Off Center
Back in November I posted an “Ask the ‘Expert’” piece in which I answered the pressing questions of several call center professionals. While I have no proof whatsoever, I’m quite certain that my responses changed these managers’ lives and careers forever, and may have even altered the universal face of customer care as we know it.

But now that the damage has been contained, I think it’s safe for me to try again.    


Q: Our call center just recently started monitoring popular social media sites. What should we be responding to, and how?

A: I’m very pleased to see that your center has heeded the warnings made by social media experts that 100% of all call centers will soon be 100% Twitter-based. That’s an important step.

Social customer care is a lot like attending a cocktail party – there’s a whole lot of chitter-chatter going on but you really don’t need to stop drinking and listen unless somebody is talking about you. What your call center needs to pay particularly close attention to is strong negative comments about your company in general, your products, your customer service, or your SAT scores. It’s best to post an initial public response empathetically acknowledging the issue (as that shows everybody that your company is “listening” and cares), and then invite the person to discuss the problem in more detail privately via phone or chat, or face-to-face behind the trash dumpsters outside Wal-Mart.    

Don’t become so obsessed over putting out fires that you overlook the positive comments that customers post on social sites. Such unsolicited public praise and compliments are what foster widespread brand advocacy and help to keep your agents from drinking bleach on their break. Be sure to thank anybody and everybody for their kind remarks, even if you know that most are coming from your own Marketing department.

Q: We are struggling to gain agent buy-in to our quality monitoring program. Any advice on how to change agents’ opinion of monitoring and improve results?

A: Over my long career posing as a call center expert, I’ve answered that question numerous times. The fact that I’ve never heard back from anybody regarding my response to them leaves me to believe that my suggestions solved all their monitoring problems. Hopefully I can do the same for you.

First off, you need to view things from your agents’ perspective. They don’t like you or anybody else on the management team very much and don’t want any of you listening to their conversations. To help overcome their disdain for you, try loosening their ankle shackles and removing the barbed wire that lines their cubicles. Also, the next time they go over the center’s strict Average Handle Time objective for the day, flog them with a little less force than usual, or at least use a smaller club.

Once you’ve gained agents’ favor and trust, sit down with them and explain that you hate monitoring, too, but that it must be done to help protect against customers showing up in person with automatic weapons. When agents sense your empathy and see that quality monitoring is actually intended to help them, they are much more likely to accept it before they take another job two weeks later.

To really get agents to embrace quality monitoring and strive to continuously improve, you need to add a “voice of the customer” (VOC) component to your program. This entails incorporating customer satisfaction survey scores and feedback into agents' internal monitoring scores and post-contact coaching. Having a VOC-based quality program enables you to go to agents and say, “See, it’s not just me who thinks you’re incompetent.” THAT’S the type of 360-degree feedback that turns poor performers into highly mediocre ones, which is really all you can ask for considering what you pay your staff.    

Note: The views and recommendations that Greg has shared with you today are his own and are not necessarily representative of his views and recommendations tomorrow. He is very moody and unpredictable. Also, it’s weird that he’s referring to himself in the third person here.

Employee engagement has been all the rage among people management experts for years. More than  just a term that the folks at Gallup invented to make “employee satisfaction” seem obsolete and to get filthy rich, employee engagement is a metric to help determine who on your front line would likely continue working for your company even if you stopped paying them.

In today’s competitive business climate, creating customer advocacy requires call center staff to be more than just “satisfied” with their job. Satisfied agents like what they do and want to provide good service, but what’s needed are people who love what they do and feel compelled to provide great service. That’s right – agent engagement is so crucial today that it requires sentences featuring three separate italicized words. 

I know plenty of call centers that report agent satisfaction rates in the 90% range but still struggle with turnover, graffiti and arson. Centers with truly engaged agents, on the other hand, find that their staff remains loyal and committed for the long haul
right up until the center is outsourced to the Philippines.

To help you accurately track the level of agent engagement in your call center, I have developed a concise yet comprehensive survey (see below) that you can administer to staff. In creating the survey, I considered the latest best practices in engagement survey design, but got confused by all the science and psychometrics, and thus decided to come up with my own approach. 

The Ultimate Agent Engagement Survey
1) On my way to work in the call center, I usually…
a) Feel very excited and empowered about helping customers.
b) Pop a Xanax and then I’m fine.
c) Throw-up a little in my mouth.

2) If the call center were to catch fire, I would…
a) Risk my life trying to extinguish the flames.
b) Run like a frightened cheetah.
c) Hide the gasoline can and the matches.

3) I feel valued and respected at work.
a) Strongly agree
b) Agree
c) Neutral
d) I earn $8.50/hr and work in a cubicle the size of a bathroom stall – what do YOU think?

4) The key performance objectives in place in the call center…
a) Are fair, feasible and focused on the customer experience.
b) Push productivity somewhat at the expense of the customer experience.
c) Push me to drink and listen to death metal music.   

5) Training and development in the call center…
a) Is comprehensive and eclectic, and prepares me for continuous success.
b) Is lacking somewhat, but what are you gonna do? 
c) Ended right after my job interview.

6) Rewards/recognition in the call center…
a) Is frequent, meaningful and inspires me to perform at my best.
b) Is high in sugar and saturated fats.
c) Would be lovely.

7) Compensation and benefits in the call center…
a) Is highly competitive and alluring.
b) Is standard and acceptable.
c) Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!

8) Please tell us what we can do to make the call center a better place to work.
(Kindly limit your response to 10 characters or less.)

With text-based communication fast becoming the norm in society today, anthropologists estimate that by next year humans will have no vocal cords to speak of. Spoken conversation will soon become as rare and as odd an occurrence as a good Samuel L. Jackson movie or the closing of a Starbucks.  

Thus, offering a web chat option in your call center is no longer merely recommended but totally essential if you hope to ever acquire and retain any customers born after 2012.

To assist you, here’s a quick list of the best practices in chat implementation and management:  

Invest in an advanced chat management solution.  Plenty of call centers are able to get by using basic chat tools, but getting by isn’t nearly enough in today’s text-obsessed world. To ensure that service level objectives and high customer satisfaction are achieved, progressive managers invest in advanced chat applications specially designed to make the call center seem customer-centric and fully literate. Today's chat solutions feature the following capabilities:

·      Intelligent routing, which ensures that smart customers are routed to smart agents, and that dumb customers are tricked into using self-service.

·      Access to complete customer history, which informs agents what level of profanity to expect during each chat session.

·      A knowledgebase of FAQs, response templates and web links so that agents needn’t try to formulate full thoughts while interacting with customers.

·      Web collaboration tools that enable agents to fill out forms for customers who lose the use of their hands after punching their computer.

·      Multilingual capabilities, thus allowing each customer to insult your company and your mother in their native tongue.

Incorporate chat into the call center’s WFM process. I went off on the importance of this in a previous post (“Forecasting and Scheduling Beyond the Phones”:, thus I won’t go into it much here. But I would like to point out that reporting, forecasting and scheduling for chat is further complicated in centers where agents handle multiple chat sessions concurrently to gain efficiencies. With that in mind, it’s a good idea to hire slow chat agents who are bad at multitasking, as this will make your WFM team's job much easier. Of course, the Millennial generation lives to text and multitask, thus you might consider revamping your recruiting practices to target people in their 70s and 80s, who tend to be less text-savvy yet still need to work because their nest egg rotted in 2008.   

Set up agents for chat success. Just because most of your existing agents have grown up on text doesn’t mean that they know how to communicate with people who are old enough to shave. Even your agents (actually, especially your agents) who have an iPhone as an appendage still need to be formally trained on chat-handling to ensure that they come off as customer care professionals and not as acronym-obsessed idiots. (LMAO! ROTFL!)

Among the chat-related topics and issues that leading call centers cover in training are: the center’s performance objectives for chat; the company’s preferred writing style; how to use web collaboration tools along with chat; how to fight through the severe pain of chronic hand cramping; and, most importantly, how to spell without ever using numbers (it’s never too L8 to start that last one.)

Put the right chat metrics in place. Centers that don’t suck at chat are careful to embrace metrics that promote a healthy balance between productivity and quality. These centers recognize that focusing solely on such traditional metrics as Average Chat Handle Time or Number of Chats Handled per Hour places the customer experience and agents’ stomach lining at risk. Instead, these centers embrace such customer-centric metrics as Chat Quality (measured via evaluation of chat session transcripts), Customer Satisfaction (measured via timely post-contact surveys), First-Chat Resolution Rate (measured by flipping a coin) and, last but not least, Number of LOLs per Hour.

In a recent landmark study of over 5,000 call center professionals, when asked what was most needed to improve operations, the number-one answer given by respondents was “Irish-style rhymes about customer care.”

Upon learning this, I spent the better part of the next 17 minutes composing the following. Enjoy!

Call Center Limerick #1

There once was a manager who
Micromanaged all reps on his crew
For the reps it was hectic
Each breath was a metric
If you died, well, he measured that, too

Call Center Limerick #2

There once was an agent named Lear
To his schedule he’d never adhere
He’d sign off the phone

Then find his way home
And return too late smelling like beer

Call Center Limerick #3

We aim to up Customer Sat
But nothing’s much tougher than that
With one guy this evening
I used a kind greeting
And swear that the customer spat

Call Center Limerick #4

Our call center’s scary and hectic
I get very buried in metrics
Most measure my speed
Like how fast I can pee
I can’t leave my seat – so I wrecked it

Call Center Limerick #5

My center launched chat out of spite
We know that our staff cannot write
They’re puzzled and vexed
Cause they struggle with text
Unless they’re out Saturday night

If you take the CRM craze of the mid to late 1990s, multiply it by 1,000, write a couple hundred white papers on it, sponsor a couple hundred more webcasts about it, then multiply it by 1,000 again, you will get close to the level of hype regarding how social media is “revolutionizing” customer care in the call center.

Should call center professionals be paying attention to how social media relates to customer service and support? Absolutely.

Should they start listening to and engaging customers via social media sites if they haven’t already done so? Yes, probably.

Does anybody really know how best to do that? Nah, not really.

Is that going to stop me from pretending like I do and miss out on the opportunity of being labeled a thought leader on the scorching hot issue of social customer care?

Not a chance.

Maybe Not “Best” but “Pretty Good” Practices

Social media as it pertains to customer care and the call center is simply too new, too rapidly evolving and too short of common success stories for anybody to start labeling any tactic or thought-provoking theory a “best practice”.

That being said, here are some pretty good practices based on what we’ve seen so far:

Develop a formal social customer care strategy. While everybody is talking about social media’s big impact on the call center, few organizations have actually sat down and mapped out how they will incorporate social media into their center’s customer care strategy.

When developing a customer service-based social media initiative, call center professionals need to answer such questions as:

·      How will social media improve the customer experience?

·      What will agents look for when monitoring the social media landscape?

·      How will agents respond to/interact with customers via social media?

·      How can social media help the call center/enterprise build its knowledgebase?

·      How will you keep agents from spending all day watching Lady Gaga videos on YouTube?

Train your “Tweeters”. Unless you’re in the habit of illegally hiring small children or staffing your call center with octogenarians, most of your existing agents will already be well versed on the ins and outs of social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, as well as have intimate knowledge of the ubiquitous activity of blogging. Thus, you shouldn’t have much difficulty finding staff to serve as your center’s social media specialists. What you may have difficulty in is – after announcing that there are openings for social media specialists in your call center – keeping agents from poisoning one another in the spirit of competition.   

Just keep in mind that even the most proficient “Tweeters”, Facebookers and bloggers among your agents still need to be trained on the company’s specific social media strategy as well as the call center’s specific policies and practices with regard to customer service-based social media interaction. Smart call centers don’t insult their staff’s intelligence when training them on social media; in fact, they tap their agents’ ample social media knowledge and expertise to improve processes, tools and training. In doing so, the center not only continues to get better at the social customer care game, it increases agent empowerment and engagement, which often results in expanding average agent employment length from three months to five.      

Invest in a reputable social media monitoring solution. Just as with traditional customer support channels in the call center, effective social media-based customer care hinges on listening to customer needs. The catch with social media – as compared to the phone, email, chat, et. al. – is that there is a world of noise to filter out, and the customer you are listening to is most likely not even talking to you directly. Rather they are sharing their elation, frustration, accolades and fury with the entire social media universe.

But it’s your organization that needs to be listening to these customers most carefully. Fortunately for you, that’s not so hard to do, thanks to a host of advanced social media monitoring tools available. Today’s more potent social media monitoring solutions feature advanced text analytics that can detect key words and phrases that are relevant to your specific organization – even one of your specific agents – and make sense out of unstructured, unfiltered information. The most advanced solutions enable centers to not only “hear” what customers are saying on popular social media sites and in blogs, but also to easily interact with those customers – providing proactive service/support as well as damage control before an enraged customer decides to create an online hate group starring your company.

While many vendors now offer some type of social media solution specifically for customer care, a few that stand out include Salesforce, Cisco and RightNow – all of whom I expect to receive a substantial financial kickback from soon for mentioning them here. (I’m kidding, of course. I’ll accept non-cash gifts, as well.) 

Launch your own social networking community for customers. This is where social customer care  gets really interesting – and adds the most value for customers and organizations alike. Rather than merely monitoring and occasionally participating in discussions on social sites that are each owned by a billionaire geek not old enough to shave, progressive businesses have created their own company-hosted social networking communities.

Such social business platforms are specifically designed for customer-to-customer interaction and experience-sharing, and often serve as a source of valuable customer feedback for the call center and enterprise – the kind of feedback that’s tough to capture via more traditional methods like post-contact C-Sat surveys. When completing a C-Sat survey, customers are asked a brief set of questions that they may or may not be in the mood to answer. But when interacting with fellow customers in an online social setting, customers tend to be more forthcoming and expressive – often revealing what it is about the service they recently received that makes them want to learn to box.

A company-hosted customer community can also help call centers reduce the number of routine customer calls, emails and chats that agents have to handle. When customers interact with one another online, they often answer each others' questions. Some companies have seen the emergence of customer “experts” – users who have no real social lives or hobbies who possess a wealth of company product/service knowledge and who take pride in assisting peers with their problems. It’s important that the call center monitor such interactions to ensure that customer experts provide accurate information and answers, and to see if there are any customers worth kidnapping and bringing in to the center to work as an agent.

Centers interested in developing their own social platform should check out such SBS (social business software) solutions providers as Jive, Mzinga, and Awareness. Certainly there are other reputable vendors, but I don’t wear a pocket protector nor have tape holding my eyeglasses together, thus I may not be entirely up to date on who the absolute latest/greatest SBS players are. Regardless of who the vendor is, the best SBS solutions enable companies to respond to customer comments and discussions (when appropriate), create collaborative documents and blogs, take user polls on key topics and track the most popular topics.  

Invite social customers to email or chat – or even call – when appropriate.  Interacting with social customers is like changing into your bathing suit – it isn’t wise to do it out in the open.

Providing customers with basic information and quick answers to routine issues on external and company-hosted social media sites is fine; however, when the customer issue is more complex or the customer is “flaming” about a problem they are having with the company, it’s best to take things inside by inviting the customer to interact privately with an agent via chat, email or phone. Naturally it’s more cost effective to move the conversation to the chat or email channel than it is to have the customer call, but there will be times when a meaningful phone conversation is required to get a disgruntled or confused customer to drop their virtual torch and pitchfork.

Walk… Don’t Run – Hurry!

Social customer care has too much potential to become huge for you to not learn how to at least fake it now. There is no need to panic if you haven’t already begun to do so; simply start to adopt the practices and approaches described above, and there is a chance your organization will survive through the coming summer.