Email and Chat, Vehicles for Productivity

In today’s business world email and instant message services are part of the communications mix we all handle. Many call and contact centers also handle them as well; or should I say handle them the same way most of us do. That is to say, poorly.

Not everyone handles email and chat poorly to be sure but report after report from the major research houses such as Gartner, Forrester, Juniper all state that email response time, completions, first call/contact resolution (FCR) all get failing grades for many corporations. Since many of these communications terminate in the customer service or contact centers one has to wonder why.

Here are a few possible causes.

Poor Tools: Email is handled using technology designed for single users. Example: Outlook, Lotus Notes or other corporate email tools. No contact center today would think of handling large volume of phone calls with single line telephones. So why use a single user email system for large volume email.

One answer is that the use of email in the contact center has evolved and did so employing the tools that were readily available. Often management has not given enough time and thought to a communications channel into which they have little or any insight. This directly leads to another cause of poor service.

Poor Reporting: Single user email systems have at best poor reporting. Often this consists of someone counting the emails in a folder, those received or those sent. There is little if any analysis available to determine key metrics which we all are so familiar with in the phone channel; Average speed to answer, oldest, category reports by subject lines etc.

This becomes a self fulfilling problem. There is no funding available to upgrade the technology because there is not enough information to enable a business case to be developed by the in-house staff. There is not enough information to conduct a business case because the technology is not available. Therefore officers and managers are unable to manage or to understand the effect poor email service is having on the business.

Response Quality: Emails can arrive at any part of an organization today. Each email asks unique questions of the recipient. At least that is what many would have us believe. Sometimes this is true. When you find the right person and can get their attention it is a wonderful thing. All too often however, the email gets caught in the spam filter; is read and ignored; or misunderstood. The responses are constructed individually, on the fly without a lot of thought or more important consistency of message and understanding of the corporate context.

Additionally email quality is frequently not measured. Unlike call monitoring, email monitoring is a new activity for many centres. Most often overlooked. If done at all the monitoring is based on the agents’ performance. Often the QA programs forget or miss the big picture view of quality. That being “how are we doing as an organization” instead these programs focus on how well is Agent X doing with the email responses.

Production Bias: Since calls are urgent, immediate and the telephony systems are so rich in reporting and metrics managers presume that this is the most productive use of agents’ time. Evolution from a call centre with only calls to answer created this phone bias originally and it is hard to shake. Scheduling and forecasts contribute to management favouring calls over other channels for resources, staffing and attention.

With proper tools and a different mind set email and also chat can be many times more efficient; up to 3 times more productive than live calls. The reasoning here is simple. Calls occur in real time. Queuing and staffing models all model for random arrival, agent availability, and length of call to produce the most effective means of answering live calls while achieving the modelled service level. Because of this each call is handled at the time that it reaches the centre.

Chat sessions occur in near real time. That is the callers’ patience and responses are delayed so what due to the need to type their answers or read the agents response etc. This means that the agent has a time advantage compared to the callers. With proper tools, an agent can employ canned responses to common questions, and stock answers. This greatly speeds up the agents ability to respond. Therefore an agent has time to read and answer other customers on the chat line while waiting for the first or other customers to respond. The production increase is often in the area of 33% to 100% or better contacts handled per agent hour of work.

Email can be even better. Contact centers handling email as well as live calls have a built in cushion for labour and an opportunity for call reduction. Emails are a delay-able channel. Common service levels for email are 100% within 24 hours. Some are tighter with the service level being 100% within 4 hours. For this example let’s use the first standard of 100/24. Since emails are delivered in queues each agent always has work to do. As with chats templates can dramatically speed up the response. Some new tools pre-read the email and suggest templates to use, based upon the content of subject lines and/or key words. The agent then only has to review, make minor modifications, as required and hit the send key. Field experience suggests that this can easily double the number of inquiries handled by an agent during any period versus similar phone inquiries.

An additional advantage to centre managers is the fact that calls do not come in a predictable pattern but arrive randomly over any hour or day-part. Email queuing allows the manager to schedule email answering around the expected peaks of call answering is they want to. This means that the same space used for call handling, which is vacant in the low volume periods can be used to have agents handling emails at double the productive rate of calls. This can be a great increase in production and use of stations, overnight or off hour shifts of dedicated email agents can be scheduled.

Finally, as with the introduction of ATM machines for banking, there is some resistance to channel change by the consumer. But, as the convenience and reliability of email communication with your organization become well known, some or many of the consumers will migrate to these electronic channels from the voice or telephone.

Since call centres were originally designed as a convenience and as an alternative to the old correspondence departments, now so are contact centers replacing the single channel call centres. The increased production by agents via email and chat make a compelling argument for adding these channels to any call centres arsenal of tools.

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