This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of Customer Inter@ction Solutions
Contact center agents are on the front lines of service, support, sales and collections and as such they make sought-after results such as customer satisfaction and retention and maximum lifetime value and income happen: under the guidance of supervisors who ensure that their performance not only meets but exceeds expectations.
At the same time employees are the most expensive facet of contact centers. Labor costs represent 60 percent to 70 percent of operating expenses and account for nearly all of the technology and infrastructure costs that are spent to support their activities. Contact centers are therefore focused on maximizing agent and supervisor productivity.
A fair portion of those costs is turnover: hiring, training and burning in new staff to replace those who have left. Finding and keeping agents is often difficult even in today’s challenging economy because of the nature of the work; it is high-stress, low-paid with few benefits, has minimal status, the hours vary and advancement is limited. As customer contacts become more involved – voice and Web self-service having drawn off the simpler ones – those issues and resulting expenses climb.
The other side of the coin of contact center work is that meeting callers’ needs as well as generating revenues is personally satisfying. There is also camaraderie in contact centers even amongst home agents through shared experiences; after all, agents and supervisors by nature enjoy interacting with others.
There are a wide range of methods to boost agent productivity and slice attrition. Articles, editorials and opinion pieces in this magazine have touched on hiring, treating, training and managing right, and have looked at home-based work.
Here are a few technology-aided solutions that can also assist in enabling superior results including higher productivity and reduced attrition by “energizing the employees” i.e. getting the most from them through making it possible for and encouraging them to give their most.
Providing the Right Answers, Online
The easier and faster contact centers make it for agents to assist customers consistently and well the better the service and the higher the satisfaction on both ends of the lines: hardwired and/or wireless. Providing consistent answers to customers’ basic questions consistently and making them available online or to the agents themselves enables just that.
IntelliResponse offers these benefits through its “Answer Suite” knowledge management solution that enables organizations to quickly deliver the “One Right Answer” to questions posed by customers--and by agents--across a wide array of interaction channels: websites, mobile devices, social media platforms and yes agent desktops.
The technology works by having questions posed on the tool that then queries a knowledge base that will deliver a single, accurate, approved answer. IntelliResponse leverages a patented question-to-answer matching platform that allows them to enter complete questions in plain language – including spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and informal “text speak” – and matches those questions to the One Right Answer.
The Answer Suite is very accurate: IntelliResponse clients enjoy a 90 percent-plus rating in delivering a single answer to direct questions posed to the system. This benefit increases first contact resolution (FCR) rates, which are tied into customer satisfaction and retention. It also cuts average agent handle and research time by 25 percent to 40 percent, thereby reducing overall costs and increasing customer satisfaction, while allowing agents to handle more calls. And with accessibility by via self-service along with high accuracy, clients report experiencing call volume reduced by 15 percent to 35 percent and e-mail volume by 25 percent to 70 percent.
At the same time the IntelliResponse solution improves agent job satisfaction through enabling FCR that permits them to meet customers’ needs while limiting their need to search CMS systems and folders that reduces their stress. And with simpler online inquiries answered with “One Right Answers” they can focus on handling more challenging, interesting and value-added customer interactions.
Unifying the Desktop
Contact center agents are increasingly multitasking, working with a growing range of applications and channels. Yet too often they get jammed through toggling between these solutions and tools, which wastes time and bothers customers, and which adds to their frustration.
Too often, agents must spend up to 30 percent of their time moving between multiple applications, relying on their own experience to accurately answer questions, reports Steven Herlocher, executive vice president, sales and product strategy, Interactive Softworks. Or, they waste valuable time by cutting and pasting information then having to forward that information to customers. These methods are not reliable, consistent or efficient.
Unified agent desktop or customer engagement software provides a solution. Such products, like Interactive Softworks’ Metaphor (News - Alert) drives significant agent productivity improvements by providing a cohesive, context-aware view into the multiple applications and processes the agent is required to work with for effective customer interactions.
Metaphor dynamically presents the right information and executes the correct process at the exact time it is needed. It also integrates multiple communication channels – traditional and social – into a seamless dialogue, allowing agents to focus on the customer instead of on the systems, and half-remembered processes.
Agents are assisted with a context-driven workflow; this guides them to the right technical solutions as well as the next, best product offering. They then have a single complete and current point of customer interactions; this minimizes redundancy and hides the typical fragmentation of customer data found on desktops. They are presented with a highly-usable environment, one that is intuitive to use, easy to learn, and “makes sense” when answering questions or requests.
Metaphor also allows firms to immediately re-use content, views, processes and rules across any communication channel desired by the customer, whether social, self- or assisted-serve. This functionality shortens development cycles, simplifies change and provides better business visibility.
Such software also increases agent job satisfaction, potentially reducing turnover. The lower the obstacles in accomplishing these tasks and going for these objectives the less the frustration and the more likely these top performers will stay.
Selecting the Right People
Boosting productivity both in performance and in lowered costs via reduced attrition in any contact center begins with hiring the right individuals for the positions being offered.
Contact centers have increasingly relied on automated pre-hire screening tools to rapidly and cost-effectively sift through and present the most-likely-to-succeed-and-stay candidates. They assess for skills hard e.g. sales, and soft e.g. empathy; individual attributes, attitudes, interests motivations; and team and organizational compatibility with a combination of questions, tests and simulations.
FurstPerson has recently enhanced its pre-screening solutions with CC Audition Talk & Note and CC Audition Sales, which build on its existing CC Audition interactive simulation product line.
Talk & Note incorporates pre-recorded speech including customers’ calls in customized simulation exercises reinforced by animated representations of contact centers and staff. The speech feature along with advanced call documentation that requires candidates to notate the calls creates an assessment tool that closely resembles actual job requirements. Managers and/or HR staff can then predict key call control and customer satisfaction metrics by applicants, thereby permitting them to select more successful agents.
CC Audition Sales tool granularizes the assessments for inbound sales candidates to help organizations find those agents that can best produce revenue. It requires candidates to demonstrate probing, active listening, overcoming resistance, and assertiveness during realistic inbound sales scenarios. FurstPerson conducted an analysis that shows that job candidates who score well on Talk & Note perform better on the job – and this higher performance equates to cost savings and revenue enhancement. Those hires that score well will have shorter average handle time, while also delivering higher call satisfaction.
“CC Audition Talk & Note - helps call center hiring managers identify candidates that can balance customer interaction, resolution and call control,” explains Jeff Furst, president and CEO. “When we have compared on the job performance results with assessment scores on Talk & Note, we find that agents performing well on the job have done well on Talk & Note yet the majority of agents who did not meet performance targets had actually failed Talk & Note. Being able to filter potential poor performers out of the recruiting process objectively enables call centers to hire better performers, which drives significant financial value for the business.”
Agent Motivation and Rewards
While excellent performance is arguably the best reward there is, employees including contact center agents like to be recognized for their achievements. They are motivated to excel further with kind words in-person and broadcast to their colleagues, such as on Intranet and social media sites, reinforced by bonuses, accelerated pay rises, choice in hours and parking spots.
Oftentimes offering tangible tokens, such as gifts, can supply that extra incentive. Call them the equivalent of chocolates and flowers.
Yet not everyone wants what they are given to them though they appreciate the sentiment; instead they often want to select what they receive. And there are automated gift-based rewards programs that provide just that with methodologies that link performance with these symbols of appreciation.
Here’s how they work: when agents hit certain metrics such as perfect attendance, notable customer service, up-selling customers, retaining one who was thinking of canceling their services they receive recognition from either their managers or peers who are notified through customers or from recorded calls. Once they accumulate their recognition they can redeem for brand-name items and experiences.
I Love Rewards offers and manages a Web-based solution that motivates employees with timely recognition tied to meaningful rewards, with online ordering and fulfillment, which ensures that they receive the rewards they want quickly and which reinforces the link between positive behaviors and recognition. The firm says providing employees with a broad choice of rewards items and experiences are key factors to encourage performance and repeated positive behavior.
I Love Rewards is highly customizable. It offers for example peer-to-peer and bottom-to-top free recognition through its online portal. Recognition is either free or attached to points. These points are accumulated and redeemed for brand-name products, gift cards and life experiences.Employee program members can also post their recognition to any social media outlet including LinkedIn (News - Alert), Twitter and Facebook to share with the personal and professional networks.
I Love Rewards recommends training supervisors and managers on the programs prior to launch so that they know how and when to recognize top-performing employees. It also stresses that online recognition does not replace face-to-face or on-the-spot recognition but instead supplements them.
To get the most benefits from its rewards program especially including employee participation it strongly advises firms to create excitement for the plan with an internal communications plan that includes teaser e-mails, posters and videos and with links to the programs’ websites.
“You may have the best recognition program in the world, but it will fail to deliver results if you don’t communicate it properly to your organization,” says Razor Suleman, CEO and Founder, I Love Rewards.
The eLearning Solution
Training is one of the surest methods to raise agent output while building up their loyalty. The more staff knows and can do the greater their productivity; they can perform their tasks more effectively and take on more of them while at the same time the higher their job satisfaction and interest.
Training can also boost agent performance indirectly through training supervisors and managers. They more they know how to get the most of their teams while at the same engendering increased loyalty and decreased churn the stronger the bottom-line results: customer satisfaction, sales, income and lowered costs.
While in-person classroom instruction is arguably the best means of imparting knowledge, it is often not the most practical or cost-effective means for contact centers. Firms must expend scarce resources sending staff to seminars or bringing trainers on-site. Doing so also means pulling agents and supervisors off the call floors, reducing total output and/or requiring added staff. And as more contact centers move to home-based agents, including those living/working some distance away, in-person training becomes no longer feasible.
eLearning a.k.a. technology-based training can delivering lessons including with simulations via web and/or video to their desktops at their convenience. It works for both agents and supervisors.
For example, Knowlagent’s Knowlagent Training eLearning solution optimizes agent idle time by automatically delivering training and updates to agent desktops during unscheduled downtimes. Its patented RightTime engine identifies pockets of forecasted and unforecasted downtimes and uses that downtime to deliver training directly to the agents’ desktop without negatively affecting service levels or operational metrics. One of its dividends is that 1 percent -3 percent fewer agents are needed because there is no longer a need to cover for those in training.
The RCCSP Professional Education Alliance provides virtual (web conferenced) training. They cover a wide range of topics among them: building and managing teams, coaching, calculating staffing, workforce management…and motivating employees.
“What's great about the RCCSP virtual training classes, which are instructor-led and interactive, is the ability to broadcast this training to a group of reps [agents], supervisors, quality assurance specialists or workforce managers in one training room at one low price,” explains RCCSP Professional Education Alliance ceo Nina Kawalek.
The following companies participated in the preparation of this article:
I Love Rewards
RCCSP Professional Education Alliance
Brendan B. Read is TMCnet’s Senior Contributing Editor. To read more of Brendan’s articles, please visit his columnist page.
Edited by Stefania Viscusi