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call center technology solutions September 1999

Logically Handling Multiple Channels Of Customer Interaction


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 center.

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, let’s 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, we’ll 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 minutes.

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 customer’s 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.

Let’s 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 that’s 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 you’re 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 can’t answer the next e-mail until you climb out from under the stack of queued e-mail.

Backlog is where it ends if you’re 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 isn’t getting read is because you’re 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? Don’t dismiss the possibility of customers sending you e-mail even if you think they don’t 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 they’ve 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 don’t 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?

Let’s 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 shirt’s tag might nudge Susie in the right direction. If you are confident with your center’s 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 you’ve 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 don’t 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.

Outsourcing Workforce Management — Another Alternative


When Paradise Island Vacations, a hotel marketing company, wanted to add efficiency to the scheduling of their contact center employees, rather than purchase workforce management technology, they chose an outsourced workforce management service. “Outsourcing provides us with all the benefits of sophisticated workforce management without the need to manage the function within our call center,” said Bob Goupil, director of operations for Paradise Island Vacations.

Outsourcing of the workforce management function allows companies to gain access to workforce management capabilities without the cost of purchasing and supporting new technology and the need to hire, train and support internal staff. Outsourcing gives smaller organizations the ability to increase their service levels and reduce labor costs without making a substantial investment in technology. Larger organizations can reallocate financial and human resources to other functions that are more strategic to their business while maintaining access to workforce management software tools.

Outsourced workforce management companies offer services designed to help clients forecast, schedule and analyze their workforce requirements based on such workforce demands as inbound and outbound call volume, e-mail, fax or Web inquiries. These services can handle such functions as short- and long-term forecasting, schedule optimization and schedule management, supplemental staffing, exception tracking, outbound planning, vacation administration and productivity analysis. Some outsource providers can create schedules and reports from varied sources in multiple locations with all information often exchanged between the client and provider over the Internet.

Outsourcing of the workforce management function is often a way companies become familiar with the benefits of automated forecasting and scheduling. As the company’s needs expand, it might decide to move to a full, on-site client/server implementation.

Some outsourced workforce management services provide companies with the ability to use skills-based forecasting and scheduling tools, allowing call centers to handle specific work demands such as those requiring multilingual or technically proficient personnel.

According to a recent industry survey, the key factors considered when selecting an outsourcing vendor include the outsourced provider’s commitment to quality, the price of the service, company reputation and flexible contract terms. The survey determined that successful outsourcing was the result of having clear company goals and objectives, open communications with the right vendor and a strong near-term financial justification.

Al Cuccinelli is vice president of sales and marketing at Interactive Software Systems. Interactive Software Systems, a full workforce management systems provider, offers outsourcing through a service called e-FORCE @Your Service. It delivers a set of schedules based on the staffing rules of the client organization and schedules based on available personnel, employee preference and skill level. e-FORCE @Your Service can also help clients augment workforce scheduling to account for vacation, new hires and other employee shortages.

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