Guide to call center operations

The onslaught of social media has been a game changer for the customer service industry. Consumers now have forums to publicly sing the praises of -- or vent frustrations against -- companies, and companies are listening. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter have become the forums in which the fates of many organizations are now being weighed.

However, social media is not the only thing changing the face of customer service. Call center operations are also facing challenges such as new metrics, new technologies and how to integrate them. But these challenges are also opportunities to improve customer relations, and organizations are taking advantage of them.

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Mobile and the call center

For years, the telephone was the primary means of customer service in the call center. It was efficient and personal. But with the advent of social media, everything has changed, including the name. Call centers are now more frequently being referred to as contact centers, reflecting the fact that the phone is no longer the only way to provide customer service. But while the telephone may be old school, it is far from graduating.

Advances in phone technology have significantly changed the way call centers operate. Smartphones are used by approximately 110 million Americans, and call centers have opened up mobile channels by creating mobile applications for their customers. Mobile apps make it possible for customers to get an answer at any time of day or night, from wherever they happen to be. Given today’s instant gratification mindset, this kind of availability is vital to successful customer service. Call centers themselves have taken to using mobile to keep their agents and field technicians connected, further improving communications and service.

"With any sort of connectivity, [technicians] can get access to field manuals, best practices, communicate with headquarters and do the billing," said Paul Greenburg, president of The 56 Group. "They can help the customer where the customer is at."

Social media and the call center

Social media has made a huge impact on call centers because of its accessibility and large audience. If a customer complains about a bad company experience on Facebook or Twitter, it can be disastrous for that company. Millions of people can view the complaint and develop a negative connotation about a company without ever having used its services. But a call center employing social media can swiftly respond to customer complaints and exercise some damage control.

For example, the E-470 Public Highway Authority monitors social networks and responds to driver complaints, making the most of its customer experience management (CEM) system.

"Social media: If you're not plugging into it, you're a little deaf," said Dave Kristick, deputy executive director of the E-470 authority.

Social media has become such a presence in the call center that the consulting and training firm International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) has updated its call center managers' certification program to include social media. Organizations such as Coca-Cola and State Farm Insurance credit the program with helping them deal with the challenges and changes in the call center environment.

Integration and technologies

Even with all the advantages of social media and mobile applications, many companies have dragged their feet in adopting them for their call centers. Some haven't kept up with the fast pace of the social revolution and are unsure how to evolve or what steps to take to change their technology and integrate the necessary software. But it's time to catch up. Mobile applications, for instance, have to be fully integrated to have a meaningful effect on customers. If a customer needs to speak to an agent after initially using the call center application, the agent will have that initial information on hand and the customer will not have to repeat his request or complaint.

Another challenge of integration is finding fully comprehensive social media servicing software. Contact center vendors are working on this, but until then there is nothing to address all of a call center's needs, according to experts. Specific needs can be addressed with specific applications, but these must also be integrated and tied into the existing infrastructure. Integration can be expensive and difficult.

However, all is not lost. Other software is available to help call center agents assist customers. Voice analytics software helps gauge a customer's mood; for example, a particularly irate customer will be queued directly to a manager, potentially preventing the loss of the customer. There are many desktop tools available (e.g., from Salesforce.com and Pegasystems) to improve call center communication and agent performance.

Call center metrics

Measuring call center performance has changed because of these advanced social and mobile technologies. In the past, call center agents were measured by the number of calls they handled per day, the time spent on each call and customer satisfaction. Now, with other channels in use, measurements are applied to email, chat and social media exchanges on sites like Twitter and Facebook.

Experts advise call center managers to use key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure social media. Some KPIs will be traditional, such as response and resolution time, but some will be media-specific, such as problems that were solved publicly versus those resolved by a private conversation with an agent. Still, not everyone agrees that standardization across all channels is the way to go, or that it would really change the metrics.

The ability of the contact center representative to solve a problem on the first interaction matters above all else, according to Mary Murcott, CEO of Dallas-based Novo 1. "It's really about quality and effectiveness, or first-contact resolution and productivity, no matter what channel."

Others believe that all metrics should be behavior-based; that is, measuring performance by behavior rather than numbers. Tim Montgomery, CEO of San Antonio-based CSG, a call center consultancy, said that traditional metrics can be gamed and are not necessarily accurate. For example, if an agent is being measured by time per call, he can hang up before going over the allotted time. The call doesn't result in resolution but meets the time-per-call metric. Instead, Montgomery recommends mentoring an agent and telling them what they do well and what needs improvement -- showing them how their behavior matters.

Even with all the technology in the world, ultimately the end goal of any call center is a satisfied customer. As Dayna Steel, the former Houston disc jockey turned business guru who presided over the International Customer Management Institute Global Call Center Awards ceremony in Seattle this month, succinctly stated, "You are not in the call center business -- you are in the relationship business."

Call center operations quiz

With all the new technology out there, call center operations will never be the same. Think you know what has affected them the most? Test your call center knowledge with this short quiz.

Call center operations quiz