Sunday, November 28, 2010

Disaster and contingency planning in call centers

An important aspect of managing a corporate facility—one that includes resources, equipment, and people—is disaster and contingency planning. There are several reasons why a disaster and contingency plan should be put in place by every call center operation, and should be rehearsed, like a fire drill, periodically. Not the least of these reasons is maintaining call center services in the face of natural or human disasters. Many problems or contingencies can arise that result in a call center being shut down and customer communication lost, possibly for an extended period, if alternative arrangements have not been made.

Add a note hereDowntime
Add a note hereSeveral situations can result in call center downtime: natural disasters—storms, snow, flooding—can keep people from getting to the center; construction, often the bane of those who need to maintain continuous communication services because of frequent disruptions to power, cable, or telephone lines; fire; power spikes; cable cuts; computer crashes; and network outages—all can very quickly cut communication links to the outside world. While these disturbances may be localized, affecting only a small number of centers, the cost of downtime to any center hit by a temporary shutdown can be enormous. This is why it is critical for call centers to invest in disaster contingency planning, with the hope that it may never have to be implemented but if required the center and staff are well prepared.

Add a note hereCoping with emergency situations
Add a note hereThe following procedures for coping with emergency situations have been developed from the experience of many call centers.
Identify key systems at risk in a disaster or emergency situation
Add a note hereSome of these systems are obvious—switching technology, data processing equipment, and so on. How vulnerable is the business if the package delivery/ courier service is not available? Labor trouble in these service organizations can shut a business down. Orders may be taken over the phone, but if they can't be delivered, customers may stay away. Because all organizations depend on other companies, every service that is outsourced is particularly vulnerable, especially order fulfillment, personnel supply, and service and maintenance on internal equipment.
Add a note hereIf outside services are critical to continuous operation, there are essentially two choices for setting up a contingency plan:
§  Add a note hereSingle-source services, ensuring that vendors have enough redundancy or extra capacity to handle defined contingencies
§  Add a note hereMultisource services to provide backup in case the primary vendor has difficulty meeting contractual obligations
Add a note hereAs noted, contingency planning needs to be applied to every service, from courier services to communication resources such as long-distance services. Organizations that are service providers need to inform customers of contingency plans to ensure continued service in case of snow, fire, or other short- and medium-term emergencies.
Conduct a cablinglwiringlpower assessment
Add a note hereMap out every wire and connection in the center with a pictorial interconnection diagram showing the connections between technologies. This will make it possible to check the power protection status of every server, PC, switch, and node. A critical assessment will identify which items are covered by UPS (uninterruptible power supply) units, which have hot-swappable power supplies, and which systems require these resources.
Add a note hereTelephone systems are particularly vulnerable to lightning strikes, and a protection mechanism should be in place to prevent outages in phone service. A lightning strike could short out all phone sets and headsets, leaving CSRs with working computers and incoming ACD calls that cannot be answered.
Identify manual work procedures
Add a note hereA contingency plan should provide for manual order taking if the computer systems go down. Make sure there are always enough hard copies of current product or service catalogs for every inbound CSR so that basic pricing and ordering information can be given to a caller. CSRs also need to be trained in procedures for handling customers when customer data are not available. In addition, contingency planning should provide backup resources as well as procedures for handling the sudden flood of calls that come into the center when the IVR or auto attendant is down.
Add a note hereThe Internet can pose another type of contingency planning problem. Can the center react to an increase or decrease in contact volume through alternative means, such as e-mail or text-chat? The more access methods customers have, the more points at which a sudden change can cause problems that may not be disastrous but may require special consideration. On the other hand, the more avenues a customer has to contact a company, the less likely the company will lose that customer to a disaster.
Identify key personnel
Add a note hereIt's important to know who will be on call during a problem situation and the specific responsibilities of those personnel. Every staff member should be briefed on his or her responsibilities in an emergency.
Add a note hereAny working group convened for call center contingency planning should include members from other departments, especially people from IT and the facilities management departments, in order to share knowledge. They need to be made aware of the impact call center failure could have on the entire company and on the company's revenue stream. Personnel from other departments need to provide coordinated responses to problems that affect data processing, order processing, shipping, the availability of human resources—in fact, every aspect of the business.
Explore secondary operating sites
Add a note hereSometimes, the only way truly to prevent disasters is to replicate call center functions in another location. If there's a flood, fire, or natural disaster that affects the central operation, CSRs can continue to operate from another location. Doing this could be as simple as using non call center assets (basic office space, for example) or as complex as arranging to buy contingency services from organizations that provide disaster and contingency services. There are also companies that offer to operate an entire call center from alternative sites in any location, for a substantial fee. These "call centers on call" are not traditional outsourcing services. User organizations pay a retainer to have access to their services as required, such as in an extreme emergency. Disaster-oriented services can provide a range of resources, including equipment, temporary (often mobile) facilities, and data processing and backup functions, as well.
Add a note hereThese are only a few of the options available. It is important to remember that the continued operation of a call center depends on a complex set of connected technologies that are vulnerable to circumstances outside the control of call center management.

Add a note herePower protection
Add a note herePower is one of the company's most serious resources that require protection. When a call center goes down, company revenues stop flowing. Call center downtime, whether caused by natural or human disasters, is to be avoided at all costs. Downtime means customer calls are not coming in, orders are not being taken, and customers are getting impatient, even angry. They will turn to other companies to meet their needs. Thus, protecting the center from power outages is an important function that must be performed from the first day of operation.
Add a note hereOne of the most common causes of downtime is failure of the electrical power system, often without warning, an event that will take a call center "off the air," usually for some time. Backup power sources are mandatory to prevent downtime due to power outages. The IVR (interactive voice response) system is a good example of a technology resource that will be out of service in a power failure. Once a call center has become dependent on IVR, it becomes a crucial part of the enterprise—handling a substantial amount of call traffic, promoting customer satisfaction, and generating revenue. In some cases, the IVR system handles all inbound calls, either directly or by passing them back to CSRs through an ACD. In this situation, loss of IVR would be as serious as loss of phone service.
Add a note hereSome facts about power problems that can help a call center manager prepare for power outages in the most effective manner are
§  Add a note herePower problems are the single most frequent cause of phone and computer system failure. Surveys indicate that the average IVR system has a significant power fluctuation (spike, surge, or brownout) approximately 400 times a year. Increasing consumption in regional power grids will only exacerbate the problem.
§  Add a note herePower-related damage is one of the most difficult types of damage to recover from. This form of damage creates two problems: It can destroy hardware, often necessitating costly, time-consuming replacements, and it wipes out data.
§  Add a note hereMultiple connections to trunks, networks, peripherals, and so on increase the number of access routes for power surges. The more components that are interconnected, including data sources, the more vulnerable the center is to a power outage.

Add a note hereUninterruptible power supply (UPS)
Add a note hereAn uninterruptible power supply (UPS) is a battery system that provides power to a telephone switch or computer. Surge protectors control high voltages that can surge down power or telephone lines, destroying delicate equipment. Power conditioners remove noise, adjust voltage levels, and generally deliver clean power to telephone switches and computers. There are high-end UPS systems available that combine all of these functions in a single unit. Some UPS systems are marketed specifically for telecommunications applications; however, the UPS specifications for power protection of telephone systems are essentially the same as for a computer system.
Add a note herePower management software is a recent development in the management of electrical power. These products allow users to track power conditions throughout the network from a workstation and provide UPS with more sophisticated features, including the capability of shutting down unattended equipment.
Add a note herePower protection is an inexpensive form of insurance for call centers. The technology is proven and the added cost ranges from 10 to 25% of the hardware's value, excluding the value of the data that power protection will preserve in the event of a power outage. In fact, call center data are usually far more valuable than the hardware, which can be replaced.

Add a note hereAuditing disaster and contingency plans
Add a note hereThere are two major components to a successful disaster and contingency recovery strategy. The first is contingency planning, which involves identifying all the elements critical to the call center operation: people, processes and equipment. It also means planning for situations where these elements will not be available with backup strategies for a variety of emergency conditions. The second component is installing a technology net that includes power protection, backup power supplies, redundant trunks and carriers, and duplicating any other resources that may be required in an emergency.
Add a note hereTo ensure complete protection of the call center, an audit of disaster and contingency plans should also include the following activities:
§  Add a note hereDocument every aspect of the center—from wiring runs to home phone numbers of all critical personnel. This activity includes putting all plans on paper so they will survive a network crash. Staff members need to know where the plans are stored and have quick access to them.
§  Add a note hereConduct emergency drills involving all staff—so they are well prepared for a real emergency. They need to know their roles and how to keep the center operating.
§  Add a note hereIdentify potential risks—depending on the geographic location of the center, there may be greater likelihood of an emergency involving a snowstorm than an earthquake.
§  Add a note hereConduct a power audit—UPS devices are designed with the assumption that building wiring will provide proper routes to ground and has sufficient load capacity to control diverted power surges. Ensure that building power circuitry meets this requirement.
Add a note hereWhat needs to be protected? Identify exactly what systems are particularly critical and which are less critical and nonessential in the short term to the continued operation of the center. Establish priorities. Is it more important to be able to take orders? Or provide service? Thinking about these priorities will provide useful insight into the way the call center fits into the company's overall business process.
Add a note hereThe key objective in disaster and contingency planning is to take precautions to ensure a minimum continuity of function and connection to customers. The call center is one of a company's most vulnerable departments because it has several complex core technologies and the loss of its operational capabilities means being cut off from customers; therefore, its recovery should be a top priority.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Creating value through workforce optimization | Organizing and Managing the Call Center

Call center managers need to understand that successful management means understanding the complex trade-offs inherent in the sophisticated call center operating environment, where the proper allocation, dispersal, and treatment of the human resource are fundamental requirements. Quantifying and increasing the value of workforce optimization solutions is important and needs to be addressed. Typically, analysis focuses on software and infrastructure investments that will yield greater efficiencies resulting from automation. Some call center product vendors, however, take a different approach that assesses the return on investment in the human resource, the employees in the call center.

Add a note hereAssessing value creation

Add a note herePersonnel costs usually account for 70 to 80% of overall operational expenses in contact centers. Leveraging these personnel resources efficiently through workforce optimization solutions can potentially provide significant returns. However, most models for assessing value creation only consider the benefits derived from streamlining the processes of forecasting and scheduling call center staff to meet service goals. These models may result in significant gains through the automation of various functions, but they fail to address the real complexity of workforce optimization and are far too simple to portray accurately the real meaning of workforce optimization.

Add a note hereThe major factors involved in managing and maximizing CSR productivity and the quality of customer interactions while maximizing the number of contacts handled per agent hinge on the ability to match the volume and type of customer contacts precisely. These factors include availability of agents by skill type and contact media type (e.g., e-mail, phone, or fax). Done effectively, the returns for each call can be maximized and result in a maximization of returns for the entire call center. (see Figure 1)

Add a note hereFigure 1: Ascending levels of CSR skills experience.

Add a note hereStaffing and customer service

Add a note hereTo paraphrase a well-known authority on workforce optimization, Dr. Richard Coleman, founder of Coleman Consulting Group, it takes an organization as sophisticated as a contact (call) center to show how developing strategic staffing plans relies on understanding the complex trade-offs inherent in each staffing scenario. The effects of seemingly insignificant staffing changes are far-reaching. Staffing plans dictate the kind of service customers receive and, ultimately, the profitability of customer relationships. The implementation of best practices and an understanding of the mathematics behind workforce optimization, as described previously in this chapter, are essential to successfully leveraging the center's human capital.

Add a note hereMost call centers lack the tools to assess the rationale behind their service-level agreements effectively. As noted previously, government regulation dictates the service level required in some industries, for example, public utilities. Missing the service commitment in these industries can result in fines and subsequent damage to businesses. In other, unregulated sectors, most organizations set service goals according to industry benchmarks, which can be a somewhat arbitrary process. However, the difference between 70 and 80% of calls answered in 20 seconds is recognized by customers who communicate with the call center. On the other hand, the marginal benefit to the customer of moving from 91 to 93% of calls answered in 20 seconds may have significant cost implications and not make much tangible difference in the quality of the customer experience. What is also lacking from these arbitrary models is the ability to quantify the significant customer loyalty and profitability gains, above and beyond efficiency gains, that an enterprise can expect to achieve by optimizing its workforce.

Add a note hereThe customer experience

Add a note hereThe automation of workforce measurement is intended to ensure that customers remain loyal, that a mutually profitable relationship exists and is retained, and that the impact of workforce optimization will not lead the company into an unprofitable or nonviable direction. These objectives can be realized by establishing and sustaining a strong customer experience. The process begins with the people who most frequently interact with customers—call center employees—the mangers, supervisors, and CSRs who are the front line of customer contact.

Add a note hereThe call center employee environment

Add a note hereBy strengthening the link between employees and customers, workforce optimization enhances profitability. The call center is often the only means for the organization to regularly interact with customers. Unfortunately, the typical working environment of a call center does not foster a harmonious relationship between the company and the call center employees, for several reasons:
§  Add a note hereHigh stress
§  Add a note hereLimited work space
§  Add a note herePressure
§  Add a note hereIntense and fast-paced activity
§  Add a note hereThe perception of most employees of their function within the enterprise, a perception that often belies the important role of the call center employee in the organization.

Add a note hereWorking in a call center can be a thankless job, and a reflection of this fact, noted previously in this book, is the extremely high staff turnover relative to other industries—ranging somewhere between 20 and 35% annually. In many centers, CSRs are treated as nothing more than an overhead cost rather than as critically important to increasing enterprise profitability. This view is changing as corporate executives realize the importance of customer relationship management (CRM) and the call center role to corporate CRM strategy.
Organizations that are able to channel the human potential of the call center realize a significant benefit from this corporate resource. Those that succeed in positively influencing employees' attitudes about their jobs begin by including more flexibility and improving job recognition. Employee job satisfaction has been demonstrated to be one of the most significant determinants of the quality of customer relationships.

Training, recognition, and employee empowerment

Add a note hereMany call center employees believe that they have little control over their own schedules and even less over how their current position might translate into a career path with future growth opportunities within the organization and beyond. When questioned about what can be done to improve their job satisfaction, the vast majority of employees cite increasing recognition for the important work they do and providing more flexibility in scheduling to allow for outside commitments. Most CSRs would also like to have the opportunity to schedule their own enrichment training, to improve their skills, or to learn about emerging technologies or products that may assist them to advance in their field of employment. They also want to be able to move into higher-paying or more strategic positions within the organization. In some centers, higher-skilled positions command higher salaries; for example, CSRs trained to handle e-mail customer contacts often earn more than those responsible for phone communication alone.

Add a note hereNaturally, a certain percentage of CSRs will always perceive their work as a short-term job rather than as a career, but improvements in working conditions can substantially impact the turnover resulting from CSRs changing jobs for slight improvements in their work environment. Anecdotal evidence from a Gartner research report indicates that 85% of CSRs who leave their organizations leave of their own volition, while only 15% are terminated due to poor performance. Of the agents who leave on their own, some move on to other opportunities for reasons beyond employer control, for example, a career change. It would be impossible and even undesirable to eliminate the natural turnover of the poorest performers and those employees looking for different opportunities. In many cases, however, CSRs don't leave companies, they leave managers!
Add a note hereThe experience of call center managers and the results obtained form research reports point up the fact that a significant amount of employee turnover can be influenced by the employer. Experienced call center managers know that the nature of the call center industry will always produce a higher turnover rate than other industry sectors. The Gartner research report concludes that call center turnover for nontechnical agents will probably never fall under 10–12% per year because of natural turnover. If this statistic is valid, there is still a substantial percentage of employee turnover that falls into the category of controllable turnover. Call center turnover in some industry sectors ranges as high as 50%; the controllable turnover percentage is therefore quite significant. The challenge for call center management and for the corporation's human resources department is to determine the personnel policies that are most effective in reducing employee turnover.

Responding to employee needs

Add a note hereOne of the keys to reducing the controllable turnover percentage is to understand and respond to the changing way employees view their jobs. There is a requirement for a new approach to employee concerns and, to paraphrase Peter Drucker, it is change in the way companies need to treat employees ... organizations need to market membership (employment in) their companies at least as much as they market products and services. People need to be attracted, recognized, and rewarded. In the call center environment, increasing flexibility and allowing for a career path are two ways that turnover can be curbed and a reputation as an employer of choice can be gained—a reputation as an employer with such high levels of employee satisfaction that employees refer the business to potential customers and employees alike.

Add a note hereSome workforce optimization systems offered by vendors of call center services and products provide the tools and best practices needed to increase efficiency and improve employee satisfaction while meeting business goals and objectives. By empowering employees to manage their own time and providing some information on how their day-to-day activities relate to their longer-term career goals, these solutions increase employee satisfaction and loyalty. Some workforce optimization products have a training component as well that offers opportunities for training on new systems or products—within defined parameters—to meet customer service demands and to satisfy employees' desires for more control over their careers. These products include training for new and existing employees, giving them the skills necessary to meet the requirements of critical positions that need to be filled. This pays off in greater efficiency for the organization because it spends fewer resources on recruiting for new positions.

Add a note hereCall center analyst Paul Stockford of Saddletree Research has described how CRM has made companies realize that customer interactions with contact or call center employees have strategic value. As a result, the strategic role of these employees is rapidly being recognized. The result of a well-managed scheduling program—one that considers both customer and agent attributes—has the extended effect of building loyalty among contact center agents as well, with the resulting economic benefits flowing straight to the bottom line.

Add a note hereThe impact of employee loyalty

Add a note hereThe long-term effects of increased employee loyalty often have a greater impact than the profitability gains resulting from more effective use of training and recruiting dollars. Long-term employee loyalty is critical to retaining loyal, satisfied customers. Satisfied employees are more likely to refer an organization to friends and family, with the potential for new customers as well as sources for recruiting new employees.

Add a note hereAs noted, the average annual turnover in call centers is between 20 and 35%, and companies spend an average of $6,000–$8,000 on recruitment and training per agent. Even a marginal improvement in employee loyalty has the potential to generate considerable cost savings. But significant as these numbers are, they do not begin to quantify the tremendous financial benefits of the productivity gains that result from employee tenure. Especially during periods of economic uncertainty, when shareholders of publicly traded companies look critically at costs and earnings, controlling labor expenditures becomes even more important. Because loyal employees have critical customer and corporate knowledge, the benefits of their loyalty during these times quickly spread throughout the organization. Thus, using effective human resource practices and policies to keep employees satisfied results in knowledge and skills staying within the organization and their continual leveraging to serve customers.

Categorical knowledge

Add a note hereEmployees with what Aberdeen Research refers to as categorical knowledge are able to immediately recognize customer needs and act decisively and appropriately to satisfy them. These employees are far more likely to resolve issues on the first call or contact than less experienced agents with the same skill. Even the most talented new employee lacks the intuition and skills that come only from experience. Veteran employees are valuable because their experience and corporate knowledge translates into less time spent on each contact and greater overall productivity. A recent study by the University of Calgary further confirms the connection between customer satisfaction and employee training and tenure. The study showed that highly trained generalist agents pulled in a 22% higher level of customer satisfaction, and agents with even more specialized training average 11% higher customer satisfaction than generalists. These results demonstrate that training is very important and advanced training is even more important!

Add a note hereEmployees with categorical knowledge are of benefit to the organization because they have gained experience and a solid understanding of the company's business as a result of the years spent with the company. Their knowledge and ability to satisfy customers transform the call center into a profit center through significant improvements in upsell and cross sell abilities. According to some studies on customer retention, it costs 5 to 12 times more to acquire a new customer than to retain an existing customer. Therefore, keeping customer-focused, seasoned employees is necessary to the overall success of the enterprise. Customers recognize the importance of good service as well. In surveys, customers repeatedly cite the level and quality of customer support as the most important variables in determining whether to do business with companies on an ongoing basis. This finding can be translated into an important axiom for call center management: Keep the CSR and retain the customer!

Add a note hereCustomer loyalty and profitability

Add a note hereCustomers who are not completely satisfied may defect, particularly when offered a better deal, a more convenient location, or the promise of a higher level of service from a competitor. When customers are fully satisfied with a company's service, they will return time and again to make new purchases and to expand their relationship with the organization. The secret to obtaining and retaining that elusive customer loyalty is long-term, seasoned employees. They have the power to truly satisfy customers and extend their loyalty—they know the company, the customers, and how to build lasting, profitable relationships.

Add a note hereAlthough solidifying relationships with employees and customers may be difficult, the effort expended will bring long-term benefits. In fact, reducing customer defections by as little as 5 percentage points can double profits. Studies show that, over time, companies with higher customer retention rates are more profitable. Incremental increases in retention rates have significant impact on profitability over the long term. Many have written about this correlation between customer loyalty and company profitability. The proof can be found in some of the world's most successful companies—companies like Charles Schwab, Cisco, and General Motors, to select a few household names—where a direct relationship can be established among employee/customer satisfaction, loyalty, and company success. These are also companies that have well-earned reputations for listening to both employee and customer needs and working hard to maintain relationships with profitable customers and with seasoned employees.

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