Off Center
I haven’t always been an expert on contact center management and customer care. Some might even argue I’ve yet to start being one. That’s ok, though – I never react emotionally to critics or naysayers. Besides, most of them have been “quieted” by my “assistant” Tony.   

Instead of telling people about my knowledge and experience in this profession, I prefer to show them. That’s why this week’s Off Center piece features my expert responses to various pertinent questions I’ve received over the past month from inquisitive contact center professionals just like yourself, only a little more fictional. 

Q: I’m tired of hearing about home agents all the time these days. Our traditional call center is successful and our agents are happy with the way things are – why should I start messing around with our staffing model?    

A: I don’t doubt that your center is successful and your agents are content; but I sense from your question that you are a bit of an annoying whiner, thus I can’t help but think how much happier and engaged your staff might be if they didn’t have to work anywhere near you. Now, I’m not judging you; after all, plenty of very successful professionals are annoying and whiney – poetry professors and the entire International Tennis Federation, for example.

I’m merely suggesting that you consider allowing at least some of your agents – the ones who make fun of you behind your back on Twitter and Facebook – to start handling customer contacts from the comfort of their own home. Not only will your center begin to enjoy the often-cited benefits of home agent programs (e.g., increased agent retention, more flexible staffing, reduced facility costs, etc.); you will be able to make it home to dinner on time most nights since your car tires are less likely to be slashed in the parking lot by agents who legitimately dislike you.  

Q: What is the industry standard for service level?

A: The newest industry standard is to ignore people who ask about industry standards.

You are looking for an easy way out of having to make key decisions about a very critical metric – decisions that need to be based on your specific business, customers’ expectations, and budget. Meanwhile, I’m looking for an easy way out of having to answer the same aggravating question for the 1,000th time in my career.

Bottom line. An “industry standard” for service level (and most other metrics) simply does not exist – like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or a contact center that effectively handles customer contacts via social media.

Q: Our contact center continually struggles to engage and retain agents. What quick steps can we take to help reduce turnover?

A: One of the best and easiest ways to cut agent attrition dramatically is to hire a “reverse bouncer” for your contact center. Where traditional bouncers specialize in not letting people into establishments, a reverse bouncer specializes in not letting people leave. Disgruntled agents who plan on quitting to pursue a career outside your contact center will think twice once they are confronted by a 6’10” tall ex-UFC fighter named Bruno during their exit interview.

It’s also a good idea to make agents go through a comprehensive application process whenever they want to quit. After all, there is a formal application process to start working in a contact center, so why shouldn’t there should be a similar process to stop working in one? Be sure to explain to agents who apply for dismissal that applications take about five years to process. Then, when the five years is up and it’s time to make a decision, just tell applicants that you decided they don’t have quite what it takes to survive outside the contact center.

To be fair, let applicants know that they have the right to appeal the decision, and that the appeals process is handled by Bruno.

Whenever your contact center is hit with a sudden unexpected spike in call volume – one that requires all hands on deck (and then some) – wouldn’t it be nice if there was a glass case marked “Do not break unless an emergency” that contained a handful of extra agents who could help out on the phones at no additional cost to the center? 

Well, that’s the idea behind agent reserve teams, only no glass-shattering is typically involved – unless some of your staff have a habit of diving through closed windows during call spikes. Reserve teams are a contingency of former agents and other individuals within the company who have ample customer service/call-taking experience and who can thus help out when unforeseen call deluges occur. Sounds complicated, but many progressive centers have implemented such rescue crews and experienced very positive results.

Some detractors may say that using a reserve team takes key resources away from other important areas in the company just to solve the contact center’s problems. It’s true, but who cares! Remember: The contact center, in most cases, is the voice of the entire organization – the key to customer loyalty and acquisition. Thus, borrowing a few skilled individuals for an hour or so from departments that are not experiencing a crisis at a time when the contact center is – and doing so to ensure solid service to the people who keep the enterprise afloat – is a pretty smart idea.

It’s not like the contact center needs to draw on its reserve team very often, or that reserve team members need to spend hours and hours on the phones, shirking their regular responsibilities. (If such is the case, then fire your WFM team, or at least threaten to take away their pocket protectors if they don’t start doing a better job of forecasting and scheduling.) Besides, the reserve team is usually comprised of volunteers – former contact center agents, supervisors and team leads who have moved on but who still secretly sleep with a headset and who enjoy getting their customer service groove on now and again. Like the old adage says, “You can take the boy (or girl) out of the contact center, but you can’t take the contact center out of the boy (or girl)”.

Of course, coordinating an effective reserve team does not come without some challenges. It’s not always a simple task to sell managers of other departments as well as senior management on the idea. And even when you do, you must work closely with the other departments to determine who will participate and under what specific circumstances. Be prepared to return favors. If you want Marketing to cooperate with you and lend you some of their staff to help out on the phones, they might ask you to start providing them with special detailed reports to help them in their promotional efforts (something you should be doing anyway). And if you expect IT to cooperate with you, you might have to attend a Star Trek fan convention with them.      

The use of reserve teams is not a way to make up for poor forecasting and scheduling practices; however, the reality is that, regardless of the mastery of your workforce management team, unforeseen call spikes are a common occurrence in contact centers. Reserve teams can be a cost-effective way for organizations to handle the unexpected, save customer loyalty during difficult times, and temporarily steal your best agents back from the internal departments that ripped them from the center’s womb too soon in the first place.

If any of you have implemented some form of agent reserve team in your center, I’d love to hear about it – but only if it has been successful; otherwise you will undermine the power of this blog post and send me spiraling into a chasm of self-doubt.

Earlier this week, I launched my contact center magnum opus – the ebook Full Contact: Contact Center Practices and Strategies that Make an Impact. Yes, after nearly two decades of writing articles, case studies and research reports on contact center management, I was able to overcome my Attention Deficit Disorder (hey look, a cute spider climbing up my office wall) and focus on creating a much larger work.

My intention with the ebook was to create a highly compelling, actionable and entertaining composite of the best practices and strategies I have uncovered during my long career as a journalist and researcher in this industry. I worked diligently to fill the ebook with tons of proven tactics and useful resources that managers can utilize immediately in their own contact centers to bring about big improvements and get executives to stop spitting at them. And while I haven’t read my ebook yet, I’m told by my wife and mother that I have succeeded.

To help get the word out about Full Contact, I thought it would be a good idea to be interviewed by a highly respected expert in the contact center industry. However, I then became concerned that they would ask some really tough questions and possibly reveal how I relied on performance enhancing drugs to help me complete the ebook, so I decided to interview myself instead.

Me: Greg, before we get started, I just wanted to say that you look fantastic – have you been working out?

Me: Yes, thanks for noticing.

Me: So, Greg, why an ebook?

Me: Well, ever since I was a kid, I have always loved books, and I have always loved electronic things, so I thought, “Hey, here’s a great chance to combine the two and create something that will be useful to many people.” Also, contact center professionals already have to deal with a lot of stress and challenges in their job; I didn’t want to further complicate things by giving them paper cuts.

Me: Imagine you are riding in an elevator with me and you have only 30 seconds to convince me to buy your ebook. What would you tell me?

Me: First, I’d look for scars from self-inflicted cuts to your arms, bleary eyes, and an utter look of defeat – the classic signs of a true contact center professional. Once I knew you were in my market niche, I would tell you that my ebook clearly describes the key practices and approaches embraced by the world’s leading customer care organizations. I would explain that the ebook shares what the eight or nine most critical metrics are for any contact center, and how those metrics should be measured. I would emphasize how you’ll learn proven ways to improve agent hiring, development and retention, as well as how to elevate your quality program, C-Sat measurement methods, workforce management efforts, and ability to effectively manage a multichannel environment. And if you still didn’t agree to buy the ebook, I would hit the emergency stop switch on the elevator and sing Michael Bolton tunes to you until you promised to purchase a copy.

Me: What if, instead of just 30 seconds, you had 45 seconds to convince me to buy the ebook?

Me: I would say everything I’ve already mentioned, then add that the book contains numerous research findings to support key points, and an Appendix filled with supporting articles and valuable sample forms – i.e., an exemplary quality monitoring form and C-Sat survey questionnaire, as well as a home agent agreement used by a leading contact center.

Me: And what if, while in the elevator, I fainted from excitement over how fabulous your ebook sounded?

Me: I would go through your pockets in search of loose change, then attempt to revive you to close the sale.

Me: Sounds great. So, where do I go to purchase a copy of Full Contact?

Me: That's easy -- just click here.