Top contact center management dos and don'ts

Customer service agents set the tone for a customer's interactions with a company. Learn how to improve the experience with contact center management dos and don'ts from an expert.

A customer contact center can be the lifeblood of a company's operations.

Contact centers are where companies and customers come together to resolve issues, evangelize a company's brand and even sell products. Customer service agents are right at the intersection of this, tasked with not only serving as brand ambassadors, but also creating positive customer experiences. Done well, contact center service feels seamless and frictionless, anticipating the needs of customers often before they are even articulated. Done poorly, though, the customer experience can suffer.

Contact center management is often the key to doing this well, but it's easy for managers to fall prey to some common don'ts and lose sight of the bigger picture. It can be a tall order to oversee multimillion-dollar budgets, enhance staff knowledge and navigate employee retention issues, all while trying to create a solid customer experience.

Here's a rundown of some common contact center management dos and don'ts -- along with some proven ways to improve performance:

  1. Don't: Make it hard for customers.
    Do: Be a company that's easy to do business with.

    Customers who have to work hard to interact with a contact center are great prospects for defection to companies with simple processes. The following are some examples of processes that make it harder than necessary to interact with contact centers:

    • Asking customers to repeat information they've already provided via an interactive voice response (IVR) system or during a previous interaction.
    • Asking multiple questions and requiring security information before understanding what a customer needs.
    • Requiring unnecessarily complex or rigorous passwords.
    • Keeping customers on the phone while agents complete documentation.
    • Adding IVR options that don't add value (e.g., transferring the customer to a special representative, among other things).

    Successful companies use journey mapping, Six Sigma, desktop analytics and other techniques to identify opportunities to improve interactions with customers and partners. One approach is a "common sense" review: look at every agent question, IVR question, transfer and customer hold and ask two questions:

    1. Did it add value?
    2. Is there a simpler way to help the customer?

  2. Don't: Create "metric madness."
    Do: Simplify and focus metrics.

    Metric madness happens when contact centers track too many metrics without coordination and prioritization. The result is unnecessary complexity and distraction. To keep focused on results, enlist the following tactics:

    • Remember "what gets measured, gets managed." To avoid unintended consequences, consider how metrics can be misused or incorrectly interpreted.
    • Separate metrics into "output" metrics that tie to business objectives and "input" metrics that drive output metrics.
    • Use "bedrock" output metrics that tie to verifiable financial data.
    • Periodically edit your portfolio of metrics to stay focused on what's important.

  3. Don't: Step over dollars to pick up dimes.
    Do: Consider long-term impact.

    While cost optimization is a critical success factor, expense reduction initiatives can backfire, affecting revenue and driving additional expense. A common mistake is underinvestment in core processes and skills.

    We've all seen situations in which contact centers suffer from the following problems:

    • Failure to invest in the right infrastructure and support. Without the right software and hardware to outfit contact centers, companies find themselves underachieving business-case targets and buying expensive add-ons.
    • Dissatisfaction with outsourced support. Companies that aren't happy with their service providers, yet don't provide the tools they need or invest in an expert vendor management team.
    • Reduced staffing levels. This often results in an increase in agents' call handle times and a subsequent decrease in quality because there's no time for training and coaching -- some call this a contact center death spiral.
    • Inexperienced resources assigned to manage critical technologies and processes. You wouldn't fly a plane without a pilot. Don't expect a CRM or workforce optimization system to "fly" without an expert in the "cockpit."

    One way to avoid penny-wise and pound-foolish situations is to ensure that business cases are complete -- including planning for all the impacts of cost reduction decisions.

  4. Don't: Pave dirt roads.
    Do: Create new roads.

    Contact centers may be inclined to dig in on existing processes, because that is "how things have always been done," rather than pave new paths to experiment and explore new tactics. Contact center management teams have a choice when updating technology, organizations and processes: They can automate the processes already in place -- outsourcers call this lift and shift -- or they can re-engineer by building processes that take advantage of new learning and technology. Transformational outsourcing allows the outsourcer to apply best-in-class expertise and get paid for outcomes.

  5. Don't: Plan to fail.
    Do: Plan and prepare.

    "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail," Benjamin Franklin said. This quote is more relevant than ever in our 24/7, competitive business world. While it is impossible to anticipate everything, a robust set of contingency plans reduces risk and allows contact centers to seize opportunities. Having training and communications ready to go for unplanned periods of availability is a great way to improve quality and reduce handle time with minimal additional expense.

  6. Don't: Treat suppliers as enemies.
    Do: Partner with your suppliers.

    Contact centers are dependent on a host of internal and external suppliers: technology vendors, outsourcing suppliers, labor unions and their own employees. These relationships can be collaborative and efficient, rather than adversarial and time-consuming. To make supplier relationships successful, consider the following:

    • Align customer and supplier goals. Contracts that align customer and supplier goals automatically create collaboration, while lack of alignment quickly creates contention. Contracts with gain-share provisions and cost-per-outcome arrangements are good examples.
    • Establish a governance process. Keep the lines of communication and collaboration open -- this can be as simple as a quarterly leadership alignment meeting.
    • Keep it simple and understandable. Limit contract key performance indicators and service-level agreements to outcomes that matter, and collaborate on a contract summary document that both parties can use as a daily guide.

  7. Don't: Fail to use data as a competitive advantage.
    Do: Turn data into actionable information.

    The availability of data increases daily, along with sophisticated tools to extract actionable information. The benefits of analytics are also well documented -- the key is for leaders to efficiently use the call center data. Some guidelines:

    • Don't "wing it," but at the same time, avoid analysis paralysis. Pre-establish guidelines to ensure consistent, optimal decisions without demands for extra business cases. Include fast hypothesis-based tests and pilots of software with clear go or no-go criteria.
    • Carefully assess new data-gathering requirements before changing processes. With lower-cost data storage and analysis, it is tempting to ask customers for more data. Ensure that new requirements don't make it difficult for customers or contribute to metric madness. Reinforce the value of the contact center by evangelizing its robust data set and analytics capabilities and their impact within the rest of the company.

Contact center management isn't based on just gut feel or instinct. Best practices are based on years of industry experience and proven methods. Companies need to focus on some of the fundamentals in their contact center strategy, though, from improving the customer experience to establishing key metrics and using data to make informed, clear decisions. These are the kinds of contact center management principles that can reduce costs, boost staff retention and increase sales. But in order to do that, organizations must first get on board with the do side of the equation -- not the don't side.

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This was last published in February 2016

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