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The Future of Customer Service: Industry Game Changers

A Q&A session with: 
  Mariann McDonagh, Chief Marketing Officer, inContact

  Linda Riggs, Strategic Training Director, ICMI

What do the next five years look like for the contact center?

Mariann McDonagh and Linda Riggs recently presented the results of ICMI’s 2012 Call Center Short and Long-Term Goals and Investment Trends report in The Future of Customer Service: Contact Center Trends and Investment Strategies webinar, sponsored by inContact.

The webinar discussed current contact center priorities and complexities that many centers are facing, as well as the expectations that management has for their centers in the next 5 years. It also covered the industry Game Changers: services, strategies or technologies that could literally change the face of the industry in the near future.

During the webinar, Mariann and Linda responded to questions that were submitted from our live audience. However, due to time constraints we were unable to get to all. After collaborating on the answers, we decided it would be beneficial to post these answers on our website for our entire community.

Game Changers

Q: Do you see social media as a game changer?

Mariann: I absolutely do. Social media has leveled the playing field for customers in a way that we have never experienced before. It gives customers the power to be heard about their experiences with your company – whether they are positive or negative – and enables them to share those experiences with hundreds or even thousands of others. In addition, the rise of customer communities provides a tangible opportunity for organizations to deflect service issues away from the contact center and into the hands of rewarded, motivated and empowered “super users.”

But, like the famous line in Spiderman, "with great power comes great responsibility." The rise of social media truly requires that your company can meet your customers where they are and where they are communicating, so a real multi-channel strategy becomes an imperative for most contact centers. And, according to industry analyst DMG, only 20% of North America contact centers are delivering service beyond voice today.

While social media is a real gamer changer, contact centers are struggling with its role in the overall service experience. Much of the one-to-many facets of social media are driven by Marketing and the stewards of the brand. So the contact center needs the right process and technology to deliver on those service-oriented social media instances to the right agents at the right time for action.

Linda: I’d have to agree with Mariann. Where I see it making the biggest difference is in the number of people who can be easily reached. When you look at scenarios like the now-famous “United Breaks Guitars” YouTube video, we have a bigger ballgame to play. Where we used to say that if 1 person has a bad experience with a company, they’ll tell 10 of their friends, it’s now one person can reach 600,000 in 24 hours, if it goes viral on the internet.
So, it isn’t a matter of whether we should or shouldn’t be monitoring and responding; it’s who will respond (e.g., marketing or the contact center?), how quickly, and by what medium.

Q: In terms of social media, do you measure productivity or do you measure social reach?

Mariann: I don’t think that the contact center should be focused on social reach. In my view, that’s a marketing metric that doesn’t really reflect whether the center is being successful in their social channels. And productivity should NEVER be confused with customer success, though I think it is important to take into account the volume of social transactions as they rise and begin to impact overall staffing requirements. I would advocate that we need to extend NPS and other overall customer sat measurements to include social as a customer channel and how well (or poorly) we are delivering service through it.


Q. What would be a "ground level" way for contact centers to prioritize their current and future goals?

Mariann: Wouldn’t it be interesting to look at your goals through the eyes of your customers? So of the myriad of projects that vie for attention and funding, only those that will have customer impact make it to the top of the chart. And then set a concerted goal that each achieve a very specific customer result – increase in sat, reduced attrition and better reference scores.


Q: What process do you suggest for calculating FCR? Should methodology be different for various call reasons?

Linda: First-contact resolution has become a popular performance measure in contact centers in recent years. I believe it’s a good high-level objective, and should be treated as an organization-wide initiative. Some parts that make up FCR can be built into quality objectives for agents, but not all of the FCR components are within an agent’s control. I suggest being careful in selection. You can track FCR through a variety of sources: quality monitoring, customer feedback data, call coding, data on callbacks, or any combination thereof. Benchmarking against other contact centers is not advised, as there will be a variety of definitions as to what constitutes FCR. Develop your own definition within your organization and measure based on that.
I also highly recommend measuring two ways: as an internal measure, and based on whether or not the customers believe their issues were resolved. If the two aren’t matching up, find out why. For more information on FCR, I highly recommend Brad Cleveland’s book, Call Center Management on Fast Forward (pgs. 277-278).

Q: How can we drive FCR within a customer base that does not believe in/value self-service options?

Linda: First-contact resolution is about resolving the customer’s issue(s) the first time they reach out to you. If the customers don’t value self-service options, this means they want to interact with your agents on a more personal level. This is not a bad thing!
It simply requires that you determine what constitutes FCR for your center, based on what your customers want, and provide that for them. (Please see the previous question’s answer for more).

Q: How can we keep our service levels up while agents are in training (particularly on new material)?

Mariann: I have always been a big believer in training delivered to agent desktops during breaks. As we bring on more and more millennials into the contact center workforce, they are truly adept at learning this way – and actually prefer it to time-intensive, off-the-floor classroom training. So as long as content is purpose-built to be engaging online and tests their skills, this is one of the most effective ways to train while ensuring you meet your SLAs.

Linda: Keeping service level up during training is a matter of good planning and communication between those involved in scheduling the training and workforce management. While I like desktop training for some things, as a learning and development expert, I believe strongly in blended approach with CBT (computer based training) and the classroom. Nothing will ever truly replace the interactivity between the trainer and student. Time in the classroom can be made more efficient with e-learning.

Q: Do you have any insight on the efficiency of an agent trained for blended sales/service vs. employing separate sales agents from service agents?

Mariann: Mathematically, there is always an efficiency gain by expanding the group of agents for which calls can be delivered. The real question when it comes to blended sales and service is around the efficiency / effectiveness balance. To varying degrees, depending on the nature of the sales function in your organization, sales and service can require very different skills. As anyone who’s walked this road ahead of you will tell you it can be a challenge to find employees who are strong performers in both areas. With a careful plan that starts with a test group for which you increase the quality monitoring frequency, incorporate lots of coaching, and carefully monitor your critical KPIs to compare to non-blended performance, you should quickly have an idea of whether it’s right for your group. eLearning is another great way to build any skills they may be lacking. Finally, keep in mind that with any new skill, talk time tends to be longer at first as confidence is gained, which of course could negate your efficiency gains by blending initially. Expect to see that talk time come down as your agents get comfortable in their new blended role.

Linda: I think we’ve struggled with this question for at least 25 years now. Pooled agent groups are more efficient. But, from the perspective of service, how are we viewing sales? I think this really speaks to culture as well as mathematics. If we see sales as a numbers racket versus enhancing the customer’s relationship with us by educating them on what we have to offer, then our service-oriented folks are not going to be motivated to sell. If our sales environment is also based on commissions, there are some folks who aren’t motivated by that. They are usually your best customer service folks. If you want an efficiently run sales-service center, by all means go for the pooled queue. But, be sure that the culture doesn’t leave service at the door, and that agents are properly trained, coached and supported.

Q: How has the need for continued training been affected by the increasing effectiveness of accessible knowledge management tools? Why is building knowledge management so difficult?

Mariann: For better or for worse, I don’t think we will ever escape the need for training in the contact center, as agents support broader portfolios of products, many tiers of service and juggle complex technical issues. But world-class knowledge management that is context-sensitive and delivered to an agent’s desktop on the fly in mid-contact can help transform the dull, dry agent into a real agent superhero! But the challenge is this… knowledge management is often held hostage by the volume of work in our contact centers – we are just too busy to add articles to the knowledge base or to spend 30 minutes adding a real-life troubleshooting string to an FAQ. The best way to build knowledge is to establish KPIs, incentives or rewards around its creation.

Q: What are contact centers currently doing as far as creating a way to perform proactive [outbound] calls that will deflect and shed [inbound] calls?

Mariann: They’re doing a great deal! This is such an important trend right now. Proactive service/service recovery can be very effective at minimizing inbound calls, and increasing customer loyalty and satisfaction. There are three main “triggers” that we see for this activity.
The first is straight service recovery, where the customer was (or was likely) dissatisfied with the service received and the goal is to retain that customer and recover the relationship. These incidents can be identified via quality monitoring, via customer surveys, via reporting (self-service problems or repeated unsuccessful contacts from the same number) or via speech or text analytics. The idea is to proactively reach out where a problem is identified and retain/mend the relationship, thereby preventing the expected additional contacts or loss of business. Some organizations even have built sophisticated models to identify propensity to leave and have been able to show tremendous ROI for their organization based on proactively recovering those accounts.

The second is proactive contact related to misinformation. This is related to the first type but may or may not have resulted in customer dissatisfaction (yet). This is where either through agent error or at times wrong information being supplied internally to the contact center, information has gone out to the customer that is incorrect and will likely result in future contacts and problems. These are typically identified via quality monitoring, speech/text analytics, or an internal identification that the agents were supplied with wrong information which may have impacted a number of calls. Clearly if customers were being told they’d receive their welcome packet in 2 weeks and the reality is 4, proactive contact can avoid a great number of inbound calls, and can be scheduled based on downtime in inbound call volume.

Finally, the third type we see is proactive contact based on upcoming events that historically drive high call volume. These are triggered through internal planning meetings and historical reports, and may cover future activities like an upcoming enrollment period or big mailer about to go out, for example. While it may be impractical to proactively contact your entire customer base, some organizations identify customers with a long history of calling vs. using self-service during this period, and begin having agents make proactive outbound calls to these customers during downtime several weeks before they know the heavy activity will hit, to talk them through the options, how to use self-service, get them signed up early, etc.

Q: How do you get senior management's buy-in (as they tend to look at the call center as a cost)?

Mariann: According to research from the Strativity Group, customer service has dramatically increased in importance to executives across the business. This is great news for service professionals and for companies like ours, as investment in service software and staff will grow to their highest levels in history. But with executive interest comes a price – to prove our strategic value to the business. To drive revenues and not just manage costs. To be a growth driver for the business.
But in order to demonstrate business impact, contact center managers need to connect what they measure to what the business cares about… ensuring alignment of company goals with contact center goals. Analytics – especially speech analytics applications that can categorize calls and tell you why your customers are calling - can also be a strategic game-changer for the contact center, especially when this information is shared company-wide.

Linda: The contact center is the hub of communication for the organization. That’s a fact. This is the message that senior management needs to understand in order to buy in. There are so many data points that can be shared with all areas of the organization from marketing, sales, research & development to legal, HR, billing, etc. I suggest creating a liaison to develop relationships with each of these departments and to share data gathered that pertains to them. Quality monitoring data is invaluable, customer feedback, speech analytics... I could go on. The contact center is a gold mine of information to help the organization improve its ability to serve its customers better than anyone else.

Q: What can we do in the IVR to help the contact center be more productive?

Mariann: Measure, measure, measure. Last year, we did a self service survey with ICMI and uncovered some really sobering statistics. While more than 70% of the organizations we surveyed had IVRs in their business less than 25% their impact. They had a limited view of containment, abandonment and impact on other contact center channels. IVR can be a monolith – it must be organic and constantly tuned, tweaked, measured and improved for optimal outcomes. As you customer directly – they’ll tell you where your IVR is frustrating or make it easier to do business with you.

Q: Do you think there are specific differences between a customer contact center that is engaged on a B-to-B level compared to direct consumers?

Mariann: Cloud technology is germane and applicable to both B-to-B and B-to-C centers. Its all about getting the right call to the right agent at the right time. But I think in today’s customer-driven environment, B-to-C centers have even bigger challenges and a more urgent mandate to address the need for social, mobile and multichannel service approaches. While business customers may be “gentler” in their expectations of service providers, the average consumer compares ever service experience to the one that is their go-to favorite. For me, I want every business I deal with to be like Amazon…know me, make the service fast and easy and provide a great deal, every time.

Linda: The stakes tend to be higher with B to B, as a business account is, by nature, larger than an individual consumer. However, business points of contact ARE individuals (most of the time) and their interaction with a company is going to be a personal experience. Just as consumers talk amongst themselves, so do companies. Word of mouth (good or bad) can greatly affect the B-to-B business just as much, if not more, than at the individual consumer level.

Thank you to Linda and Mariann for sharing your expertise on these topics with our ICMI audience!

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To learn more about The Future of Customer Service, you can access ICMI’s other resources on including the The Future of Customer Service podcast, The Future of Customer Service: Contact Center Trends and Investment Strategies webinar (available on demand), and our complimentary whitepaper, Leveraging Complexity: Trends and Strategies for Future Success in the Contact Center.

You can purchase the corresponding research report, Call Center Short and Long-Term Goals and Investment Trends.

Christina Hammarberg is the former associate editor at ICMI.