And since agents cannot take a break after a difficult experience (because they typically must wait until their scheduled break time), it often carries over into their subsequent inquiries, which is not pleasant for the agent or their customers. 

It’s tough to be a contact center agent. While striving to deal effectively with consumers, management often pushes them to reduce their average handle time, which doesn’t allow them to show the empathy that most of them would, if they had the time. And when not encouraged to shorten interactions, an alternate expectation is to sell additional products and services, even when they know customers are not interested. 

Agents must know the details of dozens of products and services and navigate anywhere from a few to over fifty operating systems while managing interactions within tight time frames. It often requires them to stay at their desks except for three times during the day: their scheduled lunch and two breaks. And they earn the lowest rate of any employee in many companies. The question is what companies should do to address this situation. 

Positive Changes

The good news is that enterprise leadership is finally acknowledging the challenges of being a contact center agent, and we can thank the COVID-19 crisis for these insights. During the pandemic, contact center agents were the first responders and, for a time, may have been the only responders in some organizations. Agents all over the world demonstrated their agility and mettle in dealing with extremely stressful situations while keeping their own emotions and concerns under control. 

It’s great that executives are finally recognizing the amazing contributions contact center agents make to their companies, but this recognition needs to translate into action if companies want to retain these highly valuable employees. Companies should re-evaluate and increase the salary structure for their agents to pay them fairly for the work they do. 

Contact centers should give their supervisors the time they need to be available to assist, coach, and encourage their agents, instead of pulling them for projects and reporting. Invite agents to select training and coaching sessions in addition to the courses assigned to them by quality monitoring systems.

Contact centers should transform their agent evaluations and scorecards to measure what matters most, which should not be average handle time and the number of transactions per day. Last, elevate the overall agent role, as these employees have one of the broadest bases of knowledge in a company, which if given the opportunity, could effectively work in other parts of the organization. 

Conclusion

Contact centers should be employers of choice, and it’s time for enterprise executives to make this happen, for the benefit of their employees, customers, and the bottom line. 

Donna Fluss (donna.fluss@dmgconsult.com) is the president of DMG Consulting, a provider of contact center and back-office market research and consulting services. 

2020 Contact Center Retrospective

By Donna Fluss

What an amazing year 2020 was. We’ve never seen anything like it and hope we won’t again. Despite all the challenges, a lot of good things happened, including in the world of contact center. Here are six positive mega trends that emerged during the dark hours of the pandemic. All these developments are here to stay and will continue to play a key role in contact centers for the near future:

1. Work-from Home

When the pandemic hit country after country, many companies were ordered by their governments to close their offices. Contact centers were some of the most successful in getting their employees home and back to work. Contact centers all over the world, those with anywhere from ten to thousands of agents, demonstrated their flexibility and agility, along with the amazing commitment of their employees by being there for their customers.

2. Shift from Traditional Retail to Ecommerce

The world has gone virtual. Anything that can be done virtually, including things most people thought highly unlikely, like doctor’s appointments, has moved to the web or video. The need to socially distance has driven people and organizations to be highly creative as they figured out how to make the best out of demanding situations. 

Retail organizations have taken a major hit. Many retailers, particularly those that could not respond quickly enough to the increasingly virtual world, have gone bankrupt. Store traffic is down and unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels for years. The transition to the web is not unexpected, but the demise of many of the traditional retailers was accelerated by the pandemic. 

3. Digital Transformation

After years of talking about digital transformations, companies are being forced to do what they should have done years ago. They are building out digital channels to address the needs of their customers. Though consumers are expressing an increasing preference for interacting in these channels, voice calls are not going away. However, they are increasingly viewed as the channel of last resort. Digital transformations are proving highly beneficial for customers, companies, and their employees. 

4. Artificial Intelligence-based Self-Service Capabilities

Self-service has become the channel of choice for customers in many countries, as surprising as it seems. Customers increasingly prefer to interact with effective self-service solutions that allow them to take care of their business without the assistance of live agents. 

Artificial intelligence (AI)-based conversational systems are automating and speeding up the handling of all kinds of interactions. The key to success, however, remains being able to connect with a live agent, when necessary. 

5. Automation Solutions

Intelligent virtual agents (IVAs), virtual agents (VAs), robotic process automation (RPA), and workflow have emerged as essential enablers for enterprises. These solutions automate activities and tasks that do not require the cognitive capabilities or decision-making intelligence of live employees. These concepts have been around for years, but what is new is the ease with which they can be applied to all types of business challenges. 

These solutions allow companies and government agencies to reduce dependence on outsourcers by eliminating the human element in low-value tasks previously handled by mostly low-wage workers. The benefits for enterprises are clear, as is the opportunity that these solutions are creating for much higher-level employment opportunities. 

6. Analytics-Enabled Quality Management

After over fifty years of performing quality management (QM) the same way, which was highly people-intensive, even when supported by an application, AI-enabled speech analytics is now able to automate and greatly improve the process. Analytics-Enabled Quality Management (AQM) solutions are game changers for companies. They can now “listen” to 100 percent of their voice and digital interactions to gain an understanding of why people contact them and see which of their automated and live agents are doing a good job in handling the interactions and where changes are needed. 

AQM also reduces dependence on manual QM processes, which have not been effective for the last five-plus years because companies could not afford to properly staff this function as contact volumes increased. AQM was important before the pandemic forced employees’ home to work, and it has become mission-critical for contact center employees and other functions since then. 

Bottom Line

The pandemic has changed the world as we know it, but many of these changes are good and will have positive and lasting benefits for society, companies, customers, and employees. AI and automation are the common themes in these six megatrends. 

The pandemic accelerated their rollout but not their viability. The companies that are going to come out of the pandemic well-positioned to succeed in whatever the new normal looks like are those that are taking the actions needed to move thoughtfully into the digital future.

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 AI-Powered Technologies Can Help Reduce Contact Center Agent Burnout

By Seb Reeve

The global pandemic has put more pressure than ever on every one of us. Healthcare workers face untold challenges in treating patients, and not just those who become sick with COVID-19. Grocery store, delivery, and restaurant workers, now rightfully seen as the essential workers they are, must overcome their own fears and risks as they continue to work through a crisis. Contact center and office workers now work from home, trying to balance the demands of their careers with the demands of their families, many of whom are now schooling from home too. 

And as more consumers shift their typically in-person interactions into more virtual and online spaces, the changes have likewise put more pressure on contact center agents to respond to a rising number of calls in an uncertain environment. Working in these high-stress environments—in combination with longer working hours—means many agents are at risk for burnout.

Burnout Basics

Burnout, according to the Mayo Clinic, is a “special type of work-related stress,” marked by physical and emotional exhaustion, a sense of reduced accomplishment, reduced productivity and effectiveness on the job, and even dramatic consequences for overall health and wellbeing. 

From a business perspective, agent burnout often leads to turnover, which is extraordinarily expensive, often about 20 percent of the employee’s salary. In an industry with turnover ranging from 30-45 percent, preventing burnout is not simply good for people, it’s good for business.

Preventing burnout is incumbent on all of us. It can start with small, people-first strategies, such as encouraging teams to disconnect and recharge, as improving communication and feedback, and managing workloads to ensure they’re within appropriate boundaries. 

Investing in technology platforms can go a long way toward supporting agents and helping to prevent burnout. Providing the tools and technologies that help everyone do their job better will not only optimize employee workloads, but it can also alleviate the stressors that contribute to burnout. It’s also worth considering which technology platforms no longer serve agents or the organizational vision, and instead add unnecessarily to agent workflows on a day-to-day basis.

Technologies That Alleviate Burnout Stressors

Today’s contact centers can choose from a range of technologies that help agents do their jobs better and more efficiently. For example, artificial-intelligence-powered solutions such as virtual assistants can shorten call handling times by engaging a broader audience and answering repetitive questions. With a digital, automated interface, the virtual assistant can engage callers in natural conversation—either via voice or text—to respond to requests and answer questions with personalized responses in a self-service environment. When a live agent is needed, the virtual assistant uses skills-based routing to deliver the caller to the best agent to handle their issue.

Enabling the virtual assistant not only delivers prompt, live assistance to customers, it frees agents to handle the more complex, high-value calls that matter most and are most meaningful.

Similarly, automated customer service messaging platforms can help engage customers, providing immediate answers to their inquiries, again while alleviating the burden on live contact center agents. Proactive notifications built into these platforms can deflect the number of inbound calls to a call center, which has the added benefit of supporting customer service efforts. 

Preventing Burnout

AI-powered technologies also provide the analytics and reporting to improve live engagements and deliver frustration-free customer experiences. Analyzing 100 percent of call center customer interactions provides visibility into trends, outliers, and opportunities to build, train, and coach a high-performing contact center team—one that’s free from many of the stressors that can contribute to burnout. 

Beyond supporting agents with AI-powered technologies and tools that can reduce burnout, these solutions can contribute to a healthier bottom line—from improved customer service and digital experiences to reduced employee turnover. 

Seb Reeve is the Market Development VP at Nuance Communications.

Why Do I Have to Praise Someone for Doing Their Job?

By Liz Uram

Do you ever feel like there is way too much appreciation going on in your workplace? If you said no, you’re not alone. Your team would probably say the same thing. 

A Gallup survey revealed that 65 percent of employees haven’t received recognition in the last year. This directly correlates to the studies that consistently report that two-thirds of American workers are disengaged.

Employees who don’t receive recognition are 51 percent more likely to look for another job, are less motivated to produce more and better work, and less likely to respect you as a leader. 

It’s easy to see that one of the most important communication skills in a leader’s skill kit is the ability to give positive feedback. This is also one of the most underdeveloped skills for many leaders. The reason is that some leaders just don’t know where to start. 

Here are five questions leaders have about giving praise:

1. Why should I praise someone for doing their job? 

Two words—positive reinforcement. Do you want them to keep doing their job? Keep this phrase in mind: what gets rewarded gets repeated. If you want them to keep doing their job, let them know that their work is appreciated. 

One study concluded that 81 percent of employees would produce better work more often if they received personal recognition for their efforts. This seems like a good return on investment for a few sincere words of appreciation.

2. I don’t need praise, why do they?

Who knows? Everyone has different internal drives that influence what motivates them. Recognition is one of the top motivators along with challenging work, growth opportunities, job security, being part of a team, and compensation.

If you happen to be motivated by growth opportunities, you may not understand why someone needs a pat on the back. You might even think they are being needy. Beware. 

That kind of thinking is a barrier to your own growth and could hold you back from achieving your goals. The best leaders understand that everyone is different, and they meet people where they’re at without judgment. 

3. How do I give praise without sounding phony?

The secret to meaningful recognition is to make it sincere, specific, and timely.

Making praise sincere is easy. If you are specific and timely and genuine with your praise, you will automatically come across as sincere.

Next, be specific. Instead of a generic “Great job,” say “Thanks for taking the initiative to help John get that order out. I really appreciate your teamwork.” The person is more likely to repeat the behavior when they know what the praise is for.

Third, make your praise timely. Say it as close to the event as possible. If you wait, praise loses its impact. 

Follow this simple rule for keeping your praise timely: when you see it, say it.

4. Should I praise in public or in private?

You should give your praise where the employee is most comfortable. However, many leaders are hesitant to give recognition in public. They worry that it will create jealousy or resentment. Forget those fears.

One benefit of praising in public is that it shows the lower performers what’s possible. It can be the shot in the arm they need to step up. Looking for opportunities to give shout-outs for positive behaviors, both big and small, in public creates a culture of appreciation.

You might even notice team members praising each other, which will result in increased morale and trust. One study showed that 90 percent of direct reports agree that team spirit is increased when the leader provides appreciation and support. 

5. How often should I offer praise?

This is a good question. Praising too often can be as bad as not praising often enough. We know that once-a-year commendation is too infrequent, but many leaders don’t know how often they should acknowledge excellent work. Running around giving high-fives, thumbs ups, and generic “thanks” is exhausting for you and uninspiring to your team.

A good rule of thumb is to provide positive praise to each person on your team once a week. I know what you’re thinking—some people aren’t doing anything worth praising on a weekly basis. Look harder.

Did your chronically tardy employee show up to the meeting on time? Let them know you appreciate their effort.

What about the people who come in day after day and do their job? Nothing more, nothing less. They get the job done, and you need them. Let them know you appreciate being able to count on them.

Summary

The benefits of appreciation are clear: increased retention, motivated team members who work harder, and respect for you as a leader. Start catching people in the act of doing things right. Who knows, you may get the appreciation you deserve as well.

Liz Uram is a nationally-recognized speaker, trainer, consultant, and author. She equips leaders with the tools they need to communicate like a boss so they can make a bigger impact, get better results, and motivate others to do their best. With twenty years of experience, she’s developed systems that work. Uram has written four books that are packed full of strategies leaders can implement to get real results, real fast. For more information, visit www.lizuram.com.

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.

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. 

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. 

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. 

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.

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.