Thought leadership

 Every business knows that when their customers interact with them, there is only one desirable (and increasingly expected) outcome – a quick and satisfactory resolution to the customer’s request.

At the same time businesses need to increase profitability, and this means we all need to do more with less. But for many managers, this holy grail of balancing supply and demand seems an almost impossible task.

For the contact centre, maximising agent utilisation in order to increase productivity whilst maintaining or improving service levels has continued to be a challenge. Providing resources to ensure high service levels can lead to excessive idle time when calls do not arrive as expected and idle time costs the business money. In most customer service departments, the agent occupancy percentage (time available to take calls) versus talk time percentage (actual time on the phone) often shows a significant gap.


Blending in the front office has worked…

To overcome this many contact centres already adopt the technical and strategic technique of ‘blending’ to maximise the use of agent time. This involves switching agents between inbound and outbound calls, email, SMS, web chat etc. during peaks and troughs in volumes in line with demand. While this places some demand on the breadth and depth of agent skills it enhances the agility of the workforce and the contact centre as a front office business function.  At optimum capacity, call queue times can be minimal and agents will always be busy taking, or making calls, depending on the campaigns being run at any one time.

However, there is a significant opportunity to extend blending still further which will increase productivity but also improve the customer journey, and therefore the end customer experience.

…but it doesn’t address ‘failure demand’

Customer complaints and problems all frequently occur because contact centres are unable to resolve all interactions on first contact. And with increasing numbers of contact centres now operating in a multi-channel environment, the challenge is even more complex. A good proportion of calls can simply be as a result of failures elsewhere and there is a real desire to reduce ‘failure demand’. In essence, organisations want to reduce inbound communication resulting from failures by resolving the cause of customer issues before they call. In a typical contact centre, no matter how good your culture, systems and processes are, customer satisfaction will always be shaped by what comes after their initial transaction with a company. All too often, service failures that occur in the back office processes that follow.

The back office is often seen as being very complex, as work can arrive via a range of different channels from the front office (such as the contact centre) to start and feed into multi-stage processes, across multiple departments. Work can be a mixture of longer, more complex processes, and ‘one and done’ tasks. In fact, the back office is probably the most ‘blended’ environment that can be found in any business with inputs of work arriving through many channels at both the start and during multi-stage processes.

 The solution for a single customer contact strategy

Some contact centres have been able to identify and consolidate ‘pockets’ of unused time across individuals and teams – using predictive algorithms to determine when an agent is most likely to be taking calls or not – and are using this time to deliver training modules to improve the agent’s skill set. This approach provides a significant opportunity to extend ‘blending’ to include short cycle ‘one and done’ back office tasks to create a truly blended single customer contact strategy for all but the complex multi-stage processing tasks. By feeding this work into the contact centre, it not only helps to reduce outstanding work in the back office, it also supports the ‘blending’ of customer tasks across both the front and back office within the contact centre.

In practice, work can be allocated to an agent based on the priorities of the outstanding work and the skills of the individual agent, ensuring that the right people are doing the right work at the right time. In this way, contact centre agents can have more structure in the way that idle time is managed, as well as an improved understanding of the businesses requirements and priorities. When call, email or other channels get busier again, the agent can switch back to their normal font office work. The agent can even access any back office work for their customer during a call, and either complete it, or alert the back office about the follow-up call. In a natural progression, they feel more empowered and informed to resolve a customer query to satisfactory completion, and the mix of work types also goes a long way in improving motivation and morale. Using agents in this way also adds significant value in identifying and analysing the root cause of common issues, since they will probably have a much more informed idea of what causes follow-up calls about back office processes.


Bringing the benefits back to the contact centre

Blending work in this way enables organisations to significantly improve the throughput of work in the back office by applying capacity and skills where they are needed most. It not only delivers an improved customer service and a shorter customer journey from the initial transaction, but it also supports the reduction of other demand drivers for an operation, such as first contact resolution, and eliminated – or at least reduced – follow-up calls by the customer, and even complaints.

Using blending as a strategy to ‘do more with less’  is evolving from a simple solution for taking and making calls, into a much more strategic approach encompassing every customer-focused process within an organisation. Blending may have proven effective for solving the on-going contact centre headache of agent utilisation for countless customer service departments, but by bringing the back office into the fold, the benefits are two-way, and can resonate throughout the entire business operation for the benefit of the end customer experience.

Elizabeth Gooch is CEO of eg solutions


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