Is There Room for Autonomy in the Contact Center?

By Steve Brubaker, InfoCision Chief of Staff

Contact centers have traditionally operated with a top-down business strategy, where managers hand down orders to agents and then check in to keep progress moving forward.

In recent years, though, we have seen many contact centers embracing autonomy in their departments, where agents essentially manage themselves. This is becoming increasingly common in the technology industry, and it’s spreading over into other fields as well.

The idea of workplace autonomy is relatively new, and studies show that it can be very beneficial to an organization when it’s implemented properly. In fact, many workers today value autonomy in the workplace as much as they do a competitive salary. Autonomous work environments have been proven to make workers happier and healthier, and they can also reduce employee turnover in the long run.

So, is this a strategy that you should implement in your contact center? Before you take action and tear down your wall of middle management, there are several points you will want to consider.

First and foremost, spend some time analyzing your current environment and speaking with agents and managers. Some of your managers may not like the idea of working on a level playing field with agents that they have been working with, and may require special considerations like promotions or raises. Embracing autonomy could upset certain power dynamics that are at play in your department.

You will also need a plan in place to keep workers from going rogue or under-performing. Agents should be reminded that with autonomy, and less middle management, comes the expectation that all workers will meet their expected goals while also continuing to adhere to company policies.

Suffice to say, it’s a lot easier to move forward with autonomy when using cloud-based reporting tools.  Many cloud contact center providers today offer tools that will allow supervisors to periodically check in on agents and make sure everything is running according to expected standards. Using these tools, contact center administrators can embrace autonomy without having to worry about losing control over their department. For example, supervisors can silently sit in on calls from time to time, check reports and take action when it is needed to correct bad behavior.

One of the best ways to embrace autonomy in your contact center is to do it slowly. Try giving your agents greater leeway at first, and see how they react. You will know almost immediately whether your team is capable of handling the change. And in time, you could create a happier, healthier work environment where agents feel empowered about their jobs. Plus, you will bolster your contact center’s reputation as a top place to work. This will help you attract stronger job applicants.

Double Down on Contact Center Productivity This Summer

By Steve Brubaker, InfoCision Chief of Staff

Once again, it’s National Small Business Week here in the U.S. — an annual event designed to recognize all of the hard working Americans (more than half) who own or work for a small or medium-sized business (SMB).

Of course, National Small Business Week is also a time of reflection for small business owners. It’s an annual reminder to stop and ask yourself whether your business is growing at a healthy trajectory. You should do this whether you want to grow into a large enterprise, or whether you just want to make enough money to continue doing what you love long into the future.

Unfortunately, many SMBs are forced to close their doors before they are ready to do so. According to the Small Business Administration, 50 percent of SMBs will survive five years or more. This figure falls to just one third after 10 years or longer.

With this in mind, it may be time to reconsider your summer business strategy. Like many SMBs, your company may slow down during the summer months when employees go out of town and work shorter hours. While this strategy can boost morale in the short term, it can also be detrimental to your business’s overall bottom line. There is not much room for snoozing at the SMB level.

Understand that it’s possible to adopt a fun summer mindset in your business without having to sacrifice your business’s financial goals. You can accomplish this by making some minor chances to your contact center’s outbound strategy.

Here are some tips to consider:

Increase your outbound calls: Unlike inbound sales, which generate revenue on a rolling basis, outbound sales require a bit more effort. The only way to make money with outbound calls is to actually pick up a phone and connect with a customer. With this in mind, think of outbound calling as a numbers game. If you increase your outbound calls, you will increase your chances of closing more deals. It’s that simple. The trick, though, is to work smarter and not harder. Make sure that if you raise your call quotas, you are providing your agents with quality leads that have already expressed an interest in making a purchase.

Offer incentives for agents: The trick is to motivate your agents to close more deals in a way that excites them, instead of making them fear rising outbound call quotas. One way you can do this is to offer special incentives for agents that want to work harder or get ahead of the game. Incentives can be financial, work-related (like extra Work-at-Home privileges), or just fun. This is a nice way to show your agents that you appreciate their efforts, and want to reward them for their hard work.

Host summer events: Summer is a great time to host lead generation events like webinars, as you will have a better chance of catching employees at other companies who have extra time to register and sit through an event. From an outbound perspective, you can use a webinar to connect with interested leads. Research shows that a lead responded to within 5 minutes will be 100 times more likely to be qualified. However, less than 25 percent of companies that receive a Web lead will respond over the phone. And only 27 percent of Web-generated leads get contacted at all.

Use these tips to have a fun, but profitable summer. By taking a more aggressive position during the next quarter, you will set yourself up much better for a strong end of the year sales push.

24/7 Customer Care: A Growing Trend for Contact Centers

By Steve Brubaker, InfoCision Chief of Staff

Put yourself in your customers’ shoes for a moment. Imagine you spend all day rushing around at work. Then, you have to rush home, make dinner, drop off your kids at practice and pick them up. By the time you sit down to tackle the nagging customer service issue that’s been hanging over your head, it’s at least 9 p.m. and the contact center is closed.

Twenty years ago, most business leaders would have scoffed at the idea of keeping their contact centers open after hours. Customers had standard business hours to resolve conflicts, and it was their responsibility to find the time.

Now, things are entirely different.

The power has shifted to the consumer, and businesses are being forced to respond. We’re living in an ultra-connected era, where customers expect immediate access to support services. Customers don’t want to be told to wait until the following business day to resolve their issues.

In response, many contact centers are experimenting with rolling support services that extend well beyond the end of the normal business day. For example, social housing provider River Clyde Homes recently announced that its customer support center will be open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Moving forward, customers will be able to receive live human assistance regardless of what time it is.

Some larger companies are getting on board with this idea, too. Hulu, for instance, recently announced that it will open a 24/7 customer service center for subscribers before it launches its upcoming live TV service later this year. By the end of next year, Hulu hopes to staff 500 customer service agents.

As this trend continues to accelerate over the next few years, it’s going to make things difficult for businesses that lack the resources to power around-the-clock contact centers. After all, running a 24-hour contact center is very expensive, especially for an on-site company.

Businesses in this situation will have to get creative. Chatbots, for instance, offer an effective and affordable after hours solution. Chatbots exploded onto the customer service scene last year, when Facebook finally allowed businesses to integrate chatbots into its Messenger service. Chatbots use artificial intelligence to have advanced conversations with customers. They can help customers solve basic problems quickly, and in near real-time, too.

By using chatbots, it’s possible to staff less agents after hours. By using an omnichannel platform, a single agent could manage 10 or more automated conversations, stepping in for manual intervention when human assistance is needed.

That being said, it’s time to start looking for ways that you can either extend your contact center into the late evening, or keep it running around-the-clock. Chances are likely that your competitors will be doing the same thing this year.

Do you have any strategies for after-hours customer care?

Four Ways to Fortify Your Virtual Contact Center

By Steve Brubaker, InfoCision Chief of Staff

Cloud contact centers are very alluring from a cost and operational perspective. They offer easy scalability, service level agreement (SLA)-backed performance guarantees and access to cutting-edge customer service tools. For these reasons, it’s no surprise that the cloud contact center industry is expected to increase about threefold by 2021, from $5.43B to $15.67B.

Indeed, confidence in the cloud is soaring right now among contact center administrators — perhaps even too much. The general attitude seems to be that if you outsource your contact center operations to the cloud, all of the important backend pieces will fall into place. However, there are a number of dangers that you need to be aware of when migrating to the cloud, security being one of the biggest.

Fortunately, there are some simple things you can do to fortify your virtual contact center:

  1. Buy a virtual private network (VPN): In a virtual contact center, you may have hundreds or even thousands of Communicators storing and transmitting personally-identifiable information and payment data on a daily basis. This information is extremely valuable, especially in the healthcare industry where private health information will fetch top dollar on the black market.

In light of this, you need to give your Communicators a secure way to transmit data online. One way to do this is to invest in a virtual private network (VPN), which is a network communications tunnel with built-in security mechanisms like encryption. You only need one VPN for your remote team.

  1. Use biometric security protocols: Accidents can happen when working remotely. For instance, a laptop containing large amounts of sensitive customer data could get stolen, which could lead to a data breach. Or, a Communicator’s private account could get hacked if he or she is using a weak password.

You can use biometric authentication to protect your virtual Communicators’ accounts. Most laptops now come with built-in cameras, microphones and touch scanners that can support facial, voice and fingerprint scanners. Biometric security safeguards can operate alongside traditional password-based authentication systems. This is called multifactor authentication, and it’s a convenient option to offer your end users. Give them a choice about which type of security safeguards they want to use.

  1. Restrict information access: Access control is another major issue you’ll need to pay attention to when migrating to a cloud contact center. Giving Communicators blanket access to customer files invites a tremendous amount of risk. Remember that insider data breaches now account for 43 percent of data breaches.

Some cloud providers will offer customer service platforms with built-in access control mechanisms. For example, some platforms will prevent users from taking screenshots or dumping files. But you’ll want to look beyond your customer service platform, too. Make sure that IT knows about any information living in shared drives, or on local machines.

  1. Invest in a cloud security access broker (CASB): It’s hard enough keeping an eye on Communicators when they are in the office. This job becomes infinitely harder, though, when they are spread out across the country or even the globe.

You can use a CASB to centralize account security. A CASB is essentially a device that sits in between your network infrastructure and your cloud provider. Its job is to provide real-time and historical visibility into user accounts. For instance, suppose someone logs into a Communicator’s account from a foreign country such as India but you do not have any offices there. The CASB will be able to detect the suspicious login, and it can even tell whether any files were dumped during the process. If needed, a CASB can temporarily shut down a user’s account until the problem can be investigated.

The cloud may be risky, but by taking these basic precautions you could greatly reduce the risk of experiencing a costly cybersecurity incident.

Consider Embracing Flexibility in Your Contact Center

By Steve Brubaker, InfoCision Chief of Staff

As a business owner, you have always maintained a traditional, on-site work environment. As such, your contact center has never granted Work-at-Home privileges, and you prefer to hire local — as opposed to remote — customer service Communicators.

While this policy may have suited your contact center in the past, it’s time to ask whether it’s still aligned with the needs and demands of your workers. The business landscape has changed dramatically in recent years, and workers today — particularly contact center Communicators — are demanding flexible scheduling policies that allow them to work where they want, and in some cases even when they want.

Rest assured, your contact center won’t be the only one changing its strategy to accommodate its Communicators’ needs.  Many customer service administrators are now adjusting their policies and allowing Work-at-Home privileges. According to Gallup, 43 percent of Americans spent at least some time working remotely in 2016. This is an increase of four percent from a previous poll conducted in 2012.

Soak that in for a moment: Almost 50 percent of the American workforce is experimenting with teleworking.

Amazon is one big name provider that is doing so. The company recently announced a plan to hire more than 5,000 virtual Communicators. These new Work-at-Home positions, which will roll out over the next year, will provide competitive wages and benefits for employees that work at least 20 hours per week. Some Communicators will even be eligible for prepaid college tuition. According to The News Tribune, the jobs will comply with local minimum wage laws.

Of course, embracing telework is no small change and it’s not something you and your team should jump into without a sound plan outlining acceptable policies and security considerations. As the World Economic Forum explains, flexible work is one of the biggest drivers of business model transformation which also makes it a topmost concern.

“Telecommuting, co-working spaces, virtual teams, freelancing and online talent platforms are all on the rise, transcending the physical boundaries of the office or factory floor and redefining the boundary between one’s job and private life in the process,” the World Economic Forum states. “Modern forms of workers’ organization, such as digital freelancers’ unions, and updated labor market regulations are beginning to emerge to complement these new organizational models.”

So round up your team and start a conversation about migrating to a virtual contact center. It could be one of the best decisions you make in your facility.

Benefits of Building a Contact Center in the Cloud

By Steve Brubaker, InfoCision Chief of Staff

As a small- to medium-sized business (SMB), do you have the resources in-house to support today’s customer service demands? For instance, are you prepared to deliver consistent, seamless customer experiences across multiple channels? The evolved customer of the Digital Age expects to connect with companies by the digital channels they already use in their daily lives.

This can be a daunting goal for many SMBs—both operationally and financially. Upgrading your contact center facilities and technology to accommodate new channels and services can be an enemy to profits.  In response to commercial pressures and technological opportunities, a new contact center model has emerged: the virtual contact center. For SMBs and larger enterprises, this model may defray costs and increase customer satisfaction.

In the model, Customer Care Communicators work remotely using a VoIP communication system and cloud-based services. A virtual contact center can consist of many operations, including home and satellite offices, which are linked together and managed as a single site. This allows for greater efficiencies, significant economies of scale and the opportunity for performance improvements.

The model has both risks and benefits, which must be assessed independently by each business considering the option.

Your case for transitioning to a virtual contact center must take into account the following three fundamental factors: customer satisfaction, reliability and security, and platform openness and flexibility. Do your due diligence as follows:

  • Assess challenges and goals: Build a case by examining your current capabilities, plans for growth and customer satisfaction. Look at barriers to achieving your KPIs and delivering great service. Evaluate your existing platform and assess what’s missing and what upgrades should be a priority.
  • Determine costs: What are budget requirements over time? You can subtract hardware costs and add savings from scaling up and down flexibly. You’ll have costs for agents, supported channels and analytic functions.
  • Define metrics: Assess current analytics and KPIs to determine which can apply to a contact center in the cloud. How will you measure customer experience and operational efficiency?

As you assess whether the transition to a virtual contact center is right for your business, consider the additional benefits you may gain:

  • Larger pool of skills
  • Balanced work across locations
  • Widely deployed and managed skills
  • One-time easy and flexible forecasting and scheduling
  • Increased global coverage
  • Standardized application deployment
  • 24/7 agent availability
  • Dynamic choice of outsourcers

While cost savings are the primary driver for many transitions to the cloud, keep these other benefits in mind as well—especially as you look at risks, which can be significant. For example, you may experience increased staff turnover if home workers are not self-starters. In addition, the transfer of knowledge and training can be challenging in a virtual environment. Remote workers will also require more attention from supervisors to ensure they don’t feel isolated from the business—and from corporate values and standards.

If the pros outweigh the risks for your organization, you’re on your way to building your contact center in the cloud.  

10 Tips for Reducing Contact Center Attrition

By Steve Brubaker, InfoCision Chief of Staff

Once you’ve hired, onboarded and trained a new Communicator, you’ve invested a lot of time, energy and money into their employment with your organization. Losing an associate is a near tragedy, certainly a disruption to the workflow, a decrease in productivity and an expense.

Unfortunately for the industry, average contact center turnover ranges between 30 and 45 percent—with some centers having almost no turnover, and others centers having turnover in the triple digits, according to QATC.

Many factors contribute to churn—from a sense of isolation to job stressors to lack of motivation. Research studies indicate that the rate of turnover varies by area of the country, employment factors in a specific region or city, and by industry. Turnover is much higher in routine, order-taking positions or in outbound telemarketing where burnout is high. It’s lower in more specialized, higher-level jobs and also lower in union environments.

Replacing a frontline employee costs about $10,000 to $15,000, QATC reports. Understanding the various costs involved, contact center supervisors make it a priority to retain employees.

Here are 10 strategies that will help you reduce attrition in your contact center:

  • Hire the right people: This is a demanding job. Make sure you hire people who can handle it. Look for strong people skills, and someone who can remain calm and polite even in high-stress situations.
  • Recognize top performers: Set high expectations—with attached rewards, and clear guidelines on how to merit them.
  • Invest in professional development: Don’t let employees stagnate or become bored. Give them the option to cross-train for several jobs and/or switch tasks from time to time.
  • Provide continual feedback: Make sure employees feel valued. Personalize praise to the worker—and do it consistently.
  • Establish an employee work balance program: Be flexible and give your employees options for creating their own schedules.
  • Integrate employee activities: Create a pleasant work environment by building comradery among employees. Encourage them to work together toward goals.
  • Align employee mission, vision and values: This starts at the top with company leaders. Identify your values and enforce them with your actions. Make sure employees understand the mission and vision for the organization, and keep everybody pointed in the right direction. Hold people accountable for breaches of policy and standards.
  • Encourage employees to voice their feelings and opinions: Get to know your employees. Learn what motivates them and about their lives (without prying). This will make the workplace feel like a supportive community, and help you craft personalized incentive programs.
  • Create a positive company culture: Many of the above strategies will contribute to a positive company culture, which is important for employee enjoyment of and engagement with their work.
  • Provide tools and training: Enable employees to maximize their potential and achieve goals by giving them the technology and training they need for success.

Build Employee Engagement in the Contact Center

By Steve Brubaker, InfoCision Chief of Staff

As a contact center manager, you may feel you’ve done everything in your power to drive employee performance—from sound hiring practices to training to fostering a conversational culture—yet some of your staff are still not achieving expected outcomes.

You want your Communicators to be actively engaged in driving contact center success, which requires a high level of job commitment. This goes beyond the parameters of job satisfaction, such as salary and work/life balance. Employees must also enjoy their work and believe that they are contributing to the greater good. This feeling of “plentitude and pleasure” is a necessary component of job commitment.

Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a noted expert on positive psychology, is renowned for his influential and widely cited research on the notion of “flow.” He describes flow as a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It’s comparable to “being in the zone,” where even hunger and other temporal concerns are ignored.

Everyone has had the feeling at one time or another. Csikszentmihalyi says people are happiest when they are in this state. This can easily be observed in high-performance athletes who have reached the summit of a mountain or finished a marathon.

A flow state can only be achieved when certain conditions exist, such as challenge-skill balance, clarity of goals, immediate and unambiguous feedback, loss of self-consciousness and an autotelic personality—one in which a person performs acts because they are intrinsically rewarding.

Csikszentmihalyi and his associates have found that intrinsically motivated people are more likely to be goal-directed and enjoy challenges. When people are motivated from within to optimize and enhance their own happiness and well-being as a result of challenging experiences, they have a personality construct that Csikszentmihalyi calls “work orientation.” It is characterized by endurance, cognitive structure, order, play and low impulsivity.

A high level of work orientation is a good predictor of goal fulfillment—more so than any environmental influence, says the psychologist. So how can managers help their employees achieve a state of flow? Csikszentmihalyi tells us that four criteria are required:

  • Clear goals that demand clear answers
  • Answers that require intense concentration and commitment
  • Equilibrium between the challenge and the capacity
  • Immediate recognition after the challenging task has been accomplished

Managers who ensure these criteria are met in the contact center are likely to build employee engagement. Your Communicators certainly have challenges you can leverage. Make sure they know exactly how to meet those challenges, and that they have the training and tools they need to do so. Continue to develop their skills across the organization and recognize their successes in a timely manner. By these means, you’ll create flow in your contact center.

Transforming a Contact Center into an Insights Center

By Steve Brubaker, InfoCision Chief of Staff

Customers expect the brands they favor to know who they are. They also expect them to be able to call upon past information to quickly resolve their issues. Yet, if companies don’t have strong analytic capabilities, they will have a hard time coming up with the insights they need to meet or exceed these expectations.

To stand out as a brand that offers excellent customer experience—resulting in heightened customer satisfaction, acquisition and retention—requires advanced contact center analytics capabilities, enhanced application functionality, and an omnichannel communications system that includes social and mobile.

With these technologies, contact centers will become insight centers that create new experiences that foster deeper customer relationships and improve customer loyalty. These are the rewards of strong analytics capabilities. In fact, Forrester research indicates that the companies that are able to harness customers’ digital data will increase their revenue from $333 billion in 2015 to $1.2 trillion by 2020.

Closing the gaps

Seventy-four percent of firms say they want to be data-driven, but only 29 percent say they are good at connecting analytics to action, according to Forrester research. The challenges range from funding to talent to access to feedback to fragmentation.

Investments in contact center technology tend to lag since these centers are often perceived as cost centers, not profit centers. In addition, many businesses don’t have the resources to create their own data teams. Another hurdle is limited access by customer care associates to all the channels customers use, limiting full understanding of customer interactions. Lastly, contact center staff aren’t typically privy to customer experience survey results or analyses beyond those directly impacting the contact center, which, again, limits visibility into customer needs. Last but not least, contact center tools are not integrated with other enterprise tools, leading to siloed data and misaligned business processes.

A transformative strategy should include implementing analytics tools, e.g., speech and text, journey and/or real-time process automation, to meet enterprise objectives, such as improving the customer experience to drive revenue growth.

According to a TeleTech report, businesses need to take several critical steps to enable their ability to continuously collect data across channels, as well as test and analyze it to find actionable insights:

  • Map existing contact center data flows: Based on preferred, pre-defined customer experience journeys, identify gaps in customer knowledge that could be filled by integrating data from other internal and external sources.
  • Store data in a centralized customer data repository: Ensure processes are in place so that everything that is known about customers—from attributes to attitudes to behaviors to values—can be leveraged from one location. A robust CRM tool, for example, might suffice.
  • Analyze and model the consolidated data: Orchestrate specialized actions to maximize opportunities, such as improvements to customer satisfaction while also achieving service-level agreement designations. Include testing to support continuous improvements.
  • Develop automated reports and dashboards: Display key metrics pertaining to the various interactions customers have with the brand, as well as the downstream behaviors, e.g., product purchase rates and customer churn, that will impact the business.

As you upgrade your contact center, keep in mind that analytical tools can’t work in a vacuum; rather, they reflect the quality of the data that is applied. They also require human understanding to garner more instinctual insights than the data can convey.

Social Media: Getting the Voice and Tone Right

By Steve Brubaker, InfoCision Chief of Staff

Social media sites are now an integral part of society. As a matter of fact, Pew Research reports that 69 percent of Americans have at least one social media profile—up from 48 percent just five years ago. Usage has so exploded that it’s moved the dial on customer care from  a “nice to have” to a “must have” for businesses.

Thus, many companies have joined the social media ranks—about nine in 10, according to an eMarketer survey. Although not every brand is optimizing its presence on social platforms (approximately 70 percent of customer service complaints made on Twitter go unanswered), many have their paddles in the water and are rowing along—often upstream against an overwhelming flow of conversations.

One aspect of social media that hasn’t received a lot of attention, however, is establishing the right voice and tone for social platforms. As this is critical to your social success, we provide the following advice for doing it right.

Establishing the right social media voice and tone

It’s agreed that canned responses are anathema to social media. This is a platform for authentic exchanges of opinion among peers. The voice and tone must be personal—but how personal?

Answer this question by first understanding voice and tone: Your brand’s “voice” is its personality, e.g., positive, sarcastic, formal—i.e., your mission statement. Tone is a subset of voice that adds flavor depending on audience, channel or situation—i.e., application of the mission. Essentially, you should have one voice and a variety of tones.

Most companies have a great sense of what these are for their brand already. If not, pin them down by asking the following questions, suggested by Buffer:

  • If your brand was a person, what kind of personality would it have?
  • What would this “person’s” relationship to consumers be like?
  • List acronyms of your company’s personality—what it is not.
  • What companies have personalities similar to yours? How are they similar?
  • How do you want customers to think about your company?

Once you’ve determined some adjectives that define your voice and tone, try to create messaging that encompasses your brand personality. Great examples can be found on MailChimp.

The conundrum for brands is that what’s appropriately personal for one client will not work for another. In general, brands are advised to establish a polite and professional tone until the time when feedback indicates a more or less formal tone will suit the audience best. This involves going through a learning curve with each audience segment.

Striking a natural tone that appeals to customers often requires a lot of research. Bianca Buckridee, vice president of social media operations for JPMorgan Chase, during a panel session at the Wharton Social Media Best Practices Conference, said, “It’s difficult to do. … You have to keep monitoring. … We strive to make it look real-time, but we’re really doing a ton of research in the back.”

Your voice and tone are features of your messaging that humanize your brand and let you take part in conversations with key targets naturally. This fosters trust and, ultimately, loyalty—even turning some customers into brand advocates or ambassadors. If done right, you could end up with a host of fans who will grow your brand with you.

Even with its challenges, social media customer care represents a tremendous growth opportunity for businesses to foster strong customer relationships.