Off Center
 
Very few people in our industry dreamt early on in life about being a call center professional. If you happen to know somebody who did, be careful – he or she is probably dangerous. (Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer both reportedly fantasized about customer care as kids.) If you yourself had dreams of a call center career when you were younger, then I was just kidding about the whole "dangerous" thing. Otherwise, I wasn’t.

Just because you didn’t plan on becoming a call center professional doesn’t mean that you haven’t landed in an exciting and rewarding field. With customer service being the big differentiator among competing brands these days, call centers are hot. You’ve probably even been invited to sit at the cool kids’ table in the company cafeteria, or at least you no longer have your lunch money stolen by some bully from Marketing.

Even still, many call center managers and supervisors – because of their random arrival in this crazy profession – continually struggle with existential career issues, constantly asking themselves such questions as,  “Do I belong here?” and “Is it too late to become a fireman?”

It’s ok to question whether or not you are a real call center professional. To help you find out, look for the following symptoms… I mean signs:



10 Signs You’re a Real Call Center Professional

1) You’ve legally changed your name to an acronym.

2) At the end of a date, you ask the person to complete a satisfaction survey.

3) You don’t giggle when you hear the term “shrinkage”.

4) If ever homeless, you’d create a sign that reads: “Will forecast call volume for food.”

5) You think an engagement party is a gathering to raise employee morale.

6) The fitness instructor at your gym told you to do 10 "reps", and you argued that that would be highly unprofessional.

7) You have a tattoo of A.K. Erlang… right next to your tattoo of Alexander Graham Bell.

8) You can’t telecommute because you’d miss the smell of headsets.

9) When friends ask about your social life, you tell them your call center now interacts with customers via Twitter.

10) You get all these jokes.




 
It’s often said that call center workforce management is both a science and an art form. There are complex formulas and calculations involved in forecasting and staffing, but actually getting the right number of agents in place at the right times within budget often requires some real creativity. That’s why you’ll often see workforce management specialists wearing berets and sipping absinthe.

With regard to the artsy side of workforce management, some call centers do more abstract, experimental work than others. Many centers, for instance, have created internal reserve teams – people from other departments within the enterprise who are forced to skip lunch and stop playing on their Facebook page long enough to help out on the phones during the center’s peak calling periods. Other centers have explored outsourcing a portion of their calls to trained prison inmates, who typically work for cheap and have stellar attendance rates.

While such outside-the-box approaches can be helpful, they are not always practical. For example, it can be hard to find a headset big enough for a reserve team member from Marketing to wear. And often the best prison agents get early parole for good behavior, forcing you to replace them with inmates who breathe too loudly and like to memorize customers' home addresses.    

There is, however, one wildly inventive and affordable call center staffing solution that I have seen work: External staff-sharing.  


Sharing Is Caring (for customers, agents and costs)

Staff-sharing is not exactly a hot trend among call centers, but it should be. Here’s how it generally works: Two companies that have complimentary peak seasons (e.g., Company A’s from November-February; Company B’s from June-August) form an alliance where each company lends the other some of its call center agents to help out during the busiest months. No travel or change of center is required for participating agents; they can stay put in their original call center (or home) and simply have the other company’s calls routed to them. This enables call centers that are located in completely different geographical locations to form an effective alliance, and keeps participating agents from having to find new places to hide in a strange building.

Not only does staff-sharing help each call center involved maintain a solid level of service during the most trying times, both centers stand to save a wad of cash in terms of recruiting/hiring costs and some training costs since there is no need to constantly go out and find/train new temporary staff each peak season. Further, staff-sharing provides a healthy element of job diversity for participating agents, who get to spend part of each year handling completely different call types from customers who bring completely different complaints, insults and threats to the table.

Naturally, getting an effective staff-sharing alliance off the ground comes with its share of challenges and stress, but that’s why Xanax, alcohol and yoga exist. (Though don’t make the same mistake I made by trying all three at once.) After you find a potential call center to partner with, each organization needs to work together closely to create a mutually beneficial arrangement and to ensure congruency with regard to things like agent compensation, training, quality monitoring, incentives, and the use of cattle prods.


Paint Outside the Lines

Yes, staff-sharing is unconventional, but certainly not impossible. In a 2010 ICMI study on workforce management practices, roughly 10% of respondents indicated sharing staff with another call center – and 70% of these respondents reported that the approach had a “very positive” or “positive” impact on call center performance (with most of the remaining centers reporting “neutral” results).     

When you weigh the big potential benefits of staff-sharing against the effort involved and the strange looks you’ll likely get from colleagues, I think you’ll agree that it’s worth looking into, and probably even trying – at least on a dare.
 


 
Being a writer, I like it much the words and things. I’ve always felt that it is crucial to do grammar good, to spel things corectally, and to fully understand each word that you utilization.    

During my years writing about contact centers and customer care, I’ve uncovered many inconsistencies in how people use and define certain key industry terms and concepts. For instance, some people say “service level” when they mean to say “response time”. Others say “peon” when they mean to say “agent”.  And many say “industry standard” when they mean to annoy me.

So, to help get everybody on the same page, I’ve decided to create a condensed glossary for conact center professionals. While you may already know what some or all of the below words and phrases mean, you don’t.



abandonment: The feeling a contact center manager experiences just after talking to senior management about a budget increase.

adherence to schedule: A contact center metric that measures agents’ affinity for invisibility.

agent (a.k.a. rep, CSR, associate, the artist formerly known as operator): A person – usually – who handles a variety of customer transactions via a variety of contact channels while dreaming of a variety of jobs that pay better, such as pamphleteer or migrant farm worker.

average handle time (AHT): A crucial metric embraced by the world’s leading contact centers… in 1986.

best practice: Two words that raise contact center research report prices to four figures.      

contact center: A big place with bad lighting and cramped cubicles where people wear headsets to keep their skulls intact.

contact centre:  Same as above, only located in a region where people drive on the wrong side of the road or play ice hockey in the summer.

customer satisfaction: What many callers sense after screaming a stream of obscenities as they are about to cancel their account with your company.  

e-learning: A way to train agents without having to unlock their cages.

first-call resolution (FCR): The absolute most important metric that a contact center is unable to measure.

forecast: Gloomy.

home agent: A customer care professional who has forgotten how to drive and put on pants. (See also “telecommuting”.)

IVR: An electronic prison where companies house their least valuable customers.

occupancy: The percentage of time contact center agents spend handling calls versus surfing CareerBuilder.com.

offshore outsourcing: A strategy deployed by U.S. contact center executives who want their vacations to Asia to be tax-deductible.

quality monitoring: A practice whereby a contact center spies on its agents to officially confirm that the center’s recruiting and training programs blow.

queue: The line that forms outside a contact center’s bathroom after cold pepperoni pizza has been served as the overtime snack for the third straight day.

screen pop: A martial arts move used on slow computers by impatient agents. 

self-service: A customer care approach adopted by contact centers that can’t find anybody who wants to work for them.

skills-based routing: A tool commonly used to torture workforce management teams.

speech analytics: An expensive software solution used to confirm that customers hate your company as much as agents say.

social media: A cruel trick played on contact center professionals who were just starting to get a handle on email and chat.

supervisor: An agent who has shed his or her headset though not his or her craving for customer abuse. 

telecommuting: An innovative staffing solution based on the belief that agents perform at optimum levels in their underwear. (See also “home agent”.)

Voice of the Customer (VOC):  The sound that your agents hear in their sleep regardless of the amount of therapy or medication they try.

web chat: A contact center channel through which agents can efficiently demonstrate illiteracy to up to four or five customers at once.

workforce management: A complex science involving the use of highly sophisticated technology and mathematical formulas to misjudge the number of agents you need to schedule.

 


 
Many call centers do a good or at least passable job of forecasting and scheduling for phone contacts, but when it comes to the other channels they handle, such as email and chat, they show about as much concern as I do for Renaissance festivals or people who say “irregardless”.

According to a 2010 ICMI study on call center workforce management practices, nearly three in four centers (72.9%) handle customer email, but just over one in three (37.5%) of these centers actually forecast and schedule for email contacts. Likewise, only 49.5% of centers that offer chat as a contact option take the time to formally forecast and schedule for chat.

Failure to adequately staff the call center for text-based interactions is asking for trouble. While e-contact volume may not be nearly as heavy as call volume is in most centers, customers who receive inefficient and ineffective service online often cause even more problems for the company than unhappy callers do. After all, an online customer who is slighted or ignored today in the Age of Social Media is just a few mouse clicks away from creating a virtual public relations and brand nightmare for the organization. Angry rants on sites like Twitter and Facebook can turn an ignored email or a poorly handled chat session into an attack on your company that goes viral and infects many other existing and would-be customers. Ashton Kutcher might even take notice and re-tweet someone’s complaint to each of his 17 billion followers, some of whom are old enough to read.


Department of Redundancy Department

Possible brand damage and customer defection aside, failure to effectively forecast and appropriately schedule for email and chat can cause expensive increases in call center operational costs. Customers who become impatient with long delays in email responses are quite likely to contact the center via phone to check the status of their query and/or rip an agent a new orifice out of frustration.

So now the center is handling repeat contacts via multiple channels AND coping with increased toll-free costs and decreased agent availability due to long customer diatribes. Not a fun situation for anybody involved, unless your center has made it a habit of hiring masochists, which actually isn’t a bad idea if you are looking to reduce turnover.


I Never Said It Was Easy 

Accurately calculating expected email and chat volume, and scheduling the right number of agents not crippled by Carpal Tunnel to handle that volume, is a little easier these days due to advances in workforce management software; most WFM solutions today feature multichannel forecasting functionality. However, many centers don’t have the budget for such advanced tools, and those that do don’t always know how to use the technology for email and chat. Thus, in many multichannel call centers, WFM can quickly turn into WTF.

So, if you are fortunate enough to be equipped with a modern-day multimedia WFM system, don’t insult the system’s intelligence by using it only to forecast call volume. That’s like buying an iPhone and not using the data plan or watching an Angelina Jolie movie in only 2-D.

If, on the other hand, your call center can’t afford a window let alone an advanced WFM system, you still can’t just blow off forecasting for email and chat. (Unless, of course, your center handles neither; numerous studies have revealed that managers who forecast for non-existent contact channels are idiots or very drunk.)  Plenty of feisty “blue collar” call centers do a solid job of manual workforce management for text-based transactions – tracking how many (and what type of) email and chat contacts the call center receives every day, when these inquiries typically occur, and how long the average interaction lasts, as well as factoring in events (e.g., marketing campaigns, etc.) that may impact email and chat volume. Over time, such analysis has enabled these centers to uncover key historic trends on which they can base staffing decisions.

Of course, you could just ignore everything I’ve written like my mother always does and simply continue to chase after chats and emails as they arrive. Who needs best practices when you can just hope for the best? Sure, your customers will despise you, your brand will begin to disintegrate, and your agents will start bringing weapons to work, but at least you won’t have to spend time doing any nerdy staffing math or worrying about chat-astrophic deluges before they occur
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