Insider Perspectives: ICMI's Erica Marois on Contact Centers

Erica Marois, Community Strategist

Erica Marois, Community Strategist

In any industry, there are a few people you absolutely need to know.

Erica Marois is one of those people for contact center professionals. She's the Community Strategist for the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) and a terrific source of information on Twitter. Her role involves connecting people in the contact center community to give them the tools and resources they need to advance their careers.

Marois is uniquely plugged in to contact center trends and the people who are driving them. She's also one of the industry's most passionate advocates.

She recently took some time to share insights on how contact center professionals can grow in their careers and what leading contact centers are doing to succeed.


Q: Tell me about some of the ways you help contact center professionals connect with each other to learn and grow?

"Customers like to connect with their favorite brands in many ways, and our members like to connect with ICMI and each other in many ways too.

"One of my favorites is the weekly ICMI Chat on Twitter [Tuesday's at 10am Pacific, #icmichat]. The discussion revolves around a new topic each week and participants provide a lot of fun and insightful commentary. It's even led to a sort of mastermind community where people connect outside of the weekly chat to discuss challenges and share ideas. A lot of regular participants have had a chance to meet in person at ICMI conferences and have become good friends, which is fun too.

"We've just launched our ICMI book club on Goodreads. A couple of people mentioned they were thinking of starting a book club in their contact centers, so I thought it might be a good idea for ICMI. Our industry has such a thirst for knowledge, and books are a great way for directors, managers, supervisors, and agents to learn new ideas. Each month, we'll feature a new book and have a live discussion with the author at the end of the month. The first book is The Culture Engine by Chris Edmonds.

"We also publish original case studies and articles, a weekly newsletter, and host the annual Contact Center Expo and Contact Center Demo conferences."

Note: You can save $200 on the upcoming Contact Center Expo conference when you use the code SPKR at checkout.

 

Q: You seem to be everywhere at those conferences! What's your primary goal while you're there?

"My top priority is to meet as many people as possible. I enjoy hearing from them and what their struggles are because it helps me do a better job. I’m passionate about helping people overcome those struggles. 

"I also try to maintain our social presence at the conferences. There are a lot of great discussions happening on the conference's Twitter backchannel [note: the backchannel refers to the conference's Twitter hashtag, such as #ccexpo]. I've learned there are even more people who aren't necessarily active participants in those online discussions, but they're still actively listening."

 

Q: What do you see top contact centers doing that others don't necessarily do?

"The most successful contact centers treat their employees like adults. They empower them by giving them the tools and resources they need to serve their customers, and they don't chain them down with rigid scripts or cumbersome policies.

"If you hire people you trust, you need to trust them.

"Employee engagement is a top priority for leading contact centers. They don't get too bogged down in tactics or employee satisfaction. These contact centers understand that engaged employees are self-motivated and invested in the mission of the company. 

"To do that, employees need to know the mission. In The Culture Engine, this month's book club book, the author talks about having a 'cultural constitution' that spells out the company culture and what behaviors are expected. 

"It's so easy to get stuck focused on metrics, that contact center leaders often forget to focus on people. The best contact centers have an employee engagement champion who is constantly making sure this is a priority."

 

Q: What do you think are some unique aspects about serving customers in a contact center?

"I didn't have any contact center experience before I joined ICMI, but I quickly learned to appreciate what these professionals do every day. It's such a relatable industry because we've all been on the receiving end of a contact center's customer service.

"What really stands out for me is the passion. People are hungry to learn, improve, and share their experiences. You've got to have a servant leader's heart to be successful in this industry."

 

Q: Is there something about contact centers you wish other people knew?

"People need to realize the great value that contact centers provide.

"In many cases the contact center is the company's first and primary point of communication with customers. Agents have a big opportunity to create a positive impression of the company in their customers' minds. The contact center also collects an awful lot of customer data that the marketing department, R&D team, and even the CEO should be paying attention to.

"Too many organizations think of the contact center as a cost center where expenses need to be minimized, but the contact center is really one of the most customer-focused aspects of any company."


Conference Re-cap: ICMI's Contact Center Demo & Conference

Last week, I attended ICMI's Contact Center Demo & Conference in Dallas, Texas. As always, the event featured exceptional site tours, keynote presentations, an expo hall, and educational breakout sessions.

Here's an overview of the conference along with some of my key take-aways from the event. 

 

Background

You might want to start by familiarizing yourself with the conference if you didn't attend.

The #CCDemo hashtag on Twitter is another great way to catch a glimpse into the proceedings. You don't even need a Twitter account. Just use this link.

 

Key Take-Aways

Customer-focus was at the top of the list. This isn't unusual, given the nature of the conference, but the message dug a bit deeper this time.

The first full day of the conference started with an impactful keynote presentation from Tom Grothues, USAA's Senior Vice President for Bank and Property & Casualty sales and service. USAA is a financial services company that's at the top of just about any list of best customer service organizations.

It's no surprise that Grothues explained much of USAA's ability to be customer-focused comes from getting employees to buy-in to its customer service vision.

It also seemed that contact center professionals are starting to get more sophisticated. For example, I was fortunate to moderate a panel discussion on first contact resolution (FCR). The experts on the panel came to the surprising consensus that FCR was a very limited metric.

Suggested alternatives included "Future Contact Resolution" (thanks, Neal Topf!), "First Conversation Resolution" (thanks, Al Hopper), or limiting FCR to situations where an agent had direct control over solving the issue on one try.

Justin Robbins, Group Community Director for ICMI and HDI, was one of the panelists. He continued the theme in his keynote the next morning where he encouraged contact center leaders to avoid broken promises.

Best-selling author Marsha Collier delivered a keynote focused on helping contact center leaders understand the impact that customer service has on marketing. 

The concept itself isn't new, but Collier revealed opportunities for companies to improve. For example, a company often has loyal customers who engage them on social media channels like Twitter. A smart marketing strategy is to follow those customers and engage with them regularly.

Customer service writing expert, Leslie O'Flahavan, followed Collier's keynote later that day with an impactful presentation on writing to customers in your brand's voice.

She encouraged contact center leaders to work with their marketing departments to identify brand language standards and translate those into guides for customer service agents to mirror the same approach.

O'Flahavan also provided this helpful list of resources for learning to write in your brand voice. 

ICMI's next conference is Contact Center Expo in Orlando, May 22 - 25. I'm already looking forward to it!


Re-Cap: 2016 Contact Center Expo & Conference

The 2016 edition of ICMI's annual Contact Center Expo & Conference took place in Long Beach, California last week. An estimated 1,500 participants were in attendance.

It's billed by ICMI as "the highest rated and most trusted Contact Center event in the industry." I've personally attended the past four years and found it to be true. 

The conference is a great opportunity to learn about some of the latest trends that are shaping the world of customer service and contact centers in particular.

This post is a re-cap of some of the conference highlights. 

Conference Overview

You may want to start by familiarizing yourself with the conference if you aren't already. 

I always enjoy reading what people have to say on the Twitter backchannel, #CCExpo16. You don't need to have a Twitter account to view this.

 

Awards

The 2016 Global Contact Center Awards were presented at the conference. This was a great opportunity to highlight top agents, leaders, and teams in the contact center industry. 

The awards were presented at a festive party that gave conference attendees a chance to mingle with the award winners and the finalists. I had a chance to chat with some of the folks from moo.com, who won awards for Best Use of Technology, Best Chat Support, and Best Small Contact Center. It was awesome to see their excitement after getting such well-deserved recognition.

ICMI is already accepting applications for the 2017 awards.

 

Video

If you'd asked me last year about video as a customer service channel, I'd say it didn't seem to have much promise. I now think I was completely wrong.

Video was a growing topic among many attendees. Here are just a few applications I learned about:

Nurses at Kaiser Permanente can use video through a secure app that lets them see patients who call in for advice.

TurboTax users are able to share their computer screen with a support agent, so the support agent can better understand where they're experiencing difficulties. 

And, thanks to video chat, visiting a bank branch may soon be a thing of the past.

The next big shift will be developing proven methods for training contact center agents on the nuances of video-based service. And, we'll need to figure out how to make customers comfortable with it too.

 

Agent Burnout

This was a big concern among contact center leaders. Perhaps it's the nature of the job, but there might be better solutions out there.

That's why I'm doing a study to assess the causes and hopefully find some cures. The survey is running now through May 31, 2016.

If you're a contact center leader, you can benchmark your agents' burnout level against the average. Just drop me a line and I'll get you set-up.

Or, if you just want to take the survey yourself, you can access it here.


Contest: Win a Two-Day Pass to the Contact Center Expo & Conference

ICMI's Contact Center Expo & Conference is one of my favorite conferences.

It has been locked onto my calendar since I first went in 2013. I also labeled this year's version one of three customer service conferences in May that you shouldn't miss.

So, it was pretty hard to resist when the organizers asked me if I'd like to give away a two-day pass (worth $1,995!) to one of my readers.

Read on to learn more about the conference, what makes this year's version so special, and how you can enter to win.

About The Conference

Contact Center Expo & Conference has something for everyone. 

They have the usual selection of keynotes, breakout sessions, and a vendor expo. (Although, their selection is quite impressive.)

What sets them apart is everything else they offer:

  • Tours of area contact centers
  • Workshops before and after the conference
  • Industry roundtable breakfasts
  • Best practice sharing
  • Global Contact Center Awards ceremony and party

You can read more on the conference's overview page.

These re-caps of past conferences will also give you a flavor of some of the key learning moments and networking opportunities:

 

This Year's Conference

The 2016 edition is particularly exciting.

Scott McKain is delivering the opening keynote on The Ultimate Customer Experience®. My friend Leslie O'Flahavan is delivering a breakout session on quality assurance for social service. And, I'm excited to see who will win the 2016 Global Contact Center Awards.

On a personal note, I'm doing a half-day workshop called How to Get Your Agents Obsessed with Service and a breakout session called Customer Service Surveys Made Easy.

Here's the rest of the conference information:

 

The Contest

I'm giving away one two-day pass to the conference. It's selling for $1,795 until March 18, and then it goes up to $1,995, so this has a pretty hefty value.

Here's what's included:

  • Conference admission May 11 - 12
  • Main sessions
  • Keynote sessions
  • Breakfasts, lunches, and receptions
  • Expo Hall entry
  • ICMI Global Contact Center Awards Party (May 12)

How to enter:

  1. Make sure you're reading this post on my website.
  2. In the comment box at the bottom of the post, answer the question, "Why do you want to attend the 2016 Contact Center Expo & Conference?"
  3. All entries must be submitted by Monday, March 28 2016 at 5:00 pm (Pacific Time).

Entries will be put in a random drawing and the winner announced on Tuesday, March 29. Good luck, and I hope I see you at the conference!


Update: We have a winner!

March 29, 2016 - The winner of the two-day pass to ICMI's 2016 Contact Center Expo and Conference is Adam Howard!

Here's why Adam said he wanted to go to the conference:

The chance to hear the latest and greatest is an amazing opportunity. Finding new ways to engage agents and help them be passionate about the work they are doing and not just about how much money they make is an ever important part of our work.

Congratulations, Adam. See you at the conference!

 

Update #2: All Contestants Get 50% off!

It seems that the folks at ICMI were so impressed with everyone's comments that they have decided to offer a 50% conference discount to each contestant. All you have to do in exchange is agree to let ICMI use your comments in the conference marketing.

Please use this form to send me your email address and I'll email you the details.


Three Customer Service Conferences You Don't Want to Miss

May is a big month for customer service.

There are three outstanding conferences on the calendar. You might consider attending at least one of them so you can capture the many benefits:

  • Attend educational sessions from industry experts
  • Network with your peers and exchange ideas
  • Learn about the latest products and services

Here's an overview of the three conferences scheduled for this May. I've included a short description along with a special discount code for each one.

Contact Center Expo & Conference

ICMI bills this conference as "the premier global gathering for the contact center industry."

Conference sessions are divided into six tracks including small contact center management, operations management, and technology. There's also a new customer experience track for 2016.

The conference also features half-day and full-day workshops on a variety of topics. (I'm doing a half-day workshop called How to Get Your Agents Obsessed with Service and a breakout session called Customer Service Surveys Made Easy.)

One of the conference's outstanding features is the site tours. You get to visit local contact centers for a behind-the-scenes look at their operations.

Conferences passes start at $1,995, but you can save $200 if you register by March 18. You can save an additional $200 if you enter this special code at checkout: JEFF200

 

THE 2016 National Customer Service Conference

This conference is hosted by the National Customer Service Association and focuses on service excellence across a wide range of industries.

This conference features keynote speakers, breakout sessions from customer service experts, and panel discussions. One highlight is a keynote presentation from Tom Knox, CEO and President of Westlake Ace Hardware. Knox's company was the focus of Shep Hyken's best selling book, Amaze Every Customer Every Time.

Conference passes start at $995 ($895 for NCSA members), but you can save $50 if you enter this special code at checkout: ICS2016

 

Customer Service Experience 2016

I love this conference for it's intimacy. There's just one track, but it's a good one.

Customer Service Experience is held simultaneously with SpeechTek and CRM Evolution, so you get the bigger conference experience for networking, keynotes, and the trade show. 

The conference itself features insights from leading analysts and customer service leaders. In just its fifth year, I've been impressed that the conference continues to draw a sophisticated audience. (I'm doing a session called How to Engage and Retain Talented Agents.)

Full conference passes start at $1,795, but you can save $200 if you register by April 22. You can save an additional $100 if you use this special code at checkout: SPK16


ICMI Research: Contact Center Leaders Are Disconnected

There are some big gaps between what contact center leaders believe and their customers actually perceive.

The International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) and inContact asked contact center leaders to respond to the same set of survey questions that consumers were asked in an earlier study. The earlier, consumer study was conducted by Harris and inContact. The answers from the two groups were then compared.

The ICMI and inContact report, Smarter Service For The Connected Customer, reveals several areas where contact center leaders misunderstand their customers.

Here are a few highlights. You can also purchase the full report here.

Photo credit:  Patient Care Technician

Gap #1: More Selling Than Service

Many contact centers are too eager to sell.

Contact center leaders and customers were asked whether companies put more effort into selling than they do providing excellent customer service.

  • 80% of Customers say Yes
  • 12% of Contact Centers say Yes

Perhaps the most famous example is Comcast. They've been criticized for turning every cancellation request into an annoying encounter with an aggressive salesperson. The worst example might have been a cancellation call from July 2014 that went viral. It turns out that Comcast's internal guide for handling cancellations is really a manual on aggressive sales tactics.

Seriously, contact centers! Stop with the selling. If you want to sell more, you need to serve more

 

Gap #2: Poor Service Is Expensive

Contact center leaders can be oblivious to the impact of poor service.

One survey question focused on whether customers were likely to switch companies after a bad customer service experience.

  • 86% of Customers say Yes
  • 19% of Contact Centers say Yes

That's a pretty big gap. Perhaps contact center leaders expect their customers to adopt some form of customer service Stockholm Syndrome.

There's no shortage of research to suggest that poor customer service is costly. A recent infographic from the Temkin Group highlighted several key areas where a poor experience can hurt the bottom line:

  • Customers buy more from companies with good service
  • Customers are more forgiving when companies generally provide good service
  • Customers trust companies more when they provide good service

 

Gap #3: Relationships

Customers despise having to tell their story over and over to different people. They'd much rather have a single point of contact to help them the whole way.

Companies don't seem to realize this. 

One survey question asked customers whether they expect to continue talking to the same agent when they switched from online chat to phone.

  • 64% of Customers say Yes
  • 20% of Contact Centers say Yes

Another survey question asked customers whether they expect to be able to call back the same company representative if multiple contacts are required.

  • 67% of Customers say Yes
  • 24% of Contact Centers say Yes

There's some science behind this. My own research suggests that customer satisfaction increases significantly when customers know an agent by name.

 

Moving Forward

So, why the disconnect?

One of the more telling statistics from the report was this: only 39.2 percent of contact centers actually use the data they collect to identify customer trends. 

Which begs the question, what's the point of having so much data in the contact center if you're not using it? Many contact centers are data rich and insight poor. 

There are clearly opportunities to get to know customers better and improve service. The real issue is whether contact center leaders will do it.

Conference Re-Cap: Contact Center Demo & Conference 2015

This week, I attended ICMI's Contact Center Demo & Conference in Las Vegas. The event featured site tours, keynote presentations, an expo hall, and educational breakout sessions.

This post provides an overview of the conference along with a few key insights from the event.

 

Background

These links provide a general overview of the conference:

You may also want to check out the Twitter backchannel at #CCDemo15

 

Key Takeaways

The challenge with a conference like this is you can't do it all! Here were a few highlights.

 

Site Tours

The site tours were an opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes look at a contact center's operations. There were several to choose from including Zappos, Las Vegas Valley Water District, and Global Experience Specialists.

The Global Experience Specialists (or GES) tour was verify informative. They are a full service provider for live events. They provide a wide array of services such as managing trade shows, special retail events, and museum exhibitions.

GES knows that empathy comes from having a relatable experience, but most of their contact center agents have never set-up a trade show. So, they incorporate a mock trade show set-up into their training program. They also have new hires attend a live trade show so they understand what their customers are experiencing.

They were helping to manage the ICMI event too:

New Data

ICMI typically uses their conferences to share contact center trends and showcase their latest research. 

On Tuesday, Brad Cleveland opened the keynote session with an interesting exercise. He asked the audience to answer a few questions using a live polling feature in the conference app. One poll was surprising - participants said they'd prioritize a technology upgrade over improving the quality of their people, strategy, or organizational support. 

On Wednesday, ICMI's Justin Robbins announced the publication of a free ebook on contact center metrics. It's designed to help you identify and manage the key performance indicators that are best for your contact center. You can download your copy here.

 

Innovation

The conference also showcases innovative ideas from award-winning contact centers. Here are a few examples:

  • Cars.com forecasts attrition and hires agents earlier than needed so they can be trained and ready to go by the time they're necessary.
  • AICPA has offered agents 1 - 2 additional breaks per shift, which helps to keep them focused and fresh while serving customers.
  • Intuit has agents lead calibration exercises so their perspective is incorporated into the process.

ICMI is now accepting applications for their 2016 contact center awards. You can learn more and apply here.

 

Upcoming Conferences

ICMI's next conference will be the Contact Center Expo & Conference event in Long Beach, May 10 - 13. Registration is now open and you can save $500 on your conference fee if you register by December 31.

New Report: Contact Centers Fall Short on Surveys

Contact centers struggle to use customer service survey data.

That's the conclusion suggested by a new report from ICMI called Collapse of the Cost Center: Driving Contact Center Profitability. The report, sponsored by Zendesk, focuses on ways that contact centers can add value to their organizations. 

Collecting customer feedback is one way contact centers can add value. This feedback can be used to retain customers, improve customer satisfaction, identify product defects, and increase sales.

So, what's the struggle? Here's a statistic that immediately caught my attention:

63% of contact centers do not have a formal voice of the customer program.

Yikes! It's hard to use your contact center as a strategic listening post if you aren't listening.

Let's take a look at some of the report's findings along with some solutions.

Key Survey Stats

Here are some selected statistics from the report.

First, let's look at the types of surveys used by contact centers that do have a formal voice of the customer (VOC) program:

Source: ICMI

Source: ICMI

Customer Effort Score (CES) presents an untapped opportunity. 

CES measures customers' perceived effort (see this overview). A good CES program will help companies identify things that annoy customers and create waste. This makes it a great metric for improving efficiency.

Why is efficiency so important in a customer-focused world? Here's another statistic from the ICMI report that explains it:

62% of organizations view their contact center as a cost center.

That means efficiency is one of the most important success indicators for those companies' executives. CES marries cost control and service quality by measuring efficiency from the customer's point of view.

Another revealing statistic shows what's not measured:

44% of contact centers don't measure customer retention

Keeping customers should be the name of the game for contact centers. If you don't measure this statistic, than customer retention can't be a priority.

 

Challenges With Surveys

The report highlighted challenges contact centers face with survey data. Here are the top five:

Challenge #1: Using survey data to improve service. Survey data is more than just a score. The key is analyzing the data to get actionable insight. That's a skill that many customer service leaders don't have. One resource is this step-by-step guide to analyzing survey data.

Challenge #2: Getting a decent response rate. Response rate is a misleading statistic. There are two things that are far more important. First, does your survey fairly represent your customer base? Second, is your survey yielding actionable data? Your response rate is irrelevant if you can confidently say "Yes" to these questions.

Challenge #3: Analyzing data. See challenge #1. You can't improve service if you don't analyze your data to determine what needs to be improved.

Challenge #4: Designing effective surveys. Survey design is another skill that many customer service leaders don't have. Here's a training video on lynda.com that provides everything you need to get started. You'll need a lynda.com account to take the full course, but you can get a 10-day trial here.

Challenge #5: Taking action to help dissatisfied customers. You'll need a closed loop survey to tackle this challenge. A closed loop survey allows customers to opt in for a follow-up contact. Once you add this, it becomes very easy to initiate a program to follow-up with upset customers.

 

Additional Resources

The full report provides a lot more data and advice on leveraging contact centers to improve customer service and profits. It's available for purchase on the ICMI website.

Here are some additional blog posts that can also help:

 

New Report: Contact Center Leaders Don’t Get Engagement

Happy agents lead to happy customers.

This pithy saying is a widely held belief among contact center leaders. The logic flows that if you engage your contact center agents, they’ll deliver outstanding service.

A new report from ICMI reveals a severe disconnect between this belief and what contact center leaders are actually doing.

The data suggests that most contact center leaders don’t get engagement.

This post examines the disconnect, uncovers some root causes, and makes a few suggestions for correcting the problem.

The Big Disconnect

It’s hard to find any disagreement that it’s important for contact center agents to be engaged. Here are two findings from ICMI’s study:

  • 99% of respondents believe that agent engagement drives performance
  • 88.8% believe that agent engagement is a priority in their organization

Now, here’s where the disconnect begins. Only 7 percent of contact center leaders said that agent engagement was a top priority. 

The disconnect is further revealed by what contact centers measure. Here are the top five agent metrics in contact centers today:

  1. Quality - 74%
  2. Average Handle Time - 73%
  3. Customer Satisfaction - 58%
  4. Adherence to Schedule - 58%
  5. First Contact Resolution - 43%

These metrics suggest that compliance and efficiency are the true priorities in today’s contact centers.

Justin Robbins, ICMI’s Senior Analyst, shared with me that only 19 percent of contact centers measure agent engagement.

 

Root Causes

A lack of clarity makes engagement hard to manage.

Many reports, like ICMI’s, omit a definition. The assumption is the term is clear so it doesn’t need to be defined.

Unfortunately, there’s a lack of consensus. There’s even disagreement among the top employee engagement consulting firms, like Gallup and BlessingWhite.

Here’s the definition I prefer:

Employee engagement is the extent to which an employee is deliberately contributing to organizational success.

This definition helps identify some additional root causes.

Engaged agents want to serve their customers at the highest level. Unfortunately, many contact centers make this difficult.

The ICMI report also looked at what would motivate contact centers to invest in giving agents better tools to serve their customers. Unsurprisingly, the top choice was cost.

 

Engagement Solutions

These issues always come down to dollars and cents.

That’s why employee engagement initiatives fail. They’re reduced to surveys on touchy-feely subjects like morale.

You’ll need to make a stronger business case if you really want to engage your agents.

Start by going back to the definition of employee engagement. There’s no soft stuff here. This is all about results:

Employee engagement is the extent to which an employee is deliberately contributing to organizational success.

Next, get out your calculator and add up the cost of making it hard for agents to do a great job. Here are just a few options to consider:

  • What’s the real cost of agent turnover?
  • How much could we save by improving first contact resolution?
  • Could we reduce customer churn through better service? If so, how much?

There’s real savings here. 

Even a 10 percent reduction in turnover, repeat contacts, or customer churn could add up quickly. Measure those items and you’ll be much more likely to find the budget you need to improve agent engagement.