Renowned business thought leader Peter Drucker once said, "“Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes.” That really resonated with me as I was preparing to write this post because it is especially true of inbound call center leaders. Sure, corporate America has its share of executives that succeed on the basis of charisma, but in a call center, personality alone isn't enough.
Call center leaders can't hide behind bluster. The performance data doesn't let them. Everything about an inbound call center - from expenditures to service levels to customer satisfaction - can be measured and those results reflect directly on the leaders. It's pretty clear when a customer service manager is or isn't producing results. Just look at the KPIs.
Inbound call centers have assumed an elevated role in today's "experience economy." Customers will reward or punish organizations based on the experiences they deliver. To be successful, call center leaders need to keep one eye on current operational results and the other eye on positioning the call center for future success. Combining tactical and strategic can be challenging, but the suggestions in this article should help you position your operation for ongoing success.
The customer experience imperative
Customer experience (CX) is a person's opinion of a brand based on their reaction to cumulative touchpoints such as online purchases, TV commercials, and customer service interactions. Great customer experience is characterized by qualities like:
Additionally, there's a strong emotional component to excellent CX. People need to feel good about their branded experiences. It pays off when they do: our consumer benchmark research revealed that exceptional CX leads to higher share of wallet and greater brand advocacy.
CX is the latest battle front in the war for customers. A large majority of companies now "compete mostly on CX," although with mixed results. Our research shows that businesses have a higher opinion of their CX than consumers do.
To close those gaps and ensure competitive success, many organizations have launched customer experience initiatives, complete with CX strategies and dedicated teams. There's no denying that inbound call centers play a pivotal role in CX delivery and they definitely should be a formal team member for any CX initiative.
The evolving role of inbound call centers
Call Centers were focused on efficiency and quickly solving a customer's problem so they could move on to the next caller's issue. They might have created some rapport with customers along the way, but that wasn't their main mission.
Today, speed and efficiency are still important, but inbound call centers have the added task of providing great CX, which means they have to be fast, accurate, AND strike an engaging, relationship-building chord with customers.
This makes sense because call centers often play a pivotal role in the customer journey. When customers contact customer service, they're often frustrated or angry. They might be anxious that their flight was canceled or disappointed that the delivery contained the wrong products. This is the time for inbound call centers to step up, solve the problem, and not only salvage the relationship but actually strengthen it.
This makes sense, but also adds a lot of stress to an already high-pressure operation. Inbound call center leaders shoulder the responsibility for making sure customer service provides an efficient and effective, yet pleasant resolution to customer issues. They do that by focusing on what matters, including short-term results and long-term plans.
Activities to ensure ongoing inbound call center success
Long-term success depends on thoughtful, thorough planning. Here are five planning activities that will help leaders be successful now and in the future.
1) Develop a strategy
When 10% of your agents call in sick, the queues are backed up, and suddenly the electricity goes out, it is probably not the best time to do strategic planning. But successful leaders find the time to take themselves out of firefighting mode in order to think about the future.
What will the call center look like in 3-5 years? What channels will it support? What technology is needed? Will more agents be working from home? Will the call center outgrow the current facility? What role will Artificial Intelligence and Automation play? All these questions, and many more, should be answered in your long-term strategy.
When developing this vision of the future, inbound call center leaders should have planning sessions with managers of key functional areas like workforce management, quality, training, HR and IT. To get the conversation started, it's helpful to present thought-provoking data on current trends so the group can discuss possible implications for the call center.
Here are some good conversation starters:
- Generation Z makes up 25% of the US population and will comprise 10% of the workforce by 2025 (Source: Deloitte). Just when you think you've kind of figured out Millennials, along comes Gen Z. Gen Z, born after 1996, is apparently quite different from their older Millennial peers. They were born with smartphones in their hands, are the most diverse generation, they're trending toward being more educated than older generations, value work-life balance over salary, and want their employers to act ethically and advance social causes. Gen Z characteristics have implications for call center technology, HR practices, management quality, culture, and more. Are you ready?
- In the first half of 2019, there were 3,813 data breaches, which exposed 4.1 billion records (Source: Risk Based Security). Nothing will damage customer trust quite like a data breach. Inbound call centers collect and store a lot of sensitive customer data, including contact information, financial details, or even health information. Customers are trusting you to keep their data safe. Part of your planning session might include a discussion of what measures you're going to take to ensure ongoing security of digital records and voice recordings and regulatory compliance. If your center needs to beef up, for example, PCI or HIPAA compliance practices, this is the right time to get that on the table.
- 70% of businesses either have their contact center software in the cloud or are planning to move at least part of it to the cloud this year (Source: NICE). This isn't a case of "everyone is doing it, so should you." A cloud platform offers genuine, tangible benefits that are likely to support the rest of your long-term plans. For example, it allows call centers to effortlessly scale up and down as well as add additional channels and capabilities quickly and easily, when the business need arises. Plus, cloud vendors dedicate far more resources to data security than the average call center could, which means data in the cloud is often more secure than what an on-premise solution can offer.
- 90% of consumers say they are more willing to do business with a company that provides more ways to communicate (Source: NICE). Welcome to the digital age! Even if you're already supporting digital channels, such as email, chat, social, and text (SMS), you should still keep this item on your agenda and discuss to which degree you've been able to integrate all those channels so that you can give customers the seamless, omnichannel experiences they expect. Our research confirms: 93% of consumers expect a seamless omnichannel experience and 73% think businesses are bad at it. If you haven't added digital channels yet, determine what channels your customers are asking for and when to implement - the sooner the better!
- 73% of surveyed contact center leaders plan to let at least part of their agent workforce continue to work remotely post-pandemic (Source: NICE). The pandemic forced contact centers to quickly move to a remote agent model. For some, this represented a significant acceleration of existing plans. But for others, this meant orchestrating an effort they never planned for. The cat's out of the bag now - many agents like working from home and businesses are clearly seeing the benefits. It should be a component of continuity planning and it can differentiate call centers as employers. Part of your strategic plan should include whether you'll adopt or continue a work from home program and what this means for people, processes, and technology.
2) Create a technology plan
Strategy sessions will likely result in the identification of some necessary technology changes or additions. These should all be documented in a multi-year technology plan. However, that shouldn't be the only thing on the plan. Updating an on-premise call center will often involve significant capital cost for both software and hardware – consider and discuss the advantages of a cloud-based call center that reduces CAPEX and provides your business with the flexibility and speed you need to remain successful. And, you only pay for what you actually use.
When developing a technology plan, consider questions like:
- Is there any hardware or software that needs to be retired?
- Are any contracts or licenses due for renewal?
- What are the technology implications for any new initiatives (ex, new channels, remote agents, improving omnichannel capabilities)?
- What technical tools are needed to deliver better CX?
- What technical tools are needed to support better efficiency and cost control?
- Can our current technical infrastructure support forecasted growth? Does it provide the flexibility you need to support recurring seasonality or volume fluctuation due to other causes such a natural disaster?
- Is there sufficient redundancy?
Thinking about these questions and discussing them with cross-functional managers should help identify if your current technology will support your strategic and business goals. Additionally, the process will identify any additional needs. You should also prioritize any new technology that needs to be acquired (because you know the CFO won't approve everything!), develop a high-level timeline, and seek approval. Having your ducks in a row with a well thought out plan increases the likelihood that executives will support your plans.
3) Bolster your internal reputation
If you're like me and just about everyone I know, you're tired of politics. But while Presidential and local elections might not be your thing, call center leaders need to be competent at internal, corporate politics. If it makes it more palatable, think of it as internal PR.
Does this scenario sound familiar? One day you get a call from the CEO's assistant. An irate customer has taken a complaint about one of your agents straight to the top. You listen to a recording of the call and, sure enough, it's a train wreck - a customer not at her best met up with an agent not at his best. You send the recording to the CEO along with the steps you'll take to prevent it from happening again.
And the next week it happens again.
Suddenly, the other departments think the call center can't do anything right. Your team is the root of all CX failures! You know that isn't true because you've been watching the KPIs - CSAT and quality scores have been increasing, average speed of answer (ASA) has been decreasing, and you handle 35,000 calls a week so those two bad calls were in no way a representative sample.
You know all this, but does anyone else in the company? As a wise boss once told me, "Control the narrative or it will control you." Translation - do some internal PR for your group. Otherwise you might be perpetually jumping through hoops and your call center might be permanently tagged with a morale-busting bad reputation.
Here are some things to try:
- Weekly or bi-weekly executive summary. On a regular basis, summarize your call center's performance. Data might include volume by channel, agent hiring status, status of any major initiatives, and, of course, KPIs. Send it to key stakeholders in other departments and be sure to attach a couple of terrific call recordings.
- Forge relationships. It's highly probable that your call center is in a facility separate from the rest of your company. In this case, you need to make an effort to visit your key stakeholders - like marketing, product development, IT - on a regular basis. You'll get more business done this way as well as strengthen important relationships.
- Invite people to visit. When the arrows are flying, it can be hard to open up and become more transparent, but that's exactly what you should do. Invite "corporate" people to visit your call center and have them do side-by-sides with some competent agents. They will walk away with a newfound respect for your team's capabilities.
4) Proactively and creatively control costs
Call center budgets are notoriously tight. You may have already squeezed out all the savings you can from optimized forecasting and staffing, but there's more you can do. Consider these ideas:
- Implement a voice bot. Artificial intelligence (AI) combined with interactive voice response (IVR) is a powerful formula for enabling customer self-service. Every successful self-service transaction represents a contact that doesn't have to be handled by an agent. That means you can redeploy agents to handle other interaction channels. Some agents may even be able to work on training your bot – make it smarter and enable it to handle more interactions on its own. If you don't have the right kind of IVR, consider adding an upgrade to your technology plan.
- Go after average handle time. Have you worked on reducing average handle time (AHT) lately? It's something that needs regular attention because it tends to creep up. The IVR capabilities we just discussed can also help decrease AHT. For example, the IVR can authenticate callers, saving agent time. Another factor that impacts AHT is your agent UI. Providing agents with one user friendly interface to handle all interactions will help. And giving agents immediate access to all tools and data they need to provide great customer experiences not only makes for a better CX, but also speeds up handling. Aside from technical solutions, better call control techniques and some appropriate scripting can also reduce AHT, which should allow you to do more with less.
- Reduce your inbound call volume. This may seem nonsensical on the surface, but there are some things you can do to reduce call volume. For example, if first call resolution (FCR) isn't high enough, your call center is creating more volume by requiring customers to make second or third calls to get their issues resolved. Look for policy, process, training, and technology changes that can improve FCR. Agentless campaigns help reduce inbound volume without requiring agent resources by using your IVR to leave a personalized recorded message for the customer. Also consider outbound approaches that use channels such as SMS (provided you have buy-in from the customer) or email.
- Reduce non-agent costs. While agent wages is likely your biggest cost category, facilities and IT costs can also add up. Moving to the cloud not only provides you with flexibility and data security, but it often costs less than on-premises solutions. For example, on-premise software vendors often charge you for the peak number of users, regardless of how many users there are during non-peak times, whereas cloud vendors typically only charge you for what you actually use. And whether you are planning for expansion or have to downsize your current facility, moving part or all of your agents to a remote model can help you avoid or reduce costs.
5) Review and refine your KPIs
If your inbound call center has been around for a while, you might have inherited a set of KPIs that have been around “forever”. Call centers have evolved, though, and the KPIs need to evolve in lockstep. Your call center probably has a good handle on measuring traditional metrics (abandons, ASA, AHT, etc.), but you might want to add these additional CX-focused KPIs if you have not done so yet:
- Net promoter score. Net promoter score (NPS) has become the Holy Grail of CX measurements. It measures customer advocacy based on the answer to a very simple question - "How likely is it that you will recommend [company] to friends or family?" And it can be modified to make it more relevant to the call center by adding "Based on your customer service experience,..." to the beginning of the question. You know you've earned someone's respect and trust when they're willing to recommend you.
- Customer satisfaction. When measured regularly, customer satisfaction (CSAT) scores let you know if you're meeting expectations. CSAT surveys should be simple, quick to complete and offered frequently to customers, perhaps at the conclusion of every contact. Automated survey tools simplify measuring CSAT, NPS, and more. If you don't have one, you might want to add the acquisition of a survey tool to your technology plan.
- Self-service success. If you already offer self-service through your IVR, do you know success rates? Self-service failure can be frustrating for customers and degrade CX, especially if customers have invested a lot of time in the attempt. Measuring self-service success will alert you if the process is working smoothly or needs an intervention.
- First call resolution, hold times, and transfer rates. I lumped these all together because they are more traditional metrics, yet they don't always receive the attention they deserve. All three indicate whether your inbound call center is adding unnecessary friction to the customer experience.
A final thought while we're on the topic of KPIs - if your reporting tools are inflexible or your ACD keeps data locked up and inaccessible, add their replacement to your technology plan. Also make sure that Reporting is not limited to the voice channel. Ideally, Reporting and Analytics encompass all channels handled in your call center: digital and voice, inbound and outbound, self-service and agent assisted. Remember, with all changes that have taken place in inbound call centers this adage still holds true: you cannot manage what you cannot measure.
The NICE resource library and blog are full of information to help inbound call centers be more successful. For example:
- To learn more about the cloud - read Moving to the Cloud is Imperative for the Contact Center – The Latest Expert Analysis
- To see how we helped one of our clients reduce costs - read CXone Personal Connection Helps Hoveround Realize Massive Efficiency Improvements and Cost Reductions
- To see how NICE CXone helps call center leaders make better decisions - watch Customer Service Directors Make Smarter Decisions with NICE CXone Call Center Software