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Call Center/CRM Management Scope
February 2002  


From Call Center Agent To Net Rep: Web-Enabling Your Front-Line Staff


While telephone calls still make up the vast bulk of customer contacts today, the percentage of transactions arriving by e-mail or over the Web is increasing at Internet speed. Customers who interface with call centers are no longer satisfied using the phone or fax to communicate with companies and are demanding the option to mix and match alternate channels based on type of contact, situation and personal preference.

Many call centers are making huge investments to become 'Web-enabled' in terms of implementing the latest in technology, but are forgetting to enable the most critical part of the operation ' the front-line staff.

As multimedia contact volume grows, front-line agents must be prepared to handle transactions in whatever media choice the customer selects. However, more than just technology is required to transform telephone agents into 'net reps' or 'cyber agents.' As the contact mix changes and technology is implemented, it becomes critical that contact centers also implement a comprehensive hiring, training and performance measurement plan to ensure that staff is equipped to meet and exceed customers' expectations.

As a company migrates its call center operation to respond to Internet contacts, it will need to find or create the ideal agent to support these Web interactions. The call center should provide an environment that fosters agents' professional growth as well as one that responds to the evolving needs of customers. What follows is the four-stage process of 'Web-enabling' your front-line staff.

Step 1: Needs Assessment
In performing the initial needs assessment, it is important to consider the knowledge and skills necessary to effectively handle Web transactions. Web-enabled agents must have the skills to respond professionally to a variety of interactions including e-mail messages, text chat sessions, instant messaging, co-browsing and online forums.

We asked a group of call center executives what characteristics they felt were important in this new realm of multimedia responsibilities. In their opinion, supporting Web interactions will mean acquiring staff who have the following qualities:

  • Are adept at using technology,
  • Can learn quickly and adapt easily to a rapidly changing environment,
  • Have outstanding verbal and written communication skills,
  • Can comprehend, capture and interpret essential customer information,
  • Pay attention to detail and quality,
  • Analyze the components of a problem and develop logical solutions,
  • Reduce complex issues to workable solutions, and
  • Work smarter to prioritize and execute tasks with efficient use of resources.

While all the above characteristics are certainly desirable, they might just as well describe attributes needed for an industrial engineer, college professor or even a U.S. senator! In other words, they're not really specific enough to the task at hand to define what you may be looking for in finding ideal front-line personnel. Specific definitions that relate to Web agents' roles are needed.

In assessing your training needs, it's important to first define the knowledge and skills necessary. Beware of generalities in defining your goals. Instead, assemble a team that can come up with clear knowledge components and measurable skills that are needed. Once these are defined, you're ready to determine which of these your staff has now and what the 'gaps' are that you'll need to address in your training program.

Step 2: Assembling The Web-Enabled Workforce
Based on the ideal attributes listed above, what's the job description for today's Web rep? Where will you find these candidates and how can you ensure a good motivational fit for your center?

First, don't make the mistake in assuming that agents who perform well on the phone can translate those skills to communicate using the written word. Not all of your agents will be qualified to handle these new communication channels. Some may be stellar performers over the telephone, but may not have the writing or reading comprehension skills required to support the inquiries that arrive via the Web. So you may have to go out and search for them.

If you determine that your best option for finding Web-savvy agents is to recruit rather than train existing staff, the Internet offers instant access to a market of staggering proportions. According to Nielsen Media Research, there are over 250,000,000 Internet users worldwide, with over half residing in the United States ' so surely some of them are in the vicinity of your call center! While not everyone is using the Internet for job-hunting purposes, it still offers companies a phenomenal number of potential candidates.

Four reasons to use the Internet to recruit candidates are as follows:

Better candidates. Online job seekers are, at the very least, technologically literate.

Immediate communication. Job posters and seekers can submit openings/resumes instantly.

Convenience of 24/7 access. Posting/searching can be done anytime day or night.

Lower cost. Online job postings for 30 days can be less expensive than newspaper ads for one day!

How can you launch a successful recruiting campaign using the Internet? The initial step in recruiting candidates is to post your job opening on your company's Web site. You should have a 'Career' or 'Job Opportunities' link directly from your home page. By directing potential candidates to your Web site, you could also conduct screening and qualifying surveys using a Web-based application form to see if their skills and experience match your profile.

Next, look into posting services. These are Web sites that allow companies to post job openings for a fee. There are many generic job boards available such as Monster.com, but since you are seeking call center candidates, you will want to research industry-specific Web sites such as www.callcentercareers.com or www.callcenterops.com.

Now that you have access to a pool of potential candidates, how do you go about selecting the ideal agent? As you try to match the ideal candidate with your job description, you are basically looking for two characteristics: 'Can Do' and 'Will Do.' The 'Can Do' capabilities of problem solving, decision making and analyzing information are critical baseline characteristics. But in addition to those, make sure you look for the 'Will Do' traits of motivational fit, quality orientation and job interests. The latter characteristics are likely to be the better predictors of a long-term successful match of employee to the job at hand.

We all know that the call center industry is unique. There are numerous tools on the market today to help you test candidates specifically for this unique industry, such as pre-screening tools and call center simulators. The multimedia test from Employment Technologies Corporation (www.etc-easy.com) gives potential candidates simulated calls from customers. Another tool is the CallCenter HIRE Assessment from FurstPerson (www.furstperson.com) that helps predict the motivational fit and mental ability compared to your call center job.

Step 3: Training For Web Reps
What training is needed for your existing continued from previous page staff to transform them into Web reps? How will you train new people to handle a full mix of contacts? What's the most effective training platform?

You need to supply your staff with the appropriate tools and training to give them every chance of succeeding. As you introduce Web interactions, your agents will need to try out their new skills with role-playing scenarios. Create simulations to replicate the types of interactions the agents will be required to support. You can easily evaluate their response time, accuracy of the solution they provide and grammar/spelling errors.

Another area to include as part of your training curriculum is the use of browsers and search engines. The two most frequently used browsers are Netscape and Internet Explorer, and your agents should be comfortable with both platforms. Features such as 'favorites' or 'bookmark' should be explored since these provide quick access to Web sites and URLs. If your agents are not familiar with search engines, you can structure several interactive 'surfing' safaris to search for information. During this expedition, agents are assigned products to find as they explore the wilds of the Web using tools you provide as part of their survival kit (search engines such as Yahoo!, Google, etc.).

Your training plan should also address business writing specific to online communications. With Web chats or e-mail, it is very difficult to express emotions as well as in a telephone conversation. Written messages lack intonation, gestures and a shared environment. Traditional business writing courses can provide the necessary foundation for basic techniques, but specific writing skills for effective online communication should include how to edit the response to be as clear as possible, proofreading to catch errors, using a simple and concise writing style, acknowledging the customer's feelings, the appropriate ways to state the solution/problem/request, and how to explain the next steps.

Another important consideration in delivering the training is the platform and delivery vehicle. Since you are focusing on the Web-enabled agent, you may wish to use online resources and Web-based training wherever possible. Make sure you've considered each of the following types of Web-based training in your plan.
Standard slide presentations with audio recordings are helpful. Several inexpensive technology solutions are available to supervisors that enable them to create customized presentations with specific verbal guidelines with audio recordings saved as part of the final file. Using only a PC, a telephone, a Web browser and a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation, anyone can create and publish Web-based presentations enriched with audio. Two such tools are HotFoot for PowerPoint from Digital Lava (www.digitallava.com/hotfoot) and the Brainshark Communications Platform from Brainshark (www.brainshark.com).

Several training organizations are using Web collaboration platforms such as Placeware to deliver Web-based call center training on a variety of topics. These electronic, instructor-led (e-ILT) sessions allow users to listen to the live instructor, 'raise their hand' when they have a question and actively participate in the presentation by sending questions using a text-chat mode and providing responses to polling questions. These interactive Webinars provide a financially feasible alternative to traditional classroom training.

An increasing number of call centers are using software that is integrated with quality monitoring, telephone and workforce management systems. These systems can push training to the agent's desktop when training gaps have been identified. Combined with a link to the workforce management and telephone systems, these modules are pushed to the agent when they are scheduled to work and when call volume is low. Additional features include reports that provide feedback on students' performance and can be set up to alert supervisors when the agents do not demonstrate a grasp of the concepts.

Part of the training will be ensuring they know where to easily find information once they begin handling contacts. Obviously, you'll want to make sure as many as possible of these references and resources are online too.

Online Resources
Call centers can create the most basic level of online resources by migrating paper-based reference material used by agents to a company Intranet. Documents that would be appropriate for this format include product information (features, benefits, etc.), product manuals, selling tips and new product announcements.

Create automatic acknowledgments. The majority of e-mail management systems will allow the call center to automatically notify every e-mail sender that their inquiry has been received. This allows the customer to know their inquiry hasn't been sent into a black hole and it also allows the call center to set the expectation for the response time.

Create automated responses using macros. Creating templates with macros can eliminate the need for agents to type the same replies over and over. Some templates will allow the agents to insert additional information using a cut and paste routine to customize the response. CAUTION! Although e-mail response templates can be helpful, agents must still be able to understand what the customer is telling them. Using canned responses that do not address the customer's request can lead to additional correspondence from frustrated customers, prompt escalations to senior agents and management and generate more phone calls.

Policies And Procedures For New Media
One of the most critical components of your training program will be the creation of policies and procedures to serve as the cornerstone for how your agents manage Web interactions. When migrating from the spoken word to the written word, the legal ramifications of putting something on 'paper' grow exponentially.

We all know we should have good manners (etiquette) when we speak with customers, but are there different rules when we 'speak' using the Internet? Yes'netiquette (network etiquette) is a set of unofficial rules of behavior in cyberspace.

As agents learn more about the Internet and cyberspace, they will become familiar with acronyms and icons used to represent emotions. Below are popular acronyms and emoticons used in e-mail and various types of Web interactions.

What if your customer is using a text-chat interface and begins to use acronyms to save time and typing? Will you allow your agents to use acronyms once the customer initiates abbreviations? While you may not want your agents to sign off their correspondence with a happy face, you'll want them to at least be able to recognize some of the more common emotions to ensure they are aware of the customer's emotions and mood when they respond to a question or request.

Step 4: Evaluating Performance
Just as Web reps require different skills and attributes than traditional telephone agents, the way you measure their performance will also change. What are the key performance indicators in the Web-enabled contact center? What traditional measures are no longer relevant when measuring staff performance?

Traditional call center strategies focus on the efficient management of phone contacts to minimize cost. The Web-enabled center's strategy is to maximize each customer relationship through efficient management of all channels of customer interaction. As the business strategies have changed, so have the metrics. The following is a list of metrics you should include for Web-enabled call centers:

  • Average response time for all media,
  • Length of time since the request arrived,
  • Number of open requests in queue,
  • Percentage of closed requests versus open,
  • Number of Web responses each agent processes,
  • Error and rework rate for each type of media.

Tips For Evaluating Performance
E-mail inquiries. Hold e-mails in queue and have supervisors monitor responses before transmitting.

Chat sessions. Have the supervisor monitor the session during the chat, or afterwards by examining the chat logs.

Balance workload. Are Web inquiries assigned to the agent who has the fewest number of inquiries waiting in queue? If so, this could be a demotivator for one agent to work harder and quicker than another. Can Web responses be balanced by alternating the delivery of messages? If you choose to do this, will the slower agent have inquiries that stack up, thus delaying response time? This has many of the same challenges as skills-based routing of phone calls.

Monitor performance. Do you know how many Web responses each agent processes on an hourly and/or daily basis? Do you know the category of questions received on a daily basis and the average time to respond? What is the error rate?

Track open inquiries. How long has it been since the inquiry arrived? Has the customer received an acknowledgment? Does the agent know the answer to the question, or did he or she fail to close out the inquiry?

As market changes are putting new pressures on call centers, companies need to prepare agents to support a broader, more complex set of customer interactions. Technology can be used to open alternate channels of communication, make more customer information readily available and route contacts to the right agent, but your front-line staff must have the skill sets to use and support these transactions.

The four-stage process defined in this article will assist you in finding or creating the ideal agent to support Web interactions. By following these steps, you can provide an environment that responds to the evolving needs of your customers, and your staff will be 'Web-enabled' to meet and exceed your customers' expectations.

Pamela Trickey and Penny Reynolds are co-founders and senior partners with The Call Center School (www.thecallcenterschool.com), a Nashville, Tennessee-based consulting and education company. The company provides a range of educational offerings for call center professionals, including traditional classroom courses, Web-based seminars and self-paced e-learning programs.

[ Return To The February 2002 Table Of Contents ]

Web-Enabling A Customer Contact Center: The Human Factor


Offering customers a variety of communications methods is integral to any businesses' customer relationship management strategy. An effective Web-enabled contact center integrates contact media such as phone, e-mail, chat, Web callback, online collaboration and fax. It bridges the communications gap by efficiently solving customer service issues by providing additional access and developing stronger bonds between buyer and seller.

Before your business Web-enables your contact center, however, there are a few human factors you should include as part of your strategic planning. Some companies make the mistake of thinking the ingredients for a successful contact center involve simply deploying technology. It's important to understand that transitioning phone agents to multimedia agents is a process that requires step-by-step assessment and training to be successful. While technology enables the customer service process, humans are the ones who actually conduct it.

Assessing Human Resources
Long before implementing new technology, you must determine what new skills and knowledge your agents will need. Becoming a multimedia agent requires much more than the good communication skills needed for phone agents. Agents must also be Internet-savvy and have solid writing skills. This is why it is critical to assess the staff you have.

Have your contact agents conduct a self-assessment. Does your existing staff possess these writing skills? If not, you may need to consider hiring new staff as part of your overall plan to Web-enable your center. Remember that it isn't necessary for every agent in your center to become a Web agent. It's acceptable for some agents to work solely on the phone, while others may work chat and e-mail responses only.

Multimedia Training And Goal Setting
Once you have assessed your human resources, it's time to train your new and existing staff. Don't expect a phone agent to become a multimedia agent overnight. It requires time and complete training. Be forewarned that some staff members may not welcome these variations. An outside expert might be able to help you prepare your company and staff adequately for the event.

In addition, your supervisory staff must be well-trained in multimedia communications and understand the different business rules that will need to be established as additional contact media are added.

The next step is to establish a set of metrics, or goals, for your agents. Just as with telephony-based contact centers, parameters must be defined for each Web agent, such as how many contacts should be taken and how long a transaction should last. These standards will be different across all media. For instance, it is important to remember that while the accepted standard waiting time for phone calls may be two minutes, the accepted response for an e-mail might be six hours. Companies would be wise to use consultants to help determine what those standards will be.

Realize that these standards are ever-changing. They will reflect the consumers' comfort level with these media and should be constantly tracked. Software is available for monitoring and reporting results, and representatives need to clearly understand what's expected for each mode of communication.

Moving Forward
Keep in mind that the telephone is still a critical part of customer service. A recent survey by Modalis Research found the telephone still remains the most commonly used method of accessing customer service. Don't reduce the role of the phone agent to the lowest job on the totem pole. A skilled phone agent is invaluable, considering he or she has one of the most stressful jobs in the contact center environment. You cannot afford to under-emphasize the importance of addressing this basic form of contact.

For agents who handle multimedia transactions, it's important to train, motivate, reward and promote them at key milestones along the way, such as when they achieve success at e-mail and chat interactions. This provides a good opportunity to set up a career path for your agents so they have measurable goals set up along the road to success.

Once your Web-enabled contact center is up and running, the job isn't over. Your challenge is to be flexible and prepared to make changes as technology, resources and customers dictate. Try to avoid getting caught up in the day-to-day management of your center. The best thing you can do for your business is to consult with an expert from the outside who can help you plan for these changes, allowing you to concentrate on what you do best: running the core business.

If you follow these steps, your customers will experience a higher quality of service, while your business enjoys lower operational expenses and lasting customer relationships. Remember that good customer service isn't just installing software or technology. It's a corporate philosophy.

Frank Nigro is director of E-Application Product Management for WorldCom. WorldCom is a provider of Web contact center technology and consulting services to help companies create profit-based contact centers.

[ Return To The February 2002 Table Of Contents ]

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