Monday, January 5, 2015

My Prediction for 2015: All That Matters Is The Experience

My wife's company hosted a white elephant gift exchange during their holiday party and she came home with a portable power stick.  You know the kind that are everywhere. Every news stand in every airport sells them and now you can usually find them in the checkout aisle of your grocery store.  What product could be more commoditized than this little battery?  Can you name a single brand?  I love all gadgets so I took the trouble to unbox and charge it.  Inside I found a curious little piece of paper. 
I have been reading everyone's predictions for the Contact Center in 2015 full of the latest buzzwords and trendy tech.  I also went back and reviewed some of those same predictions for 2014.  Precious few became widespread trends.  In 2014 pundits were predicting the omnipresence of Customer Journey Mapping, Multi-Channel becoming seamless Cross-Channel, and every kind of analytics you can imagine; customer experience analytics, social analytics, speech analytics, etc.  Were these technologies adopted in 2014?  Certainly.  Were they widespread?  Not at all.

The economic downturn that began in 2008 made it feasible to throw bodies at call volume and do it with onshore representatives.  At the same time companies caught on to the fact that customer experience is a differentiator - and in an age when information is ubiquitous and scarcely do companies have a captive customer base, customer loyalty is golden!  This little piece of paper says it all.  Anker figured out that the easiest way to stand out gain loyalty was to focus on the customer and care about their experience. 

With customer experience being a major contributor to customer loyalty, even well established technologies like chat and virtual
assistants have lost their luster.  Why?  Both technologies (chat and virtual assistants) leverage an extensive knowledge base for scale and efficiency.  The reason an agent can handle multiple chat sessions while also taking voice calls is because they can fill the gaps with canned responses (that is ALL that virtual assistants do...with a patina of pleasantries overlaid to patronize and waste your time).  Savvy customers get this and are tired of canned answers - whether they be automated or read to them from a script.  We want HUMAN interactions.  Couple that with the fact that Cloud Contact Center technology makes it easy to stand up a sophisticated contact center (or a home-based virtual one) in weeks and the allure of great human-to-human interactions is hard to resist.

Human interactions also make upselling/cross-selling a reality.  My wireless provider peppered me with emails (that I deleted without reading) about changing my plan and saving money.  Later when I called in with a service issue, the representative took advantage of a good experience (they solved my issue quickly) and sold me on the new rate plan.  Even with the most advanced (and expensive) speech and/or sentiment analytics, this is tough for automation to do and most companies would only try it with relatively low-value calls. 

I am no Luddite.  I think all of these technologies have a role to play in a modern customer experience strategy.  What I found in 2014 was that many of the features that make their way into a requirements matrix are driven by industry analysts and consultants and not by the company.  In every opportunity I have pursued where the requirements looked like a list of the breakout sessions at Frost or IQPC, the solution that was ultimately implemented was somewhat vanilla and more dependent upon human representatives; cutting edge tech being pushed-off to some nebulous future "phase". 

Large contact centers are using analytics and smart automation but they are hiding it from the customer.  Silent IVR, WFM/WFO, and Performance Management products that aide in coaching and developing great representatives will be the big winners in 2015 because they drive performance improvements without burdening or annoying the customer leaving us humans to do what we do best: interact.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Contact Center Trenches: Insights from Call Observations

I worked in Customer Experience Management for more than a year before I sat in a contact center and observed a call.  It was one of those reflective moments when every half-baked idea I had been holding met with reality.  All of my sales presentations of the previous year flashed before my eyes and I cringed thinking about the things I had said to my prospects that were so obviously wrong-headed and it occurred to me; they must have known it.  Ouch!

It is easy to claim that your product can offer efficiency gains and an improved customer experience when dealing in the abstract.  The challenges that contact center managers and directors deal with however are much more nuanced.  I found that I had broken one of my own rules of professional selling: I didn't know my customer's business or truly understand their challenges.  I now make it a point to see everyone face-to-face and, whenever possible, spend a day or part of a day observing calls.

Here are just a few of the humbling insights I have picked-up during my career.

1. Agents are very good at what they do.
Sit in a call center for a few hours and you will be amazed at the speed, proficiency, and professionalism of the contact center agent.  In fact, we do them a disservice by calling them "agents"; which is probably where our misconceptions begin.  For this post I'll just say representative, each organization has their own title and for good reason.  Anyway, I fell into the trap of seeing "agents" as interchangeable parts, a la Henry Ford.  If I'm in the contact center there is a good chance that the organization is struggling with disparate systems and multiple desktop applications that the representative must navigate during a call.  My assumption was that customers are enduring long hold times and a disjointed experience as the representative bumbles from one application to the next.  What I have seen is what you should expect to see: highly-skilled professionals deftly moving from one application to the next while maintaining a jovial disposition with the customer who, from the other end, has no idea just how many keystrokes and mouse-clicks are occurring.  Certainly there are efficiency gains to be had, but the improvements are likely to be at the front end by ramping-up new agents more quickly and in the back office with better reporting and analytics, not at the level of a seasoned representative who is probably close to their maximum efficiency already.  That is not to say that an experienced professional can't benefit from an improved desktop experience.  They can.  But the improvement would be in reducing their stress and frustration and subsequently reducing attrition.

2. Callers are terrible.  Shame on us.
After one day of observing calls I became a better caller.    I now try hard to quickly and concisely articulate my problem.  I try hard to have my account number, reference number, or any other identifier that I will likely need.  When I'm not satisfied with the answer I'm getting I realize the representative does not make policy and so I remain calm when I ask for an escalation.  And when I have had an extraordinary experience I let them know about it.  If the experience was good I always complete the post-call survey.  By the way, my new attitude has gotten me much better service and I find agents going way beyond their job description to help me.  Which leads to my last insight...

3. Representative want to make us happy.
Work in the job long enough and take enough abuse and you treasure those callers who are patient, prepared, and reasonable.  Not everyone who works in the service industry actually cares, but many of them do.  A call center is a community.  Good callers are celebrated and good service is rewarded.  They take ownership of our problems and empathize, not in a scripted, condescending way but the way you hope they do.  I observed a representative, just coming in for her shift, ask a supervisor about a customer and whether their issue was resolved.  It was obvious to me that she went to bed thinking about that customer and truly wanted to make them happy.

Knowing these things has changed the kinds of conversations I have with my prospects.  I no longer look at representatives as cogs in a machine. I am cognizant of the times when my solution will replace people and I pray it only means change and not lost jobs.  My approach is much more consultative now.  I was recently asked to fill-in a questionnaire from a prospect.  Sort of a mini RFQ.  One question stood out:  How Can Your Solution Make Us More Efficient?  Earlier in my career I would have jumped at the chance to answer that question.  My answer?  I don't know.  I need to learn about your environment and challenges.  I sure hope I get the chance.