Thursday, November 29, 2007

Contact Centre and the Environment

My attention was caught today by an article on the CCF website ("Contact Centres Going Green"). In many ways this struck me as a long overdue area of comment. Given the increasing focus of the European Union on the Environment, I'm sure that green issues will soon become a high priority for European Contact Centres.

My colleagues who specialise in data centre have been working on green issues for a while and their part of the Cisco website has a whole series of free videos on demand about energy efficient data centres. Similarly Cisco provides some good white papers on the use of technology for energy efficient facilities management. Interestingly, the knowledge for both these areas has come from Cisco's own efforts to reduce carbon footprint and you can find out more on Cisco's environment page.

Of course, datacentre has particular issues with power consumption, heat and hardware disposal that are not always directly applicable to contact centre. The CCF article rather highlighted this, by illustrating that unlike data centre most green initiatives involving the contact centre are enterprise wide initiatives. Even more interestingly, Voice over IP was highlighted as one of the key technologies, with up to 82% of respondents expecting to adopt VoIP and 83% looking to adopt workforce management tools. This highlights one difference between contact centre and data centre, there is a lot of scope in contact centre to become greener by using people more efficiently (through better workforce management and call centre virtualistion through the use of IP Convergence).

This confirms one of my suspicions, namely that for achieving green objectives in contact centre the focus should be on changing business processes and while IT should not be ignored, it should not necessarily be the starting point for change. My starting suggestions would be:

  • Virtualise - By moving to an IP contact centre (and using a technology like Cisco's ICM) you can divide work more efficiently between call centres, which means fewer people and workstations.
  • Location - It's traditional to locate contact centres in remote areas (cheap land prices). I've blogged previously on why this may not always be ideal ("City Centre Call Centers - A European quirk?"), but specifically on green issues, remote areas tend to require the workforce to drive while a city centre location allows shift workers to take public transport.
  • Thin client - Delivering applications through a browser reduces your dependency on PC hardware for performance. Although you may still need to upgrade servers, that is usually a lot greener than replacing hundreds (or even thousands) of PCs.

Of course this is just the start of a list and I'm sure there are many more things to put there. Suggestions welcome.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Why is the agent desktop so often neglected in call centres?

I saw this interesting looking Calabrio Webinar ("The power of the unified desktop") coming up on CRMxchange, and it go me thinking. Why is the agent desktop so often neglected in call centres?

Speech technology, agent skill management, routing and so on are all perhaps seen as more exciting. This may be so from a technology perspective (though I'd argue that SOA has made things a lot more interesting when it comes to delivering applications to the desktop) but in terms of agent performance, the desktop remains crucial.

It seems obvious that agents can no perform no better than the information they are given. Developing this further, as well as data, the ease of navigation, integration of work flow and other aspects of a good agent desktop can make a big difference to both agent efficiency and the customer experience. Given that about 70% of a contact centres operating cost is agent costs. the desktop would seem an easy area for improved business efficiency.

Admittedly, the operating cost of an agent is partly why there is such interest in IVR and automating transactions. Yet the number of call centres with an integrated desktop still surprises me.

Part of the problem is running applications on the agent's PC or other client based framework is not appropriate for many legacy applications (such as 3270 and older) and a browser based portal environment is not always suitable either.

Especially for the smaller contact centre this can represent a real problem. A small contact centre may only have 70 agents, but it may be generating large sums of money in a B2B sales environment and may also have multiple back-end systems to use. Even something as simple as payments and shipping information can require multiple systems if the call centre has been grafted onto an existing business. Yet because the call centre is a small area of the business, it doesn't get the corresponding IT investment to do that level of integration. One of the things I like about the Cisco Contact Centre Express is that there is the option to include a desktop environment and one that integrates with the workforce management tool.

Yet I suspect that many of the problems are not that IT neglects the call centre (though it can do) or because of technology platform issues, but that many senior managers do not understand what their agents do. This lack of understanding could be a lack of focus on the customer experience or no real knowledge of the detail of the agent workflow (e.g. just how much does the agent have to do manually, such as data capture?) . The result, though is that simple areas like the agent desktop or virtualising telephony are neglected and more complex solutions are imposed that deliver less.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

SOA - bringing CRM, telephony and business together? part 2, voice portals

It was a big subject that I tried to cover last Friday ("SOA - bringing CRM, telephony and business together? part 1") and of necessity I only covered it a high level, despite the length of post!

The main point to take away was that SOA can (in theory) be done at a number of levels in the contact centre. In theory, starting at the back end with SOA process choreography or data model rationalisation is as valid as starting at the front. In practice, though, starting at the front with either the agent desktop or the voice portal is much easier.

There's a number of reasons for this, but the main ones are risk (the voice portal technology is relatively proven compared to some other SOA approaches in call centre), scope (self-service can start with a relatively finite number of services) and benefits (even small increases in automation can lead to big cost savings).

The portal works for the voice channel in the same way as a traditional browser based portal provides a view for the internet channel. Obviously information has to be presented differently (sequentially for voice compared to concurrently for web) but the concepts are the same. In this environment it makes a great deal of sense to componentise services (such as identity and verification) and then make the same service available to web and voice channel. The benefits of a common ID&V service are not just efficiency from the re-use of code, but also a consistent customer experience, a consistent process regardless of channel and a better security system with easier management.

In my view Cisco Voice Portal (CVP) is the leader here with Genesys and Avaya not too far behind. It's not a view Gartner share but I feel they didn't fully appreciate the value of some of the deployment options CVP provides. A real strength of CVP is that it offers both centralised and distributed deployment options, allowing a business to provide self-service locally (in a branch or retail outlet) and thus queue calls at the edge of network before routing them anywhere in the enterprise that they want. Alternatively, there is option to deploy CVP in the datacentre or at the call centre. Video is another area of CVP strength. While video calls may be some way off for the mass market, a CVP based video call centre called Significan't is up and running here in the UK so that deaf and other sign-language users can access government services via a video based call centre.

I also find the Cisco tooling (which was Audium) very good for service creation and suited to SOA development as it is based on the Eclipse platform. This is not unique to Cisco (Avaya Voice Portal also uses Eclipse as its development environment) but the combination of CVP deployment options and open standards works well for the clients I've worked with.

In short, if you are going to bring SOA into the contact centre environment it makes a lot of sense to start in area of discrete functionality that can be re-used in other channels and to do so with a product which gives you the most deployment options.

Monday, November 19, 2007

UK Agent Attrition

An interesting article on about UK contact centre agent attrition increasing for the 5th year in a row.

I actually wrote a post on the survey (and HSBC's response to agent attrition) last week "The contact centre agent experience - First Direct", but the article has a good quote from the analysts Contact Babel.

"Steve Morrell, principal analyst at ContactBabel, said in the report: "The lack of growth in agents' salaries is certainly a major factor in producing high levels of attrition. Businesses should be working to move low-value interactions onto web and phone self-service channels, and to use the savings created to pay higher salaries to their agents. This will attract and retain high-quality staff, a move which will immediately and permanently benefit both the business and the customer base.""

All very much thoughts this blog has been discussing in terms of moving from call centre to contact centre and making contact centre part of a multi-channel strategy. I'm not sure, though, this will necesaarily translate into higher UK salaries as I see high-skill offshore like South Africa being a significant factor in the market.

I've always stressed the importance of moving to converged IP because it makes managing multi-media in a multi-channel environment so much easier. aren't making the connection as explictly as I do, but they do produce the quite interesting statistic that:

"...pure IP infrastructure will be commonplace in most UK call centres within the next two years, with 41 per cent of respondents saying their operations will be fully IP-architected by the end of 2009.
Currently only 17 per cent of call centres have an full IP infrastructure, with a further 28 per cent using a hybrid IP/TDM network

I suspect that one of the other big drivers to IP (besides multi-media management) is the ability to virtualise across borders. I know this is a message Cisco has pushed strongly, and I think it's the right messge for many enterprises. This is especially true in Europe where the continuing integration of the EU offers many opportunities to distribute work more efficently and more widely. Agent jobs (especially in areas like e-mail, where language skills and accent are not so crucial) will go to areas where the work represents a higher salary and on-shore will be left with higher skill, higher value agents.

Friday, November 16, 2007

SOA - bringing CRM, telephony and business together? part 1

It's a Friday, so perhaps time for thinking a bit further ahead.

One of the interesting things about the contact centre (and before that call centre) is that it has three areas that have rarely had more than a passing acquaintance with each other. By areas I mean the the three core functions of telephony (so that you can deal with customers remotely), CRM (which here means the delivery of data and interactions, rather than a specific packaged application) and business process (which is what the contact centre is built to handle and why customers call).

Traditionally self service, or IVR (Interactive Voice Response unit) has high-lighted this separation. It is probably more familiar as " 1for..., press 2 for...., etc..." and is the source of enormous customer frustration. This is mostly because it has come from the telephony world (which focused on scalability, responsiveness, routing, etc... ) rather than the IT or business world. As a result traditional IVR tends to be good at managing telephony but rather poor at integrating with CRM, business processes or being customer specific. Similar disconnects between needs and functionality can be highlighted in CRM or all those manual work-arounds in business processes.

It's into this world that SOA enters.

For those not familiar with IT trend, SOA stands for "Service Orientated Architecture". The idea is to build IT systems out of small components of functionality ("services") that can be put together by business processes to perform tasks. These services are not applications as we know them (though they could be) but are much smaller units of business functionality, such "calculate mortgage interest rate" or "identify & verify customer" and can be used by many different functions. These components can be part of existing applications (which increases efficiency from re-use of existing IT) or even come from third parties outside of the enterprise.

In call centre SOA has arrived first (and perhaps surprisingly) in the self-service environment of voice portal. A key factor was that the development of IP convergence meant that voice could be manged in the IP protocol world of the IT industry. A voice portal is not the the traditional IVR unit and from the proprietary telephony world. Instead is more part of IT and can be thought of an internet portal that presents information by voice rather than by speech. The SOA part of this is that if you have services for any channel (branch desktop, web, etc...) then you can present them in the voice portal. So for example, if you greet customers with a personal message when they log into your web site (e.g. "Welcome Mr. Smith, your most recent order shipped this morning"), the voice portal lets you do the same for the telephone channel. It also lets you present information both on a personalised basis and dynamically, which can dramatically increase your customers' use of self-service.

What voice portals are forcing is a coming together of telephony and CRM and SOA is the most sensible architecture for doing so in a way that aligns with business processes. Cisco, Avaya and Genesys are the clear leaders for voice portal, but in my next post I'll try and explain how things like tooling and service management make for big differences between what the vendors offer amd are critical to being successful with an SOA approach.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The contact centre agent experience - First Direct

There's a good overview on the BBC News website of what it's like to be an call centre agent at First Direct (the telephone and internet banking arm of HSBC). What's also interesting is that it shows how First Direct deals with the problem of agent attrition and under-motivated staff. All very relevant when at the start of the month the UK Contact Centre Operational Review found that agent attrition was up for the 5th consecutive year and now stands at an average of 32%. The idea that you loose a third of your staff in the year in which you hire them would not be sustainable in any other industry. If your brand depends on telephone service (and the staff that provide it) then it is not affordable and the BBC article shows what can be done to retain good staff and hence maintain the quality of customer experience.

I find First Direct very interesting as an example of what can be done with the contact centre. First Direct actually dates back to the pre-interent age and were set up by HSBC as experiment in telephone only banking. It was extremely successfully and has since then led a number of developments such as migrating transactions to internet and introducing fee based retail banking to the UK.

The thing that most struck me about the work environment was not the technology, but the focus on the agents. Once you've migrated simple transactions to the Internet channel, the phone becomes predominantly the channel for complex interactions. I've discussed this a little before why the people matter so much when offshoring ("Offshore - why I would go for South Africa over India") and when looking at e-mail ("e-mail in contact centres, process driven or response driven?" & more fully in "Call Centre to Contact Centre... or why worry about e-mail when the phone's ringing?"), but I think it's a topic I'll need to return to in more detail.

In the end, technology is critical for handling basic interactions and being efficient, but it's how the people in the contact centre use that technology that will determine the customer experience and the perception of the brand.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Speech market share - the role of non-European langauges

Some very good comments on the "Speech Market Share" posting I did in October, especially from Martin on Telisma and why they might have achieved such a large growth in European marketshare.

I was particularly interested to see that Telisma support Hindi and are working on another 18 Indian languages (including Indo-Arayan and Dravidian). This could be very interesting for a couple of reasons.

Firstly it's the established capability developed for the domestic market that I see as crucial for successful offshore operations. This is partly why in previous posts ("Offshore - why I would go for South Africa over India"), I've tended to rate South Africa ahead of India as a location for off-shore contact centres. If India can build a domestic capability then it's ability to take on offshore work will also improve. Also, and perhaps further off, the skills developed by Indian software developers working on speech for the Indian market could be very helpful for South Africa with its eleven official languages develop speech for its domestic market.

The second, and perhaps more unexpected use of speech is to serve migrants in Europe. These groups can be significant demographic segments and well worth offering higher service for. For example HSBC launched a UK Islamic bank in 2003 and it is easy to envisage it offering multi-lingual support for its customers. Perhaps further ahead is Canada. When I worked there I was expecting English and French telephone banking, but was surprised that Scotiabank telephone banking was available in not just English and French (as you would expect), but also Cantonese and Mandarin. It turned out that these languges gave them a competitive edge for winning business in the SMB market segment.

Given my experience of working with Canadian call centres, I am surprised that UK banks have not moved further with multiple language support. This may be a cost issue (given how cost concius the UK is) and perhaps the ability to offer automated support will change that.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Workforce Management - Part 2 Vendor Selection

I was interested to see that yesterday's posting got quite a bit of interest. One question that seemed to crop up regularly was "when should you buy a Workforce Management solution from your CTI vendor ...and when shouldn't you?"

The short (and unsatisfactory answer) is that "it depends on your circumstances". That said, here are some suggestions as to what you should consider.

  • How strategic is your CTI supplier? - If you route calls on a relatively simple basis then you probably have a lot of freedom in your choice of WFM provider. If your CTI supplier is a critical part of your business (e.g. many, many skill groups, all overlapping spread across multiple sites) then it makes sense to take a WFM solution where you can export your skill categories straight from CTI into WFM.
  • Are you wanting to monitor workforce skills, education and interaction quality? - If so, then you are probably looking to go the level beyond Workforce Management, which is referred to as Workforce Optimisation. This is best from a specialist provider, (like IEX or Calabrio) rather than your CTI provider.
  • Where are you deploying your WFM solution? It may seem obvious, but unless it is localised, it will be difficult to use for non-English speakers. So for example in Europe, Calabrio (which supports English, French, Spanish and Portuguese, and should support German and Dutch by year-end 2007), Holy-Dis (very strong in the French market) and Teleopti (very strong in the Nordics) all have to be considered ahead of some of the large, but not localised US providers.

I'm sure there's plenty of other things to consider (all suggestions welcome!) but that should get you started....

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Workforce Management - is it only for high end call centres?

Looking back at my posts I notice that I've written a lot on speech and self-service, a bit on CRM and a bit on e-mail. I've written nothing, though, on one of the major contact centre application areas of workforce management.

For those not familiar with it, workforce management is primarily about managing staffing levels so that they handle call volumes efficiently. What might appear a straightforward calculation becomes much more complex when call volumes peak and trough dramatically, calls can only be handled by agents with the right skills (in financial services, for example, this is a regulatory requirement) and the workforce (with these multiple skill types) might be spread across several sites and perhaps timezones.

For many call centres (especially the smaller ones that are the majority in Europe) the single largest workforce management tool is Microsoft Excel. This has great advantages in being familiar to most managers, relatively easy to use and a simple tool.

Once you get above 100 seats, or have a high degree of complexity in what your agents are skilled to do, I feel that workforce management tools become essential. As an example, a small stockbroker might have 100 seats. On Monday they need 70 or so of those seats to have trading skills to handle the call volume for market opening. Tuesday needs only 40 seats to have trading skills, but 50 seats need to be have qualified financial planning skills and 30 need to have trade settlement skills. Once you have multiple skilled agents (as in this example) it is good for the business, but it can quickly become very difficult to manage, especially where holiday planning and exceptional events need to be built into shift patterns.

The big players that I've worked with are Calabrio Work Force Management , Genesys Work Force Management and Aspect Workforce Management. What I find quite interesting is that the Aspect and Genesys offerings are traditionally pitched at the very high-end call centre, e.g. not the stockbroker in my example where a few agents handle a very complex possible set of interactions, but more the retail banking model where thousands of agents handle a smaller, though still complex set of interactions. Admittedly this high-end is Aspect and Genesys' heritage and where demand for management tools came from but I'm not sure it's the future, especially once multi-media traffic is added to the traditional voice traffic mix. I suspect that as Genesys has always positioned itself for highly complex call routing in very large centres there is a natural market for Genesys Work Force Management plugged into Genesys CTI. The problem for most European centres is that they are not large enough to need the Genesys scale of solution, but are too complex for a simple switch or a PBX and ACD.

One of the interesting things I've found in my work is that small call centres (especially in the B2B environment) can be highly complex and handling very large value transactions and are not just small call centres for small companies. As an example, I worked with a very large cosmetics firm who managed all their European wholesalers from a 70 seat call centre. That (small) call centre ran over 100 product lines, several $B of business a year and did so in six languages. In terms of European call centres, language is obviously a key agent skill and scheduling the right mix of languages is crucial before any other skill can be considered. It might have been a small call centre but it was highly complex.

One of the things I like about the Cisco Contact Centre Express is that it's restrictions are mostly around scale rather than function and there is the option to buy with built in Workforce Management. As an OEM from Calabrio it has a nice look and feel for the user and avoids a lot of the integration issues that happen for any call centre solution when a 3rd party workforce management application is used. There's a good overview here with some screen shots. Importantly, it addresses a call centre market segment (small but complex) that has traditionally been required to either take an over-engineered solution designed for larger customers or a simpler solution for small users that didn't meet their needs.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Is cost a contact centre issue or a symptom?

One recurrent theme in contact centres is that of cost.

Mostly, the complaint is that contact centres cost too much. I would argue that this is because the cost is calculated for the contact cnetre operations alone and with little reference to the value that the contact centre might bring for the wider enterprise. I've touched on the idea before that cost is not only operational metric to consider (mostly in the post "Offshore - why I would go for South Africa over India") and that doing the same function at lower cost is not going to solve many of the bigger and more expensive problems. I would argue that cost is only a symptom of problems in the wider enterprise, a symptom that is shown in call centre.

The CMP magazine is taking another approach and trying to change perceptions by having an award ceremony to recognise the top 50 call centers in the UK. The difference here is that the adjudicators will be customers rather than industry peers, and so recognition will be based on absolute customer service outcomes with no reference to the cost of achieving those outcomes.

This seems worthy, in terms of understanding and demonstrating how much contact centres can achieve. It also go me thinking, though, about something I've seen for a while. What often shows up as cost in the contact centre is actually a problem in a completely different part of the organisation. For example, it's obvious that badly made products lead to returns and complaints. The call centre of the organisation making those products would therefore have to be quite large, yet the problem isn't the call centres' ability to handle calls efficiently, rather it is the products that generated those calls. Similarly in financial services if a product is too complex for its target market that will generate extra service traffic. The problem there is not the cost of handling calls, but of insufficiently well designed products for a given market.

The cost conscious retort might still be "so what?". The products were sold, the revenue was booked, why worry about handling the calls on any level other than cost? Two good reasons come to mind immediately, but I'm sure readers will have many more. The first is that the cost of handling customer complaints well is far less than the cost of reputational risk and brand damage. Compare call centre costs with the marketing costs to rebuild a troubled brand and the sums are heavily in favour of good customer service. The second point is more subtle, but is about the ability of the organisation to adapt. If an organisation can understand what customers think of it in real time (that would be the contact centre that does that) then it can adapt and change in response. The cost savings from withdrawing a product or altering an internal process that is causing problems can be far larger than the cost of the call centre.

In short the value of the contact centre is in its ability to make the organisation responsive. That and the brand value it adds are key yardsticks against which to measure its cost.