A story about Contact Center Software

Friday, October 29, 2004

A call center morphing its way into the 21st century

A few days ago I spoke with a business consultant. He was doing consultancy for a well known company. A very well known company, I must say - nation wide, lots of visibility (in our little country). And he told me the story of restructuring their current call center into a full fledged contact center with knowledge base, workforce management, fax, e-mail handling, e-learning, business intelligence, and whatever else you can imagine. Chat? Yep. I-mode? You bet. Scanning, OCR, natural language analysis, ... the works. They wanted everything the minute they learned about the existance and possible use.
I asked him what timeframe the organisation planned to do this in. Well, he told me, the told me that their initial plan was to just buy all the boxes, wire it together and make it work. This is how they did it in the past. And after a careful analysis he showed them that they bought an awful lot of boxes the last couple of years and didn't make them work together. Or didn't use them correctly. Or at all.
So, time for a plan, Stan.
He started out making a structured document pointing out what they wanted, why and in which stadium it should come into play. He put everything in there. The scanning and OCR (they receive 500 letters ... a year, so a real need for OCR? I think not). Business SLA's, web-evaluation tools. Really everything. Then, this structured document was approved and formed into an RFP and sent out to a couple of companies.
With this, he achieved multiple thinks.
First - other companies will give their input and thought about the call center and how it should be morphing into a 21st century super duper contact center. For free.
Second - his thoughts (no scanning/OCR; is this business intelligence really needed in the first two years) will be backed up (or corrected) by the vendors or consortiums.
Third - he will help them choose the right vendor and help manage the implementation (cash again).
Fourth - All vendors will tell them to go step by step. Don't bite of more than you can chew... He could tell this, but if everyone tell them this, it must be true...
You see, quite smart, this chap. He is not the one taking the decisions, but he guides a company in need into taking the right decision. And then, managing it, slowly but surely; transforming it from an outdated call center (that didn't have any real CTI integration; where intranet and website were the same; where tools were misused) into the best contact center there is.
He will not take all the credits for it. He will leave it up to the general manager of the company. After all, at that time, his (probably well payed) job is done, moving up to the next one. But hey, that's the life of a call center business consultant.
Do you feel that your call center needs a brush up? Why not contacting Altitude, or talk to me? You will be surprised of what we can do for you.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Inbound Contact Centers - a cost or a profit?

Frequently, inbound contact centers are viewed by your management as a cost center, not as a profit center. And thus an easy target for cost cutting.
How is this possible?
We partially have to blame ourselves. Most of the KPI's that we use to measure our contact center are only focussing on cost: Average Talk Time, Longest Call In Queue, Backlog, Abandonment Rate. All these numbers say something about how much the contact center costs; nothing about how much your organisation profits from it.
I agree that these numbers are important, but these numbers should certainly not be the only numbers that you publish. Also think to publish customer satisfaction as a key performance indicator. This is no luxury item but a very important KPI that will express the importance of your contact center in the success of your business.

Most managers, (partially) responsable for contact centers, are aware of the strategic importance of their contact centers. Other managers however will see the contact center as a mere necessary part of the company.
In reality, the contact center is for many people the only way of interacting with your company. I mean, did YOU ever go to the telephone company? Well I didn't. But I DO have an opinion about them and that opinion is partially formed by the contacts I have had with their contact centers. From which we can conclude that contact centers do play an important role and thus are a critical element of the strategy of the company!
So now what?
We need to convince our coworkers that the contact center is a valuable part of the company. We can do this by being efficient and having a high level of customer satisfaction. Now this looks contradictionary. How can you be more efficient and have a higher customer satisfaction?
Two Main Rules
1. Unified Routing
2. Unified Knowledge Base
A Unified Routing is important because a question, no matter how it is asked (telephone, e-mail) should always arrive at the same (type of) agent. Unified Knowledge Base is important because the client deserves always the same answer. Imagine that you ask for your bank account via the telephone, e-mail, web and face-to-face and and you will get four different answers. Would you ever consider this bank again?

Some Best Practices
Besides these main rules, there are some best practices that I always like to follow. Here they are.
When using IVR and call routing, try to Obtain As Much Information Regarding The Caller As Possible. By this I don't only mean getting their ANI, the DNIS, their social security number et cetera, but also try to link this to your business databases. Did they call before? Do they have open tickets? Are they a VIP customer? Should you prioritize them? In other words: Use Data Driven Routing. Make sure that you are as intelligent as you can about your routing decision!
Are there any services that could be Converted To Self-Service? Do it. Discuss with key-clients, set up a test and go for it. It will alleviate the rest of your contact center giving your room for better service. Just be sure you pick the right service. If in doubt - don't.
Think hard on your IVR design. Avoid IVR Hell. See my other article on that.
Try using IVR after the agents. As a quality control kind-of stuff. So, when the agent clicks on hangup, the caller is transferred to an IVR where a quality control survey is run. Use Your IVR as well for Quality Control Surveys.
If possible, I try to convince the client to use Skills Based Routing. This is much more flexible than only routing to a campaign. In Altitude uCI 7, for instance, you can attribute multiple user defined skills (for instance English, Technical, Commercial) and a weight per skill to a call, and with this combination, find the exact right agent to answer this call. Must better than simply enqueuing a call to a campaign.
Also, try to use Last Agent Based Routing. When someone is calling within a specified timeframe, he will probably call for the same problem. Now, if the same agent is free, it would be nice to connect them again, as the agent already knows the story.
This will all help to Resolve the issue On First Call, which is also very important to increase quality and speed. When two telephone calls are needed to resolve an issue, you spend (more) than twice the cost, so even when the first call is a bit too long, this is much better than a second one.
When appropriate, Overflow To Other Campaigns when the queue is too long. This depends on the value of the caller, of course, and whether you have other agents available. When the value of the call is little, just leave them in the queue; however, when the caller is valuable to you, route them to another campaign. These agents will do nothing else then Schedule a Callback. Tell the caller that the contact center is busy and at which time they would like to be called back. This is better (for valuable clients) then waiting in the queue.
You could also decide this in the IVR. If you know your estimated time in the queue, you can propose to call them back. After all, you probably know already their telephone number. And if not, ask then via DTMF.
Mix Your Media. Try to get to know everything from your client in a non obtrusive way. Get his or her e-mail address and mobile number. Ask them if it is OK to mail and SMS them, telling them they always can opt out (and give them a way to opt out). A quick semi standard e-mail follow-up after a call shouldn't take you more than 20 seconds (at least, not on Altitude uCI 7.1, hint, hint)
When you really need to transfer a call, Transfer Data With Voice, and I mean really everything. Try to give as much context to the next agent as possible. This will help the agent in getting a better understanding of the case, hence resolving it faster.
Have you ever e-mailed a service and received the first reply back in two days? I think that is a lousy job. I'm not talking about the resolution, but the first reply. It should come immediately. Something like "Hi. We received your e-mail and your ticket number is 12345. We expect to be able to answer within XX hours". Then I know it arrived and when I can expect the answer. Use An Auto Acknowledge!
Mix Your Media 2. When you do web collaboration or chat, give your agents the possibility to dail your client. Let your clients fill in their telephone number somewhere and have your agents call them if necessary.

Convinced? You want me to build your contact center? Contact me. Want to have more information? Have a look!

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

What are the advantages of SMS integrations in your contact center

Do you use SMS? I mean personally? Probably you do. And your kids, they certainly will use it. SMS (Short Messaging Service) has exploded in the last couple of years. Guess how much SMS messages are send? Over 2 billion! And this is not per year. Not per month. Not per week. It is per day! Which is slightly less than 25,000 messages every second. Amazing, isn't it, for a service that didn't exist five years ago.
Until now, the usage of SMS in communicating with businesses or customers has been rather limited. This is probably because there are some restrictions in the use of SMS:
  • No long or complex messages
  • Security concerns
  • No graphics, no printout possibilities
  • The ones frequently using SMS are not always your target group
  • Legislation
As you see, the SMS channel has some limitations. But you shouldn't use SMS as a channel alone. You should be incorporating SMS into other channels. I will give an example to make it clear: imagine that you have a call center for a computer repair service. When a client calls your contact center, a ticket is created. You should ask the clients' mobile number, and send an SMS with the ticket number. You then can explain the client that he can reply to the SMS, including the ticket number to get an updated status report. Furthermore, when the computer is repaired, he will get another SMS with detailed information about the cost and where to pick it up.
The net result of this will be less calls to your call center, while the client will be satisfied, knowing that he will be notified when his computer is ready. Except for the first interaction, it is all self-service. What else do you need in your contact center? A call to a contact center is costing on average 8 €; an SMS will probably be somewhere below 0,40 €. Up to you to do your ROI calculations. I think you'll switch to SMS for some services pretty quickly!
Of course, don't think that you can use SMS for everything. You will need to see whether an SMS is the right channel for passing the information and do some interviews with customers in order to verify this, but once you found the right match you will see an increase in client satisfaction and a decrease in cost. Plus you are building a better relationship with your clients - they can get up to date information whenever they want. And if you don't forget to add the SMSes into the customer history, your agents will have a 360 degree overview of the client - and can give a better reply.
If you want to know when your contact center will be ready, just contact me. I will let you know (by SMS if you like) when your contact center will go live!

Monday, October 18, 2004

Outbound dialers - a bit more technical

There is a lot of terminology regarding outbound dialers. Let's see if we can make it a bit more clear by explaining the different possibilities. In all cases the contacts are pushed to the agent, but the way the dial is done is different. Let's explore these different ways.
  • Preview dial
    The script starts at the agents' workstation, and he or she can assess the situation at ease. Once familiar with the case, the agent pushes a button and the call is placed from his telephone. Think debt collection, etc.
  • Progressive dial
    This is similar to preview dial. With one exeption, namely that the dial will start automatically, instead of manually by the agent, thus forcing them to be ready in a certain timeframe.
  • Power dial
    The dialing starts at the agents' workstation and when the call is connected, the script starts. When the customer does not answer, the script does not start and the call is rescheduled (or stopped after some retries). 
  • Predictive dial
    This is a bit more tricky. First of all, the agents don't place calls, the your contact center solution / PABX will place calls - this all takes place inside the PABX. Once a call has been set up, it is optionally connected to a call classifier, which is a thingy in your switch that will check whether the call is busy, no answer, machine answer, fax, modem, tri-tone, invalid. This can potentially save you al lot of (agent) time, thus money.
    So, some calls will not be passed to the agents. Assume that you have 10 agents, your software will probably lauch 15 calls, 'hoping' that it will get 10 connected calls. In some softwares, you can configure this, other software, such as Altitude uCI, are much more advanced. They have better algorithms, they measure for every agent where they are in the script, and as a result, they will exactly know how much records to dial to 
        a) keep all agents busy and 
        b) don't call too much, because if you have a person on one end, and no agent available, you need to hang up that call...
    Predictive dialing will only be effective when you have a large number of agents (more then 10), otherwise the statistics will work against you.
Imagine callcenters without dialers. Do they still exist?
You will be amazed by the answer. The answer is Yes. They Still Do Exist. And In Large Quantities. Can you believe this? I couldn't, the first time I heared about that. Over and over again I read studies that using outbound dialer solutions can make over 30 % or 40 % more calls. Which is more or less proportional with your profit. I can believe those 30 - 40 %, these are not made-up figures - and we're not even talking predictive dialing here, just plain and simple preview or power dial. With predictive dialing, you would be saving even more.
Next time you want to dial a customer, think Altitude uCI. We have the perfect solution for you.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Are you spamming?

As a contact center you are probably doing outbound calling. Do you also do outbound e-mailing? Then be sure that you don't spam!

Although e-mails are inexpensive to send, spam does have a bad name with customers, perhaps even worse than the cold-calling telemarketeers. Spam e-mails are perhaps less intrusive, but (because of the low cost) many of the outbound e-mails are not targeted. You should not be doing this. Spamming has caused the consumer to complain enough to pass some serious laws. In many countries it is now forbidden to send spam.

Most of these directives state that

  • The sender must not conceal their identity
  • The sender must provide a valid address for opt-out requests
And there are even more strict rules applying to marketing messages sent by e-mail. You cannot send these messages unless they have the recipient's prior consent to do so, or
  • You have collected their address during a sale or negotiations for a sale
  • You send promotional messages relating to 'similar products / services'
  • When the address was collected, the recipient was given the possibility to opt-out. The must be given the opt-out possibility on every message.
As you see, the laws are very strict. You need to take great care when sending outbound e-mails as a contact center! You need to understand your clients and target your messages so that they are not seen as spam, but as valuable information. So either you abandon your outbound e-mail as a channel or use it with care to communicate to customers in a value-added way. E-mail is an inexpensive channel that could be used to advise your customers, remind them about new products, relevant news and time-sensitive actions needed. However, be sure that you build up a good relationship with your clients! If you don't do this, they will either opt-out for all of your messages, complain to you (or worse to the legislator), or move your messages to the recycle bin automatically. Which is the opposite of what you want. You want them to read your e-mail with interest, go to the web-site or call you so that further business can be done.
So, bottom line, spend some more time on making your message interesting, on targeting the right group of people and do a follow-up to see whether you don't offend them.
Next time you want to do a multi-media blended contact center, think Altitude Software, a Leader in Contact Center Solutions and Unified Customer Interaction

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Different types of outbound

What types of outbound are you handling in your contact center. What do you mean you don't know that there were different types of outbound? Of course there are. And I'm not talking technically. I'm talking business-wise.
You have
  • debt collections
  • telemarketing - cold calls
  • telemarketing - warm calls
  • customer care calls
  • advisory calling
  • inbound / outbound blending
  • web callbacks
  • voice callbacks
And there are some differences in the way you need to handle these types of outbound calls. Let's look at them one by one.
Debt collections
These calls mostly need a good preparations. You won't often see a predictive dialer here. Most of the time, your agents will need to study the data before the client can be called. You will need agents with a good training, otherwise your return on investment (i.e. how much debt you recover) will be low.
Telemarketing - cold calls
This is the traditional outbound usage. Mostly used by banks, insurance companies, utilities, but all types of businesses can use it. More and more, these type of calls are offshored, however, customers tend to to lose interest when they hear that the call comes from elsewhere. When the product you are selling is cheap and you are calling a lot of customers you can perhaps run the risk of offshoring the operation. However when your product is valuable, don't go over the border. Rather go for quality then for cheap quantity. Most probably you will use predictive dialing here - the agent does not really need to know too much of the customer - he will need to sell his or her thing.
Telemarketing - warm calls
Here, also most businesses could use warm calls. Mostly these are calls to existing customers - because selling to existing customers is supposed to be easier than getting new customers. Difficult legislation against cold calling forces most businesses to focus on their existing customer base, who will generally have less problems being called. These type of services have been growing steadily in contact centers in the last couple of years. You can use predictive here, depending on how complicated the product or service is. When it is rather complex, the agent might benefit from the call setup time to study the client data.
Customer care calls
Customer care calls are the ones that don't bring in money directly. These are the type of 'soft calls'. You ask your customers whether they are happy, how your services could be improved, et cetera. These type of calls will give you an idea of the general thoughts of the customer, and you will be able to translate them in to the strategy for the next product or service. It also can be used to turn the calls into sales calls, but don't expect too much from that - think more about increasing customer loyalty.
Advisory calling
These types of outbound calls would be made typically by airlines, public services etc. - to let the client know that something has changed. This gives a value-added service to your client thereby improving their perception of the organisation. You might be able to do some cross-selling or up-selling, but don't count on it (and don't push for it). If the announcements are simple you could use predictive dialing here; otherwise go for power dialing.
In order to optimize the use of your agents' time you can use the idle time of an inbound campaign to place some outbound calls. You can either do that within the same campaign (if this is appropriate), or use another campaign for that. However, this is not for all agents. Switching between inbound and outbound mostly means switching between sales and service, so some agents might do better than others. Normally you would see power outbound with inbound. With some systems you can do predictive outbound. This might save some time, especially when you use it together with a good call classifier.
Web callbacks
Everyone who does business on the web (and who doesn't do business on the web at the moment) could use web callbacks. When a client clicks on a button, a call is placed in the outbound calling queue. As the client has initiated this contact via the web, it is not so intrusive as other types of outbound. It can be thought more of as a 'reverse' inbound call, actually, and does well fit in the blending described above. I would recommend using power dial, so that an agent is reserved for the contact.
Voice callbacks
A voice callback could happen in all cases above - the client wants to talk to you, only not at the time you contact them. Together you decide on a new time and you call the client back at that time. Good! You probably don't want to use predictive dialing and you want to make sure that the right agent calls the client.

As you can see, there is no simple definition of outbound, there are a lot of different types, and possibly even more than I have mentioned above. You can imagine outbound projects that are a mix of two items that I described. But some points in outbound are in common:
  • Outbound is intrusive
  • Thus, customers are potentially more defensive - this needs to be overcome by giving the agent all possible tools and means to have the right information at his fingertips. You might try to do a tight integration with a CRM application or extract valuable business information from databases based on customer intelligence.
  • Outbound work is hard for the agents. Noone likes to hear 'no' most of the time, and agents are no exception to that rule. If you add to that the predictive dialer, you should be sensitive to reduce the agent stress by a good schedule, call blending, training and good supervision and communication.
  • When you have the technology to optimize the agent don't try to use outbound calling as an exercise in maximizing call volumes. What you will do at that time is having good call volumes, wearing out the agents and end up with a much bigger problem afterwards. In addition to that, a mistuned predictive dialer can affect your brand by connecting your clients to exhausted agents.
  • Don't offshore without thinking. The same high standards for agent training and support are needed, even when you offshore your business; so do it sensibly
  • A lot of legislation has passed. Be aware of it, use the national opt-out lists and treat your clients as you want to be treated.
  • The use of dialing technology can have an impact on agent retention
As you see, doing an outbound campaign is a bit more difficult than 'put in a box and dial'. There are a lot of thinks to think about. Do you want to talk about it with someone who knows all about it? Talk to us. We can help you setting up an outbound dialer in less than a week.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Outbound in the contact center

Many of the contact centers started out as a telemarketing-based outbound call-center. This is where the general public got the wrong idea from call centers. "You know, the guys that ennoy you in the middle of the night, asking whether you want something you absolutly don't need." But, face it - it is true. A lot of contact centers started like this - get a large database and start calling.
Fairly unsophisticated at the time, creating the negative perception towards the general public. However, it has taken only a few years for custome organisations to pressure legislators into limiting telemarketeers calling them at any hour and protecting their privacy.
As a result, an increasing proportion of outbound calling is now directed to existing customers, delivering customer care, cross-selling, up-selling, and proactively informing them about possibilities.
These events, however, have not diminished the market. Outbound calling has grown even in the last couple of years, helping the contact centers to maximize the agent utilisation. Typically, the agent accounts for more than 70% of the contact center costs. Of course, if your main cost is agents, you will try to maximize the use of them. Therefore, contact centers have asked their contact center software editor vendors for
  • improved dialing capabilities
  • screen pops with customer information
  • blending inbound and outbound interactions
Improved dialing capabilities
One of the best improvements in dialing capabilities is the predictive dialing. With predictive dialing, your contact center software will monitor the behaviour of your agents and when the software estimates that one of your agents will be near call completion, will place another routbound call, thus maximizing the use of your agents. Beware however, that you can wear out your agents more quickly - so pay attention to more frequent pauses.
Screen pops with customer information
When doing outbound, you especially need to pay attention to help the agent in assessing the situation. You will need to provide the agent with as much information as he will need when he is connected to the client. This will help him talking to the client more natural.
Blending inbound and outbound interactions
Sometimes, it can be advantageous to blend inbound and outbound interactions. Your system can be set up to handle all inbound interactions, and, when inbound call volume is low, agent resources can be used to do some outbound work. If you train your agents for that, this will greatly enhance your agents' productivity.
How does outbound calling work in a contact center?
Outbound calling is fundamentally different from inbound; there are laws and cultural issues to be overcome. The customer is more likely to be defensive of the purpose of the call, so your agents will need to build in trust into the call at the beginning. This means having the right information at their fingertips at the start of the call. A tight integration with a CRM application could be critical to better target the customer. This is better for the agent and for the agent.
Don't underestimate the outbound work on your agents. Outbound work is much heavier than inbound work. They are constantly confronted with people who don't welcome outbound calls, persistent refusal, lack of interest, and outright refusal; this can be very wearing for the agents, especially if predictive dialling is used. You should consider ways to alleviate stress; think of scheduling, call blending, communication; the right use of technology, focused training, the best work environments amongst others.
When the technology is there it is tempting to treat outbound calling as an exercize in maximizing call volumes and agent talk times, and therefore (theoretically) revenues. But do you want to do this. Think twice before you start such an exercise. This can result in brand damage and high staff turnover, because of exhausted agents delivering poor quality interactions. Is this what your clients are asking for in your high quality contact center? I think not.
Another tendency is to ofshore low-value outbound sales campaigns that would otherwise be unprofitable to run here. But - the same level of training is necessary for offshore agents to do their job properly; too many businesses simply put the agents on a hardware dialer with a script in front of them and then wonder why their customers and prospects complain.
In several countries different legislation has been taken place. Cold calling is illegal in Germany (ouch!), the US has a National Do-Not-Call Registry (NDNCR) while in the UK residential and businesses may opt out receiving any sales call at all. Around 60 million telephone numbers or 1/3 of the US households are registered in the NDNCR and four million housholds in the UK have opted out.
The use of dialing technologies does have an effect upon staff turnover; you should be aware that you should balance agent productibity against agent retaining. There is ample evidence that misusing the technology will effect in agents leaving your contact center. Vendors may argue the opposite, that providing the agent with a constant source of live contacts gives them a better experience, no more waiting around to talk to someone  - the will get so many more live contacts... Actually this is partially true. But don't think that they can sustain the same rate during the day. With that I mean that they might be able to handle 30% more calls per hour, but you wil need to give them 10% more breaks per hour. So bottomline - you will gain - but not as much as the vendors will want you to believe. And I know this, I'm a vendor :-)
What holds the future for outbound voice contacts?
The future for cold calling is not exactly colourfull. Legislation, poor customer attitudes, and so on, will have a negative effect on the unsollicited telemarketing call. Probably, it will be used more and more for proactive customer care and customer satisfaction; to learn about market opinions and to up- and cross-sell to existing customers. The large scale offshore telemarketing projects of today will disappear. Tomorrow they will only damage the customers' brand: the future of outbound belongs to those companies who can create a personal network with their clients, and thus are able to call them without disturbing them. This, of course depends on the ability to have a 360 ° view of your customers throughout all the channels that you employ. Be prepared to have a unified customer view so that every interaction will fit in. Be aware that the customer needs to get the same message independent of which channel he chooses to connect to you. In addition to that, you will need highly skilled agents. Successful outbound calling is a skill that depends on a mix of empowered, well-trained people, sensitive management and systems that support agents through providing them with the right number of contacts and any information relevant to the call.
Are you prepared to call your customers tomorrow? Do you have a 360 ° view of them? If not, turnaround and ask me. I will steer you in the right direction.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Some thoughts on e-mail in the contact center

Do you have an e-mail account?
What a stoopid question! Of course you do. Everyone and their dog has at least three to four e-mail accounts. Let's count. I have a gmail, yahoo, hotmail, ADSL-provider and work account. And I'm checking them regularly. They all serve a different purpose. So e-mail is very, very popular. Right?
Well, yes, but not in the contact center. Yet. How come? Let me tell you a story.
Yes, e-mail is extremely popular - many businesses would cease to exist within weeks without e-mail. Some people would rather do business without a telephone than without e-mail. However, the level of e-mail usage prevalent in most contact centers is amazingly low. One would expect that, with the ease of writing e-mails, customers would use it to communicate with contact centers. But this is not happening. E-mail is in most cases only a couple of percentages of the voice volume.
How is this possible?
In the past years when customers and companies discovered e-mail, they have tried to communicate with each other, however, a lot of companies rushed to implement e-mail systems resulting in a poor implementation, a lack of vision and certainly a lack of understanding at the top level. So the customers' natural reaction is to stop using e-mail. Which is what happened in most cases. Hence the fact that e-mail is only a small part of the volume of a contact center.
Individual organisations have managed to make e-mail the channel of their choice, especially in the IT sector, but for most it is not the case. This is a pity, because e-mail is the best channel for high complexity, low urgency transactions - you can explain a lot in an e-mail; include documents and so on - but you will not have the same turnaround time as for a telephone call.
As I described earlier, it is desirable to manage all interaction channels with the same business rules so that you can act quickly and consistently when the SLA slips. Too often I see that contact center sacrifices their e-mail queue in order to meet the telephony service level. And you must understand, these e-mail interactions already have been in the queue for a day to reach the same urgency.
It seems to be sensible, doesn't it? The e-mail will still be waiting after the client has been dealt with, and no-one wants a high level of abandoned calls. Now let's look at it in another way. A telephone queue is to a certain extend self managing. Read that again. A telephone queue is to a certain extend self managing. When you wait too long in a queue - what do you do? You drop the call. Right? The e-mail queue will not do this. I can write an e-mail to a company and when I don't get an answer back in a couple of days, I resent the e-mail thinking that the e-mail is lost. Now you have two e-mails to answer if your system is not intelligent enough to match the two together. Thus, old e-mails will pile up and agents can spend all day answering request that no longer apply because the customer has lost interest, went to a competitor, or oh irony, has telephoned your call center to get the reply denied to them by e-mail.
Perhaps you must not sacrifice your e-mail queue to meet your telephony SLA.
So what should you do?
  • First of all, implement a single 'universal queue'. I cannot stress this enough. All interactions should be managed and routed according to business rules, regardless of channels. This will also help you having a single view across all your channels - one of the key ways to improve the quality of the offered services.
  • Give an autoreply with perhaps an estimated answering time or SLA. Customers need to know that they are in a queue and will be helped!
  • Secondly, you can gain considerably cost savings from (semi)automated e-mail handling. E-mails can be analysed automatically, and an answer can be constructed and proposed to an agent. The agent then only has to check whether the automated process has done the job well, add a human touch, and send the e-mail.
  • Furthermore, train your agents on e-mail response. Unlike speech, there is no real interaction with the customer and the agent run the risk of offending customers if they use the wrong words. And, telephony agents may not necessarily make good e-mail agents.
The universal queue will allow the routing and handling of every channel to be managed dynamically, allowing you to build an image of each and every customer's interaction history. As I said before, one of the mail reasons for the low numbers of e-mails in contact centers is that the channel was offered to customers without proper support and system. Used once, then abandoned by customers who went back to the channel they could depend on, the voice channel. This gave e-mail a bad name, and customers are still hesitant about using it - unless they have a positive prior experience. This means that the first experience a customer must have of using your e-mail channel as a contact method must be similar, no better than the telephone. Otherwise - why would they use it again?
Next time you deal with a nasty e-mail problem in your contact center, check us outWe make such software. It works - it doesn't hurt to ask me about it

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Self-service in the contact center

Self service is the dream of every call center manager. It costs less and it is available 24 hours, 7 days a week. But does it work?
First, let us define what self service is. Everyone is talking about self-service. But what is it? Self-service is when customers interact directly with systems of the company, without any interaction of its employees. Some examples:
  • via telephone, getting the balance information of the bank account
  • through the web site, booking a ticket on line or solving a technical problem
  • through SMS-es, proactively informing customers of an event
  • through a kiosk that can print vouchers, give offers
The cost for the different channels can vary dramatically. Telephone and e-mail (when unassisted) are among the highest ones, costing around 7 € per interaction; IVR hovers around 1 € while automated e-mail can be as low as 0,20 €. As you see, quite a difference in pricing.
Now, organising self-service is a different task. First of all, you must make sure that every channel that you wish to deploy can use the same set of business rules and has the same knowledge base. You don't want your client to receive different answers, based upon the channel they decide to use to contact you. Also, the customer records must be kept up to date on these systems. You'll make a nice impression when a customer can be identified on one channel, but not on the other one...
Besides that, self-service means that you will have to open up your systems and databases to your customers. This might present substantial work, both in programming and in security, but cost savings will be considerable by not having to employ people to fulfill the same task. After all, these are repetitive tasks.
In addition to that, you will need to make your self-services extremely user-friendly. Your website is probably already user-friendly - but how is your IVR? Ever heared about IVR-hell? Perhaps you might want to invest in speech-enabled technologies that are available now. They are working not too back nowadays.
Still, voice interactions remain a key part of how people like to do business, and this is not going to change. Customer-centricity is a key part to success: customers must want to use self-service applications, and understanding what customers want self-service for, and designing it to suit them, is critically important.
When choosing for self-service you are probably going to work with multiple vendors. Therefor, pick standards-based solutions that are open, and use off the shell hardware in order to decrease your total cost of ownership. This will also improve your flexibility, functionality and deployment time, while opening up possibilities for more advanced applications (of which you don't even dream today) and be able to scale up in the future.

Want to be self-serviced? We have the software to do it.

How to avoid IVR Hell

Have you ever been in IVR hell?
Ring-ring - Click! Welcome to our beautiful company. Press 1 for annoying elevator music, press 2 to talk to an agent that don't know anything and will transfer you to another agent where you can explain your problem again, press 3 to get into another menu with another 17 options, press 4 to participate in a customer service enquete, press 5 to hear this menu again, press 6 to hear this menu reversed, pressing 7 does nothing, press 8 to be transferred to a department that cannot help you and finally if you are still listening, press 9 to do whatever you want.
I hope for you that you don't encounter these kind of systems too much, and I surely hope that your system is like that. We have so much to tell our clients. On brochures, a PR bureau does a good job; for our web-site we hire professionals, but for our IVR, also one of the touchpoints where clients and company meet - what do we do? We deliver a lousy interface. Really. Dial in to some IVR's and dissect them. They are not the best representative of the company - why not? Why is it so difficult to make a simple system that allows your (future) clients to access your company without any problems? I will try to explain some very easy guidelines to help you setting up your IVR.
In order to set up your IVR, you will need to follow three rules. Not a big list of does and don'ts (In a later blog I will refine these rules and addd some does and don'ts but for now, stick with these). So, three rules. Here they are. Think as your client and three is the key. The latter is counting for two, so that's three rules. Here they are in full:
  1. Think as your clients!
  2. Have a maximum of 3 items per menu
  3. Make your menus maximum 3 deep
The first point is paramount. Think as your clients. As an example, a couple of weeks ago I was asked to give advice how to set up an IVR. After some discussion, we came to the following question. Will the first question be which product the client is using (product A, B or C), or which problem the client is facing (technical, billing, other)? Clients can have more than one product, by the way. Obviously this is a helpdesk were complaints are coming in, so I told them rule 1, put yourself in your clients feet. Think as your client. And this proved to be not so simple. There were people that thought that the product should come first while others expressed that the problem should come first.
After a while I stopped the discussion the following question: "What does the client have?" - The answer was simple, the client has a problem. Next question: "Is it possible that he has a technical and billing problem exactly at the same time?" Well, no, was the answer. "So now you know what to put first. Your first menu item will make the distinction between the type of problem the client has. After that, you ask him for which product he has this problem.
It doesn't have to be in this order always, however. If you are selling products, you'll probably put your products first.
Point two and three. Three is the key. People cannot remember a lot. Most people are visual, and can remember things when they see them. But not when hearing them. Therefore, having a menu with 8 items is generally a bad idea. You better split that up. Make sure that you use a maximum of three items in your menu. Now if you really have to put in four - you can do it once in a while, but really really try to stick to three. The same principle holds for the menu depth. Maximum three, otherwise people will really feel that they are in a never ending IVR. And please, always forsee a way to return to the top menu, so people can start over again.
But (I already heared from clients, multiple times ... ) isn't three menu items too little - I mean, then I'm so restricted? They probably forgot the math that they took in school. Three menu items x three levels = 27 different end points. And if you would cheat and extend it to 4 you would get 256 end points. If you cannot fit your IVR in 27 different end points then you might need to rethink your IVR strategy. Perhaps use different telephone numbers in order to differentiate products or problems?
Do you want to see whether your users are ending in the IVR Hell? Measure it. See how many customers enter your IVR and how many abandon it. I mean abandoned calls before they are waiting in a queue. This is a very bad sign. Check which menu options they have chosen (your software is capable of doing that, isn't it?). Are they running around in circles? Big chance that you created an IVR Hell. Rethink your your IVR. Want to talk to me? No problem. My first idea is for free :-)
In order to get a free out of IVR Hell card, check out our software.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

How do you measure the quality of your blended contact center?

A little followup to the previous story "How do you blend telephone, e-mail, web and chat in your contact center?"
The success of your inbound contact center has normally been measured by metrics based on call throughput such as
  • average speed of answer
  • call duration
  • queue size
  • abandoned calls
Et cetera. You could easily get these key figures from the ACD of your switch, realtime or historically. Probably most of the contact centers were set up to reduce the cost of doing business with the customers, hence the above-mentioned metrics. Contact centers were regarded as cost centers, therefore pressure was put upon them to lower the price of each contact, rather then value the customer experience.
However, you cannot simple assure the success of your call center based purely based on these numbers. Of course, measures of efficiency are still important, even for contact centers where customer experience is put before anything.
More attention should be paid to measuring and improving the customer experience. In other words, don't only see your call center as a cost center, you could turn it into a profit center! In order to do this, you need to understand what service(s) you are providing to your customers and walk the tight rope between efficiency and effectiveness to run a contact center that provides a high quality service in a cost-effective manner.
As more and more channels are entering the arena, it is vital that the customer experience remains a positive one. Therefore, I don't see the voice channel shrink in the near future (in absolute terms); customers will continue to prefer doing business with other people - and no automated system can beat a human being for flexibility, knowledge and rapport.
Agents will still be needed when the nature of the interaction is both complex and urgent. When you look at the speed and complexity of today's world, it seems unlikey that agents will be replaced by self-service, be it web, IVR or other.
However, some types of work are more likely to move to self-service; most of these are low-value, repetitive or transactional work where the agent is just retyping data. The customer self will benefit from this automation too - he will get a 24x7 service and no queueing time (when the call center scaled their systems right).
Not really accidentally, we make such software. If you are interested, check it out.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

How do you blend telephone, e-mail, web and chat in your contact center?

Historically, contact centers delt only with telephone, hence the name call center. Since a couple of years there is a trend to blend other channels into there. Because your customers communicate with you in different ways. They call you of course, but they also send you e-mails. They visit your web site. And they might visit you face to face. Faxes, SMS, MMS; more and more channels are on their way. You need to manage each of these communication channels as effectively as possible.
More and more, customers are bouncing between the different channels and expect you to follow them. They will write in an e-mail: "as I told you yesterday on the telephone ..." or tell your agents on the telephone that this is what they filled in on a form on the web site. And you cannot have your agents staring at them with a blank face.
They will visit your web site to double check information that they have received from you by telephone. So your company has to be able to communicate across all channels in a common manner - with one set of business rules. If you have different rules then you will make mistakes.
In order to be an effective, cross-channel contact center, you must use the same systems across all channels, namely:
  • use a common ticketing system
  • use a common reporting system
  • use a common history system
  • use a common knowledge base system
This unified approach has a substantial impact. Unified contact centers will deliver a superior service at a greatly reduced cost. This is because each channel will become more efficient, and the different types of interactions are driven to the channel where they belong. Also, customers will feel that they are not a number but that they have a relation with you, however they contact you. This will enhance your customers' satisfaction, retaining them longer.
Multi-channel contact centers will also provide you with a better insight into your customers' main concerns, helping you improving your customer care. Fragmented communications on the other hand will create big problems. People will get calls from frustated customers that get wrong information from different systems, repeatedly answering redundant question. They cannot add new items to the knowledge base. And, worst of all, companies with call centers that separate telephone, e-mail and web can't adequately understand, let alone address the top service issues of their customers!
It is not too difficult to make the change from a call center towards a contact center - many companies have already done so, and many more are on their way. Their success stories offer real proff that multichannel contact centers deliver a better service at a lower cost per interaction.
Not really accidentally, we make such software. If you are interested, check it out.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Text chat - what works, what doesn't?

There is a discussion going on regarding text chat here

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Altitude Software

This is a blog about Altitude Software. And about me. I work there. And in this blog I will tell you what I do on a working day with our software.

I will write about the difficulties and success stories encountered in setting up call centers and contact centers, things I can and can't do with our software.

Let's start at the beginning then. Altitude Software is a Portugese company who writes call center software. Now this is quite a niche market, there are not a lot of other companies who write such software. Genesys is one. This is our main competitor, but there are others. Most of them are small ones, serving the local markets. But we (as Genesys) are trying to be a world wide call center software editor. Or I should say contact center software editor, because nowadays, it is not only the calls that could. More and more, e-mails become important. Chat is coming up. Faxes, SMS, you name a channel, the customer uses it, and the call center, sorry I mean contact center has to be able to handle the channel.

Thus Altitude's vision of a unified customer interaction, or uCI in short.

Altitude believes that there should be one set of rules managing all the contacts, whatever their source (telephone, e-mail, face to face). This seems very logical. It does not make any difference how the customer contacts you, he needs to be treated always in the same way. So you are a VIP whether you send a fax or an SMS. One routing engine, one set of business rules.

Well, enough business promotion, back to the real world. I'm working for the Belgian subsidiary of Altitude Software, which handles the Benelux and all Eastern Europe countries - so from time to time we get to travel a bit.

We are always doing lots of things at the same time - which is also the fun part of the job. Imagine having a job where you only do one thing at the time. Booooring! Handling 3 or 4 projects simultaneously is my middle name.

I'll stop here for now. Lateron I will tell you what projects I do and have done. What problems I have encountered and how I have solved them. In between I will explain you a little bit about Altitude Software and how it works.