We were so busy at the recent ICMI Contact Center Demo and Conference in Long Beach, California, we didn’t even have time to see the Queen Mary, docked just a short distance away.

But that’s not surprising when we’re gathered with thousands of contact center industry professionals, discussing what’s new in the industry, and helping managers realize the benefits of automated workforce management, particularly when it’s delivered via the cloud. 

As always there were a number of sessions related to managing technology, operations and personnel, as well as fresh ideas for better strategy and leadership. There were also sessions on managing smaller contact centers with less than 50 agents. 

We had several discussions with managers at these smaller centers, who were looking for ways to achieve more accurate forecasts and schedules than what they were getting from spreadsheets. We offered demos of Monet WFM Live – Workforce Management in the Cloud, and they were always impressed by its capabilities. But was it worth the investment for a smaller business? We showed them how ROI could be achieved much more quickly with the cloud delivery model, and how they would never have to pay for another software update, as they would always be implemented automatically at no cost. 

If you missed this year’s ICMI event, we hope to see you at the next one this fall, or at Contact Center Week next month in Las Vegas. Don’t miss these opportunities to find out more about new technology, new customer engagement channels, and new ways to recruit and train agents. 

Customer service is often determined by forecasting, and forecasting is often determined by data. With a workforce management (WFM) solution you are on your way to better forecasts. But are you making the most of the information at your disposal? Here is a short three-point checklist that will help.

1. The Holistic Approach

Numbers, whether they are good or bad, do not happen in a vacuum. While it can be helpful to analyze different KPIs individually, it is better to review them in tandem as well, while also taking a closer look at the conditions under which they are generated.

Of course you should review average handle time (AHT) and call volume, but you should also determine how one impacts the other. Is AHT better in the morning than overnight? Is that just a result of less calls coming in? Perhaps, but you may also have fewer agents working in the wee hours as well, so the answer may not be that simple. Maybe your night-shifters are dealing with lonely folks looking for someone to talk for awhile after midnight – or maybe they need a little more training.

2. Timing is Everything

Review monthly and weekly service levels, but understand that within those longer time periods there are a thousand variables that influence how the numbers worked out. To gain more insight, shorten the timespan to as little as 30 minutes – perhaps even 15 minutes for a busy contact center or for peak calling periods. You’ll receive a more accurate view of what you’re doing right and what needs work.

3. Who is Messing With Our Numbers?

Sometimes the reasons your forecasts miss the mark have nothing to do with internal operations. You can adjust your staffing and shift numbers, but in a larger organization you have no control over when marketing announces a 24-hour sale, or how customer-billing cycles (that trigger billing inquiries) are structured.

Improved communication between departments can make it easier for contact center managers to anticipate the effect of such anomalies, and adjust accordingly. The WFM system will do most of the work for you, as long as you have the data in time to act upon it.

What happens when a business can no longer handle incoming call volume with the personnel they have? For some, it means the decision to create a contact center to make sure this important function is handled in a way that optimizes the customer experience.

If this seems like a difficult challenge, here is some advice on how to make the job a little easier. Even if you have a contact center in place now, this piece might offer some helpful advice on how to make it better.

Layout

Layout will obviously be determined by the space available – are you opening in a separate building, or devoting part of your current workspace to call center functions? Either way, the objective is to make it as conducive as possible to efficient service and teamwork. That means sufficient lighting and ventilation, work stations with comfortable chairs that make it easy for agents to communicate with each other, but not so close that they’re interfering with each other’s calls. For a quieter atmosphere add acoustic wall panels or carpeting. Don’t forget a nice break room.

Staffing

If you already have contact centers and this is an additional location, the first place to look for agents, managers and coaches is within your organization. Perhaps some will want to move to a newer facility that might be located closer to their homes. Otherwise, follow the same practices you do when offsetting attrition at your current businesses. Make sure to hire bilingual agents, as well as those more adept at text, online chat and social media.

Technology

Obviously start with the essentials – a secure LAN, predictive dialers for outbound calls, VoIP, IVR, and an automatic call distributor that routes calls to specific agents. A call recording system is a must for legal protection and agent training. This can be acquired as part of a workforce optimization solution that includes workforce management, quality management, screen capture, performance management and agent analytics. With this technology in place, you’ll be able to do a better job of forecasting and scheduling from day one, while providing your agents with everything they need to serve your customers.

The calendar says we’re closer to Easter than Halloween, but we have a few contact center horror stories to share, and they’re too good to keep until October.

A customer opened a web chat with a cable TV provider. The company responded only with pre-prepared template messages – until the customer was shocked to see the personal information of another customer pop up on his screen. When this was brought to the agent’s attention, she typed, “Oh, sorry… hehe… I am typing in 2 other windows, and got confused."

Another cable TV customer called to cancel service that had originally been ordered in her husband’s name. Her husband had recently died. When she explained this to the agent, the agent responded that he would still have to contact them to cancel. 

A corporate customer called a computer company to report that the 12 laptops he had purchased were not working. The agent’s response: “What do you want me to do about it?”

A customer with a billing question was transferred to an account specialist. As soon as the call picked up, the agent yelled, You, I told you not to call me again.” When the customer questioned what was going on, the call was disconnected. 

The customer of an Internet service provider called to ask about a company’s bundling offers with cable TV, and the agent tried for more than 30 minutes to sell that customer a home security system. After the call ended, during which the customer did order cable, a technician arrived a few days later to install the cable – and the home security system that was never ordered. 

Some of these sad-but-true anecdotes, like the now-famous tale of the customer that was on hold with Comcast for more than three hours, are clearly aberrations from normal procedure. But we live in a time when one bad experience gets shared on social media, repeated on industry blogs, and may even go viral. 

So when we ask the question of why customers hate contact centers, these exceptional examples of bad service cannot be ignored. And as a recent survey from analytics company ForeSee illustrates, customer satisfaction derived from the contact center is crucial to company reputation, brand loyalty and future sales. 

After receiving feedback from approximately 11,000 contact center customers, each asked to grade their experience on a 100-point scale, ForeSee found that most businesses achieved scores around 70. Those in the 80s are on the right track – but some only managed to edge into the 50s, indicating the need for significant changes to policies, procedures, or personnel.

Service-based contact centers tended to receive lower scores, which is not surprising. These are the types of businesses that hear primarily from customers that are already angry or confused, making the agent’s task even more difficult. 

Two Solutions: Technology and Sensitivity

How is your contact center doing on the customer service scale? Would you hit that 70-range of average success, or is there work to be done?

If it’s time for a fresh look, there are two areas where changes are more likely to bring about better results. 

Let’s start with agent training, which should extend beyond learning a script or becoming familiar with contact center procedures, and should also stress empathy, patience and understanding. Scripted responses might be more efficient, but it makes customers feel better if they believe they are connecting with a person who acknowledges their frustration, and reassures them that they have come to the right place for the help they need. 

We’ve mentioned the CARP Method before but it’s worth acknowledging again. CARP is an acronym for “Control, Acknowledge, Refocus, Problem Solve.” It was created by Robert Bacal, who wrote the book If It Wasn’t for the Customers I’d Really Like this Job. His advice for handling complaints – “Control” the situation with polite but firm responses; “Acknowledge concerns in a way that takes them seriously; “Refocus” the conversation to solving the problem rather than complaining about its existence, then “Problem Solve” and wrap it up. 

However, to be fair to your agents, it is also appropriate to train them on the difference between angry callers open to best practices communication, and the acceptance of an apology when merited, and abusive callers who just want to vent. It may not be possible to salvage these encounters, and it’s acceptable to give up on them when the threats and profanities start flying. 

Workforce Management Software

All of the burden for customer service should not fall on the agent’s shoulders. The contact center must provide the tools necessary for that agent to do his or her job, as well as provide forecasting and scheduling that assures the presence of enough agents to efficiently handle incoming calls.

That used to be handled with spreadsheets but can now be covered with a workforce management (WFM) solution. With the advanced functionality and the more accurate forecasting and scheduling made possible by WFM, as well as the data it delivers on agent performance, schedule adherence and KPIs, contact center managers can always be assured the contact center’s resources are being utilized in the most efficient and cost-effective manner. 

Among the benefits:

Real-Time Adherence

Tracking and schedule adherence are difficult, if not flat-out impossible, with just a spreadsheet. Spot-checks are fine as far as they go, but without the real-time tracking provided by WFM there is a higher risk of over/under staffing, shrinkage and missed service levels.

Skill-Based Routing

You know what types of calls your contact center receives, and you know which agents are adept at handling those particular calls. But the process of routing calls  to the best recipients is more complex given the number of calls expected in any shift, and the number of agents available to handle them. Skill-based routing becomes less challenging with a WFM solution.

Multi-Location and Multi-Channel Coordination

Companies with multiple contact center locations require a means to coordinate personnel, resources and schedules at each facility so the service they provide is consistent. There may also be agents working from home that must be accounted for. WFM delivers these multi-site capabilities.

Choosing the Best Solution

If you are considering the addition of WFM, it can be a confusing process. The best way to be assured of choosing the right solution the first time is to be prepared. Have a list of capabilities that you’ll want from your system, such as:

Next, have your questions ready for the vendors you contact. We’d suggest including these on your list: 

How will this system integrate with my business? 

The optimal WFM solution will improve a contact center’s procedures without requiring a complete overhaul of its current system.

How much does it cost?

An obvious question but also one that, for many smaller and midsized contact centers, marks the end of the discussion – unless they choose a cloud provider.

How long will it take to set up?

Once again, advantage: Cloud. Set up can be completed in days, with secure access available to agents and managers in the call center and at remote locations.

Is the system easily usable/scalable?

Usability is a priority with most cloud-based solutions, so call center agents and managers can get started more quickly from any location.

Conclusion

No contact center has ever achieved a 100% perfect service record. However, it’s a worthy goal to pursue even if one is doing so with imperfect people – and that includes managers as well as agents. But armed with better training that emphasizes courtesy and customer empathy, combined with a workforce management solution that locates the gaps between the contact center’s available personnel skills and resources, the contact center that inspires customer derision can be transformed into a sales-building protector of the brand.

Perhaps you know the answer to that question. Or perhaps you just think you do.

There are two definitions for workforce optimization (WFO) – one that provides a general assessment and one specific to the contact center industry.

The general definition, or at least the one offered by Technopedia, is: “A strategy used in business with a focus on maximum customer satisfaction and benefits with minimal operational costs and supported by integrated technologies, cross-functional processes and shared objectives.”

All of these qualities would certainly apply to the contact center, but would also work for any number of professional pursuits. When we think WFO for our industry, the definition incorporates specific functionality such as call recording, workforce management, quality management and speech analytics

We’re exploring this topic because of a recent Gartner report predicting that by the end of 2018, 70% of organizations with more than 300 contact center agents will be working with an integrated workforce optimization solution, either on-premise or in the cloud. 

That’s about 20 months away. If you have not yet explored the possibilities of WFO, there is a real risk of falling behind companies committed to maximizing efficiency and customer service. It’s a big decision that will impact every aspect of your company, even beyond the confines of the contact center itself. 

When you’re ready, start with a list of priorities and then seek out the solution best suited to meet them. Also, as so many business processes will be affected, look for a WFO application that can be implemented and integrated in a way that reduces the learning curve, while working toward ROI from day one. Price will also be a likely consideration, so a cloud solution may be the answer to achieving your technology goals at a cost you can afford.

How much can substandard customer service cost your business? Considering a recent Zendesk survey that reported 82% of customers stop doing business with a company that does not treat them well, we would guess the losses engendered by poor service are substantial.

As the contact center is the first point of contact for many customers, it’s a place where service must be constantly emphasized at both the agent and managerial levels. 

Here are some customer service trends that are gaining more attention in 2016, and may help to improve performance at your contact center. 

1. Help Customers Help Themselves

At first “do it yourself” sounds like the antithesis of customer service, until you realize that many customers (more than 50% according to the Harvard Business Review) would prefer visiting a company’s website to having to call a contact center. By offering an array of self-service options, you serve customers better and eliminate many of the calls asking for basic information and services that could be addressed in another way.

2. Omni-Channel

But what exactly are those other channels referenced in our previous point? Web, online chat, email and texting are just some of the methods your customers would like to use – and sometimes an issue can be best resolved by switching from one channel to another, without having to close the first engagement. Make it easier for customers to transition from web to voice, and make sure you are tracking that customer journey for quality management purposes.

3. Social Media

Social media is still under-utilized as a business communication tool – but chances are your customers are already using it to discuss your business. It’s important to be represented there so you can respond to comments, positive or negative, as well as promote new offers and generate the types of discussions that will help you serve your customers better. There is an informal nature to Facebook chats that can produce more insight into what your customers are thinking.

4. Video Chat

This is not something you may have to think about yet, but some companies like Amazon have already incorporated this channel into their customer service strategy. Those who enjoy using various webchat services or Skype may wonder why they can’t order products and ask questions from companies the same way. Video chat won’t add much to a contact center budget, but some agent training will be required to acknowledge the differences between a phone conversation and a virtual face-to-face.

5. The Cloud Makes Everything Easier

Will 2016 be the year that the cloud becomes the top platform choice for contact centers? It’s too early to tell but the early returns are encouraging. We’ve covered the reasons for the cloud’s ascension before – lower costs, faster deployment, scalability, flexibility, ease of integration, user-friendliness, and the peace of mind of knowing that your business is always running the most recent and most secure version of the software you need.

If it’s time for your contact center to take a closer look at the benefits of the cloud, Monet WFM is a great place to start. 

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