All posts in Call Centers

The Perfect Blend: Live Agents and Proactive Outreach

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Our business was founded on the premise that proactive automated communications can offload much of the day-to-day interactions that businesses have with their customers and can be just as effective as live agent communications, at a fraction of the cost.  This message is still true, but as we all know, technology will never fully replace personal human interactions. There is a still a great need for agents in the call center today.

Customer communications and their expectations have only become more complex in the last 15 years with all the different channels a customer has access to. With the rise of instant access to available information via a mobile device, customers now expect companies to proactively alert them to changes as well as reach them through digital channels such as text messages and smartphone notifications.

Rising customer expectations make it absolutely essential for businesses to have an integrated approach to their customer communications. This helps companies see a single view of all customer interactions and enables a multi-pronged approach to reach customers with the right information at the right time.

A Multi-Pronged Approach to Outreach

For instance, by incorporating Live Agent Campaigns in conjunction with proactive messages, companies are able to drive better results. And, at Varolii, everything we do as a service provider comes down to results and adding live agents to the mix helps drive even better outcomes. Before, it never made sense for us to develop a premise-based dialer. But, with major advances in cloud computing and in our efforts to enable the full spectrum of customer interaction technology, we can now offer a Cloud Dialer that is arguably better and more flexible with greater scalability – all at a lower cost than premise-based solutions.

Ultimately, it’s that integration factor that drives the best outcomes. We are seeing impressive results using live agents and automated messaging as a blended strategy.  For example, we have built logic into our system to know when to leave a message and when to transfer to an agent. If voicemail picks up, we can leave an automated voice message and send a follow-on SMS (if it is a cell phone). If we get a live answer, the call is sent to a call center agent to engage directly with the consumer.  In some cases, we can see a 40% uplift in customers taking action (answering the message and talking to an agent) offering this blended strategy of proactive outreach and agent communications.

It’s an exciting time for call centers.  Check back in the future for more examples of how companies can drive better results with a blended approach to customer service.

Improvement Through Experimentation: Don’t Be Afraid to Fail

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Thomas Edison once said:

“If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”

Experimentation is by its nature inclusive of taking steps in the wrong direction. But if we let the possibility of temporary regression keep us from trying new things, then we will never improve. At Varolii, the Performance Management team is constantly working with our clients to optimize the results of their proactive customer outreach. In doing so, we develop and define Best Practices that can be built into our products. However, each client and each demographic is different and Best Practices will only get you so far. By adopting a plan for experimentation you can design and implement tests to improve performance and ROI.

What does it mean to experiment?

In the context of outbound communications, the goal is to contact and engage customers to provide service updates, time sensitive information or, in some cases, to request payment on past due accounts. The most effective strategy for any one of these objectives depends on a number of factors, but how can you know what is or isn’t working for your particular customer base? 

Experiment & Analyze
The most common test scenario is one that uses a “Before/After” methodology, where a single solution is modified. Data is then collected, analyzed and compared before and after the change to evaluate any impacts. The problem with this sort of linear approach is that it’s not possible to know if the differences in results are entirely due to the changes or were impacted by something else. The only way to truly measure the success of an experiment is with a simultaneous A/B – or “Champion/Challenger” – environment.

With an A/B platform, two identical campaigns are built, and one of the campaigns is modified in a controlled way in order to capture data and measure the impacts of each change. The change might include testing a different channel (text vs. voice) or orchestrating channels, trying a different tone, a different time of day or day of week. Input records are split so that a certain percentage is sent to the first solution and the rest to the other one. The performance of the two solutions can then be analyzed, and performance differences can be definitively attributed to the changes.

What are the risks?

To be honest, there are risks. If you’re dealing with hundreds of thousands of customers and your solution doesn’t support an A/B environment, then you risk making a change that could negatively affect outcomes. Your only options in this case are to make additional adjustments and hope for improvement, or roll back the change entirely.

However, if you're able to leverage A/B campaigns, the risks can be greatly minimized. Within a controlled environment, where a percentage of volume is allocated to the test campaign, an experiment that doesn’t work as hoped can simply have the volume “dialed” back until it can be modified and tested again. The opposite is also true. If the test is successful, additional volume can be allocated in order accelerate the positive results.

Perhaps the greatest risk to long-term efficacy, though, is choosing not to experiment at all. 

What are the rewards?

Let’s use an example from a collections solution. The application was unchanged for nearly two years prior to experimenting with a few modifications. The first change improved automated payment rates by nearly 54%. The second experiment increased payments an additional 20%, nearly doubling their original rate. What does this mean in actual dollars? 

We know that payments average roughly $200 for this solution. The first change brought in an additional $2.5M in its first 9 months above the previous rates, the second set of changes has brought in an additional $3.5M over the original rates thus far.

cause effect payment rate trend Improvement Through Experimentation: Don’t Be Afraid to Fail

If this client had been unwilling to take a risk and make changes, they would still have a decent Return on Investment (ROI) using the automated solution, but they would have left more than six million dollars on the table these last 18 months, or would have at least spent additional time, money and resources to collect it. 

Experimentation does not come without risk but ask yourself, can you afford not to do it?

This is part one of a two part series exploring the work of Varolii’s Performance Management team and the results they deliver for our clients.

Bill Shock - SMS Alerts Are Still Not Enough

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A couple years ago the FCC announced they were about to issue regulations requiring mobile carriers to take steps to reduce mobile bill shock, such as sending SMS messages to customers about to exceed their monthly usage plan. At that time I wrote a blog suggesting that in addition to texting customers, carriers should also CALL THEM.

Yes, I knew that I was "SHOUTING" in the etiquette of the internet, but that was my point.

In the text and data happy world occupied by the folks most likely to overuse their mobile devices (i.e. anyone under 30), the only way to be sure such warnings would be noticed is to break through the clutter with something that stands out as an important event - getting an actual phone call!

Today a story appeared in Billing World about a family in the UK who got a shock after their mobile carrier Orange automatically deducted payment for their mobile services from their bank account and they began bouncing checks. Turns out their daughter, who had been travelling in the US, had not seen the "many text messages" Orange sent her warning of impending overages on data usage. As a result, the family's monthly bill shot up to £3,800, about 75 times more than normal.

Earlier this year, the FCC and the CTIA jointly announced the success of U.S. based carrier's bill shock prevention programs, which operate in a very similar way to Orange's with heavy reliance on SMS text, email and mobile application notifications to customers at risk. I say "bravo!" to them, but still think that if they want to avoid an embarrassing headline like the ones Orange is being subjected to, they also need to CALL THEM!

New Study: Cloud-Based Contact Centers Outperform On-Premise

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The Aberdeen Group recently published a research paper comparing Year-over-Year results of Cloud vs. Premise contact centers based on company revenue, customer retention, and profitability. It is intriguing to me to see the compelling results that cloud-based contact centers are achieving around balancing performance with cost.

From my perspective, the benefits of utilizing Cloud Contact Center solutions are numerous: 

  • No internal IT
  • Highly scalable
  • Always on the latest technology
  • Secure and accessible data

The list goes on from there.

Of all the benefits that cloud offers, the one that provides the biggest business impact is the one item that most Contact Centers are forced to adopt when moving to the cloud: Best in Class Processes. These processes drive a better customer experience, greater agent utilization, and performance results.

When moving to the Cloud, you are giving up some control to the vendor.  As a result, organizations are forced to develop contact process and strategies which ultimately provide a better customer experience. Once these changes are made, they can easily be refined with the accessibility of data and real time analytical tools that the Cloud provides.  This is the true ROI for cloud technologies.  Some may come from technology cost savings, but the big ROI comes from processes implemented by leveraging the tools within the Cloud.

Three New Ways to Get Your IT Department to Embrace the Cloud

Getting IT to Embrace the Cloud

Over the past decade, IT departments have been continually asked to do more with less while at the same time are tasked with delivering continued innovation. As the economy recovers, corporate IT and business unit leaders are fighting for a finite amount of resources. In most cases, the business units win and the IT team must implement new solutions with the same, or in some instances, even less budget than they had before.

Agile business units are unlocking these resources to fund customer-centric projects throughout the company, with a focus on enhancing the customer experience and reaching the increasingly digital customer. Unfortunately, the IT machine that enables these projects within the company goes untended. For instance, many business units want to ‘go to the cloud’ so that they can take advantage of the flexibility it offers. In fact, a recent Wired article points to cloud as a way for companies to develop a customer service platform that provides the flexibility needed to turn on a dime in order to grow with customer demands and evolving channels like mobile and social media. The article says that “these channels [mobile, social, etc.] are adapted on an ongoing basis at a rate that most on-premise solutions can’t keep up with from both a timing and cost perspective. The cloud can offer the needed advantages of flexibility and speed, and at a price organizations of nearly any size can manage.”

But, it’s not as simple as flipping a switch. There are several challenges that are stalling their move to the cloud, including:

  • Outdated systems that are costly and time-consuming to transition: many IT departments are still working on older, back-end systems which consequently are holding back deployments of new cloud applications.
  • Limited IT resources: Business units are jostling to get to the front of the line with IT teams but with fewer resources and a long list of to-dos, this can slow down the process. Executive endorsement and approvals can also add to the time it takes to get a project to the front of the queue.
  • Security and compliance issues: Internal review processes, especially for business units moving to the cloud for the first time, are slowing down deployments.

Eventually these challenges may work themselves out, especially as companies begin to re-examine their priorities and adjust business processes to better accommodate the demands of digital consumers and employees. There are three things companies should keep in mind today to address these:

  1. Share the love. Without a good foundation, a large structure will crumble. The same applies to corporations and their IT departments – without a strong IT foundation to support digital functions, companies may find themselves rushing to fill in unforeseen gaps and errors in consumer applications, in addition to a growing lack of flexibility and responsiveness to new cloud engines. For every non-IT project, companies need to set aside funds for internal IT departments to make sure they have the resources and systems required to both manage and integrate a new program.
  2. Think of your IT system in layers. Corporations do not need to move their entire systems into a cloud environment. Rather, businesses should explore creating a service-oriented access layer for cloud services on the front of older systems and applications. This eliminates the need to wholesale move systems to the cloud.
  3. Remember that cloud isn’t an all-or-nothing solution. With cloud computing, know that data will not exist just in one place, but linked across clouds and on premises applications, creating a hybrid world involving both types of systems. This enables companies to be more nimble and move data and applications between cloud and on premises systems to meet their needs.  Think data federation, encryption and rules in multiple places.

As a cloud-based SAAS supplier of Customer Interaction Management for the Fortune 1000, Varolii sees huge benefits being derived for B2C companies moving their customer engagement systems to the cloud. For our customers, cloud computing has reduced customer service costs, increased customer engagement rates results by up to 20%, and relieved the burden on tightly staffed call centers. In the long-term, the cloud will replace many of the legacy systems and infrastructure that companies have today. Looking to the future, the internal IT team will likely become a department focused on data governance and security, rather than managing where data lives and how it is processed.

Disruptive Technology - How Siri has Changed Call Center Automation

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Disruptive technology is not a breakthrough innovation. Though, it does make good products a lot better -- transforming what was historically so expensive and complicated that only a few people had access to it and making it affordable and accessible to a larger population.

Think back to the first mainframe computer. It cost millions of dollars to buy and it took years of specialized training to operate it. Only the largest corporations and universities had the luxury of owning one.

A few years, a few bright minds, and a few disruptive technology revolutions later, voilà -- the desktop PC is available to the masses. Then came the laptop, the tablet and the smartphone, which has brought technology to even the remotest corners of the world.

One of the latest trends to dominate the market is Siri (Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface), an intelligent personal assistant and knowledge navigator that works as an application for Apple’s iOS. The application uses a natural language user interface to answer questions, make recommendations and perform actions.

What Does this Mean to Call Centers?

Consumer technology is changing the customer experience landscape for enterprise contact centers.  Your standard inbound automation may not be good enough anymore. Consumers are expecting a “Siri-like” experience – a natural-sounding conversation when they call their service providers.  So what are you doing to make your inbound speech experience better?

Did You Say “Egg Freckles?”

  1. A famous Doonesbury cartoon from 1993 shows Mike using the handwriting recognition feature on his PDA with hilarious results. Don’t risk an “Egg Freckles” experience with your call center automation.If you are still using DTMF (Dual-Tone Multi-Frequency, or touch tone) IVRs (interactive voice response), look at the business case around using ASR (Automatic Speech Recognition). If you don’t know where to start, email me.
  2. If you are using ASR, is it conversational? Are you able to ask open-ended questions? Do you ever have to repeat questions to your consumers?
  3. And, if you are deploying a conversational ASR, consider taking it up a notch and deploy silent guides to improve your IVR containment, opt-out and completion rates.

PCs, PDAs, Smartphone, Siri. What do these disruptive technologies have in common? They’re personal and customized to the user. Do the same with your call center automation and you can’t go wrong.