Equipping Contact Center Agents to Deliver Personal Service

By shifting even a small percentage of training activities for completion during idle time, call center executives find additional time to provide customer service training.

By Matt McConnell, President and CEO,  Knowlagent

“Wow! That automated attendant really delivered great service!” In an age of automation, how often do you hear a customer enthusiastically share a positive experience with a self-service or instant-service communication channel?

The fact is that customers crave a higher degree of personal service. Recent customer service innovations such as interactive voice response (IVR) and Web self-service are perfectly acceptable for handling simple requests, but with more complex issues, customers want to speak with a knowledgeable service representative who can quickly, efficiently, and effectively meet their needs the first time.

According to Forrester Research, 90 percent of customer service decision-makers say a good service experience is critical or very important to their business, yet companies still primarily are focused on cost-control measures. In the call center, for example, senior executives want to invest more in customer relationships, but they want to do it without giving up the cost efficiencies gained during the recession.

As the customers’ first—and sometimes only—human interaction with the company, the modern-day contact center struggles to balance cost with improved customer service. In lean times, it becomes increasingly difficult to deliver a consistent message and level of service.

As Kate Leggett of Forrester recently wrote, “Customers are quick to voice their opinions, which are amplified by social media tools. News of poor customer service spreads quickly and can erode a company’s brand image.” Generally speaking, the risk of customers leaving is higher in the recovery, and customer churn can be a company killer.

Two Training Barriers: Timing and a Transient Workforce

In the contact center, one of the biggest barriers to training is timing. Time rules the contact center. For every agent in training, another must be staffed in his or her place in order to meet service levels. When call volume increases unexpectedly and service levels are in jeopardy, training is cancelled, and agents are rushed back to the phones.

At the same time, every day, in even the most tightly managed centers, agents spend 11 percent of their time sitting idle, waiting for the next call. And while this wait time mostly occurs in very small increments averaging two minutes, it can add up to a staggering amount of lost time. On average, it totals five weeks per year, or what I refer to as “five weeks of really boring vacation, two minutes at a time.” The result? Poorly optimized call centers with limited, productive windows of training time per day.

The other training barrier in the contact center is an increasingly transient and diverse talent pool, or “multi-sourced” workforce, from all over the world. Multi-sourcing is a real blend of people—such as insourced, outsourced, on-shore, off-shore, at-home, part-time and full-time agents—who serve a company’s customers, but don’t necessarily have the company’s name on their paycheck. With a multi-sourced workforce, it has become even more difficult to deliver a consistent message and level of service.

Effective Training, Greater Personal Service Realized with Active Wait Time

Providing a higher degree of personal service is an expensive undertaking, yet investing in the training and coaching of a multi-sourced workforce is necessary to improve the customer experience. However, if left with the decision to pick improving costly personal service over maintaining efficiencies, who wins?

In the past, the decision to strive for efficiency over personal service was easier to make because staffing additional agents to cover headcount for coaching or training investments was so costly. In recent years, there has been a priority shift; contact centers have found a way to invest in customer experience without adding expense—using the latest technology advances.

Intelligent workflow technology that integrates with call routing systems to identify agent idle time and push training and coaching activities to the agent’s desktop is one way contact centers are improving the customer experience. For instance, if contact center agents spend 11 percent of their time daily sitting idle, these small occurrences of wait time can be aggregated across the contact center to create bigger, more productive pockets of time per agent (e.g., multiple 90-second down times into one 15-minute “active wait time” session) for valuable off-phone training, coaching, and social learning activities.

By shifting even a small percentage of training activities for completion during idle time, call center executives open up the schedule and find additional time to provide the training and coaching needed to enhance personal service—without increasing headcount.

In the contact center environment “where time is money,” turning idle time into productive training time is referred to as “active wait time,” and this concept is greatly improving agents’ on-the-job performance, helping companies exceed customer expectations, and building customer loyalty. At last, companies have the power to improve operational efficiencies and increase profits by pulling off the ultimate “do more with less” success story.

Case Study: Sprint

With a multi-sourced workforce, Sprint recently invested in intelligent workflow technology, so its call center agents could deliver consistent service and solve customer issues quickly, efficiently and effectively—the first time. By training and coaching agents during call volume downtimes, the major wireless carrier was able to meet its first-call resolution and customer satisfaction goals. After deploying Knowlagent’s technology platform, RightTime, Sprint delivered more training time to a call center in five days than was delivered over a one-month period when manually scheduling time. As part of the overall improvement initiative, the company fixed its customer retention issue—a big problem in the mobility space where the speed of technology innovations often can decrease customer loyalty.

Matt McConnell is the president and CEO of Knowlagent, an agent productivity solution provider for the world’s 10 million call center agents. He can be reached at matt.mcconnell@knowlagent.com.

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.