Appropriate Expectations of Agent Empathy
Leslie O’Flahavan has a refreshing take on the way we empathize with customers. She’s passionate about shifting the burdens off of CX agents so they can focus on connecting with the customers.
Listen to the full podcast here:
Welcome to the Pod, Steve. Do I have your permission to record this call for quality assurance?
Excellent. To start out with today, Steve, can you give our readers and our listeners some insight into your background, where you started, and how you got to where you are today?
Sure. First of all, thanks for having me. Really looking forward to this. Wow. I’ve been in the contact center consulting space for almost my entire career, which is now, I hate to say it, about 30 years. I had an interesting start. I started actually by starting up a couple of consulting practices for two major BPOs, which would be Sitel and Convergys. Learned quite a bit. In both those roles, we would do major transformations for prospective clients, as well as some global clients, on their end, before we started developing additional outsourcing strategies.
BPOs and their clients are so much more successful when clients rectify their operational deficiencies before migrating to BPO versus transferring it over to or expecting the BPO to fix it. That was one of the great things that I picked up during my journey. I was somewhat of a double agent, in that I was working really for both the client of Sitel or Convergys, as well as for them. It allowed me to gain a lot of insights into both their issues. Through those efforts, I quickly learned that people and process go first before technology. We can talk about that more later. But generally, you find that clients rush into buying new, shiny, hot technology first to fix their problems, only to find out later on that they were only realizing about 20, 25% of the benefits that were promised. If one identifies the problem that design the people and process first and rectify the issues, then bring in the correct technology, they’re so much more successful.
In regards to technology. I find that many customers do not benefit, do not maximize the benefits of technology, because they’re not truly trained on that well enough, and end up not maximizing those benefits. It’s a long-winded answer to say that a lot of lessons learned along the way that actually gave me great direction in starting up my own consulting and managed services company, which I did post Convergys. Lessons learned there really, truly allowed us to differentiate ourselves from other consulting companies.
Further Reading: The Key to Contact Center Success in 2022: Focus on Process
That’s an amazing journey and it’s also amazing to have the experience to be both on the client-side and on the provider side as well. So it’s very unique. Can you share a little more about your day-to-day role and responsibilities as the managing partner of SKWeston & Company?
Sure. In addition to managing a lot of the day-to-day finances and other financial areas of the company, I spend most of my time on relationships, building our contact pool, leading them to potential business. Being that I’ve been in the business for as long as I have, I have quite a large following. It’s really keeping up those relationships and turning those relationships into additional business. And then once they are actually additional business, it’s actually managing those relationships. Ensuring our team is meeting and exceeding their expectation, ensure that we are delivering value is the most important piece.
But I have to say, Hailey, really, I truly believe my success is due to the people who are around me. We have an amazing leadership team. I just want to call out our VP of operations and managed services at Kevin Lasky. We pulled him from Google about two and a half, three years ago. He runs our day-to-day operations, which include managing ongoing consulting projects and managing our partner program, both technology, and BPO partners. And he does an amazing job in all aspects. So organized, really analytical, and the claims think the world of him. I just bring that up because I couldn’t do what I’m doing now in terms of my responsibility without him.
That’s amazing. My mom always used to say, “If you want to be an A, stick with As.” So, when you surround yourself with good people, then you get better. You consult many BPO organizations, where do you think BPOs are kind of missing the mark nowadays?
There are a couple of areas. I would say that BPOs today are still, many of them are still stuck in the past. What I mean by that is they’re more of a transactional business. And clients today want value out of their BPO. They want a true partner. Not one who’s just, because there are others who just kind of give lip service and say, “Yeah, I’m going to be a true partner,” but go right back to just being a transactional type of company. Clients want are looking for BPOs to tell them about their business, tell them about how to improve the overall customer experience, using their knowledge from other similar companies in that industry, and pulling from that to talk to the client how they best can improve themselves.
And then the other major piece, which really has surfaced post-COVID, and that is, they also want their BPO partner to be kind of the technology partner. What I mean by that is that BPOs have AI, they have bots, they do advanced analytics. Clients today don’t necessarily want to invest in that technology because, mostly, it’s getting the experts to manage it and manage it correctly. And they’re turning to their BPOs to provide that kind of service. I have to say that post-pandemic, when so much went to work-from-home, which required sophisticated technology as well, this all surfaced. If BPOs want to survive, they need to turn to this type of model and get themselves out of the past.
That’s excellent advice. I think when we kind of put all our eggs in one basket, when we rely on one organization to provide that type of insight, it’s not always the best idea. You kind of skimmed over that. What is your advice to enterprise leaders looking to choose a BPO to work with regarding handling their customer service department? Is it how they’re structured, where they’re located? And like you had said, is it the technology that they use?
Yeah, it’s actually all of the above. Why I say that is, to piggyback on what I just said about the technology and the partnership, does a BPO organizational structure have the right organizational structure that can support a client’s requirements to tell them about their customers and provide deep analytics around their customer, how to improve the customer interactions. All of this, is through analytics, but you got to have the right organizational structure to support it.
Location speaks for itself. Yes, you want to be able to determine, “Do you need to be onshore? Is it better to go nearshore? Do I go offshore? If I’ve never outsourced before, what are the steps I need to take?” We always tend to get them to crawl before they walk. That is starting on nearshore and then eventually going to offshore as well. And then lastly, obviously, is yes, they want to ask and determine if that BPO has the right technology suite, which I just went through, that’s going to support their business and provide the added value to their business.
I think that’s such great advice to have them crawl before they walk in regards to trying it out with some near shoring, and then if that works then go offshore, which can often be a more cost-effective option.
Yeah. If I could just add to that, we had a point early on in our business, a fairly large Fortune 100 company. They had never outsourced. When we got there, they had plans to move everything to an offshore location. After we got done and did our transformation and built an outsourcing strategy, their COO told us, he could not thank us enough for stopping him from making the biggest mistake he would’ve made in his career. Advising them, “Crawl again. Let’s go nearshore. Let’s try this out. You need to get comfortable with an outsourcing relationship. The outsourcing needs to get comfortable with you. And then we start migrating slowly to an offshore environment.” He said, “I would’ve made the biggest mistake if you guys hadn’t come along and gave me that advice.”
Amazing. And then, such great advice, too.
In that same vein, if you could come into an organization that had no contact center and build one from scratch, where would you begin? And from there, what would be the steps to ensure the contact center could deliver excellent customer service?
Yeah, no, it’s a good question. We have built contact centers from scratch. When we do, we really kind of go through three main areas, and in this order. The first one, may surprise some is, what exactly is their customer experience strategy? This is so important, because in many cases, the corporate leadership has one CX strategy and the operation ends up with a different strategy. And then obviously they clash. So down the road, all of a sudden you’re finding, you’re delivering poor customer scores and feedback because that strategy, that CX strategy never synced up. So we advise them to start in developing that CX strategy. We help them through it at the corporate level, then let’s utilize it in the operation so we’re supporting what their goals are. This is why the majority of our contacts at our clients’ sites all own CX strategy because we want to avoid that. That’s item number one.
Then once you have that nailed down, then we go to the obvious. We begin with really determining the right people that we need, the right organizational structure. Really, the whole human performance piece of hiring, training, coaching, and that profile for each of those and the profiles for the customer service representatives (CSRs) themselves. And then behind that is really developing the right processes to support that strategy, which really compliments that strategy.
Once all that’s done, the third piece is the technology stack. What technology does that call center needs to support that people and process design operating model that we had just designed? That’s everything from the obvious, the standard. We believe really strongly in cloud technology today, because it makes it so much easier to move calls from site to site or from site to a BPO as well. So doing that and then weaving also into the interactive guidance scripting tools that’s really going to direct a CSR through a call. Especially when you’re going to have so many new CSRs, you want to minimize the impact of potential mistakes. You want to influence the time to proficiency, and time to train. There’s nothing better than that kind of technology tool, in addition to your standard, and obviously, a CRM to support that.
That’s great. We just talked about what we would do if we came into an organization that was building something right off the ground from scratch. So this is a little bit of a repetitive question, but when you go into an already existing contact center that is struggling with performance, what are the easy issues to spot right off the bat? What are the red flags that you can just see right away and are kind of the easiest things to fix right away?
Yeah. That’s a good question because we always try to pick the quick wins out as we’re doing an assessment. Before we even step foot in a site, there are things that we can do that would have a rapid effect. That is pulling all the data that the center has. From general ACD data to, again, QA analytics. Workforce management and QA are obvious reports to pull.
The reason why we do that is what we tend to see is, that if a center that’s not performing, one of the first things we see through those reports is very uneven service levels throughout the day. Much of that can be traced right back to workforce management and how they’re forecasting and building schedules to support that forecast. I could say, nine times out of 10, this is probably the first area that we find where you can make some quick adjustments to start leveling off that uneven service level. What happens is, many of the workforce management directors can’t seem to master how best to use their workforce management system. So they go back to what’s comfortable to them, they go back to Excel spreadsheets. You’ve got this great system sitting there idle while we’re doing spreadsheets for a thousand agents. You’re bound to make mistakes about that.
It goes back to my original statement, which is, in many cases, centers have the right technology, but they’ve just have not optimized it to the fullest because they don’t understand how best to use that technology. Those are some of the quick wins that we find. A lot of the other area is in the QA data, which is in a lot of the analytics data, we can find, fairly quickly, trends of areas where mistakes are being made on calls, where they’re not delivering, really, service that a customer expects. We can find that very quickly going through a lot of the QA and analytical data itself and can start to make changes fairly quickly by providing our findings.
Read more on this topic:
QA and CSAT Scores: The Whack-a-Mole Game of Contact Center Metrics
And remember, we haven’t even gone onsite, we’re just reviewing data at that point. We would then immediately get in touch with both not only the team leads, but the training department on areas where we find, especially in training, that they should go back and revisit to try to stop a lot of these issues from occurring going forward. It can be done fairly quickly. A lot of this, then, data would give us good insight as to where we should spend our time once we get on the floor and observing an operation itself.
That’s great step-by-step advice. You’ve talked a lot during the podcast so far about technologies that are perhaps sitting there not being utilized, or some of the technologies that we should be using. In your opinion, what are the technologies that are currently seen as staples in the tech stack of a contact center that should probably be eliminated?
Yeah. I guess I go back to the one area that really sticks out at me is the QA area because there are so many automated scoring and automated analytics tools that really, probably eliminate about 80% of what a QA department needs to do. And yet, I see so many call centers sticking with the old general recordings and them listening to a large slew of calls and having to score it manually. There are so many tools today that automate a lot of that function. It doesn’t mean the QA department goes away. It just means you are able to utilize them for other functions, like analyzing a lot of the analytical data and them providing actionable steps for a team lead to go through with that agent. That is truly probably the biggest area that comes to mind, Hailey, that I could see.
I think that’s an interesting point, because I think it’s a good way to explain automation in general. That it’s not going to be taking away jobs. I think that oftentimes is the fear that people have about AI and automation, that it’s going to be taking away jobs. But really, it’s making it that it’s freeing up time for individuals to focus on other, maybe more valuable tasks that can be more beneficial to the business. So I think that’s a great point.
We’re going to move into something that I’m really excited about. You speak regularly about CX blockchain. Can you delve into how blockchain can be used for contact centers?
Absolutely. I know this is a puzzlement to a lot of people when we bring it up. I believe we’re one of the first to do what we’re doing. As you’re probably aware, most companies, especially financial services and healthcare, utilize blockchain for security purposes. But no one’s actually thought about the fact that you can take blockchain and have a major effect on customer experience.
How is that done? What we do is actually use blockchain to pull all the customers, actually, of our clients, information from multiple systems and put it into one screen, and in a secure cloud. Especially in financial services and in healthcare, you’re probably aware that they work off a multitude of systems when they’re servicing a customer. A lot of this is due to acquisitions and not integrating systems. Just leaving them the way that then you’ve got an agent sitting there trying to go in five or six different systems.
Number two, that also affects what your capture rate is on self-service channels, whether it be web or IVR to service that customer on the more sophisticated questions because of the number of systems, again, even a self-service channel would have to go through. So what we do, again, is pull their information from the multiple systems, and pull it all into one location in a secure cloud. As an example, this allows a customer who’s on a self-service application to actually solve their issue. Why? Because of the way that we’re utilizing blockchain. Everything that is needed for that customer is in one location. It allows a self-service channel, like it does an agent, to actually use that information to resolve a sophisticated problem of that customer, without having to go into the multiple systems or reach out to a supervisor or transfer to a CSR. What it does is it puts the CSR and the customer in control. I hope that’s clear. I know I threw out a lot on that question.
It is. I think it’s just such an interesting topic. That again, when it came across my desk, I thought, “Oh, I don’t even know what that looks like.” So I was really looking forward to the discussion. I think you did a great job of explaining it.
We’re going to move into the last part, and usually my favorite part of the podcast. I just wanted to ask you, what are some resources, podcasts, publications, and blogs, do you regularly reference to stay on top of industry trends and news? You actually seem like you’re one yourself, so we can include you.
Well, I appreciate that, but you always got to keep researching and keep tabs on what’s going on in the marketplace. There are really two resources, which have to do with blogs and podcasts. One is Mark Hillary, who does a tremendous job and has such informative guests on his podcast, in our industry. I tell you, I learned quite a bit about different service methodologies, about work-at-home strategies, about the technology that’s changing the industry. He really is at the forefront of getting ahead of changes that may be coming, bringing people on to explain it.
The other podcast I listen to, which is now a partner of Mark’s, is Peter Ryan, who has such amazing tabs on the industry, especially as it relates to BPOs around the globe. I travel just about to every continent. All you have to do is mention his name and people know him. They go on and on about how he’s just a real pioneer in our industry. I, again, learn quite a bit from his research, and his blogs and podcasts as well.
Those are two excellent ones. I’m always so amazed at Mark’s ability to post extremely regularly on LinkedIn. He’s always the first one to get a piece of information out. He’s a great person, I think, to follow. Instead of having to weed through news yourself, Mark Hillary does it for you. He always has got the greatest piece of new news out there on his LinkedIn. And then I think Peter’s a great person to go to, just as you said. Pretty much every continent that does any type of outsourcing knows Peter Ryan. But he also is such a great example of a leader that knows what is the best place if you’re looking to outsource for your industry, but also, what are new places and locations to utilize for offshoring. So I think those are two excellent examples.
Yeah, I dig in quite a bit into his research papers all the time, just to stay on top of where the new locations or the better locations are.
Yeah. I always like when he sends those our way and always feel very thankful to get them.
We’re going to end our podcast today with one last question. What career or practical advice do you have for people looking to grow their skills and impact the technology used in contact center management today?
Yep. That’s a great question. The first thing I would say is stay engaged with the marketplace. There are so many new technologies that are coming out on a daily basis, and there are constant changes to existing technology. If you really want to grow and have an impact on the technology used in contact center management, that is the best thing to do. Myself, we’re constantly doing market research, especially as it relates to technology. Many of those research … research we do around blogs, podcasts, demos to broaden, so you see things coming across LinkedIn, as I do, of kind of a new go-to-market piece of technology. I jump on the ability to just go and get a demo or listen to one of their podcasts to learn. It’s a constantly changing environment. More and more automation coming out. But if you just stay engaged with the marketplace, that’ll be your best advice I can give you in terms of really being a true impact on your call center, and the way it’s run and the way technology is utilized.
I think that’s excellent advice. It’s always the people that I see most successful in our industry, and really, all around in life, are the ones that keep learning and keep hungry. So with that, thank you so much for being on the podcast. We hope to talk to you soon.
Great. Thanks so much.
If you enjoyed this interview click here to gain access to more great interviews with CX experts.
Leslie O’Flahavan has a refreshing take on the way we empathize with customers. She’s passionate about shifting the burdens off of CX agents so they can focus on connecting with the customers.
Jenny Dempsey gives expert insight into improving agent morale, important communication strategies, what the ideal agent technology toolbox looks like and more.
How are you going to remember 2022 a year from now? Will it be the year that you worked harder and spent more money? Or will it be the year reached contact center bliss?