Agents of change: Taking contact centers to new heights

These days contact center agents are doing a whole lot more than merely manning phones. Peppers & Rogers found some workforce optimization and training tools that are a great way to get more out of your staff.

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Picture your call-center agents for a moment. Now notice how they are all different. Different levels of expertise, different strengths, different personalities -- some may be more outgoing on the phone than others; some may be more nurturing with customers than others. They may even handle calls differently but arrive at the same desired outcome -- the one you trained them to achieve.

But are you getting the most out of each agent? Are you maximizing the individual strengths of each person by training and cultivating each one differently to make him as productive and successful on an individual basis as he can be?

It might sound like a tall order, but over the last 12 months, more and more companies are managing staff in a way that aligns personnel needs with company goals, and they're doing it with the help of a growing category of software called workforce management. Vendors in the space include CenterForce Technologies, Inc. (formerly RightForce), FurstPerson, Unicru, Blue Pumpkin, Knowlagent and Aspect Communications.

Moreover, as agents take on a more consultative role -- assessing customer needs, making cross-sell and up-sell decisions, and doing whatever it takes to get, keep and grow customers -- workforce management technology is enabling enterprises to build contact centers filled with better-qualified agents, contributing to greater customer satisfaction and improved job satisfaction, as well.

Lynk Systems schedules the right agent for the right customer

Lynk Systems, a provider of electronic payment, cash dispensing and e-commerce services based in Atlanta, uses three systems to better manage the training, scheduling and quality assurance pieces of its contact center. The process began about two years ago when the company installed Blue Pumpkin software to help with scheduling, including the prediction and projection of call volumes. Now, Lynk schedules agent coverage throughout its shifts and makes sure agents with various skill sets are represented as needed.

"[The software] tells us how many people we need with each skill set, regardless of how many we have," says Jim Reardon, Lynk's VP of help desk and central installations. "We can predict the call volume we're going to get from each skill set and what hours they need to work; basically, we define our service level goals," he says. "Do we want to answer 50% of our calls in five minutes or 100% of our calls in 10 seconds?"

Reardon says that Lynk Systems is able to route calls from its best customers to its best agents. "We have some larger national customers that require a different level of service than our traditional customers," he explains. "So if they have a problem, we want them to be handled by someone who is the best of the best."

Such matchmaking also assists in overall agent productivity, since it minimizes agent down time. "Productivity [is a benefit], absolutely because of the efficiencies I get," says Marty Lehtio, VP of client services and operations for Interactive Response Technologies (IRT), an outsourced call center service bureau in Ft. Lauderdale, that staffs from 700 to 900 agents. "I have the people here when they need to be here. They're not sitting around waiting for phone calls, because that adds up." IRT uses RightForce technology, which analyzes historical information to uncover trends within the contact center. "It looks at specific events that will trigger other types of volume and puts it on the desktop," adds Lehtio. (RightForce and CenterForce merged just prior to press time. The company took on the CenterForce name, but the technology kept its original name of RightForce.)

Improved call-center efficiency has led to cost-savings for IRT clients, says Lehtio. "That's what drove us to this-to figure out how to bring efficiencies to our clients, give analytics back to them and help them forecast their call volumes and arrival patterns." IRT handles calls for clients in industries including financial services, telecom and cable/satellite (entertainment). "In addition to traditional tasks -- such as managing the employees so they are happy, and making sure they understand and have competency and confidence in their job -- you've got to be really good at forecasting the arrival pattern of phone calls. The reason that's important for our business is if I don't know when the calls are coming in, then I don't know where I should staff my people," Lehtio explains.

Training is key to contact-center success

Proper training is a necessary component to creating a strong contact-center environment, and often an offering in workforce-management, e-learning, or online training software. It allows companies to customize training specifically for their organizational needs and the needs of individual agents. In addition, it also saves time and money: e-learning can be done directly on an agent's desktop during his down time and at his own pace. This eliminates the need to take agents off-site or away from their desks for more structured classroom training, when they could instead be handling customer calls.

E-learning courses are typically built according to the knowledge or experience level of the representative and are customized for the company using the technology. Agents can move from one level to the next as they successfully complete each course. And, reporting capabilities allow management to learn if and when agents complete the assigned course load. "That way, you know not only whether they got the information, but whether they mastered the information," says Lynk's Reardon. "You can do that as needed, or with a whole slew of courses, like we've done here."

Agent training can include teaching them how to answer customer inquiries, as well as how to increase up-sell and cross-sell opportunities. Rusty Gordon, CEO of e-learning provider Knowlagent (knowlagent.com), says that call-center training falls into three categories. The first is soft skills, which teaches agents how to interact with people. The second is policy training-teaching product knowledge, as well as company policies. The third is learning how to handle customers in different situations. "It's really teaching a process that says if a customer calls in and they want to know their account balance, we want you to tell them their account balance, find out if there's anything else they want to know, and make sure they know about our new product line that's coming out next week," says Gordon.

Lynk Systems uses e-learning services from Knowlagent, as well as quality-assurance software from Witness Systems, in addition to the scheduling capabilities it receives through Blue Pumpkin's program. All three work together to create better-enabled agents. "For example, we monitor the rep. We identify the need. We schedule the training in our workforce-management software and it's delivered via Knowlagent," explains Reardon. "Then, after the course is taken, we can monitor that representative's calls again and measure the improvement. We can measure the difference in the quality of the call. So it's kind of a closed-loop package we've got here."

Well-trained agents create better first impression

Surveys continue to show that the majority of customers base their impression of a company on their interaction with call center and other front-line employees. Therefore, it is vitally important for agents to be empowered through training to handle any issues or problems facing a company's customers. It's just as important for agents to know and understand their company's mission and overall objectives, those interviewed for this article say.

Using today's technology, companies can amend call-center or company policies and procedures quickly and easily -- and broadcast those changes via the desktop. "There's an alert that says: 'We've changed policy as of today. You can no longer do X,Y,Z. Now you must do A,B,C'," says Reardon. "We can make it as detailed or as simple as we want-with graphics or just with plain text. And we know that they've mastered the information."

IRT uses an additional piece of technology from CenterForce to communicate key messages to its agents. The system ensures that each agent receives the same message simultaneously. "The system sends broadcast messages out to all of the people working on the telephone," says Lehtio. "So now I don't have to take them off the phone, have a meeting, or make sure I talk to everybody. I can do it right through the agent desktop. It brings operational efficiency this way, as well."


To read more articles like this one, visit Peppers and Rogers Group's Web site at www.1to1.com.

All materials copyright 2003 Peppers and Rogers Group - 1:1 Marketing.

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