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Over the last decade in my research into contact center operations has revolved around the four operational challenges faced by center managers: to reduce average call-handling time, increase agent utilization, increase customer satisfaction and one recently gaining in importance, to increase first-contact-resolution rates. The first two clearly relate to the core issue of reducing operational costs; the latter two focus on customer retention. At the center of meeting all these challenges are the contact center agents. Those of us who follow relevant LinkedIn discussions see that many experts and center managers agree on his point, but most also point out that even skilled agents need technology to help them.

About a month ago, I published the results of research I did on vendors that support agent performance management (APM), which we call the APM Value IndexKnoahSoft was one of the vendors I included in the report. Its product suite called KnoahSoft Harmony includes most of the core components of APM: call recording, quality monitoring, agent training and coaching, and performance management and analytics. KnoahSoft doesn’t have its own workforce management product but works in close cooperation with partners to support these requirements. Recently it has added customer feedback management (that is, surveys) and speech analytics to provide further insights into how well agents are performing.

So how do these capabilities help in meeting those four challenges? First and foremost the old adage applies – “if you don’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” Through the use of surveys, quality monitoring, structured data analytics and speech analytics, KnoahSoft users can produce dashboards, reports and analysis that show agent-related key performance indicators. These can include variations against targets and trend analysis. They can point out areas where interaction processes need to be improved and suggest training and coaching for individual agents based on the analysis. The latter is particularly important, as my benchmark research into agent performance management showed, because although agents often receive training and coaching, much of it is delivered on an ad-hoc basis and in “one size fits all” form that doesn’t address the particular agent’s needs. The deeper insights that the KnoahSoft products can deliver allow companies to focus these efforts more sharply and help specific agents, for example, improve customer satisfaction and first-contact resolution. The agent training and coaching application can then help manage these efforts more effectively.

KnoahSoft is one of the newer vendors in this space, but it comes with a good pedigree because most of the software has been tested in its parent companies’ outsourcing contact center in India and proven in a demanding operational environment. Its in-house developments are relatively new and so are based on an up-to-date platform, using modern techniques. They are also highly integrated with each other, which simplifies overall system administration and sharing of information across different applications. As one of the newer entrants, KnoahSoft did well to make our “Warm” category in the APM Value Index. We advise companies looking to improve the performance of their agents to include the company on their list of vendors to evaluate.

Do you pay enough attention to your agents’ performance? Just focusing on average handling times is not enough in today’s highly competitive markets, and we strongly recommend that companies examine the benefits that a suite of agent performance management applications can deliver, not only in terms of operational efficiency but on customer and agent satisfaction levels, and on business outcomes. All of this means that you will deliver more customer performance which is exactly what my research practice focuses on in leveraging your contact center for a competitive customer advantage and deliver the business value that I have outlined as a requirement for success in 2010.

Let me know your thoughts or come and collaborate with me on Facebook,LinkedInand Twitter.

Regards,

Richard Snow – Global VP & Research Director

One often-cited approach to improving the performance of contact centers and customer service agents is skills-based routing. This involves tagging data about the skills of individual agents – for example, languages spoken, training courses passed or the ability to handle well a particular type of call – and using a call-routing system to deliver calls to an extension where an agent with the requisite skills has signed in and is available. Identifying the required skills typically is done by an interactive voice response (IVR) system or perhaps through the number dialed by the caller; in the latter case, a high-value customer might call a special number and identify the issue by selecting among options in an IVR system. Either way, matching customers and their requirements with agents skilled in dealing with them is thought to increase the chance that the customer’s issue will be resolved efficiently in the first attempt.

IBM has been working with one of its customers to make skills-based routing more sophisticated to increase the chance of making the best match. The result is the IBM Real-Time Analytics Matching Platform (RAMP). The logic behind the product is straightforward. Companies have lots of data about their customers in various systems: billing, CRM, ERP, customer data warehouses and others. RAMP has extraction tools that can take this data and build an analytics-based model of every customer. The same is true of data about agents, although it is held in different kinds of systems such as workforce management, quality monitoring or human resources and is part of contributing to what I call Agent Performance Management for which I have done extensive research including a recent benchmark. Using this data RAMP can build an analytics-based model of the agents’ skills and past performance. The system also can collect real-time operational data such as which agents are signed in, queue lengths, average call-handling time, targets for service level agreements (SLAs) and any updates specific to that day. Then RAMP combines the operational data with the customer and agent models to create a best match, also called an affinity score, between the caller and all signed-in agents. This happens in real time so the call-routing software can send the call to the agent most likely to deliver the best outcome. Should the most qualified agent be on another call, the system is smart enough to calculate whether to wait for that agent to come free or to pass the call to an available agent with a lower affinity score who might still deliver the desired outcome. The models are self-learning, so over time the matches continue to improve.

According to IBM, the results achieved by its initial customer are impressive, showing significantly increased customer retention rates. What is more those customers have remained customers for longer and over time have bought more from the company. For new user companies, getting these results will require investment. They will have to work with IBM to build the analytics models, develop the extractors to populate the models, build the affinity models and populate the real-time operational models before having these innovative routing capabilities in place.

My benchmark research into the use of technology in contact centers showed only a minority of companies having deployed advanced call-routing such as skills-based routing. However, companies that have deployed smart routing have seen customer satisfaction rates improve and realized business benefits by matching callers with the most qualified agent, even to the extent of routing callers to the agent they spoke to previously about an issue. Having an agent familiar with the customer and the type of call can reduce the lengths of calls, raise first-call-resolution rates and increase up-sales because the agent has a track record of completing more sales. I believe more companies could benefit from these capabilities and recommend that interested companies evaluate IBM’s highly innovative product for this purpose.

Let me know your thoughts or come and collaborate with me on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Regards,

Richard Snow – VP & Global Research Director

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