I have to admit I experienced creeping uncertainty when I got word about the management changes at Aspect a couple of months ago.  Not only were the new managers unfamiliar names, they were for the most part not from the communications industry and one of the new execs was an M&A guy.  Would Aspect be broken up and sold in pieces or was this going to be a wholesale sell-off to the highest bidder?

 

Turns out it won’t be any of those things if I can base my assessment of Aspect’s future on the words I heard from the new executive management team this week.  In a fairly atypical industry occurrence, Aspect executives gathered this week with a small group of analysts in an all day, no-holds-barred meeting to make clear the company’s commitment to corporate growth and industry influence in the future.  I left the meeting a believer.

 

When I say the meeting was no-holds-barred, I mean that the discussion was frank and honest, not peppered with the usual flowery marketing drivel.  Mistakes were made in the past and admitted to.  The much-hyped Aspect relationship with Microsoft was put into perspective and I finally understood where it fits into Aspect’s growth strategy.  While it makes sense from a market perspective, I hope Aspect tones down the marketing perspective.  Contact center professionals simply aren’t that enamored with Microsoft, at least not to the degree that some other industry professionals are.  Aspect’s relationship with Microsoft doesn’t do anything to win the heart and mind of the customer service professional.

 

What does win friends and influence people in the contact center industry are innovations in technology solutions that industry people know they need, like workforce optimization, mobility solutions and social media management tools.  Without giving away secrets, I’m convinced that Aspect is on the right track to win new friends.  To back up the talk, they’re walking the R & D walk with significant new investment in this area in dollars for both people and technology.  I see this level of commitment in product development as a strong proof point that Aspect as we know it is here to stay.

 

Financially, Aspect is in a relatively strong position.  Just this week they paid down another $50 million in debt leaving their outstanding debt, by order of magnitude, about a tenth of Avaya’s debt and around half of Genesys’ debt.  I discovered that Aspect’s new CFO is a fellow grad school alum, so that subjectively boosts my confidence in the company’s fiscal responsibility.

 

There are very few companies in the contact center industry that have the confidence to put their top executives in front of analysts to answer questions without a marketing or PR buffer.  Aspect is now part of this elite group and I believe the confidence Aspect has shown in itself will translate to strong and responsible growth for the company.  Aspect is well-positioned to meet the challenges that lie ahead.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012 15:54

Contact Center Social Media Stalls

While social media applications become pervasive in virtually all aspects of everyday life, the adoption of social media in the contact center has stalled.

 

Saddletree Research just published a research report that updates the 2010 survey of contact center professionals that was undertaken in conjunction with the National Association of Call Centers (NACC) at The University of Southern Mississippi.  The results reveal that even though interest in social media as a customer service tool continues to be high, there has been no significant increase in the use of social media in the contact center since 2010.

 

In the 2010 survey, 18 percent of respondents reported that they were actively using social media in the contact center.  Despite the fact that 18 percent of respondents in 2010 indicated that they were planning to add social media to their customer communications channel mix in the next year, the growth failed to materialize.  The 2012 survey revealed that 18 percent of respondents were actively using social media in the contact center.  Growth in the use of social media over two years was virtually non-existent.

 

I believe the problem lies in uncertainty concerning the management of social media once it is put into use.  It is clear that existing contact center customer service rules are not relevant in the world of social media.  For example, does a posting on a company’s Facebook page that says something to the effect of “I hate your company” deserve the time and consideration of a response, or does the business risk ignoring it and seeing the poster launch some sort of viral anti-company phenomenon that takes weeks or longer to fix?  Does the rant of a 15 year old who hates his/her cell phone warrant the time of a customer service representative and the effort of a response?

 

While attending the Verint Driving Innovation user group meeting in New Orleans last month I met someone who seems to have a unique understanding of how to handle social media channels in the contact center.  Kym Banks, Social Media manager at Telvista, has a good grip on the process of filtering the good from the bad and the ugly when it comes to social media postings.  Watch for my column in the September issue of Contact Center Pipeline magazine and read about the lessons Kym and her team have learned as they travel the social media learning curve.

There was a story on a local Phoenix TV news station this week about homeless veterans.  There are now over 10,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the U.S. that are unemployed and homeless.  The government has conducted a census of homeless Iraq and Afghanistan veterans three times since 2006.  With each census, the number of homeless vets has doubled.

 I volunteer as the editor for Veterans to Work (www.veterans2work.org), a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization that works to find jobs for veterans and service-disabled veterans.  Veterans to Work (V2W) has a roster of 2,000 customer service-qualified veterans set up in home offices and ready to go to work.  97 percent have a high school diploma and most of them have additional training such as the specialty training they received during their military service.  28 percent have a bachelors degree or higher.  V2W has an additional 112,000 veteran resumes on file.

 I’ve written about V2W in my column in Contact Center Pipeline and in the NACC newsletter In Queue that goes to 32,000 contact center professionals.  I’ve provided a laundry list of reasons why contact centers should look toward veterans as potential employees and have tried to steer companies to V2W when there has been hiring to do.  Net result so far has been zip.

 A couple of months ago I was at an analyst briefing in Boston and at dinner I was telling some of the people seated near me about V2W and the goal of putting our veterans to work, particularly in the contact center industry.  Two vendor representatives, one from CDW and one from Convergys, immediately reached into their pockets and presented me with their business cards and a request to contact them regarding the hiring of veterans.

 I was more than happy to oblige.  The problem was nothing happened after I contacted these individuals.  I didn’t even get an acknowledgement from the woman at CDW, who happened to be a vice president.  The guy from Convergys at least strung me along through a few e-mail exchanges before finally ignoring me as CDW did.

Then last Friday I got an e-mail from one of the news services I subscribe to with the following headlines:

  • Convergys Hiring 500 at Florida Contact Center
  • Convergys Hiring 225 Agents in Cincinnati Metro Area

 Maybe CDW isn’t hiring but Convergys definitely is and I couldn’t get anyone’s attention at Convergys to talk about the benefit of hiring veterans. 

Today President Obama proposed tax credits to help companies hire unemployed veterans.  Noting that among the 1 million unemployed veterans, 260,000 are veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama’s proposal would offer two tax credits for companies that hire unemployed veterans.  Any company hiring an unemployed veteran would receive a $2,400 tax credit.  If the hired veteran has been unemployed for six months or more, the tax credit would increase to $4,800.

The contact center industry has a spectacular opportunity here to create community goodwill and set an example that other industries would have to follow.  This is an opportunity to craft a new public perception of the contact center industry and the people who man the phones.  So often the butt of jokes (see my blog entry of June 10, 2011) this is an opportunity for the industry to exchange ridicule for admiration.

Someone has to step up to the plate and be a leader, which is not a strong suit among most contact center organizations.  In his remarks Obama challenged private companies to hire or train 100,000 veterans by the end of 2013.  I wish I had that kind of pull, but I don’t.  I’m not a politician but I am a veteran and in that capacity I’m asking the contact center industry as a whole to no longer ignore the need to put our veterans back to work.  If you don’t know where to start, contact V2W.

Friday, 10 June 2011 16:03

Keeping the Comedians Employed

As I was unwinding from a later-than-average evening last night, I happened to catch some of the David Letterman show on TV.  Since the show featured the finale of “Drum Solo Week” I thought I’d stay up late enough to watch the featured drummer.  That meant sitting through the brief act of a comedian who preceded the drum solo extravaganza.

 

The comedian’s name was Mike Birbiglia and he owes the contact center industry a big debt of gratitude.  His entire routine, about five minutes or so, was about his experience contacting the call center of his mobile phone provider.  The clichés were coming fast and furious – hundreds of incoming calls and five agents on duty, send all the calls to a voice mail “machine” so no one has to talk to customers, send the calls to Indians (“Native Americans?  No, Indian Indians”), leave the calls on hold while we go play golf, etc. etc.  For comedians, the contact center still seems to hold a wealth of material even if it’s been recycled a hundred times or more.

 

It occurred to me as I watched this comedian that the contact center industry is itself a little like a comedian – Rodney Dangerfield.  Like Rodney, the industry “don’t get no respect.”  I’m betting you already have a visual image of the late Mr. Dangerfield in your mind right now, seeing him straightening his tie, sort of rocking on his feet and saying something like, “A girl phoned me and said, ‘Come on over, there’s nobody home.’  I went over – nobody was home.”

 

According to a recent study I read and wrote about in the National Association of Call Centers (NACC) In Queue newsletter this month (www.nationalcallcenters.org) and which is also the topic of my column in the upcoming July issue of Contact Center Pipeline magazine, customer service representative is number two in the top ten post-recession comeback jobs.  These are jobs that have seen the greatest increase in demand and in salary over the past two years.  Number one on the list is tax preparer.  Right behind tax preparer with a 26 percent increase in average salary since 2009, is the much-maligned job of customer service representative.

 

As contact center jobs continue to be repatriated and we look back and see eight consecutive quarters of job growth in the contact center industry, why is the industry still the butt of late night comedians’ jokes?  These bad experiences may have been commonplace in the past but today’s reality is different.  No one can afford provide bad service and not many agents will risk joining the ranks of the unemployed these days.  Yet these bad customer service experiences appear to be fresh in the memory of many people – fresh enough that they can still relate to them and laugh along with the comedian.

 

Remember when phone company employees were the butt of comedians’ jokes?  They’re not anymore.  Today it’s the cable guy who will show up, maybe, sometime between noon and dark, who is the target of jokes.  I guess the best we can hope for is that the jokes about the bad customer service rep will fade away like the jokes about lazy phone company employees did.  In the meantime, concerned organizations can help the industry by recognizing the importance of the contact center as a profit center and as the front line of defense in the battle to get and keep customers, and invest in it accordingly.  Otherwise the contact center industry might, as Rodney would have said, look up the family tree and discover it was the sap.

Enterprise workforce management is not a new concept.  I’ve been writing about it since 2007.  Lots of companies make back office workforce management solutions, but not very many do it well.

 

I recently conducted a survey with members of the National Association of Call Centers (NACC), a not-for-profit industry organization that offers strategic research and advice to its members.  Based at The University of Southern Mississippi, the NACC strives to offer relevant, clear, demand-based research as an alternative to all the noise an information clutter that permeates the industry.  I function as research director at the NACC, as I have since 2008.

 

This research brought a touch of reality to the idea of back office or enterprise workforce management.  We simply asked end-users what they thought of the idea and what they were doing in their own contact center.  Not surprisingly, the industry isn’t as far along as many vendors would have you believe.

 

Our survey revealed that 61 percent of our respondents have their front office contact center and the back office report to the same internal organization.  This sounds promising for providers of back office workforce management.  However, only 24 percent or our respondents combine the scheduling of back office personnel with front office personnel and only 15 percent of respondents use the same scheduling software for both back and front office even though, as noted, 24 percent schedule them together.

 

It seems to me there is still quite a bit of missionary work to do when it comes to migrating front office workforce management to the back office.  While it appears that much of the ground work has been laid given that 61 percent of organizations have their front and back offices reporting to the same internal organization, it is obvious that the idea of also combining their scheduling still has a ways to go.

 

Verint recently released their fifth generation Impact 360 workforce optimization solution.  Part of this release is a revamped back office workforce management component that addresses the unique scheduling needs of the back office while still maintaining the efficiency of its front office solution.  It’s worth taking a look at.

 

I recently did a podcast with Oscar Alban of Verint that discusses the topic of back office workforce management.  If you have a few minutes, please give it a listen or download it for later listening.  You can find it at: http://verint.com/contact_center/misc/WFM_Recording-04.27.11.wmv

 

Last week I wrote a research note for Saddletree clients covering contact center industry employment numbers for the second half of 2010.  In the first half of 2010 there was a net gain of 2,292 jobs in the U.S. contact center industry.  That news in itself was pretty exciting, but it was blown away by second half employment figures.

The third quarter of 2010 saw a net gain of 3,929 jobs – more than the net gain of jobs in the first two quarters of 2010 combined.  It was the fourth quarter numbers, however, that blew expectations out of the water.  During the fourth quarter the industry realized a net gain of 9,695 jobs for a grand total of 15,916 contact center jobs gained during 2010.  Growth in the fourth quarter also mirrored normal pre-recession industry growth patterns, so it appears that the industry is on the right track.  Incidentally, all these employment numbers are gathered by the Call Center Lab at The University of Southern Mississippi.

 And speaking of blowing away expectations, Verint Systems released their fourth quarter numbers this week.  Earnings per share (EPS) were sharply ahead of consensus forecasts with workforce optimization playing a major part in these earnings.  As a category, Verint’s workforce optimization sales performance was up nearly 20 percent over last year.  Financial analysts expect to see a continuation of this strong performance into FY 2011 and have increased revenue expectations accordingly.

 All of this is good news for an industry that not only proved its value during the toughest of economic times, but is clearly demonstrating leadership in shepherding the U.S. economy out of its doldrums.  It is apparent that confidence has returned to much of the U.S. contact center industry, led by companies like Verint that have figured out the magic formula of delivering value for the money in order to increase revenues.

I admit I used to be a trade show junkie.  I loved seeing all the new contact center products in one place and meeting with company executives that I rarely got to see otherwise.  I met with customer service professionals from many different industries and never failed to learn something.  It was time well spent.

I used to chair conferences in London, Amsterdam and Toronto every year and was a regular speaker at conferences all over the country.  I hosted or attended dinners every night and made the most of every minute running from appointment to appointment and meeting as many people as I could.  Those were productive and educational times.  Then they went away.

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