New Research Reveals Why Customers Hate Call Centers

Nobody likes calling customer service.

The list of gripes is a mile long: confusing phone menus, intolerable hold times, and a lack of agent empowerment all annoy us.

New research from Mattersight reveals a few specific reasons why customers are dissatisfied. What's surprising is it's not a poor product, service, or policy that's at the heart of the problem. It turns out the heart itself is feeling ignored.

Finding #1: Customers don't want to call

It's easy to get confused by channel preference data.

Microsoft's 2015 U.S. State of Multichannel Customer Service report revealed that the phone is still the most popular channel. Their survey shows that 81 percent of customers use the telephone to contact customer service on a regular basis.

At first glance, it seems like customers actually do want to call you. Otherwise, another channel would be more popular, right? Here's where Mattersight's data provides some additional perspective: 

Only 28% of customers call customer service as their first attempt to solve a problem.

This means that most customers who call start somewhere else. Microsoft's study found that 57 percent of customers start online, but customers might also try another channel like email, chat, or social media. They end up calling when they can't solve their problem on the first try.

Smart companies work to prevent calls by providing better service through other channels, particularly self-service. This keeps their customers happy and allows them to serve customers more efficiently.

 

Finding #2: Customers are already upset

Calling customer service can feel like navigating an obstacle course. Think about all a customer has to go through just to get someone on the phone:

  1. They experienced a problem.
  2. They couldn't resolve it without calling.
  3. They had to navigate through an annoying IVR system.
  4. They had to wait on hold.

Mattersight's study revealed this is a major problem:

66% of customers are frustrated before they even start talking with a customer service representative.

This frustration makes the customer service agent's job a lot harder in several ways:

Smart companies realize the best strategy for working with upset customers is to have fewer upset customers. They work on identifying and fixing root causes rather than deploying their customer service agents as human punching bags.

 

Finding #3: Customers aren't happy after the call

Call center agents routinely overlook their customers' emotional needs. Here's another stat from Mattersight that sums it up:

75% of customers have felt frustrated after talking with a customer service representative, even if their problem was solved.

Serving emotional needs is the real secret sauce in customer service. Unfortunately, we tend to focus so much on solving the problem that we miss out on helping the customer feel better.

A 2011 study from Bain highlights a terrific example. They looked at Net Promoter Scores for airline passengers who experienced a flight delay or cancellation. The data revealed that the way the issue was handled had a much heavier influence on their rating than the event itself.

 

Solutions

All of these findings revolve around attending to your customers' emotional needs. Here's a short video that gives you a glimpse into that way that tending to emotional needs can make a difference.

So, what can you do to make calling your company a better experience for your customers? Here are three suggestions:

First, give customers fewer reasons to call. Relentlessly search for icebergs and fix those problems. Improve the quality of your self-service options so customers can solve issues on their own.

Second, make it easier for customers to call. Remove or reduce barriers like clunky phone menus and long hold times. Consider adding a callback feature like Fonolo if you routinely have large spikes in call volume.

Third, train your agents to serve their customers' emotional needs. You can use the Working With Upset Customers training video on lynda.com. You'll need a lynda.com subscription to view the entire course, but you can pick up a 10-day trial here.


ICMI’s 2014 Contact Center Demo and Conference Re-cap

Last week’s Contact Center Demo & Conference in Chicago, IL was a blast. There were great keynotes, engaging breakout sessions, and lots of networking.

Here’s a re-cap of the conference in case you missed it.

 

Conference Overview

The conference, known as CC Demo, is put on by ICMI. They provide research, conferences, and training for contact center professionals. 

CC Demo attracts a nice blend of participants from senior leaders to contact center supervisors. You can read an overview here or check out the conversation on the Twitter backchannel.

 

Highlights

There’s just too much to cover at a conference like this. Something’s going on everywhere you turn!

Here were a few highlights for me.

 

Chip Bell’s Keynote

Chip did such a great job keynoting last year’s CC Demo that he was brought back by popular demand! He shared six strategies for delivering innovative customer service from his book, 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service.

One fun moment from Chip’s presentation was when he talked about staying at the Hotel Monaco in Chicago. They made his stay a little brighter by putting a gold fish named Trixie in his room. 

He recounted a return trip to the hotel where the front desk associate asked him, “Shall I send Trixie up to your room, Mr. Bell?”

It got even better when Marriah Barnett sent this Tweet:

Leslie O’Flahavan’s Email Session

Too many conference sessions are death by PowerPoint. Not Leslie’s! Her session was called Not Dead Yet: How to Write Great Emails to Customers in the Age of Social Customer Service.

It was highly interactive with great conversation and hands-on activities. Here were a few take-aways that stood out for me:

  • Critical reading is critical - make sure you understand what the customer wants.
  • Sound friendly, not stodgy by writing like a real person.
  • Integrate self-service options whenever possible.

 

New Research from ICMI

ICMI’s Senior Analyst, Justin Robbins, gave us a sneak peek at some of ICMI’s latest contact center research.

Here’s one stat that really stood out:

The average contact center agent uses seven screens to serve customers.

That’s up from five screens last year. Given the destructive qualities of multitasking, it seems like this trend is going in a dangerous direction.

Robbins also shared the results of a survey outlining the top ten challenges faced by call centers. Captured here in two grainy phone photos:

ICMI’s next big conference is the 2015 Contact Center Expo & Conference. It runs May 4 - 7 in Orlando, Florida. There’s already big buzz for this one! 

Here's what your contact center agents are really thinking

Do you know what your contact center agents are thinking?

Do you know what your contact center agents are thinking?

A study from BenchmarkPortal reveals new insights into what contact center agents are really thinking.

The Agent Voices study was based on over 5,000 surveys with contact center agents in North America. It reveals that overall job satisfaction among contact center agents is 76.2 percent. Not surprisingly, the thing agents like best about their jobs is working with customers.

There are a few interesting highlights that deserve attention from contact center managers.


New agents need more support

A whopping 92.9 percent of agents gave their new hire training program high marks, but only 60.8 percent felt their transition from training to the contact center floor was adequately supported.

The training program itself may be part of the problem.

Call center agents must simultaneously use a wide variety of skills to do their jobs. This may include recalling product knowledge, navigating a variety of software programs, and interacting with the customer in an appropriate way. Many call centers train their new hires on one skill at a time, which makes them easier to learn.

Unfortunately, this method can also cause agents to experience a form of mental gridlock when they first try to use all the skills together at one time. This typically happens as agents make the transition from training to the contact center floor.

Call centers can overcome this problem and speed up new hire training by moving to scenario-based training. I’ve used it to cut new hire training time by as much as 50 percent while still improving new hires’ performance. You can learn more about this approach from an article I wrote for ICMI earlier this year.


Agents want a better work environment

Most call center agents really want to do a great job for their customers and 83.8 percent said they’re proud to work for their organization. The survey also showed that call center agents generally gave their co-workers high marks and felt a strong sense of teamwork.

These results were tempered by some signs that work environment needs improvement in many centers. One of the most striking findings was that only 44.6 percent of agents agreed that their working atmosphere is usually optimistic and positive.

One explanation is the way responsibility is structured in many contact centers. Agents often solve problems caused by another department, such as a shipping error made in the warehouse or a bug in a new software program. They must also frequently rely on someone in another department to implement the solution. 

It can be discouraging to repeatedly face problems that appear to be outside of your control. Many contact center agents are susceptible to a condition called Learned Helplessness where poor service seems like a foregone conclusion. Agents experiencing Learned Helplessness can stop trying to serve their customers if they believe their efforts will be fruitless.


Good relationships with supervisors, but not executives

A contact center agent who works for a financial services firm recently told me that executives routinely ignore contact center agents when they see them in the elevator. This may be a wider trend - only 56 percent of agents said they trust the messages from senior management.

Things are a little rosier on the relationship front when it comes to agents’ direct supervisor. A total of 77.6 percent reported they had a good working relationship with their direct supervisor.

The lesson here is executives must be visible in the contact center. They need to take time to listen to their frontline agents and explain their strategies and policies. Acknowledging employees in the elevator probably wouldn't hurt either.


Agents don’t feel heard

A majority of contact center agents don’t feel heard. Only 39.1 percent felt their leaders exhibited effective listening skills and only 45.7 felt their opinion was valued.

This may help explain why many employees don’t pass along feedback to management. I uncovered this trend earlier this year in a post titled Why Employees Don't Pass Along Customer Complaints.


Customer service needs work

Agents tend to feel their own teams do a pretty good job on customer service, but the company as a whole needs work. Only 47 percent felt that decisions in their organization were aimed at achieving the highest possible level of quality for their customers, but 71.3 percent felt their customers could trust them.

This disparity may be a product of two things. One, contact centers can sometimes be an outlier where other parts of the organization aren’t nearly as focused on service. Anothe possibility is contact center agents may suffer from the Dunning-Krueger effect where they overrate their own ability in comparison to others. 


What do you think?

If you are a contact center agent, or manage contact center agents, it would be great to hear from you. Are these results true for your center? Or, is your environment a little different?

5 Ways to Train Contact Center Agents Faster

Faster (and better) training is possible!

Faster (and better) training is possible!

Note: this post originally appeared on ICMI.com.

New hire training represents a significant investment for many contact centers with typical training times ranging from two to six weeks or even more. Fortunately, there are ways to train new hires faster and improve their on-the-job performance.

I shared one of my biggest secrets in an article I wrote for ICMI in June called “Boost performance with scenario-based training.”  Here are five more ways to speed up the training process without compromising results.

 

#1 Keep a trainee observation log

When I ran a call center training department, my trainers all kept a log of detailed notes on their new hires’ daily in-class performance. When a new hire struggled with a particular concept, the written notes helped the trainer clearly describe the specific challenge. For example, a note describing a new hire having trouble with upselling might read, “John frequently confused features and benefits while role-playing upsell offers.”

The detailed notes made it easy for the trainer to create a strategy to get the learner back on track. John’s trainer might decide to spend a few extra minutes with John reviewing the difference between features and benefits. A little extra practice or instruction was often all that was needed to for the concept to click. Without that extra intervention, many new hires would continue to struggle and fall farther and farther behind.

Keeping a written log of trainee observations had a few additional advantages in my training department. If a trainer called in sick, someone else could easily cover their class by reviewing the log to see where they left off. The log also helped trainers get a second opinion when they faced a particularly challenging situation. I had two shifts of trainers working in two locations, so the trainer could email me the written notes if I wasn’t able to personally observe the class.

 

#2 Group new hires for live calls

The transition from new hire training to taking live calls can be a challenging one. They know how to do the job, but they may not have the speed, accuracy, or confidence to handle a heavy load of calls without asking a lot of questions.

One way to speed up this transition is to group new hires together and have them take calls under the watchful eye of a dedicated coach. This allows the new hire to be productive by handling contacts from a normal queue while still having instant access to intensive coaching when needed. Generally, a few shifts in the “new hire section” is all that’s needed for an agent to become ready to join their assigned team.

 

#3 Conduct passport tours

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for new call center agents is that they don’t fully understand their company’s operations. A passport tour is a simple training technique that takes learners to various parts of the company so they can get a first-hand look at how everything fits together. New hires collect a signature on their “passport” for each stop along the tour.

This technique was a huge help when I worked for a catalog company. New hires would tour our merchandising department so they could touch and feel our products. They visited the fulfillment center so they could see how orders were picked, packed, and shipped. They visited the returns department so they could see how and why merchandise came back to us. All of this first-hand knowledge helped new hires quickly grasp how everything fit together.

Some companies have far-flung operations, but you can easily create a virtual passport tour by using a smart phone to shoot short video tours of key operations. You can also use web-conferencing technology like GoTo Meeting or Adobe Connect to have people from remote operations provide your new hires with a guest lecture.

 

#4 Have new hires score their own calls

Many contact centers use their quality assurance form as a template for new hire training. This makes sense since you want to train agents to the same standards you use to evaluate a successful call.

You can take this a step further by having new hires score their own calls. These could be either live calls or recorded role-plays. Self-scoring invites agents to view their performance more objectively and helps them learn to analyze their own performance so they can quickly make adjustments.

 

#5 Encourage social learning

Many contact centers have social learning tools such as chat, blogs, and wikis that allow agents to share knowledge with each other. In some contact centers, these tools can mean the difference between solving a problem in five minutes or thirty minutes. Unfortunately, these resources can be underutilized if agents don’t know how to use them or aren’t even aware they exist.

You can encourage the use of social learning by designing training exercises that require new hires to make use of these tools to solve complex problems. They’ll learn the answers to difficult challenges, but more broadly, they’ll understand how to use those tools to quickly solve similar problems in the future.

Contact Center Conference Fall 2013 Re-cap

The Fall 2013 Contact Center Conference was a hit.

The Fall 2013 Contact Center Conference was a hit.

 The Fall 2013 Contact Center Conference was in Phoenix, AZ this week. Phoenix is a great city to visit and the weather was perfect. 

There are a lot of contact center conferences throughout the year so it’s impossible to attend them all. And, it can be tough to keep track of all the great content even if you do attend. That’s why I put together this short re-cap.

 

Conference Overview

If you didn't attend, you may want to start by familiarizing yourself with the conference:

 

Resources

Here are some additional resources that you can use to get even more content and perspectives from the conference.


Conference Highlights

It's impossible to attend all the sessions. There were even a few great ones scheduled at the same time I was scheduled to present The Journey to a Customer-focused Culture. However, there were three sessions that really stood out for me:

Dr. Natalie Petouhoff’s session on building a business case for multi-channel customer service. Her session took us through seven steps, but I was really impressed that step one was social listening. She suggested that businesses start by finding what their customers are saying about them on social media and where they are saying it. This in turn can provide business intelligence that can reduce contact volume, improve products, and ultimately win more business. I also found a nice YouTube video where Petouhoff explains the nuts and bolts of calculating the ROI of providing customer service via social media. 

Bruce Belfiore’s session on what agents really think. Belfiore is the CEO of Benchmark Portal, a company that specializes in benchmarking call centers.  He presented the results of a research study to find out what contact center agents are really thinking. Overall, it seemed that agents are fairly satisfied, but the survey did identify a few areas for improvement. Chief among them are the transition from training to the call center floor, providing realistic job previews during the hiring process, and senior leadership inspiring trust.

Fred Van Bennekom’s session on customer service surveys. Van Bennekom shared many examples of ways that surveys can be deliberately or inadvertently manipulated to provide false data. The biggest problem revealed is that companies get fixated on achieving a certain score rather than using the survey to drive continuous improvement. When that happens, companies start finding creative ways to get customers to give a positive rating. Van Bennekom outlined an excellent example on his blog.

If you attended the conference, what were your biggest take-aways? 

Day 3 Re-cap: ICMI’s 2013 Call Center Demo & Conference

This week, I’m attending ICMI’s Call Center Demo and Conference in Atlanta, GA. It can be tough to keep track of everything going on at a conference, so I’m posting daily blog updates to share my own perspective. Today's post re-caps the third and final day. You can also read my re-cap of days 1 and 2.

 

Conference Overview

Here are some links you can use to familiarize yourself with the conference:

 

Resources

You can also follow the conference via the Twitter backchannel or ICMI’s own updates:


Day 3: Wednesday, October 23

The morning kicked off with Sarah Stealy Reed sharing some of ICMI’s call center research. Here are a few highlights:

  • The average call center requires 5 different applications to serve customers
  • Only 21.1 percent are using a simplified desktop
  • 60 percent support social (Twitter, Facebook, etc.), 32 percent support chat

ICMI has a lot of great research reports on their website. You can also tell them what content you are interested in seeing by taking their Community Interest Survey, open now through October 28. 

Sarah also invited call center professionals to contribute content to ICMI so they can share their best practices and ideas with their peers. Check out ICMI’s editorial calendar to learn more and submit your ideas.

Chip R. Bell was next up to deliver the morning keynote. He was funny, entertaining, and very informative. He was sharing insights from his book, Wired and Dangerous, which is available on Amazon.com if you didn’t pick up a copy at the conference.

There were a lot of great Tweets summarizing Chip’s key points. Here’s one that nicely sums up his presentation:

The rest of the day featured some outstanding breakout sessions plus plenty of networking. 

My favorite was on serving customers via emerging channels. Sarah Stealey Reed moderated a panel discussion with Ian Hunter of USAN, Kim Martin of Voxeo, Chad McDaniel of Execs in the Know, and Jason Wolcott of Digital Roots. Erica Strother live blogged from the session.

The session also generated quite a few Tweets:


Now what?

The whole point of going to a conference is to take back new ideas and contacts that can help you do even better. What were your biggest takeaways from the conference?

5 Ways to Hire Faster

Hiring the right people takes time, but there are shortcuts.

Hiring the right people takes time, but there are shortcuts.

This post originally appeared on the Call Center Demo and Conference website. I'll be facilitating a session at the conference titled "Staff Up! 10 Ways to Hire and Train Faster"   on Tuesday, October 22. The conference is in Atlanta, Georgia and early-bird rates expire this Friday, September 6.

 

You’ve just gotten the green light to add some staff to your call center team. Adding headcount will bring some much needed relief to an overworked team, but it can take quite a bit of time to get new employees hired and up to speed. Unfortunately, you don’t have a lot of time.

This post offers five tips to help you speed up the process. But, before you get started, make sure you have two prerequisites:

  1. A profile of the ideal candidate
  2. A way to screen candidates to ensure they meet the ideal criteria.

These two items will ensure you know what you are looking for and can tell the difference between a qualified and an unqualified applicant. You’re welcome to download my free worksheet and view the short how-to videos if you haven’t completed these steps already: www.toistersolutions.com/competency

Once you have those two prerequisites in place, you’re ready to start hiring. Here are five tips to help you speed up the process.

 

Tip #1: Hire a temp agency

The knock against temp agencies is they can charge some hefty fees, particularly for temp to hire placements. That may be true, but there are some good reasons why you might turn to an agency to help you hire.

The first is speed. When I managed a call center, I knew I could place a call in the afternoon and have interviews set up the next morning. The second is volume. Temp agencies hire for multiple clients so they have access to a much broader pool of candidates. The third is screening. Agencies can do a lot of basic screening for you that you would otherwise have to do on your own, such as testing for computer skills.

 

Tip #2: Go hunting

In a perfect world, you post the job ad and watch the qualified applicants come stampeding in. In the real world, this doesn’t always happen. Don’t assume that your next superstar employee is actively looking for a job. Talented employees often have jobs already but could be persuaded to join your team if the right opportunity came along.

Where can you find someone who isn’t looking? Try searching on LinkedIn. Post the job announcement on your own social networks and ask people to share. You can even try networking with employees at the call center across town.

 

Tip #3: Lower the bar

Before you dismiss this idea as just plain crazy, think about what someone really needs to be successful when they join your company. Each additional requirement decreases the number of available candidates so you can access a broader pool by eliminating requirements.

A great example comes from insurance companies. They often need their call center representatives to be licensed. It would be extremely difficult to find enough licensed insurance professionals to meet their staffing needs so they incorporate the licensing process into their new hire training program.

 

Tip #4: Find people who are passionate about what you do

When I was a teenager, my first job was in a retail clothing store. Why did I work there? Because I bought all my clothes there and the employee discount was awesome! Once I was hired, I learned the store had a steady stream of applications from people like me so they never had a problem finding new employees.

Many companies have groups of potential employees who are already passionate about your company, your product, or your industry. These people might be customers or just enthusiasts. For nonprofits, they are often volunteers. Find out who they are, where they are, and make sure they see your job posting!

 

Tip #5: Hire from other departments

Your next call center employee might already work for your company.

Starbucks was one of the site tours at ACCE 2013 in Seattle. The call center we toured assisted employees who worked at Starbucks stores with their human resources needs. On our tour, we learned that most of their contact center employees come from their stores!

This concept can also work for short-term or seasonal staffing needs. When I worked in a large call center, our quality assurance and training teams served as emergency back-up agents. Occasionally, when things got really busy, we’d all get on the phones and answer calls. It helped the call center quickly respond to a spike in calls but it also kept our own skills sharp so we could do a better job of training agents and monitoring calls.

 

Want more?

I’ll be sharing more ideas to help you speed up the hiring process at the Call Center Demo and Conference in October. My session is called Staff Up! 10 Ways to Hire and Train Faster and will also include ideas for training new employees once you get them in the door.

Boost performance with scenario based training

Note: This article originally appeared on ICMI.com. It focuses on new hire training for call centers, but the principles can be adapted to many other environments.  

New hire training represents a significant investment for many call centers with typical training times ranging from two to six weeks or even more. It can also require a delicate balance. Train too little and employees will underperform, require too much supervision, or even quit in frustration. Train too much and you waste valuable time and money.

Scenario-based training is an accelerated learning technique that has the potential to deliver the best of both worlds. It allows you to train new hires faster and get better performance once they’re on the job. It works by solving some of the biggest limitations of the traditional approach to call center training. 

 

The Traditional Approach

Many call centers currently train their new hires using what’s called the building block method. It works by breaking down various job-related tasks into smaller learning blocks that are relatively easy for employees to learn. For example, a new employee might first learn to use the company’s CRM system, next learn about the company’s products, and finally learn how to interact with customers in a positive manner.

buildingblocks.png

It’s relatively easy to design training using the building block approach, but there are also some substantial limitations. 

The first is integration. Individual skills are trained separately, but they are used together on the job. Employees often experience a sort of mental gridlock, known as cognitive overload, when they first put all of these new skills together while taking live or simulated calls. This slows them down and makes them more prone to errors. 

The second limitation is timing. New skills must be repeated frequently in order to become second nature. The building block approach can prevent this from happening because some skills are trained early on in the program and then not revisited until days or even weeks later when the employee prepares to take live calls. This often requires additional training or coaching to remind employees of previous lessons.

 

Scenario-based Training

Scenario-based training works by structuring training to mirror how the job is actually performed. Each lesson is introduced via a realistic scenario that requires employees to utilize a variety of skills simultaneously. For example, one scenario might be a customer calling to check on an order. A new hire must look-up the customer’s order in the CRM system while applying their product knowledge to answer questions and using appropriate customer service skills to role-play the conversation. The scenarios are all modeled after the call center’s quality assurance guidelines so new hires practice handling calls correctly from Day 1.

scenario.png

The scenarios are arranged in order of increasing complexity so that each one introduces a new skill while building on what has already been learned. After learning to respond to a simple “Where’s my order?” scenario, a new hire might be asked to tackle a situation where a customer received the wrong item. The added advantage is the skills that are used most often, such as answering the phone properly, are drilled to perfection throughout the training.

The initial pace of a scenario-based training program is very slow. The first few scenarios take a long time because the new hire must learn a lot of basic skills such as the proper phone greeting and how to look up customer records in the CRM. The pace improves with each successive scenario as employees become proficient with the basic skills. Eventually, the training becomes very fast-paced as employees master the ability to quickly handle new scenarios.

 

Success Stories

Scenario-based training can often reduce new hire training time by 25 to 50 percent. I first discovered this concept as a call center training supervisor in the late 90s when I was given a mandate to cut down new hire training time. One of our new hire training programs took 15 days; 10 classroom days plus up to 5 more days taking live calls with a coach present to provide intensive support. The scenario-based training approach allowed us to reduce the training to just 10 days; 6 classroom days plus 4 days taking live calls with a coach. This created a substantial savings for the call center but also enabled it to be more nimble when staffing up to meet rising call volumes.

Performance also improves with scenario-based training because it eliminates the waste inherent the building block approach while still improving the learning process. One call center implementing this method found their first group of new hires exceeded the call center’s QA score average within a week after training. Another call center reduced average handle time by 10% after implementing scenario-based training.

 

Getting Started

Moving to a scenario-based learning approach requires a little bit of upfront effort, but the savings and improved performance is more than worthwhile in the long run. 

Step 1: Identify performance requirements

Start by identifying the performance required of a fully trained employee. The training program should focus on helping new hires meet these targets. If you don’t already have a clear standard for a fully trained employee, you can look to your quality assurance standards for guidance. 

Step 2: Create Scenarios

Outline a list of progressively difficult scenarios that cover at least 90 percent of the calls agents are likely to receive. You can learn this information by reviewing call-type reports, listening to calls, and enlisting the help of your most experienced agents.

The sequencing is especially important since you want to introduce new skills in each scenario, but also use scenarios to build on skills that were previously learned. Be sure to vary the customer’s demeanor in each scenario too, since not all customers will be happy and easy to assist.

Step 3: Develop Materials

Now it’s time to develop your training materials. Here are a few of the basics:

  • Create a trainer’s manual with instructions for each of the scenario
  • Add data for each scenario to your CRM’s sandbox. 
  • Develop self-paced scenarios to allow learners to practice on their own.

ACCE 2013 Conference Re-cap

I attended ICMI's ACCE 2013 conference in Seattle, WA this week. This was the 10th anniversary edition of the premier global gathering for contact center professionals.

If you are like me, you find it hard to keep track of all the brilliant ideas, inspiring speakers, and helpful contacts you come across at a conference like this. And, it's sometimes just too difficult to choose between going to one session or another! 

With this in mind, I’ve put together a brief re-cap of some of the conference highlights.

Conference Overview
You may want to start by familiarizing yourself with the conference if you didn’t attend.

I owe a special note of thanks to Voiance Language Services for giving out copies of my book, Service Failure. They made me feel like a star. When people asked how to get my book I was able to send them over to Voiance’s booth in the expo hall!

Conference Themes
Three themes really stood out for me.

Theme #1: Multi-channel customer engagement
Contact centers are interacting with customers in more ways than ever before. We’ve moved beyond phone and email to engage customers with chat, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, text, mobile, and other means. Some customer conversations span multiple channels which makes keeping track of everything even more challenging.

Kathy Hutchens from Sharp Rees-Stealy and David McCann from Varolii co-presented an interesting session on this topic. They talked about ways that Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Centers engaged customers through multiple channels by learning and acting upon customer preferences. Hutchens gave the example that picking the right channel for appointment reminder notices reduced appointment no-shows by 25 percent.

Many participants told me their companies are still struggling to determine who owns some of these channels. I think this Tweet may have said it best:

Theme #2: Technology + People = Success
Technology was a hot topic. It dominated the exhibit hall. Many participants were in search of new technology solutions for their contact centers. It was even a hot topic on the call center tours.

The most successful uses of technology also accounted for the people using it. For example, technology is making it easier than ever before for contact centers to utilize home-based agents. I toured the Starbucks call center where I learned some of their best people practices for making home-based agents successful.

The tour featured a coffee tasting hosted by some of the contact center employees (known as Partners as Starbucks). One of our hosts was a home-based agent who participated via conference call. Their home-based agents regularly participated in these types of events to maintain their connection to the team.

Theme #3: Resource Constraints
Many contact centers don’t have a lot of resources. This puts a lot of technological solutions out of reach, but they still have to find a way to get the job down.

One example came from Tamara Taylor and Dorian Anid at Abbot Vascular. They were part of a session on creative solutions at small call centers. Taylor and Anid used Microsoft Access to create their own CRM system after their request to buy a technology solution was denied. Their homemade system has helped reps work more effectively, but it is also enabling Taylor and Anid to gather data to make a business case for a more robust solution.

I also participated in a roundtable discussion about gathering voice of the customer feedback. The discussion was hosted by Josh Chapman from Cars.com. Chapman’s company employs a lot of sophisticated tools and third-party research firms to gather useful VOC data. This makes sense for Cars.com, but what about a small contact center with no budget for VOC? The roundtable participants discussed a simple solution where the contact center could leverage their company’s existing Survey Monkey account to start a rudimentary VOC program at no cost. It was a small step, but would still yield data they could use to improve customer satisfaction.

On a side note, Josh Chapman was one of several people honored at ICMI’s Global Call Center Awards Dinner. He won the Customer Service Business Leader of the year award and created a memorable moment where his wife tuned into the ceremony via Facetime to see his acceptance speech. 

If you attended, what were your biggest take-aways?

Speed kills first contact resolution

Nobody likes having to contact customer service for help resolving a problem. It’s doubly aggravating to contact them a second time because the issue wasn’t fixed. I can’t even tell you how frustrating it is to contact customer service 16 times on one issue.

First Contact Resolution, or FCR, measures the percentage of customer problems that are resolved on the very first contact. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a high FCR rate is a good idea. Customers are happier and companies are able to work more efficiently.

Surprisingly the metric has been slow to catch on. One factor holding back its adoption is speed.

A recent poll conducted by the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) found that FCR ranked fifth among metrics shared with frontline call center employees. Two speed-based metrics and another efficiency-based metric ranked ahead of it.

Source: ICMI

The two most popular metrics for front line employees tell call center agents when to work faster. Many reps will speed up their interactions when there are a lot of calls in queue. This in turn allows them to improve service levels (the percentage of calls answered within a set amount of time).

Schedule adherence is an efficiency metric. It calculates the degree to which call center agents are working their assigned schedule. Agents may be less likely to spend time fixing a difficult problem if they feel pressured to immediately take the next incoming call.

The impulse to work faster can hurt FCR. Employees take short cuts, speed up their interactions, and try to multitask their way through an avalanche of work. All of this can make it harder to spot the important details that are the difference between First Contact Resolution and Endless Back-and-Forth. You can see an example of this in my breakdown of an email service failure.

I recently attended the Contact Center Conference & Expo where FCR was one of the hot topics. However, I was only talked to a few people who were actually measuring FCR in their contact center.

One of those people was Kathie Gerrard from MTS Allstream, a business communications provider in Canada. Gerrard told me that their FCR initiative really took off when they stopped emphasizing another speed-related metric, Average Handle Time (AHT).

 “A few years ago, we identified FCR as a key performance indicator and began to set improvement targets. Although we’ve seen improvements in our FCR results, we’ve found that monitoring average handle times contradicts FCR. AHT metrics encourage reps to shorten the length of the call instead of focusing on resolving the customer’s issues.”

MTS Allstream still tracked AHT behind the scenes even after they stopped emphasizing it with their reps. Gerrard told me that they haven’t seen a significant increase in AHT since shifting their focus to FCR. Her observations suggest that the extra time required to resolve a customers’ problem completely is often negligible. It’s the pressure to wrap things up quickly that actually causes the service failure.

Gerrard also told me MTS Allstream had widespread executive support for their FCR initiative. This isn't always the case. Another call center manager I spoke to at the Contact Center Conference & Expo told me his executives resisted moving to FCR because they had invested so much money in technology that measured speed and efficiency. They understood and felt comfortable with metrics like calls in queue and average handle time.

How do you get your executives on board? Show them the money. Here are a few ways that FCR can lead to financial results.

  • Reduce Waste: 23 percent of the average call center's budget goes to repeat calls. (Source: SQM Group
  • Increase Revenue: 66 percent of customers will spend more for excellent customer service. (Source: American Express)
  • Retain Customers: 19 percent of customers are at risk of leaving if their problem isn't resolved on the first call. (Source: SQM Group)

Slowing down to speed up is counter-intuitive, but the numbers don't lie. Speed can kill first contact resolution.