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Best Practices for Your Call Center

Customer Relations Management

Best Practices for Your Call Center

It's relatively easy to measure ROI (return on investment) with a sales team but many call centers still see their tech-support teams as operating at a loss to the organization. Although support centers don't bring in direct capital, they still provide a service to the organization that can reap profits in the longer term.

At the very least, a support center provides a communication channel where you can learn how customers interact with your products and reinforce the company brand. Customers who are satisfied with their call-support experience are more likely to become loyal repeat customers, and in turn reinforce your reputation by telling colleagues about their positive experience.

We spoke with industry experts in the field of call-center management and CRM applications to bring you the following nine best-in-class practices that you can use in your organization to ensure you're not just meeting your goals but boosting your customer relationships and profitability.

1. Know Your Goals: Metrics are commonly used in call centers to measure performance, but that's the wrong place to start, say experts. First, companies need to know what they are trying to measure and what they're trying to achieve. The metrics are only useful if they tell the organization something about its practices and help it reach certain goals, according to Oscar Alban, principal global market consultant at Verint Systems Inc., a firm that offers call-center solutions to help companies organize their metrics.

Alban recommends that call centers can maximize their contribution to the company by aligning their strategies with enterprisewide goals. When managers collaborate with other departments, they are better able to gauge the direction of the organization, the niche market they serve and how well they are meeting other departments' expectations.

The company's finance department, for example, can provide insight into the exact dollar value of customers, Alban said. Many finance departments will segment customers based on their "lifetime value," or how much the organization might make from the customer over the span of the relationship, if the customer becomes loyal to the company.

This information can help a call center evaluate how to handle customers who are calling for technical support and whether losing a customer early in a contract can result in a loss. If the customer is not satisfied and terminates a service contract before the company has recouped its investment, the company will be losing money. Even if a company has already made a profit off the customer, if he's not happy, he won't be a repeat customer and the company may experience future losses.

In one case, Alban said, a team was able to salvage customer relationships by calling back dissatisfied customers.

Collaboration with marketing can similarly help develop future customer relationships, Alban suggested. Companies will project a more cohesive, reputable public image if the call center's communications are aligned with the marketing brand.

2. Use the Appropriate CRM Solution: Whether you're starting out as a call center or just reviewing your practices, the right CRM solution depends on your infrastructure.

If you have minimal startup capital or you're not sure how long you'll be in business, you might want to use a hosted CRM solution that will integrate with your phone system. You can expect to pay for one to three months' worth of service up front, approximately $150 per month, per agent.

This is the best solution if you only need a temporary call center for a short campaign, according to Randy Jessee, senior product manager at FrontRange Solutions USA Inc., a company that provides CRM solutions.

There's no ongoing maintenance" in a hosted solution, said Jim Dvorkin, chief technical officer of Five9.com Inc., a company that hosts CRM solutions for small businesses and departments within larger enterprises. "You don't need to upgrade or install anything."

While a hosted solution is the simplest, a premise-based solution makes more sense for businesses that expect to be around for 8 to 10 months or longer, said Jessee. Having the CRM solution on your own servers offers greater customization and monitoring capacity and pays off in the long run because you won't have the monthly costs of a hosted service.

With a premise-based solution, you'll have two options: the traditional digital infrastructure or a VoIP infrastructure. The shift is recent, from a digital architecture based on computer cards fitting in a server, to a software-based solution that can be run from nearly any kind of server.

3. Another Secret Weapon: VoIP: Connecting your data system to your telephones can also reap big rewards. VoIP offers flexibility and capabilities that digital lines cannot provide and also doesn't require the same cables that a digital phone system will need. For that reason, many companies, large and small, are now relying on VoIP technologies.

"Think about your systems holistically," said Jessee. "Tying your telephony with your data system is absolutely critical. Now that we've moved to VoIP, this is much easier for us."

If a customer calls your support line, and your integrated voice response system prompts him for an account or ID number, the customer won't want to have to repeat it when the agent comes on the line.

Similarly, if you use a predictive dialer to make sales calls, the system should prompt the agent with customer information when forwarding the call.

Your CRM solution can increase your efficiency and customer-service capabilities, but only if your agents can easily harness those capabilities. As a database for customer information, it should provide one hub that contains all information about a given customer, including sales and call history. This will save time for your agents and give them the information they need to properly interact with a customer once he is on the line.

Advanced technologies can also help companies adjust to the current marketplace. Alban told of an airline company that employed speech-analytic capabilities and discovered that many customers were asking about London. The airline's flight to London was its most popular route, and customers were hoping the airline would match a competitor's new low price. Because of the analytic software, the managers were able to adjust its flight product to maintain its competitive edge, retain its customers and stay in business.

4. Plan for Employee Churn
: A complete annual employee turnaround is standard in call centers, so don't expect to increase employee retention rates, said Jessee and other experts. Instead, you can compensate for this challenge by incorporating training into your business plan. Schedule regular training sessions to bring new employees up to speed and steadily increase older employees' knowledge. For each training session, schedule at least two separate meetings so that not all agents are pulled off the call lines at once.

Record training sessions as WebEx meetings so that new employees who are hired in between training sessions can watch the video, then bring questions to the manager. This will help the new employees without requiring too much time from the manager's schedule.

After training agents, find ways agents can record their knowledge for future employees. Make sure your data systems allow you to build an institutional knowledge base, Jessee suggested. Then, an agent who resolves a tricky problem for a customer can record instructions for his colleagues about how to handle similar issues in the future. When an experienced employee leaves, new hires can look up the information on the database.

"When these agents walk, you're not losing your information assets," said Jessee.

5. Manage Your Work Force: In a small call center, a supervisor can look over the cubicle walls and keep track of his employees. He may also be able to listen and watch them while they work and talk to them about their performance informally. But in a larger center of 50 or more employees, a supervisor should employ CRM work-force-management capabilities to draft schedules, simulate agent workloads and ensure that clients adhere to the schedule.

Metrics can also help supervisors manage their work force. In a sales environment, it's easy to see how many sales an agent closes in comparison to his peers. In a support environment, supervisors can measure agents' effectiveness by comparing the time they take to close calls and how successfully they resolve callers' issues.

Agents should always be trained to note the result of a call in the customer database, so that future agents serving the customer can identify whether the sale was made or if the support question was resolved. This practice can also serve as a metric for evaluating agents' performance, too. If an agent typically spends longer on the phone yet almost always resolves the problem, he is more successful than an agent who has a great efficiency record but is often unhelpful.

Another way to encourage team work and identify agents' issues in a supportive manner is to hold weekly meetings, where agents are invited to discuss the problems they have encountered, work together to find solutions, or gain recommendations from a supervisor to improve their ability to handle future calls.

6. Transparency and Convenience in Customer Service: How many times have you called a company, only to be transferred repeatedly or put on hold while the agent is supposedly finding you an answer? How often do you wonder if the guy on the other end is just taking an extended break?

Alban told the story of a customer who moved a few blocks away, yet when he called his telephone company to move his line, the department he called couldn't help him and gave him another number to call. The phone company had set up different call centers to serve different areas, but from the customer's point of view, it was a hassle.

Alban recommended that call centers' processes should make sense from the customers' point of view from the "outside-in" as well as "from the inside-out." When customers understand the processes in place in the call center, they will be more likely to have patience with the agents serving them and rate the company more positively as a whole.

Opening multiple channels of contact is another way to ensure customer service. By using email, chat or text messaging, companies can reduce the agents' time spent with a customer and cater to customers' preferences. While text messaging and chat are less common channels in today's tech support centers, in the long term, they will become more mainstream, according to Jessee.

"It's not a good idea to ignore chat or fancier things like text messaging," Jessee noted. "Kids today don't even want to talk on the mobile phone. They'd rather text each other."

Jessee said companies need to ask themselves the difficult question "What's your long term strategy for that?"

Even if they use these best practices, most organizations can't accurately measure their own success. That's when it's essential to go directly to the customer and ask for feedback. Surveys can be an invaluable tool for the call center. An agent can transfer a willing caller to an automated phone survey system, or email surveys can be sent following the call.

Applying customer surveys will help companies "get a feel for how the call saves the customer," said Jessee. "By serving him well, I'm keeping him."

"Customer satisfaction and retention can be translated into value for the company," said Dvorkin.

7. Use Benchmarking
: Companies can also make sense of their metrics by comparing them to industry benchmarks and those of their competitors. In addition to monitoring calls, secret shoppers or anonymous callers can call in and rate a company's own call center and that of its competitors.

Separate call center events and campaigns can also be compared. Although call centers require ongoing management, managers can break the workload down into sales campaigns, or the support calls following a product launch or specific event, and better measure their performance and ROI against previous events or campaigns.

These methods can help a company "round out its benchmarking process," said David Fuller, director of strategic consulting at Interactive Intelligence, a company that offers call center solutions.

8. Quality Assurance: Larger organizations can afford to maintain a dedicated quality management group. In many small- or medium-sized businesses, a supervisor can effectively manage quality assurance for his team of around 10 agents.

According to Jessee, a newer trend in quality management is a "buddy system," where agents trade off in rating each other. Two agents may rate a third, and because of the overlap, agents can develop a friendly rivalry and competition, he said.

CRM software makes it easy for an automated system to help monitor calls as well. It's common for a percentage of calls to be automatically recorded for later review. Jessee warned that this method is expensive and "burns a ton of disk space," but it can also be targeted to identify specific metrics.

For example, a company may want to monitor specifically the performance of new hires or employees that have low performance records, or they may want to rate agents' abilities in specific categories such as product knowledge, efficiency or customer service.

Silent-monitoring and whisper-and-barge capabilities in a CRM solution also allow agents to contact a supervisor if they need assistance while on a call. The supervisor can listen in on the call and give the agent advice about how to handle the call via instant messaging or by speaking directly to the agent on a voice line the customer can't hear.

In a barge capability, a supervisor can rescue an agent by entering the call and addressing the customer directly. From the customer's perspective, this is a simple and natural way to escalate a situation when the agent is not capable of responding to his specific need.

9. External Auditing: A final piece of advice is to consult sources outside the organization for clues to the gaps in your strategy.

"Most organizations may not be looking for opportunities for improvement with their metrics," said Fuller. His company provides auditing services that help companies identify actionable improvements. "We come back with a set of recommendations by pinpointing potential change and improvement, and that's been very well received."

He said a company can usually find solutions that can fill in gaps in performance. Fuller said he worked with one company that had a severely underutilized staff at about 50 percent. Staff should usually be utilized at least 75 percent of their time, he said.

"We looked at number of transactions, costs associated with agents, turnover rate, and projected out higher occupancy rates," he said. "This organization could achieve over a million dollars a year in combination of revenue and savings."

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