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Dispelling the 3 Most Common Myths of Contact Center Operations

These alleged “business truths” actually hurt operator morale, productivity and effectiveness

Apple’s prelaunch campaign for its Apple Watch is the latest example of how the contact center is evolving to address attempts to push customers to specific customer service channels to meet the marketing department’s goals. The roles of Apple frontline employees at the company’s brick and mortar stores play are very different from their colleagues who interact with customers on the phone and online. Communications technologies are continuously evolving to enable this kind of division of labor, as customers can now interact with companies in person, by phone, email, online and across a variety of social media platforms. Therefore, how companies run their contact center operations, from training operators to managing busy and idle times, must also evolve. Too many enterprises still hold on to three outdated business practices to the detriment of operators’ productivity and levels of job satisfaction. The typical frontline is understaffed, undertrained and too reactive. Dispelling these three myths will result in a more efficient and cost-effective frontline that must be an integral part of any marketing campaign.

Shortly before Apple started accepting customer pre-orders for the Apple Watch on April 10, an internal memo was leaked to the media that detailed the company’s new approach to handling major product launches. Store employees were directed to tell customers to avoid their local Apple Stores and instead order online. The stores became showplaces for demonstration units and employees would answer questions, and then direct those potential customers to order on the web site.  According to the memo obtained by Business Insider, “this is a significant change in mindset, and we need your help to make it happen.” 

Along with showing just how important it is to include the frontline in the preparation for a product launch, this specific case suggests that Apple does not want long lines of customers waiting outside stores for hours in advance. While that has become a staple of the media’s coverage of Apple product launches, is not the kind of PR the company covets.

So Apple carved out specific roles for frontline operators. Store employees provided demos, answered questions and drove customers to the Apple web site. The online and telephone contact center operators shoulder the responsibility of answering questions and processing orders. Although the Apple Watch officially launched on April 24, some customers received notifications their watches won’t arrive at their homes until June. That meant the telephone and online contact center operators would also field the brunt of unhappy questions and comments, not the in-store employees.

Apple certainly is not alone in its efforts to push customers to various contact center operators, there is one constant: the increasing amount of pressure placed on contact centers to operate faster, smarter and cheaper.  “Do more with less” is the mantra despite unyielding service level objectives. Efficiency and trying to keep costs down makes perfect business sense, but too many companies hold on to three myths of contact center operation that actually hinder productivity and performance. The results are slower, less efficient and more expensive operations.

The top three tales that stand in the way of recognizing a call center’s true potential of productivity and performance include:

Myth #1 – There’s not enough time to do anything more.

Every day, in even the most tightly managed centers, agents spend 11 percent of their time sitting idle, waiting for the next call. And while they mostly occur in very small increments - we’re talking 30-90 seconds - they can all add up to a staggering amount of lost time. Workforce management tools are essential for forecasting call volume based on historical data but aren’t prepared to handle this lost time due to two factors: the data is not evaluated in real time, and it’s not granular enough as these tools only look at call volume in 15 minute intervals (much longer than the typical instance of wait time). Technology that has the power to find and aggregate these small increments of time across all agents into usable segments creates active wait time.

Myth #2 – High shrinkage is just a fact of life in the call center.

Coincidentally, another 12 percent (curiously close to the percentage of time spent idle) of call center agents’ daily activities are attributed to controllable shrinkage. These activities – i.e. “must-read” communications, after-call work, or training – fall within management’s control, because they need to be scheduled.

Rather than scheduling agents off the phone to complete these shrinkage activities (i.e. “blocking”), you can shift these tasks to be completed during active wait time (i.e. “blending”). Not only will you reduce shrinkage, you’ll increase productivity.

Myth #3 – Taking away from downtime will make my agents unhappy and negatively impact customer satisfaction.

 Is a 30-second breather really enough time for agents to sufficiently decompress between calls rather than letting agents “decompress?” Give agents an assignment that takes 10 to 15 minutes to complete. While it’s not a break (nor is a 30 second interval between calls), it’s an opportunity to do different work, learn something or complete a task that will make them better at their jobs. Really worried about your agents’ job satisfaction? Take the hours saved and reinvest it in career advancement training. Try an incentive program tied to productivity. Or reward them with a real vacation day for performance.

The Apple Watch prelaunch is just one example of how companies driven by different motivations push consumers to other channels. Banks wrestle with when it’s appropriate to drive its consumer customers to self-service channels versus trying to increase branch office foot traffic. LEGO’s website prompts consumers to self-service channels when contact center volume is high.

Today, being a productive and high performance call center requires you to think differently. The ability to find and efficiently utilize idle time could mean the difference between meeting and failing with customers and agents alike. Creating an on-going operator training program to take advantage of down time and leveraging technology tools to automate that training and the tasks such as adjusting staffing levels in anticipation of, instead of reacting to, corresponding customer demand, will accomplish two goals any contact center director should have. First, it will improve operator effectiveness and increase their levels of job satisfaction (which will also help reduce attrition) Second, it will reduce the inefficiencies and costs of trying to perform all these tasks manually. Always keep in mind that customer experience directly affects a business’s success or failure, and that an efficient and well-trained frontline is critical to ensuring the highest level of customer experience.