Call Center Reality Check: Do Great Voice Agents also Score Well in Social Media?

The call center industry is undergoing a sea change in the 21st century. Call centers have already morphed into contact centers at savvy businesses, and given evolving customer …

The call center industry is undergoing a sea change in the 21st century. Call centers have already morphed into contact centers at savvy businesses, and given evolving customer expectations, multi-channel contact centers will almost inevitably become the norm in the coming days. Contact centers continue to engage customers through traditional channels such as voice/telephone, email and messaging, but also by texting or through new social media channels including Twitter, Facebook or other mobile-based platforms.

Many outsourcing firms have either already put into place or are ramping up the capabilities of their new social media-enabled contact centers, but their offerings and the relative quality of the services they offer vary dramatically. This variation in services and quality is not that surprising given that contact centers are just now coming into their own as a business model, and companies are trying to figure out how to provide the more personalized engagement that 21st century customers are increasingly expecting.

The fact that this new paradigm in customer service is still evolving means that companies that are considering outsourcing their customer service to these new contact centers need to really do their research before deciding on a provider. Businesses today need to know their customers and understand their expectations so they can provide the degree of customer service engagement they are looking for. A few emerging industry trends are discussed briefly below.

Customer Service & Mobile Apps

Up until recently, customers have typically had to toggle out of a business interface mobile app in order to contact a live customer service agent, ie make a phone call or send a text, but today many businesses are developing all-inclusive apps where you can call a rep or receive a text without leaving the mobile app. Customers are going to get used to and demand this convenience in short order, and you can expect to see this feature in all of the next generation of business mobile apps.

Agent Specialization

Outsourcing companies have developed various strategies to find and train customer service agents that can deliver the kind of closer engagement social customers are looking for and developing teams of specialists has been one effective approach. The differences in the skill set of telephone agents and social media agents are significant, and as Constellation Research VP Elizabeth Herrell points out, “Telephone agents don’t necessarily make good social media agents as they have very separate sets of skills. Some can certainly make the transition, but not all.”

Herrell also points out that social media agents actually don’t have to be as fluent in English (or other language) as telephone agents, given that almost all contact centers train social media agents extensively in the use of social network analysis or social mining software. Some of this software is sophisticated enough to provide social media agents with a point-and-click-decision-making interface to drill down to a prewritten short phrase or set of phrases to respond to the customer.

Fabricio Coutinho, VP of Research & Development at outsourcing provider Teleperformance, agrees that specialization is important in developing an effective social media contact center workforce. “We have different profiles for the social media teams, and we look at both industry experience and social media skills in building the teams.” Coutinho also emphasized the importance of choosing the skill sets of project team members based on specific client needs rather than a cookie-cutter approach.

Training Agents in Social Media

You don’t get the top notch social customer service reps just by hiring people with the right skill sets, you also have to train these reps. Even social-media savvy reps with the ideal skill set will need an introduction and orientation to internalize client expectations and learn processes, and many outsourcing providers have some kind of a mentorship program for new reps just finishing up their training.

According to Coutinho, Teleperformance has an initial training for customer service agents that lasts three to six weeks depending on the needs of the client, and an additional one to two weeks of training (depending on client and project) for social media specific topics. Coutinho also mentioned that Teleperformance recruited most of its social consultants from its current workforce, and did not expect that there would be a major problem in recruiting social media agents in the future given the prevalence of social media use among young people today.

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Distributed Environment Model

Customer service agents working out of their homes has been a small subset of the industry for some years now, but the trend is definitely accelerating as providers seek high-quality human capital for their social media operations.

Herrell highlights cloud-based outsourcing provider Live Ops as the only major outsourcer who exclusively uses home-based agents.Live Ops works with a pool of over 20,000 independent customer service professionals, most of whom are highly social-media savvy. Live Ops just introduced Live Ops Social, their distributed environment model offering in social customer service.

Distributed environment models using home-based reps do offer the advantage that they are not susceptible to a force majeure like a hurricane or earthquake taking out a major call center, and as they are self-employed, the overall quality of the reps tends to be high. Both Herrell and Coutinho agreed that the number of home-based social customer service reps was likely to increase in the future.

Next Generation Social Customer

In the customer service industry, best practice ultimately means providing the consumer with what he or she expects. Although it might be a little early to define best practices in a field that is just a few years old, industry insiders know what is working now and can read the handwriting on the wall better than most. Herrell says a fully integrated response as the key to social customer service best practices, and Coutinho argues it boils down to getting the right people for the job.

An integrated response means a customer receives a consistent message across various channels. A fully integrated customer service center is also designed around analytics that provide insight into customers’ activities in all communication channels. Coupling this kind of integrated customer service together with sophisticated multi-channel monitoring and filtering is the “gold standard” of social customer service today, according to Herrell.

Coutinho makes a convincing argument that top quality social customer service begins with the right people. “Everything starts with people. You start with people with the right profile and attitude,  then you select and train them. Then we layer processes and technology.”  Coutinho points to Teleperformance’s multilingual Customer Experience Management (CEM) Hub in Portugal as an example of a best-in-class customer experience service. This hub can provide services in more than 24 languages using all channels including social media. For the new social media hub we started offering services in 7 languages (English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Portuguese and Turkish) but we have capability to quickly expand to new languages according to the needs of our clients.

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