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Enhancing Your Call Center’s Relationship with – and Value to – the Rest of the Organization

From red-headed stepchild to prom queen – that’s how some overzealous experts in our industry like to think of the evolution of contact centers. They proudly speak of how centers have grown from being a necessary back-office nuisance to being the darling of the corporate enterprise. The contact center, in their eyes, now has a firmly reserved spot at the “cool kids” table in the cafeteria.

Such generalizations are more a well-meaning attempt to “motivate the troops” than they are a reflection of reality in our industry. Just talk to one of the many contact center managers today who continuously struggle to get the budget and support they need from upper management, or who never seem to gel with – nor receive the respect they feel they deserve from – the higher-ups in marketing and other key departments. Or just look at the results of the 2008 ICMI research study, Executives and the Contact Center: When asked, “Does executive leadership provide the contact center with the support and resources it needs to perform at a high level?” nearly one in three study participants answered “somewhat” or “no, not at all.” Roughly the same number of participants ranked executives’ understanding of the contact center’s value to the organization as “fair”, “poor” or “very poor.”    

This is not to suggest that contact centers haven’t come a long way since their inception; however, there is still much room for improvement with regard to the relationship between the contact center and the rest of the enterprise. These relationship troubles exist not because the contact center isn’t “sexy” or sophisticated enough; rather because, in many cases, executives and other departments still do not fully recognize the dynamic nature of the contact center, and the potential power it possesses.

Fortunately, you have the power to change all that.  Here’s how:

Share the wealth of customer data and feedback. As the “ears” of the enterprise, the contact center gathers invaluable information – every day – on customer preferences, expectations, demands and levels of satisfaction and loyalty. Such highly impactful data is gleaned during each contact via customer relationship management (CRM) applications and quality monitoring and analytics tools, as well as after contacts via customer satisfaction surveys.

Top contact centers don’t keep its customer intelligence to itself to improve operations internally; rather they share relevant customer data and feedback with various other departments and with upper management to ensure that the entire enterprise “gets” the customer, thus enabling continuous, broad-sweeping improvements to products, services, policies, processes and, oh yeah, profits.

Egg, the UK's largest online bank, would be but a shell of itself without its contact center’s highly strategic and successful customer experience management initiative in place. Driving the initiative is a sophisticated feedback management system that surveys customers at key moments during their relationship with Egg – such as just after they open an account online or complete a call to one of the bank's contact center agents – and then drills down into the survey data to uncover critical trends, opportunities and problems.
"The biggest impact this system has had lies in its ability to integrate with our customer databases and call center systems — and in its ability to drive action within our organization," says John Jennick, head of customer experience measurement and action at Egg." 

The most progressive centers have implemented task forces and teams fully dedicated to data-sharing endeavors. For example, at GE Capital Solutions Customer Support Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a Reporting and Analytics team – once a mere reactive entity serving purely a reporting function – today is powerfully dynamic group dedicated to mining critical contact information and using it to drive enterprisewide improvements, as well as to successfully launch new programs.

"We have close to one million inbound customer contacts each year, plus another one million offline transactions," explains Ed Faulstick, general manager of the GE Capital Solutions center. "We are able to capture the details on each transaction and tie it to the respective customer, sales program and asset type. Using this data, we know who is calling and why. We know which programs perform better, and which ones require less customer contact."       

Many contact centers are becoming stars in their organization by taking the reins of the company’s “social media” initiatives. In addition to scanning the Web’s most influential consumer sites and social networks and “listening” to what customers – as well as would-be customers – are saying about the organization and its level of customer service, these centers also host their own Web 2.0 community that actually invites such feedback, then share it with the rest of the enterprise. 
“As solutions like blogs, wikis, and social networking become commonplace online,” says Alex Jefferies, senior research associate with market research firm Aberdeen Group, “businesses will succeed in creating a closed-loop process with their customers – one where the insights gleaned from consumer-generated conversations drive product development and marketing decisions."

Take a “Call Center Management for Dummies” approach with execs and key departments. This is not to insinuate that those outside your contact center have low IQs, but unless they have ever worked in the center, they likely don’t yet fully understand all the unique issues and challenges that you and your staff contend with each day. Contact center professionals who consistently receive sufficient backing and respect from above and beyond the center take the time to walk influential outsiders through the key managerial aspects of customer care. These centers do this via a variety of methods, including formal presentations, workshops, videos, detailed written documents, regular meetings, etc.

“A prerequisite to getting good support from senior management – and from managers in other key areas, such as marketing information systems, telecommunications and human resources –
is that they have at least a working knowledge of how call centers tick,” says ICMI’s renowned expert Brad Cleveland. In his indispensible book, Call Center Management on Fast Forward, Cleveland lists several fundamental elements that execs need to know. Some chief ones among these are:

There’s generally no industry standard for accessibility. No single service level of email response time objective makes sense for every contact center. Instead of looking for industry standards, determine a service level/response time objective that makes sense for your particular organization – based on your customers’ needs, your goals and your cost structure.

There’s a direct link between resources and results. If you need 36 people on the phones to achieve a service level of 90 percent answer in 20 seconds (given your call load), you’re not going to hit that same objective with just 25 agents. You need to reinforce the fact that a certain level of resources is required to achieve a specific result. 

Staffing “on the cheap” is expensive. Most contact centers provide toll-free service, thus are paying for the time that customers spend waiting in queue. There are other less measurable but very real costs the center will incur if not staffed sufficiently – e.g., costs associated with burnout and turnover due to excessive occupancy/overworked agents.

You need to schedule more staff than base staff required. If you hear senior management complaining, “You mean we need to schedule 30 people so that we can have 25 people on the phones handling calls,” then you need to explain why. They need to recognize that schedules should realistically reflect the many things that can keep agents from taking calls, such as training, breaks, offline research, outbound calls, etc.   

Contact centers have become increasingly important to the organization’s success. Continually remind senior management what we discussed in the first section of this article: That the contact center enables the organization to understand and effectively serve diverse customer groups, capture marketplace intelligence and work across departments to improve products and services.

The best contact centers – those that get the budget and attention they deserve – also make sure that senior managers and other departments clearly understand what the center’s key performance metrics/objectives are (e.g., service level/response time, first-contact resolution, quality, adherence to schedule, etc.), and what impact those metrics/objectives have on the customer experience, the agent experience, and the bottom line.

Stick a headset on execs. While giving execs and marketing managers a crash-course on contact center management helps them to understand the essential aspects of your job/environment, actually dragging their butts into the contact center provides them with a true agent’s and customer’s-eye view of the organization. And don’t simply give senior managers a tour of the customer care operation and have them listen in on a couple calls from the confines of a small conference room; rather sit them at a workstation and have them both watch and listen as one of the center’s veteran agents artfully handles key customer contacts. There are few better ways to demonstrate the value and power of the contact center than to have upper management witness first-hand the impact that agents have on the customer experience and how much critical information and feedback can be captured during every single contact.

Some of the most forward-thinking contact centers go one step further by getting execs actively involved in the customer care process. At BT Americas, for instance, dozens of senior managers for the communications solutions provider are invited (over the course of two weeks each year) to the company’s Regional Center of Excellence in Atlanta to spend an entire day not only listening in on customer calls with an agent, but also working with that agent to identify at least one critical customer issue that they must help to resolve.

It’s called the “Back to the Center” initiative, but it could very well be called the Backing the Center initiative, as it has lead to a much better understanding, appreciation and support of the contact center on the part of upper management, says the vice president of service operations for BT Americas. Since launching the initiative, the contact center has implemented numerous customer-centric improvements ranging from better workflows to enhanced customer-information on agents’ desktops and a more dynamic call-routing process.

Chow down with the higher-ups and other departments. In some of the best contact centers around, managers often brown-bag it with C-level execs and members of marketing, IT, product development and other key departments – thus building rapport with and garnering support from key players in the enterprise. The tone of such meals is typically informal and relaxed, but nevertheless provides a solid opportunity for the contact center to share all the great things it’s doing as well as to casually draw attention to what the center – and the company as a whole – needs in order to be even better.  

Some contact centers actively involve their top agents in such power lunches. At Mondial Assistance (ICMI’s 2008 Global Contact Center of the Year) in Richmond, Va., the contact center taps agents’ talents and customer knowledge by having a select group of them lunch with members sales and marketing to gather key marketplace and business information, and to provide those sales and marketing with the customers’ perspective of the organization. The “Brown Bag” luncheons are held quarterly, and result in “a winning outcome for everyone,” says Pam Dufour, Mondial’s senior vice president and chief service officer.

Those aren’t the only meaningful meals that Mondial agents get to partake in. Once a month, Dufour hosts either a breakfast, lunch or dinner (to accommodate all agents’ schedules in the 24 x 7 center) that is attended by an agent from each of Mondial’s service departments and two members of the upper management team. Open dialogue is the aim of these catered meals – agents discuss concerns, share customer feedback, make suggestions and get to know members of management. “These are not business meetings,” Dufour points out. “They are casual meals among colleagues. And each and every time, I leave those meals more inspired than ever by the dedication and caring our associates have for serving our customers.” 

Create an interdepartmental liaison team comprised of team leads and senior agents. While empowering front-line employees to occasionally dine and discuss issues with other departments can be highly effective, sometimes such meals need to be supplemented by more formal and frequent meetings of the minds. To ensure that the contact center – and not the food – becomes the primary focus, many centers have wisely set up an interdepartmental liaison team comprised of a managers, supervisors, and experienced agents.

Such teams serve as ambassadors for the contact center, working closely with other departments within the organization to: a) inform the departments on what’s happening in the contact center and explain how it impacts them and the rest of the enterprise; b) learn what’s happening in the other departments and find out how it impacts the contact center; and, importantly, c) pass all pertinent information on to the rest of the contact center.

Georgia Power’s use of agent liaisons has resulted in healthy working relationships between the contact center and the company’s various departments and business partners. “We have liaisons who are assigned to either a sales team or a service organization that we work with,” explains Lisa Williams, assistant too the call center Director at Georgia Power. “These liaisons frequently interact and meet with those teams personally to help build relationships and share knowledge of processes.”

Typical tasks for an agent liaison at Georgia Power include attending their assigned team’s (e.g., sales) staff meetings, regularly reporting contact center activity to the team, and discussing ways that the team and the contact center can help each other achieve their respective goals. New processes and improvements are often developed in an effort to better serve external clients.  

In addition to strengthening interdepartmental ties, the use of agent liaisons has had a positive impact on sales revenue, profitability and customer relationships. “Because many of our liaisons work directly with the sales teams, they are learning about – and educating the rest of the call center on – how to better identify lead opportunities for particular products when handling service calls in the center,” Williams explains. “Even though we do not sell to customers directly during these calls, we are able to explore sales opportunities, understand the customer’s needs, and pass the strong leads on to the appropriate sales team for follow up. It is an absolute two-way partnership that allows us to provide quality service to our internal clients as well as our external ones.”