How Giving Contact Center Agents Less Helps Them to Do More
Hiring and retaining contact center agents is harder than ever. Higher call volumes and customer expectations are leading to even...
Rod Jones has over 35 years of experience in the contact center industry and is an internationally recognized thought-leader, industry analyst, strategic adviser and subject matter expert.
He now focuses on advising senior leaders on strategic, operational, and technology issues of contact centers, customer experience management tools (including CRM, CxM, and CEM), and BPS&O (Business Process Services and Outsourcing) drawing from his extensive personal experience to provide relevant and logical solutions.
Listen to the full interview here
Well, certainly, with the greatest of pleasure.
Rod, you have over 40 years of practical experience in direct marketing, call centers, contact centers, and customer experience, to say you are an expert in this space is an understatement. Can you give our readers some insight into your background, where you started and how you got to where you are today?
Well, thank you for that. It’s been a long journey. I actually started in 1972 when I started my business. And at that time, it was a general consumer customer promotions business, in-store promotions, etc., that evolved into a company that we ran customer clubs and loyalty programs. And at that time, we employed about 150 people of which were 20 or 30 individuals, sitting in what we now know as a call center, managing queries on the customer clubs. And so, that was in the mid to late 80s. Then into the 90s, I built and ran what I think was South Africa’s first BPO business. We had about a 200-seat call center, and we’re definitely pioneers in the BPO space, and that moved over into about 2000. In 2005, built a group of companies. We had a consulting division, training division, call center auditing division, a media division and research.
It was quite a large operation, and we were pretty much dominant players in the South African context then. South Africa at that time had about 2000 call centers, employing roughly 250,000 people. It’s grown by about 25 to 30% since then. 2010, I sold out my interest in that consulting business, and I’ve been independent ever since. For the last 12 years, pre-COVID, spending a lot of time traveling all over Africa, running seminars and training programs, and start-up for call centers. And also, a lot of time in the Middle East, which is a very exciting area to build and operate call centers. And then with COVID since March 2020, pretty much pegged to my desk seven days a week and doing virtual consulting and virtual training and virtual mentoring. So, yes, that’s nearly 45 years, if you count the dots on that one. It’s been a long and very exciting journey.
Can you share a little more about your day-to-day role and responsibilities right now with your own consulting firm, particularly how you advise senior leaders of these BPO organizations or small contact centers in customer experience in the contact center realm? Maybe you can touch on a little bit about how this has changed going from physical contact centers into virtual, and then also how we’re moving from some people are going to perhaps be in brick-and-mortar contact centers now, and some people are going to still be working remotely.
Typical day-to-day operations, sitting here without having to move. And I think for me, it’s been a great opportunity to turn around the business because the traveling was getting pretty hectic and very tiring. So, today, engaging with customers in two areas; one is doing lead generation for some technology companies, and I leverage off the fact that over 40 years, I’ve built a network both locally, regionally, and internationally of people, consultants, brokers, thought leaders throughout the world. So, I leverage on that, and it’s been very successful in introducing new technologies into both local and some international businesses as well. Along with that, over the last 20 years, roughly speaking, built a lot of auditing and assessing tools for call centers and methodologies. And whereas prior to COVID, those were carried out on-site, typical consulting assessments, modified a lot of those now to be able to do it remotely and using tools such as Zooms and Teams, and the results have been very, very favorable. So, that’s the second component of what I do now.
The third one is also leveraging, I suppose, the 45 years in the industry and it’s providing mentoring services to executives, decision makers, and really just sharing experiences and providing guidance in a strategic and tactical sense. You also asked about the remote and work-from-home environments. Yes, I think we’re finding that maybe 50%, if not, 75% of the workforce is now remote. And that has impacted a lot on how processes and technologies and the human capital side of call centers have been in a lot of disarray. So, several of my clients, we work with them to overcome the obstacles and the challenges that a remote workforce has presented. So, it certainly keeps me busy and having a lot of fun. And it’s very rewarding to see after 45 years and actually being able to advise appropriately and to see significant changes happening.
So, throughout your long career in the industry, what are the main pain points you’ve seen regarding contact center technology, specifically the technology used to aid in customer service by the agents?
The pain points, I think over, particularly, the last 15, 20 years, there was a disparate situation between data and voice channels. And that caused a lot of confusion, and it did for 30 years or 40 years. And when we finally got convergence of viable convergence of voice and data around about 2010, around about then, the pain points were still there because I believe that at a strategic level, organizations were still able to think very clearly about customer outcomes, custom experience, and the desirable outcomes of the process, whereas the technology was lagging behind. And even by 2010, when we had voice and data convergence, the technologies weren’t really appropriate yet. We had really multi-channel contact centers, voice, email, maybe some chat and some texts, but going into a siloed environment. Back office as well, very siloed, legacy systems, really inappropriate in the integration if there was any at all.
And that placed the frontline workers in a really seriously disadvantaged situation with multiple channels, no single view of customer, and really having to fight their way through that. From a customer point of view, I think huge frustrations, having to deal with typically a bank with the credit card division and then call another number for the customer service division and another number for the checking division, and another number for the vehicle finance or the home loans division. So, I think those were the fundamental… The pinnacle of the pain was around about 2010 to 2015, that was at its worst.
So, I’m going off-script for a second, but when you go in and do the contact center assessments that you’ve been doing for so long, what’s the starting point? Do you start with looking at the process? Do you start looking at technology? Do you start looking at the specific hiring practices, looking for that ideal agent, or is it more of a holistic view?
Okay, lovely question. Because by the time organizations deign to call in a consultant because we’re not exactly corporate’s favorite breed, things have gone badly wrong. It’s a toxic environment, generally speaking. So, we go into an environment and get high staff turnover, you have poor customer sets, figures, you have high costs, runaway costs, et cetera. So, generally speaking, we only get called in a toxic situation. The starting point is, in fact, the processes, as far as I’m concerned. In fact, I use it in some of my discussions in my lectures that Henry Ford would have made an absolutely brilliant contact center operator because everything was about productivity, about processes, about also worker satisfaction and driving efficiencies, productivity, and customer satisfaction. All that, Henry Ford had that, and we should’ve learned some lessons from that way back.
And so, back to contact centers, yeah, starting point is processes. And very often, the first thing we said was show us your process. Well, there’s a box filed here with some stuff that somebody’s done in PowerPoint and there’s another file that somebody designed a different process in MS Word. Then if we’re lucky, somebody has done it using a tool like Vizio or Bizagi, but there’s a mish-mash. And very often, they are old, ancient, inappropriate, and not been re-engineered for a long time. And that’s where we start is get that piece right, because everything is the people from recruitment, training, onboarding, empowering, that’s a process. The training is a process. The way in which customers are handled, a process. The technology itself is a process. The answer to your question, it’s the processes which is the starting point.
You’ve had a long career, so I will be thrilled to hear your answer to this. What are some of the tried-and-true solutions to the pain points that we just discussed, which we discussed many, that have been successful time and time again? So, you talked about when you go in, looking at the processes and that process is usually the pain point. So, what do you think is the best way? This is a really loaded question, but what’s the key component of finding success to getting those more concrete processes nailed down?
The starting point if I had the magic wand would be to get buy-in an executive level, to literally talk processes all the way down the organization and train. I firmly believe that everybody from an executive down to a frontline agent should be able to not only understand processes but the importance of them, how to re-engineer them, how to design them, how to draw them, how to refine them on a day-to-day basis, by making recommendations and suggestions up into the organization. So, if we have support from an executive level and buy-in at an operational level, the machine evolves very quickly to become more efficient, more effective. It presupposes that we sought out the technology part at the same time. And we have to be bold enough to address the challenges of a multichannel siloed environment, which is your typical ground zero.
And to dismantle that and to deploy true omnichannel technologies and to spend, never too late, a huge amount of energy and effort and investments on making sure that those backend integrations actually happen. And I think some of the modern technologies now make it a lot easier than it was 10 years ago, because if we looked at some of the legacy systems in banks, insurance organizations, the nightmare of trying to integrate that into a front-end system was almost impossible. Today, with web books and other very easy-to-use devices and APIs, it’s a lot easier. So, no more excuses for multichannel disparate systems and no more excuses for no single view of customer because we can’t integrate into the backend.
Excellent. And we’ve touched on this, what are some examples of how technology has changed or impacted the industry both positively and negatively?
Technology impacting negatively, I think it’s where the organization at the decision-maker level, executive level assumes that somebody purchasing sophisticated expensive technology is going to resolve the issues, very often, with a big bang approach. And the big bang generally is an explosion of unhappy customers, dissatisfied staff, processes that don’t work. So, the challenge of new technologies is in the wrong hand, it’s like an automatic rifle in the hands of a nine-year-old. It’s dangerous. In the right hands, it can do its job. So, technology can be a double-edged sword, it really is. So, on the other hand, where it’s appropriately deployed with the right mindset behind it, it resolves a lot of the issues and does give the customer that ultimate experience that we are targeting or striving to achieve.
What career or practical advice do you have for people looking to grow their skills and impact the technology used in contact center management?
I think that the best advice I could give is just repeating, it’s understanding processes and making sure everybody knows how to use them appropriately, and the importance of them. The second component would be is to micro analyze your call center, particularly from a cost point of view. I want to see every second and every cent and every penny, because we’re in a high-volume environment, we’re in a high-volume industry, and there’s tens and hundreds of thousands of calls, interactions, et cetera. If we can take a second off here and a penny of there, that’s the millions that makes the difference between profit and loss. So, processes on the one hand and a really deep understanding of the financial components. Once again, if we go back to the financial modeling, financial modeling is a time and motion study of the processes and its cost management. So, that would be the two things that I would say probably the most important to focus on.
What advice do you have for professionals responsible for managing contact center floors and to think the best technology to streamline their agents’ processes ordered to assure great customer experiences?
Well, at the risk of repeating myself, it’s about the processes, get that piece right. But the other piece which I often reflect on is that setting up, running, or fixing a call center is a bit like running a taxi service or an Uber service. The question is, are we going to force our drivers to study and memorize volumes of map books and to know their way around the map books, or are we going to use the app and teach them to use the app or the Google Maps or the ways, whatever it is? And so, the modern contact center has at its disposal the true omnichannel solution. You marry that with a process management or process enhancement tools, there you’ve got the Uber contact center of today or moving into tomorrow. So, it’s technology-enabled.
So, that great custom experience that we strive for, that is what drives the bottom line is enough research to bear that out, that there’s a correlation between customer satisfaction, customer experience, minimized effort on the part of the customer, and correlating bottom line profit. So, invest in an omnichannel platform, invest in process design, and process tools, and use your analytics to find all those minute areas for improvement. Find the pennies, find the seconds, and that will deliver on the bottom line.
Rod, it was a pleasure having you. Thank you, again. And I look forward to talking to you soon.
Hiring and retaining contact center agents is harder than ever. Higher call volumes and customer expectations are leading to even...
Listen to the full podcast here: Welcome to the Pod, Steve. Do I have your permission to record this call...
Listen to the full podcast here: Welcome to the pod, Erica. Do I have your permission to record this call...