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Issue Date: November 2007

Skilled global customer service

November 2007
Mark Payne, MD, sub-Saharan Africa, Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories

Most people can visualise the classic customer service environment – hundreds of agents sitting side-by-side in a large contact centre, all working off the same script, working the same shifts and being monitored in the same manner. The mass media has reinforced this vision of customer service facilities as work farms located in the middle of nowhere, staffed with unhappy employees.

Most people can visualise the classic customer service environment – hundreds of agents sitting side-by-side in a large contact centre, all working off the same script, working the same shifts and being monitored in the same manner. The mass media has reinforced this vision of customer service facilities as work farms located in the middle of nowhere, staffed with unhappy employees.
Mark Payne, MD, sub-Saharan 
Africa, Genesys Telecommunications 
Mark Payne, MD, sub-Saharan Africa, Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories
In reality, there is a dramatic change taking place in the way businesses view customer service operations, how agents work, and the skills required.
In fact, many businesses are moving toward virtual contact centres which provide a better work environment for agents and can greatly increase service levels for businesses.
When a call comes in to the contact centre at one of the world’s leading translation services providers, it is often an emergency. Hospitals and ambulance services are some of the regular customers of the California-based company, which provides language translation and interpretation services over the phone.
To ensure that translators are always available, 24 hours a day, the company’s 1500 multilingual agent interpreters are spread across the globe. This virtual contact centre supports 150 different languages and to customers, the process of reaching the correct interpreter is invisible. They are leveraging the virtual contact centre model to take advantage of agent skill sets and create a higher level of service for customers.
Like the interpreters, today’s customer service professionals are often required to have skill sets specific to a company’s products or services. In financial services, for example, agents may need to represent as many as 30 different products without handing the customer off to another department or call centre. The translation provider’s agents may be responsible for one translation of just one language.
While the public perception of customer service may take time to change, the job itself is changing quickly through the combination of highly skilled agents and technical developments. Many people do not realise that a revolution is taking place in the contact centre as a result of self-service. Interactions that require standard scripting and basic answers are now being handled by self-service via the Web or speech-enabled interactive voice response systems (IVRs). Both these services decrease the time agents spend dealing with routine customer interactions, allowing agents to utilise their skills to assist customers with more complex requests.
With more robust self-service functionalities now in use, customers expect that information given to any automated system will be relayed to the agent when there is a need to speak to an agent. Once a call does go through to a live agent, the agent has to be prepared to respond to more interesting and varied questions, and to pick up the 'conversation' where the automated system left off.
Another change from traditional contact centres is that today’s agents are not just handling inbound phone calls. Many are multitasking, using blended call systems that allow them to move between responding to incoming calls and conducting outbound campaigns. Tasks often include Web chat or responding to e-mail. This variety prevents drudgery and gives agents a far more varied and interesting work day.
Can a quality agent be virtual?
Smart companies understand that it is important to hold on to quality agents – agent attrition stands at 15 to 25% annually in Western countries and new agents are only 16% as productive as experienced agents. At the same time, the need for agents with higher skill levels is also growing.
In order to attract quality professionals, businesses must look beyond the traditional contact centre and explore where and how the next generation of agents can work. In many cases, not all agents have to be based in the contact centre.
In fact, the age of the virtual contact centre is already upon us. This shift is being driven by a number of technical developments – both IP and network-based technology allow for agents to be in multiple locations and skills-based routing ensures the correct distribution of calls. At a basic level this means that agents can work together as one virtual centre, and the boundaries are limitless – even oceans apart.
However, virtual contact centres do not always draw on workers thousands of miles away. In some businesses, especially financial services, insurance and banking, contact centres are beginning to leverage knowledge workers in the back office and mid-office. For example, an insurance customer with a claim may need help from an adjuster or field agent who does not work in the contact centre. The agent taking the initial call can gather information and then pass the claim to a specialist in the back office for further action. This trend has been made possible by enterprise interaction management software with ‘presence management’ capabilities – technology that shows employee availability and can transfer calls to people outside the contact centre. In fact, some calls do not even need to go through the contact centre, but can be automatically transferred from the self-service system directly to a knowledge worker.
Another industry where knowledge workers can greatly improve service is in healthcare where specialised information is especially important. A knowledge worker need not be an agent but can be a back office worker who is brought into the customer service pool for specialist requests – thus helping to expand the expertise and resource pool of the contact centre.
Groups of back office workers often sit in the local branches of a company. A branch worker in a bank may specialise in anything from home financing to investment portfolios and is suited to serve customer needs that require expertise or certification to conduct a transaction. Also, back office workers can be used selectively during slow periods or for unique outbound campaigns.
Another group of virtual agents is home workers. This is a great option for many skilled agents who live a long way from the contact centre, are looking after children or simply wish to work at home. For the company, these agents may be employed during limited periods of the day or when a contact centre agent is unavailable. With a group of home agents living around the world, a true 24-hour system can be created even for a relatively small international company. In such a system, it is easy to implement appropriate security safeguards, since all applications and data remain within the contact centre.
The benefits of breaking down the walls of the contact centre are numerous – for an agent it can mean a more varied and interesting job and the possibility of working nearer to home. For the company, improves both efficiency and the quality of service provided to customers. This is an ideal solution in banking, retail and the public sector where local information is at a premium.
The future belongs to highly-skilled agents. Clearly there will always be a need for some centralised contact centres, but the potential to expand customer service to leverage knowledge workers, branch workers and home workers is now a technical reality, and for many organisations, a business necessity. The virtual contact centre is one of the major tools to reconcile the need for more skilled, specialised customer support. At the same time it brings new challenges to customer service managers that will need to ensure proper training through e-learning as well as implementation of reporting tools, workforce management systems and quality monitoring. The outdated image of the contact centre may quickly become ancient history, as customers embrace self-service from the Web, speech-enabled automation and a new breed of highly-skilled agents to serve their more complex needs.

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