Monday, December 31, 2007

Sometimes it's not rocket science....

Now that Christmas is over (and now the bills many will be arriving for many), it seemed appropriate to comment on the CCF agent compensation survey published earlier this month.

This survey had the shock finding that cash, namely salary, rather than the Human Resources buzzword of 'total reward package' was the top motivator for attracting agents. I can't pretend I was surprised that relatively low paid, often young workers found it better to have cash to spend on their own choices than HR offering them a menu of cash substitutes.

It's noticeable that a pleasant place to work was also rated highly by agents, and that is something that salary can't buy. Work conditions, though, really depend on the quality of management. This is something that I've touched on in my posts on reporting ("Reporting - Having your cake & eating it").

My view is that while you might need good pay to attract the best agents, retaining them (and tackling the industry's appalling churn rate) will be done by work conditions. It may seem cheaper to pay a good salary than to provide a pleasant, well run organisation, but investing in the environment agents experience will be cheaper than letting HR try to get discounted gym memberships.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy Christmas

Unlike many call centres, this blog will not be working over the Christmas period.

If you are phoning any business during the holiday season, do spare a thought for those working to answer your call during the holidays.....

Posting will resume after Christmas.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Reporting - Having your cake & eating it

Coincidentally (given yesterday's post on reporting) I was reading a long article today on CCF, "Have your call centre cake and eat it ". The article is primarily about metrics and how they can distort call centre performance.

I suspect the article is a bit long, but the basic point is that agents do what you pay them to do. If the metrics the agents are paid on don't align with the board's strategy, then don't expect agents to sacrifice pay, read the annual report and work against their interests.

The point I think it misses is that reporting is about getting the information to manage your contact centre, it is not a substitute for management itself. Get the right information and you can make the right decisions. It does puzzle me to hear one of the examples cited,

" client where there was a call handling time limit of 300 seconds and staff who consistently missed the target were put on a disciplinary. At one stage, 35 per cent of the workforce were on disciplinary, and because the operation was struggling, they asked the staff to do more cross- and up-selling, while slashing the handling time to 270 per cent. Attrition was 230 per cent."

I know I've encountered dysfunctional organisations (and in the past was an agent in a call centre like that), but this still seems extraordinary. If the details are accurate (and I've no reason to doubt them), then the cost of failing to manage change was far higher than the original problems. It also seems amazing that management continued to push on with the plan when they saw results.

In short, however good your call centre reporting, you do need management to do something with that information for it to be worthwhile.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Reporting - some thoughts

I've realised that while I've written previously on Workforce Management ( Workforce Management - is it only for high end call centres? & Workforce Management - Part 2 Vendor Selection ), I've missed the major pre-requisite of reporting.

Reporting on a call centre or a contact centre's activities is the most important first step in managing such a complex organisation. One of the peculiarities of call centre is that because of the early technology it was built on it was possible to report on agents work in great detail. The PBX (Private Branch Exchange) and ACD (Automated Call Distributor), which together manage all incoming telephone traffic, could provide detailed information on each call, such as duration and the agent availability. Initially these reports were pretty user unfriendly, but driven by management demand, call centre reporting developed in complexity and detail to an extent that was unmatched in the work activity reporting in any other business area. Even in a transaction orientated environment such as a bank branch, staff are not monitored in anything like the detail that is possible in the call centre. The result is that in call cente there is a lot of data that can be reported on.

The crucial thing to remember with reporting is to differentiate what you can report on from what you need to report on. As an example, it is very easy to report on agent availability and measure how long each agent is unavailable. How useful this is as a stand alone metric might be more debatable, as it may be that agents have to do a lot of complex work with the CRM system after each call. In other words, although a good measure of contact centre efficiency, with that metric you may be measuring the poor quality of a CRM GUI and workflow rather than measuring your agents ability. Similarly, if you report on average call time, you may incentivize agents to handle more calls, but may also encourage agents to end calls before customers want to so the agents meet their targets. You would then have customers calling back, which doubles (at least) your call traffic even while you are meeting your average call time metric.

This type of distortion has led to a tendency to report on less telephony based metrics and more on CRM based metrics, such as '1st call resolution' or 'completed steps in the customer management process'. This is useful (as it is measuring a business outcome), but can risk loosing the sort of reporting 1st line management and team leaders found useful for operational management.

I would argue that contact centres should be reporting differently to each level of management. Team leaders and first line managers need real-time statistics on their group of agents performance. The higher the level of management above that, the less real-time/ operational reporting they need and the more business oriented the information needs to be.

This is one of the things I like about Cisco's acquisition of Latigent. Latigent provides the opportunity for mashups and the construction of executive dashboards from multiple data sources. For more operational reporting, as used by team leaders the existing reporting tools are adequate, but the Web 2.0 aspects of Latigent (RSS feeds) offer a lot of interesting options for more complex report creation. There's a good podcast with about Latigent here on

Ofcourse, others in the industry have offerings with a range of capabilities. Avaya have always been strong with their CMS product. Aspect has always had good reporting on the telephony environment (as you would expect from their ACD heritage) and have moved up into workforce management. I'm not convinced that reporting should be considered synonymous with workforce management (at least for large centres, I feel there's a case for best of breed selection for what are two very separate functions), but it has been reasonably successful for them. Genesys too provide a reporting and a workforce management product, but given the large, highly complex environments they tend to be deployed in, I feel there is again a case for best of breed for reporting and a separate best of breed workforce management product.

In short, when thinking about reporting the most important thing is to establish what metrics you need to report on and for whom in your organisation. It's also important to distinguish between reporting (which is collection, tracking & presentation of data), analytics (getting meaning out of data) and workforce management (using information to drive agent performance). These are discrete functions for separate purposes, even if one solution might meet your needs for all of them.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Dimension Data/ Cisco Speech survey

I'm in Frankfurt this week and it's always good to catch up with colleagues and partners.

I mentioned the Dimension Data/ Cisco survey on Speech automation in a previous post ("For a Friday - why are contact centres so disliked?"), but it was good to hear today Tim Pearce, one of the survey authors present the findings.

You can find the Dimension Data/ Cisco survey on CRMxchange as a webinar and it's worth watching.

The big thing for me is the difference between what vendors and consumers think of speech automation. Vendors, for example, tend to underestimate why consumers will accept automation (such as to avoid offshore). They also overestimate things like the ability of speech automation to partially meet callers needs and underestimate its ability to meet all needs for some callers. Some good research and well worth a look whether you implement telephone automated service or are considering it.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Financial Services Branches, IP and Contact Centre

One of the blogs forums I read regularly is Finextra, the financial services community forum. The UK financial services sector is such a major user of call centre technology that this is an excellent place to explore the environment that contact centre technology needs to interact with.

A good example is Michael Goldman's post on extending IP convergence to branch. His perspective is not that of the technologist (who have long argued for this) but that of the business person looking at processes and customer experience. I'm pleased to see that he's in favour of more IP convergence, but it's a different perspective from the technology vendors.

It's an area that I'm very interested in as consistent service across channels means (re)-joining the branch and contact centre. I say 're-joining', because historically the branch did manage the telephone channel and it was in response to consumer needs like 24hr service and the difficulty of queuing calls at branch that led to banks to moving the telephony channel from the branch to a centralised service point. This also allowed innovations with 'branchless' and single channel banks, like First Direct in the UK, long before the internet.

Technically, delivering contact centre functionality to branch (where appropriate) is very interesting as it allows a business a lot more flexibility in how it constructs the customer experience. It's an area where Cisco has perhaps a slight advantage from the scale of our IP Telephony deployments, but where Genesys, Nortel and Avaya also have interesting developments. It's probably a subject for further posts as something I'm doing a lot of work on at the moment.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Outbound, an explanation of the technology

I've had a number of requests from my previous post ("Outbound - industry reputation, branding and regulation"), for a better explanation of outbound technology. Some readers had assumed the silent calls were an accident or a technical failure rather than a deliberate business practice.

Unfortunately, the silent calls are actually a business decision based on how you set up your outbound dialler.

A dialler is simply a piece of hardware (or sometimes software) that can place an outbound call from a computer based list (usually a database). It may be obvious, but for the call to work there needs to be a connection at both ends, so the outbound call needs to be answered and then the dialler needs to hand the call to an agent or a pre-recorded message. It's a further small step to appreciate that many numbers dialled will not connect. The number may be engaged, no longer exist, or be for fax machines and when it receives the appropriate tone, the dialler will then not pass the call to an agent. Beyond this signal based intelligence, smarter diallers can recognise answer phones and voicemail

Generally speaking, a dialler can be set up in three modes:

  • Preview Dialer - This allows phone agents to view the call information prior to the outbound dialler calling. The agent can decide not to initiate the call and when they do, the number may not be answered.

  • Progressive Dialing - This passes the call information to the agent at the same time the number is being dialed by the phone dialer. The agent usually has a few seconds to view the call information, but cannot stop the call process. This method avoids engaged tones and (usually) fax machines, but will not avoid voicemail.

  • Predictive Dialling is more sophisticated because the phone dialer automatically calls several numbers and only passes a call to an agent when a person has been contacted. This eliminates busy signals, answering machines, etc.

The important thing to note is that the first two result in the same number of outbound calls being made as agents. The third option means that more calls are placed than agents. How many more depends on some fairly complicated algorithms based around predictions of calls that will get an engaged tone or otherwise be unavailable. Ofcourse, this algorithm is not necessarily that accurate and that plus the error level (i.e. the number of calls placed successfully greater than available agents) are what result in silent calls.

The prime industries generating these calls (according to the UK government regulator, Ofcom) are telemarketing, market research, financial services (including debt recovery) and number scanners. The last group, which may not be familiar to readers, is where numbers are dialled at random to check which work, so that a list of 'clean' numbers can be sold to other telemarketers.

The problem these outbound businesses generate is that while cold calling may be unwelcome (and silent calls especially so), the outbound technology has beneficial uses that can get lost in the regulation. Getting a call back, rather than waiting in a queue or being pro-actively told information by a company are all much more positive uses. As so often, the problem isn't the technology itself but the uses is can be put to.

Outbound - industry reputation, branding and regulation

If you mention you work with call centres you can sometimes (!) expect a negative response, and you almost guarantee that this will be because the other person has been on the receiving end of an unwanted automated call.

It's an irritation that I understand and share.

My particular hatred is for the silent calls and the automated message calls. I'll explain the technology in a separate post, but these experiences are because of business decisions made by the calling companies, not because of technology limitations.

In my view, if the company concerned wants to treat customers like that, then I will not give it any business. If you are called by human it at least suggests that there is some effort on the companies behalf to value my business and make an attempt to engage with me. you get none of that with an automated message. Yet brand damage is perhaps not a sufficient deterrent, as most of the companies doing it are debt-consolidators, low-cost telecoms providers and other industries where brand is not a primary concern.

I would argue that companies which keep doing outbound calling on a lowest cost basis have already damaged the reputation of the call centre industry. Consumer pressure has already forced governments to act. In the UK in March last year (Ofcom, the UK communications regulator) increased the fine for silent outbound calls tenfold, to a maximum of £50,000 per instance. It also introduced three other new rules:

  • Abandoned call rates must be below three per cent of all calls made in any 24 hour period for each campaign.
  • All abandoned calls must carry a short recorded information message identifying the source of the call.
  • Calling line identification (CLI) must be included on all outbound calls generated by automated calling systems. CLI allows people to dial 1471 and access the telephone number of the person or organisation calling them.
Already in the UK consumer can ask the TPS (Telephone Preference Service) to add them to a 'do not call' list but it is clear that this is not enough for many consumers. In the end the industry either needs to make consumers happy to risks further regulation. The pity in all of this is that legitimate and useful uses of outbound, such as companies calling to alert their customers of problems with (say) their bank account, or a delayed product shipping, may well be restricted. I

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Offshoring and mainland Europe

I have to admit that most of my discussion of offshoring has been around the UK and Ireland experience, in posts such as: "Offshore - why I would go for South Africa over India".

Today I saw some research in TelecomPaper, "Spanish call centre staff numbers to fall 4% in 2007" that looked at the impact offshoring to Latin America was having on the Spanish market. This might seem a startling percentage drop for a single year, but there's some good insight on this at TMCnet giving figures from ACE, the Spanish call centre trade association. Part of the reason for the percentage shift is that compared to the UK or Ireland there are not that many call centres in Spain. In 2006, the number of call centers outside of Spain serving the Spanish market rose from 9 to 20, but more than 225 call centers remained in Spain. As TMC comments, and the UK's experience confirms, Latin America might win business initially on price and cost of labour, but they will have to meet quality expectations if they want to keep that business.

Of course, like India for UK companies, the physical distance between Spain and Latin America creates management difficulties. These aren't technology difficulties (an IP network can let you route calls anywhere in the world) but rather relate to the challenge of flying managers out and keeping expats overseas to manage the offshore operations. Interestingly, here the French have a distinct advantage. With much of North Africa having some French, many French companies have located in Morocco. This has the huge advantage of only being a few hours flight from France and in the same timezone. As long ago as 2005, Africa Investor had identified Morocco has having 55 French call centres with 6,500 employees. Today, numbers are harder to come by, but with major companies like France Telecom and SNCF having Moroccan operations and a dedicated annual trade show (SICCAM), the local industry looks fairly robust.

In other parts of Europe language will probably prevent widespread offshoring for voice (even in eastern Europe, German is not that widely spoken, for example), but I think e-mail may be another story. Without the need for a high standard of both accent and fluency, the non-time sensitive aspect of e-mail may lend itself to offshore management, but that is probably another post.