Until a few years ago, contact center agents were monitored only infrequently. But advances in technology mean that more and more agents are being recorded and monitored almost constantly.
“You may hear that phrase ‘This call may be recorded for quality purposes,’” says Patrick Botz, senior vice president for VPI, a vendor of software for contact center technology based in Camarillo, CA. “Well, now, it’s going toward ‘This call will be recorded for quality purposes.’” Not that the messages actually say that, he adds, “but a lot of companies today are recording all their calls.”
Many contact center operators are taking advantage of voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), the falling prices of system memory, and the increasing flexibility of digital archiving to record and monitor their agents’ every move. This is creating more opportunities for better customer support, better training, and better management, experts say. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s also creating more opportunities for mismanagement, and some consultants say that the technology must be deployed carefully to avoid making agents — and customers — more unhappy than they would be if the technology weren’t in place.
VICTORY THROUGH VOIP
VoIP makes it more cost-effective to record calls than ever before. “You can record a lot more extensions… in one system than you can in a traditional environment,” Botz says. With a traditional system you could maybe record 96 agents at once; VoIP now makes it possible to monitor 256.
The digital technology creates more flexibility in other ways as well. Some systems, for instance, make it possible for an agent or a manager to start recording even once a call is under way. Jim Puchbauer, senior product marketing manager for FrontRange Solutions, a Dublin, CA-based supplier of integrated management software solutions, says it is also possible to record all the way back to the beginning of a call even if the call was not originally supposed to be recorded. FrontRange integrates voice solutions with another of its products, the GoldMine sales contact software package.
Of course, adding more data to the hard drive isn’t necessarily desirable. But vendors say that the technology to monitor calls is keeping pace with the technology to record them. By using these new systems, the manager now has an increasingly clear view of the whole center, say proponents of the technology. These days, some systems have the capacity to view not only telephone calls but other kinds of records as well, including e-mail and instant messaging.
What’s more, Botz says, many centers are using automated surveys to monitor performance. Following their call, customers are transferred to an automated survey and asked to rate how satisfied they were with their service.
Perhaps the tool creating the biggest buzz in call centers at the moment is speech analytics, software that allows users to track recordings for certain phrases. Companies seem most interested in using the technology to ensure that statements necessary for legal compliance are being read and that phrases in a script that are supposed to be repeated actually are.
The technology isn’t perfect yet, according to Botz, but “it’s getting more and more accurate almost every month. Right now, I would say, it’s between 80% and 90% accurate.”
The program first converts the recording to a transcript, and then it reviews the transcript to find instances of a particular word not just in a single call but in every call, to within a high degree of certainty, Botz explains.
Some contact centers also use speech analytics to help “bucket” calls into particular categories. For instance, if you want to rate how consumers felt about a call, analytics engines can be more accurate than agents in gauging their satisfaction, Botz says.
But Kathleen Peterson, founder/chief vision officer of PowerHouse Consulting in Bedford, NH, is skeptical that computers’ ability to analyze calls will ever eliminate the need for human managers. A speech analytics system, for example, may flag calls in which the tone of voice is raised but ignore a conversation spoken in a calm tone — even if the customer and agent are both exasperated.
“The developers are trying to suggest that because of all their analysis they can identify just through these indicators that they know a bad call when they see one,” Peterson says. “But there’s much more passive aggression than there is flat-out screaming.”
Having all this information available is making it easier for managers to understand more and more about the overall performance of the contact center, experts say. And some new systems allow managers to examine what is and isn’t working in much greater detail than was ever possible in the past.
“If you see that your Group 32 is doing a lot worse than the overall average, you can drill down through Group 32 and find out exactly which team in that group is doing badly,” Botz says, “and then you can drill down through that team… down to which agents, down to which calls were bad and which calls resulted in no sales.”
VPI’s Activ! Performance Suite, like many other systems, is available on a modular basis and as an add-on within a VoIP environment. Other established suppliers of contact center monitoring software include Verint, NICE Systems, and Witness Systems; eLoyalty and Cisco are also making aggressive plays in the market.
The new technology can also be used not only to monitor agents but also to understand where there are glitches in a process, according to PowerHouse’s Peterson. “I think sometimes the voice and data recording actually facilitates more than just a quality interaction at the agent level. It is, in many cases, a great way to demonstrate the impact of systems that are unfriendly or cumbersome,” she says. “Now I might have some evidence that I can take to IT to say, ‘Look, this is taking us too long, this is really stupid, here’s how much money we can save if we could do this more easily.’”
While contact center analytical tools can be run inhouse, some companies prefer to outsource that kind of data collection and analysis. Kathryn Jackson, a consultant at Response Design, an Ocean City, NJ-based contact center consulting firm, says that Verint and eLoyalty, among others, offer third-party services that are giving small and midsize companies access to much better analytics than they had in the past.
Other kinds of monitoring technology help with the simpler, but still crucial task of making sure that there are enough bodies in chairs. For example, it is getting easier to monitor agents’ adherence to schedules in real-time, even if the agents are dispersed in several locations or working out of their homes. One such solution, by Pipkins, a St. Louis-based maker of workforce management software, is able to track whether agents have logged in on time or are spending too long on their breaks, as well as how many agents will be needed to meet demand. It can also encourage agents to work harder during peak seasons, through settings that allow reps to get credit for logging in early or cutting a break short.
Costs for systems vary widely. Some of these new surveillance components can cost relatively little compared with the overall system. The FrontRange Agent Dashboard runs $1,495 for a single agent-seat license, while supervisory-seat licenses run $1,290 each. The optional quality management suite, by contrast, costs $2,980 for a center and includes a touch-tone audio survey component for the customer. A recording license is relatively inexpensive as well: $200.
David Peterson, the president of PowerHouse Consulting, estimates that VoIP monitoring systems range from $500 to $2,000 a seat, with the high end including advanced analytics that can track words or stress levels. Typically, he says, such systems also require an ongoing maintenance fee that amounts to 20% of the initial price. Smaller contact centers, however, may find that a high-end solution ends up costing them twice the ticket price, Peterson warns, because the analytic systems require a lot of computing power that they would have to invest in.
Response Design’s Jackson says now is probably a good time to buy a new system. “There are a lot more vendors and different styles. You can not only buy your equipment these days, but you can also have somebody host it for you. The pricing is changing these days, and even the model for the pricing is changing.”
|TRAINING IS KEY|
One important element in getting monitoring right is working on how to integrate the data with feedback and training, consultants say. “I can’t go to an agent and simply say, ‘Try harder and do better,’” says Jackson.
Some systems, such as those offered by VPI, feature dashboards that allow both agent and manager to see how they are performing. This way, says VPI marketing manager Lynn Grogan, the agents don’t have to wait for weeks until a supervisor says to them, “You know, you’re not doing this right.” Quality scores enable agents to see where they stand with regard to their group, their team, and other agents.
Agent coaching in some of these systems ranges from instant messaging, which can allow the manager to give the agent new information or specific instructions, to settings that during slower periods send agents training modules that cover particular skills they should work on.
|GARBAGE IN, GARBAGE OUT|
It’s easy to simply install a program that creates “an automated mess,” according to Jackson. A program installed without much thought behind it “takes a center downhill that much faster,” she says.
A monitoring system can also make things worse in an already ineffective contact center. The danger, Katherine Peterson says, lies in the manager’s losing sight of the ultimate goal the system was intended to facilitate. One case she recalls: The leader of an organization demanded 12 observations per month, per agent. “That’s a lot of observations to do when you have 15 people on your team. So what was happening was, supervisors who were responsible for this would offload some of the evaluation responsibility to senior reps, then they would start scrolling through the recordings and only listen to two-minute calls, which of course is ridiculous if your average call is three to four minutes long,” Peterson says.
Worse yet, Peterson continues, the mission of the program seemed to be to get the forms signed off and turned into management “so that we would be comforted by the fact that it had been done. So there was no real coaching associated with it. No one took it seriously — it was just one of an abundance of activities in this organization that were putting it at risk.”
Ultimately, Peterson says, contact center managers must make sure that their company’s monitoring program truly serves as training and development, “not discovery and prosecution.”
New York-based business writer Bennett Voyles has written for Campus Technology and On Wall Street, among other publications.