By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD
Last month, I began sharing my overview of key findings from ContactBabel’s recently released The US Contact Center Operational Review (3rd Edition). Though it addresses the US market, readers outside the United States should not dismiss these findings. Offshore contact centers that serve the US will find this information most applicable; for those who don’t, it is important to realize that many US contact center trends will work their way to your contact center. Here is my second batch of comments:
The IP Contact Center: Contact centers have traditionally used a circuit-switched voice network, with the recent trend towards using a packet-switched data network (i.e., Internet Protocol or IP). While some centers are exclusively circuit-switched (33 percent) and others are exclusively packet-switched (37 percent), a third option is the hybrid approach, running both protocols (24 percent); 6 percent do not know which technology was in place at their center. While 21 percent have no plans to move to IP, 29 percent will do so within five years.
The justification for moving to an IP infrastructure – be it exclusively or a hybrid model – is often to save money (56 percent), but this is only a partial justification. More significantly, an IP environment, particularly an open IP environment, should be seen as a strategic enabler. Some benefits of using IP include rapid scalability, enabling virtual contact centers, facilitating multimedia, and increased flexibility, as well as cost savings.
Workforce Management: Staffing is the single greatest expense in a contact center and a source of frustration, both on the part of management and agents. Workforce Management (WFM) solutions seek to reduce those frustrations and better control agent payroll. The WFM process begins with forecasting staffing needs and then optimally scheduling agents to fit that projected schedule, followed by adherence and reporting, which generally includes real-time monitoring.
Overall, 30 percent of contact centers use a third party WFM solution; 18 percent, an in-house solution; 19 percent, an Excel spreadsheet; and 8 percent, nothing. All of the contact centers not using WFM tools are smaller centers. Not unexpectedly, it is also the smaller callers that lean towards using Excel (43 percent). The majority of medium and large contact centers use third party solutions. The leading reasons for using WFM are improving agent morale, increasing scheduling flexibility, and reducing expenses.
Multimedia: Increasingly, call centers are designated as contact centers because they handle more that just phone calls. Still, live phone calls predominate (72.4 percent of all contact center interactions), followed by self-service calls (9.2 percent). Other channels include email (11.6 percent), fax (2.2 percent), text chat (1.4 percent), Web collaboration (0.9 percent), letter (0.5 percent), and SMS (0.3 percent). Channels with very low use include video agents, virtual worlds, avatars, and kiosks.
As the highest non-phone contact method, email usage varies greatly between vertical markets, with technology, media, and telecoms leading the way at 23.3 percent of inbound interactions being via email; healthcare and insurance are at the low end of usage with only 1 percent of inbound interactions being email messages. In considering email, response time is a critical concern. Although those responding to email messages within one hour decreased from 20 to 12 percent since 2008, the percent responding to the same day jumped from 27 to 52 percent; 18 percent respond by the next business day, and 2 percent within five days. Interestingly, 16 percent did not know their response time.
When incorporating multiple channels into a contact center, the topic of blending is an item for discussion. One thought is to have agents specialize in a particular channel based on their skills, while the other is to allow agents to process multiple channels, resulting in more agent variety, thereby lowering attrition. On average, 69 percent of multimedia contact centers allow blending, with 45 percent of their agents handling both voice and email. This, too, varies greatly between vertical markets. Interestingly, only 24 percent of contact centers use a universal (multimedia) queue, whereas 45 percent use an “ad hoc” approach, and the remaining 31 percent do no multimedia blending.
Outbound: While most of the survey addresses inbound activity, outbound work was not ignored. The leading use of outbound is for proactive customer service (22 percent), followed by renewal sales calls (19 percent), sales calls to prospects (16 percent), upsell/cross-sell sales calls to existing customers (16 percent), debt collection (6 percent), and customer satisfaction surveys (4 percent); “other” functions are at 17 percent. When combined, the three sales categories, albeit different in forms, account for just over half of all outbound activity.
Three types of dialers were addressed in the survey: preview, progressive, and predictive. A major portion of contact centers use preview dialers, but large contact centers are increasingly opting for predictive dialers. Predictive dialers top the list in live contacts per agent hour at 12.0 contacts; progressive dialers, 9.4 contacts; preview dialers, 7.1 contacts; and manual dialing, 5.1 contacts.
The blending of inbound and outbound agents is also a consideration. Twenty-eight percent use separate dedicated inbound and outbound agents; 33 percent have informal blending, while 18 percent have a formal, structured blending. (For the remaining 23 percent, this item was not applicable).
Roughly 13 percent of all calls are made to cell phones. Interestingly, only 22 percent said that recent legislation has “slightly reduced” outbound calling; the rest said that legislation hasn’t changed their level of outbound calling (67 percent) or that they didn’t know (11 percent).
Agent Attrition: Agent attrition is calculated by dividing the number of departing agents per year by the number of agent positions. In comparison with the prior 2008 survey, agent attrition decreased for 49 percent of contact centers and increased for only 10 percent. Attrition rates are less than 10 percent for 15 percent of contact centers; 10-25 percent for 43 percent; 26-50 percent for 21 percent; 51-100 percent for 16 percent; and over 100 percent for 5 percent of contact centers.
Attrition rates are highest for the outsourcing vertical at 58 percent, compared with 34 percent for all contact centers. Regarding the type of contact center, outbound is by far the highest at 62 percent; inbound is 30 percent; and interestingly, blended is the lowest at 23 percent. Also, attrition rates increase with contact center size.
Of nine reasons given for agent attrition, the top three are hiring the wrong type of person, excessive stress, and lack of career opportunities. Low pay ranks in the middle, while poor working conditions ranks as the least likely reason for agents to leave.
The top agent retention methods are performance bonuses, empowering agents, and peer-level recognition.
Agent Recruitment: The top three most successful agent recruitment methods are face-to-face interviews, contact center simulations, and skills testing. On average, the cost to recruit a new contact center agent is $1,976. (Note that this does not include the costs of agent training.) Interestingly, 71 percent of all recruitment efforts are focused on maintaining current staffing levels.
The top attributes of a successful agent are empathy with customers, reliability, and ability to multitask. Important secondary characteristics include sales ability, technical/product knowledge, being a team player, and ability to handle stress.
The Future: When asked to look five years into the future, respondents envision higher agent compensation due to increasingly complex jobs (71 percent), more decentralization (60 percent), and increased automation (52 percent). However, 68 percent do not see contact centers going offshore.