Social channels changing contact center certification

Contact centers will see overhauled programs for certifications next year that address the full range of channels, with emphasis on social media technology.

Companies can expect big changes in contact center certification beginning next year as top industry providers, including J.D. Power and Associates and the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI), overhaul their assessment programs by adding new criteria for such technologies as social media.

“It is great that our agents are doing what they need to do, but you have to bring in those other channels,” to the certification process, said Kim Kasin, director of the retirement and benefits contact center for Bank of America Merrill Lynch, which has been a J.D. Power-certified contact center since 2005. She noted that 91% of the participants in the retirement and benefits plans are now interacting online with the company.

Kasin said she is participating on the J.D. Power round table that is determining what new best practices should be included in the 2013 certification program, which will be for the first  time designated as a “contact center”  assessment instead of a “call center” program. It will include standards for chat, Web and social media channels. The current program as well as the 2012 program is a call center assessment that zeros in on phone and interactive voice response, or IVR, operations. However, many contact centers are increasingly folding in social channels to their core operations.

J.D. Power has offered call center certification programs since 2003. Each year, it adjusts the number of guidelines and top considerations based on surveys it conducts of its clients’ customers, said Mark Miller, senior director of the contact center practice. But the 2013 program will represent the biggest change to date because it extends beyond traditional call center operations.

ICMI to test managers’ social skills
Other certification programs are getting overhauled as well, including those focused on individual call center managers and agents, such as the program from ICMI.

The organization will roll out a new set of training and testing modules in 2012 that will include assessments on social technology and practices, said Brad Cleveland, a senior adviser to ICMI.  

Earlier this year, ICMI signed an exclusive licensing deal with the Call Center Industry Advisory Council (CIAC) to offer its set of instruction and testing materials for call center certification. More recently, Cleveland said ICMI had assumed management of the CIAC standards and is now responsible to make them more current. The core CIAC program has not had a major facelift since its inception a decade ago, he added.

For the 2012 program, ICMI will be adding the “next era of competencies,” that will cover a wide range of social media-related skills. The certification program will continue to be based on four domains that cover leadership, operations, technologies and staff management, but “every one of these areas is going through a dramatic change,” Cleveland said.

The program will offer training and testing on such issues as maintaining a consistent voice across multiple channels, including phone, chat, social, and self-service; legal considerations for social channels; the impact of social channels on existing channels’ workload volume; and processes needed for social media such as forecasting, staffing, scheduling and quality improvement.

Contact center certification isn’t cheap
Certification programs have long been part of the contact center landscape and the programs can be costly. For example, the ICMI program will cost between $4,500 and $4,700 a person next year, up from the $4,120-to-$4,345 fees for 2011 certification.

Larry Eiser, managing principal of independent consulting firm Contact Center Insights, was a call center manager at Duke Energy in Charlotte, N.C., for more than a decade and said he and his staff had taken the ICMI training programs and, although the payback isn’t easily measurable, they are worth it.

“We were trying to develop our supervisors, not just for their current roles, but to get them ready for the next role and to have some ways to assess them,” said Eiser, who is also on the ICMI conference board. “It’s a nice thing for them to have on their resume.”

Costs for organizational certification programs can be substantial, but companies like Bank of America Merrill Lynch say it is money well spent. While Merrill Lynch did not reveal what it pays annually, it is not uncommon for companies to pay more than $100,000 for the J.D. Power program fee and an additional $30,000 to $40,000 for the annual license fee.

Nonetheless, Merrill Lynch said that the certification helps win business because J.D. Power “is a name our corporate clients know,” Kasin said. “It gives us that extra; it says we know what we are doing.”

“If a client comes in to kick the tires, we can talk about J.D. Power and how we go about getting it,” Kasin added. “It is impressive to them.”

The Technology Services Industry Association (TSIA), which offers a J.D. Power-based certification program for technology companies, will also update its program to include social media. It will begin offering this version in the first quarter of 2012, its first major update since last year. 

“This year for the first time we did a social media survey [to determine] how social media is a vehicle to provide technical support,” said Tom Pridham, senior vice president and general manager of organizational development services at TSIA. “So, we are reviewing these criteria and will update it annually.

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