Contact Center Operation and Management
Many things can impact the service quality, economics, and sustainability of your government contact center. This section provides insight on various aspects of operating and managing a contact center to help you improve its performance.
- Control Contact Center Costs
- Monitor Quality
- Avoid Fraudulent Pay Phone Calls
- Call Calibration
- IVR Call Flow Basics
- Disaster Planning and Recovery
Control Contact Center Costs
Across the government, contact center budgets are stretched to the limit by increasing demands for more services. One big challenge is how to do more with less, while at the same time improving performance and customer satisfaction. To meet this challenge, contact center operators must drive down costs and invest the savings in new technology and services.
What to Consider
Before making any major changes, it’s essential to assess your customer contact strategies in the following areas:
- Suite of services and access channels (phone, email, web chat, etc.)
- Hours of operation
- Service level and response time objectives.
Without this strategic reassessment, cost control efforts may end up at odds with your organization’s customer service goals. For example, reducing hours of operation on the phone may cause customers to seek answers via a more expensive service such as email. Phone operation costs may go down, but you’ll likely see an increase in support costs via other channels.
Also assess overall cross-cutting measures to find overall cost and operational efficiencies throughout your agency, instead of focusing only on specific improvements to the contact center.
After this assessment, you can identify potential cost reduction areas, select and prioritize target activities, and implement actions to achieve the reductions. Check out these Contact Center Lean and Mean Cost Reduction Strategies (PDF, 43 KB, 6 pages, October 2009).
Four Major Contact Center Cost Drivers
This is the volume of inbound and outbound contacts for all services (phone, email, web, chat, fax, etc.). As volume increases, operating costs will likely rise. When volumes increase, find out why and implement business process improvements, such as a campaign to drive traffic to a less-expensive channel. Develop a strategy to reroute misdirected contacts. If a large number of calls have a common topic, implementing an Integrated Voice Response (IVR) could reduce the need for live agent support.
How much time does it take to answer an inquiry (e.g., talk time plus after call wrap up time for telephone calls)? Longer handle time require more staff. Since labor cost is the single biggest expense in a contact center operation, reducing the handle time by just a few seconds per transaction can translate into significant cost and performance benefits. Reduce handle time by improving: business processes; system enhancements/response time; training; and quality monitoring that translates to corrective action.
Human Resource Costs
Control labor costs for handling inquiries with effective workforce management. Having the right people at the optimum staffing level during operating hours means the contact center is operating at maximum efficiency. Under-staffing will reduce payroll costs, but result in poor service. Over-staffing will increase the payroll, but may not increase performance.
Workforce management products can help forecast workload and staffing requirements, schedule agent assignments, and track their adherence to the assigned schedules. Combine agent pools and cross-train them to handle different types of inquiries to maximize efficiency. The right staffing model can result in significant payroll savings over time.
These are costs of telecommunications services incurred to enable customers to access your contact center (toll–free telephone service, trunk circuits, IVR usage etc.). These costs are directly linked to contact volume and staffing level. An imbalance in contact volume and staffing level will likely lead to longer wait time and high telecommunications costs, not to mention poor service level and low customer satisfaction. Also, insufficient staffing may lead to multiple callbacks, adding to the telecommunications costs.
Pay attention to the per-call charge levied by the toll-free telephone service provider for calls made from pay phones. You bear the cost of the toll-free number, and there is evidence that fraudulent pay phone activities can add thousands of dollars to your telephone bills. Examine the call detail records carefully for potential abuse and be prepared to take action to block pay phone calls, if necessary.
Quality monitoring allows you to observe an agent’s phone calls, email and web chats, and score those interactions against an agreed-upon definition of great customer interaction. The quality monitoring lifecycle is about process improvement and involves the following steps:
- The lifecycle begins during hiring and training, when a prospective agent’s performance is monitored and evaluated to identify weaknesses and skills gaps.
- After training is successfully completed, the agent begins handling customer interactions and is monitored regularly to identify issues and performance gaps. Distinguish between deficient agent performance and deficiencies in the elements being evaluated or in the service process.
- Evaluate agent performance against established standards and for any performance that merits action, note, record, and refer to the responsible component (HR, QA, Training, etc.). Ensure the agent gets both positive and negative feedback to improve their performance. Provide ongoing training and coaching. Repeat this process continuously throughout the agent’s tenure.
- Process and system improvement issues, as well as needed training curriculum revisions, are often identified through monitoring sessions. These issues are fed back to the responsible component for action.
Traditional quality monitoring involves reviewing a random sample of interactions, assessing them for general quality standards, and then generating monthly reports based on average scores. Most contact centers only evaluate a very small percentage of their calls this way. Quality monitoring tools will increase the efficiency of these evaluation processes by reducing the administrative effort in recording agent interactions by storing, analyzing, and scoring the interactions for quality. Some quality monitoring solutions combine call–recording functionality with performance management, speech analytics and e-learning capabilities to address skills gaps. These tools help formalize and add substance to quality transactions and make the quality-monitoring process more efficient and effective.
The lifecycle begins during hiring and training, when a prospective agent’s performance is monitored and evaluated to identify weaknesses and skills gaps.
Nine Steps to Effective Quality Monitoring
- Identifying the key performance criteria that result in successful interactions.
- Selecting and defining measurable attributes that support each of the criteria.
- Determining the weight for each criterion in the total call score.
- Selecting the scoring method for each criterion and creating a uniform monitoring form that will be used by all.
- Defining the monitoring process and performance benchmarks.
- Training all contact center members (both quality monitors and agents) about the performance criteria and benchmarks.
- Conducting trial monitoring sessions to work out any bugs before you begin live monitoring.
- Recording results of the monitoring sessions and producing reports showing performance trends by individual agent and the whole team.
- Integrating calibration into the quality monitoring process.
Avoid Fraudulent Pay Phone Calls
Your agency may be paying extra and illegal charges for calls from pay phones.
According to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations, owners of pay phones are paid a fee for every toll-free call made by their pay phone. The fee reimburses the owner of the pay phone for use of their equipment and service to make the toll-free call. This arrangement is allowed by the FCC and is a standard business practice.
However, this practice can create opportunities for fraud. Pay phone owners can attach automated equipment to registered pay phone lines to make repeated, short calls to toll-free numbers, and collect 50 to 75 cents per call in “dial around compensation” fees.
As a result of an investigation conducted by the General Services Administration, Office of Inspector General, and the Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigation Division, the Department of Justice charged two individuals in Wisconsin for participating in such a pay phone compensation fraud scheme (PDF, 65 KB, 2 pages, April 2011).
How To Identify and Prevent Fraudulent Calls
- Review the monthly toll-free service provider reports to identify a pattern of abuse. The call detail reports generally include a notation if a call is made from a pay phone. You can also look at the numbers that most frequently dial your toll-free number to see if any of them are pay phones.
- If you see a pattern of abuse, ask your toll-free service provider to generate a report that looks for short calls that are unlikely to have resulted in a meaningful conversation or transaction. A relatively large number of short calls from a pay phone usually means someone is attempting to profit from the pay phone compensation fraud scheme.
- If you find something suspicious, talk to your agency’s Inspector General (IG). An investigation will take time and may cost a lot, as your IG office may advise you to continue to allow such pay phone calls to facilitate the investigation.
- You can prevent incurring the “dial around compensation” fee if you block ALL calls from pay phone numbers or from the specific geographic locations that are generating these calls. However, blocking calls from all pay phones may prevent legitimate callers from getting the help they need and should only be done as a last resort.
Calibration is a way to uniformly rate agent performance. It improves monitoring, limits variation in interpreting performance criteria, and achieves consistency among the people responsible for scoring.
Calibration requires considerable commitment to master and keep the process going. It may take hours of discussion and practice before your team can begin to score a transaction in a uniform way. Once mastered, the rewards are considerable.
Everyone responsible for monitoring and scoring needs a complete understanding of customer service goals and performance standards. These individuals must be trained to participate in the calibration process, apply evaluation standards uniformly, and provide feedback to agents.
Involve senior management so they can see what standards have been established and understand how they are applied.
Why is Calibration Important?
Calibration eliminates both perceived biases and actual quality-scoring process corruption. It ensures all those involved in evaluating agent performance have a common understanding of the quality elements being assessed. When calibration is achieved, it will not matter who did the monitoring and scoring, because the outcome will be the same.
By applying the same criteria to evaluations, the coaching process can focus on recognizing achievements and identifying improvement opportunities. Successful calibration fuels the process improvement engine so organizations can continuously improve customer service and reduce operating costs.
Senior management must understand the journey to calibration success requires total commitment to a never-ending process that can help you attain high-performance status.
How To Implement
Your team must understand the criteria that define successful transactions, and be committed to recognize and resolve all interpretational differences to reach “fully calibrated” status. Here are a few suggestions that can help your calibration effort:
- Schedule at least one hour for each calibration session. Share five or six recorded transactions with your team before the session so each team member can come prepared. If recorded transactions are not available, you can listen to live calls together, and review chat transcripts and email responses in advance of the session.
- Before the first calibration session, the team should set an initial target variance for the score. When your team is just beginning the calibration process, set a goal such as overall call scores should be within five points (or 10 percent) of each other. In the beginning, scores may vary greatly, but you can gradually lower the target variance in follow-up sessions until the gap is reduced to an acceptable level. It may take many sessions to achieve the initial target variance and many more to get the quality monitoring team fully calibrated.
- Designate a facilitator to moderate discussions, take notes, and keep the team focused on the goal. Establish some facilitation ground rules.
- Have all participants use the same monitoring form to score the interaction. After all the participants are finished, have one person summarize the transaction. During the recap, identify the areas where points were subtracted and give a final score. Have all the participants take turns recapping so that everyone learns how.
- The facilitator should ask participants to share and explain their scores. Be prepared for a passionate discussion on score variance from the participants! It’s not important that everyone agrees on a final score. The point is for everyone to understand the accepted criteria for a successful transaction, and apply that understanding consistently in evaluating future transactions. Quality monitors should provide feedback to the agents during their review/evaluation sessions on how the criteria are being applied so they can learn from the process.
- At the end of the session, the facilitator should review the notes, highlighting any changes or group decisions, and distribute to everyone who participated.
- Once calibration is attained, schedule periodic calibration sessions to keep the monitoring team sharp.
Some Ground Rules
Establish ground rules and communicate them to all participants in advance, so sessions are positive and productive. Keep these tips in mind as you get started:
- Create an environment where everyone can feel comfortable sharing their opinions without fear of retribution.
- Avoid being confrontational and allow everyone’s opinion to be heard. Allow people to finish explaining their thoughts.
- Talk about the facts, not feelings. The performance criteria should be defined by measurable tasks, so keep the discussion focused on what can be taught, not thought.
- When making decisions, consider what would be best for the overall success of the program. Do not make a decision just because everyone has grown tired of the discussion!
- Enforce compliance. It’s critical to identify and warn anyone who uses their own standards while monitoring, rather than the agreed-upon standards.
- Do not give up when the process gets difficult and some people seem ready to quit.
IVR Call Flow Basics
An Interactive Voice Response (IVR) is a computer-based system allowing callers to use their telephone keypad or voice commands to retrieve and/or provide information without assistance from trained specialists. The IVR presents callers with a list of options and questions about the nature of their call, provides answers to frequently asked questions, and directs the calls for further assistance to trained specialists.
Menu options can be made available for specific times-of-the-day, days-of-the-week, holidays, special events or multiple languages. Announcements can be professionally recorded or computer generated from a database using text-to-speech technology.
IVRs can be provided on-premise or hosted by a service provider at a remote location. Here is more information on How IVRs Work.
Why IVRs Are Important
An IVR is an entry point for incoming telephone calls. It directs callers to the appropriate resources to answer calls in the most efficient manner. An IVR can enhance a contact center’s performance by:
- Increasing operating efficiency and improving the customer experience— An IVR can answer a large volume of calls automatically without delay. When equipped with sufficient number of ports, an IVR can eliminate the frustrating busy signals so often experienced during periods of high call volume. It can enable callers to obtain recorded information and/or to conduct transactions without the assistance of trained specialists. For calls that require live assistance, the IVR can collect caller information and route the calls expeditiously, without multiple hand-offs.
- Lowering overall operating costs— An IVR can reduce the staff needed during business hours by providing information to callers without the help of trained specialists, which in turn lowers the contact center’s operating costs.
- Extending service hours— An IVR can operate around-the-clock without human intervention, providing a menu of information and services based on times-of-the-day, days-of-the-week, and holiday schedules.
- Polling and collecting customer survey and performance data— An IVR can serve as a customer survey tool to collect feedback on performance of the IVR and trained specialists. It can also log call detail information into its own database for auditing, analysis, and reporting, which can further improve the IVR and contact center performance.
Different Types of IVR
IVRs can be located in the same location as other contact center systems or hosted by a telecommunications service provider or an IVR application service provider at a remote location. These two different types of IVR are described below, along with the advantages and disadvantages for each.
1. On-Premise IVRs
On-premise IVRs are generally located with Automatic Call Distributors (ACDs) and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems that support contact center operations.
- Design and operation of on-premise IVRs can be integrated with the ACD and CRM systems to ensure maximum efficiency in call handling. On-premise IVRs offer the most control and systems integration flexibility.
- Call transfers within the system can be more flexible and less costly to implement.
- A premise-based service offers more access control and changes to call flows, recorded announcements, and management reports.
- Recurring costs of operating and maintaining on-premise IVRs are generally lower than hosted IVRs and aren’t call-volume sensitive if the IVR is equipped with sufficient ports.
- System upgrades can be implemented when the need arises.
- On-premise IVRs require a large initial capital investment. An organization must also have in-house technical expertise to procure, implement, and maintain an on-premise IVR. Professional voice talent for recorded messages may need to be arranged separately.
- Call handling capacity of the on-premise IVRs is dependent on the number of ports available in the system. There is limited ability to scale quickly to accommodate unexpected surges in call volume.
- The need to provide for redundancy and disaster recovery will further add to the initial capital investment.
- Call transfers outside the system will be treated as separate calls and will tie-up both incoming and outgoing trunks for the duration of the calls, resulting in higher telecommunications costs.
- Time required for initial implementation is generally longer than that of hosted IVRs.
2. Hosted IVRs
Hosted IVR services are provided by third-party providers who leverage their technology infrastructure and management expertise to serve many customers. Generally, hosted IVR services provided by established nationwide telecommunications service providers are perceived as more scalable than those provided by IVR application service providers.
- Call-handling capacity can be scaled quickly to take advantage of the system’s unused capacity to respond to unexpected surges in call volume.
- Initial capital investment for a hosted IVR is limited. The start-up cost for a service provider to set-up the service is substantially lower than the initial investment required for an on-premise IVR. A hosted IVR can be scaled up or down quickly with no long-term financial commitment.
- Requires less in-house technical expertise to procure, implement, and maintain than on-premise IVRs.
- Time required for initial implementation is generally shorter than for that of on-premise IVRs.
- If hosted by a telecommunications service provider, call transfers to pre-defined locations outside the system can be done via a take–back–and–transfer feature, thereby eliminating the need to tie up incoming and outgoing trunks.
- Redundancy and 24 x 7 monitoring are generally built-in as part of the hosted IVR solution, thus ensuring high reliability.
- Tight integration between the hosted IVRs and ACD and CRM systems is more difficult to achieve and may require costly third-party integration support.
- Call transfers from the hosted IVR to ACD may be more difficult and cost more to implement than on-premise IVR.
- Hosted services afford less access control and changes to call flows, recorded announcements, and management reports.
- Recurring hosted IVR service cost is generally higher than that of a premise-based system and is call-volume sensitive.
- Little or no control exists over system upgrade schedule.
Where to Buy IVR Equipment and Services
For federal agencies and entities authorized to obtain products and services from the General Services Administration (GSA), IVR equipment and services can be obtained through various Technology and Telecommunications contracts managed by GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service.
Disaster Planning and Recovery
Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity plans are used to mitigate the effects that service disruptions will have on customers. These disruptions may be caused by natural disasters; power, equipment, or transportation systems failures; or by other unexpected events.
The terms Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity are often used interchangeably, but disaster recovery refers to specific steps taken to resume operations in the aftermath of a catastrophic natural disaster or national emergency. Business Continuity addresses more comprehensive planning that focuses on long-term or chronic challenges, like illness, departure of key team members, etc.
Why It’s Important
A contact center is the focal point of your customer interactions. Customers expect to be able to reach you during the hours your services are available. Regardless of the size of your center, you should have a disaster recovery and business continuity plan in place in case an emergency or unscheduled event causes a disruption to your operation. Maintaining business continuity in the event of disruptions will reassure your customers of your commitment to serving them at all times, even during crises.
Key Things to Include
- Critical systems and functions— Make a list of critical systems and support operations functions, such as: network services, Interactive Voice Response (IVR), Automatic Call Distributor (ACD), email and Web chat systems, Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and other application systems, electrical power systems, Information Technology (IT) and Human Resources (HR) support, and the physical facility.
- Back-up and failover arrangements— Define back-up and failover arrangements for each critical system and support function, and who will be responsible for implementation.
- Roles and responsibilities— Identify the team responsible for executing the plan as well as the teams responsible for back–up and failover procedure implementation, and critical system and support function recovery. Define each team’s roles and responsibilities.
- Emergency contacts list including phone numbers and email addresses— Compile, and update frequently, a list of key personnel responsible for execution of the plan, implementing back-up and failover procedures, and recovery of critical systems and support functions.
- Detection, notification and escalation procedures— Describe how critical systems and support function failures will be detected and analyzed, and which actions will be taken to notify teams to begin the damage assessment process.
- Damage assessment procedures— Define how damage assessment will be conducted immediately after the outage, and for long-term recovery, and the procedures to communicate results to the teams.
- Criteria for plan activation— Identify a set of “trigger” criteria that will activate the plan.
- Recovery procedures— Define the recovery process implementation for each critical system and support function, including: recovery solutions, team actions, and goals and timelines.
- Restoration procedures— Define how failed systems and support functions will be restored to their original states.
- Procedures for plan validation— Describe the frequency of and processes for testing the recovery procedures for each system and support function and documenting the results to validate effectiveness of the recovery procedures.
Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity Best Practices
- Provide back-up and automatic failover for critical systems. Provide diverse routing on network access where feasible so that a cut cable does not cut-off customer access.
- Provide site diversity if your contact center is mission critical and/or if your contact volume or coverage areas warrant multi-site deployment.
- Leverage network carriers’ capabilities to route calls quickly to the alternate site(s).
- Invest in a monitoring system to provide early detection of failures.
- Designate a team responsible for execution of the disaster recovery and business continuity plan.
- Keep your plan and emergency contacts list up-to-date at all times.
- Train key personnel in their emergency response and recovery roles.
- Practice recovery process execution on a regular basis; note and communicate results and areas needing improvement to recovery teams.
- Set priority and performance goals during the recovery period and communicate those to your customers.