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Optimizing Agents In An E-Services Environment
As Online Services Gain Momentum, Agents Play A More Critical Role Than Ever

By Peggy Gritt, Interactive Intelligence
• A special editorial series sponsored by Interactive Intelligence•


The analysts at Radicati Group didn't say how many of those e-mail messages are expected to be business related, but there's a good chance a few billion of them will flow in and out of contact centers, along with Web chats, call-back requests, escalations to live agents, FAQ auto responses and other online transactions as more and more consumers cozy up to their computers to contact and interact with businesses.

For as popular as e-services have become, and for as much as automation can easily off-load tasks such as FAQs and customer inquiries, historically reserved for agents, the fact is today's consumer nation still wants the telephone and fax machine to coexist with Web and e-mail contact options. That means the helpful agent on the other end of a phone call must now also be able to type responses in a Web chat and author e-mail answering those which the customers send in. Moreover, supporting online and automated services in a multichannel contact center requires the right collaborative software and knowledge management tools ' as well as business and process planning that doesn't just include agents, but highlights them, their skills and the overall role they play in an e-services environment.

E-services can absolutely have a strong and powerful impact on most contact centers, but the effective use of a combined e-services agent model is the most likely success scenario for the foreseeable future. Call it the need for human interaction, or simply the theory that no person will ever be fully replaced by technology. If your contact center wants to be competitive in the e-services arena, remember that agents are still your most valuable asset.

Doing What The Dotcoms Didn't
Although they had the right idea in targeting a growing online market, most dotcoms lacked the business plans, marketing savvy and customer service know-how to sustain their initial momentum. The bigger problem, though, was that many dotcom startups somehow forgot about phones (and fax machines) still being viable customer interaction channels, and they never thought twice about a call center and factors such as knowledge management tools.

Turn your attention to traditional brick-and-mortar businesses and contact centers. Now with a much better grasp of online services and the customer experience, they've planned e-services strategies that align with their business and customer service initiatives as a whole. The successful ones have also enhanced Web capabilities or launched new ones to offer Web chats, call-back requests and escalations, in many cases supplementing other services like IVR and speech-enabled applications. They've also implemented e-mail and knowledge management systems to handle customer inquiries and automatically respond to FAQs, and tied everything together with CRM and interaction tracking systems.

Unfortunately, while many contact centers have maintained a focus on an agent's role within a combined multichannel/e-services environment, many others have miscalculated where their agents actually fit in.

Multichannel Gatekeepers
In Forrester Research's September 2003 report, 'Contact Center Investments Require Internal Modifications to Generate Savings,' analysts predicted that automated customer self-service options could reduce a contact center's operation costs up to 90 percent and could increase revenues anywhere from two percent to 18 percent per transaction ' good news. Many contact centers that have implemented self-service automation as part of their e-services offerings are indeed seeing better numbers in earnings statements.

Still, self-service automation is only one component of the e-services environment. And e-services are only one component of the overall multichannel approach to customer service. That is, full-service contact centers using a multichannel communications platform must still queue and route phone calls and faxes along with e-mail and Web contacts. More than ever, they also need agents who are skilled ' and equally equipped ' to handle each interaction type. Therefore, adding collaborative software and knowledge management tools to an agent's arsenal becomes more crucial in optimizing your agent workforce as multichannel gatekeepers.

Agent Optimization: Completing The E-Services/ Multichannel Loop
Think of 'disconnected' as the operative word here. Even when contact centers integrate e-services on the customer end, they don't always connect the dots at the agent end. Some agents are tasked with e-mail, some handle Web chats, others are relegated to the telephone and Web call-back requests, or maybe agents are simply segmented into workgroups to manage each specific type of interaction. Depending on a contact center's operational framework and process flows, such agent arrangements might well be effective.

But agents who work across channels to handle all media types ' non-real-time as well as real-time ' are better suited to provide service continuity and upsell or cross-sell to a customer; for instance, one who sends an e-mail (non-real-time) and then calls afterward with a follow-up question (real-time). Also, with collaborative software and knowledge management tools at their fingertips, such as pre-authored response statements for Web chats and e-mail, agents can speed interaction times rather significantly. Doing so multiplies a contact center's opportunities to handle more interactions and, in turn, generate more revenue.

In fact, thousands of contact centers have already fit e-services into the multichannel agent equation ' and are thriving because of it. Yet because thousands of other contact centers are still trying to find the balance between phone calls, self-service automation and positioning agents to manage e-services interactions such as Web chats and call-back requests, they still have some homework to do. Translated, they need to complete the multichannel loop and put agents on center stage to offer consistent, personalized customer service across all media channels.

Succeeding At E-Services
Let's look at some of the most common issues that keep a contact center from fully utilizing agents in e-services situations ' along with the multichannel processes and collaborative software and knowledge management tools that can take online options and customer service to world-class levels.

'Island' technologies and agent tools. Many contact centers simply aren't able to optimize agent talent in an e-services environment because the technology they use forces them to segregate e-mail agents from Web site agents from phone service agents. Many agents also aren't equipped to manage escalated interactions or tie interactions to customer data for search and retrieval later. Even if agents do cross over and learn multiple systems, their tools are often separate and leave no way to measure agent performance across all media types.

Fortunately, pre-integrated solutions such as the Interactive Intelligence Customer Interaction Center (CIC) and its e-FAQ knowledge management application eliminate the multisystem island approach with a single, multichannel platform and application suite. CIC also integrates to today's most popular e-mail and CRM systems and consolidates agent tools for call control, Web contact management and e-mail, as well as knowledge management, in a single desktop interface for agents and supervisors alike.

Better yet, both CIC's multimedia queuing and its skills-based routing allow a contact center to process all media types, elevating agent productivity by assigning multiple interaction types simultaneously to leverage an agent's skills per media type. And remember the pre-authored response statements for Web chats and e-mail? CIC additionally allows agents to simply point-and-click to offer rapid suggested responses for non-phone interactions.

Inconsistent service levels across media types. Whereas multichannel options to call, send a fax, initiate a Web chat or get a FAQ auto response can endear customers to your contact center, they can't reasonably expect to know where or how their interaction or inquiry was routed internally if agents don't have the collaboration tools they need to handle multiple media types.

For example, a customer requesting a Web chat wouldn't expect to receive a call-back if an agent can't participate in chats. And if the agent can't pick up the chat or transfer the customer to an agent who can, that customer might easily get the impression he or she shouldn't expect a response on any media type chosen. So the customer gives up on trying to contact you, subsequently never returning. The same thing goes for agent workgroups assigned to a particular media type. Again, say a customer sends an e-mail and calls to follow up. An e-mail workgroup might or might not process the e-mail at the same time another agent is processing the customer's follow-up phone call regarding the e-mail. The result is a disconnection in service ' and a customer experience that is far from satisfying.

For streamlined, consistent service, agents should have desktop access to tools for each media channel, along with the ability to hold, transfer, escalate and even re-queue all media types whenever necessary (all of which is offered in the Customer Interaction Center software).

No tracking for multiple interaction types from a single customer. Compounding the problem of the same customer leveraging multiple media types for interaction is a lack of interaction tracking; or, more specifically, tracking a customer's various interactions across channels back to their contact history, account information, CRM record, etc. Go back to the customer who sends an e-mail and then calls regarding the inquiry he or she sent; agents across a contact center can't search for that customer's e-mail, retrieve it and resolve the problem appropriately while the customer is on the phone. Instead, the customer must start over and duplicate inputs or repeat details of the inquiry to a different agent.

The best solution, therefore, is one such as CIC's pre-integrated Interaction Tracker application to track customer/agent interaction histories back to all media types, as well as to a customer's CRM record for instant retrieval and shorter resolution times. CIC's screen recording feature for non-phone interactions also allows transaction-oriented e-services centers to record and retrieve all interaction types linked to a customer's account information.

Insufficient supervisory monitoring, agent measurement and quality scoring. Along with tracking all interaction types, the ability to monitor more than only phone calls is critical in an e-services environment. For agents, that means being able to process e-mail messages and still view and track other interaction types from that same customer. Supervisors also must be able to see all customer interactions ' regardless of media type or the agent processing them ' and must have the proper tools to score agents on quality and compliance. By scoring how an agent interacts on a Web chat as well as on a phone call, supervisors can more accurately measure each agent's performance and assign media types that optimize that agent's skill set.

The Final Word
The Web-based and automated self-service options that make up e-services have introduced a whole new dynamic for contact centers, allowing them to more effectively attract and retain customers and raise revenues. However, with all of the multichannel contact options on which customers insist, e-services require an even greater level of agent involvement across all channels to give customers the personalized service they deserve. By combining collaborative software and knowledge management tools with the proper planning and a continued focus on 'one customer, one agent view,' contact centers can successfully extend e-services to their customer base and prosper even more financially as a result.

Peggy Gritt is Senior Director, Product Marketing for Interactive Intelligence Inc., a global developer of software for contact centers and the enterprise since 1994. Interactive Intelligence has offered its e-FAQ solution for e-services automation since 1999, and today remains a leading innovator of e-services applications. Contact Interactive Intelligence at 317-872-3000 voice and fax, or visit www.inin.com for more on the company's complete suite of self-service and IP contact center solutions.

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