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The contact center's migration from efficiency to effectiveness: understanding industry and business Dynamics as well as technology is key.

Efficiency will never go out of style in business. But in an industry that's largely transitioned from one-dimensional call centers to e-mail, Web chat and the full-fledged multimedia contact center, making a contact center more efficient isn't enough to make it competitive.

As technology continues to empower consumers with e-services and multimedia interaction options, efficiency-driven metrics such as average talk times don't always gauge an agent's actual performance. Nor do they reflect the customer pulse needed to improve service levels across multiple channels or the business processes behind them. With the growing importance of multimedia agent skill sets and offering quality service no matter what media a customer chooses, the expanded role of today's contact center workforce commands far more attention than just filling seats and improving call statistics.

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Enhancing Agent Effectiveness

Without question, a qualified agent staff is any contact center's most valuable asset. Unfortunately, with the 35 percent agent churn typical in most centers, it's also the greatest expense. Whether they look at their workforce as a benefit, an area of needed improvement or both, contact center managers are learning that putting agents in more integral roles can improve performance as well as attitudes and retention. Give agents greater incentive and better tools to help them succeed, and they take a more vested interest in the service they provide.

Contact centers across every industry are realizing they need to make agents more effective and are putting performance management at the top of the objectives list.

However, making agents better front-line ambassadors also means leveraging key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure business strengths and market opportunities across all media channels, and to optimize multichannel service processes by monitoring them with metrics for quality and satisfaction. In conjunction, contact center managers and IT chiefs are looking more closely at workforce management applications, automated satisfaction surveys and new quality monitoring tools like screen recording to supplement call recording and agent scoring.

Call the migration from efficient to effective a new trend or paradigm, if you will. We simply call it good business for any contact center. Here are some things to pinpoint in making your agents more effective and becoming a highly competitive, profit-generating value center.

The Muddy Waters Of Acquisitions

First, two words about some of the "all-in-one" communications solutions now showing up: be careful. Given the industry's widespread convergence-through-acquisition practices lately, the vendor waters are a bit muddy. There are many examples of this "growth through acquisition" credo in the business news recently. The rule of thumb for many vendors seems to be, "To add functionality, go buy it ... and figure out how to integrate everything with the other stuff you have later."

True All-In-One Platforms And "Suites"

Admittedly that knock on the industry's acquisition players is a harsh one, but only because companies like Interactive Intelligence have always built an all-in-one platform, as do others that don't carry the big-name banners. They have accomplished this from the ground up because they know that in the IP telephony software space, a single architecture and integrated application suite offers a far better solution than acquired functionality.

Assessing the industry for the long term, the analysts at Gartner said it best when they concluded that "a few best-of-breed vendors will remain, but the suite providers will bear the bulk of the investment." Essentially, Gartner cautioned contact centers and enterprises to listen closely whenever a vendor uses the term "suite," as many bundled offerings now on the market actually consist of acquired components that were built using a variety of tools. As a result, these offerings are more "portfolios" than they are suites, resulting in countless system administration environments, support complexities and overlapping functionality that's both unnecessary and costly.

In making agents and business processes more effective, contact centers should thoroughly evaluate a vendor's platform architecture and determine their time frames for "true" suite availability. It's best to look at a pre-integrated platform and application suite from a single vendor, which largely eliminates the complexities of acquisition-based systems.

Three Key Effectiveness Components

Workforce management. WFM provides the strongest agent effectiveness building block by addressing the scheduling problems that have plagued call centers and contact centers for years. If simple math says anything about successfully handling interaction loads, it's that a contact center must have enough agents scheduled and at their workstations every minute. Fortunately, applications such as Interactive Intelligence's Interaction Optimizer and similar solutions help do just that. In Interaction Optimizer's case, contact centers can accurately determine demand forecasts based on historical ACD data, develop schedules accordingly, and monitor schedule adherence across the workforce in real time, at all times.

Quality monitoring. Give contact center supervisors a real-time dashboard to monitor queue activity, listen in on calls, view Web chats and e-mail messages, detect problems when average thresholds are exceeded, and coach agents via whisper coaching and chat suggestions, and they're better able to determine each agent's effectiveness when interacting with a customer.

Also using voice and screen recording, supervisors can record agent-customer interactions to score an agent's product knowledge, verify how the agent answers customer inquiries and much more. Screen recording is especially useful in that supervisors can instantly capture the activity of agents handling Web chats and e-mail as well as calls, while getting a synchronized playback of audio and workstation activity for more complete quality monitoring.

Metrics for performance management and measurement. Performance management leverages key performance indicators to measure strengths and market opportunities in a particular business segment. Contact centers can use KPI-related tools such as recording-based agent scoring questionnaires to analyze metrics and improve service level quality--along with associated business processes--across customer touch points (telephone, e-mail or a Web site).

Donna Fluss, Principal of DMG Consulting LLC, referred to quality metrics in her article "Quality Metrics For The Contact Center" (searchCRM.com, October 28, 2005). She said, "In any operating area of a contact center, the primary goal is to generate revenue ... However, productivity, quality and customer satisfaction matter as well."

For calls and e-mail (and reasonably for Web chats), Fluss cites metrics for efficiency such as the percentage of calls answered in 20 seconds, average talk time, number of e-mail messages handled and average time to respond to e-mail. But she also cites other factors that target an agent's effectiveness, such as first-contact resolutions, the number of upsell/cross-sell opportunities, leads identified and the accuracy of orders. For actual call and e-mail QM metrics, Fluss groups an agent's scores for product knowledge, technical knowledge, communications skills and problem-solving skills, followed by satisfaction metrics based on incremental real-time surveys of customers as well as field sales staff and partners/distributors.

There is no mention of automated online surveys in Fluss's article, but many contact center platforms are making them both easy and cost-effective with speech-enabled IVR applications, Web-based online forms completion and automated post-call surveys built in to outbound predictive dialing campaigns.

Whereas efficiency still matters in a contact center, the overall effectiveness of agents and the processes they utilize to serve customers have taken center stage. We'll talk more about the move from efficiency to effectiveness in coming issues, but for now these pointers should give your contact center a good start on its migration. The sooner the better!

Joseph A. Staples is Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing for Interactive Intelligence Inc., a global developer of software for contact centers and the enterprise since 1994. The single platform architecture and IP contact center application suite from Interactive Intelligence has long provided out-of-the-box functionality for agent performance and effectiveness in organizations worldwide. Contact Interactive Intelligence at 317-872-3000 or visit www.inin.com.

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RELATED ARTICLE: Metrics That Matter

It has never made sense to me that call centers have traditionally measured their effectiveness by metrics such as average call handle time, average wrap-time and number of calls per minute (or hour, or week). This always seemed to make as much sense to me as measuring the effectiveness of outside sales reps by presuming the one who put the most mileage on his car during the week is the highest seller and the hardest worker. In reality, it may just mean that he goes 15 miles off his route each day because he likes the coffee at Susie's Diner better than the coffee sold by Dunkin' Donuts.

There is no environment exempt from the laws of nature, and this includes call centers. Agents will always find a way to counteract metrics that work against them. In understaffed call centers that require agents to spend all their time on the phone with little time for recovery or proper call follow-up, agents will remain "off hook" for a few moments so they can catch their breath and/or finish typing before they take the next call. Quantity over quality means only that your call center agents will be able to irritate more customers per hour than your competitors can. Until the business world rids itself of its impression that the call center is an evil necessity once and for all, enterprise contact center solutions providers will have steep challenges before them.

Here is a good mantra for every call center: The point is not to answer as many calls and e-mails as possible. The goal should be to successfully take care of as many customer problems and inquiries as possible. By emphasizing quantity over quality, customer-facing companies are essentially sabotaging themselves. These organizations might as well be randomly deleting orders from the day's sales at the close of each shift. Many companies go through extraordinary lengths to convince themselves that this is not the case.

More of today's contact center solutions come with features that encourage good practices in the contact center. They have more sophisticated means of measuring metrics that matter. While certainly the brevity of the customer contact will always matter (the time a customer has to wait in call or e-mail queue is one of the most important factors in customer retention), speed should not be the primary yardstick. What many of today's modern solutions providers try to emphasize is that by using quality management tools as a starting point in the customer contact, efficiency and speed will follow as a result. If you start with speed as your goal, the call center will continue to use the wrong yardstick throughout all its processes.

But it's also important to remember that call centers are staffed and managed by people, not software solutions. The customer service goals, once put in place, must become the goals of every employee who touches the call center. If agents, supervisors, managers and the COO's team have different goals, the results will be disastrous. A reader once wrote to me in response to an article on quality with the following scenario he had witnessed: a company's operations team felt they were spending too much on the call center. To solve the problem, they issued orders that the number of calls routed to live agents must be reduced. Rather than accomplish this by beefing up the quality and usability of the company's self-service media, the call center manager altered the IVR so that it became more difficult for callers to reach a live agent. The result? Less calls to the call center, and more money saved! That manager received a bonus for a job well done.

This is truly a lesson in self-sabotage, and it will always be the result of call center programs that focus on quantity rather than quality. And isn't quality what you went into business to provide in the first place?

The author may be reached at tschelmetic@tmcnet.com.

By Tracey E. Schelmetic, Editorial Director, Customer Interaction Solutions
COPYRIGHT 2006 Technology Marketing Corporation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Innovative Solutions From The Multimedia Contact Center Solutions Experts: A Special Editorial Series Sponsored By INTERACTIVE INTELLIGENCE
Author:Staples, Joseph A.
Publication:Customer Interaction Solutions
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2006
Words:1993
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