Top Menu

Don’t Just Get Your Customers Off the Line; Make Contact Productive: An Interview With Donna Fluss 

Don’t Just Get Your Customers Off the Line; Make Contact Productive: An Interview With Donna Fluss

Don’t Just Get Your Customers Off the Line; Make Contact Productive: An Interview With Donna Fluss

10/4/2005
By Donna Fluss
CRMGuru.com

  Printer Friendly Format       View this document on the publisher’s website.

The traditional call center has been the center for customers to complain and agents to “handle” the complaints as quickly as possible. But technology and customer-centric strategies are changing the role of the contact center. In this edition of Inside Scoop, call center expert Donna Fluss talks to CRMGuru.com’s Bob Thompson about how real-time contact centers can help businesses become more productive—and treat their customers better.

This interview took place Aug. 29, 2005. The transcript was edited for length and clarity.

Bob Thompson
I’d like to welcome Donna Fluss, head of DMG Consulting. She is a call center expert based on the East Coast. The subject of this edition of Inside Scoop is her new book, The Real-Time Contact Center. We’re going to be talking about why she wrote that book and some of the key bits of advice that we can glean from it.

To get things kicked off, Donna, could you please tell us a little bit about what it is that you do with your business at DMG Consulting?

Donna Fluss
My pleasure, Bob and I’m pleased to be here with you today. I’m the principal of DMG Consulting, which is a strategy firm specializing in contact centers and real-time analytics. DMG Consulting advises end-users and vendors around the world. The firm’s clients include Nortel, Real Networks, the J. Jill Group, Stride Right, NICE, Internet Order, HBCS and many others.

Bob Thompson
What was your background prior to DMG?

Donna Fluss
Prior to starting DMG in 2001, I built the contact center practice at Gartner, and prior to that, I spent 14 years in a series of operational technology and strategy assignments in the banking arena. I also spent a lot of time doing reengineering and merger-related activities.

Bob Thompson
Did you have an operational role in a company with contact centers prior to Gartner?

Donna Fluss
Well, in the bank, I spent many years building, reengineering and implementing call and contact centers. Back then, we called them phone centers and ACDs [automatic call distributors].

Bob Thompson
You’ve got a wealth of experience over many, many years to talk about this topic. So let’s get right into the book you wrote, The Real-Time Contact Center. Why did you write the book and whom did you write it for?

Donna Fluss
Well, the book is about the future of contact centers. Contact centers have had a great 30-year run and have reached maturity, from a technology perspective. But now, they’re about to undergo a major transition from the reactive cost-oriented operating environments to engaged proactive revenue-generating profit centers. The next five to 10 years are going to be the most exciting, in what has already been a great run for contact centers. The Real-Time Contact Center gives us the strategy for the future and provides tactics, best practices, technology, management approaches and the ROI for making the transition. It also provides tips and checklists to get you there.

The book was designed for a number of audiences. It’s absolutely designed for call center and contact center managers who want to open up their contact centers and move them in the direction of the future. The book is also for sales and marketing managers who are trying to figure out the best way to work with, and benefit from, what’s happening in their contact centers. The book is also for IT folks who want to understand contact center technology and business issues and how to make it happen. And lastly, it’s for senior executives who really want to have a better understanding of what the technology, what contact center asset is and how to best use it to improve corporate profitability.

Bob Thompson
Well, congratulations on getting your book out, Donna. I read through it. As you well know, I’m not a contact center expert, by any means, but I got a lot out of it and I think that it’s really a thorough treatment of the subject.

Donna Fluss
Thank you.

Bob Thompson
I want to start with something pretty basic. Please define for our readers, if you could, what is a contact center? And what’s new about a real-time contact center?

Definitions

Donna Fluss
That’s a very good question, because there’s a big difference between a call center and a contact center. My team wrote the definition of a contact center when I was with GartnerGroup and there really is a definition. A contact center is a multi-channeled, multi-purpose, virtual organization that serves a variety of constituents, customers, prospects, partners, investors in a logically consolidated but physically disaggregated setting. Today’s contact centers address customers in real time and what is more real time than a service interaction?

Bob Thompson
What could be more real time than picking up the phone, talking to somebody on the phone and getting your answer?

Donna Fluss
Well, that’s what’s fun about these organizations because they are real time. However, what’s so amazing is that, unfortunately, most of the processes and procedures in contact centers are reactive in nature and design. What a real-time contact center is about is taking advantage of the here and now, taking advantage of having that customer on the line to provide an outstanding customer experience, while increasing the profitability of the company. A very different mindset with a very different strategy, procedures and processes and different technologies.

Bob Thompson
So this sounds like it’s getting into more of what we talk about in CRM which, of course, is why you’re one of our esteemed CRMGuru panelists. It’s more than just a call center and a way to take care of phone calls, as I understand it. Could you tell us a little bit about what you see the role of the contact center in a CRM strategy?

Donna Fluss
Well, you’re right. A contact center is more than just a cost center. Contact centers are the primary customer contact points for organizations. They represent the voice of the enterprise to customers and the voice and thought of the customer to the enterprise—at least for those enterprises that are listening. A contact center—and in the future, the real-time contact center—will play an increasingly important role in improving the company’s bottom line. Today, most contact centers are dedicated to either sales or service or some other function. In the future, contact centers will be instrumental in understanding and sharing customer insight, needs, wants, as well as an understanding resolving underlying problems.

Contact centers will continue to be key in providing an outstanding customer experience. That is a critical component of their mission. But they’ll also have the tools, the systems, the processes; and, very importantly, the staff will be empowered to take advantage of each and every customer interaction at the point of contact.

Bob Thompson
I want to explore just a couple things that you’ve mentioned. One is this notion of a better customer experience. You said, “outstanding customer experience,” which, of course, as we all know in CRM circles, is important because great experiences, we would think, lead to more loyal customers. How does a contact center deliver? Or what should the contact center be doing to deliver an outstanding customer experience, as opposed to just getting them off the phone or out of the email and taking care of a problem?

Donna Fluss
First and foremost, contact centers need to have the right people, and that remains a very significant challenge, as does training. Secondly, contact centers need to be empowered, and that’s at multiple levels. To begin with, the organization needs to be empowered to act on behalf of the corporation to improve its bottom line. Contact centers are not simply the problem-solving department, although solving problems is a critical part of what they do. The contact center needs to be empowered by senior management to do much more by either selling or participating in lead generation or improving marketing campaigns. To do this, they need to align contact center goals with the goals of the enterprise. Thirdly, agents need the tools and the technology to get the job done. So when you bring those three pieces together, you can really have a winning contact center.

Bob Thompson
And if we were to go out and talk to people who interact with contact centers—the customers—and say, “Please define for us what you mean by an outstanding customer experience?” what would they tell us?

Donna Fluss
The answer will vary by person. However, it will all come back to this: Resolve the person’s issue and exceed their expectation for service quality.

Most customers today will tell you that service quality is poor. So there’s a lot of room for improvement.

Bob Thompson
I can certainly see that. We’ve found, in our research on CRMGuru, that poor handling of service issues is the leading cause of defection, so it seems like that would be a good place to start. But you also mentioned one other thing that I thought was intriguing about the notion of a real-time contact center, and that’s the use of analytics. It seems to me like that might be a very important way to categorize the new age type of contact center vs. the old school call centers, which is, actually, digging through the mountains of data of various types and making better decisions about how to take care of your customers. Do you agree with that, and if so, can you give an example of how that might work?

Donna Fluss
You’re right, Bob. Things are going to change, and they’re going to change in directions that are better for customers and better for the organization and also better for the agents who are servicing customers. We’ve got a lot of great things that are coming, as we move in the direction of the real-time contact centers. It’s going to happen over a period of time and it’s going to be driven by a change in philosophy and strategy and culture and, of course, in tools.

In regards to the analytics, “analytics” is one of the most overused words in the technology arena. At the same time, there’s a real difference in analytics and real-time analytics. The contact center needs to be able to take action in real time. But it also needs to use analytics to know what it is that it needs to do. The idea here is simple. The idea is that agents at point of contact need to get the feed from an analytics application. To do this, the agent must provide input into an analytical process.

The combination of historical information plus what’s coming from the customer needs to be analyzed while the customer’s on the line. Then what the agent can do to exceed customer expectations should be presented to the agent, who then, presents it—when and if appropriate—to the customer in order to exceed that person’s expectation for service. Once a customer is satisfied, they are more receptive to new products or promotions.

Bob Thompson
I’ve been hearing from some of the vendors in the CRM area over the last year or two about real-time analytics in contact centers. I think Epiphany is one vendor who’s talked about that and maybe SAS and some others. The idea being that while somebody’s on the phone and you’re working on a particular problem, you can make some decisions about, say, what kind of an offer to give them. So maybe we could dig a little bit into this idea, so we can see how a contact center might help somebody on the sales side. Have you found this to be a real application in the market, or is it just something the vendors are out there pushing?

Learning from customers

Donna Fluss
It’s a combination at the moment, but it’s absolutely moving in the direction of being very real. There are quite a few vendors who play in this arena. The contact center is phenomenally well positioned to understand customer needs and wants, to understand their insights. It’s funny. Organizations often invest significantly on doing focus groups, when all of the information they are looking for is available in their contact center. If the organization structured customer conversation, they’d learn a lot of customer needs, wants and new product ideas, for example.

Customers openly share with agents their needs and wants for new and enhanced products. Customers tell us what: Specifically, “I’d like a product that does X.” When a customer calls and asks for a credit-line increase, if the agent were only to ask them why, they may find that the customer wants the credit-line increase to put a down payment on a house. Well, maybe there’s a better way to do that, both for the customer and the enterprise.

There is an emerging group of products called real-time analytics. There’s also a second group of products called speech analytics. The real-time analytics products are designed to take input from the customer, structure and analyze it, incorporate it with historical data warehousing information and then feed it to the agent in real time. This enables agents to, literally, wow their customer with outstanding service.

Bob Thompson
So can you give me a simple example to illustrate how this might work in practice?

Donna Fluss
An example would be that a customer calls in and says, “I want to close my home equity line.” That’s not a positive experience. You’ve got a data repository in the background with a lot of information about what to do when the customer asks to close their account. The agent indicates something in a field on the screen, and the agent will also ask the customer a couple more questions to find out why they are closing their account.

That information gets input into the system. The real-time analytics application has the historical data warehousing information and comes back with a series of offers to keep the customer. So you address the customer’s issue, and then you come back with offers that will, really, address whatever was missing in the product. You may not only save that customer, you may actually extend that relationship.

Bob Thompson
And some of these offers could be built off of doing analysis of offers that have been made and accepted or rejected over time, so you’ve got a basis for making really good offers that work.

Donna Fluss
Absolutely. That’s the historical information, which it’s working off of.

Bob Thompson
And these are not only real time but also a lot smarter contact centers we’re talking about. Could you talk a little bit about a couple of the hot technologies? You’ve mentioned analytics. Maybe speech analytics would be something worth exploring just a little bit. But anything else that you think would be worth talking about in just the little bit of time we have left here? What’s hot in this real-time contact center area?

Donna Fluss
Well, IP—voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) —is extremely hot, because it’s actually the facilitator of much of what’s happening. It’s facilitating and allowing us to open up contact centers, so it is extremely important and an enabler. Going beyond that, you brought up speech analytics. Ninety-five percent to 99 percent of what flows through a contact center is unstructured.

For us to use this information either in real time or in a reactive mode, we have to capture it and structure it. Speech analytics applications do just that. They capture, structure and analyze customer conversations. They identify customer needs, wants, insights and operational issues.

Bob Thompson
All right. Hang on a second here. What would be an example of a little nugget of insight that a company might glean from digging through analyzing all these phone call transcripts?

Donna Fluss
Well, we can play it both on the operational side as well as on the revenue side. Let’s keep in mind that real-time contact centers are going to play a very important role in generating incremental revenue for the company. Here’s an operational example of speech analytics. People call in all the time with billing problems. When agents wrap up the call in the contact center, they indicate that there was a billing problem. But this isn’t enough information to be able to fix it. Speech analytics allows the organization to understand the underlying problems causing the billing problem. Once it’s understood, it can be fixed.

Bob Thompson
How is that done through the speech, though? I mean, the customer doesn’t know why they had a billing problem, either. They’re just talking about: “Here’s the bill and it was wrong,” and they want you to take care of it.

Donna Fluss
What happens is that there are patterns and there are underlying causes for billing problems. I’m thinking of big categories here. The customer doesn’t just say, “I have a billing problem.” The customer says, “This went wrong, and that went wrong.” They’re, actually, pretty specific, which is why this information’s so valuable. If you have 100 of these conversations, you not only identify the high-level categories, but also you understand what caused them.

Once you understand what caused the problem, you can prevent it from happening again. This results in call and cost avoidance and can save your organization a great deal of money while improving customer satisfaction. It’s tremendously powerful. At an average cost of about $5 per call for a call that’s about three minutes in length, you’re talking about millions of dollars, just by resolving one small category of problems.

Now, onto the revenue side.Customers call in and they say, “I’d like a product that does X. Can your product do Y?” They are telling us how to enhance our products. Speech analytics identifies and reports customers’ needs and wants allowing the organization to meet customers’ needs.

Bob Thompson
But I’m curious how these speech analytics products actually work. Are they looking for patterns in the audio, or are they taking the audio and converting it to text and then using more traditional techniques to sort through that and figure out what’s going on?

Donna Fluss
Very good question. The answer is somewhat technical and detailed. But the high-level answer is that there are three to four different techniques. All of them start by capturing the conversations. From there, you have different techniques that are applied. Some of them are actually looking for the phonemes [the smallest units of sound]. Other applications are doing a complete conversion to text and then analyzing it. Some use a combination.

Some of the speech analytics engines use a combination of techniques. Some will do a text-to-speech conversion and bring in CTI events and other activities to provide context to the conversations. Speech analytics applications and best practices are real and in production but are also still developing. We’re in the first generation of speech analytics application, and the next two or three years are going to be very exciting because of the contributions these products can make to the greater organization, not just the contact center.

Bob Thompson
I want to talk about one more thing here before we wrap up. I want to talk about offshoring. Of course, it’s gotten a lot of attention in the media and with business people, because it’s a way to save money. It’s cheaper. High-level messages: It’s cheaper to do stuff with cheap labor somewhere else—typically India or China and some other countries where the labor costs are quite different than they are in the U.S. I think everyone kind of gets that, but what, in your experience is the biggest misconception about the idea of offshoring or outsourcing to just save money?

Donna Fluss
The biggest mistake people make is related to money, which is that they’re going to save all these big bucks. The only way you save money, Bob, is if you do it right. And it is very difficult to do it right. There’s an emerging body of best practices to help you do it right, but that’s a big challenge. If you do it right, the savings are what you think they’re going to be. If you do it wrong, you risk losing your customers.

Bob Thompson
What’s the expectation of savings vs. what’s realistic in the real world?

Donna Fluss
The expectations of savings is anywhere from 25 percent to 60 percent. The challenge is that you may decide to outsource, but before you move anything out of your company, you need to find an outsourcer that is a good cultural fit in addition to meeting your operational needs. If the outsourcer is not a good cultural fit for your customer base, the results will be lost customers.

Bob Thompson
I’m reminded of the expression, “Pennywise and pound-foolish.” I suspect that some companies are going to chase the savings and maybe even achieve some of that and realize that they’ve lost customers because they didn’t provide this outstanding customer experience that you talked about earlier.

Donna Fluss
You need to provide an outstanding customer experience in order to build your relationship with your customers—tying you right back into CRM. Offshore outsourcing is a very important component of our business environment today, and it’s going to remain that way, because there are very few business events where we can save 25 [percent] to 60 percent, if we do it right. But the operative words are “doing it right.” Whether a company provides service from their own facility or through an outsourcer, it’s critical to provide an outstanding customer experience.

Bob Thompson
To wrap up, there’s an awful lot going on in the real-time contact center. What advice would you give a top executive who’s interested in having this more full function, more collaborative, more analytical contact center that provides a service that is going to encourage customers to keep coming back? What should that person do to get on the right path to being successful with the real-time contact center?

Donna Fluss
First and foremost, elevate the role and reporting level of a contact center. Put it on equal footing with sales and marketing. Give it goals that are aligned with the goals of corporation, not just productivity cost-saving objectives.

Bob Thompson
That’s great advice. Start with the people.

Donna, thank you very much for sharing your insights with us about the real-time contact center and about your new book. Best of luck with that, and thanks again for your time today.

, ,