Enhancing Agent Communications

By TMCnet Special Guest
Don Van Doren
  |  November 01, 2011

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 2011 issue of Customer Interaction Solutions

The advent of new communications methods offers innovative ways that companies interact with their customers. Many simple transactions or straightforward phone calls that used to be the bulk of the call center interactions are increasingly handled effectively through self-service channels. What remains are often more challenging or complicated queries. In addition, centers are increasingly focused on improving first call resolution – being able to address effectively the caller’s issue without callbacks or delays.  

There are a number of techniques that companies use to support agents dealing with more complex contacts and with pressure on immediate resolution. A long-standing technique is to route calls to specialized skill queues. Increasingly, knowledge management systems bring information to agents needing specific data to respond. Finally, advances in unified communications tools provide new ways to support access to real-time expertise and improved collaboration with customers. 

One familiar UC tool is instant messaging chat sessions. Many contact centers use IM internally to enable an agent to ask a question of a colleague, a supervisor, or an expert within the center. Presence capabilities allow an agent to see who is available. Presence based on skills rather than the names of buddies increases the likelihood that an agent can find the best expert quickly. In some cases, a quick IM will determine that an expert is available to be brought into the conversation. 

In many situations, however, the needed expertise isn’t located in the center, but in some other department of the company. It seems logical to extend agent visibility for IM and conferencing to appropriate experts in engineering, R&D, product management, logistics, or other groups. The benefit is that complex customer inquiries might be addressed by those best able to answer. The challenge is that there are many hurdles to make this approach work effectively. Many call center managers don’t want to relinquish control over external calls, add routing complexity, or mess with their performance metrics. Moreover, other departments don’t want their staff be on call for handling random customer queries, especially if there are few controls of when an agent can engage an expert. Finally, there are legitimate questions about whether the engineer in R&D is trained to handle this sort of interaction.

Beyond the operational and organizational issues, there are some technology challenges, too. Presence, as currently deployed, is not a very well-honed tool. Available, busy, and similar general status indicators (often set manually) do not provide the richness needed to determine which expert to engage. And presence shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all. Many current vendor offerings lack robust policy capabilities to determine who can interrupt and when. 

Other unified communications-based solutions beyond the use of IM are starting to be deployed to enrich customer interaction opportunities through improved self service through customer portals, better collaboration, and even social networking forums in which customers help each other. What’s interesting is that some of these solutions have the potential to bypass, and thus diminish, the role of the contact center. 

Customer portals, sometimes accessed through applications written for mobile devices, allow customers direct access to information about their interactions with the enterprise. Depending on the business, this could be order status, delivery dates, technical support, account balances, etc.   These can be tailored to address the business application, as well as specific customer requirements on a case-by-case basis. For high-value customers, suppliers, and partners, portals can also be enhanced to support direct connections to the advisor, designer, or production planner they interact with on a regular basis. UC offers secure presence capabilities to let customers see availability, and initiate the best contact directly. These interactions bypass the contact center, provide direct control to the customer, and build strong connections between the customer and the enterprise.

As customer interactions become more specialized and complex, UC offers a broad spectrum of tools to enhance collaboration among different departments within the organization, and can include partners and suppliers as needed. In an increasingly mobile and distributed world, UC tools rapidly organize and support appropriate interaction methods. Simple phone calls can be escalated to video or web-sharing sessions. Shared workspaces for documentation can be created. Conference sessions can be recorded for later review. 

Finally, social networking capabilities are playing an increasingly important role in helping companies establish new channels of customer interaction. While these generally operate outside the contact center, agents in a few companies establish their own social network identities and actively monitor and participate in forums. 

The bottom line is that new communications capabilities are enhancing the ability of companies to support more effective customer interactions. Contact center agents are able to do a better job because of these new tools. As companies learn how to incorporate these solutions, the old models are transforming into better ways to meet corporate goals.

Don Van Doren is principal of UniComm Consulting, an independent UC consulting firm, and a co-founder of www.UCStrategies.com. He also is president of Vanguard Communications, an independent contact center consultancy.

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Edited by Stefania Viscusi