Call centers (also known as "contact centers" these days due to the addition of email, text and video into their repertoire) could well be one of the most complex areas for people management. This complexity results from a collection of factors: high turnover, employee stress, nasty customers, constant activity in a small space and overworked managers are just a few of the daily trials and tribulations that haunt the call center.
Let’s review some of the best practices and associated applications and technologies that help make contact centers run more smoothly and more productively.
A good place to start in any rundown of call center best practices is people. While soft skills are essential in negotiating the difficult waters of interpersonal and working relationships, let’s focus on technology that makes people management easier. Performance management incorporates planning, agent skill development and evaluating performance with metrics.
"Performance management can be a difficult without software that tracks and analyzes the performance levels of your call center team," said Chuck Ciarlo, CEO of workforce optimization provider Monet Software. "Data needs to be delivered in a way that makes it easier to identify the skill sets of agents, as well as any skill gaps that need to be filled by additional training."
Done right, this best practice eliminates a whole lot of paperwork – not to mention hours of manual labor. For example, instead of a spreadsheet listing everyone’s days off, vacations, work schedules and break times, performance management software makes it easy for managers to visualize the work day and work week, avoid conflicts and ensure schedules match with anticipated periods of heavy demand.
Right Answers, Right Time
Matt Kresch, director of product marketing at Microsoft Dynamics 365 for Customer Service, stressed timeliness as a key best practice for any call center. This has become particularly acute in the current age because of a combination of trends. Commoditization has led to the role of customer service changing as organizations seek to sell services around their products in addition to providing support. At the same time, customer expectations continue to rise in terms of the channels and devices through which they expect to engage and receive resolution for product and service related issues. And then there is the speed and ease with which those issues are resolved.
"Regardless of how engagement channels and technology have evolved, the backbone of a successful customer service strategy is delivering the right answers at the right time via the channel of choice and convenience," said Kresch. "It is incumbent on the service organization to provide personalized, contextual interactions across the customer journey through every channel and on any device."
To deal with these factors, Microsoft is augmenting its Dynamics 365 platform with machine learning, Internet of Things (IoT) and analytics capabilities to increase velocity, accuracy and responsiveness.
Widen the Net
The usual approach to improving call center effectiveness is to provide CRM and contact center databases that consolidate all customer-facing information in one place. That makes it easy for an agent to see the history and better understand the caller. However, some systems short-circuit this by being overly focused on upselling or cross-selling at the expense of overall customer service.
"In addition to the strategy of the customer service organization, brands should think about the strategy and goals of the wider business," said Kresch. "Information that resides outside the traditional purview of the service organization is part of the myriad of information and resources that needs to be leveraged during a single service interaction, and a complete view of the customer should include interactions both inside and outside of the service organization."
Conversely, information gathered during the course of a service interaction is useful to other lines of business. Because of this, the customer service strategy should complement and be part of the overall strategy of the wider business.
Stress Employee Engagement
Rajeev Venkat, sr. director solutions marketing, Verint, stressed the importance of employee engagement. He said it has become a key in fostering customer engagement and brand loyalty.
"Engaged and empowered employees are an organization’s most valuable asset, and it has been proven that such a workforce often exerts more effort and are more committed to helping their organizations succeed," said Venkat.
He cited several studies to back up his claim, including the following:
- In 2012, Gallup researchers conducted a study across 49,928 workgroups and nearly 1.4 million employees around the world. They found that departments above the top quartile in employee engagement outperformed departments below the bottom quartile by 10 percent on customer ratings, 22 percent in profitability and 21 percent in productivity.
- In 2015, Watermark Consulting compared the performance of "employee experience leaders" based on Great Place to Work findings with the S&P 500. From 1997 to 2014, employee experience leaders outperformed the broader stock market, generating an annualized return that was nearly double that of the S&P 500 Index (11.1 percent compared with 6.5 percent).
- In 2015, Aon Hewitt published its global employee engagement trends report based on over 1,000 organizations around the world and found that a 5 percent increase in employee engagement is linked to a 3 percent increase in revenue growth the subsequent year.
"Today, organizations are changing workforce management operational philosophies and practices to address factors driving the need for employee and agent engagement initiatives," said Venkat. These themes include: the needs of the millennial generation, which for the first time in 2016 dominates the U.S. workforce; the rise of the flexible "Shared Economy" driven by the likes of Lyft, Uber, guru.com, freelance.com, elance.com and others; an increasing number of home-based contact center agents, which present management and security challenges; and the fact that the traditional contact center is transforming into a customer engagement center (CEC), where it’s considered a strategic area of the business versus being viewed as an afterthought or a cost center.
"Millennials, together with the simultaneous explosion of today’s technology, are transforming the workforce, buying patterns, product and content delivery, and customer experience as a whole," said Venkat. "Vendors have responded to the millennial workforce by creating the CEC to meet their particular needs and interests."
Go to just about any website, these days, and you see the option of phone, text, tweet and email channels for communication. The days of phone centers, then, are over. Yet phone calls are never likely to go away.
"It’s crucial for contact center software to have the functionality for agents to interact with customers on any channel," said Mayur Anadkat, vice president of product marketing at Five9.
For example, Baby Boomers may prefer to reach a customer service department via phone, while Millennials might tend to tweet at a company to get their issue resolved. A contact center needs to have the infrastructure in place to meet people on their preferred channel. Doing so will result in higher retention and loyalty because users feel like they can rely on the brand to help them in the most seamless way possible.
Another best practice is the integration of all systems related to the customer. When an agent has access to pertinent customer data from Salesforce or Zendesk, for example, they can deliver more satisfying experiences and can foster more successful relationships.
"It’s important that the software can easily integrate with existing CRM solutions so the agents are empowered and equipped with all of the relevant customer information," said Anadkat.
Drew Robb is a freelance writer specializing in technology and engineering. Currently living in Florida, he is originally from Scotland, where he received a degree in geology and geography from the University of Strathclyde. He is the author of Server Disk Management in a Windows Environment (CRC Press).