Off Center
 
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Your organization won’t be able to consistently deliver on its customer experience mission until you rid your contact center of all its agents. Agents are human beings, and human beings are by nature imperfect. How can you expect customers to rate their experience with your company a 5 (out of 5) if they are forced to interact with humans, who are inherently 2s and 3s?

The contact center front line is simply no place for a real person. So, if you haven’t already done so, you need to fire all your agents made of flesh and bone and replace them as soon as possible with advanced IVR applications and speech- and text-enabled virtual bots. The future of your company and your Net Promoter Score depend on it.

For those of you who need a little more convincing before fully automating the contact center and the customer experience, I urge you to consider the following major drawbacks of human agents:

Human agents have hearts. Hearts are easily broken – either by a bad break-up, a favorite sitcom being cancelled, or a request to work from home being denied. Studies show that agents with broken hearts are 73% more likely to sob during customer interactions. And while many customers are sadistic and like it when agents cry, most find it off-putting and awkward.  
 
Human agents have dreams. Dreams can too easily be dashed – either by a career path being too short (or non-existent), or by a supervisor telling an agent the truth about his or her IQ and potential. Studies have shown that agents with dashed dreams are 82% more likely to inhale lethal doses of helium from motivational balloons in the contact center. Studies have also shown that, after inhaling a lethal dose of helium, an agent’s ability to achieve first-call resolution drops from 68% to 3%.

Human agents have friends. Friends can be a tremendous detriment to agent productivity and focus. Agents’ friends – with no consideration for your contact center or customers – frequently invite agents to parties, dinners, weddings, etc., thus compelling agents to request specific schedules and days off that don’t always gel with the contact center’s needs. An automated IVR attendant or virtual bot, on the other hand, rarely gets invited to any social functions – except for when a caller is fooled by its advanced speech features and asks it out for a drink.

Human agents have bodies. Human agents have always been cursed with having muscles, tendons and bones that bruise easily during long stints of sitting in cramped cubicles and when slammed against monitors. Carpal Tunnel syndrome, back spasms, eye strain and concussions not only cost the company bundles of money in medical expenses, these problems greatly impair agents’ ability to pretend they enjoy their job. IVR attendants and virtual bots, in contrast, have no bodies and thus can handle thousands of customer contacts daily without any complaints about not being able to feel their fingers, toes or soul.

Human agents have tempers. There are only three absolute truths in contact centers: 1) customer contacts are constant; 2) customers complain a lot; and 3) constant customer complaints make agents want to hurt themselves and others. By fully automating your contact center, you greatly reduce the risk of the center being burnt to the ground and/or of you being beaten to a pulp whenever you leave your office during peak periods.


Down with People

Ridding your contact center of human agents means no more turnover and no more complaints about low pay, unfair metrics and bad schedules. It also means big savings on office space and parking, and on the amount of food that needs to be ordered for company picnics and holiday parties.

Sure, your customers will likely be outraged initially over not being able to reach a live agent, but if you take this article and use it as a script in your IVR and as an FAQ answer on your website, customers will soon understand that they are much better off interacting solely with machines. 


NOTE: Greg accidentally overdosed on his satire pills this week, which explains the nature of this post. The doctors say that Greg should be back to his normal, healthy level of irony and parody by the time his next post rolls around.


 
Those of you familiar with my writing know I’ve long been a proponent of the home agent model. So you may be confused by the title of this post and are likely thinking one of two things: 1) Greg is extremely wishy-washy; or 2) Greg is about to unleash a satirical blog post where he only appears to be against the use of home agents, to help readers see how effective the work-at-home model actually is.

Wishy-washy or smart aleck – which one could it be? I’m sure the suspense is killing you.

So, without further ado, here are the five reasons why you and your contact center should NOT embrace the home agent model:      

1) The increased agent retention means you won’t get to meet as many new and interesting people. If you are the kind of manager or supervisor who loves to meet and interview new people every month and who gets bored when surrounded by the same talented employees for years on end, stay away from the home agent model. In my (somewhat) recent study on home agent staffing, nearly every participant said their use of home agents has had a ‘very positive’ or ‘positive’ impact on agent retention. Fewer people quitting means fewer new folks for you to meet, and fewer people for you to get to know a little better several days or weeks later during their exit interview.

2) The sound of joy in agents’ voices will be disorienting. When you have grown accustomed to hearing agents sounding exhausted and apathetic during interactions with customers, hearing those same agents suddenly perking up and caring about customers is very jarring to the system. Such increases in happiness and engagement have been known to distract those who conduct quality monitoring to the point where they cannot focus and end up forgetting to fill out the monitoring form. This is just the kind of problem you can expect if you are silly and brazen enough to embrace the home agent model and give agents the kind of work-life balance they crave. Keep in mind, too, that sudden rises in agents’ spirits and performance can also be very disorienting for customers, who, upon hearing an authentically warm greeting and inspired efforts to assist them, may very well hang up assuming they have dialed the wrong number.

3) Hiring decisions will be too hard due to the overabundance of talented applicants. You may not have a lot of job openings after implementing a home agent program (since current agents won’t be quitting), but expect to be inundated by high-quality candidates whenever there is an opening. Once word gets out that your contact center uses home agents, applicants will come out of the woodwork in hopes of snagging a job where they’ll have a chance to work in their underpants. The real pain is that many of these applicants will be talented individuals whom you would be crazy not to offer a job. But good luck making the best selection when there’s only one agent position open and 50 candidates with solid college degrees, good references, and no police record to speak of. Who needs that kind of stress?

4) You’ll no longer have a good excuse for low service levels during storms. Senior management never likes it when you fall short of your service level objectives, but at least they are somewhat forgiving whenever a snowstorm or flood is to blame for it. If you implement a home agent initiative, you can forget about such leniency during severe weather situations. “There are 200 calls in queue because half our staff couldn’t make it in” doesn’t hold water when you have a team of home-based agents in place. Once you go virtual, it’s your workforce management and training skills that will be to blame – not the weather – if service dips when a blizzard hits. Better to keep all your staff on site to ensure that your managerial shortcomings aren’t fully exposed.

5) Your center may be suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs. Many contact centers with home agents in place win awards for customer service excellence, but those same centers are often accused of pumping staff full of PEDs in order to achieve such accolades. You can’t really blame folks for being skeptical. I mean, when you see a center suddenly increase agent engagement and retention, productivity, customer satisfaction, staffing flexibility and operational costs, it’s only natural to suspect that center of cheating somehow. And while you – if your center implements a home agent program – may know that the aforementioned improvements came naturally from going virtual, are you sure you’re ready to face such serious and hurtful accusations? And are your agents willing to undergo random blood testing throughout the year?   


One other reason not to embrace the home agent model is the searing envy experienced by agents in your center who are NOT selected to work from home. There’s even a famous song (at least in MY mind) about this: http://www.offcenterinsight.com/cc-tunes.html (scroll down to the third song on the page, titled “On the Phone at Home”, to hear a sample).


 
Last night you were told by senior management to “do less with more” in your contact center.

You can stop celebrating now – it was just an “opposite” dream.

Back to reality.

Contact center professionals have historically had to devise ways to do more with less. The economy being down for the count hasn’t helped matters much. While some managers have resorted to prayer and medication to get through it all, others have rolled up their sleeves and gotten creative.

Especially in terms of contact center staffing. Try as some organizations might, you can’t simply replace agents with machines. The best contact centers have learned to be innovative and resourceful with existing employees – embracing unconventional and progressive staffing and scheduling approaches to get the most out of agents without breaking their backs.

Here are several ways you, too, can get crafty with staffing in your contact center to drive the sort of success that upper management demands, and that customers expect.
      
4 x 10 workweeks. Many centers have introduced 4 x 10 workweeks (four 10-hour days) to the agent scheduling mix, thus enhancing coverage in the contact center during peak periods while simultaneously making agents happy with an extra day off. Schedules can be arranged so that the center has all hands on deck on the busiest days, like Mondays. And since 4 x 10 stints are popular, centers find that they have plenty of senior agents working through the evening, thus ensuring that service quality and efficiency doesn’t go down once the sun does. 

Agent reserve teams. The contact center loses many of its best agents to internal departments like Marketing and Sales all the time. Crafty managers know how to steal them back – at least temporarily. Creating a crew of former agents who can help out on the phones during unexpected call spikes is a great way to meet service level objectives without having to enter into a complicated outsourcing arrangement. It also brings some welcomed job diversity to those who serve on the agent reserve team, who more than likely miss their headset a little. After all, 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.

Home agents. I can’t say enough about the home agent model. When carried out with care, no other staffing approach has as big an impact on agent engagement, retention and performance, or on the center’s ability to staff flexibly and cost-effectively. The center is able to attract and keep top talent who rarely if ever call in sick and who don’t mind being “on-call” on occasion if it means getting to work in just their underwear every day. And kicking agents out of the contact center means the contact center facility needn’t be so big – and rent so expensive. Plus it’s all seamless to the customer, except for the fact that they might note a little extra joy in the voice of the agent with whom they’re interacting.
 

To read more about these and other effective staffing/scheduling tactics – as well as lots of other contact center best practices – be sure to check out my comprehensive ebook Full Contact. http://goo.gl/y73U9



 
10 Reasons Your Contact Center Should Use Home Agents

1) Better employee retention. Most agents who plan on quitting to take a better-paying job – such as janitor or migrant farm worker – will reconsider if given the freedom to handle calls naked.

2) Expanded recruiting reach.
When seeking candidates for agent positions, you will no longer be limited to dropouts from just local high schools/colleges.

3) More flexible staffing/scheduling.
Such immediate access to their workstation makes it easy for off-duty home agents to work odd shifts and to save managers’ butts after inaccurate forecasts.

4) Higher productivity and quality.
The extra sleep and not having to suffer through rush-hour traffic enables home agents to stay focused and energized throughout the entire first half-hour of their shift.   

5) Decreased facility expenses.
You can grow the contact center without expanding walls, the parking lot, or the toilet paper budget.

6) Improved attendance.
Absenteeism and tardiness will drop, assuming you select reliable agents who don’t suffer from long-distance sleepwalking.

7) Enhanced disaster recovery.
No longer will road closures brought on by blizzards or Justin Bieber concerts bring employees and the contact center to a standstill.

8) Increased ability to tap “alternative” labor pools.
Going virtual provides job opportunities to qualified candidates who might otherwise be unable to consider contact center work – e.g., individuals with physical disabilities, older workers, or people deathly afraid of cubicles and industrial carpet.

9) More environmentally responsible.
Using home agents reduces vehicle pollution and gasoline/oil consumption; also conserves water since agents will no longer need to bathe, brush their teeth, wash their clothes or clean their wrist brace.

10) Improved call center aesthetics.
You can rid the center of the least-attractive and worst-dressed agents without losing their valuable skills and experience.