New Contact Center Leaders, Here are Practical Solutions to Four Problems You’re Likely to Face

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My first job out of college was as a frontline agent in the contact center for a SaaS startup — and over the next 15 years, I grew into a director role. Ready for a change, I’ve been on an operations hiatus of sorts for the past five years, working in a couple of different marketing roles where it was my job to advise contact center leaders on best practices for technology, quality, and customer experience.

The columns I’ve written for CustomerThink have all been written during that hiatus, drawing both from experience and from working alongside contact center leaders in a variety of organizations. But things have changed and I now find myself back in a contact center leadership role at a SaaS startup, and I’m now looking to execute on many of the lessons learned and shared.

In this article, I’m going to share some of the problems that were presented to me during my interview process for this role — all fairly normal problems I might add. And I’ll offer my approach and recommendations for solving them. Let’s begin in no particular order.

Problem #1 – Our agents are too reliant on canned responses and need to become fluent in our business and product.

Canned responses, or macros, allow agents to quickly and efficiently send pre-written responses to customers. But they are also easily used as a crutch, preventing agents from learning the material and tailoring responses to completely address concerns presented by customers.

You might think that, when presented with this problem, I too took a shot at canned responses, but you’d be wrong. What we have is a quality assurance and training problem, not a canned response problem. How will quality help? Here’s a definition:

Quality assurance for the contact center is about setting a standard for how the work is done and then ensuring, through evaluation, coaching, and training, that the work is consistently done at or above the standard.

In other words, if you don’t like how agents are communicating with customers, quality assurance is your solution. Very quickly, here’s what our process looks like:

  1. Understand our company mission and create a process that aligns with, and reinforces, that mission.
  2. Determine all of the required behaviors in customer interactions that help you achieve your mission.
  3. Create a definition document that allows managers, supervisors, and agents alike to understand exactly what’s expected of them on every customer interaction.
  4. Regularly evaluate customer interactions and coach agents.
  5. Calibrate with contact center leadership, making adjustments to the process until you feel that it’s helping you achieve the mission.
  6. Repeat

Recommendation: Recognize that, if you’re unhappy with the way agents are interacting with customers, quality assurance is the solution. And if you have a quality process but still aren’t happy, it’s time to rework the process to align with your mission and goals.

Problem #2 – We’re busy and unsure if the time is right to hire more people.

Overstaffing a contact center is not a trend I see taking hold any time soon. More often the norm is contact center leaders clamoring for more people while business leaders cringe at the contact center budget. This disconnect occurs when we base our hiring decisions on feelings rather than data.

Solving this problem requires an understanding of workforce management and here are some questions we’re looking to answer to build our case for hiring more people.

  • When are customer interactions arriving and are agents scheduled at the best times to handle them?
  • How do we define and measure agent productivity and do we know if agents are being productive?
  • Are product bugs and issues driving up our contact volume unnecessarily?
  • Are customers able to self-solve issues using our knowledge base and other self-help resources and how often?
  • Are agents empowered to solve issues on their own or are unnecessary delays created because of constant escalations?
  • Are agents being trained and coached to improve the quality of their responses and work efficiently so customers don’t have to contact us more than once about an issue?

Sure, sometimes the best we can do in a situation is to hire more people, but sometimes working smarter and more efficiently can prevent the need to hire more people.

Recommendation: Hiring more people isn’t the only solution to a staffing problem. Focus also on properly scheduling, training, equipping, and empowering your agents and customers to solve more issues, optimizing your customer contact volume.

Problem #3 – Engineering is ready for more projects and we need input from the contact center.

Startups, like any company, have limited development resources and their focus must constantly be on those projects that will help the company grow and succeed. The contact center interacts with customers all day, every day and therefore, they have feedback that can help engineering prioritize appropriately.

Sometimes in the contact center, we care too much about individual customers and fall into a cycle of using engineering to solve the issues of the day rather than taking a step back and thinking about the initiatives that make strategic sense for the business. Sure, there will always be urgent bugs and large customers who heavily influence priorities but those are just some of the factors to consider.

Our team is working to compile a list of known bugs and customer feature requests, along with the internal tool requests that will help agents work more efficiently. The next step, before prioritizing, is to determine the most impactful issues with data. Here are some of the data points we look at:

  • How many customer contacts are caused by this issue? How much do those contacts cost?
  • How much more efficient could our agents be if we solved this issue? Would handle times or first contact resolution rates improve by fixing it?
  • How much customer churn is driven by this issue? How much does that churn cost in lost revenue and acquiring new customers?
  • How much would our customer satisfaction increase by fixing this issue?

There’s always some guesstimation that goes into these numbers but, as long as this effort is put forth, the engineering team is more than happy to listen to the contact center when setting their priorities.

Recommendation: Always have a tool and feature list at the ready and be prepared to show, with data, how investing engineering resources in them will improve the business and customer experience.

Problem #4 – We’re ready to add new customer support channels, but should we?

From the very beginning, my company has only offered support to customers via email with the occasional interaction over various social media outlets. Some customers will inevitably crave a live channel like chat or phone — and to be honest, our support team often wishes we offered live channels for their ability to more expediently identify and resolve customer issues.

There’s also significant peer pressure in the contact center industry to adopt an omnichannel or multichannel strategy and be everywhere your customers are. But I firmly believe that our customers would prefer not to contact us at all if they didn’t have to. So before adding new channels here are a few things we’re thinking through.

  • Are we considering live customer service channels due to poor quality or service levels on our current channels? I’m reminded of a previous job where customers flooded to our overstaffed sales phone line because the 1-2 minute wait time beat the 10-15 minute wait time on the support line.
  • How is the lack of live channels impacting new business, customer churn, and customer satisfaction?
  • Are we prepared to invest in proper staffing for live channels? What if our email volume doesn’t decrease as a result of offering live channels?
  • Are we prepared to never turn off live channels once we turn them on? For example, some companies are accustomed to turning on chat at random, leading to an inconsistent experience for customers.
  • Do we acknowledge that self-service is also a support channel and are we doing everything we can to help our customers self-solve as many issues as possible?

At present, we’ve resolved to focus on delivering the best email support possible and working on presenting customers with self-help options before they submit tickets.

Recommendation: Resist the temptation to offer every possible customer service channel, turning them on only when truly necessary to support the customer journey. There’s value in simplicity and focusing on doing one or two channels very well.

Conclusions

As I reflect on these four problems and some of the plans I’ve shared, now comes the fun part where we aim to solve them.

Before I close, I’m reminded of one more problem. Several months ago, the company invested in a new customer engagement platform with the promise of solving some of these problems, but there’s fear that we haven’t completely seen the value. Thanks to a strong integration between the built-in knowledgebase and other support channels, as well as robust reporting, that perception is beginning to change.

There’s a good chance that if you’ve recently been hired to lead in a contact center, you’re being asked to solve similar problems. I hope this article can help you take a step back, ask the right questions, and approach solutions holistically and sustainably. If you’re looking to solve a contact center problem not listed here, leave a comment, and let’s take a look at it together.

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