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ICMI Contact Center Demo Case Study Review


Presented By: CrmXchange

 The ICMI Contact Center Demo-Conference takes place September 25-27, 2017 at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas. In addition to the exhibits, it boasts a comprehensive education program which includes a number of high interest case studies. CRMXchange spoke to several of the key presenters to provide an in-depth look at significant initiatives and proven success stories. In a  post-event follow-up, CRMXchange will also report on emerging solutions from sponsors.


 Case Study 1: US Bancorp Fund Services Shares Best Practices for Maximizing Contact Center Talent  

 Everyone knows that the contact center can be an extremely stressful environment where the day-to-day responsibilities are often emotionally draining. And for the best and brightest agents with ambitions for future advancement, the lack of upward mobility often makes it difficult to see their position as the pathway to a long-term career. But there are organizations that recognize the need for a program that addresses both the need for succession planning and the ongoing challenge of providing proactive employee engagement.

 Milwaukee (WI) based US Bancorp Fund Services, which provides solutions for mutual funds, closed-end funds, multiple series trusts, partnerships, and offshore funds, will share details about the successful program they put in place about five years ago at the ICMI Contact Center Demo and Conference in Las Vegas. Amber Krueger, who is the Operations Manager and Contact Center Site Manager, will make the presentation.

 “Essentially, our Leadership Group takes people who have progressed into our top tier of agents and we determine who has interest in developing into leaders and who we feel has leadership potential,” she said. “We then pull them in to a smaller group of agents where they get to spend a portion of their time working on projects designed to help them move into a management role. In this capacity, they meet with my superior, the Director of Contact Centers, either individually or as a group. He works with them directly to help them develop the leadership characteristics he believes are necessary to help them move to the next level.”

 The members of the Leadership Group, men and women who have shone above the rest over their 1 to 2-year tenure with the company, are tasked with spearheading strategic initiatives and becoming what Krueger called “peer mentors,” pairing them up with new members of the team and allowing them to build working relationships. “We give them essentially what we consider a taste of management responsibilities … of what it’s like to be working on the business as opposed to simply in the business,” noted Krueger.  “They need to be prepared to answer agents’ questions and are often called upon to step in when their managers are involved in meetings.”

 “This is the pool of people …usually about 8 to 10 at any given time… that we see as being those who will fill team lead roles when they come open,” she said. However, as a small contact center with about 50 total agents over two locations, such leadership roles are not often available. “Our attrition rate is relatively low at both the management and agent level,” said Kruger. “Over the past several years, we’ve promoted perhaps 3 or 4 people from the Leadership Group to management level roles.” But even though not everyone can be promoted, the goal is to keep these high-performing individuals in the department and provide sufficient variety to maintain their motivation. “Many of our hires are people out of college with finance degrees who want to get their MBAs and move on to business management.,” said Krueger. “So, by giving these ‘rockstars’ added exposure, positioning them to work with other departments, make connections with senior managers, and by giving them time away from simply being on the phones, it allows them to see themselves as being at the top of the list for promotion."

 Not all the Leadership Group members come from the contact center; US Bancorp Fund Services also takes individuals from their call review team. They work on improving customer experience but are not on the phones anymore.  At this point, nearly all contact center activities are conducted over the phone, although chat is about to be implemented and a subset of the team works on email interactions.

The following are some of the best practices that Krueger will be including in her presentation:  

  •  Selecting the right candidates based on successful performance, meeting all KPIs for their current position
  •  Having both the line manager and the agent make a formal request to be brought into the program, outlining both goals and objectives 
  •  An evaluation process by senior managers to identify those with leadership potential 
  •  Once selected, beginning a process of developing key leadership skills, such as creating effective presentations and delegating tasks, identifying expectations, building trust and nurturing collaboration, making meaningful decisions, solving problems efficiently, time management, managing conflicts, assessing performance, giving productive feedback, motivating others, coaching and more
  •  Conducting regular touchpoint meetings both individually and as a group with the department head to provide productive feedback along the way

 As the process moves forward, Leadership Group members are brought into monthly management meetings and tasked with communicating what was covered with them to the staff. They are given the initiative to suggest projects and both delegate tasks to others and take on delegated tasks that help ease the workload of managers. “The program helps pull people even further into the vision and they become more of a partner,” said Krueger, “it contributes to engagement and retention on several levels.” While the Leadership Group members are still on the phone most of the time, they are given time to work on other projects, which helps to further develop their time management skills.

 The KPIs which US Bancorp Fund Services agents are rated on are part of the company’s Customer Experience score and include such metrics as: call quality, internal and external accuracy, first call resolution and agent availability (their version of schedule adherence), meeting SLAs, and average speed of answer.

 Over the years, there have been people who have wanted to be in the leadership program, but struggled with it once accepted. “It’s a matter of having an honest conversation and realizing that being in the group is not the right fit at the right time,” said Krueger.  "We can then go into the development plan and ask the person if he or she wants to get back into the program and then outline what needs to be done to make that happen. We can also work together to find alternatives to keep the individual engaged outside the group.”

 One of the indications of the program’s success is that there have been few instances of having a Leadership Group member not work out. “We have observed performance for a year or two and have only brought them in after they’ve submitted their goals and explained why they want to be a part of it. We’ve built more in at the front end so we have fewer difficult conversations on the back end.”


 Case Study 2: Is the Agent Handling Your Interaction Truly #FreetoHelp? 

 It’s an all-too-familiar situation. You’re trying to get an issue resolved and while the agent you’re involved with seems like he or she wants to help as much as they can, you get the feeling that something is holding them back. It’s most apparent when you’re on the phone…you can hear the hesitation in a rep’s voice. But it also comes up in non-verbal communications as well…the carefully worded but emotionless email…the clipped, perfunctory responses in chat sessions.

 Two self-described customer service “lifers” who share a worldview that emphasizes the importance of giving front-line personnel a higher level of decision-making capabilities have embarked on a new project.  #FreetoHelp is an 11-question survey designed to find out what agents wish they would be allowed to do to help customers with results to be presented as a case study at the 2017 ICMI Contact Center Demo and Conference event in Las Vegas.

  “We believe most front-line agents are extraordinarily willing to help, but they’re often prevented from giving great service by rigid policies, difficult managers, imperfect software, and unrealistic expectations,” said Leslie O’Flavahan, owner of EWRITE, a service designed to help agents write better email, chat, social media and text. 

 Her partner in the venture is Jenny Dempsey, who has a history of having what she calls “hybrid jobs” which blend customer service management and front-line responsibilities.  Dempsey is currently Social Media and Customer Experience Manager for NumberBarn.com which enables businesses to find new local and toll-free US numbers as well as being the founder of Dempsey Wellness.  “Our current mission is to tap the wisdom of customer service agents who speak with or write to customers all day, every day,” she said.  “The information we gather will help us to find out how to keep customer care organizations from getting in the way of good service. One key goal is to encourage managers to build higher levels of trust in their agents and think openly about empowering them.”  

 The genesis of #FreetoHelp was a question in one of ICMI’s weekly series of chats in 2016 about how much decision-making ability agents are permitted. This sparked an epiphany in the bicoastal team (O’Flavahan is from Washington, Dempsey from San Diego) and a desire to learn the reasons why agents are free or not to help. The two developed an instant affinity as both thinkers and advocates. They decided to create a community to explore what agents feel would provide them the freedom they need to be helpful and give them a voice in making it happen: how can service improve with the right tools, resources and ability to be more #FreeToHelp.

 Contrary to their initial belief that most agents were encumbered, they found out that many were in fact empowered to make decisions on the customer’s behalf and were not being punished for “going outside the lines,” as O’Flavahan put it.  The initial wave of survey results they received indicate that the managers of the respondents encouraged agents to “go for it” when they wanted to take new directions to help customers and made efforts to get them the tools that they said they needed to improve.

 “We thought at the beginning that we would be swimming against the tide,” said O’Flavahan. “But then we found that there was a lot of momentum, but there are still a number of obstacles.” While there are many progressive organizations, there are still holdouts. “If you must ask to go to the rest room, you can’t be empowered,” she said.  The campaign has been publicized on a Facebook page and with a Twitter handle. FreetoHelp will also be launching a blog to share some of the more cogent comments that have been made. In addition to those who have been taking the anonymous survey on a voluntary basis, Dempsey and O’Flavahan have also specifically targeted network contacts and previous companies with which they have been associated.

 They are encouraged not just by the level of response –more than 130 came in several weeks before the presentation with a goal of 500 total—but by the depth of the answers. “Most of the questions on the survey encouraged optional comments,” said O’Flavahan. “About one of every three respondents are not just commenting, but providing extremely detailed responses. And that never happens.” Another surprising sidelight was that 54% of the early responders had been in the customer service industry for 11 years or more. Most of those who answered are on a dedicated channel, either email (60%) or voice (25%), with only 13% reporting that they had omnichannel responsibilities.

 One of the goals of the study is to establish a link between agents’ ability to help customers and the need for businesses to modify quality monitoring processes that both O’Flavahan and Dempsey believe limit individual decision making. “Some quality scorecards beat the decision making right out of agent,” said O’Flavahan. “One client was telling me about a chat measurement scorecard that evaluated how many pleasantries –such as saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ – that an agent used in an interaction. Awarding points on this type of criteria muddies the waters and puts the agent in the position of having to think more about what expressions they’re using than actually helping the customer.  Average Handle Time (AHT) is another metric that Dempsey and O’Flavahan question the need to continue, theorizing that stopping or suspending its measurement would contribute to giving agents more flexibility.

 The overall purpose is to build awareness of what makes an agent free to help and how to reduce the resistance to allowing agents to make good decisions in companies. “What we have learned is that the one thing that agents want the most is to be able to make an exception for a customer when they feel it is justified to do so,” said O’Flavahan. "The next step will be to turn to management and make a case why this should be allowed…and if not, what are the obstacles?”

 As more companies hear about this project, there has been growing interest in learning about what agents feel they need in order to maximize their effectiveness in helping customers. O’Flavahan and Dempsey plan to accept requests to do custom surveys for individual contact center environments.


  Case Study 3: Purina Employs Voice of the Customer to Reinvigorate Relationships 

 No matter what product or service they’re inquiring about, today’s customers have become more demanding than ever in expecting accurate answers and responsive service…and quicker to pick up stakes and move on when they feel that a company is not meeting these demands. But there are few sectors more challenging to deal with than pet owners, who can be even more concerned about the health of their companions than new mothers are about their babies.

 Pet food giant Nestle Purina PetCare found themselves in an uncomfortable position when they changed outsourcing suppliers approximately 18 months ago. There were transition issues and Purina experienced an alarming 40% drop in satisfaction in how they handled a number of transactions – particularly on email--at the point of the changeover.  Customers wanted more detailed information about ingredients in the products and the parameters of marketing promotions which they didn’t feel they were getting. More negative comments were also coming up on social media.

 In an environment now experiencing a proliferation of competitive boutique pet food suppliers, Purina saw an urgent need for a more sophisticated Voice of the Customer (VOC) to get a better handle and actionable insights on why customers might be becoming disillusioned with the brand.

  “Too often, the VOC process consumes too many resources, provides limited value, and is not effective at driving organizational change,” said John Goodman, Vice Chairman, Customer Care Measurement and Consulting. “It needs to be an effective tool to repair company processes, optimize the use of contact center resources, and contribute to delivering a consistently better customer experience.”  Goodman is known as a pioneer in identifying “customer experience” as a business concept and an author and advocate who has spent much of his time over the past three decades defining best practices.in “CE” as he calls it, not bowing to the more widely used “CX” abbreviation. He will make the presentation along with Terri DeMent, Manager, Consumer Services for Nestlé Purina PetCare.

 One of the key research reports he cites in pointing up what causes customer dissatisfaction is the National Rage Study. This is an ongoing update of a White House-sponsored study that began in the 1970s, which was instrumental in quantifying the value of improved service and quality. It also ultimately inspired the creation of the GE Answer Center in 1981, one of the first 800-number call centers in the US which popularized the use of toll-free numbers for customer service.

 While the 2017 study will not be released until November, Goodman noted that the 2015 survey revealed that respondents believed that service was not better now than it was in 1976. “Time is now more important to consumers than money,” he said. “People are angrier than ever about wasting hours trying to get answers and poor response.” But 20% of dissatisfied customers still do not complain, although this suggests that an avalanche of business being lost as a result. While it does not apply to Purina, Goodman noted that many of the problems in society are now technology-based. “As products…autos … continue to pile on more and more technology, it’s driving complaints. Manuals have become longer than ever and no one reads them anymore, so they turn to the company for help.’

 The greatest disconnects between what customers want and what they believe they get, according to the 2015 study, is an explanation of what caused an issue –80% want it and only 18% perceive they have received it. The numbers are similar for those who want an assurance that an issue will not recur: 81% desire it but only 15% feel that they are getting. Another somewhat scary statistic: 24% want “revenge” against a brand, but only 2% think they are getting it.

 The impetus of the Purina VOC program was to understand what makes agents successful, and pick the battles worth fighting since not every problem can be resolved and to engage supervisors and agents alike. The prescription for change called for Purina to ramp up new staff and provide greater agent empowerment and engagement. This called for emphasis on developing key skills, such as improving clarity of response, accuracy, personalization, and helpfulness, while ensuring that customers get the information they request. Among the suggestions for Purina was that they hire pet owners to facilitate engagement, empathy and credibility, nest experienced agents with those less grounded in the process and train agents in providing “common courtesies” included soft skills, response flexibility and engagement.

  “The language that people use has impact,” said Goodman. “It can make the difference between people thinking they had a negative experience that can be corrected versus recommending that others don’t do business with the brand.  

 Areas be covered on how the VOC has contributed to improvement at Purina include:

 --  Analysis to identify the key behaviors with most impact with an eye on the basics – the surveys were geared to find out what agent behaviors were required to “make it right” with customers
 --   Improve candidate vetting process to include better writing skills
 --   Work with supervisors and trainers to simplify monitoring sheet and focus on key drivers
 --   Enhance, simplify and fine tune the social media response process
 --   Tie content on website to key issues being called about

Among the stated objectives of the program was to understand what’s really important, and set priorities based on controllable driver and building a VOC process that leverages all data sources to all levels. But the ultimate goal was recovering from upheaval, which Goodman analogized to “changing tires at 40 mph.” Based on the result, the effort was successful. Contact handling satisfaction for the e-mail segment improved for four consecutive quarters by more than 30%--from 40.4% in Q2 2016 to 70.6% in Q2 2017.  It also spurred a significant rise in customer loyalty and likeliness to buy and recommend Neste Purina PetCare Products over the same timeframe. And while Goodman maintains that comparatively few customers go social, believing that word of mouth is still more important, he feels that the more responsive system downsized the risk of major problems on the channel.