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Call Center Articles

Responding to Call Traffic Fluctuations



You Can’t Schedule for the Unexpected, but That’s No Excuse to Be Unprepared

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Traffic at many call centers fluctuates with the weather, affecting some centers more so than others. Of course, non-weather-related events can also impact call traffic. This includes natural disasters, pandemics, riots, the threat of violence, media-produced frenzies—and the list goes on with as much variety as our imaginations can conjure up.

Although some traffic fluctuations occur with predictable regularity, other call traffic spurts strike with little warning. What’s a call center to do?

Deal with It the Best You Can 

The first impulse in responding to higher traffic than you’re prepared for is to work faster, cut out all nonessential tasks, and answer calls with greater intention. This helps . . . a bit . . . for a while. You may tap non-phone staff to put on a headset and get to work. Cutting breaks and shortening lunches emerges as a tempting thought, but don’t give in to that temptation. Asking staff to extend shifts and work overtime is another approach many call centers pursue. Sometimes this becomes mandatory. It helps to get calls answered, but employee morale takes a hit.

An optional strategy is to ignore the escalating number of calls in queue and just process whatever calls you can while working at your normal pace. If the call is important, the caller will hold or call back . . . at least you hope so. Regardless, customer sentiment will take a hit.

Intentionally Overstaff 

Given this situation, call center managers may intentionally over-hire and overschedule. That provides a nice buffer to deal with traffic peaks and longer-term surges. The side effect of this well-intended strategy is that during times of normal traffic levels, you’re either paying for unproductive work or your staff isn’t getting as many hours as they wish. Neither outcome is a good one.

Throttle Incoming Calls 

A third solution entertained by anxious call center managers is to reduce the number of incoming calls during high-traffic situations. One method is to provide a busy signal to callers. A second approach is to play a recording asking them to try later. A third possibility is to allow them to schedule a callback. Of course, for the callback solution to work requires that you’re not still dealing with the high-traffic situation when it comes time to make that return phone call.

Overflow to Another Location

If you’ve concluded that the first three options aren’t good ones, you’re right. If your call center is part of a multilocation operation, an easy solution is to send excess calls to another center in your network. For this to be a viable solution, however, requires that the other location is not suffering from the same malady.

Some multilocation call centers automatically route calls from one location to another based on incoming traffic and agent availability. In these cases, the overall traffic is self-regulating, which means that unexpected high call volume coming into one center will impact all call centers in the network. One center, therefore, can drag all the others down.

Outsource to Another Call Center

Another consideration is to form an arrangement with an outsource call center to take your overflow calls. Not only is this a great solution for high-traffic scenarios, but it also works well for understaffing. You can establish whatever events you want to trigger an overflow situation. It might be the number of calls in queue, the current wait time, or number of abandons.

Just as with sending overflow calls to another call center within your organization, select an outsource call center that’s geographically separated from your location to reduce the risk of them suffering from the same scenario as your call center. 

Conclusion

Though there is no ideal way to deal with unexpected call traffic, there are steps you can take to reduce the negative impact on both callers and staff. But don’t wait until you’re in the middle of a crisis to consider solutions—plan now before you’re swamped with calls.

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Call Center Articles

The Power of Print



Printed Words Offer Many Benefits over Their Electronic Counterparts

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan-call center advertising

In addition to writing a lot, I also read a lot. I read both print and e-book formats. I have a Kindle loaded with content, and I also read on my phone. At one point, I read mostly e-books, but over time I’ve reverted to print. Reading printed books is now my default, and I only read electronically when I have no other option.

Aside from the satisfaction of holding a book in my hand, turning pages, and even enjoying the smell of it, I’ve realized that I better remember what I’ve read in print. This is key.

The same goes for magazines. I prefer print publications and have never read periodicals online. I spend my workday in front of a computer, and when I’m done with work, I want a break from the screen. I want to hold the magazine in my hands. What I read in print, I retain better than what I read on a screen or device.

And I’m not alone in my preferences and practices. Many readers are moving away from electronic and back to the physical. This is especially true for younger generations who want to escape their devices and their constant conductivity when they read. They want to immerse themselves and experience content without distraction.

The Benefits of Print Ads

Marketers are beginning to see this as well, with many forward-thinking sellers shifting from online promotions to print. Yes, online advertising is easy to track and calculate the return on investment (ROI), whereas print advertising tracking is more art than science. But the bottom line is results.

The reality is that people give much greater credibility to what they read in print than what they read online—especially with the escalation of fake news on social media. In addition to people putting more credence in what they read in print, they cite the benefit of having less distractions when they read a physical product. They’re also more engaged with print publications, reading more content and spending more time doing so.

This reality benefits the advertisers who produce print ads. Readers give these promotions more credibility, spend more time viewing them, and are more likely to act. And, I suspect, their decision to buy through a print ad is stickier than a decision made from an online ad. Also, each issue of a print magazine reinforces the buying decision readers have already made. This doesn’t happen online because marketers don’t target existing customers. A customer obtained through online advertising is at risk for being lost through that online advertising.

Call Center Advertising

How does this apply to call centers? Call centers rely on advertising. 

If you’re a corporate call center, your company advertises to drive sales and produce revenue. If you’re an outsource call center, you need to continually seek new clients to replace those you lose through attrition and to grow your client base.

I’m not advocating that you give up on online advertising, but I am advising you to shift some marketing dollars into print. The challenge is finding a publication that serves your target audience. But when you find the right periodical, create an ad with a strong call to action, and advertise consistently, you will generate more sales and create long-term customers.

Remember when I said that I better remember the things I read in print? The same applies for ads. An online ad is easily forgettable, with it disappearing as quickly as it pops up. A print ad is more tangible, longer-lasting, and carries greater impact. It also possesses the highest credibility. 

Whether people want to buy a product from your corporate call center or hire your outsource call center to handle their calls, credibility is key. Credibility is how you close sales, and credibility is how you keep customers.

Print ads can help make this happen, regardless of what you’re selling or to whom you’re selling.

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Call Center Articles

Is the Future Our Friend or Foe?


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Be Ready for Artificial Intelligence to Revolutionize Your Call Center

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Peter Lyle DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections Magazine

One of the spaces I inhabit is the call center industry. Another of my worlds is writing. These two areas intersect in this column. Another commonality is how technology, specifically artificial intelligence (AI), will affect both sectors.

Futurists in the writing community talk about how AI will arise as a disruptive force. Indeed, the disruption has already begun, with computer programs writing poetry, song lyrics, a screenplay, and even a novel. Much of the writing community isn’t aware of this emerging reality. Other writers deny that AI even exists and consider it a pipedream. Some see it as the end of writing as we know it and a threat to their livelihood. Last are those, like me, who see AI as a tool that will help us write more, write better, and write faster. Yes, writing as we know it today will change dramatically, but that change is something to embrace.

AI is also making inroads into the call center industry, and the reactions to AI in the call center space are much the same as in the writing world.

Blissfully Unaware

Many people in the call center industry aren’t aware of the burgeoning developments with AI and how it will dramatically change call centers and their provision of customer care. They view AI as the topic for sci-fi movies, scientific labs, and a far-off future reality—one that will occur long after they no longer care.

Instead, they focus on the day-to-day urgencies of hiring, training, and scheduling agents. They look at metrics such as first call resolution, speed of answer, and average call length. They consider the number of calls in queue, time in queue, and abandonment rate. And their world focuses on resolving customer complaints. There’s nothing wrong with these worthy pursuits, but it keeps them from considering tomorrow and embracing the future.

Deny It’s a Threat

Others acknowledge the existence of AI, but they don’t see how it could help call centers serve customers better. If anything, they assume AI will make customer service harder and therefore perpetuate the need for live agents. To them, AI is another call-center fad that will receive a lot of hype for a few years and then fade away. Their response is to maintain the status quo and pursue business as usual. 

Fearful Over the Future

Next, are the Luddites, those who oppose technology. Though some call centers embrace technology much more than others, every call center has some degree of tech in its infrastructure and operations. These people have formed a comfortable truce with the tools they use, and they don’t want any more of them. They have enough, and everything works fine, thank you very much. More tools, especially AI-powered solutions, makes them shudder. They fear that self-learning programs will take over the call center space and eliminate their jobs. 

Embrace It with Optimism

The final group looks at AI as an intriguing call-center solution. Yes, it will fundamentally change how call centers operate. And this transformation could happen much sooner than most people suspect. Yet instead of fearing uncertainty over the unknown, these forward-thinking futurists welcome AI as a smart solution to many of the challenges call centers to face.

Yes, in some cases, AI will replace jobs, just as answering machines, voicemail, automated attendants, and IVR have done in the past. In other cases, AI will assist call center agents, helping them work more effectively and efficiently. This will occur just as our existing tools have improved the results produced from our prior toolset. Then, now, and in the future, the customer benefits by realizing enhanced outcomes.

Thanks to AI, in the future you won’t need to hire as many people to staff your call center. And those you do hire will benefit by having AI to guide their work. These employees will find their call center job less dreary and more invigorating. The days of routinely shuffling through repetitive calls will end, replaced with variety in handling challenging calls that AI can’t address. This will provide the opportunity to excel in call-center work as never before.

AI isn’t coming. AI is here. What role will it play in your call center?

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.

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Call Center Articles

How to Enhance the Customer Experience



Pursue Big-Picture Solutions, Not Incremental Improvements

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan-customer experience

There’s a lot of talk about customer experience and ways to enhance it. Though this is the right outcome, too often the approach to get there is shortsighted. Making incremental changes to improve one metric may help a bit, but how many metrics must you improve and by how much for the customer to realize an enhanced experience? And how much stress will your frontline staff endure to get there?

Instead of focusing on the minutia of data that call center systems are so good at producing, take a step back and address big-picture issues. These will have the greatest impact on improving customer experience. And the side effect of these changes will make it easier, not harder, for your staff to do their job with excellence.

Integrate Isolated Repositories of Information

How many places do you store customer data and the information your staff needs to serve callers? How easy is it for agents to get all relevant information displayed on a single monitor—or even two?

Ideally you want everything in one place, in a unified database. However, sometimes this isn’t feasible. In those instances, it’s critical to be able to seamlessly move from one to the other. Consider how often customer service representatives give wrong information simply because they aren’t looking in the right place.

Integrating or interconnecting databases for seamless customer experience is something for vendors to accomplish; it’s too complex for end-users to solve. However, investigate whether your implementation of your vendor’s solutions hampers your team from fully using the tools you already have. Sometimes the solution is there, but you can’t tap into its power because of how you deployed it.

Remove Internal Silos of Control

Many companies operate as a group of disengaged fiefdoms. This occurs in departments such as operations, marketing, sales, accounting, tech support, and so forth. When management measures each department head for that unit’s individual performance, disconnected from the company’s overall objectives, the result is managers doing what is in the best interest of themselves, their job, and their staff. Customer needs and the overall good of the company comes in second. 

To correct this, deemphasize—but don’t eliminate—individual department objectives and performance incentives. Instead elevate company-wide results and the way in which each department plays a role to achieve those objectives. 

For example, companies are in business to make money, regardless of what their corporate vision and mission statement affirm. Look at how each department contributes to this, either directly or indirectly. It comes down to two activities: how much money they spend and what they do to drive revenue. It’s true that there are secondary metrics, often unique to each unit, that affect this. But to remove internal silos of control in your company, downplay the importance of the specific measurements and instead look at overall company metrics.

Empower Agents So They Can Best Serve Customers

Everyone knows to empower frontline people. However, this is easier to say than to do. It’s hard to let entry-level employees make decisions that cost money. Yet prohibiting them from doing so has an even worse result: it costs customers.

When agents can’t serve customers to the best of their ability and keep those customers happy, you end up losing those customers’ business, both now and in the future. Yes, sometimes empowered agents go overboard and make ill-advised decisions. Although undesirable, wouldn’t it be better for them to do that than being prohibited from doing what’s right for the customer, thus losing those customers?

Integrate Communications Channels

With omnichannel, the goal is to provide contact options for customers. Again, this requires sophisticated technology from vendors. Yet as end-users of contact center platforms, make sure that your implementation of the technology doesn’t interfere with your ability to use it to its fullest and enjoy integrated communications channels.

Final Thoughts

These are big-picture considerations. You won’t solve them quickly or easily, but you must pursue them if you want to provide the customer experience that callers expect—a customer experience that will retain them as your customers and not your competitors’.

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Call Center Articles

Is Your Call Center Ready for Anything?



How to Survive When Receiving Twice the Calls or Having Half the Staff—or Both

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Running a call center is hard, at least doing it right. Even under normal conditions, managers struggle to balance traffic and staffing levels while maintaining high quality and minimizing complaints.

But what happens when conditions aren’t normal? If you’re slammed with calls for an extended period, how will you fare? What happens if several agents can’t make it into work? What if the remote access portion of your system goes down, leaving your local staff to deal with everything?

One solution is to ignore the risk and hope nothing abnormal happens. But eventually, something abnormal will occur. It might be a weather event, a natural disaster, or a manmade crisis. Use your imagination—it’s easy to see that any number of things that could cause call traffic to spike or your staffing levels to drop. In fact, these both could happen at the same time. How well could your call center manage trying to handle twice the number of calls with half the staff?

Here are some ideas:

Multilocation

call center

If the source of the problem that moves you from normal to not normal is local, having a multilocation call center is one easy solution—provided that the other call centers are far enough away to not have the same scenario affect them. Of course, this strains the other call centers in the network, but more locations and more agents to share the load reduces the negative impact.

Remote Workforce

Many call centers use some work-at-home agents, whereas others prefer all staff to work from one centralized location to allow for better management. Regardless, allowing staff to work from a remote location during a crisis is a key way to minimize the impact. This could provide options for staff unable to make it into the office, as well as make it easier for staff not scheduled to login and help.

Strategic Partners

Having multiple locations and allowing staff to work remotely are key solutions to deal with abnormal call center scenarios. However, these tactics only go so far. To supplement these two approaches, form strategic partnerships with other call centers that can help during an emergency. But select a call center partner geographically distant from you. If you’re on the coast, work with one who is inland. If you’re in the north part of the country, find one in the south. If you’re east, go west.

Vendor Solutions

Check with your vendor to see what disaster mitigation solutions they offer. They may be able to help you better handle a not-normal call center situation. They could also recommend strategic partners for you to work with.

Outsourcing

If you’re a corporate call center, you may want to arrange with an outsourcing call center to help during a crisis. And if you’re an outsourcing call center, you know how this functions, so work with another outsourcing call center to help you.

Automate

Regardless of your paradigm to provide people to help people, sometimes automating portions of your call response will serve callers better than by not answering their phone calls at all or making them wait in queue a long time for the next available agent.

Plan Now

The key to make any of this work is planning. When things are going along normally for you and your call center, it’s the ideal time to come up with solutions for when normal goes away. Don’t wait for a crisis to hit and then scramble for answers.

Preparation today will help achieve success for tomorrow, even under less-than-ideal situations. When disaster strikes, you’ll be glad you have a plan to deal with it.

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Call Center Articles

Are You a Call Center or a Contact Center?


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Consider the implications of the call center versus contact center debate

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

In Connections Magazine we use the terms call center and contact center interchangeably. Some authors who write for us are content to use the more traditional label of call center, while others prefer the more accurate label of contact center. Other authors seem to not care and use both phrases in the same piece, I suppose to provide variety or maybe to subtly communicate that the labels don’t matter.

Some Definitions

The term call center is a descriptive one. It’s a centralized place that receives or makes phone calls. This label has served our industry well for several decades.

Nevertheless, most call centers have expanded their service offerings to handle more than just telephone calls. They may also process email and text messages, as well as perform various social media functions. Some also handle faxes and snail mail. These go beyond the meaning of the word call, with contact being a more inclusive description. Hence we get the term contact center.

Nevermind that in both scenarios, the word center emerges as a misnomer, since many call/contact centers have decentralized their operation. Instead they have a distributed workforce, with staff no longer in a single location. Should we make another adjustment to our industry’s label to find something even more accurate than contact center? I’ll leave that for others to ponder.[bctt tweet=”What counts the most isn’t the label we self-identify with, but the quality of the service we provide.” username=”Connections_Mag”]

Effective Communications

Though I don’t have the data to back it up, nor do I really care to know conclusively, more people seem to understand call center than contact center. When people ask me what Connections Magazine covers—since the title could apply to a multitude of subjects—the phrase call center pops up in my explanation.

Some people nod with understanding, even though they function outside the industry, while other people give me a confused look as if I just spoke gibberish. I fully suspect that if I told them Connections Magazine covers the contact center industry, I’d confuse them even more.

Therefore, sticking with the label of call center, even though it’s no longer as accurate a description as it once was, is the best way to communicate with people outside the industry. When effective communication is the goal, using the term call center is the best way to accomplish that.

Strategic Branding

People who contend that the term contact center is best may be purists who want to use an accurate label (but then they’re only halfway there until they figure out how to deal with the no-longer-accurate use of center). However, I suspect most people who insist on the label contact center do so for branding purposes.

For their brand they may want to distance themselves from the negative public opinion about call centers, courtesy of the people who did it badly and soiled the reputation of the entire industry. I get that. But unless everyone in the industry decides to be ethical and do their work with excellence, the contact center label risks becoming just as toxic as call center to those folks who’ve had bad experiences.

Another branding reason to use contact center instead of call center is to emphasize an operation that handles multiple forms of communication beyond just phone calls. But with most call centers having already expanded to cover additional communication channels, I suspect that most people who want to hire a call/contact center already know that the labels don’t really matter anymore and that they can get the service they require regardless of what providers call themselves.

Moving Forward

I’m not attempting to end the call center versus contact center debate. First, I know I never will, and second, it doesn’t really matter. What counts the most isn’t the label we self-identify with, but the quality of the service we provide.

So the next time your organization dives into the “are we a call center or a contact center” debate, shift the focus of the discussion from words to action—actions that produce quality service and heighten our industries public perception. That’s what really matters.

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Call Center Articles

Be Careful What You Say


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People judge the company we represent on every single phone call

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

I once had a call center agent work for me who had a compulsion to offer commentary at the end of every call. Her comments ranged from snarky to crass. Occasionally she voiced her opinion a bit too quickly, before the caller had hung up or while the voice logger was still recording. In addition, her unfiltered diatribe irritated her coworkers in adjacent cubicles. Eventually we reigned in her problematic habit, but I don’t think we stopped it altogether.

A Need to Vent

I get that sometimes we need to vent. But this should be a rare event, not a common occurrence. And most certainly the caller should never be privy to our opinions, such as this agent’s thoughts about callers’ intellectual abilities or the nature of their parentage. Sometimes we need to go out of rotation for a moment to gather our thoughts and recalibrate our focus before we dive into the next call. And on the rarest of occasions, an agent may require an unscheduled break.

If you work in a call center, you know that this post-call commentary happens. You may even do it yourself, perhaps in your mind or maybe under your breath, but it shouldn’t happen out loud. That’s simply unprofessional—doubly so if the caller hears even a fragment of it.[bctt tweet=”Each call is an opportunity to impress the caller and draw them into your company.” username=”Connections_Mag”]

Recently I experienced the other end of this. I had called a company, and afterward I heard the agent’s commentary—about me.

Be Careful What You Say

As we said our good-byes, but before I could hang up, she sighed and whispered, “What a nice man.”

My mind went spinning. First was the shock that she spoke before disconnecting our call. Next was that I experienced the caller’s side of hearing an agent’s post-call opinion. And third was that I had done nothing to earn the positive label she gave me. Though I deserved no credit, I hoped the rest of her day was a little bit better because of our interaction.

In all my years in the call center industry, I can’t remember an agent making a positive statement after a call. Either it’s negative, or it’s nonexistent.

Callers Talk About Agents Too

What agents may not realize is that callers do this same thing when it comes to agents. Here are some things I’ve thought or said after a call:

“I don’t think they have a clue.”

“What they said made absolutely no sense.”

“I have no expectation they’ll ever follow through.”

“Maybe I should call back and talk to a rep who actually knows what’s going on.”

When I—and every other caller—make these statements, they might be addressing the agent, but they’re not really about the agent. They’re about the company the agent represents.

Every Call Matters

That’s why every call matters. Each call is an opportunity to impress the caller and draw them into your company. Alternately every call has a potential to drive them away. Unfortunately it takes several good calls to counteract one bad one.

Over the years I’ve experienced both good calls and bad. I often share these examples so we can all learn from them and do better. One call stands out as the best of the best. It was a help desk call that lasted over an hour. As the rep worked to resolve my software issue, she kept up a rapport-building conversation.

Most help desk agents politely place callers on hold while waiting for various tasks to complete. This one didn’t. She maintained an engaging dialogue with me—though I mostly listened, and she mostly talked. She told me how much she liked her job and what a great company she worked for. We talked a little bit about the general area where she lived and the climate—a perfect fit for her. She also shared other tidbits that were neither too personal nor uninteresting. Throughout it all she exuded positivity, and her infectious demeanor rubbed off on me.

The call ended, but the memory of it stays with me. Now, many months later, I’m dismayed to admit that I no longer remember her name. But I’ll always remember the company she worked for.

That’s a lesson for us all.

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Call Center Articles

Will Customer Service Chatbots Ruin the Contact Center?


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By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Bots, sometimes called chatbots, are applications used to automate responses to social media and online inquiries. The purpose of bots is to speed answers to customer information requests. And they do this automatically. They’re programs, after all. They can do in seconds what it might take a person minutes to handle, or even longer if the message gets stuck in a lengthy queue.

Chatbots respond quickly, expedite communication, and relieve customer service staff from handling basic inquiries. What does this mean to contact centers and their staff? Could chatbots signal the end of the contact center as we know it? [bctt tweet=”Could chatbots signal the end of the contact center as we know it?” username=”Connections_Mag”]

Although it’s easy to imagine these chatbot programs one day taking over a contact center and sending all the agents home because they have no work left to do, this is unlikely. Go back through the history of the call center industry; every year or two we see some new technology coming along that carries the threat of devastating the call center. So far it’s never happened.

Although emerging technologies have served to change how the call center operates, in most cases these innovations have opened new opportunities to serve customers and provide more work for agents. Historically, these technologies have not been disruptive but enabling.

Bots are not a threat to contact center agents but a tool that can aid in communication, assist contact center agents, and speed answers to customers. Just as web self-service and FAQ sections on websites help customers resolve problems, so too will self-learning bots. And though online self-service was heralded as the end of contact centers, this proved false, with frustrated users demanding to talk with people to resolve their most difficult problems. Bots will have the same effect.

However, as the saying goes, “To err is human, but to really foul things up requires a computer.” Bots could accomplish this too. They are, after all, self-learning. What if they learn the wrong thing? What if they reach an errant conclusion and then perpetuate it, spreading their misinformation to thousands of people?

Who will suffer the fallout? The contact center will, as agents field calls, emails, and text messages from confused customers who were led astray by erroneous bots. Who’s going to fix the mess? Contact center agents, that’s who: real people solving big problems caused by well-meaning technology that’s run amuck. This possibility, though likely, will only happen in isolated cases.

Yet there’s a bigger issue at stake. Unlike a typical computer application that can only do what it was programmed to do, bots have an element of artificial intelligence built into them. They can grow, they can evolve, and they can change. They could take over! Though this may sound like an intriguing plot for a sci-fi thriller, it’s a possibility, even if far-fetched. But if bots take over and turn customer service into a nightmare, it will be the contact center agents who come to the rescue and save us all!

My attempts at humor aside, bots present more opportunities than threats. We need to implement them to better serve our customers. Let the bots do the easy things—just like we expect from self-service, FAQs, and interactive voice response—so that contact center agents can focus their attention on the more challenging inquiries. In this way, bots will take some of the drudgery out of routine contact center chores and defer to real people for the really interesting work.

In all likelihood, chatbots will not ruin the contact center industry. They will empower it to become more.

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Call Center Articles

Call Center: The Right Way

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Recently, I had questions about my HSA (Health Savings Account). Expecting the worst, I reluctantly called my provider. To my delight, my call was quickly answered, there was no queue, and no queue announcements. I don’t even recall being subjected to an IVR on the front end of my call. The agent was cheerful and pleasant — dare I say perky — while communicating in English with ease and aplomb; I never once had to ask her to repeat herself. I explained my dilemma, and she agreed that their statements were hard to understand, assuring me that she would help me to understand mine.

Telling me that supplemental information was online, I logged in and she walked me through the options to get to the page that would provide the additional detail. Amazingly, she went through this information with me line by line, explaining what each item meant and informing me how I could click on any entry to obtain more detail. Upon doing so, I was able to obtain the additional clarity I sought.

She then said something surprising, “The Web site is confusing to use, so feel free to call back next month when you receive your statement, and I can go over this again.” It was as though she was paid on commission and wanted me to call again. Wow, that’s customer service that I’ve not experienced in a long time.

So for this call, call center technology was not used to restrict me from talking with someone, my call was answered quickly by a personable, knowledgeable, and trained person who spoke English clearly, my frustrations were acknowledged and validated, and I was not treated as though I was ignorant or incompetent. Plus, I was asked to call again.

[See “Call Center: The Wrong Way” for an alternate tale.]

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Call Center Articles

False Alarms and Other Considerations

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

False alarms and erroneous error messages: if you have technology in your call center, then you’ve likely been frustrated by these events. I was recently reminded of this as I searched for the source of an electronic alarm, warning me that something was awry in my home.

Eventually, I found the culprit: a carbon monoxide detector. In addition to the beeping, the power light was flashing red — even though the only documented options were solid green and solid amber. Pressing reset didn’t help, so I unplugged it for a few minutes; that had always worked in the past. After an hour of futile troubleshooting, I began to consider that maybe it was working and there were actually unsafe carbon dioxide levels in my home.

What a novel thought; in all my years at call centers, I never experienced a smoke, fire, or carbon monoxide alarm that correctly worked when it was supposed to. In fact, I’d been conditioned to assume that any alarm was the result of malfunction. Smoke detectors were high on that list, with their low battery beeps and an occasional false alarm. When I would test them, no one ever left their station to evacuate; no one ever asked if there was a fire. The response was always one of irritation: “Make it stop so that we can hear.”

UPSs also seemed to do more harm than good. It’s confounding for a malfunctioning UPS to take down the servers and switch when perfectly good utility power is available. Yet it happens. For a while I kept track: UPSs were actually causing more downtime then they prevented. Generators also fit that category. Regardless if there was an automatic transfer switch or a manual bypass, inevitably something would go wrong. Despite agent training and trial runs, nothing seemed to adequately prepare staff to deal with an actual power outage.

Spare parts and backup circuits were another cause for frustration. You have them in case of an emergency, periodically testing them to make sure they work. Unfortunately, it seems that efforts to do so invariably result in unexpected side-effects and problems, including system crashes.

The last category of irritations involves data backups. As if making successful backups isn’t challenging enough, retrieval is fraught with peril. Attempts to do so have crashed systems and corrupted good data.

These issues gives one pause to consider if such contingency efforts and provisions actually accomplish a net benefit or do more harm than good. Regardless, it would be irresponsible not to do all that can be done to keep staff safe, systems functioning, lines open, and data secure. The frustrations and false alarms are merely a side-effect that one must accept in the process.

As far as my issue at home, I ended up buying a new detector. The replacement unit did not alert; apparently it was a false alarm after all.