Operations and Management

Finding Productivity Opportunities

By Brendan B. Read, Senior Contributing Editor  |  June 01, 2011

Every organization has the same goal, which is doing more with the same, or less such as boosting productivity. The pressure to reach that objective is intensified when the economy is slow and resources are tight.

In the rush to achieve this objective there is the risk of making missteps that could cripple the effort. For example, this includes agent burnout and churn that lead to higher staffing and training costs and output lags as replacements are brought up to speed.

The challenge is finding ways to generate more results without large negating impacts. Customer Interaction Solutions reached out to leading firms to get their insights and advice on increasing contact center productivity. We asked them questions on:

* Trends affecting productivity

* New methods and solutions

* Caveats in employing them

* Productivity best practices

Here are the highlights of their responses.

Aspect (News - Alert) (www.aspect.com)

Serge Hyppolite, director of product management

Here are the productivity trends we see:

* Growth in unified communications (UC) that delivers a level of collaboration that never existed before across a host of interaction types. That includes between agents and supervisors, agents and customers, agents and experts within the enterprise (beyond the contact center) and even directly between customers and these experts

* Unified multichannel communications across voice, web, social, e-mail, IM and chat that are proving to be necessary for providing truly customer-centric interactions

* Distributed workforce (remote, at-home or flex-time agents) as organizations look to efficiently staff contact centers while keeping overhead costs down 

* Proactive (outbound) contact as it lowers contact center agent costs while increasing the likelihood of more timely payments.

Aspect has new or enhanced productivity-enabling solutions, among them:

* Aspect Workforce Management: improved scheduling and enhanced productivity

* Aspect Performance Management: improved dashboard usability, enhanced workforce management and automatic coaching

* Aspect Quality Management: provides rich search capabilities for fast retrieval of recordings and is fully integrated as part of the supervisor’s dashboard and has automated workflows that send quality scores to schedule agent coaching or evaluate agent requests

* Aspect Unified IP 7: features contextual enterprise routing and manageability, high availability, dynamic inbound routing and enhanced agent desktop to support Microsoft (News - Alert) UC&C (Unified Communications and Collaboration)

It is important to fully understand the potential and capabilities of productivity tools to drive the greatest benefits while minimizing risk. For example, while UC has proven to drive significant productivity increases, people need to be mindful of how and with whom they share data. Parameters around desktop sharing and instant messaging must be considered so as to not inadvertently share confidential information, like credit card information, or misdirect an instant message to an unintended recipient.

With social communications, people must realize that social responses are permanent and spread quickly. So it is important to have some audit processes and controls in place so that employees, agents or others understand the rules and circumstances. It’s also important to understand that in a multichannel environment not all agents are skilled in every channel. That should be evaluated in advance to avoid finding out the hard way.

There are a number of best practices that are good to follow when setting up and using tools to boost contact center productivity. Research is the first step. The second is determining the appropriate tools and ensuring that all of the components work together seamlessly.

Contact center mangers should have full visibility into the solution to be able to map skills appropriately and make changes as necessary. For instance, if someone cannot type fast they probably should not be the main agent who handles e-mail or chat queries. There should be appropriate tools tracking performance, like quality assurance or speech analytics, which can be tracked through reporting or dashboards. This way if an agent is underperforming, a coaching or training session can be triggered – which will ultimately save time and money.

Eccentex (www.eccentex.com)

Glen Schrank, CEO

A key productivity issue is that today, a majority of the contact centers still operate with fragmented IT systems. To process a customer request or a complaint, agents have to access multiple systems that are not connected by a single end-to-end process. Growth in social media interactions and web collaborations added to the channel mix. Working with a desktop cluttered with open applications greatly slows down case resolution and leads to inconsistent customer service across various communication channels.

Eccentex has released AppBase 4.0, a new version of our dynamic case management platform, which runs in a secure cloud environment. New features include pre-integrated communications and real-time channel management, which empower agents to process different types of cases and provide consistent level of service. Robust dashboards and reporting tools provide detailed visibility into the process, helping managers and agents prevent service failures. Our latest solutions increase the speed of case processing and rates of successful case resolutions.

Our solutions are meant to be set up in a secure cloud environment. Sometimes organizations are intent on bringing the system “on-premise” – but this can slow down deployment, increase the cost of maintenance and make upgrades less flexible.

It is imperative that the organizations wishing to optimize their call center operations have very clear requirements on the types of benefits they are trying to achieve and pain points that need to be eliminated. In addition, while Eccentex conducts a thorough process and workflow review in the initial engagements, it is very helpful for the process owners to be aware of their current systems. We also provide training sessions and materials to ensure quick system adoption.

FurstPerson (www.furstperson.com)

Chris Van Landuyt, director of research and development

Dashboard software and phone systems have streamlined the contact center job and increased the scope of capabilities for an individual agent, but these changes have also drastically increased the complexity [of the work]. Our research has found that screening applicants for the right skills and abilities up front has become much more important. New agents must embrace technology tools and quickly learn complex details about how to navigate several systems quickly and efficiently.

We have two new simulations in our CC Audition suite, both building on the core CCA dimensions of computer ability, accuracy, and multitasking, which are critical to all contact center positions. CCA Talk & Note incorporates live audio capture and free form account note entry to help refine the measurement of certain types of communication and technical skills. CCA Sales simulates inbound sales calls, and is designed to target the probing, persuasion and negotiation skills critical for these types of roles.

Our 1stScreen personality assessment targets core characteristics that can help determine job fit. Characteristics such as service orientation, stress tolerance, achievement and detail-orientation can be just as pivotal to an employee’s success as harder skills like keyboarding or computer ability. They can impact an employee’s productivity, satisfaction and/or intent to leave the company.

The decision to implement a pre-employment assessment process should be couched in the context of the overall health and stability of a given contact center. Often, the process for implementation includes assessing current employees and then using statistical analysis to determine which skills and characteristics really distinguish between top and bottom performers.

However, in contact centers where the culture is dysfunctional, simply cloning those top performers who have found a way to still remain effective (often despite, but sometimes because of the dysfunctional culture) can exacerbate the larger problem at hand. The culture should be optimized to allow agents to succeed.

We do not recommend or offer “off the shelf” assessment solutions. Instead, we customize each implementation to client specifications. To do so, we partner with the client to collect various types of data directly from the organization. This helps us understand the knowledge, skills, abilities and characteristics required to perform the jobs of interest. It also helps us determine which assessments (and for some assessments, which particular scales or scoring configurations) will most closely target the key performance indicators for those jobs.

Knowlagent (www.knowlagent.com)

Matt McConnell, president and CEO

Here are trends that we are seeking that are affecting contact center productivity. Customers are increasingly expecting effective personal service, and the risk of customers leaving is higher than in the past. Contact centers have also increasingly turned from a pure cost cutting mode into investing in customer experience but they want to do it as inexpensively as possible. The focus is to be more effective and solve the issue the first time, ultimately improving customer retention.

In addition, contact centers now have rich information about agents. Managers can make better decisions on agent segmentation and customer queues and routing.

On average, every agent has 16 hours per month of wait/idle time. They also have about 19 hours of scheduled off-phone activities (shrinkage), which includes communications, coaching and training. Knowlagent increases productivity by delivering these shrinkage activities during idle time, creating active wait. In late 2010 we introduced RightTime 8.5 that allowed us to push any off-phone activity, such as corporate training, call research and knowledgebase reviews, to active wait.

When discussing productivity tools, it’s only natural to ask, “When does the agent begin to burn out?” This is a valid concern but let’s state the facts:

The 16 hours of idle time per month per agent is accumulated in 15-45 second increments over time. This translates to five weeks of a really bad, boring vacation per year. From our experience, our customers convert about 25 percent or less of this wait time into productive active wait time. However, we’re giving agents breaks in bigger chunks: one 15-minute break in active wait versus thirty 30-second breaks. Which would you prefer? Active wait provides a better breather for agents from calls.

The other common caveat is, “What if an agent is taken off the phone to do active wait when the agent should be taking calls?” Knowlagent’s technology is integrated with the ACD, and it is installed by the customer to never negatively impact customer service levels. Agents are only put into active wait when they are truly idle. If their call volume spikes during active wait, our technology interrupts the agent from their active wait session and alerts them to return to the phone to be available for calls.

One best practice is to set active wait goals by call center instead of by company. When you push the goal down by center, you can drive the active wait goal higher and higher in total for the company. Another is to establish “site councils” to determine content needs. Site councils are a cross-function group of agents, supervisors and trainers from different lines of business. They meet to discuss what they need, such as information gaps, refresher courses and customer demands, to determine the content queue priorities for agents during active wait.

Nexidia (www.nexidia.com)

Jeff Schlueter (News - Alert), vice president of marketing and business development

A trend that is having positive impacts on contact center productivity is the use of speech analytics. The drive to use speech analytics has been a desire to gain a better understanding of the voice of the customer. It is also driven by a need to uncover the business processes and agent behaviors that affect productivity and ultimately, the customer experience. Speech analytics is allowing contact centers to tap into the intelligence hidden within their call recordings. They can expose the root cause of the underlying issues driving down productivity and take active steps towards improvement.

Nexidia’s (News - Alert) new Real Time Monitoring and Agent Assist solutions offer a unique way to increase agent productivity through analyzing interactions in realtime, hone in on key words or phrases being spoken, and automatically provide screen prompts. These prompts allow agents to handle calls efficiently, without the need to manually search the knowledge base for answers or the appropriate next step. They also offer agents tips on a better sales or customer retention techniques as the calls occur. Finally, these screen prompts ensure that customers are being given the correct information the first time, thus reducing multiple call backs. 

There are caveats to productivity solutions. A company must ensure that its knowledge base content is up-to-date to guarantee optimal results. If Agent Assist is not pulling from one it could negatively impact agent performance by agents supplying insufficient answers or being guided to take an incorrect action. First call resolution rates could decrease or average handle times could increase.

Using speech analytics is best achieved through a clear plan to operationalize findings. A company must have a defined plan that includes goals, how information will be communicated throughout the contact center and to those who are capable of implementing change, and how change will be monitored and measured.

A best practice for operationalization is to use a “Managed Analytic Services Team.” The Team is comprised of individuals who are experts in contact center operations and various industry verticals. Their experience guides a company’s area of focus, provides actionable intelligence, and drives implementation.

EFM and Productivity

Enterprise feedback management (EFM) solutions are not just for obtaining the voice of the customer. They also make for excellent contact center productivity-enhancing tools.

Carolyn Hall, product marketing manager, Confirmit (www.confirmit.com) says that EFM solutions can identify what metrics matter most to customers. One of her firm’s customers did just that and experienced significant results.

“That customer spent years measuring their call center success on call waiting times, but found customers didn’t care that much,” says Hall. “When they started focusing on ensuring agents could answer queries in the most helpful way, both customer satisfaction and employee engagement productivity went through the roof.”

Justin Schuster, vice president Enterprise Products MarketTools (www.markettools.com) points out that MarketTools CustomerSat EFM solution contains data from customer feedback surveys that helps managers immediately identify and resolve issues that affect agent performance. It can identify staff for further coaching or training. 

“When managers know exactly where the performance improvements are needed they can immediately coach agents about how to resolve issues quicker,” says Schuster. “Agents are able to get to the right answer faster and resolve customer calls more quickly, improving individual productivity.”

On the flip side, EFM data can also boost output by enabling managers to pinpoint agents that did exceptionally well and recognize them for jobs well done. 

“The ability to reward agents for good performance, together with proactive coaching, leads to higher job satisfaction for call center employees,” says Schuster. “Seasoned agents stay on longer, allowing the call center to avoid the productivity loss that comes with training green employees. Through improved employee retention, the entire contact center becomes more productive.”

Service Engineering For Productivity

Contact centers that want to boost contact center productivity need to focus on service engineering techniques, recommends Nina Kawalek, CEO, RCCSP Professional Education Alliance (www.the-resource-center.com).

Productivity is about throughput, she says and that’s what engineering is also about. Contact center managers need to know how to apply scientifically-based design principles and tactical uses of metrics to balance service quality, efficiency, and profitability.

The RCCSP Professional Education Alliance offers the Contact Center Service Engineering Boot which does just that, by teaching contact center managers:

*             Six Sigma design to ensure less variability in the contact center processes

*             Better models for the proper division of labor

*             Service engineering techniques to optimize the flow and routing of calls into the center

“All too often, high levels of efficiency come at the cost of low service quality,” says Kawalek. “Or, high quality service comes at the cost of profitability. By giving a value to both the center and the customer, competing demands, priorities, and issues can be balanced.”

Analytics solutions can be an invaluable productivity-enhancing tool. For example Verint’s (www.verint.com) Impact 360 Desktop and Process Analytics (DPA) provides real-time guidance to agents at the right time.

The guidance and automations produced by the solution have consistently shown to reduce average handle time, reduce errors and help ensure compliance, says the firm. It can slice time-consuming repetitive activities within and between applications.

For contact center managers who run a blended environment where agents may be used for off-phone activities, DPA, by analyzing agent working patterns, can have a dramatic impact on agent utilization and productivity. In these cases, DPA routinely quantifies over 15 percent in under-utilized capacity that can be recaptured by the business.

Increasing Productivity: InfoCision (News - Alert) Show How

Contact centers can achieve improved productivity with low turnover with high morale.

InfoCision (www.infocision.com) has shown how it can be done.

InfoCision starts by hiring agents (which it calls Communicators) who are more mature; and focused on long-term career goals, reports Steve Brubaker, the firm’s chief of staff. It put together training and development programs including mentoring where seasoned, veteran Communicators are assigned to new Communicators: offering advice and tips.

InfoCision created processes that have allowed agents spend more time talking to customers and less on other tasks such as follow-up and coding. It built proprietary applications to enhance the recognition of answering machines and other unproductive call scenarios before they reach a Communicator. It has also seen significant benefits from intelligent call routing.

The processes and applications have increased the BPO firm’s productivity in some areas by as much as 20 percent.  Brubaker reports that many Communicators have expressed appreciation for helping them be more productive and achieve higher results.

The firm has also shaved turnover, making it reportedly one of the industry’s lowest through employee benefit and amenity programs – including wellness that keeps them healthy and working – have helped it to achieve industry-low turnover rates. These allow InfoCision to keep top-performing, highly productive employees, “which is a big driver of our success,” says Brubaker. 

Brendan B. Read is TMCnet’s Senior Contributing Editor. To read more of Brendan’s articles, please visit his columnist page.