Off Center
 
Regardless of whether you celebrate Thanksgiving or not, it’s nice to take some time every now and then to give thanks for what you have. And even though you are currently fighting a war against agent burnout, a limited budget and customers with a bloated sense of self-importance, there are still plenty of things to be thankful for in the contact center industry. Here are just a few:

Increased respect.
Although execs aren’t exactly writing blank checks for the contact center, you should be thankful that most now recognize the invaluable insight and data the center captures daily, and the impact that the center has on customer loyalty and revenue. As a result, many C-level officers have stopped writing nasty graffiti about the contact center on executive washroom walls. Some now even allow agents and supervisors to look directly at them during their annual walk across the phone floor. 

Casual dress codes.
Until video calls come along and ruin everything, contact center pros can be grateful that nobody expects them to look classy. While folks in Marketing, Sales and other so-called "higher-profile" departments must contend with the daily stress of lining up an outfit that will impress clients and co-workers, contact center folks can slap on the same jeans or pleated khaki pants they’ve worn for the past month, with no fear of negatively impacting the customer experience or their career.      
Frontline task forces.
If you are a contact center manager or supervisor, you should thank your lucky stars for the fact that you have a whole host of agents who are totally desperate for a little job diversity and time off the phones. If you haven’t yet started to tap their desperation and put them to work on projects you don’t want to deal with, or let them come up with improved processes that you can take credit for, then you should be thankful that I just informed you of this brilliant strategy. 

Social media.
True, nobody in the contact center really knows how to handle social media as a customer care tool yet, but be thankful that the hype surrounding it has distracted senior management from the fact that your center hasn’t really figured out the phones, email or chat yet, either. Another reason to be thankful for social media is that, once you do figure it out and set things up right, your most avid customers will step in and start to handle most of your other customers’ online complaints for free.

Lack of windows.
While some contact centers these days have an ample number of windows, be thankful if yours is not one of those centers. There’s nothing worse than having a portal to the outside world that lets you see all you’re missing while you’re busy getting slammed by calls and berated by customers. You and your staff need to focus on the internal chaos – if you have birds and sunshine and trees and mountains distracting you, you’re never going to survive.

Helium balloons.
You show me a contact center pro who isn’t thankful for the abundance of colorful balloons floating around the phone floor, and I’ll show you a contact center pro who doesn’t know how to use them to full effect. The squeaky voice you get from inhaling helium is hilarious and stress-reducing no matter how many times you do it. Regardless of how burnt out and browbeaten you are on the job – having a constant supply of noble gas makes it all worth it.

One final thing that I, personally, am extremely thankful for is you – my readers – for tuning in to my ramblings each week and for not reporting me to the proper authorities.

Happy Thanksgiving to all (who celebrate it)!


 
Earlier this week I delivered a keynote presentation at a fun and informative user group event sponsored by Calabrio (www.calabrio.com). Prior to the event, Calabrio posed a handful of cogent questions and asked me to provide some insightful responses.

I provided these instead.

How have you seen contact centers change in the past 5 years?

For one, the contact center now receives much more respect from the rest of the company and the business world in general. What used to be viewed as a mere back-office operation is now highly valued for the critical customer data and insight it gathers daily (and shares with key departments) to greatly enhance customer loyalty and revenue. No longer do contact center managers and staff get beaten up and have their lunch money stolen by big mean bullies in Marketing, Sales or other departments. If you work in a contact center and still do endure such bullying, let me know and I’ll take care of it. I’m tough like that.

Another big and very positive change in our industry is the increased use of home agents. After years and years of contact centers just tinkering around and testing the home agent waters, many are finally fully embracing this powerful staffing model, which studies have shown to improve agent recruiting, retention and performance, as well as decrease facility costs and enhance staffing flexibility. Add in the obvious “green” benefits the home agent model affords, and it’s easy to see why more and more companies are kicking their agents out of the contact center. 

And of course, no conversation about big changes would be complete without mentioning the emergence of social media and its impact – both real and imagined – on customer care. Just when contact centers were starting to get a handle on the phones, email, chat and web self-service, social media comes barreling in and forces managers to return to therapy.  


What are a couple of the biggest challenges facing contact centers now?

One of the biggest challenges contact centers face now is one that they have always faced: Keeping agents in place and inspired. While with ICMI from 1994-2010, I was involved in several research studies and reader surveys in which we asked managers to list their biggest concerns and challenges. Agent turnover and burnout always topped the list. Fostering agent engagement and retention is especially critical in today’s crazy competitive business climate, where top-notch service and support is often the differentiating factor – the thing that determines what company a customer decides to mate with for life.

I’ve already alluded to what I see as the other major challenge in today’s contact center: Managing the multichannel madness. Have you ever tried accurately forecasting and scheduling for phone, email, chat and social media contacts – and ensuring that customers receive consistent, efficient and effective service regardless of which of those channels they choose? Scary. It’s why I merely analyze and write about contact centers rather than actually RUN one.


You’re a humorist in a unique industry. Can we use a little more comic relief in the world of customer service?

Absolutely. Just look at what we’ve got: An industry full of managers being pressed by execs to constantly do more with less; agents being measured on a multitude of performance metrics while sitting in a cubicle that’s the same square footage as their body; and the entire center having to handle a seemingly endless stream of calls and other contact types from highly demanding customers who are often abusive even though they know that you know where they live. If that’s not an industry begging for comic relief, I don’t know what is.

Managing a contact center is no laughing matter. But if you want to survive in this business, laughing matters. Humor defuses. Humor relieves. Humor inspires. And if we can’t laugh at ourselves, who can we laugh at – besides the guys over in IT.

 
This week being the one-year anniversary of the launch of my ebook, Full Contact, I thought it would be fun to share the book’s Introduction, which is far too well-written to only be enjoyed by the six people who have actually purchased Full Contact.

(Don't miss the special offer at the end of this post. It's especially special.)

 
In high school, I was voted “Most likely to write a top-selling ebook on contact center best practices”. It was a peculiar honor, especially since I graduated high school years before either ebooks or the term “contact center” had even been invented. My senior class was a prophetic lot.

Of course, such a lofty and obscure prediction places a lot of pressure on a person. Throughout college I wondered if I would ever live up to the expectations of my peers. At my university there were no classes or study groups on contact center practices; no dean of Customer Management. I tried to engage my college friends in contact center-related conversations, but they all felt that frat parties and frisbee were more important than first-call resolution.

Feeling that college ill-prepared me to fulfill my ebook destiny, I took a job as an agent for an insurance contact center right after graduating in 1991. However, I soon found that having to adhere to schedule in a cramped cubicle nine hours a day left little time for me to discover best practices or to write.

Things started to look more promising when I secured a job as an editorial assistant with ICMI in June of 1994. The fact that I didn’t have much contact center experience or knowledge didn’t bother ICMI founder Gordon MacPherson; he had been looking for somebody with good writing skills and a fiery ambition whom he could shape and mold. When he read on my resume that I had been voted “Most likely to write a top-selling ebook on contact center best practices” back in high school, he knew that I had what it took to become a top-notch editor for their pioneering publication of the time, Service Level Newsletter.

I learned a ton in my editorial position at ICMI. Gordon – and later, Brad Cleveland – enthusiastically taught me the key principles of contact center management. I got to interview top experts the world over and write articles and research reports on the most pressing issues, biggest challenges and hottest trends facing contact center professionals. Over my 16 years at ICMI I learned about and witnessed first-hand the most effective practices with regard to workforce management, metric selection, quality monitoring, customer satisfaction measurement, customer relationship management, agent hiring and retention, email/chat management, IVR and web-self service, outsourcing, home agents, and a lot more. I learned how to say key contact center management terms like “shrinkage” and “Erlang” without giggling, and was able to memorize over 700 industry acronyms without the aid of performance enhancing drugs.  You name it, I wrote about it, conducted research on it, and – eventually – spoke about it at industry events.

But what I didn’t do while at ICMI is make my high school classmates’ prognostication become a reality. True, I have written well over 200 feature articles, nearly the same number of case studies, dozens of research reports and countless industry-related blurbs and bytes, but I have never written an ebook on contact center best practices.

Until now.

Full Contact is a composite of the most effective and innovative practices, processes, approaches, applications, strategies and initiatives – in what I consider to be the most critical areas of contact center management – that I have uncovered in my nearly two full decades as a researcher and journalist in the industry. The book contains not my opinions (though, yes, I do have a penchant for speaking my mind); rather it contains proven practices and tactics – those that separate the world-class contact center operations from those that merely get by, or don’t.

I realize that just because I have finally written an ebook doesn’t mean that I have lived up to my high school classmates’ expectations. After all, I wasn’t voted “Most likely to write an ebook on contact center best practices”; rather I was voted “Most likely to write a top-selling ebook on contact center best practices”.

Thus, I strongly encourage all of you to purchase multiple copies, and to persuade your colleagues to do the same. Rave about this ebook online. Tweet and blog about it. Give it as a gift for birthdays and holidays, or simply to show that special somebody in your life that you care enough to want to help them learn how to accurately forecast contact volume and schedule accordingly to achieve a strategically chosen service level objective. That’s love.  

Then and only then will I be able to attend my upcoming 25th high school reunion with my head held high.

Warm Regards,
Greg Levin

Get Full Contact at Half Price. From now until next Friday (Nov. 11), I’m offering Full Contact at 50% off the regular price. The discount code is fc1111 – be sure to use it when you stop by the gift shop on the way out: http://www.greglevin.com/full-contact-ebook.html