Handling Multiple Channels of Customer Interaction
Call centers are quickly becoming multi-channel contact
centers with responsibilities extending far beyond handling traditional inbound
phone calls to answering e-mail, Internet-telephony and fax messages. As the
multi channel contact center rapidly becomes a reality, managing these new
customer interactions brings unique challenges for your center.
The key is to look at your contact center to see how your
existing practices will be affected by implementing multiple channels of
contact. You need to assess your contact center —particularly your workforce
—and understand the types of interactions you wish to implement. We’ll guide
you through this analysis process.
LIFE BEFORE MULTIPLE CHANNELS OF CUSTOMER CONTACT
Before we start talking about multi channel contact
centers, let’s review traditional inbound call centers and how they work as a
point of comparison. In a traditional call center, calls come in and are routed
to available agents who have the oral communication skills necessary to assist a
variety of callers. To figure out
staffing for these incoming calls, companies generally use some form of the
Erlang-C equation to understand how much higher than actual workload they need
to staff to meet service requirements. Erlang-C is used whether a company
schedules manually with spreadsheets or automatically with workforce management
UNDERSTANDING CONTACT CHANNEL DIFFERENCES
In a multi channel contact center, customer interaction
becomes more complicated—customers may be calling you, sending you e-mail or
using Web chat technology, voice over IP, fax or even surface mail. Each of
these media has its challenges —they may require different agent skill sets
than phone calls, and customers may have different service expectations.
Although you may be answering the same customer question as you once did over
the phone, the scheduling issues are quite different.
To explore the differences in media, we’ll look at:
expectations are a key difference between traditional phone calls and other
types of interactions. Currently, customers have relatively high requirements
for response to phone calls (typical response ranges from 80 percent or more in
20 to 600 seconds). Voice over IP is essentially the same as phone calls and is
handled in the same manner. Subsequently, customers’ service expectations are
high for IP calls, and agents have the same skills as those required in a
traditional call center.
Service expectations are significantly lower (1 to 48 hours
is about the norm) for many of the technologies that require written instead of
oral response (e-mail and Web requests); however, industry trends point to a
clear increase in customers’ service expectations for these media. Response
times for these media will shrink from hours to minutes.
Different contact media require particular agent skill
sets. Whereas phone calls and IP calls demand oral communication skills and
training, agents handling e-mail or Web chats need to be skilled in written
communication. In the case of these
written communication contact media, agents need to be particularly good at
being clear and direct. If written customer interactions are not handled
effectively, a customer’s next step will probably be to pick up the phone.
When a customer calls you after trying unsuccessfully to send you an e-mail
message, the cost of that interaction increases. Another difference between
handling customer phone calls and other types of inter-actions (excluding voice
over IP) is backlog. Backlog refers to the queue of contacts that have arrived
at your center, but have not yet been assigned to an agent.
Let’s look at an example of how e-mail backlog can affect
your call center. Your loyal customer, Susie, calls you for laundering
directions on the green T-shirt she just purchased, and you do not service the
call in a timeframe that’s acceptable to her. As a result, she hangs up the
phone. Maybe she will call you back, or maybe she is sufficiently annoyed that
she will shop around the next time she needs a green T-shirt. The bad news is
that you may have lost a customer. If there is any good news, it is that you no
longer need to worry about Susie being in your queue.
However, when Susie sends you an e-mail about laundering
directions for her green T-shirt and her request is not handled right away, her
e-mail does not just go away when you’re too busy to answer immediately.
Instead, her e-mail, along with others, piles into a backlog. This pile of
e-mail begins negatively affecting the service you provide to all the customers
who send you e-mail. You can’t answer the next e-mail until you climb out from
under the stack of queued e-mail.
Backlog is where it ends if you’re lucky. Unfortunately,
many customers who e-mail and fail to receive a response are likely to now call
you to make sure their request was received. This is probably the last thing you
need—the reason e-mail isn’t getting read is because you’re overloaded.
So, the vicious cycle continues. The same cycling effect occurs for other media
as well: Web chat, faxes and surface mail.
On the flip side, backlog can be a good thing.
Since you are able to store up these contacts, you can staff differently
than you do in a phone call center where you need to constantly staff higher
than workload because of the random arrival of calls. This results in lower
costs in staffing for interactions.
The longer service goals for these contact media (vis-à-vis
phone calls) also give you more flexibility in scheduling.
Moreover, the lower cost of transmitting information via
the Internet or e-mail versus placing a phone call further increases the cost
benefits of other customer interaction channels. Gartner Group estimates that
when Susie calls you and actually gets through, the interaction costs an average
of $5.01 GartnerGroup, "Five Levels of Customer
Service Web Sites." Customer Service and Support Strategies. June 23, 1998.
By contrast, if you were able to handle a “conversation” with
Susie through a Web chat, connecting with her would cost your center an average
of $0.25 to $3.50.
MULTIPLE CONTACT CHANNELS IN YOUR CENTER
The benefits of multiple customer contact channels can be
significant. Providing multiple ways for customers to interact with you enables
cost and experience efficiency gains. As we just saw, other contact channels
are relatively inexpensive compared with phone calls.
Provide better service. You can now assist customers in
the media they prefer, adding another layer to the customer experience.
Accommodate growth. You are able to handle growth in interactions by adding
more efficient and cost-effective ways for customers to contact you.
However, these benefits will only be realized if having
multiple contact channels matches your business model. Think about your
customers and how technologically savvy they are today — will they actually
contact you in a different way? Don’t dismiss the possibility of customers
sending you e-mail even if you think they don’t know how to turn on a
computer. Consider how quickly the
Internet is being adopted and how easy it is for companies and consumers to get
When it comes to multimedia, you also want to think about
and communicate with other departments in our organization. How are they using
e-mail and Internet technology? For instance, maybe your marketing group has
just decided to include your Internet address and an e-mail contact on all of
your new literature, or maybe they’ve planned your Web site revamp to include
more information about your products. Changes
like these will probably have an impact on the number and type of interactions
coming into your center.
HOW TO STAFF FOR
MULTIPLE CONTACT CHANNELS IN YOUR CENTER
Figuring out the mix of interactions coming into your
center will help you determine how you need to staff for multiple contact
channels. Based on the volume of interactions you receive, your technology and
your workforce, you have some staffing choices: you can hire or train dedicated
agents who only handle a particular media, or you can pool agents across media
There are three primary reasons why you might choose to
have a dedicated group of agents handling a particular type of interaction:
You don’t have the technology or the need to
integrate multiple contact channels into your center,
The skills required to handle new media are very
different than those needed for existing channel(s) of interaction, or
You find that using dedicated agents is a good way to
experiment with multiple contact channels. You can see firsthand the issues
with a particular contact channel before fully integrating it into your
If you do pool (or share) agents across media, you have
can pool agents so they answer all interactions through out their entire
shift. For example, you have phone, e-mail and IP calls coming into your
center. Agent Andrew is logged into all three queues, so he handles phone
calls, e-mail and IP calls interchangeably from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (excluding
breaks and lunch). Having agents logged into multiple queues is what ACD
vendors have termed “blending.”
Alternatively, you can use a task-switching model in which agents spend a
block of time logged into a particular queue and then switch to another
queue for another block of time. If you do task-switching, agent.
Bill might be assigned to a phone queue in the morning from 8 a.m. to
12 p.m. After lunch, Bill is logged into the e-mail queue for the rest of
his shift (1 p.m. to 5 p.m.).
Planning and staffing for your center also requires
thinking about the similarities between different types of media and how you can
benefit from tasks requiring the same skills. You should consider the impact
switching between media has on the performance of your agents. Clearly, e-mail
response, Web chats and Web requests require common talents (skills in written
communication) and are similar enough that it is not difficult to shift from one
to another. These media lend themselves well to blending. Handling phone calls
and voice over IP is another natural grouping where the skills required are
almost identical and can be easily blended.
One of the key benefits of sharing agents across media is
cost—you are able to maximize the time agents spend in the center, minimizing
the time they are idle. If you are familiar with skills-based routing and
scheduling, you already know about the benefits of sharing agents across queues.
routing means that agents are logged into multiple ACD
queues.) Just as there are advantages to training agents in multiple products or
languages to handle calls on multiple queues, there are savings associated with
having agents who can handle multiple kinds of interaction media.
If you are looking at sharing agents across contact media,
you should proceed with caution. Integrating shared agents first requires a
successful mastery of “true” skills-based routing and scheduling.
Unfortunately, not all workforce management vendors provide a solution that
fully integrates forecasting, scheduling and managing multi skilled agents. Any
vendor that does not currently offer true skills-based workforce management will
have difficulty providing products to manage multiple customer contact channels.
GETTING PROACTIVE WITH MULTIPLE CONTACT CHANNELS
Finally, when you think about these staffing and cost
issues for your particular interaction mix, you should think about how you would
like customers to “talk” with you. Are there cost or operational benefits to
particular kinds of interaction?
Let’s go back to Susie and the laundering directions for
her green T-shirt. If she called one of your agents on the phone to ask for the
directions, it would cost you more than $5. Think of the cost savings if you had
directed Susie to an e-mail address or a Web site where she could get the same
information. This interaction might
only cost $0.25. Directing Susie to the Web site or an e-mail address probably
requires some coordination with departments outside your contact center.
For example, including the Web site or e-mail address on the shirt’s
tag might nudge Susie in the right direction. If you are confident with your
center’s ability to handle multiple customer interaction channels, make
preferred channels attractive to your customers by investing in your service
level on these queues. If you respond quickly to customers and you have the
answers they need, you will increase the likelihood that they will use this
method to contact you next time.
The reality is that your phone will not stop ringing
because you’ve increased the ways for customers to contact you. Even
businesses doing primarily e-commerce, have larger call centers than you might
think. So, you still need to effectively manage phone calls while thinking about
other channels of customer contact.
In this article, we looked at the impact of introducing
other contact channels in your center. Multiple contact channels affect staffing
in your center (they dictate the skills agents need to handle interactions) and
the service level your customers expect. To figure out if multiple contact
channels can have cost and efficiency benefits in your center, you need to look
at your overall business model —you need to know who your customers are, who
your agents are and the capabilities of your technology. From there, you can
determine the mix of interactions you expect to receive and staff your center
accordingly. Since there can be cost savings with particular types of
interactions, you may also want to look at becoming proactive and making
particular contact channels more attractive to your customers.
Even if you don’t deal with multiple interaction channels
today, you most likely will do so in the future. Having multiple customer
contact channels is really the next logical step in providing even more
personalized service to your customers. You add another dimension to the
customer experience – you can now provide the answers your customers require,
in the media they prefer. Moreover, if you have the staff, technology and need
for multiple contact channels, you can also realize significant cost savings and
efficiency gains by handling customer interactions via channels other than the