Most people can visualize the classic customer service environment: hundreds of agents sitting side-by-side in a large contact center, all working off the same script, working the same shifts and being monitored in the same manner. The mass media has reinforced this vision of customer service facilities as work farms located in the middle of nowhere, staffed with unhappy employees.
In reality, there’s a dramatic change taking place in the way businesses view customer service operations, how agents work and the skills required of them. In fact, many businesses are moving toward virtual contact centers, which provide a better work environment for agents and can greatly increase service levels for businesses.
When a call comes in to the contact center at NetworkOmni, it’s often an emergency. Hospitals and ambulance services are some of the regular customers of the California-based company, which provides language translation and interpretation services over the phone.
To ensure that translators are always available, 24 hours a day, NetworkOmni’s 1,500 multi-lingual agent interpreters are spread across the globe. This virtual contact center supports 150 different languages and to customers, the process of reaching the correct interpreter is invisible. NetworkOmni is leveraging the virtual contact center model to take advantage of agent skill sets and create a higher level of service for customers.
Like the interpreters at NetworkOmni, today’s customer service professionals are often required to have skill sets specific to a company’s products or services. In financial services, for example, agents may need to represent as many as 30 different products without handing the customer off to another department or call center. At NetworkOmni, on the other hand, agents may be responsible for one translation of just one language.
Not the Same Old Contact Center
While the public perception of customer service may take time to change, the job itself is changing quickly through a combination of highly skilled agents and technical developments.
Many people don’t realize that a revolution is taking place in the contact center as a result of self-service. Interactions that require standard scripting and basic answers are now being handled as self-service via the Web, or speech-enabled interactive voice response systems (IVRs). Both these services decrease the time agents spend dealing with routine customer interactions, allowing agents to utilize their skills to assist customers with more complex requests.
With more robust self-service functionalities now in use, customers expect that information given to any automated system will be relayed to the agent when there’s a need to speak to an agent. Once a call does go through to a live agent, the agent has to be prepared to respond to more interesting and varied questions, and to pick up the “conversation” where the automated system left off.
Another change from traditional contact centers is that today’s agents are not just handling inbound phone calls. Many are multitasking, using blended call systems that allow them to move between responding to incoming calls and conducting outbound campaigns. Tasks often include Web chat or responding to e-mail. This variety prevents drudgery and gives agents a far more varied and interesting work day.
Can a Quality Agent Be Virtual?
Smart companies understand that it’s important to hold onto quality agents. Agent attrition stands at 15 to 25 percent annually in Western countries, and new agents are only 16 percent as productive as experienced agents. At the same time, the need for agents with higher skill levels is also growing.
In order to attract quality professionals, businesses must look beyond the traditional contact center and explore where and how the next generation of agents can work. In many cases, not all agents have to be based in the contact center.
In fact, the age of the virtual contact center is already upon us. This shift is being driven by a number of technical developments — both IP and network-based technology allow for agents to be in multiple locations, and skills-based routing ensures the correct distribution of calls. At a basic level, this means that agents can work together as one virtual center, and the boundaries are limitless — perhaps even oceans apart.
However, virtual contact centers don’t always draw on workers thousands of miles away. In some businesses, especially financial services, insurance and banking, contact centers are beginning to leverage knowledge workers in the back office and mid-office. For example, an insurance customer with a claim may need help from an adjuster or field agent who does not work in the contact center. The agent taking the initial call can gather information and then pass the claim to a specialist in the back office for further action. This trend has been made possible by enterprise interaction management software with “presence management” capabilities — technology that shows employee availability and can transfer calls to people outside the contact center. In fact, some calls don’t even need to go through the contact center at all, but can be automatically transferred from the self-service system directly to a knowledge worker.
Another industry in which knowledge workers can greatly improve service is in healthcare, where specialized information is especially important. A knowledge worker need not be an agent, but can be a back office worker who is brought into the customer service pool for special requests — thus helping to expand the expertise and resource pool of the contact center.
Groups of back office workers often sit in the local branches of a company. A branch worker in a bank may specialize in anything from home financing to investment portfolios, and is suited to serve customer needs that require expertise or certification to conduct a transaction. Also, back office workers can be used selectively during slow periods, or for unique outbound campaigns.
The Future Belongs to Highly-Skilled Agents
Another group of virtual agents is home workers. This is a great option for many skilled agents who live a long way from the contact center, are looking after children or simply wish to work at home. For the company, these agents may be employed during limited periods of the day, or when a contact center agent is unavailable. With a group of home agents living around the world, a true 24-hour system can be created, even for a relatively small international company. In such a system, it is easy to implement appropriate security safeguards, since all applications and data remain within the contact center.
The benefits of breaking down the walls of the contact center are numerous. For an agent, it can mean a more varied and interesting job and the possibility of working nearer to home. For the company, it can improve both efficiency and the quality of service provided to customers. This is an ideal solution in banking, retail and the public sector, where local information is at a premium.
Clearly there will always be a need for centralized contact centers, but the potential to expand customer service to leverage knowledge workers, branch workers and home workers is now a technical reality and, for many organizations, a business necessity. The virtual contact center is a major tool for reconciling the need for more skilled, specialized customer support. At the same time, it brings new challenges to customer service managers who will need to ensure proper training through e-learning, the implementation of reporting tools, workforce management systems and quality monitoring. The outdated image of the contact center may quickly become ancient history as customers embrace self-service on the Web, speech-enabled automation and a new breed of highly-skilled agents to serve their more complex needs.
Wes Hayden is president and CEO of Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories, an Alcatel company that develops software for contact centers. Genesys products help enterprises tie together customer interactions, people, and customer information in both traditional telephony and IP environments.