Off Center
I’m continually looking for ways to improve my credibility and reputation as a contact center author, journalist and researcher – and not just because of the court order to do so. I enjoy setting ambitious goals for myself, working toward them, and then blaming the fact that I didn’t achieve them on global warming and the economy.

What better time of year to set personal and professional goals than right now – when all the alcohol from holiday parties makes me feel brave and invincible. So, here are my career-related New Year’s resolutions for 2011:

1) I will take overflow calls for any contact center for free. For years I have sat upon my high horse acting like I know it all when it comes to contact centers and customer care. But the truth is, I haven’t officially worked in one since the early 1990s. I feel it’s time for me to once again truly immerse myself in contact center culture and madness; thus if your center is in need of an extra hand on the phones during peak periods and you don’t mind that I work from home and am naked most of the time, then I’d be happy to handle calls for you for free.

I can’t promise that I will provide the level of service that your customers have become accustomed to, or that I’ll adhere to my schedule even half the time, but I can promise that I will do my best to not hang up on callers I dislike, and you can rest assured that I won’t get mad during coaching sessions – as I’ll likely not be listening.

2) I will learn how to tie a tie to gain more industry respect. Having worked from my home since 1994, and being obnoxious enough to not get invited to any weddings, I have lost all tie-tying capabilities. This, I have found, has hindered my ability to garner the level of respect I feel I deserve in the contact center industry. Regardless of how much insight and wisdom I provide while presenting on expert panels at conferences, being seated next to peers who are dressed to the nines while I’m wearing my flannel robe and Winnie the Pooh slippers sometimes costs me in terms of recognition as a subject matter expert on customer care. (Don't let the photo of me on this website fool you -- that guy in the suit is my stunt double.)

I wish people could just see past my pajama bottoms (well, not literally) and rate me based on the sharpness of my mind and full understanding of all things related to contact centers. However, if all it takes is for me to put on a collared shirt, a non-clip-on tie and some pants without a drawstring to earn a place among the customer contact elite, then I’m willing to go to Target today.

3) I will stop punching people who are in search of “industry standards” for everything. If I had a dime for every manager who has asked me for the (non-existent) industry standard for service level, abandonment, handle time, cost per call, or (insert the name of just about any other metric you can think of), I’d have enough money to finish building the dungeon I’m currently constructing to house all such managers.

Am I proud of my aggressive and violent treatment of these well-meaning professionals? Well, I don’t know if proud is the word, but it does feel good to go ballistic on a guy who is looking for me to tell him what his and every other contact center’s email response time objective should be. Nonetheless, I acknowledge that verbally and physically abusing relatively innocent managers and supervisors is not only wrong, but ineffective, too; most continue their futile search once they recover from the insults and injuries.

So, I promise to stop taking it upon myself to teach these poor contact center novices a lesson through violence. Instead I’ll have a trained and certified goon from Chicago’s South Side deliver the lumps that have for years left my hands swollen, thus hindering my typing efficiency.

Note from Greg’s conscience: Greg is of course exaggerating in this post for entertainment purposes. He is not building a dungeon to house inexperienced nor incompetent contact center professionals – it’s more like a large cage.

T’was the night after training, and all I could think
Was how the call center might drive me to drink
We’d all practiced role-plays to help us prepare
But role-plays are easy – real customers scare.

So there I was snuggled all warm in my bed
While visions of acronyms danced in my head
I couldn’t remember what half of them meant
FCR? C-Sat? My brain had been bent.

Then all of a sudden my mind became clear
And all fear of handling calls disappeared
Want to know why I was no longer a wreck?
The Xanax I’d taken had taken effect

The drugs soon wore off, then all I could think
Was “What if the service I give truly stinks?”
What if my quality scores are the worst?
When push comes to shove on a call I might curse

The panic subsided and soon I was snoozing
That’s when the call center dreams started oozing
The calls I dreamt of grew increasingly hectic
One dream had my manager screaming out metrics:

“Abandonment! FCR! AHT! C-Sat!
Cost-per-call! Talk time! Response time and E-Sat!
C’mon you peons – don’t let service fall!
Just answer those, answer those, answer those calls!”

I awoke from that dream quite afraid of my headset
And was very displeased about making my bed wet
Only three hours before my first shift!
So I guzzled two Red Bulls to give me a lift

Soon I was buzzing and following through
Ready to steady all calls in the queue
Ready to dazzle with email and chat
Ready to laugh at those bullies called “stats”
The taurine and caffeine and sugar combined
To make me believe I could handle this grind
But Red Bull eventually loses its magic
And that’s when my first day logged in became tragic

The calls flooded in, my confidence ceased
Thank God for that thing on my phone called “Release”
I was coming unglued after only an hour
The callers were rude and I needed a shower

So I trudged to the restroom without any clearance
My manager shouted, “You’re out of adherence!”
When asked if that’s wrong, he just nodded and hissed
So I flipped him the bird and said “Monitor THIS!”

Happy Holidays to all! (And to all, a good laugh.)

Ours is an industry obsessed with “industry standards.” Contact center professionals are forever engaged in a mad yet futile search for clear-cut, universal formulas and processes that will elevate their operations to elusive world-class status. 

However, as most experienced practitioners are well aware, there’s nothing universally standard about contact centers or customer care. The metrics you select and the processes you implement will all vary based on the specific industry you are in and the specific types of contacts and customers your company handles, among other things.

That being said, I’ve decided to pander to the industry standard junkies in hopes of quelling their curiosity – however misguided it is – by coming up with a few “New Rules”. These rules apply to every contact center and customer care professional – without exception – and are guaranteed to bring about big improvements to our industry as a whole.

You wanted industry standards? Oh, I’ll give you industry standards…

New Rules:

1) If average handle time (AHT) is your contact center’s primary performance indicator, your agents are allowed to punch you in the stomach as hard as they can once a month (assuming they last that long).  

2) The industry standard for service level for all contact centers from this point forward shall be: 100% of all calls answered 10 seconds or more before the customer decides to rip your brand to pieces on Twitter. 

3) The maximum number of chat sessions an agent is permitted to handle simultaneously is three. The maximum number of chat sessions an agent is permitted to handle simultaneously WITH QUALITY is one.

4) For every caller who has to repeat their name/account info to a live agent after just providing such info to the IVR system, your IT team has to do 25 push-ups. And then 25 more.

5) All IVR systems must be programmed to say, “Love you, bye” at the close of each interaction with a customer.

6) You must allow at least 15% of your agents to work from home to help improve employee retention and scheduling flexibility. Of those agents, 100% must have a swimming pool and a wet bar that you are free to drop by and use whenever you choose.   

7) If your primary method of rewarding agents for outstanding performance is with a mere sticker that says, “You Rock!”, your agents are required to reciprocate by giving you a sticker that says, “You Don’t!”

8) Any agent who consistently receives low scores for “compassion” and/or “empathy” should immediately be moved out of the contact center and placed on the company’s Executive Training fast track.

9) The ideal range for first-contact resolution (FCR) rate in any center is… I’ll get back to you on that. 

10) Practicing contact center management without first purchasing a copy of my ebook Full Contact: Contact Center Practices & Strategies that Make an Impact shall be punishable by up to three years in prison or up to one year in Accounting.

While most publications in our industry like to jump on the “hot product” bandwagon, I enjoy writing about the contact center solutions that just missed making a big splash. I’ve always been a sucker for the underdog in general – those smaller yet noble competitors that persistently fight and claw and scratch in an attempt to make it to the top, only to get squashed in the end by a stronger player with more experience and a bigger conference exhibit hall booth budget.
The following new contact center tools and applications may not have ever won any awards nor received much press, but that doesn’t mean the vendors that supply them don’t know how to send me gifts in return for a little recognition.

CustomerCoercion™. These days it’s all about the customer, and this innovative though controversial tool – from Goomba, Inc. – will help just about any contact center achieve high customer satisfaction ratings.

CustomerCoercion is a robust automated post-contact survey system that asks callers about their experience immediately following an interaction with an agent. What makes this survey tool so unique is that, rather than alert a manager whenever the system detects an unsatisfied customer, CustomerCoercion suggests that the customer seriously reconsider his or her survey responses.

For example, let’s say a customer, while responding to the post-call survey, rates the agent poorly on “product knowledge”; before CustomerCoercion logs the customer’s survey responses, the system might respond with “Do you want to know what happened to the last guy who said our agents were stupid?”, then ask the customer if they want to change their rating. Or if, for example, the customer indicates via the survey that their issue was not fully resolved, CustomerCoercion may come back with, “Is that so? Well, how bout I come over to your house and resolve all your problems, buddy?”

In early focus-group testing of the CustomerCoercion survey tool, customer satisfaction rates increased by an average of 75% among 25 participating contact centers. When asked whether such threat-based improvements were truly valid, Goomba, Inc. President Joey Mancuso said that if we ever questioned his company’s methods again, he’d punch our families in the stomach.

MindShift Headsets™. Voices Calling, LLC., the makers of this innovative product, believe that it’s no longer enough for headsets to merely be comfortable and provide clear sound quality; they need to also subtly alter agents’ natural thought patterns and emotions to help reduce depression, anxiety and turnover.

A recent study by the National Institute of Apathy (NIA) revealed that contact center staff are five times more likely than any other employee type to cry on the job, and seven times more likely to hold their supervisor hostage in an abandoned shed. No doubt that the agent position is a highly taxing one, which is why Voices Calling created MindShift Headsets – the only headset on the market that whispers encouraging and deceptive messages directly into the ears of agents throughout their shift to keep them from totally losing it.

Here’s how they work: State-of-the-art micro-sensors in the headset are able to detect any negative emotions – be it sadness, anger, boredom, humiliation, inadequacy, etc. – that the agent is feeling between calls, and then deliver subliminal messages to help trick the agent into thinking that their job doesn’t suck and that they are going to be ok. Agents thinking of quitting might hear something like, “You are an invaluable member of this team, and without you providing the outstanding service you are known for, some customers may die.” Or agents who are simply underperforming due to general sadness and hopelessness may hear, “Puppies and kittens in a fireman’s boot! Puppies and kittens in a fireman’s boot!”

MindShift Headsets come in regular and extra strength, the latter of which, in addition to delivering mind-altering subliminal whispers, injects liquid Valium directly into agents’ ears.

TeleCommunes™. Home agent initiatives are all the rage these days – enabling contact centers to expand their recruiting reach, retain highly qualified reps, enjoy more reliable and flexible staffing models, and be more eco-conscious by reducing the amount of employee commuting to and from work. However, some companies are still a bit wary about sending agents home to handle customer contacts, fearing that the isolation will wreak havoc on team-building efforts and morale. That’s why innovative call center design firm, Façade Inc., has developed TeleCommunes – strategically located compounds that house up to 15 agents who live in the same geographic area.

Agents not only handle calls from these regional compounds, they live there with their coworkers – in very cramped spaces, with only minimal food available. The idea is to emulate a bleak communist environment, thus fostering a spirit of brotherhood and cooperation among the agents and stripping them of any sense of ego or individualism – traits that have been known to interfere with corporations’ mission, vision and values.

It’s a win-win for both the company and the TeleCommunists: The company enjoys the typical benefits of home agent initiatives while still maintaining a sense of team among staff, while the TeleCommunists get a much shorter commute, get to try gruel for the first time and learn to handle calls in Russian while huddling to keep warm.

In my recently launched ebook, Full Contact, I cited a landmark study on employee health, fitness and emotional well-being. Among the 50 different industries that participated in said study, the contact center industry ranked 53rd..

Just because the study wasn’t real doesn’t make the findings untrue.

Hyperbole aside, there’s no doubt that the agent position is potentially dangerous to one’s health – and costly to the organization. Few other jobs are as inherently sedentary and as emotionally taxing, what with agents tethered to their workstations for hours on end talking to often-angry or upset customers. Adding to the health risks is all the pizza and other fat-laden fast foods that centers ply staff with in an attempt to keep them inspired and too full to leave their workstations.

I’m not saying that all agents are out of shape and on the brink of losing their minds; just the ones who make it through initial training and orientation. Some centers try to counter the negative effects of agent work by implementing wellness initiatives featuring such things as onsite fitness facilities; wellness courses (e.g., nutrition/weight loss, smoking cessation, stress reduction, etc.), healthy food options onsite; and ergonomics training. Such initiatives can be helpful, but rarely have a big impact since most agents are too busy having heart and panic attacks to take part in them.

In response, many leading contact centers today have found ways to cleverly incorporate physical and mental health exercises into agents’ daily routine.

Here are a few examples:

Adherence sprints. All it takes to get agents to engage in these healthy exercises is a little remodeling in the contact center. The key is to place the break room so far away from the phone floor that agents are forced to sprint there and back during breaks/lunches if they hope to adhere to their schedule and avoid disciplinary action. In centers where agents are severely out of shape, it’s a good idea to place the breakroom three or four floors above or below the phone floor to add a little “Stairmaster” kick to the sprints.

The only drawback of adherence sprints is that poorly conditioned agents often end up breathing heavily while speaking to customers just after a break. Of course, if you run a 900-number adult contact center, the heavy breathing could actually lead to increases in revenue and customer satisfaction.

Shift climbs. These are another great way to keep agents active in the course of their regular job routine. Instead of just sending agents their shift assignments via email, create a climbing wall that has the best schedules printed out and placed at the very top, with less desirable schedules placed below them on the wall. Agents line up at the base of the wall and, after a whistle is blown, compete against each other in scaling the climbing wall to see who is able to reach the best schedules first.

Such climbing competitions often result in injuries resulting from being stepped on by peers and/or falling from dangerous heights, which some say defeats the purpose of using shift walls to improve agent fitness. But such falls and flops often cause big belly laughs among agents who aren’t involved in the accidents, and laughter has been proven time and again to enhance employee health and well-being.  

Headset hypnosis. Where the previous two exercises are aimed more at improving agents’ physical health, headset hypnosis is intended to help keep agents mentally and emotionally strong.  Here’s how it works: During low volume periods when agents are sitting idle at their workstations awaiting their next call, they receive soothing subliminal messages through their headset convincing them that they have extraordinary powers to overcome harsh insults and unbearable stress, as well as the rare ability to spell correctly when chatting with customers. This results in agents getting lulled into a false sense of competence and calmness that is often enough to keep them from abruptly quitting, hurting themselves or, worse, interrupting you in your office to cry while you are busy snacking. 

The best headset hypnosis systems feature professional hypnotic voice talent and can be programmed to deliver personalized messages to different agents depending on their unique psychological and emotional weaknesses. For instance, an agent who tends to stutter profusely during difficult calls could receive a headset message convincing her that she has a dual doctorate degree in speech pathology and customer service. Or an agent who has a habit of flying into a rage with rude customers could receive a message convincing him that he is Gandhi or addicted to benzodiazepines.