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A recent report from the Associated Press underscores what many of us in the call center industry have known for years: The job just simply isn’t healthy. Call center agents sit all day and barely move from their cubicles. And as many agents in India are coming to learn, that lack of activity can lead to a wide range of health problems, from obesity to heart disease to diabetes to sleep disorders. Not to mention depression and family discord (the latter probably stemming from the really strange hours most call center agents need to keep -- many of them have to work the “dead man’s shift”). After all, it’s tough working in a place where the air is stagnant, germs are abundant, and there’s little to no natural light (not to mention the generally lousy attitude and gloomy outlook on life that is so pervasive among call center workers). The article makes it sound as though the call center industry in India, which employs literally millions of people, is causing a widespread health crisis that is spiraling out of control – a crisis which might actually end up ruining the industry in that country. According to the article, many agents are quitting after they discover that they are piling on the pounds and encountering a variety of health problems.
A while back, I blogged about EFM firm Allegiance’s recent survey of bank customers, showing that banks could be doing a lot more to earn their customers’ loyalty. I think I came off sounding a bit bitter and I might have left the impression that I hate the banking industry, which isn’t really true, I appreciate what the banks do, for all of us -- and I don’t really believe that all banks are run by evil, greedy people. But the Allegiance survey did get me thinking about some of the things I’d like to see my bank do, in order to serve me better. So here goes. Like a lot of people, I keep a “coin jar” which I use to offload my coins when I have too many rattling around in my pants pocket. Actually, my coin “jar” is really a heavy duty freezer bag that I keep on top of my refrigerator -- I started using a bag because it forces me to deposit the coins sooner than when I used a glass Crystal Rock jug, which would sometimes reach a weight of over 100 pounds when it filled up with change. Sometimes when my seven-year-old daughter comes into the kitchen and sees the bag, she asks me what I’m saving the coins for, and I jokingly tell her that it is her “college fund,” upon which she usually laughs, because she knows I’m only joking (at least for now).
As I’m sure you already know, speech recognition and speech analytics are two related yet very different disciplines. In the call center world, speech recognition has evolved from the clunky DTMF touchtone solutions of a few years ago (which you basically bolted onto your switch to handle call steering), to highly advanced, speech-enabled self-serve solutions -- or “automated agents” -- which actually have “personas” and can guide you, just like a live agent, through a transaction via natural conversation (this facilitated through today’s advanced speech algorithms and increasingly sophisticated “full vocabulary” speech engines). With today’s self-serve solutions, very often the “automated agent” can handle the entire interaction – whether it’s informational or transactional -- and the customer may never need to speak to a live agent. Speech analytics, on the other hand, primarily relates to the “mining” of recorded call data, which typically takes place post transaction, and does not require the same level of speech recognition technology as an “automated agent” or IVR application takes. With speech analytics, organizations can “mine” their recorded agent/customer interactions, post-transaction, and gain new insights into customer and agent behavior – insights which can be used to drive key business decisions. OK so there you have the basic functions/advantages of both technologies.
Call centers are always looking for ways to get more productivity out of their agents. Now, researchers at Wake Forest University School of Medicine have discovered something which could one day help call center managers squeeze every last bit of energy out of their workers: A brain chemical call Orexin A. The naturally occurring chemical is said to regulate sleep. The researchers found that when the chemical is administered to sleep-deprived monkeys, they can perform just as well as if they had a normal night’s rest. So now, pharmaceutical companies GlaxoSmithKline and Actelion are developing new drugs which will let sleep-deprived people perform just the same as if they a full night’s sleep – supposedly without any side effects. If and when this drug becomes available, you can be sure that the call center outsourcing firms in the Philippines and India will want to start slipping it into the water coolers. As many of you already know, call center agents in those parts of the world are expected to put in long hours – typically more than 10 hours a day – as there are no restrictions on shift length (or the labor laws simply are not enforced).
The Software-as-a-Service trend continues to take hold in the contact center industry – but how many more organizations will take this route for their contact center systems over the next few years is anyone’s guess. Although some organizations still seem dead-set on keeping their systems in house, the vast majority now seem like they are at least open to the idea of going with the hosted delivery model. From where I sit, it appears that a surprisingly large number – perhaps upwards of 20 percent – of all contact center operators have already deployed hosted solutions – however, it seems most are using only one hosted application, or a set of applications, to test out the waters, and not very many have not shifted their entire architecture over to the SaaS model. It’s interesting to talk about the SaaS trend with the software vendors operating in the contact center space. Most of the vendors I’ve spoken with which do not yet have hosted versions of their software say they eventually will … in fact, most make it sound inevitable that they must move in this direction, regardless of the level of interest among current customers. Many of the software vendors which offer “middleware” or peripheral solutions are saying that as contact centers increasingly migrate over to all-hosted systems, they, too, must evolve to offer their solutions on a hosted basis (here I’m talking about solutions such as CRM integration, which have traditionally been on-premise only). The benefits of going with hosted solutions are now well established.
A recent report from the UK Contact Centre Operational Review confirms what most of us already know -- that low pay is one of the main reasons for the high turnover rates found in contact centers in the U.K. and the U.S. From where I sit, it never ceases to amaze me that companies are now putting more emphasis than ever on providing quality service to their customers (in fact, providing good customer service is largely viewed as critical in order to stay alive in today’s highly competitive business world), yet the people on the front lines -- the call center agents who are expected to consistently deliver this high quality service -- are among the lowest paid (and often the worst treated) in the corporate hierarchy. But, as the report points out, low wages aren’t the only reason agents leave – in fact, in the UK it isn’t even the main reason. Lack of opportunity and the repetitive nature of the work are more likely to result in high attrition rates, the report finds. The report suggests that if companies offer more opportunities for agents to move up the ladder -- and also give them more varied roles and tasks to take on during the course of the work week -- it would go a long way toward reducing turnover and improving customer service. However, the study recommends that contact center managers first survey their agents to find out what areas they would like to see improved -- whether it is wages, benefits, opportunity for promotion, more varied tasks or whatever -- before jumping to any conclusions as to why agents are leaving (after all, every center is different, isn’t it?). I’m still waiting for the study that concludes that all the money spent on recruiting and training new agents would actually be better spent on offering higher wages to existing agents, which in turn, might, just might, make them want to stay longer … For more about the report from UK Contact Centre Operational Review, check out Susan Campbell’s article.
Speech analytics software vendor Verint -- which acquired workforce optimization software vendor Witness Systems earlier this year -- has integrated the contact center solutions of the two companies on a single platform. The combined solution, called Impact 360 (named after the popular WFO solution from Witness), is “analytics-driven workforce optimization software,” with an emphasis on the word “analytics.” This tightly integrated suite of apps includes workforce management, performance management, call recording/monitoring, speech and data analytics, customer feedback and eLearning. The company has added new functionality to most of the apps – enhancements which it claims will help organizations “improve the entire customer service delivery network, from contact centers to branch stores and remote offices to back-office operations.” Verint has been working toward this integration for some time – in fact, it reportedly started working on it before the acquisition of Witness Systems got into the “official talks” stage. As explained by Erik Laurence, vice president of solutions marketing for Verint, during a visit to TMC’s offices yesterday, the acquisition is all about “creating a better and stronger company … it’s a merger of growth.” When asked about the restructuring and what the new company should be called, Laurence explained that the parent company will continue to be Verint Inc., with Verint Witness Actionable Solutions now operating as a separate division within the company. As he explained, Verint Inc. was originally comprised of three divisions, Video Intelligence, Communications Intercept and Contact Center. Witness Systems, he explained, has been combined with the Contact Center division, and this is the new Verint Witness Actionable Solutions.
If you’re a fugitive from the law -- or even if you’re just super paranoid about your privacy -- you might want to steer clear of a new biometric payment system which has been implemented at about ten Shell gas stations in the Chicago area. The biometric payment system, developed by San Francisco-based Pay By Touch, works by linking a user’s fingerprint to his or her credit card or checking account. For now, customers must scan their fingertips at a kiosk inside the gas station – however, Shell is reportedly considering the idea of having the scanners installed on the pumps to facilitate even faster payment. But what if the scan taken could be linked to other databases – even be cross-checked against the NCIS database? We’ve heard about how this technology can be used to create “theft proof” smart cars which can only be used by the driver registered to that vehicle. And now it appears the technology can be used to verify a credit card user’s identity as well.
If you cover the contact center industry, you’ve probably heard about how today’s speech analytics solutions -- software which is used to search and find trends in recorded conversation -- has the ability to detect the emotional state of a caller using advanced speech algorithms. Some of today’s speech analytics solutions let contact center managers be alerted in near real time when a customer or agent’s voice gets “stressed,” indicating that there is a problem. Then the manager can intervene, either by silently “coaching” the agent on what to do next (using screen pops, IM, or through “whisper coaching”) or by actually barging in on the call. Even if you’re not aware of this technological feat, you’ve no doubt been witnessing how voice recognition is finding new application in everything from IVRs, to security systems, to “smart homes,” to children’s toys. But did you know that speech technology has advanced to the point where it can also be used as a crime fighting tool? The Computer Voice Stress Analyzer (CVSA), made by West Palm Beach, Fla.-based NITV, is a “voice-based investigative truth verification tool” which basically performs the same job as a polygraph. The company claims the CVSA, when combined with its FACT Scoring Algorithm (Final Analysis Confirmation Tool), creates a highly accurate truth verification system which is now in use by more than 1,700 law enforcement agencies, including U.S. military special operations and intelligence units. Like the polygraph, results of the CVSA are not normally used in court.
Here’s some news that will come as no surprise to those of us who are at or below the “average salary” mark in our respective U.S. regions: Enterprise Feedback Management (EFM) solutions provider Allegiance has released the results of a survey showing that bank customers in the U.S. don’t feel they are valued or respected by the banks they do business with. According to the results of the monthly online survey with 500 bank customers (the banks, of course, are not named) only 10 percent reported “neutrality” or worse when considering whether they will discontinue their relationship with their bank within a year. At the same time, only 26 percent of customers think their banks services are the best compared with others. The survey suggests that although banking customers are exceptionally loyal, they are not unaware of what other banks are doing. Thus banks could be doing a lot more to build customer loyalty -- as any customer could end up suddenly defecting at a given moment.