Logically Handling Multiple Channels Of Customer Interaction
BY OFER MATAN, Ph.D. AND SHANNON HUGHES, BLUE PUMPKIN SOFTWARE
Call centers are quickly becoming multichannel contact centers with responsibilities
extending far beyond handling traditional inbound phone calls to answering e-mail,
Internet-telephony and fax messages. As the multichannel contact center rapidly becomes a
reality, managing these new customer interactions brings unique challenges for your
The key is to look at your contact center to see how your existing practices will be
affected by implementing multiple channels of contact. You need to assess your contact
center - particularly your workforce - and understand the types of interactions you wish
to implement. We'll guide you through this analysis process.
Life Before Multiple Channels Of Customer Contact
Before we start talking about multichannel contact centers, lets review
traditional inbound call centers and how they work as a point of comparison. In a
traditional call center, calls come in and are routed to available agents who have the
oral communication skills necessary to assist a variety of callers. To figure out staffing
for these incoming calls, companies generally use some form of the Erlang-C equation to
understand how much higher than actual workload they need to staff to meet service
requirements. Erlang-C is used whether a company schedules manually with spreadsheets or
automatically with workforce management software.
Understanding Contact Channel Differences
In a multichannel contact center, customer interaction becomes more complicated
customers may be calling you, sending you e-mail or using Web chat technology,
voice over IP, fax or even surface mail. Each of these media has its challenges
they may require different agent skill sets than phone calls, and customers may have
different service expectations. Although you may be answering the same customer question
as you once did over the phone, the scheduling issues are quite different.
To explore the differences in media, well look at:
- Customer service level expectations,
- Agent skill sets,
- Backlog, and
- Cost differences.
Service level expectations are a key difference between traditional phone calls and
other types of interactions. Currently, customers have relatively high requirements for
response to phone calls (typical response ranges from 80 percent or more in 20 to 600
seconds). Voice over IP is essentially the same as phone calls and is handled in the same
manner. Subsequently, customers service expectations are high for IP calls, and
agents have the same skills as those required in a traditional call center.
Service expectations are significantly lower (1 to 48 hours is about the norm) for many
of the technologies that require written instead of oral response (e-mail and Web
requests); however, industry trends point to a clear increase in customers service
expectations for these media. Response times for these media will shrink from hours to
Different contact media require particular agent skill sets. Whereas phone calls and IP
calls demand oral communication skills and training, agents handling e-mail or Web chats
need to be skilled in written communication. In the case of these written communication
contact media, agents need to be particularly good at being clear and direct. If written
customer interactions are not handled effectively, a customers next step will
probably be to pick up the phone. When a customer calls you after trying unsuccessfully to
send you an e-mail message, the cost of that interaction increases.
Another difference between handling customer phone calls and other types of
interactions (excluding voice over IP) is backlog. Backlog refers to the queue of contacts
that have arrived at your center, but have not yet been assigned to an agent.
Lets look at an example of how e-mail backlog can affect your call center. Your
loyal customer, Susie, calls you for laundering directions on the green T-shirt she just
purchased, and you do not service the call in a timeframe thats acceptable to her.
As a result, she hangs up the phone. Maybe she will call you back, or maybe she is
sufficiently annoyed that she will shop around the next time she needs a green T-shirt.
The bad news is that you may have lost a customer. If there is any good news, it is that
you no longer need to worry about Susie being in your queue.
However, when Susie sends you an e-mail about laundering directions for her green
T-shirt and her request is not handled right away, her e-mail does not just go away when
youre too busy to answer immediately. Instead, her e-mail, along with others, piles
into a backlog. This pile of e-mail begins negatively affecting the service you provide to
all the customers who send you e-mail. You cant answer the next e-mail until you
climb out from under the stack of queued e-mail.
Backlog is where it ends if youre lucky. Unfortunately, many customers who e-mail
and fail to receive a response are likely to now call you to make sure their request was
received. This is probably the last thing you need the reason e-mail isnt
getting read is because youre overloaded. So, the vicious cycle continues. The same
cycling effect occurs for other media as well: Web chats, faxes and surface mail.
On the flip side, backlog can be a good thing. Since you are able to store up these
contacts, you can staff differently than you do in a phone call center where you need to
constantly staff higher than workload because of the random arrival of calls. This results
in lower costs in staffing for interactions. The longer service goals for these contact
media (vis-�-vis phone calls) also give you more flexibility in scheduling.
Moreover, the lower cost of transmitting information via the Internet or e-mail versus
placing a phone call further increases the cost benefits of other customer interaction
channels. GartnerGroup estimates that when Susie calls you and actually gets through, the
interaction costs an average of $5.01.1 By contrast, if you were able to handle
a conversation with Susie through a Web chat, connecting with her would cost
your center an average of $0.25 to $3.50.
Planning For Multiple Contact Channels In Your Center
The benefits of multiple customer contact channels can be significant. Providing
multiple ways for customers to interact with you enables you to:
- Lower cost and experience efficiency gains. As we just saw, other contact
channels are relatively inexpensive compared with phone calls.
- Provide better service. You can now assist customers in the media they prefer,
adding another layer to the customer experience.
- Accommodate growth. You are able to handle growth in interactions by adding
more efficient and cost-effective ways for customers to contact you.
However, these benefits will only be realized if having multiple contact channels
matches your business model. Think about your customers and how technically savvy they are
today � will they actually contact you in a different way? Dont dismiss the
possibility of customers sending you e-mail even if you think they dont know how to
turn on a computer. Consider how quickly the Internet is being adopted and how easy it is
for companies and consumers to get online.
When it comes to multimedia, you also want to think about and communicate with other
departments in your organization. How are they using e-mail and Internet technology? For
instance, maybe your marketing group has just decided to include your Internet address and
an e-mail contact on all of your new literature, or maybe theyve planned your Web
site revamp to include more information about your products. Changes like these will
probably have an impact on the number and type of interactions coming into your center.
How To Staff For Multiple Contact Channels In Your Center
Figuring out the mix of interactions coming into your center will help you
determine how you need to staff for multiple contact channels. Based on the volume of
interactions you receive, your technology and your workforce, you have some staffing
choices: you can hire or train dedicated agents who only handle a particular media, or you
can pool agents across media groups.
There are three primary reasons why you might choose to have a dedicated group of
agents handling a particular type of interaction:
- You dont have the technology or the need to integrate multiple contact channels
into your center,
- The skills required to handle new media are very different than those needed for
existing channel(s) of interaction, or
- You find that using dedicated agents is a good way to experiment with multiple contact
channels. You can see firsthand the issues with a particular contact channel before fully
integrating it into your center.
If you do pool (or share) agents across media, you have additional options:
- You can pool agents so they answer all interactions throughout their entire shift. For
example, you have phone, e-mail and IP calls coming into your center. Agent Andrew is
logged into all three queues, so he handles phone calls, e-mail and IP calls
interchangeably from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (excluding breaks and lunch). Having agents logged
into multiple queues is what ACD vendors have termed blending.
- Alternatively, you can use a task-switching model in which agents spend a block of time
logged into a particular queue and then switch to another queue for another block of time.
If you do task-switching, agent Bill might be assigned to a phone queue in the morning
from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. After lunch, Bill is logged into the e-mail queue for the rest of
his shift (1 p.m. to 5 p.m.)
Planning and staffing for your center also requires thinking about the similarities
between different types of media and how you can benefit from tasks requiring the same
skills. You should consider the impact switching between media has on the performance of
your agents. Clearly, e-mail response, Web chats and Web requests require common talents
(skills in written communication) and are similar enough that it is not difficult to shift
from one to another. These media lend themselves well to blending. Handling phone calls
and voice over IP is another natural grouping where the skills required are almost
identical and can be easily blended.
One of the key benefits of sharing agents across media is cost you are able to
maximize the time agents spend in the center, minimizing the time they are idle. If you
are familiar with skills-based routing and scheduling, you already know about the benefits
of sharing agents across queues. (Skills-based routing means that agents are logged into
multiple ACD queues.) Just as there are advantages to training agents in multiple products
or languages to handle calls on multiple queues, there are savings associated with having
agents who can handle multiple kinds of interaction media.
If you are looking at sharing agents across contact media, you should proceed with
caution. Integrating shared agents first requires a successful mastery of true
skills-based routing and scheduling. Unfortunately, not all workforce management vendors
provide a solution that fully integrates forecasting, scheduling and managing multiskilled
agents. Any vendor that does not currently offer true skills-based workforce management
will have difficulty providing products to manage multiple customer contact channels.
Getting Proactive With Multiple Contact Channels
Finally, when you think about these staffing and cost issues for your particular
interaction mix, you should think about how you would like customers to talk
with you. Are there cost or operational benefits to particular kinds of interaction?
Lets go back to Susie and the laundering directions for her green T-shirt. If she
called one of your agents on the phone to ask for the directions, it would cost you more
than $5. Think of the cost savings if you had directed Susie to an e-mail address or a Web
site where she could get the same information. This interaction might only cost $0.25.
Directing Susie to the Web site or an e-mail address probably requires some
coordination with departments outside your contact center. For example, including the Web
site or e-mail address on the shirts tag might nudge Susie in the right direction.
If you are confident with your centers ability to handle multiple customer
interaction channels, make preferred channels attractive to your customers by investing in
your service level on these queues. If you respond quickly to customers and you have the
answers they need, you will increase the likelihood that they will use this method to
contact you next time.
The reality is that your phone will not stop ringing because youve increased the
ways for customers to contact you. Even businesses doing primarily e-commerce, like
Amazon.com, have larger call centers than you might think. (Amazon.com actually has about
600 agents handling orders and customer inquiries.) So, you still need to effectively
manage phone calls while thinking about other channels of customer contact.
In this article, we looked at the impact of introducing other contact channels in
your center. Multiple contact channels affect staffing in your center (they dictate the
skills agents need to handle interactions) and the service level your customers expect. To
figure out if multiple contact channels can have cost and efficiency benefits in your
center, you need to look at your overall business model you need to know who your
customers are, who your agents are and the capabilities of your technology. From there,
you can determine the mix of interactions you expect to receive and staff your center
accordingly. Since there can be cost savings with particular types of interactions, you
may also want to look at becoming proactive and making particular contact channels more
attractive to your customers.
Even if you dont deal with multiple interaction channels today, you most likely
will do so in the future. Having multiple customer contact channels is really the next
logical step in providing even more personalized service to your customers. You add
another dimension to the customer experience you can now provide the answers your
customers require, in the media they prefer. Moreover, if you have the staff, technology
and need for multiple contact channels, you can also realize significant cost savings and
efficiency gains by handling customer interactions via channels other than the phone.
1 GartnerGroup, Five Levels of Customer
Service Web Sites. Customer Service and Support Strategies. June 23, 1998.
Ofer Matan, Ph.D. is co-founder and chief technical officer at Blue Pumpkin
Software. Shannon Hughes is marketing manager for the company.