Publisher’s note: Rob has kindly written and expanded on this article for Contact Center Pipeline he first wrote and published on LinkedIn titled “Where Have all the People Gone?”
The COVID-19 pandemia have changed the business landscape in countless ways. Remote working has been significantly accelerated, as have the technologies used to support it.
At the same time, job satisfaction is at an all time low, if the numbers of people changing jobs are any measure. Businesses are having to rethink how to engage with employees to keep them happy, motivated, and engaged.
No area of the business has been impacted by the Great Resignation more than the contact center. Many organizations, which only two years ago were focused on improving the customer experience (CX) and digitizing the contact center, are now unable to meet basic service levels.
We have seen a constant problem across a wide variety of our customers—they simply can’t get enough people to staff their customer service operations.
Staff are resigning at unheard of rates, and hiring has become next to impossible. ACD queue times of two hours or more are becoming routine at many companies and digital wait times are just as bad.
Many contact centers are now looking to technology to not only help resolve the issue, but also to help them determine the magnitude and shape of the overall problem, while continuing to grow and increase profitability.
Change of Focus
Pre-COVID, the big focus of our industry was split between digital transformation and the ever-increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) applications.
Many companies had started down the digital transformation path of implementing some type of digital solution and were in the evaluation or pilot stages of conversational AI applications.
These initiatives have in some ways exacerbated the problems being felt today.
Siloed digital applications offer end-customers new ways to communicate with businesses, but they hide the problems that are caused by staffing shortages.
Chat, email, messaging, and even AI self-service volumes are looked at independently of voice and independently of each other, so that the true volume of interactions coming into the contact center are often unknown.
Information on whether or not a digital channel is actually solving an issue, or whether it is driving additional call volumes, is also not known.
Contact reason tracking and shaping is not used to determine which types of interactions can be best handled on which channel, leading to an increase in contact rates when all channels are evaluated.
Even basic scheduling is impacted when workforce management (WFM) applications are getting disjointed or there is overlapping information from multiple systems.
The pace of technology advancement in the contact center should and will continue to move forward.
But it should do so with a renewed and urgent focus on how a company can reduce handle times and contact volumes, automate more successfully, and provide improved service to their customers with fewer people.
Contact centers today need to move their focus away from nuanced CX improvements, and instead look to reducing contacts and improving the agent experience.
The most urgent problem experienced by a contact center is simply not being able to get enough bums in seats.
Improving the agent’s ability to provide accurate and concise service, while simultaneously reducing their overall load, is the most direct way of getting your contact center service problem resolved.
The Impact of First Contact Resolution
First contact resolution (FCR)—long a favorite metric of mine because it reduces contact volumes while driving up customer satisfaction—needs a fresh look.
FCR is still the home run of contact center statistics in that it effects almost every other measurement of success.
Properly measured FCR—that is, the same customer contacting you for the same reason, within a given time frame—can be used to help you not only reduce contacts, but will increase customer satisfaction and reduce customer effort all at the same time.
Properly measured FCR also tracks cross channel trends. It can be used to pinpoint specific training problems by identifying which agents are struggling at resolving what types of contacts.
Agents with low Agent Solve Rates (which is the agent’s view of FCR) for specific contact reasons or for specific channels can be trained on the unique aspects of those contact types.
While general training is great, but when you can zero in on individual agents with specific issues, your training becomes more effective, and will directly help drive down volumes.
FCR that is low across the entire agent population will indicate that there are broken processes and point your teams to the impacted processes that need to be improved to directly reduce contact volumes. More evaluation of these processes will be required for sure, but at least you will know where to look.
All of this information will help address your contact volumes and will also help improve the agents’ working conditions by ensuring they have the training and systems they need to do their jobs, while providing them with fewer irate customer calls.
Tracking contact reasons, details, and customer interactions, across all contact channels will provide a comprehensive view of how your contact center is performing. It also provides the information you need to directly improve FCR and eliminate repeat contacts.
An additional benefit of tracking FCR across channels is that you can start to see contact patterns. Many companies can’t track customers across different channels—those hopping from chat to email or to voice. Understanding these behaviors will also help identify problem areas that you can resolve.
Remember that tracking FCR is not the end in itself, but when trying to optimize and improve your overall business productivity, FCR is the best indicator for pointing out what you don’t know.
How AI Applications Can Help
Many contact centers are also looking to AI applications to deflect call volumes via AI-assisted service. But while AI is still an important initiative, efforts should be focused primarily on augmenting the agents’ capabilities rather than providing yet another form of self-service.
Most conversational AI initiatives are focused on messaging channels, but most of your contacts are still coming in via voice. (Email is probably a strong second, but many businesses are not tracking it, so this is a huge area for improvement all on its own!)
As a combined result of low contact volumes via chat, along with limitations in scope, conversational AI applications have limited effect in deflecting live contacts.
But using a virtual agent assistant application to augment the agent’s capabilities will allow an AI application to shine—AI is best used to augment a human being, not to replace one.
And while this type of automated assistant will help your seasoned veterans a bit, it will help your new agents tremendously, and speed up their overall speed to competency.
With turnover rates as high as they are in contact centers today, an agent assistant application is going to be a key differentiator when onboarding new staff and getting them productive quickly and efficiently.
Properly implemented, these tools will also drive up employee engagement and job satisfaction, thereby reducing your staff churn. It also won’t hurt your word of mouth or viral recruiting for new agents, as word gets out that your contact center can be a great and innovative place to work. Who doesn’t like working with cool technology that actually helps them do their jobs?
Another dividend for a virtual agent assistant is that it will also help increase FCR rates by providing accurate and consistent information. That’s a multi-win for the customers, the organization, and for the agents, whose performance evaluations often include the FCR metrics.
Ensure Agent and Customer Success
The caveat is to ensure that the augmentation you provide with a virtual agent assistant application is actually working in the agent’s and ultimately the customer’s favor. It needs to be integrated into the agent’s daily desktop routine and provide assistance, while still allowing the agent access to the other tools they need.
Additionally, your agent assistant application needs to be contextually aware with the information, sentiment, or other AI-derived data that it displays.
As agents move between different customer tasks, the assistant cannot be siloed and confusing. For the busy contact center agent, the paradigm of the AI assistance needs to shift with each customer cleanly.
Agents do the same thing over and over again, 60 times a day, five days a week. Any assistant application needs to be obvious, easy to use, and show the right customer. It also needs to be available for every channel, and for every customer service application an agent is expected to use for servicing contacts.
Integrating a virtual agent assistant application—either with AI or a knowledge base—seamlessly into an agent’s contact center workspace allows you to provide a seamless coaching and assistance experience for your agents, resulting in an immediate reduction in time to productivity for new agents.
Businesses need to begin focusing less on the nuances of customer service. Staff shortages are highlighting some very obvious problems in the agent experience that inhibits them from simply getting to your customers in the first place.
FCR and a solid virtual agent assistant AI application and/or knowledge base, delivered cleanly through a single agent desktop, will go a long way towards getting your center back on track, with queue times your customers can accept.