Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Agent Assisted Automation Carried Too Far

Elana Pritchard is a representative of Peak Advertising, a nationally recognized performance marketing agency.  You can reach Elana with questions and feedback at peakadvertisinglosangeles@gmail.com.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Agent-assisted Automation: What it is, and the best way to use it

No one wants to be put on hold.  Even the most patient of us cringes a little when we here the dreaded words, "estimated wait time..."  Or has this ever happened to you?  You wait patiently on the line during several minutes of purposely non-confrontational elevator music, only to hear an agent click their keyboards for what seems like decades on end in between the words, "hold on one second...one second...just one second..."  It's enough to make anyone slam the phone down in frustration! (or click the end button in a really cranky manner).  Perhaps I'm being a little dramatic, but regardless, long waits are one of the major pitfalls of the call center industry.  There have been many attempts to solve it, complex mathematical equations have been applied, scripts have been written, but often times the true problem lies in the inefficiency of the technology.  The agent doesn't want to spend 15 minutes typing on the keyboard while on the line with you, but that is the only way they can access the information they need.  This inefficiency causes an almost traffic jam like buildup of callers and then... cue the dreaded elevator music.  Agent assisted automation is basically a way to streamline the agent-caller interaction, potentially reducing stress and headaches for all involved.

   There are two sides to agent-assisted automation, the technology side, and the customer interaction side.  As the customer interaction side mainly deals with giving agent preassigned or even prerecorded snippets to interject during the conversation, and as I feel that this almost defeats the purpose of having a call center, I am going to focus more on the technological side.  Streamlining technology will actually give agents more time to interact on a human to human level with the customers (with a shorter wait for all).  After all, if you have a profile for the customer that is on a separate application from the database of the company, which is on a separate application from another branch of the company which you may need to access (and I could go on) that is going to make things very difficult.  By using technology to unify all of these separate elements you could vastly increase your customer service quality.  For example, if a customer has questions that span over several different departments and must be transferred, rather than making the customer repeat themselves multiple times, you could have the other department automatically be updated.  Those little inconveniences make the huge difference between a good experience and a bad one.  

   Again, though prerecorded audio can be a helpful tool in directing customers to the right department, I would be very cautious not to over use it.  When people make a phone call, it is usually because they have the desire to speak with a person.  If they did not have this desire, they would have used the internet.  Often times, when confronted with a long list of automated responses, people choose to disregard them and go directly to an operator to solve their problem.  Too many automated responses are impersonal, and make for a bad customer service experience.  Rather than investing in a long, complex automated response system, I would instead focus on better training for operators, so they will be prepared to answer many different types of questions with ease and accuracy.  This type of personalized service is the true mark of excellence for any company.
  By streamlining several separate systems into one, and by limiting prerecorded audio response, we give our call center efficiency and humanity.  As anyone who has seen Terry Gilliam's film Brazil or read a Kafka novel can testify, the last thing we as human beings need is a labyrinthian system of frazzled technology and disconnected departments.  If we have the power to simplify the world, why not choose to do so?

Elana is a representative of Peak Advertising, a nationally recognized performance marketing agency.  You can reach Elana with questions and feedback at peakadvertisinglosangeles@gmail.com

Monday, March 12, 2012

Maintaining A Healthy Environment Through Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards

   To many people the words "call center" conjure up all kinds of negative imagery.   Whether it be a temporary revolving door where employees are hired and quit on an almost daily basis, or long hours crammed inside a tiny cubicle with little pay and an angry supervisor ready to snap at any moment, it is safe to say that call centers have gotten a bad rap.  Though unfortunately places like this do exist that have earned call centers this negative reputation, this certainly doesn't have to be the case.  Maintaining a healthy and  positive environment at your call center is possible and beneficial, both to the employees and to your business.  Let's take a few minutes to talk about why.

   The ways to compensate workers fall into two categories: intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.  Extrinsic rewards are tangible rewards, like a sustainable salary or a year-end bonus.  Intrinsic rewards are psychological, like a sense of purpose or meaningfulness.   Consciously making a point to reward your workers in each way has its own benefits.

 Extrinsic Rewards

    There is a difference between simply reading a script, and having a meaningful interaction with a customer.  According to Wikipedia, one of the top criticisms of call centers practice is "obsequious behavior by operators".  If a worker feels unappreciated they will resent this feeling, and this resentment will show through in the quality of their work.  The "they're not paying me enough for this" mentality is detrimental to any field, but especially troublesome when it comes to customer service.  Naturally,  it goes without saying that it is hard for people to be positive and focused on a task if they are constantly worrying about how they are going to eat or whether or not their electricity will be cut off.  As talked about in the previous article, we are just beginning to be understand the positive psychological effects of a comforting voice   If a worker feels negative, this negativity will come through in their voice, and a negative reaction from the recipient (or in our case customer) is almost guaranteed.  On the flip side, when a worker feels justly compensated they will put positive energy back into their interactions.  Lets look at an example of how "paying for quality" has worked in another field.  Chef Thomas Keller made it a point of "going to extraordinary lengths to get the best ingredients, for paying suppliers more and for paying restaurant staff well".  This train of thought caused his restaurants to earn 3 Michelin stars, the highest honor a restaurant can receive. We should never think that call centers are exempt from the universal truths of good business.

Intrinsic Rewards

   Beyond tangibility lie the four intrinsic rewards: a sense of meaningfulness, sense of choice, sense of competence, and sense of progress.  In many ways these rewards are more important than the extrinsic ones (albeit they do not put food on the table).  When you add them all up these intrinsic rewards give a worker a sense of purpose; that they are doing an important job that they and they alone can accomplish.  This sense of purpose leads to a much higher work quality and a higher quality of life.  Lets take a closer look at each reward individually..

SENSE OF MEANINGFULNESS.  When workers have a strong sense of meaningfulness, they feel as though they are doing something valuable with their time.  Instead of simply performing a task to earn a paycheck, they feel as though they are making an important and beneficial contribution to society at large.

SENSE OF CHOICE.  When workers are given a sense of choice it shows that you consider them intelligent enough to make choices.  When people feel as though they are viewed as intelligent and capable, they are much more likely to behave intelligently on the job.

SENSE OF COMPETENCE.  When they have a sense of competence, workers feel like they are handling their responsibilities well.  This is accomplished by giving workers a fair amount of work to accomplish in a reasonable amount of time and never overburdening them with unrealistic goals, requirements, or restrictions. Logically, when workers do not feel stressed and overburdened their quality of work increases.

SENSE OF PROGRESS.  If workers feel as if they are moving forward in their work, they will feel a sense of prosperity and future, both in their own prospects and in your company.

   Customer service is a people business, and if you want to be successful people should be given top priority.  When workers feel that both their financial and psychological needs are met (or exceeded) they will view themselves as a valuable asset and behave as such.  Through the use of both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards, your call center will be guaranteed maximum performance and efficiency.  The quality of interactions between customers and workers will increase and become more meaningful, thereby unlocking the door to untold benefits for your business. 

Citations:  "Star Chef: Pay People What They Are Worth", Richard Gallant, CNN Opinion.  "The Four Intrinsic Rewards That Drive Employee Engagement", Kenneth Thomas, Ivey Business Journal.
"Call Centre"  Wikipedia article

You can reach Elana with questions and feedback at peakadvertisinglosangeles@gmail.com.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Positive Effects of the Human Voice

 Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning.
Maya Angelou

Has this ever happened to you?  The other day I encountered a problem that I simply could not solve on my own.  Feeling lost and frustrated, like many people these days my first response was to post my issue up online, sending a general call out for help and advice.  People responded, and within minutes I was sorting through various well-intentioned ideas and information.  Many of the answers and attempts to help me  made perfect sense, yet there was something still bothering me.  Why?
   One of the helpful friends who responded wanted to share some problem solving tips she learned from a website she had come across.  But she did something different than everybody else.  Instead of just posting a link up or emailing it to me, she sent me her number and the best time to reach her by phone.  At first, I was taken off guard.  I went over it in my mind, and in the recent history I could not recall even one person who had shared their phone number with me with instructions about when to call.  I am a friendly and personable person in life and online, yet phone conversations had somehow slipped away from me.  It seemed to me that many people have abandoned auditory communication in favor of email, texting, and message boards for their ease and efficiency.   Feeling intrigued and almost nostalgic, I dialed the number, not really sure what to expect. 
   "Hi Elana, how are you?"  The sentence had barely been spoken, and already begun to feel my stress levels decrease.  They continued to lower throughout the conversation, as she told me her potential solution to my problem and what links to go to to find out more information.  By the time I hung up the phone I was smiling and feeling peaceful.   Why did this simple exchange of ideas have such a strong impact on me?
   According to a recent article on the WIRED blog, the human voice could have benefits that go much deeper than merely relaying information.  The article tells of a study conducted by the University of Wisconsin where girls were exposed to an intellectually stressful situation in a laboratory setting, and then given the opportunity to communicate with their mothers, either in person, by phone, or via instant message.  Those who were exposed to the comforting voice in person and over the phone, showed a decrease in their stress hormone cortisol, as well as an increase in oxytocin, a hormone linked to pleasure.  The levels of those who communicated via chat showed no noticeable difference.  According to the study there maybe other non-chemical benefits as well.  The ability to detect emotion and intonation, to hear and acknowledge stress; these are all lost on the written page.  This would explain why my friends' online advice, however well-intentioned, had seemed to come up short.
   The potential psychological benefits of the human voice should be considered in marketing as well.  While it is possible to serve your clients online alone, the addition of the human voice element could give your company the edge it needs to send it to high levels of excellence.   When customers feel that not only are their base needs met but exceeded, new levels of trust in the working relationship can be formed and there is no lid on the potential places your company can go from there.
Citation: "Power of Mom's Voice Silenced By Instant Messages" by Brandon Keim, Wired Science, January 5th, 2012
You can reach Elana with questions and feedback at peakadvertisinglosangeles@gmail.com

Thursday, March 1, 2012

LEAD GENERATION TO OUTBOUND TELEMARKETING: How a two-fold approach can work for you

People don't like cold calling.  It's invasive.  They feel as if a mysterious force has acquired their information (perhaps through less than upstanding means), tracked them down, and is now attempting to sell them something, most of the time something they had no interest in buying in the first place.  Cold calling is an antiquated system that dates back to what seem like the pre-historic days before internet marketing. Back then, the opportunities to interact with a customer were limited, and few and far between.  Besides print and television advertising, cold calling was one of the few ways to reach a client, and one of the only ways to reach a client personally and verbally in his or her home. Scripted cold calls were born and became common place.  Dinner times were interrupted everywhere.
  We live in a much different age today.  For starters, the DNC list exists, and mobile devices and computers have made the opportunities to interact with a client almost infinite. Businesses can promote brand awareness with multiple creatives on a plethora of different websites and social media outlets.  New clients can be gained with a few clicks of a mouse.  Customers can have sales tailored especially to them and their needs.  A great time for new growth!
   You may ask yourself then, why should a company bother with calling people at all?  If you can interact with people visually and intellectually through internet advertising on a range of mobile devices and computers shouldn't that be enough?  The truth is, it isn't.  Funny enough, too much internet advertising can have the same daunting mysterious force effect, only this time on the opposite end of the spectrum.  What's missing?  The humanity.  The personal connection you can only get from the human voice.  We are biologically wired to want to hear it.  It has many positive psychological effects, and in this case it reminds us that real people are out there on the other end of the internet, not just computers.
   Internet lead generation is a wonderful first step to gaining a lasting relationship with a client.   Companies can gather a good perspective about a person's interests and preferences from the choices they make online.  From there, the transition over to a verbal relationship is all the more easy and relevant.  Now, when they get the call instead of feeling violated,  they feel cared for and attended to.  And to quote Michael Leboeuf, "a satisfied customer is the best business strategy of all."
   With quality ongoing follow up, loyalty can be ensured for years to come.  Broad marketing campaigns can be handled via the internet, and calls can be tailored to the specific needs of a client.  When a balanced approach is taken, this two-fold system not only gains customers, but keeps them.

You can reach Elana with questions and feedback at peakadvertisinglosangeles@gmail.com