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

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

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.

Hosted Contact Center Market Set to Flourish

Contact centers, both in-house and outsourced, help enterprises in many ways—from providing a better customer experience to increasing productivity to providing the latest technologies for generating valuable business intelligence. When the contact center is hosted in the cloud, additional benefits abound, such as assured disaster recovery, ease of compliance management, and greater scalability and flexibility.

Company reliance on various technologies and the Internet to operate profitability is expected to intensify, with a corresponding increase in cloud-based contact center market size. According to a new report from MarketsandMarkets, the market is expected to grow from $5.43 billion in 2016 to $15.67 billion by 2021, at a compound annual growth rate of 23.6 percent.

This growth is also being fueled by a high demand for outbound dialer systems and outsourced contact center services. Advances in dialer technology, especially features such as dynamic filtering—search indexes that control which leads are called—and do-not-call list management, are popular because they increase Communicator talk time, leading to greater productivity.

Outsourcing the contact center function enables companies to reduce spend on networks and IT. Cost benefits will drive companies to outsource customer services across the board—from inquiries to order processing to technical support. Plus, the increase in the number of an organization’s functional areas (e.g., sales and marketing) being served by contact centers has increased the complexity of deploying in-house contact centers.

Another key to cloud-based contact center growth is the role the contact center is playing in the e-commerce space. Innovation and the proliferation of digital technologies have changed customers’ interaction with retailers; they are now using different channels such as live chat and self-service options. The vendors in this vertical market rely on the cloud environment to attain customer loyalty all along consumer touchpoints such as retail stores, Web catalogs and the contact center.

The only growth inhibitors for the cloud-based contact center market are an ongoing fear of data risk and initial deployment costs. Enterprises are mitigating the potential data risk, however, by side stepping total cloud immersion. They are bridging the gap between low-security public cloud and high-security private cloud by creating hybrid cloud networks. This gives them the scalability and flexibility of the cloud while retaining secure computing environments on-premises.

Enterprises that make customer satisfaction and experience a priority are strategically using contact centers to maximize their success in these areas. Outsourcing contact center functions to a managed service provider can help in this regard by providing crucial elements of high-quality customer service without all the infrastructure complications of on-premises solutions. As the cloud-based contact center market grows, consider ways in which you, too, can leverage the cloud to push your business to the next level.

Contact Center Strategies, Part 1: Multichannel Workforce Management

By now you know that your contact center strategy must be focused on the methods and solutions you employ to improve the quality of the customer experience. What this means for your 2017 strategy is more of the same: more insights into each customer and Communicator so you can better meet their needs and grow your business.

Findings relayed in a new report from ContactBabel, “The US Contact Center Decision Makers’ Guide 2016,” will help direct your efforts to improve contact center performance in the new year. We will address some of its key points in a series of blogs. This Part 1 will address how workforce management (WFM) solutions can help supervisors and Communicators cope with the new complexities of multiple customer service channels in the contact center, specifically for traditional purposes like forecasting and reporting.

WFM solutions for the multichannel contact center

Managers must not only make sure their contact centers are staffed appropriately but must also accurately schedule staff across both multichannel (e.g., Web chats and email) and voice interactions. To satisfy customers, managers will need to develop new pools of in-depth knowledge and explicit skills among Communicators, including product-specific and technical expertise.

WFM solutions are increasingly being used in contact centers as part of overall performance optimization. While advanced WFM tools such as quality monitoring, speech analytics, HR management and training have emerged, traditional workforce features for forecasting and scheduling, as well as adherence and reporting, remain critical to contact center operations.

Here’s how traditional WFM solutions are continuing to help contact centers respond to customer needs in a multichannel environment:

Forecasting: The WFM employs historical data to assist contact center managers with realistic scheduling, allowing them to factor in exceptions, such as holidays, training and marketing campaigns. They can even use the data to conduct “what if” scenarios to test how staffing across multiple channels will impact performance. Automated forecasting gives businesses the flexibility to alter schedules to accommodate staffing issues as they arise. For instance, staff can put in requests for certain shifts and vacation time, which empowers them and spurs morale.

Scheduling: In a multichannel environment, more than ever, managers must be able to take Communicator preferences and skill sets into account when scheduling. Otherwise, expect that Communicator and customer satisfaction levels will drop. Most companies use advanced WFM software to manage between six and nine skill sets, though some use many more.

Adherence and reporting: Comparing forecasts to actual scheduling adherence is mandatory to improve contact center performance. The adherence monitoring provided by top WFM solutions gives managers the opportunity to learn from experience. It also sends them alerts when activities deviate from what was planned, enabling them to act before problems arise.

Advances in WFM software allow managers to receive real-time reports on schedule adherence through Web browsers and mobile phones, even if Communicators are working remotely. Automated schedule changes are even beginning to relieve managers of daily personal attention to the system.

According to ContactBabel, WFM systems are common in contact centers, with a penetration rate of 48 percent industrywide. Small contact centers (10 to 50 Communicators) are much less likely (19 percent) than large ones with 200 or more Communicators (80 percent) to have implemented WFM software.

Respondents reported using their WFM solutions predominantly (95 percent) for forecasting, reporting (86 percent) and real-time adherence to scheduling (81 percent). Yet, of the 221 contact center managers and directors who participated in the survey, more than half said they also used their WFM systems for higher-level strategic initiatives like “what if” scenarios and long-term planning.

In 2017, make sure your contact center has the tools to improve the customer experience along multiple channels.

Customer Experience Predictions for 2017

Customers are leading businesses by their noses into the new year. Some companies are going kicking and screaming into 2017 while others have geared up to meet the demands of a customer-driven marketplace and are sliding more comfortably into the future.

Arm-in-arm with keeping up with customer demands, organizations primed for ongoing success have delved into everything digital. From banks to retailers to manufacturers to utilities, businesses are ramping up digital efforts to maintain or grow their customer bases.

A new Forrester report, “2017 Predictions: Dynamics That Will Shape the Future in the Age of the Customer,” expects one-third of companies in the business-to-customer space to change their business structures to enhance the customer experience. This is to counter the ease with which today’s customers switch brands when they experience a negative interaction with any one company.

The Forrester report indicates that 40 percent of customers have a high willingness and ability to shift spend, with an additional 25 percent building that mindset.

What was once considered just a millennial trait—rewarding or punishing companies based on just one experience—has become universal. Forrester says it’s now the norm for all generations of consumers. The research and advisory firm predicts that revenue risk—from customers shifting spend to a competitor, and from brands’ inability to enrich—will increase by 25 percent to 50 percent.

This outcome will drive companies to speed up their customer experience initiatives, as well as widen efforts to compete in a customer-led market, as follows:

Emotions will drive process transformations: Adequately measuring the impact of human emotions on buying decisions has been a challenge for companies, meaning their core processes and experience designs are missing key components. After all, brand loyalty and spend have long been governed by how customers feel about a brand.

Forrester anticipates that a few companies will make important inroads in 2017 into what drives consumer decisions to better guide experience design and operations. Some are currently piloting emotion-recognition techniques to measure physiological responses, as well as employing old-school ethnographic research. The latter is the systematic investigation of a culture through in-depth study of the members of the culture.

Microdesigning the customer experience: In 2017, marketers will be pushed to deliver experiences that delight customers, as well as boost revenues. Yet engaging modern day customers—who are in a constant mode of multitasking and distraction management—is a trick and a half. For years, marketers have mapped the customer journey from initial touchpoint to purchase to gain insights into customer needs. This practice has proven fruitful, but in 2017, customer experience professionals will need to develop new ways to differentiate their brands.

Forrester believes that marketers will drill deeper into the customer journey in the upcoming year to identify those micromoments where customers are paying close attention, most anxious to resolve a pain point, and clearly appreciative of the solution’s value. This sort of detailed research will require many organizations to first integrate disparate analytic tools and processes. Only then will they be able to design and deliver an optimal brand experience.

To prepare for 2017, take a good look at your organization’s processes for engaging and satisfying customers. That’s your ticket to success in the age of the customer. Identify what needs to change to ensure your profitability next year and beyond. To offset revenue risk, prepare to make those changes as soon as possible. Best wishes for a secure and plentiful future.

Best Practices of Top-Performing Frontline Managers

To maximize a team’s abilities, managers must spend a significant amount of time helping team members understand company objectives and coaching them to improve performance. Successful contact center managers have figured out how to address key factors impacting contact center operations, engendering smooth transactions and enhancing the customer experience.

Frontline managers who continuously seek quality improvements are the linchpins in a brand’s ability to meet customer expectations, retain customers, and then turn those customers into brand loyalists and advocates.

Here are some of their best practices for meeting contact center key performance metrics:

Be positive, helpful and accountable: Whether by nature or through company training, the most-effective frontline managers know how to motivate and coach Communicators to excel. Business leaders need to ensure that their frontline managers have the tools they need to set up their teams for success.  Sure, technology—from data and analysis tools to dashboard reporting—can buoy a manager’s ability to develop a top-performing team, but a people-first mentality is essential. Exuding a positive, can-do attitude and a willingness to help, including taking ownership of every call, will go a long way toward meeting contact center objectives.

Focus on employee engagement, retention and productivity: Acknowledge that most Communicators don’t plan to spend their careers in their current roles. Take the time to showcase how accomplishing their existing duties to the best of their abilities will benefit them down the road. This will motivate purpose-driven engagement in day-to-day tasks. Sensing that they are working toward the greater good, Communicators will experience heightened job fulfillment and put greater effort into their customer interactions. Ultimately, customer service will improve, leading to a heftier bottom line for the business.

Keep employees up to date on information: When customers call in to your contact center, they want their issues resolved quickly and effectively. Your Communicators are the face of your business whether interacting with customers in chat, on a call, through email or any other channel you provide. The value they bring to the customer relationship is dependent upon how well-informed they are about your products and services. Near real-time information can be critical to resolving customer issues and ensuring their satisfaction with your brand.

Mentor staff to handle stress: Communicators who feel attacked or undervalued will leave or simply fail to reach their full potential. Both situations—a high turnover rate/constant rehiring and low-performing workers, respectively—are damaging to any business. Let your Communicators know that not every interaction will go smoothly or every issue be resolved perfectly. Set reasonable expectations so staffers are not demotivated by a few glitches. Your own positive viewpoint, open communication style and lending hand will establish an environment conducive to the retention of both employees and customers.

Frontline managers who willingly provide team mentorship and support, are imbued with a positive spirit and eagerness to help, and who hold themselves personally accountable for the actions of their staff are crucial to contact center performance—and deserve a pat on the back.

Steve Brubaker began his career at InfoCision in 1985. In his current role as Chief of Staff and as a member of the Executive Team, he is responsible for HR, internal and external communications, and manages the company’s legal and compliance departments. Brubaker is a member of a number of professional organizations, including the DMA, SOCAP, and PACE. He also donates his time to serve on several university boards, including the Executive Advisory Board for The Taylor Institute for Direct Marketing at The University of Akron and The University of Akron Foundation Board. He is a frequent speaker for national events and has also been honored with a number of awards and recognitions for his contributions to the call center industry.

Web-Based Workforce Management Solutions for the Contact Center

Modern workforce management (WFM) solutions allow contact center managers to integrate Web-based scheduling and resource planning, enabling real-time connections with team leaders and Communicators. This sort of visibility into contact center operations helps managers make every second count as business requirements change.

WFM tools also facilitate certain work-life balance options, such as working from home. Empowering remote Communicators is one way that today’s contact centers are creating workforces that can more easily scale up and down as business fluctuates.

The latest Web-based tools, previously sold as add-on modules, are now being included as part of WFM packages. They are designed to perform on a range of browsers, encouraging collaboration and promoting transparency among managers and Communicators.

Let’s look at the ways these new WFM solutions are benefitting contact centers:

Agility: Operationally, the latest Web-based resource planning and scheduling tools put team leaders and resource planners in control of their contact centers at all times, even across time zones. They can modify team schedules on the fly to accommodate seasonal peaks and valleys—or daily unforeseen shifts in traffic volume. Managers have the ability to compare actual Communicator status against schedules and contracted hours to make better-informed decisions to improve workflow.

Skills-based routing: Using the powerful search functionality embedded in Web-based solutions, team leaders can group Communicators by various criteria, e.g., location or expertise. This allows someone like a resource planner to search cross-company for Communicators with a specific skill, such as the ability to translate Spanish to English. Features include the option to group by multiple criteria, such as performance rating, which allows managers to resolve issues or make improvements more quickly.

Collaboration: The entire operations team gains clear and accurate visibility into Communicator activity at all times. Advanced search, sort and editing functionality enables team leaders to alter shift times and allow substitutions when Communicators request a swap. Daily workforce activities and requests can be managed with quick clicks in a single, integrated platform.

Performance improvements: Web-based WFM tools support development of a winning front-line workforce. Managers can track schedule adherence, and monitor individual and team performance, which allows them to easily identify training gaps and set up relevant coaching sessions. All this can be done from the desktop in real time.

Contact centers still relying on paper-based manual processes, or even using non-integrated WFM modules, for forecasting and scheduling are missing an opportunity to excel in customer service delivery. Both over- and under-staffing costs money: overpayment for idle Communicators, and missed revenue opportunities and customer dissatisfaction, respectively.

For contact centers that mean to look after their customers’ needs at the highest level, centralized resource planning and visibility into workforce activities is the new ideal. With a Web-based workforce management solution, it’s easy to keep tabs on staff and keep Communicators engaged and happy by reducing inefficiencies.

Long Hold Times Spell Disaster for Contact Centers

It’s no mystery that customers would prefer immediate service to being put on hold while awaiting customer service support. But how damaging is the hold practice to your business?

Consider that 32 percent of respondents to an online Google survey said, “none,” when asked how long they’d be willing to wait on hold for customer service.

The general assumption among contact center leaders is that as long as 80 percent of calls are being answered within 20 seconds (the 80/20 service-level “gold standard”), your center is satisfying customers. So, what do you do about research that indicates that how calls are handled is more important than wait time?

It’s best that you hedge your bets. After all, according to Consumer Reports, 66 percent of callers are “highly annoyed” by long waits on hold.

Yes, a stellar customer experience is the new gold standard for contact centers, but that includes the entire customer journey, wait times included. A NewVoiceMedia infographic reveals that 44 percent of U.S. consumers take their business elsewhere as a result of inadequate service. A large majority of those individuals (89 percent) switch at least once every year, and 25 percent of those people say it’s because they were tired of being kept on hold.

How ’bout some good news? Twice as many consumers (50 percent) use a company more often after a positive customer experience, per NewVoiceMedia.

Unfortunately, however, thanks to social media, even one dissatisfied customer can affect your business. The infographic further shows that 59 percent of 25 to 34 year olds share poor customer experiences online and 63 percent of consumers read damaging reviews. That’s a lot of negative energy directed at your brand.

Don’t be terribly discouraged: Aggregated research indicates that contact center hold times of less than 20 to 30 seconds do not strongly impact the customer experience. Certain industry experts steer businesses away from meeting strict 80/20 parameters for this reason. They tend to recommend that organizations focus more on the customer’s end-to-end journey to create happier customers overall.

How to Maximize Analytics to Optimize Customer Relationships

Analytics has taken the identification of contact center issues from gut instinct—or random sampling as managers walk the floor—to a science. It can help contact center leaders get to the root cause of problems, better enabling their resolution. In concert with the right applications, analytics can be used to ensure the optimal duration and profitability of a customer relationship.

As the application of analytics advances, it will be used to predict customer needs and behaviors to the point where contact center managers will be able to proactively deliver appropriate services—even before customers realize they need them!

Using data inputs—such as product use behavior, purchase history, Web and mobile clicks—contact center analytics will become a strategic tool for businesses. Managers will be enabled to provide white-glove service to their most valuable customers, as well as identify which customers have the potential to become majorly profitable—and serve them equally well.

To realize the full potential of contact center analytics, it must be combined with sales and marketing analytics. These business units have traditionally used analytics to better segment prospects for marketing purposes. The new opportunity is to use the data inputs from across the organization to better inform business decisions. With insights gained in this more holistic manner, contact center managers will understand how to engage and support customers throughout the relationship life cycle.

So, where do you begin the process of maximizing analytics for your contact center?

First of all, your company must be completely digitalized—to the point where nearly every customer touch point is accessible for analysis. Otherwise, missing data can skew analytics and set you up for a fall. Second, the contact center must put customer experience—not reducing handling times or reducing costs—at the center of its strategy. After all, you don’t want to let a customer slip through your fingers while you tally interaction expenses. Finally, the entire organization must be onboard with creating a culture where customer engagement is its main purpose and function. This last point is necessary to reduce organizational boundaries that might limit the sharing of meaningful data.

Once your organization is set up to optimize customer satisfaction, contact center analytics will be a far more strategic tool. You’ll gain a deep knowledge of customer drivers, and know how to best address them to strengthen relationships.

Keep Pace With E-Commerce Trends in the New Year

Your online business must be responsive—not only to visitors but to trends which, if ignored, may trip you up eventually. With the quick pace of modern societal and technological advances, organizations need to keep a finger on the pulse of their industries and develop the agility to react to pressures at the drop of a dime.

The outlook for 2017 includes several e-commerce trends that are primed to turn into major industry drivers. Find them listed here, along with steps you can take to stay ahead of the curve:

Dynamic real-time shopping: The online shopping experience is becoming personalized to each customer. Improvements in collecting, organizing and analyzing data mean that customers will no longer be asked to respond to product recommendations that seem to come out of left field. Instead, recommendations will be based on their unique preferences, geographic location, demographic group, past purchases, market trends and brand interactions—automatically. E-commerce businesses should tap into the technology of leading e-commerce platforms to enable this capability.

Cyber November: Online retailers have started to offer customers discounts in advance of the Black Friday and Cyber Monday rushes—to offset unruly crowds in stores and to get a jump on holiday spending. In 2015, major retailers Target and Walmart announced in-store deals leading up to Black Friday, and mega online retailer Amazon took the cue, offering deals throughout the month of November. To gain a piece of the pie, focus on mobile spending, which is slated to account for 60 percent of online sales by year-end; offer stellar shopping experiences on smartphones and tablets.

Chatbots: These are fully automated “chat” agents that can act as a first point of contact for brands. Chatbots increase the number of platforms on which brands can offer transactions through guided, interactive browsing. In 2015, tech giants released the enabling application programming interfaces (APIs) that made it cost-effective for bot developers to create their own, using their own servers. Experts predict that the artificial intelligence that fuels chatbots will improve with time, making conversations more natural, with better response rates. Explore this technology now to reduce customer effort and lower support costs.

Checkout: Expect traditional wallets to be replaced by “mobile” payments, and set your site up to accept these new payment methods. Same-day delivery is also becoming a competitive differentiator, as is operating in smaller spaces that can serve as showrooms, fitting rooms, and pick-up/drop-off points.

In this era where power has shifted away from companies and toward digitally connected, technology-empowered customers, retailers need to fully embrace digital commerce to thrive. With a few clicks of a mouse, customers can easily switch companies to find a better online experience. In this environment, being customer-obsessed must be your competitive strategy.