Tom Benton, Head of Operations here at Vistio, has a unique view on contact center management, technology and processes due to his long career in the industry where he often had one foot in the operations sector and one foot in the technology realm. Read or listen about Tom’s extensive experience in the contact center industry and his practical advice for contact center managers and technology practitioners.
You have a long career in the customer experience industry. Can you give our readers some insight into your background, where you started and how you got to where you are today?
I’ve held various management roles in the contact center/customer experience positions, starting with Sears Catalog. From there, I moved on to a DSL startup at the Pre-IPO stage and have since worked across companies serving a broad set of consumer and business clients in Individual Health Insurance, Insurance Brokerage for Affinity programs, Application Processing, Underwriting Technologies, Consumer Medical Risk Management and Member Outreach programs.
At those companies, I directed individual contact centers, large contact center networks and ran call center vertical support areas like workforce management, HR and training. I’ve also designed software and headed up project management and software development teams.
In most of these roles, I had one foot in operations and the other in technology, always trying to drive technology to better serve agents and customers with the right blend of people, processes, and technology to deliver the ideal customer experience.
For the last 12 years, my efforts have been primarily focused on creating and implementing software solutions that improve customer experience and contact center performance.
Before joining Vistio as the Head of Operations, I was consulting in the customer experience practice of a leading management consulting firm.
How do you keep up to date on current trends and what resources do you rely on to ensure you have your finger on the pulse of the industry?
I find information from several sources, always looking for exciting and relevant content. I follow and am a part of contact center industry groups, keep in touch with former/current colleagues and people in my network. I also follow many companies and groups on LinkedIn, which provides some excellent content. Webinars are a great source as well and I regularly try to attend them.
Clients are also an outstanding source of keeping up with industry trends as every operation is doing something different and interesting in their customer experience operations area. Clients can provide insight into the best approach to managing, training, building an internal culture, or using technology to drive customer engagement, quality, CSAT scores, etc.
I try to spend time searching online and reading about the industry and technology regularly. Based on other articles, discussions, or something I’ve heard about or become curious about, I carve out time to search for articles on contact center technologies and operations.
Can you share a little more about your day-to-day role and responsibilities here at Vistio
Along with our team of Business Solution Architects, I oversee all of our client services activities. This involves managing the client relationship, project management, planning and resource management. I am regularly in discussions on our software evolution as we are continually expanding the software’s capabilities to meet our growing client’s needs.
Our team and I have a strong focus and spend a great deal of time growing and nurturing the relationships with our existing clients as we implement and build our long-term partnerships.
Our solution is always evolving to align with the needs of the industry to improve agent and customer experience, so we remain engaged with our clients throughout the entirety of their use of our technology.
We achieve this through recurring team meetings with client leaders in training, operations, and quality areas to grow our business knowledge and its challenges. This practice helps us continue to bring value to the partnership and adapt our technology to serve our users and our clients’ customers better.
Throughout your long career in customer experience management, what are the main pain points you have seen from an agent’s perspective? Manager perspective? Risk management and quality assurance perspective?
From an agent’s perspective
Agents are smart, capable and I think most want to do a good job. Typically, training is too focused on procedures and not focused enough on customer engagement skills. Processes are overly complex, and technology doesn’t work as well as it should for them, which puts them in a tough spot when trying to serve customers.
They have the most important role in managing the customer relationship for a company and sometimes they are the only person a customer may ever speak with in a company. Their role is critical but often not recognized for its level of difficulty.
From a Manager’s perspective
Remember how I just said that agents have a tough job? Well, trying to manage a large group of agents to achieve consistent performance, create a consistent customer experience, create a culture and an environment that causes people to want to show up every day, while also achieving aggressive business goals is very difficult.
Managers spend a lot of time evaluating performance and coming up with ideas to move the bar on critical metrics. Still, I think a lot of the time they are trying things without a great deal of confidence that a particular approach will truly pay off. They are often proponents of bringing new technology into the equation, but even when the organization invests in technology, there is a risk that the technology will not ultimately deliver as expected.
From a risk management and quality assurance perspective?
Risk management professionals are at the center of identifying failure points in the customer experience and are in a unique position. Often the teams working in these areas feel removed from the operations and training teams and, therefore, question what impact they can have on improving the customer experience.
Risk management professionals understand the process and procedures better than anyone in the company, and while they are experts on what is working well, where performance fails and risk creeps in, they often feel unable to have an impact on improving performance.
When looking at customer experience, actions that create risk and poor quality are usually driven by complex processes, procedures, poor technology, limited training or a lack of understanding by the agent regarding the risk of a mishandled interaction. This team really sits at the core, from an information standpoint, but really utilizing their experience and knowledge and having them be part of a solution is really important.
What are some of the tried and true solutions to these issues that you have seen solve these issues time and time again?
What’s interesting is that while the roles listed above are different, similar solutions work for each. Creating a collaborative team approach that fosters business literacy is key. This ensures everyone understands the impacts to each role and each area in the organization and, most importantly, that everyone understands the customer impact.
These groups should work together to solve problems and craft solutions (and typically the associates on these teams will thrive if they are allowed to). The key here is allocating time to invest in agent focus groups and targeted groups of team members committed to solving specific customer experience issues.
Sometimes a solution may be a simple process change or a tweak to existing technology or training. Still, more often than not, the solutions involve a view on all areas that can influence performance – that means training, technology, agent experience, software and more.
One of the big misses across contact center leadership is not truly understanding how complicated an agent’s job is, considering the toolset provided and the procedures they must follow. They are often too focused on SLAs and performance metrics without understanding what is happening on customer calls and how this is impacting the metrics.
Agents have the most important role in managing the customer relationship for a company. Sometimes, they are the only person a customer may ever speak with within a company. Invest your agents and in the tools you provide them to ensure they can bring their A-game to every call.
Contact center leadership needs to build a relationship with agents that communicates they value their agents and the complexity of their job. They need to show this value through actions like reengineering cumbersome processes and investing in technology solutions that will help make agents’ jobs easier while making agents more successful.
What are some examples of how technology has changed or impacted the industry, both positively and negatively?
Technology has allowed more self-service options and multiple channels to interact with a company. Technology can make the job of servicing customers easier and delivering a more consistent customer experience.
The software available to contact centers has matured and evolved considerably over the past 30 years, which has added numerous capabilities and created the possibility for continuously improving customer experiences.
Self-Service technology, in many cases, fails to resolve a customer issue, leading to frustration and the need to talk to a live person. Customers often have to navigate an IVR menu to reach a live person causing frustration.
What is something that you wish more people understood about customer experience processes and best practices?
You have to continually evolve and challenge the thinking on best practices in your organization. Although a method works well for other companies or may have been effective for you previously, the real world is always changing and you need to change with it.
Too many people believe implementing specific technologies will automatically align to best practice, reduce contact volume, eliminate quality issues and improve customer satisfaction, and technology can’t really do that on its own.
In every consumer-based transaction, regardless of the industry, the customer wants to invest minimal time to resolve their need. Whether this can happen through self-service, a live call or a combination of methods, best practice is finding the approach that works for your customers, to take care of their needs with single contact interactions and full resolution.
What career or practical advice do you have for people looking to grow their skills and impact the customer experience management field?
We are all customers, so we can all relate to outstanding customer experiences and poor customer experiences. Knowledge is key, if you don’t understand within your process or technology what your customers are dealing with or what your agents are dealing with, you can’t define the problem accurately and to craft viable solutions.
One of the most important things you can do is gain people management experience. Managing my first contact center provided me invaluable management experience that I have applied over and over throughout my career.
Consistently investing time in managing and communicating with your team is critical. This develops your ability and credibility to communicate, lead, advance relationships and open up proactive interactions across your team. This will always pay dividends, particularly when trying to solve complex business challenges that benefit from multiple viewpoints.
If you could talk to your “younger self,” what would you warn yourself about or tell yourself to do differently?
I would tell myself to give computer science courses more of a chance. I admire people that can create something new, useful, game-changing with software or technology. Their skills are so impressive and critical to what we can do in driving great customer experience, not to mention the value these skills bring to innovations across numerous industries.
What advice do you have for professionals responsible for managing contact center floors, choosing the best tools to streamline their agents’ processes and assuring a great customer experience?
One of the most important things is investing the time to research and vet technology. You can’t take a shortcut here, it’s too risky. Nothing is better than finding someone who has used the technologies you are looking at and asking them to give you a real-world assessment.
There are always surprises with every vendor but minimizing risk by doing your homework and asking very detailed questions on functionality is critical. Also, finding a partner who will support you effectively after implementation. Unfortunately, there is a lot of disparity in this area and technology partners that are leaders in their space unfortunately don’t deliver on the support post-implementation.
Technology itself isn’t a magic wand to solve all the business performance issues. We all get excited about what new technology can do, but it still needs to be implemented properly with the proper training of users and ongoing management of users to ensure they use the technology to the fullest. The commitment of an internal SME to become an expert on the technology is essential to ensure it is used to its full capabilities.
There is also a common misconception that certain technology that allows customers to self-serve will reduce calls and increase CSAT. That can happen, but adding self-service technology reduces calls in one area but increases calls in other areas. Customers having access to multiple channels and various technologies to interact with a company generates more customer interactions with more frequency. When self-service is attempted but doesn’t resolve the customer’s need, they need a live agent who can resolve their need in one call.
I think often leaders feel they’ve invested in technology and they expect to see metrics change rapidly. Choosing the correct solution, implementing that solution properly and then modifying the operational pieces that play into the technology’s effectiveness is critical.
Agents need to be informed of procedural changes and technology that is changing to ensure they execute correctly. Also, agents should understand how solutions are supposed to function from the customer perspective. They frequently receive calls from customers who tried to interact with self-serve technology but failed and the agent has no view to or knowledge of how the self-serve options are supposed to work for a customer.
Involve the entire team in solutioning, and you will always be surprised by how much better your solutions are and how much more success you have in implementing those solutions.