The expression “taking care of business” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “to do what needs to be done.” This is a more elegant definition than I expected when I looked it up!
To do what needs to be done…that says it all and is why we go to work ultimately. Isn’t it? (“Takin’ Care Of Business” is also a song by Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Perhaps tee up the song for background music as you read this article).
The Growing Value of Contact Centers
Contact center leaders taking care of business during the COVID-19 pandemic have experienced new challenges and new opportunities. Right now many centers are rightfully enjoying the warmth of the spotlight for having delivered so much value during the pandemic’s disruption.
I sometimes think that the contact center teams are some of the unsung heroes of COVID-19’s essential workers. So many industries depended on their contact centers to handle customers going through challenging times. Pick a vertical-healthcare, finance, medical suppliers, transportation, government and because of the pandemic, groceries, restaurants, and retail-contact centers were up and running and taking care of business.
Healthcare Call Center Times recently published its 2021 Contact Center Survey results. Top findings showed that nearly two-thirds of respondents believe that the value of the contact center will increase in the coming two years.
As well, more than 90% of contact center leaders believe that the contact center already is “somewhat” or “very important” to the organization. Most respondents expect that over the next two years contact center budgets, staffing, and service offerings will increase over current levels. Though healthcare based, I believe that this good will is visible across the contact center industry.
Making Respect and Value Last
But there is an expiration date! Executives have short memories (see “Strike While the Iron Is Hot,” Pipeline, March 2021). Contact center leaders must now use this visibility to get what they need and figuring out exactly what that is, is the next order of business.
What does your contact center need to succeed? Your best answer to that question provides the baseline and framework for making the case to meet your needs. Resist the urge to “jump to solutions” or be seduced by promises made by technology. Too often, simply acquiring some sexy new technology only gives you a more expensive and messed up process.
There is one very scarce resource needed in today’s contact centers and that is PEOPLE. Without people there is no contact center. And as much noise as there is around bots and apps, complexities will continue to demand human interaction to resolve.
If I want to book a simple round trip airline ticket, I’m happy to do it online. If I want to book a round-the-world trip over a period of several weeks, I want to talk to a person.
The challenge of handling complexity will unlikely be solved in our lifetime. So people are becoming even more valuable: especially given how many companies have done well in automating simple tasks and willingly make the investments to do so.
This leaves the frontline humans to handle the complexity, but sadly often without the “investment.” If you want to learn the best way to optimize your visibility, demonstrate the best investment opportunities to yield the most efficient, effective experience for all concerned.
Let’s face it. People are the number one factor in a successful contact center and at every level! Employee retention and the employee experience need to be front and center of any proposal for investment in the contact center.
Focus on the User (Agent) Interface
Across industries, contact centers are struggling to attract and retain good staff. Turnover is rampant, expensive, and brings down morale. Turnover often represents the loss of your best people (those who naturally have options).
Across industries, contact centers are struggling to attract and retain good staff. Turnover is rampant, expensive, and brings down morale.
Go to the front line and sit and watch what is going on. What does the user interface look like? What is the experience for the user (i.e., your frontline staff)? How efficient and responsive is navigation among applications? Must agents rekey or flip among screens? Are there timeouts, multiple passwords, instability, or delay?
There are other needs. What about job aids, knowledge guides, ergonomics, technical support, schedule management, and performance? Where do workers go to get questions answered? How do you handle assist and escalation?
Premise-based or remote, the user interfaces provide the backdrop of the frontline experience. But the complexity of some contact centers’ systems drive up handle time and errors and forces so much attention on the transaction that the interaction is compromised. This diminishes the value of one of the most powerful forces in nature, namely human contact.
Taking a Hard Look at Training
This frontline evaluation must include a long hard look at how training is conducted and quite frankly thought of.
For decades, training has been the most cancelled activity in the contact center. When the last training an agent can recall is their new hire training that’s a problem.
Training is not only a value in continuing education and development it is a key factor in retaining staff. Competition for good contact center agents is mighty high right now and losing staff because of a lack of training and support hurts business outcomes.
Web-based applications such as Indeed publish reviews of jobs. The contact center reviews are quite telling and the bad outnumbers the good significantly. Training and management are the most common concerns of those reviews I read. Below are several excerpts:
- “My managers were incompetent and not helpful in times of hardship. The job is repetitive and easy, yet they monitor you like a child on the clock”
- “Need more hands-on training. They expect you to read everything you need to learn in four weeks and then throw you to the wolves. You can’t take notes, so you just have to try to remember everything you’re taught when they put you on the phones”
- “There was a lot of micromanagement and supervisors were changed often without any notice. Every supervisor managed the team in their own way and the worst ones talk down to you and had no understanding of the challenges the team members faced”
Training extends well beyond the frontlines. The lack of training for frontline management is also stunning.
Once upon a time contact center management training was popular. I taught it myself for ten years. Now, for reasons I cannot comprehend, people are put in management positions with ZERO training.
The consequence of this situation is that untrained leaders tend to focus on relatively simple metrics. Abandon rates, number of calls handled, and call duration are all popular. We have far too many production-based, metric-focused operations that put supervisors, team leads, and managers in the role of micromanager. The most difficult part for me is the defense around tracking every second of the likely poorly trained and unsupported agent.
Micromanagers tend to defend the practices of chasing metrics. I’ve seen entire contact center operations sunk by the quest for a five-minute call. What is particularly stunning is the lack of curiosity about different or better ways to approach the utilization factor.
Training the Managers
Now that it is 2021 we can leave the 1990s behind and learn to sophisticate our approach to managing the front line.
The front line are the folks entrusted with tending to the complex needs of customers. Micromanagement induces stress, reduces confidence, and builds resentment.
This leads to resignation—both literally and figuratively—of frontline agents. Some burnt out people stay in the job without energy or enthusiasm; this manifests in lackluster and tolerated productivity. Micromanaged operations never seem to improve much. The failure of the method should be obvious.
Frontline managers need contact center management training. They need to understand how to communicate the needs of the business. They really need to understand the metrics and how to apply them skillfully. They must learn the art of coaching rather than simply “giving feedback.”
As well, the contact center and the front line must be supported by genuine, strong analytics to optimize tools and processes. This is more than just having “real time analysts” who are often more like hall monitors than analysts. It is important to invest in genuine analysis to yield powerful improvements, remove complexity from the interface, and assure via workforce management that training and coaching sessions are scheduled and actually take place.
Taking Care of Your People
If you want to take care of business, take care of frontline agents, team leads, and supervisors. Take care of their needs across the spectrum and the needs of your customers will be met and perhaps exceeded. Study the user interface and you will glean what the technology issues are.
“If you take care of your people they will take care of your customers and your business will take care of itself.” —J.W. Marriott
You will learn whether your agents have swift and concise access to call handling information, customer profiles, integrated applications, and a stable, speedy network. Train management in how to coach, develop, and measure their agents.
Taking care of business means knowing the needs of the business. The time is right to pitch these types of investments to higher-ups to take care of those taking care of the business.
It is a good time to evaluate your operation and prepare the case to senior management. It starts with the front line to analyze the employee experience! When properly evaluated, the analysis yields the greatest amount of insight as to where improvements need be made.