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New contact center technology needs traditional rollout

Successful call center overhauls combine new contact center technologies with traditional change management practices to get agent buy-in and business-driven results.

Many companies fear they have fallen behind because their contact center technology isn’t designed to support agents chatting away with customers on Facebook or Twitter.

Turns out, these companies are probably the smart ones.

Industry analysts and management consultants agree there are plenty of new tools on the market that could boost a contact center’s performance. But they caution companies from jumping into a new social contact center technology initiative without tried-and-true change management strategies.

“When the task of doing social and mobile trickles down to the call center, they can freak out because it is so different,” said Keith Dawson, principal analyst with Frost & Sullivan in New York.

Dawson and other analysts suggest that a “freak out’’ can be avoided by taking a more evolutionary approach that starts with a solid business plan.

With a business plan, agents are more likely to understand why changes must take place and are therefore more willing to adapt to new processes.

Kathleen Peterson, management consultant and chief vision officer at PowerHouse Consulting Inc. in Bedford, N.H., said it is surprising how often companies do not launch new contact center technology rollouts with an articulated business plan. She said she is working with a client trying to undo damage from the rollout of an expensive call logging system. The call center had wanted a better call logging system, which, it turns out, was a fuzzy goal. Not long after the system was installed, neither agents nor managers were impressed. The system was logging calls, but it was identifying most callers as “other.”

“Executives would never say we need better call logging,” said Peterson. “They would say we need better information on our customers and what tools do we need?”

In the case of Peterson’s client, an earlier determination of the business goal might have led to a different product selection.

“The lack of a strategic plan associated with any of these things is a point of failure,” Peterson added. “When you do it poorly, the requirements for undoing it are really scary.”

Start with solid change management tactics

Once the business case is understood, managers should determine the best methods to roll out new functionality to agents.

“You do a training-needs assessment, determine where the gaps are and then develop a program,” said Penny Reynolds, a senior partner at The Call Center School LLC in Nashville, Tenn.  

Kate Leggett, a senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based research firm, said many contact centers are successful when they present new technology to small groups of agents and then gather initial feedback, some of which will find its way into the final product or process.

 The goal is “for agents to feel like they are being listened to,” Leggett added.

 These tactics are even more critical when companies add social media tools to the mix. Some consultants say it is a mistake to view the social media channel as some kind of dark art that departs from traditional implementation methods. Instead, it should be subjected to similar procedures and rules that apply to other channels.

“Setting up the business rules is so critical when you bring in a new channel like this,” said Ken Landoline, a principal analyst with Current Analysis Inc., which is headquartered in Sterling, Va. “People are so hyped about this, but I say you can’t just drop everything to watch your Twitter feed.”

Frost & Sullivan’s Dawson recommends a strategy that many call centers used years ago when they first implemented email into their voice-only operations: Identify slower operational times and introduce the new functionality to small groups during those times.

He also noted that the addition of social media raises an interesting challenge for call center managers as they identify who in the pool of agents is best suited to work in this realm.

“Every agent is not a Swiss Army knife,” Dawson said.

Ideally, centers will identify those with the skill sets to become specialists in social media who can then transfer the skills to other agents over time. A good starting place is to evaluate those agents already well versed in email or chat, because social media is a natural progression from those functions, Dawson added.

Include remote agents at the start

For many call centers, a new technology rollout can only be successful if remote or virtual agents are factored in from the start.

“If your changes are too frequent and too complex, you are going to be spending a lot of time just making sure they got it,” said Peterson of PowerHouse Consulting.

The circumstances of the remote agent should be factored into training tactics. Some remote agents work from home because of personal schedules and because they are highly motivated to perform well and learn new processes.

In other cases, the call center is geographically dispersed and needs to rely on a range of delivery vehicles to train their agents.

“They have mechanisms like WebEx to train agents or e-learning to push out [training], and it can be done via live instructional sessions or e-learning,” The Call Center School’s Reynolds said.

Finally, the training strategies need to fit into reasonable schedules for agents to absorb the new procedures.  

“The contact center is very conservative about change,” added Frost & Sullivan’s Dawson. “The big changes happen at the macro level, but they aren’t going to say to a group of agents, ‘We expect you to radically change the way you work.’ That doesn’t happen. Disruption is to be avoided at all costs.”

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