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ICMI Virtual: A Summit for Contact Center Professionals

cartoonWe launched ICMI Virtual on June 17 to tackle the challenges facing our evolving industry. Our sessions explored how contact centers can evolve their strategies, sustain their remote workforces, leverage metrics for greater understanding, and make the most of newly acquired technology. We bookended the day with audience-driven panels about agent experience and customer experience; our expert panelists consider where we are now and where we should aspire to go tomorrow.

You can watch all of the full-length sessions on-demand, but I'll share my highlights here:

The Current State and Future of Agent Experience

Agents are the foundation of a thriving contact center. Becky Roemen, Neal Topf, and Todd Meeks joined ICMI's Group Principal Analyst, Roy Atkinson, to unpack what's going on with Agent Experience (AX). They examined how work environment, call volume, and social distancing are affecting agents who may be working remotely.

It's natural to question how AX drives other business objectives, such as customer experience and cost to serve, Becky Roemen explained.

"The contact center is the delivery mechanism for promises made for the customer experience. We set these expectations in other areas of the organization, and our agents are left to deliver against those expectations,” Roemen said.

How we enable and equip agents to deliver on those promises is a big piece of AX. She cites agent desktops as an example of how AX might ultimately fail our customers by noting that if agents have to dig unnecessarily to answer simple questions, that unnecessarily increases handle time, which hurts both the customer and the bottom line. Neal Topf builds on Becky's point and cautions leaders that, like beauty, AX is in the eye of the beholder.

"It's easy for me to define what I think the agent experience should be, but none of that really matters if we didn't ask the agent what they want their experience to be. Agents must play a role in defining what the experience should be and give us feedback on what that experience really is,” Topf said.

Our panelists encouraged leaders both inside and outside the contact center to prioritize listening to employees and experience the work themselves.

An audience member questioned whether or not they should reevaluate key metrics for today's environment. Todd Meeks suggested that "what we're measuring is clearly going to have to change in a distributed work environment." Measuring the wrong things can hurt the agent experience. He warns that early metrics may be misleading, as agents adapt to working from home.

"You tend to work more when you work from home, and you'll see agents working more, too. Agents will take fewer sanity breaks, and this will start to cause burnout," Meeks said.

How Contact Centers Can Evolve Their Strategies After the COVID-19 Crisis

Josh Streets started his session on a positive note by highlighting how some companies have made the best of present circumstances. Zappos took advantage of reduced contact volume to launch their Customer Service for Anything initiative. Airbnb's customer service teams were instrumental in starting a new online experience offering. Amidst their merger with Sprint, T-Mobile managed to successfully transition over 12,000 employees in 17 call centers to remote work.

Contact centers had wildly different experiences depending on their industry and capabilities. While some had reduced volume, others in the financial, travel, and healthcare sectors witnessed an explosion in demand. According to Tethr, the number of difficult calls doubled on average. Leaders also faced challenges adapting to the needs of their remote employees. In a poll of our live audience, 38% said technology was their most significant challenge during the pandemic.

Streets pointed out that these challenges can be exciting opportunities if we know how to learn from them. Many are experiencing the value of remote work. Most will walk away better prepared to respond to future spikes in demand. Finally, increased scrutiny on health and wellbeing will have lasting effects on the agent experience.

How we learn from this experience will dictate the effectiveness of our recovery and preparedness going forward. Josh introduced the traditional post-mortem analysis, an often lengthy process of documenting incidents after the fact. While this method is thorough, he pointed out that thoroughness isn't always required to generate actionable lessons learned. Often, a more streamlined after-action review (AAR) is sufficiently useful and delivers more timely improvements. You may even use AARs while an incident is ongoing to make course corrections based on present experiences.

Creating a Sustainable Remote Work Model for Contact Centers

Scott Sachs recalled his first experiences with remote work. Initially, agents worked from home for predictable, short-term disruptions, due to a shortage of physical seats, or to reward for top performance. As businesses begin to embrace the benefits of long-term remote work, he suggested focusing on four areas to sustain remote work success.

First, Sachs said, revisit the new hire process. Organizations will need to rethink their job descriptions and selection processes. Remote employees must cooperate as a team, but also be comfortable with independent work.

Next, revise the training process. Delivery methods will need to change as employees learn in virtual environments. There's renewed importance on learner engagement and enjoyment, as they don't have the social interaction that naturally occurs in a classroom.

Third, enhance employee communication. Supervisors and managers must consider how effective their coaching model will be for remote employees. Scott noted that excellent supervisors in the office may need to learn new skills to relate to their remote workforce. Additionally, your agents will need a way to reach out for help on the fly.

Lastly, create an effective work environment. Leaders must help agents to adapt their personal spaces for remote work. It's crucial to consider the technology environment, too. Agents will be more reliant on technology as their remote tenure continues; having the right equipment and software to support them is essential.

Transforming Data Into Information That Drives Decisions and Action

Contact centers have a plethora of data to make decisions, but as Wendy Fowler explained, data is only the first step toward better operations. Having too much data makes it challenging to target your efforts. Our live audience responded that 59% receive more than ten reports each week, with 19% receiving more than twenty reports. For these reports to be useful, data must be processed and organized to create information. Only upon careful analysis of information can insights be gleaned to influence positive actions.

Because it's so easy to become overwhelmed by too much data, Fowler recommended taking steps to focus our research. First, she encourages asking tough questions to ensure we measure the right things. Metrics that don't support strategic business goals or serve the intended audience are a distraction. Next, she reiterated the importance of putting data into context to further our understanding. We must consider whether the data is relevant and then assess its impact on the contact center. Then, it's possible to use statistical techniques such as standard deviation, coefficients, and correlation formulas to understand the data better. In this step, we may notice trends worth investigating, variances that require explanation, or identify variables that drive metrics in one way or another.

Finally, Wendy shared the importance of clear data visualization and storytelling in communicating the insights derived from our information. Wendy shares some common pitfalls of data visualization that may surprise you; watch the full session to learn more about them.

From Scrambled to Strategic: Making the Most of Cloud Technology

I shared my strategy for maximizing returns from cloud technology. Many contact centers adopted new technology platforms in a hurry over the past few months. One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to "set and forget" our most important tools. We're always working to improve our service delivery; developing our existing technology requires just as much attention. To reinforce the idea of continual, iterative technology improvements, I introduced the LEAPER Value Optimization Framework.

Learn: Reserve time for yourself and your team to seek out new ideas. Take advantage of the many free resources available now.

Enumerate: Write all ideas down as you learn, like brainstorming.

Assess: Evaluate how the ideas you generate impact customers, agents, and the business. Make a spreadsheet!

Prioritize: Turn your ideas into a long-term technology roadmap; avoid being overwhelmed by trying to do everything right away.

Execute: Put your ideas into action while avoiding scope and feature creep.

Review: Conduct after-action reviews, similar to those that Josh mentioned earlier. Repeat the cycle.

The number one thing I hope my audience will take away from this session is to create a recurring appointment with themselves in their calendar application, setting aside time to explore and be inspired. All it takes is one or two hours each week, and you can make this choice right now. Go on, try it. Technology drives agent and customer experience; we must make time for what's important.

Ask the Experts: Rerouting Customer Experience for Today, Tomorrow, and Beyond

The festivities closed with a great conversation about customer experience with Roemen, Nate Brown, and Charlie Godfrey. The panel was asked if the foundations of customer experience (CX) are still relevant.

Nate Brown jumped in to remind us that only a few years ago, "CX was just a glorified survey program, and that was the finish line!" He emphasized the importance of quantifying the impact these initiatives have on customers and the return on investment. Nate points out that brands are being made and broken right now, and those with a solid CX foundation can recover more quickly and gracefully.

We also discussed the importance of customer experience in business continuity planning.

Roemen explained, "The moment we have to react to something, all of our digital touchpoints get slammed. We have to be prepared for the volume that happens in reaction to these world events." 

CX practitioners must understand how external disruptions impact customer journeys, and this is most important for contact centers who are first to feel the effects.

Later in the discussion, the panel discussed how customer experience and contact center metrics may need to adapt to new circumstances. Average Handle Time (AHT) came to mind immediately because agents are dealing with more complex and emotional contacts than ever.

Charlie Godfrey added, "I guess I'm a data geek because I keep going back to the data. Leaders should be looking at the correlation between handle time and the actual business outcome."

He suggested investigating what AHT looks like for an agent who scores highly on strategic KPIs such as Net Promoter Score or First Contact Resolution.

All of the sessions are now available on-demand; make time for your continued growth.