Contact center agents had it rough when an 800 number was a customer's only option. Now, with widespread use of social media and live chats, it can be even more difficult for an agent to manage problems and soothe caller frustration.
It no longer matters which of the many channels the customer chooses: Companies have to give their agents the tools to fix customer problems in every situation, industry watchers say.
Agents must have advanced contact center technologies, like desktop tools, that make information available for quick and easy use. They can't afford to waste a caller’s time -- especially an irritated one -- toggling between several channels to learn his personal information, his problems and how to solve them.
"It is about giving the agent the information he or she needs to provide personalized customer service and create a positive experience," said Pekka Porkka, general manager of SAP’s contact center software business. "It leaves the customer with the feeling that the company knows him or her and that they care."
In some cases, companies even have designated teams of up to a dozen employees to watch and respond to social media, said Paul Greenberg, president of The 56 Group, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm focused on CRM strategies.
"We’re seeing the transformation of agents," he said. "We’re seeing the addition of channels that 10 years ago weren’t there."
The customer is always … uptight?
Strong knowledge-management systems that draw on company best practices, rather than a general handbook, can help contact center agents predict or respond to customer questions, Greenberg said. With these tools, agents can use the company's own historical data and results to address customer issues.
"Not only can they bring up knowledge from knowledge bases, but context-specific knowledge," he said. "That’s really critical. Agents can find the best certified solutions to problems based not on a manual but the historical experiences of the company’s own customers and agents."
Voice analysis software helps agents determine callers' moods, alerting contact center managers to cranky customers who are then pushed to the head of the line, Greenberg said.
Real-time speech analytics can also gauge customers' feelings. If a caller is particularly upset, the software alerts a supervisor, who can then respond quickly to take the call and avoid losing a customer.
"There’s a big difference if I’m irritated or furious," Greenberg said. "When you're dealing with thousands of calls and a troubleshooting team, your job is to prioritize the calls to take. There's a lot involved in that."
Customers calling in are typically more frustrated than they have been in the past, said Brad Cleveland, a CRM consultant in Sun Valley, Idaho. They no longer want to spend time on the phone for answers to simple problems; they don't want to go through an automated call service to get an answer they could have found online with a quick Web search, he said.
"There are customer communities and self-service technologies to get what [customers] need," said Cleveland, a former president of the International Customer Management Institute. "By the time it reaches an agent, it's a pretty high-level call at that point."
Contact center agents are people too
For agents who have to deal with all those touchy customers, a number of advanced contact center technologies can make all the difference.
For more on advanced contact center technologies
Integrated virtual desktop and phone hit market
Real-time speech analytics advocated
Donna Fluss, founder and president of DMG Consulting in West Orange, N.J., identified four popular tools that contact center agents believe make their jobs easier. They are real-time speech analytics software, real-time guidance applications, next-best-action technologies and predictive analytics. Each tool can help agents respond to queries in real time and anticipate customer behavior.
But companies won't have success with those tools until they see things from the agents' perspective and understand what their jobs entail--and then take action to make their lives easier, she said.
"Good technology in the wrong hands isn't worth being in anybody's hands," Fluss said. "It's about bringing a lot of good information together for agents to give them more directed, useful information so that they can make the most out of every conversation they're having."
Elizabeth Herrell, an analyst at Constellation Research Inc. in Monte Vista, Calif., said there are many desktop software tools on the market--from Salesforce.com and Pegasystems, for example--that do just that. Companies can then incorporate these tools into their CRM strategies and improve customer relationships by cutting down call times and satisfying more customers.
"It pushes information to the agent, instead of the agent going out there to pull it forward," Herrell said of the desktop technology. "If you have a really integrated desktop with good CRM systems, you make it a lot easier for the agent to speed up their job."
The need to get analytical
Companies that combine desktop tools with predictive analytics "can get some exciting things going on," Fluss said. With analytics, companies can find out which channels customers prefer, predict the number of contacts in those channels and better prepare their agents to handle more complex customer questions.
But those industry leaders are still rare, Herrell said.
"The shortfall of companies right now is in analytics," she said. "There are a lot of initiatives in progress, but a lot of them are separate and not accurately supported."
David Lowy, Moxie Software’s vice president of product management, said many companies also have trouble balancing productivity and quality in the contact center.
Moxie products try to address that issue with "proactive service," Lowy said, which draws from a rules-based engine that understands what a customer has been looking for and provides customer profile information. Then an agent can step in and offer live chat assistance while the customer is perusing the company’s website.
In the age of "big data," great swathes of structured and unstructured information companies are collecting, those predictive and responsive capabilities to improve productivity and quality are even more important. Microsoft, for instance, announced a partnership in November 2012 with Moxie to take advantage of its products in Microsoft's own CRM.
"We’re talking about huge amounts of knowledge that have to be analyzed and sorted and organized and presented and consumed," Greenberg said. "These are tools to do all that, and they do that in close to, if not actually, real time."