A Ray of Light
Paul Stockford, Research Director, National Association of Call Centers and Chief Analyst, Saddletree Research, Paul.Stockford@nationalcallcenters.org
Over the past few weeks the NACC has seen an encouraging increase in the number of membership, sponsorship and project inquiries from the market. Could this be an indication that the contact center industry is emerging from its protective shell, facing forward and shielding its eyes from the glare of light emanating from a brighter future?
I have a hunch that the customer service industry as a whole will soon be announcing positive financial results for the first quarter of 2009. These anticipated positive results are likely reducing the anxiety that most companies were experiencing at the beginning of the year despite generally strong financial performance in 2008. I speak to many contact center companies during the course of the year and at the end of 2008 just about all of them reported good financial results for the year and a strong fourth quarter performance. I was not expecting the industry to respond the way it did.
At the beginning of this year many of these companies with strong 2008 financial performance behaved as if their financial foundation was about to crumble. Normally sound managerial minds began to function out of fear rather than out of confidence and logic. My greatest fear was that it would become a self-fulfilling prophesy. With so many companies expecting the worst, the worst was bound to happen. We will soon find out that fortunately, this was not the case at all.
I think what we have learned during the course of the first quarter of this year is that the customer service function will survive this recession and will continue to be important to any organization in a competitive market regardless of economic conditions. As the doomsayers, pessimists and financial managers are emerging from their shrouds of gloom to find that the world actually didn’t end during the first quarter, budgets are beginning to loosen up.
We also expect to see venture capital and merger and acquisition activities to gain momentum during the second quarter as evidenced by the recent interest of Canadian banks in strengthening their positions in American markets. Canada’s banks have remained profitable despite global economic uncertainty and are now looking to invest in American businesses. This influx of cash cannot avoid positively impacting the customer service industry across business sectors.
As budgets loosen and optimism returns to the contact center industry it is a good time to consider joining us and supporting the industry via membership in the NACC. As a true non-profit, university-based industry organization the NACC continues to focus on the advancement of the contact center and customer care professions through a variety of activities including ongoing research, peer interaction and shared information. For more information on NACC membership and sponsorship please visit http://www.nationalcallcenters.org/membership.php.
From the Trenches
Technology Optimization Part 1: Routing and Skills
Lori Bocklund, President, Strategic Contact, Lori@strategiccontact.com
We have a wealth of technology in the contact center, but companies frequently underutilize it or poorly apply it to business needs. Now is a great time to review your deployments and find ways to optimize their business value – through technology, process, and/or people changes. With this column, we begin a series of articles that address technologies ripe for improved use. We start with routing and skills, technology that lets us do amazing things to deliver calls to the proper agent.
Many elements play a role in routing, including the network, IVR, ACD, and potentially CTI and databases. Centers need to review or define a call path carefully, end-to-end, to apply the technology properly. Skills capabilities allow agents to handle various call types and priorities, and conditional routing makes “if…then…” decisions for each call. Most centers focus on phone calls, but also “route” emails and perhaps fax, mail, or even text chat as part of contact handling. So as we look at routing and skills, we also need to consider it across media.
Many problems in contact centers are due to overly complicated routing and skills. Making skill structures too granular makes it difficult to effectively route, track, manage, and optimize. It puts customers through needless gyrations to call different numbers, navigate prompts, and bounce around queues. “Command center” staff move calls and/or agents around to try to match resources to workload, rather than letting the technology work on their behalf. And in the end, callers often end up in the same place in spite of all these efforts. At the other end of the spectrum, some centers suffer from overly simplified routing and skills. They put everyone into one bucket and expect their “super agents” to do it all. They wind up with a high transfer rate and low first call resolution.
Each center needs to strike the right balance, applying technology effectively to meet business needs. Here are some tips to optimize your routing and skills:
1. Keep it simple. Define end-to-end routing with the customer in mind and ease of management as a complimentary goal. Define channel use (toll free numbers) and prompts (whether in the network, IVR, and/or ACD) carefully to match skills while minimizing the burden on the customer. Define skills only to the degree needed for the call types - not for tracking, not because you can break it down that much. Finally, define routing paths with the right conditional options but not too many gyrations. You don’t want “spaghetti routing” where you can’t decipher what goes where (and why) or what works and what doesn’t.
2. Use the technology. Set up appropriate conditionals and skills to find the best available resource – including looking at backup skills or other sites. Use a routing tool for email – whether it’s a function of your ACD or CTI, or a separate email routing engine. You’ve got to be able to route, track, and optimize more than just phone calls.
3. Make changes when necessary, and with purpose and understanding. Part of getting routing and skills right is continuous improvement; few environments are truly static. Use your reports to monitor results, and analyze, assess, and optimize based on what you learn. (Stay tuned for our next column which will address reports)
4. Tie routing and skills technology into the process and people aspects as well. Training is key to aligning skills and contact types. You can use routing and skills to help define career paths and create opportunities – across products, customer types, media, or other dimensions.
The bottom line: Most centers have an opportunity to clean up superfluous skills and messy routing paths, and more effectively apply this powerful technology to make the customer experience better, increase resource utilization and efficiency, and make it easier to manage. Now is the time.
Call Centers and the Economic Stimulus Bill Part I
David L. Butler, Executive Director, National Association of Call Centers, David.Butler@nationalcallcenters.org
I have been reading the full US stimulus package, all 785 glorious pages, to see how the call center industry will be influenced by this bill if at all. The only direct reference to call centers shows up on page 690 under the section on Trade Adjustments for Communities. Specifically the bill says, "The Conferees believe small- and medium-sized communities, and in particular, those in rural areas where the manufacturing sector has historically been a significant employer, would benefit from the technical assistance and grants available through this program. Such communities have been disproportionately impacted by the adverse effects of trade, where some lumber mills, factories and call centers, for instance, have scaled back operations or closed entirely in response to increased trade and globalization" (p. 689-690) (bold mine).
Unfortunately, the only reference to call centers in the bill is one of a negative light, suggesting that call center jobs are jobs that are lost due to trade. Though in part, some call center jobs have been lost due to trade (wage differences in Asia versus the US for instance), many new jobs in call centers have been created within the United States, Canada, the UK and other places for over a decade. Moreover, often when a community loses call center jobs, those jobs are transferred within the United States to another region, state or community where there is less upward pressure on wages or more availability of labor. Not all call center jobs lost go offshore. I wish the writers of this bill would have read my congressional testimony from September 11, 2008, and they would have seen data to this effect.
In forthcoming parts of this essay I will address how specific issues in the stimulus bill could influence the call center industry, directly and indirectly. Future issues will cover the investment in telecommunications infrastructure, including rural broadband access, trade imbalance payments to companies and communities, economic development grants for call centers and much more. Stay tuned.
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