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Cut down on the human time

Mon 1 Jun 2009
FYI, this story is more than a year old

There isn’t much that can faze a contact centre manager at the top of his or her game, but the edict from the executive team that they must “do more with less”, usually accompanied with “work smarter, not harder”, is likely to make the best of them shudder.That’s because the greatest expense of any contact centre is labour – estimated to be as high as 80%, while the cheapest cost – about 10% – is technology. So it doesn’t take a maths genius to see where the savings are likely to come from. Contact centre professionals such as Che Burnett, customer care manager at the telecommunications company Compass, and John Chetwynd, managing director of the outsourced contact centre Telnet, are leading advocates of technology that reduces the amount of ‘human time’ required in a contact centre. They both argue that rather than deplete the contact centre industry in New Zealand, automated customer care will strengthen its position. This is because automation improves the customer experience and provides those who work in contact centres with greater job satisfaction. “You could say as we take away the simple calls, the customer service representative’s (CSRs) role becomes more interesting, more varied and more complex,” says Chetwynd. Chetwynd also believes that if New Zealand contact centres reduce the cost of the customer calls without compromising service levels, it will ensure the industry isn’t entirely offshored to places such as India and the Philippines, where the cost of labour is significantly cheaper.Towards automationAccording to Burnett, the first step on the journey towards automation is gathering the data that already exists about the customer interaction in your contact centre.“Ensure the data is correct, timely and shows trends,” says Burnett. “Without trends it is not possible to see where you have been and where you are going.”In other words, analyse those metrics: Average Handling Time, Average Wait Time, Abandonment, etc. What are customers calling most often about, and is it possible to answer the most frequent, basic queries with an automated service?“An automation strategy is paramount,” says Burnett. “Look at your customer base: who are they? What do they believe? What do they think?”“Then take a look at what your customers are doing. What are the top five call types? How many of these queries do you receive? How long does it take to handle these?”If the company will get a better return by investing in an automated system to answer the most common customer queries, then it’s time to replace agents with technological solutions.According to Chetwynd, the best way to think about the channels in which a customer makes contact is to think of the calls, emails, faxes, SMS texts, web chat and website as akin to tools in a toolbox. “They’re just tools. They’re all just developed individually and they all have their own usage,” he says.Among the top automated tools used by Burnett and Chetwynd to reduce costs and improve service are IVR, SMS, and aligning the CRM with the company website.IVR – Interactive Voice ResponseAccording to Chetwynd, an IVR is sometimes defined as call routing – the service delivered by the telecommunication provider’s network via an 0800 number which routes the call to the most appropriate agent. But IVR in the true sense is an interaction between caller and machine that has no human involvement. Chetwynd says the most common proponents of IVRs are banks – their customers call an 0800 for an account balance and it is delivered automatically. “It shaves labour costs, but in order for it to work, you need high volumes of transactions that are exactly the same – that’s where the power is,” says Chetwynd.But as Burnett has proved at Compass, you don’t need to be of the scale of a major banking institution to ensure the high capital cost of an IVR is a worthwhile investment.By analysing the calls that came into the Compass contact centre he was able identify the most common queries and have these answered automatically using Zeacom technology for small to medium-sized contact centres. In doing, so Burnett reduced the seats in his inbound contact centre from 40 to 30 in less than three months.The example Burnett uses is Ezi-Pay, the company in the Compass Group that produces vouchers for cheap phone calls which are sold through dairies, service stations, supermarkets and other retail outlets. The Ezi-Pay division of the contact centre handles calls from shop owners whose most common queries are: account information, voiding a transaction, ordering stock and needing technical support. Burnett says that when a shop owner phones, Caller Line Identification (CLI) routes him or her to the correct menu (business rather than consumer), where they are presented with the appropriate options. If their query is one of the standard transactions (noted above) then it will be dealt with automatically. Indeed, if they do go through to an agent and ask for a service which is automated – such as voiding a transaction – they are referred to the automated menu because the agent is no longer equipped to handle this type of call.In this system not all customers are equal; for example, consumers will receive more promotional messages than business customers during the call. Also, supermarket inquiries will get priority in the queue over corner stores. In other words, the more money you spend with Compass, the more time the contact centre will spend with you. “We have actually reduced agent involvement by 40% in ‘Ezi-Pay’ and we achieved this within two to three months,” says Burnett. “As a diverse company we have been able to re-distribute our HR allocation into other areas of the company and within the contact centre. However, should we not have performed realignment we would have experienced a direct saving of $400,000 a year.”Now there’s a number to impress the chief financial officer: $400,000 saved in three months! SMS – Short Message ServiceIt’s no great revelation to point out that SMS, or text messaging, is hugely popular in New Zealand, so it makes sense for contact centres to use this as a channel to reach out to customers.“I would say that SMS is a better channel to communicate with and notify customers than an inbound support channel,” says Burnett. “However, with any transaction that is not voice it is important to be able to get the necessary information from customers to action their request on the first transaction, or you can see multiple transactions occur, which will result in increased handling and rising costs.”SMS uses the same backend as the website, so basic database information can be acquired without human intervention. As Chetwynd explains:“The only real way to capture a person’s name and address is by ringing someone up, getting them to fill out a web form or through SMS. That can’t be done with an IVR – the only way is for the customer to leave their details in a voicemail, but then someone has to listen to the voicemail, type it up and action it. You could do it with voice recognition, but imagine trying to get all the street names in New Zealand right.”For example, Chetwynd says a customer may request a brochure by sending a text with their name and address to an advertised SMS short-code. The information can be checked against the New Zealand post codes for verification and an address label automatically created.SMS is also used as an inbound service tool. Telnet has the contract for the technical helpdesk for Sony Ericsson in Australasia, and the agents use SMS to push out instructions, website addresses and other information to callers. This means the customers have the information in front of them and don’t have to remember it or write it down, while from Telnet’s perspective, it reduces AHT. Chetwynd also sees a huge advantage for the SMS tool in call-waiting queues. He’s currently working with a utility company to provide an SMS service to customers who phone during an outage. A text message will automatically be sent to the customer notifying them what the wait time is and showing where they can get the information, so they don’t have to wait in a queue for an agent to tell them.CRM – Customer Relationship ManagementThe CRM system is the heart of every contact centre – and indeed the company or organisation itself. But according to Chetwynd, companies can only exploit the full capacity of their CRM when they share individual information with their customer. In other words, turn the organisation’s website into the front end of the CRM so that when the customer calls the contact centre, the agent and the caller are looking at the same information. He says a very good example of this is the electricity retailer Bosco – means the customer can update their personal details directly into the company’s CRM system, ensuring the information is accurate and up-to-date. The key is to make the website so intuitive that the customer can get all the queries specific to their account answered on the website and has no recourse to phone the contact centre. But if they do call, the agent can guide them easily because they are both looking at the same information – thus reducing AHT and helping to ensure First Call Resolution. “If you think about it, the whole purpose of automation is to improve the customer experience by making it easier for them to help themselves. It’s also about improving the tools the agents have, so that when the customer does ring through you can solve their problem faster,” says Chetwynd.Burnett agrees: he says it’s about educating the customer about the benefits of automation.“IVRs and automated services are a great thing. They empower the customer to action their request in their time, 24/7, quickly and efficiently, no errors and with faster turnaround.”WFM – Workforce ManagementBut Chetwynd cautions that in order to fully realise the savings created by automation, the contact centre must get its workforce management right.“WFM is about having the right number of agents at the right time to answer the current calls. If you’ve got too many CSRs you’ve got waste; if you haven’t got enough CSRs, then the service levels aren’t achieved,” he says.Indeed, WFM is an intrinsic part of Chetwynd’s three-step guide to greater savings in the contact centre:1. Reduce the number of calls to the centre.2. Reduce the time taken on the calls.3. Establish good WFM so that you don’t have people sitting around.Burnett takes it a step further and suggests that customer service managers should continually aim to reduce the number of seats in a contact centre. He cites the following equation which shows how much his company saved when it automated a common and simple customer inquiry:1500 queries per month @ $4.50 per transaction = $6750/month.“The days of customer service are over,” he says. “Aim for a ‘Zero Touch’ support approach.” 

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