Off Center
It’s time once again for me to share my knowledge and insight with contact center professionals desperate enough to reach out to somebody like me for advice.

Please keep in mind that, while my responses to the pressing questions featured below may not be entirely valid or logical, you can rest assured they come from the heart and feature almost no spelling or grammatical errors.

Q: We are getting ready to implement a home agent program, but we are concerned that the home agents we select might end up suffering from feelings of isolation and loneliness on the job. What can we do to avoid that?

A: One of the best ways to keep home agents from feeling isolated and lonely is to choose agents who have no friends to speak of in the contact center. Such employees are already completely accustomed to being ignored and shunned by peers, and thus aren’t likely to complain about feelings of alienation once working remotely. They’ll just happily focus on handling customer contacts from the comfort of their parents' basement.

If you aren’t fortunate enough to have such loners on your staff, there’s another approach you can take: Start bullying and insulting the agents you would like to have work from home, and pay your other agents a little incentive to do the same. This will ensure that the agents you send home will never want to interact with peers or set foot in the contact center again. If, on the other hand, you find that the agents in question enjoy the constant abuse, put them on your billing team. 

Q: What is the contact center industry standard for Average Handle Time (AHT)?

A: The industry standard for AHT is to slap anyone who asks what the industry standard for AHT is. If, by chance, you are opposed to such violence, instruct the person who asks the ‘industry standard’ question to kindly wake up and smell the coffee, and to then drink the coffee while searching for a new job. Any contact center professional who seeks a universal time limit that applies to all call types across all industries needs to find a new career.

Occasionally you will encounter a manager or executive who, even after being slapped and/or ridiculed, still demands an answer to the AHT question, in which case simply supply them with a response that matches the absurdity and inanity of their query. Following is an example of such an exchange:

Clueless person: “Please don’t slap me again – what is the industry standard for AHT?”

You: “A fish.”

Q: We have just gotten approval for a complete overhaul of our contact center technology. Any advice on how to choose a solutions provider?
A: Congratulations! Researching and selecting the right solution and provider is always fun and exciting, particularly if you have no other hobbies. I’ve published a couple of articles in the past on how to write an effective Request for Proposal (RFP) and how to choose the right solutions provider, but I don’t like how my hair looks in my old bio photo, so I’m not going to share those links with you. I will, however, give you some essential tips:
  • Don’t be intimidated by solution providers who you see exhibiting at conferences; remember, they are just as afraid of you as you are of their matching shirts and khaki pants. Approach these people with confidence and purpose, but be sure to ask their owner if it’s okay to pet them before reaching out to do so.
  • Get in contact with managers of centers that already use the solution you’re considering and ask them if they are fully satisfied with it and the provider in question. If they say ‘yes’, ask them for a blood sample to prove that they aren’t a close relative of the solutions provider. If they refuse, disregard their earlier positive feedback, as they are no doubt perpetrators of nepotism. If, however, they comply with your request for a blood test, disregard their positive feedback anyway – people who lack the sense to refuse such an inappropriate request probably aren’t qualified to give a valid assessment of a product or a provider.
  • Last but not least, once you’ve narrowed down your choices to two or three solutions, go with the provider that refrains from using terms like “next-generation”, “revolutionary” or “paradigm shift” in their marketing materials.

If you have a question you would like Greg to answer, you really need to start using better judgment.

The next time your contact center is in need of a consultant, look no further than your phone floor.

The best centers I have worked with in my 20 years in the industry don’t view their agents as merely ‘the folks on the phones’ but rather as highly insightful internal consultants – individuals who know better than anyone what processes, practices and improvements are needed to provide optimal customer experiences and increase operational efficiency.

Such contact centers get better and better – and retain agents and customers longer and longer – by empowering staff to serve as…   

Recruiting & Hiring consultants. Nobody knows what it takes to succeed on the contact center firing line better than the people who man it everyday. Smart centers solicit agent input to enhance recruiting and the applicant selection process. This may entail having them help develop ‘ideal agent’ profiles, provide suggestions for behavioral-based interview questions, interact with and evaluate candidates, and/or create job preview descriptions or videos (that give applicants a clear view into what the agent position is really like). It may also involve having agents sneak into neighboring contact centers to kidnap top talent.

Training & Development consultants. Agents know what skills and knowledge they need to create the kind of customer experience one usually only reads about in corporate mission statements or sees in dreams. Creating a training & development task force and including on it a few experienced agents – as well as a couple of not so experienced ones – is a great way to continuously close knowledge gaps and shorten learning curves. Agents will gladly tell you what’s wrong with and missing from new-hire training, ongoing training, one-on-one coaching and the center’s career path (assuming one even exists). Only by actively involving frontline staff in the training & development process can a contact center become a truly dynamic learning organization.

Quality Monitoring consultants. One of the best ways to keep agents from being afraid of or resistant to your quality monitoring program is to actively involve them in it. Agents will hate monitoring and you a lot less if you…
  • ask them to help develop/improve the center’s monitoring form and rating system
  • let them self-evaluate their performance prior to having a supervisor provide feedback/coaching
  • allow them to take part in a peer monitoring & coaching initiative
  • collaborate with them when creating development plans during coaching sessions
  • give them a chance to “coach the coach” by asking them to evaluate how effective their supervisor is at rating calls and providing feedback. 
Technology consultants. While you probably don’t want to have your agents designing the actual systems and software your center uses, you definitely do want to have your agents sharing their ideas and suggestions regarding what tools they need to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the service provided to customers. Agents’ two cents on desktop applications, knowledge bases, scripts and workflows can be invaluable for decreasing handle times and increasing first-contact resolution rates. In addition, agents often know what’s wrong with the center’s IVR system and web/mobile self-service applications (because customers constantly tell them), thus they can provide input that leads to a reduction in the number of unnecessary calls, emails, chats and death threats agents must contend with.

Rewards & Recognition consultants. Empowering agents to enhance the rewards and recognition they receive may be akin to letting your partner pick out her/his engagement ring, but hey, it’s all about making people happy and keeping them from running into the arms of another. I know of a lot of contact centers that ask agents for input on incentives and contests, individual and team awards, and how they’d like to be recognized. Many centers have even implemented peer recognition programs where agents themselves get to decide who is most deserving of special accolades and attention. Managers and supervisors still need to show plenty of their own initiative with regard to rewards and recognition, but collaborating with agents in this area goes a long way toward elevating engagement and performance.

Do you treat YOUR agents like consultants? Feel free to share some of your experiences and suggestions in the Comments section below.

(A slightly different version of this piece originally appeared as a guest post on the ‘Productivity Plus’ blog

put out by the very good people at Intradiem.)