Now What? The Impact of Chaos on Contact Center Operations

FROM THE FEBRUARY 2018 ISSUE

The Impact of Chaos on Contact Center Operations
Illustration by Stephanie Scott
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We have all at one time or another uttered the phrase, “Now what?” According to TheFreeDictionary.com, this phrase means, “What is going to happen now? What kind of new problem has arisen?” In these days, the question is asked frequently and not always as it relates to the contact center. For the purpose of this article, I will focus on the CHAOS that occurs when looking for the answer to the “Now what?” question.

CHAOS is sadly the condition in which far too many contact centers “live.” The evidence is abundant and in my opinion the condition is getting worse not better. I am going to use the word CHAOS to identify five conditions contributing to growing CHAOS and what contact center leadership must do to stop this pattern.

Confusion and Conflict

Confusion is a constant companion when it comes to CHAOS and confusion often leads to conflict. Confusion is connected to how the operation manages change. Change comes in many forms in the contact center; changes in relevant and actionable information are among the biggest issues. Communication is at the core of much of this CHAOS, or more accurately, the lack of effective and efficient communication. Contact center frontline agents handle an increasing volume of complex issues, as most simple tasks are completed via automated services. This contact complexity requires additional effort around stabilization, standardization and scalability in the intelligent distribution of information necessary for the frontline to be effective.

Conduct an audit of your information management methodology. Do you even have one? Is there an information gatekeeper? Far too many operations allow just about anybody across the enterprise to swoop into the contact center with information requests or changes to policies, procedures, products and services. A great indicator of CHAOS is when information strategies begin to include distributing “really important” information via a “colored” paper memo laid upon reps’ chairs “to make sure they see it and read it.” When they do see it and read it, they naturally utter, “Now what?”

Have you ever thought about being the person who has to deal with the confusion of having the multiple sources of information critical to properly doing your job arrive in various forms from any number of sources? This creates not only confusion but conflict—the conflict of being a reasonably smart person unable to perform a task because the relevant information isn’t readily available. And it is not only information needs that are not being met. Far too often, training is also missing. Training is the most canceled activity in contact centers and confusion dominates where knowledge gaps exist.

Let’s face it… crossfunctional conflict exists in many organizations. The contact center supports multiple departments and often without a lot of respect. The willingness to blame, indict, complain about the contact center in some organizations (hello, healthcare) has been elevated to an art form. This crossfunctional dysfunction often goes all the way to the top. One may observe executives bickering over whose “fault” something was/is when in fact the actual “fault” lies more in poor communication, nonexistent collaboration and a lack of shared goals and objectives when it comes to strategic goals. So, “Now what?”

In order to avoid confusion and conflict, leaders must learn to overcome the “can’t,” “don’t have time” and “have no choice” arguments against properly managing and distributing information and conducting appropriate training related to ongoing business changes.

Have the Right Number of People in the Right Place at the Right Time

Workforce management (WFM) excellence is what it takes to ensure a properly staffed operation and a properly staffed operation is what it takes to avoid the ultimate in CHAOS… understaffing. Unfortunately, proper WFM skills are part of what is missing in contact center operations that are “flying by the seat of their pants.” Organizations that do not provide contact center management training to their leadership are either deliberately or benignly negligent or simply clueless as to the importance of contact center operational know-how. So, “Now what?”

I admit to a bit of cynicism having spent 30 years doing contact center work. Yet I continue to see organizations totally reject the notion that understaffing is a deadly norm that underpins CHAOS in contact centers. Understaffing leads to burnout. It is also a major factor in the lack of proper training (“We can’t take anyone off the phone”) and ultimately results in high levels of turnover. For all the rhetoric around cost savings “gained” by understaffing no one seems to calculate the actual cost of burnout and turnover. Leaders who have been abandoned to fend for themselves in this realm have attempted to use some homegrown models that simply don’t and won’t ever work.

I recently reviewed a formula that attempted to staff to an abandon rate. I confess to never having seen such an attempt because it is (in my experience) not possible. The formula had no factor for delay (service level), no factor for randomly arriving workload, no factor for agent utilization or shrinkage, and in the end, no proper staffing model. So, “Now what?”

The real issue for me is the performance of the operation… double-digit abandon, lengthy delays for callers and nearly 100% utilization of the reps. In spite of all that evidence of failure, management remains defensive of their planning process. You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge!

There are institutions such as healthcare that centralize services like appointment scheduling. They use a staffing algorithm that has the physician practices they serve “paying/budgeting” for the staff. This inevitably leads to the physician practices believing that the resources “belong” to them. The model itself resists crosstraining to gain efficiencies and reps align to the practice and not the contact center. This is a budget nightmare that indicates weaknesses when it comes to proper enterprise staffing as well as budgeting that flies in the face of the entire concept of centralization. So, “Now what?”

Contact center leaders need to know WFM in and out and backwards. They may not know the hows, but they need to know the whats and the whys. An analyst may perform the actual WFM functions, but it is the leaders who make the case to senior leadership for resources and associated budget dollars that allow the contact center to deliver on the customer experience promise.

All the Workarounds Must Go

Workarounds are often crafted to be “temporary.” But how often have they moved from temporary to permanent? It is likely more frequent than intended. Workarounds often represent the issues that exist with systems that, in simple terms, “don’t talk to each other.”

Any time reps must rekey information, cut and paste, and repeatedly enter information on multiple pages, they are doing workarounds. These occur often in organizations with many legacy systems that have not been upgraded and cannot integrate into newer systems. Workarounds are obstacles to digital access! So, “Now what?”

Document any and all processes that include workarounds. Begin to plan how to eliminate them and how to make that case to senior management. Workarounds make things take longer, generate more errors, cost more to handle, and often require specialization or escalation to be completed. In effect, workarounds cause operational CHAOS.

Optimize Technology and Processes

CHAOS in systems and processes is rampant and often due to an old infrastructure and workarounds. Proper system infrastructure is a big part of the foundation upon which the contact center sits. System acquisition and process design, when done poorly or negligently, are contributing factors to CHAOS. Many major systems like telecom, WFM, quality recording, knowledge management and CRM are purchased at the enterprise level with little or no input from the contact center community. So, “Now what?”

Contact center leaders need to step up and get a seat at the technology decision-making table to avoid CHAOS.

Scalability Sustains Growth, Peace and Calm

Scalability is a factor in many contact center operations struggling to keep up with strategic objectives for growth and the customer experience. The ability to scale is in many ways as simple as avoiding the pitfalls of the previous four contributing factors to CHAOS.

Scalability is based on standardization and sustainability; when these elements are not present there is instead CHAOS. The first step in achieving scalability is to stabilize the operation by focusing on standardization and sustainability. Standards must exist around every operational activity critical to success… from the organizational model (e.g., supervisor to staff ratio, dedicated training, technology support, and WFM/business analytics resources) to crossfunctional partnerships. Standards contribute to sustainability because the operation is able to continue with or without a particular individual or leader as the “glue” that holds it all together.

So, “Now What?”

To avoid CHAOS, work from the bottom up of this article. Begin with a stabilization assessment to identify all factors across the contact center. Do nothing until you have a solid grasp of the big picture and work through each key operational area—organizational model, training, hiring, retention, WFM, technology, process, crossfunctional alignment, KPIs and business analytics. That is a good start!

Let’s make 2018 the year of CALM over CHAOS. Here’s hoping that your answer to “Now what?” brings positive change for your organization.

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FROMContact Center Pipeline February 2018
Kathleen Peterson
Kathleen M. Peterson is the Founder and Chief Vision Officer of PowerHouse Consulting, Kathleen is an acclaimed Contact Center consultant and recognized industry visionary. She offers a refreshing and sometimes challenging philosophy to positioning the Contact Center as the true lifeline of the enterprise—believing that vision, brand, leadership and execution combine to deliver a powerful customer experience. Kathleen has emerged as one of the most sought-after experts and consulting partner in the field of customer experience working with the world’s top customer-focused companies, and is published widely in the most prestigious industry journals in the U.S. and abroad. As a featured speaker at conferences and Fortune 500 companies, she has shared her humor, knowledge, and experience across four continents, including Contact Center conference keynotes in the United States, London, Paris, Turkey, Dubai, and Hong Kong. Kathleen also served as Conference Chair for the North American Conference on Customer Service Management.