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April 2003

Averting A Call Center Collision:
Balancing Automation And Empowerment

By William Blundon, Extraprise

Ask most call center or contact center executives two questions and they will usually respond the same way. Would you like to standardize your call center interactions? Do you need to empower your call center representatives to provide personalized customer service? The answer will almost always be 'yes' to both; but the questions highlight conflicting goals in the call center. Empowerment and automation are often on a collision course.

Providing greater standardization in customer interaction can result in a multitude of benefits, especially for outbound call center practices. It decreases the cost of operations by carefully managing call length. Assuming scripts are well targeted and refined over time, it increases the number of leads per campaign and average revenue per call. It increases the number of calls per unit of time. It enables representatives of limited experience, part-time and home-based workers to interact in a consistent fashion with the customer or prospect. It enables call center operations to be outsourced or relocated to lower cost sites (including offshore locations). All of these results can effect greater efficiency and cost savings.

Empowering representatives to be more customer-friendly has a different set of benefits. It can create greater job satisfaction and as a result, decreased agent churn. It focuses the business on the quality of customer relationships instead of on the volume of interactions. It increases customer loyalty and retention. It provides a better feedback mechanism for customer concerns, new product ideas and cross-selling opportunities. Indeed, it may increase the lifetime value of customer relationships. However, it also requires a greater investment in staff selection, training in the specifics of the company's products, better teamwork and general communication skills.

Balancing the quantifiable benefits of increased automation against the longer-term gains of empowerment can be challenging. In difficult economic periods such the last two years, the nod often goes to increasing the volume of automated customer contacts. 

There is nothing inherently wrong with this conclusion, only the decision making process that leads to it. In practice, an intelligent balance of these two concepts is important to enterprises. Understanding the strengths, weaknesses and costs of both is an important process to undertake at nearly every call center operation.

Outward Bound 
The principal dynamic of any outward-bound contact center program is that it involves a predefined set of offers to a segmented list of customers and prospects at a predetermined time, over a specific period. In short, there is a great deal of predictability. As a result, there are many opportunities for automation.

When customer interactions are highly scripted, there is little opportunity for empowerment. Agents are often entry-level employees with only a few days or weeks of training. Salaries are hourly and low; churn rates are high. Customer interactions are not only scripted, but also monitored to ensure compliance with guidelines for accuracy and time expended per call. 

Since agents often have very little knowledge about the company's products or services, they have little ability to have a meaningful conversation with prospective customers, which is not part of their directed dialog. Adding a level of empowerment to these kinds of interactions can be difficult. Most efforts focus on agent morale through financial incentives or other kinds of recognition. These investments may improve efficiency and decrease agent turnover, but they do little for the customer. Empowering outbound call centers requires a higher degree of agent training, greater flexibility in how time is spent, and incentives that recognize innovation, customer service and team work. 

An analogous situation can be found in the manufacturing world. Since the early 1900s, most manufacturing organizations have used an assembly line approach where individual workers performed a single repetitive task in the overall process. More recently, there have been investments in organizing key operations into groups of teams instead of individual processes. These self-managed work teams are responsible for a predefined production level, but have some flexibility in how the work is organized and managed. Teams are incented on efficiency, but also on improving processes that impact product quality.

Inward Bound
Agents in inbound call centers face a different challenge: the customer controls the dialog. Inbound contact centers typically focus on sales and/or service, where each interaction is unique. Agents have a greater degree of flexibility in dealing with customers and prospects.

In the simplest case, the agent may register the customer for a seminar, or handle a request for literature or other product material. More complicated interactions may involve multicall sales or service cycles. In these latter cases, it is difficult, if not counterproductive, to focus on standardizing the conversation.

As companies invest more in self-service through Web sites or partner sites, customer calls are becoming more detailed and complex. While self-service initiatives have off-loaded a significant percentage of routine calls, they have increased expectations about the level of follow-on support available through the call center. Agents or support personnel must have detailed product training and immediate access to support archives and product people. 'That information is available on our Web site' is not a valid answer to a customer call.

Companies are increasingly focused on improving their customer relationships. As a result, employees that 'touch the customer' are typically more highly valued. Companies are willing to invest in training, sophisticated information systems and personal incentives. Most outbound call centers have an 'up means out' career strategy (that is, there is little room for advancement within the group). Since inbound centers require a higher level of product knowledge, employees often move in and out of the center over the course of their career. These call centers are an integral part of the company's sales or service organization, and job mobility is usually higher.

Product life cycles are decreasing, and as a result, training has become an ongoing challenge. To be effective, call center personnel need to know much more than they did just a few years ago. Training is expensive, but in the rush to decrease costs, it remains a worthwhile investment. The most frustrating experience a customer can have is to spend and hour on a Web looking for an answer to a question, and then talking to an agent who has even less knowledge about the site than the customer. Sales and service people in the call center are becoming the only human interface to which many customers have access. If they are not empowered to serve the customer, the customer is only one click away from a competitor who is more responsive.

Avoiding The Collision
Standardizing customer interactions is a worthwhile undertaking. Automating these through tightly scripted exchanges is the typical approach. When scripts are guides, they can still be efficient, customer-friendly and empower agents. When they are inflexible management tools, they can do more harm than good.

Investing in training, incentives and recognition for customer-friendly behavior involves up-front costs and on-going investments. Given the current economy, such investments may be beyond the realm of possibility for many companies. At some point in the future, and sooner rather than later, there will be a lasting economic upturn. Even if there is little money in the budget for upgrading agent skills, there are almost certainly adequate resources for planning.

Take this opportunity to rebalance investments in training and automation. Look for ways to use automation to provide greater flexibility in dialog for in-bound communications with customers. Whether it is an order, service call or simple inquiry, balancing tight scripting with some one-to-one counseling will be increasingly important as the economy expands and choice continues to broaden. Planning now costs little, reacting reflexively in the midst of an expansion is expensive.

As Extraprise's chief marketing officer, Blundon leads the consultancy's corporate marketing, strategy and thought leadership efforts. Extraprise is an international consulting company, preferred integrator and trusted advisor specializing in customer relationship management. The company assists organizations in the design, implementation and deployment of a range of CRM initiatives including analytics, marketing automation, change management, sales force automation, service and contact centers.

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