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The Human Risk of Your Contact Center

Chances are you can reel off the top of your head examples of subpar experiences you’ve had with some of the world’s most recognizable brands. The most egregious of these customer service failures can go viral, impacting the perceptions and buying decisions of millions of people around the world. They reflect today’s digital age where on demand, online everywhere customers expect highly personalized, intuitive experiences at every touchpoint with the brand — and are vocal when their expectations are not met. Gone is the time when business operations were defined by process engineers and computer programmers. Today businesses are beginning to look toward an understanding of people to gain new insights into services, products and operations.

The Situation

Contact centers require careful balance among three drivers: people, processes and technology. Until companies match their investment in technology and process with their commitment to the human aspect of contact center business, problems related to customer satisfaction, sales, retention and brand perception will continue. We can now utilize technology in the workplace to do almost anything. Procedurally, many of the process analysis methods and quality improvement techniques applied to contact centers originated in manufacturing and were extended to the service operation ineffectively, or even inappropriately. As contact center operators look for a better future, the greatest challenge is also the greatest opportunity — the people.

Call Center Agents

Contact centers are like most operational areas of large companies. For the past twenty or more years, their operations have been defined by two concerns: business process and technology. Six Sigma, TQM and other process design and quality initiatives abstracted work to process steps and rigorous procedural definitions in order to define operations that would maximize efficiency, decrease defects and improve quality. These “more efficient” contact center processes would be supported by the technology du jour — client-server software, web-based applications, SaaS, the Cloud, etc. Like most business operations defined by process and technology, there is risk in the human aspect of this work environment. By assuming that efficient processes and state-of-the-art technology would bring the human aspect of contact center operations along for the ride, business operators have risked the most critical aspect of their business — people.

The People — the customer isn’t the only one on the line.

Customer service horror stories spread like wildfire because they are relatable.  However, look around the Web a bit and you will also find the anonymous tirades of contact center workers who are venting their frustrations with the perceived idiocy of the customer. In every case, whether you are listening to the frustrated customer or the exhausted operator, one thing is true: this dialog is disjointed, awkward, perhaps even unnatural. Something is wrong.

The customer may not be aware of the complex structure that is wrapped around that person who just answered their call. While they are sitting on their couch unhappy with the quality of the cable TV reception, that operator is situated in a cubicle farm surrounded by the din of other operators, training binders, policy reminders and memos, computers, software and a tote board registering interactions taken, interactions pending and average interaction times. On opposite ends of the phone or computer are people in dramatically different contexts. It’s like calling one’s kid at college during a kegger to ask when they will be home for the holidays. Two people in dramatically different contexts attempting to communicate over a specified contact medium are set up for significant challenges unless something is done to normalize their respective contexts with one another.  

Let’s begin to rethink the contact center from the perspective of human interaction. Forget interaction times and interaction volume for now. Forget scripts and business strategies. Think about what it takes to design the perfect customer interaction. Couches for the contact center operators? Maybe.

The Operations — efficiency at what cost?

Processes have been defined for every type of contact. These processes are meant to deliver optimal efficiency and to manage each operator into a predictable, consistent pattern of responses. In order to see these processes followed accurately, operators are trained and technologies are assembled to reflect the design of these processes.  

How effective can strict processes be when the customers themselves are so unpredictable? Ten customers may be reaching out to a contact center for the same reason — a service outage during a storm. From a process design perspective, these contacts may all require the same set of responses. From a human perspective though, these interactions may vary widely. An elderly woman living in a dangerous neighborhood sees her service as a lifeline during a storm. Another customer may see this outage as just another failing of a company that hasn’t been able to get their service delivered correctly in weeks. Another may just want to know if there is anything they can do to prevent an outage in the future. If operators for all of these customers are following the same rigorous process and are doing their best to shorten the duration of the interaction, might the business be at odds with the needs of the customer? Should there be a minimum contact time when that elderly customer needs reassurance and comfort from another person — a person who they believe they pay to provide a service — which is seen in their eyes as security? Quantitative business metrics must be considered, for sure. However, in a business transaction between two people, the qualitative, human concern is being ignored at the risk of the business.

The Technology

Very often, business processes are enforced across a workforce through the deployment of technology. Contact centers may be the best example of this. On every contact center operator’s screen is software meant to ‘support’ the operator in handling interactions. These systems have been developed to address two primary concerns of the contact center manager: speed and accuracy. Speed is about providing operators fast access to data, fast access to functions, and fast access to the software tools themselves. Time is money in the contact center and the faster that customer is off the line, the faster the operator can get to the next contact. Accuracy speaks to establishing predictable behaviors from the operators. By delivering to the operator a variety of scripts and workflows that correspond to contact types, software helps “mechanize” the process — theoretically delivering the same accuracy and repeatability sought in any production environment.

Contact center technology is very often viewed as the avenue to a more productive, higher quality contact center future. Over the years technological advances have had a significant, positive impact on the operator’s ability to provide information and service to customers. When contact center management concerns extend beyond traditional quantitative metrics (interaction time, wait time, interaction volume) to qualitative human-centered concerns, technology must be considered differently. Perhaps this qualitative concern challenges earlier motivations of speed and accuracy. If technology forces behaviors on an operator that are at odds with the customer’s expectations or tendencies, the well-intentioned deployment of technology may be leading interactions (and the business) to an undesirable end.

A nod to empathy, understanding, and just being nice

There’s an old saying: You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Within a company, what are the chances the culture will afford the opportunity to create a contact center staffed with people who can deliver care and compassion? Contact centers don’t lack technological capability. We can deliver immense volumes of data to the operator during the interaction. Contact centers don’t lack an appreciation for the business realities of the expense and impact of the center’s operation on the overall performance of the company. Contact duration times are assessed to the fraction of a second equating to bottom line dollars. Considering the fundamental truth of the contact center — that at its most basic level a contact center is about one person helping another — does the company have a culture of empathy or understanding that it can channel into the interactions or might a less desirable side of the company seep through to the interaction? If the culture within the walls of the company is one that encourages support and caring, this is an asset that needs to be channeled. Witness backbiting, abrasiveness and arrogance, and it may be very difficult to keep these from permeating the contact center, not to mention customer interactions.

Discovering the Human Truth of the Contact Center

It is quite possible that previous decades of investment in process efficiency and technology within the contact center is quite enough. At best, more investment in these areas is likely to lead to incremental improvement; at worst — just more of the same.  Business analysts and technologists partnered in bringing contact centers to their current state; now is the time to bring new skills and methods to bear in defining the future. Because the customer touch point in the contact center is ultimately a person-to-person exchange, think about analysts whose skills and concerns are rooted in people: designers, anthropologists, psychologists.

Driving sales through customer service interactions may be a smart business strategy. Reducing contact duration and hold time may be a metric that’s undeniably good for reducing costs. However, without understanding the human implications of such models on the customer and the operator, risk builds. It is time to bring equal concern to the human context of the customer’s outreach — and the human context of the operator’s answer.