What is a Contact Center?
A contact center is a central point in an organization where your customer contact channels, such as telephone, email, text, chat, fax, Text Telephones (TTY), web or mail, are managed. For telephone activities, a contact center can handle in-bound only calls, out-bound only calls, or both, depending on business requirements. Contact centers can be any size, from just a few workstations to more than a thousand, and can be located in single or multiple sites.
Why It’s Important
Contact centers are the most common medium for two-way communications between customers and organizations. They:
- support your corporate strategy;
- influence overall customer satisfaction;
- allow customers to inquire about your products and services;
- provide insight on new requirements or business opportunities;
- gauge customer satisfaction; and
- provide a focal point for customer input, giving you clear information on where you need to improve.
Four major contact center components:
Network Access enables customers to contact you and includes telephone network circuits, Internet connections, toll-free, and long-distance services.
Contact Center Facilities can either be physical (one location that houses all your technology, workstations and staff) or virtual (customer service personnel who work in several small centers, or from their homes). It’s a good idea to have facilities in different locations to handle overflow, longer operating hours, or provide emergency backup.
Telephone, Computer Hardware and Software respond to incoming contacts, route them to the right resources to handle them at the right time, and collect, store, and disseminate information as necessary. These systems also provide recorded messages, perform recording and monitoring functions, and produce vital reports to enable the oversight and management of the contact center. Depending on implementation, these systems may reside inside the contact center facility (physical) or outside of the contact center facility (virtual).
Customer Service and Support Staff are needed to sustain operation of the contact center. The majority of contact center operating costs will reside in employing customer service representatives/agents, supervisors, quality monitors, site managers, trainers, technical specialists, security personnel, and human resource personnel.
Attributes of High-Performing Government Contact Centers
Across the government, contact centers are being stretched by increasing demands from customers, more complex systems, and escalating pressures to control bottom-line costs. While two centers may provide similar services, one center may deliver superior customer service while the other delivers services that are substantially below standard. What differentiates a high-performing contact center from one with subpar performance?
High-performing contact centers generally possess the following attributes:
- Clearly Defined Strategy—The center has a clear vision of its mission and goals. The strategy is customer-focused and service oriented, forward thinking and open-minded, proactive and willing to accept change, and committed to service excellence.
- Skilled Workforce—The single biggest investment for a contact center makes is in the human resources needed to operate and run the contact center. To achieve high performance, the center must have a well-trained, motivated and seasoned workforce with ongoing training to continually build business knowledge and customer service expertise. The employees must be committed to building trusting relationships with customers.
- New Technologies—To get the most productivity out of the skilled workforce and to provide the tools to deliver a superior customer experience, the center must invest in new technologies and provide self-service and multi-channel support to provide customers with choices and ease of access to information and services.
- Solid Management Team—The center has a mature and flexible management team that adheres to best practices, encourages teamwork, and empowers team decision making.
- Total Commitment to Quality—The center preaches quality in all aspects of its operation and has an effective ongoing quality management/process program to improve performance and customer satisfaction.
- Effective Cost Controls—The center can maintain a balance of quality, quantity, and cost in delivering customer service.
Managing and operating a contact center requires a constant balancing act of quality, quantity, and cost in order to attain the goal of ultimate customer satisfaction. Your center can only achieve this goal with proper support. If your senior management believes that operating and managing a contact center is a simple operation and that attaining these attributes is not critical to delivering good customer service, then the chances your contact center ever attaining high-performance status will be greatly diminished.
Planning a Government Contact Center
Planning a government contact center requires a detailed analysis of your agency’s mission and the customers you serve. Document what you know and what you need to achieve. Address the areas listed below before you move forward:
Vision and Mission Statement
Develop a mission and vision statement to document your mission and help you turn your vision into reality.
Your agency’s budget will determine your strategy for establishing and operating your contact center.
- How many communication channels will you offer your customers?
- What types of technology will you use?
- What Key Performance Metrics will you establish?
Your budget dictates the answers to all of these questions.
Constructing a center for your agency’s personnel office may be very different than constructing a center to serve the general public.
- How many people will realistically be interested in your content?
- Will your customer base remain stable, grow steadily, or fluctuate with special events or seasonally?
Determine how many customers you will serve, so you know how many staff you’ll need. Research the volume of potential customers and build a long-term plan for growth or decline in your contact center needs, according to your projections.
Seasonality and support for special events play a part in volume decisions as well. If your agency’s work is seasonal or needs support for unanticipated events that cause spikes in public inquiries, develop a plan to ramp up and down quickly in response to these events.
Ensure your content/service is unique to your agency. Don’t duplicate content/service that is owned or managed by someone else. Instead, provide the responsible agency’s website or contact information. If you find other agencies duplicating your content/service, ask them to refer their customers to you. If jurisdiction over a particular a topic is shared, work with the other agency to decide on a clear division point, have your agents handle the portion within your agency’s jurisdiction, and refer to the other agency for the balance.
- Medicare is a prime example. While Medicare entitlement is determined by the Social Security Administration (SSA), issues around Medicare coverage falls under the jurisdiction of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). SSA can help customers decide if they are eligible for Medicare, but refer questions about disputed services to CMS. Each agent handles the aspect of Medicare for which their agency has jurisdiction.
Customer Contact Strategy
How will your customers want to communicate with you? Audience needs and your budget will dictate which communication channels you can build into your contact center. Develop a strategy to serve your customer’s immediate needs, and plan for the capability to add other communication channels as your program and customer base evolve.
Site diversity can mitigate the effects of weather, power or telecom failures by diverting centrally-controlled calls. Consider a multiple-center site strategy for disaster recovery/contingency planning purposes. Also, if you intend to serve customers in multiple time zones, having multiple sites in different time zones may ease staffing burden.
Will your contact center be in-house, out-sourced, or a hybrid? The A76 Competitive Sourcing Process, union obligations, and your agency’s current philosophy will all factor into whether your center is based in-house or outsourced. If your center will be outsourced, you can outline the high-level outcomes you’re looking for in your solicitation request and leave the technological details to the contractor who wins your award. If your center will be in-house, you’ll need a lot of specific in-house expertise.
What are the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that must be met in order to measure the success of your enterprise? KPIs such as Service Level, Abandonment Rate, Response Time, First Contact Resolution, Quality Score, and Customer Satisfaction Rating are often used as measures of how well a center performs.
The first rule in establishing these goals is: there are no rules! Budget will dictate some of your standards; the more agents you have on staff, the quicker your response time will be, but the more you’ll pay. Complex content, longer handle time, and case management also increase costs. Keep all these factors in mind when you set your performance goals and expectations.
Where will your center be located? Location can critically impact the service quality, economics, and sustainability of your center. Establish a set of criteria to guide the site selection process and improve your chances of obtaining an optimally-located center.
Customer Contact Channels and Strategies
Here’s a list of the most common customer contact methods. Is your agency prepared to respond via all these channels?
Toll-free numbers are one of the most popular ways for customers to get help. Decide whether you will provide self-service and/or live assistance
For live assistance, decide the days and hours of coverage and the performance goals you want to achieve. If you serve a large non-English speaking customer base, will you offer live support through bilingual agents or use a language interpreting service?
Establish a nationwide or geographic-based toll-free number, and route calls to your contact center based on predefined rules (e.g., time-of-day, day-of-week, originating area code).
Accommodate callers from foreign countries (for whom toll-free numbers don’t work) by setting up a local (commercial) phone number and have their calls forwarded to the toll-free number.
Interactive Voice Response (IVR)
An IVR can direct callers to the right resources for immediate help. Tools such as Frequently Asked Questions or interactive databases allow callers to get answers 24 x 7 without the help of an agent. This enhances the customer experience and lowers your operating costs.
Your IVR tree should be simple, offering information on broad and frequently-needed topics and/or simple interactive applications (change your address? request a benefit statement?). An effective IVR can greatly reduce your call volume and your customers’ wait time, and keep callers from getting frustrated.
Use a Text Telephone or Telecommunications Device for the Deaf (TTY/TDD) to make your services accessible, in compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C. 794d). You can also use the national “711” telecommunications relay service to enable TTY/TDD callers to communicate with your center.
If you need to send and/or receive sensitive or legal documents, such as documents with signatures or Personally Identifiable Information (PII), a fax machine will allow you to send/receive these types of documents over the phone line in a more secure manner.
To handle a high volume of fax documents, you may want a fax server that can receive and store documents electronically and route them to a specific destination. A fax server can work with an IVR to send documents on demand (fax-on-demand) if you have customers who prefer documents to be sent to them by fax rather than downloading documents from a website.
A content-rich website can provide information to your customers 24 x 7, but requires cooperation from others in your agency to create and maintain content. Even a small site with answers to a few frequently asked questions is helpful.
To deliver a consistent customer experience, create a comprehensive knowledgebase, covering questions received via all your communications channels, and use it throughout your organization.
Interactive online services, such as email and chat, allow customers to conduct transactions electronically. Provide video clips to show visitors the latest news and program information.
Even with a content-rich website, customers may need to contact you directly for assistance. An email webform on your website allows customers to send you their questions. An automated acknowledgement can be sent informing the customer of the typical expected response time.
You’ll need knowledgeable staff to answer email. Decide whether to use canned answers, individually customized ones, or a combination of both. Customized responses and short response times mean more staff and higher operating costs.
Unlike telephone calls, email does not allow for real-time probing to clarify the questions, so a higher percentage of inquiries will need further information from the customer. Unless your workflow process is designed to allow back and forth interactions between customers and agents to clarify questions, your customers may not be happy with the response quality.
If your contact center handles customer inquiries involving sensitive information, email may not be the best choice, since there is a perception that it’s less secure to transmit sensitive information via email.
Take into account the amount of spam email you’ll get. Filtering applications can help, but some will get through and will add to the overall cost of responding via email.
With web chat, customers submit their questions to agents and receive answers in real-time. The interactive nature of web chat enables agents to clarify questions and push relevant web resources to the customers, resulting in more accurate answers and a better customer experience than email.
As with live telephone support, you’ll need to decide the days and hours of coverage, the languages you want to support, and the customer service and performance goals you want to achieve.
Short Message Service
Also known as SMS or Text Messaging, your audience’s demographics should support your decision to use this technology. The text message maximum length of 160 characters makes SMS suitable for applications, such as alerts and notifications, as well as short interactions.
As the popularity of social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube increase, people want to communicate with organizations via these channels. Leverage these connected communities to extend your services to a broader audience.
Ensure the demographics of your audience, as well as the type of programs you offer, supports social media as an effective customer service strategy. Use of these tools should always help you to meet your agency goals, never use social media “because everyone else is doing it”.
If you have customers who submit their inquiries through traditional postal mail, you’ll need to publicize a mailing address for accepting the postal mail. You’ll also need to decide on the type of envelope and stationary to use when responding and a strategy for handling postage. Providing customized responses via postal mail is expensive.
Site Selection Criteria
The location of your center can critically impact your service quality, economics, and sustainability. Establish criteria to guide the selection process and improve your chances of obtaining an optimal location for your center.
Consider these factors when selecting a site for your contact center:
Proximity to Your Organization
Are there reasons you, other members of your team (or your bosses) will want or need to visit the site regularly? Brainstorm and get input early in the process. Explore the needs of all involved stakeholders first.
Even if your contact center doesn’t need to be near your home office, it should be no more than 45 minutes from an airport served by major air carriers.
“Made in the USA”
If your center is in-house, it will naturally be located within our borders. If you’re outsourcing, off-shore sites are not an acceptable alternative for most federal agencies. To avoid having to entertain proposals for sites on other continents, specify that your site be located “within the United States” or “within the contiguous United States.”
A Skilled Workforce
One of the most critical components in operating a successful contact center is a labor market with the skill sets (e.g., subject matter expertise, foreign language ability) required to support your center’s needs. Try to locate your site within a 30-minute commute of such a labor market and consider the degree of competition for this labor from other contact centers and related industries, which will impact your recruitment and retention efforts.
Choose a location where high-quality labor can be attracted at a reasonable cost, as this is the single biggest expense in running a contact center. Due diligence should include a detailed labor market analysis of available data, as well as actual market conditions currently being experienced by local employers.
Weigh the potential adverse impacts in a given location: unfavorable labor laws, unionization, telemarketing regulations, and other labor-related issues specific to the geographic area under consideration.
Availability of a Facility
Choose an area where a facility of sufficient size can be obtained in a timely manner at a reasonable cost. Consider the adverse impact of unfavorable zoning policies and restrictions, tax incentives, and explore the possibility of any other issues that could affect availability and cost.
Telecommunications and Internet
Your site needs close proximity to network access points of major inter exchange carriers, as well as high-bandwidth connections to the carriers’ networks, and the Internet. Diversify your route and carrier to guard against catastrophic outages.
More isolated locations may have power issues. Your site location should have affordable, reliable, and redundant electric power, as well as a contingency back-up source in place (specify generator requirements; that is, how long do you need your facility to be able to run on back-up power?). Also, make sure the location has access to a secondary power grid or power source in case the primaries fail.
Chose a geographic location that minimizes the effect of catastrophic weather on your contact center’s operational continuity. For multi-site solutions, select locations sufficiently far apart to effectively eliminate the possibility of adverse weather conditions affecting the operation of all sites simultaneously.
Choose locations and structures in locations deemed appropriate for contact centers. Local jurisdictions often make crime reports for a location available. The nature and frequency of crime in a possible location, and the safety features incorporated into or absent from an existing structure, are important considerations. You don’t want employees entering an area that isn’t safe, and potential employees won’t want to work there either.