Off Center
Until relatively recently, there was a freeze on back-pats for the contact center from executives. As hard as managers like you have worked over the past couple of decades to delight customers and generate/protect revenue, the contact center’s value has been under-appreciated by the big boys and girls.

But thanks to a horrific economy, many executives’ country clubs have recently closed down, leaving C-Level folks with a lot more time to recognize the true impact the contact center has on the business.

So, now that you have their full attention, it’s time to drive home the fact that the contact center is one of the most critical components of the enterprise, deserving of much respect, support and even a window or two.

Here are some best practices for making CEOs and senior managers see the light.   

Share the wealth of customer data and feedback. The contact center is a gold mine of key customer information, insight and insults. Every single customer call, email, chat, tweet and post-contact survey provides data and profanity that, when properly harnessed and shared, can lead to product/service improvements and dramatic increases in customer loyalty and revenue.

It’s critical to communicate this to senior management, and to provide specific examples of how key data and trends uncovered via quality monitoring, speech analytics, and C-sat measurement have helped to make the enterprise suck a lot less.

You’ll also want to share key customer data/trends with other departments like Marketing, Sales and Product Development to enhance interdepartmental relationships and strategy. Just be sure that the contact center gets the credit for any improvements and related revenue increases that come from the data gathered and provided by the center. Consider requiring other departments to sign a formal document stating that they won’t take all the credit when senior management asks who is responsible for such improvements. If the other departments refuse to sign, then you are perfectly within your rights to make them pinky swear. If they still refuse, you have no other choice but to threaten to release footage of them trying to breakdance at the last company Christmas party on YouTube. 

Edu-tain execs and members of key departments on contact center essentials. To ensure that your center gets the support and resources it needs to make customers not want to punch you, it is essential that execs and key members of other departments within the organization have a solid understanding of how contact centers function and are managed. While some centers are fortunate enough to have company execs with ample contact center experience and who thus don’t need to be schooled on how things work, such instances are rare since people who manage contact centers typically go insane long before they get promoted to an executive position in the enterprise

Consequently, many senior officials are relatively clueless when it comes to queues, quality and customer relationships. To help reduce such cluelessness, you must find a way to communicate the fundamentals of contact center management to execs in a way that is palatable for them. Keep in mind that most senior officers are accustomed to being constantly entertained on luxury cruise ships and first-class flights, thus they easily get bored whenever somebody tries to deliver information in a traditional, static manner – such as via meetings, memos, reports, etc. The best contact centers take a much more dynamic approach, captivating and educating execs by creating customized puppet shows and/or musicals that have contact center themes. To add more interaction/participation, you might consider creating a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire-style game show where execs compete to demonstrate their contact center knowledge. Then again, such an approach might not be very effective with your C-level officers since they already are multi-millionaires and thus likely won’t give a damn about a $100,000 play-money question on what happens to occupancy when service level increases. 

Stick a headset on execs. Smart contact center managers as well as those who read my blog don’t just tell execs all about what happens each day on the center; they show them. Consider inviting several C-level officers from your organization into the contact center to sit in and listen to a few customer calls. Then, when your invitation is rejected, consider drugging several C-level officers and carrying them down to the contact center to sit in and – once the tranquilizer wears off – listen to a few customer calls.

To enhance the chances of getting the support and empathy the center needs, be sure to route at least one crazy caller to each exec plugged in with an agent. This will enable the execs to experience first-hand how challenging and maddening the contact center can be, which will likely lead them to increase the center’s budget – or at least to agree to install anti-depressant dispensers in the restrooms.

If your center doesn’t usually receive calls from any maladjusted sociopaths, just enlist somebody from your IT department to call in as a customer.

Those of you familiar with my writing know that I am a big proponent of telecommuting. A work at home arrangement fosters high employee engagement and productivity, is a “greener” staffing method than traditional approaches, and for years has enabled me to work naked in July and August without upsetting anybody except my wife and, occasionally, the UPS guy.    

While telecommuting brings with it many potential benefits – especially for contact centers – it also entails several challenges, not the least of which is defending against feelings of isolation and alienation on the part of the home worker. True, a careful selection process (i.e., choosing employees who have a proven ability and desire to work with minimal supervision and clothing) will help to minimize such problems; however, even some of the best telecommuting candidates can struggle to make a successful transition from the contact center to the home.

To help ensure that your home agents remain happy and productive in their underwear without pining for the office environment, follow these leading practices:

Recreate key physical components of the contact center environment in the home.  There are several simple and effective ways to simulate the office environment to help wean home agents from the physical contact center site. First, install a water cooler in each telecommuter’s home office surrounded by life-size cardboard cut-outs of three or four of their peers with whom they can pretend to discuss current events, sports and office politics. Such a simulation tactic not only helps home agents avoid feelings of isolation, it gives them people to punch when they are stressed out during peak periods without risk of disciplinary action or dismissal.

Other effective ways to “contact center-ify” telecommuters’ homes include replacing all lamps and light fixtures with overhead fluorescent lighting; adorning walls with motivational posters featuring a person in a business suit standing atop a mountain peak; removing all windows; filling their office with helium balloons; and placing a “please wash hands before returning to work” sign in the bathroom.

Make a video of their onsite peers. This is a great way to keep home agents in the loop and to remind them that they are not alone in handling call after call after call. After call.

In the video, be sure to capture the general malaise, anxiety and depression so prevalent in your center to ensure that home agents don’t feel like they are missing out on anything by working remotely. A shot of an onsite agent cutting himself following an abusive
customer call, or a shot of one crying following a feedback session will do wonders in terms of keeping your home agents from feeling alienated from the rest of the team.

Hold monthly supervisor/agent sleep-overs. While there is a vast array of communications technology – i.e., phone, email, IM, Facebook – that supervisors can use to stay connected with home agents, nothing beats quality face-to-face time. Some centers invite their home agents into the contact center on occasion to foster such human interaction; others send supervisors directly to the home agent. But the truth is, having a supervisor spend a couple of hours with a home agent once a month or so simply isn’t enough to make up for lost time.

That’s why I highly recommended frequent supervisor/agent sleep-overs, during which remote staff and their immediate superior can truly connect and compensate for all the days they have worked apart. This tactic may sound completely insane to you, but that is simply because my progressive management sensibilities are more finely tuned than yours.

For the best results, supervisor/agent sleep-overs should last two to three days and nights; anything less makes it too easy for agents to hide in the linen closet. In addition to observing home agents while they handle contacts, supervisors should spend time offline with their agents to really get to know them – their hopes, fears, aspirations, dreams and, importantly, where they keep their cereal.

The only thing more frustrating than the current economic crisis are all the articles and sound bytes about it. The media seems to take pleasure in exploiting and fueling our collective financial fears. Everywhere you look, there is a journalist, newsperson or talk show host expounding on how stocks are plummeting, corporations are failing and – tragically – teen celebrities are being forced to sell some of their summer homes.  

Well, I have decided to do something about it: Join in on the fear-mongering.

Sorry folks, I’d be shirking my journalistic responsibilities if I simply ignored the current economic climate in my writings and didn’t try to elevate your sense of panic and dread. But I’m not a monster. In this article, I fully intend to help you overcome the very feelings of hopelessness and desperation I create by providing you with several key tactics for survival and success.

First, the panic and dread: You are doomed. Contact centers everywhere are crumbling due to the financial crisis. Customers are closing accounts and cancelling orders. Agents are losing their jobs. Operations are being off-shored. Managers are leaping from supervisors’ backs to their death.

Now for the key tactics: While I would usually spend weeks surveying managers and traveling around in search of best practices, my
research and travel budgets have both been cut due to the deep recession, thus I made up several of my own best practices. Here are some of them – the rest can be purchased for $99.99 each. (Please bring cash directly to me and stick it in the bucket lying on the ground next to my cardboard box).

Replace pizza with uncooked pasta. It’s estimated that the average 50-seat contact center spends roughly $6 million annually on pizza for agents working difficult shifts or overtime. That can be cut to about $8.36 annually by replacing all those pizzas with uncooked sticks of spaghetti or linguini. Agents still get the carbs they need to fuel their efforts, and the contact center saves millions of dollars and grease stains. In addition, you will be removing the risk of agents burning the roof of their mouth, which can adversely affect their speech and hinder their ability to beg customers not to leave.

Implement a “Dazzle Callers in the Dark” initiative. The only thing that overhead lighting in a contact center does is cause computer screen glare and run electricity bills through the roof. Turn off all those lights, and the glare as well as the glaring utility expenses are drastically reduced. Best of all, there is no impact on callers; agents can provide the same high level of customer care in the dark, with the added bonus of being able to bite themselves – or their supervisor – when frustrated without anybody really noticing. Turning off the lights also enables contact centers to replace “dress down” days with “undressed days,” thus saving staff hundreds of dollars in
wardrobe expenses. 

Teach agents yoga. Most contact centers require a large amount space to accommodate all the agents and workstations needed on site. To help reduce facility costs, many contact centers have implemented a home agent initiative; however, with so many agents losing their homes of late, telecommuting is not always a viable option. Instead, consider scheduling mandatory advanced yoga classes for all agents; this will enhance agents’ ability to contort their bodies in ways that enable them to work in tiny spaces, thus enabling the contact center to move to a much smaller building with much lower rent. Make sure you revamp your hiring processes to align with this new strategy. For instance, focus less on whether candidates fit the ideal agent profile and more on whether they fit inside a filing cabinet.

Incorporate chloroform into agent coaching. Most of you are probably already doing this as part of your efforts to boosts revenues in these tough times, but I thought I’d mention it anyway. All it takes is a little chloroform to safely render an agent unconscious, at which point supervisors can go through pockets, wallets and purses in search of bills and loose change. The best time to administer the chloroform is during coaching, when it’s not uncommon for a supervisor’s criticism to make an agent cry and reach for a tissue – a tissue that, unbeknownst to the agent, has had just the right amount of the sleep-inducing compound strategically applied to it. While rare, occasionally you may encounter an agent who reacts badly to the chloroform and never regains consciousness. If this happens, don’t panic -- simply move the agent into Accounting.

If your customers are satisfied, you are in big trouble.

In fact, I overheard several of your satisfied customers chatting in a bar the other night. They’re leaving you for another company – a company that doesn’t satisfy them; a company that bedazzles them. Enthralls them. Makes them want to shoop, shoopy doop, shoopy doop.

This is the Age of the Customer, my friends, and satisfaction is no longer nearly enough.

Let me take you through the different stages that define the customer experience today. I'll cover how you can tell what stage your customers are in, and how to propel them to the next level without the use of – or with minimal use of – illicit drugs.  

Customer Satisfaction.  This can be defined as a state of extraordinary ordinariness. Satisfied customers don’t want to burn down your contact center, but they wouldn’t risk their life to put it out if it caught fire, either.

Signs of customer satisfaction – Monotone speaking voice; frequent yawning during interactions with agents; an emotionally detached “thank you” at the call’s conclusion.
How to achieve it – Just have your contact center keep doing what it’s doing. No really, I’m sure it’s fine. Everything’s fine. Just fine.

Customer Delight. While this term often caused nausea to listeners when it first started being used in the late 1990s/early 2000s, customer delight has become a widely accepted way to describe customers who would seriously consider dating your contact center exclusively if such relationships were accepted by society.

Signs of customer delight – Frequent use of phrases like, “I’ve never felt this way about a service experience before” and “I think you might be the one”; the use of smiley face emoticons during email and chat interactions with agents; late night phone calls just to make sure payment has been received or a bill has gone out; extended bouts of “no, you hang up first” in a cutesy voice at the end of calls with agents.
How to achieve it – Fire all agents who have a nasal voice or who say things like “okie dokie” and “irregardless”; hire agents who know how to spel and use, commas correctly; offer IVR menus that don’t make the customer want to cut themselves or you; give agents the tools and training they need to read customers’ minds and finish their sentences.

Customer Euphoria. Customer euphoria is the highest level of satisfaction that a customer can reach without the aid of medication, alcohol or a computer glitch that accidentally credits their account $10,000. It is the farthest a customer can go on the satisfaction scale before major organs start to shut down.   
Signs of customer euphoria – Customer struggles to form phrases while speaking with agents, replacing key words with cooing sounds and whistling. Often, a euphoric customer will suddenly start skipping around barefooted during an interaction – sometimes dropping the phone in the process, thus making up-sells and cross-sells difficult, and hindering first-call resolution.
How to achieve it – Implement a powerful speech-enabled IVR system featuring personalization and the voice of Angelina Jolie; outsource your problematic callers to Oprah; replace your on-hold message that says, “Your call is very important to us,” with one that says, “Oh my God! (Insert customer’s name), is that YOU? Hold on, let me go get our CEO to handle your call –
he’ll/she’ll be right with you!”; and finally, train all your agents to do a perfect voice impression of your CEO. 

Customer Death.  This occurs when customers receive such stellar, caring, unparalleled service that their heart literally bursts, or they decide to take their own life realizing that the rest of their interactions for as long as they live will be anticlimactic in comparison to what they’ve experienced with your center. This should be the ultimate goal of any serious customer contact professional.

Signs of customer death – The customer does not provide their name or account number when prompted, is unresponsive to offers of free gifts or upgraded service, and never calls again – unless, on the off chance, a part of their body hits “redial” when they slump to the floor.  
How to achieve it – Legally, I am prohibited from sharing tactics that can lead to toxic levels of customer satisfaction and subsequent death. However, I will be publishing an anonymous book on the topic in the near future titled, Killing ‘Em Softly with Your Service.

I know what you do for a living. And I’m here to alleviate your pain.

I know that you work in or around a place that gets inundated by thousands of customers every day – each demanding friendly, professional and efficient service without mistakes. A place that, by its very nature, retains staff about as well as Detroit retains residents. A place that C-level managers understand and respect about as much as they do public golf courses or flying coach.

I’ve written about contact center management for over 16 years. In that time, I’ve conducted comprehensive research on just about every customer care topic under the sun. I’ve interviewed thousands of industry experts, and hundreds of so-called industry experts. I’ve coaxed dozens of managers, supervisors and agents off of tall bridges and window ledges during their center’s peak season. And I can’t even remember how many contact center conferences I’ve attended and spoken at – mainly because I have access to the people who provide the drink tickets at the conference receptions.

Just as you probably never planned on managing or consulting to a contact center when you were young, I never planned on researching and writing about them. But here we are, so together let’s learn a little, shake things up and have some fun.

Every week until I run out of words, lose what remains of my mind, or get arrested, I will blog about key topics, trends and challenges in contact center management. Be warned: What you’ll get from me is not your typical clean, safe, cliché
corporate-speak. That’s just not “how I do”. I come from the school of “if you don’t have anything nice to say, write it down.”  Now, this is not to say that I will be attacking contact center vendors and other industry figures or constantly complaining about the state of the industry, but it’s not to say that I won’t be, either.

For those of you who used to read and actually liked my contact center humor column, “In Your Ear” – which was published by ICMI for years and years until the government intervened – “Off Center” will be like coming home again. I will employ much of the same satire and parody in poking fun at – while simultaneously paying tribute to – your mad and marvelous profession.

For those of you who never read “In Your Ear” or even ever heard of me, I forgive you, and invite you to come along for what promises to be a rather irreverent and wild ride.

And for those of you who read but didn’t like “In Your Ear”, well, I never liked you either.

In upcoming installments of “Off Center”, I will actually start writing about hot topics/trends/challenges in contact center management rather than just write about how I’m going to write about them, as I did here. But hey, “Off Center” is the sort of thing you have to ease into to avoid causing any irreversible damage to your cerebral cortex or career.

See you next Friday!