By Edwin Margulies
It's back to the future. Over a decade ago, contact centers were on the vanguard of great change. This included virtualization and the addition of channels such as SMS and Chat. Practitioners were wringing their hands over whether agents should be "blended" or more dedicated to a specific media type based on their skills. Enter social engagement for customer care. It's 1999 all over again. If you are facing the question of what to do about blended agents in a social context, here's guidance to help with your decisions.
First, How Blended is Blended?
It's important to establish just what blended means. A blended agent is an agent that has access to and does outreach for customers across media types. For example, a blended agent can answer incoming phone calls, answer support emails, and also do chats. Some media types handled by an agent are "real time" such as phone calls and chats. Others are non-real time such as emails. Social is "close to real time" depending on the social network. For example Twitter is generally regarded as a little closer to real time than a FaceBook post. That's because Twitter users have an expectation of almost immediate responses - whereas Facebook users are not expecting the responses with the same urgency.
Now consider a social care agent that has the ability to facilitate a callback for customers. Such an agent can push a callback form via a URL to a customer using twitter. The customer jots in the preferred callback number and the form is used to set up a call with the same agent (or group). That fits the bill for a blended agent as well even though the agent does not necessarily have access to all of the other media types for customer care. That is to say that any cross-channel capability qualifies an agent as a "blended" agent.
Another common attribute of agent blending is the existence of a universal queueing capability (ACD-like routing). It is advantageous to have ACD-based routing if you want to route by availability and skills of the agent. This implies the existence of presence management for all of the agents and also the ability to switch-up or change the media types being sent to agents "on the fly." Although advantageous in many cases, it is not absolutely necessary to use universal queue routing to deploy blended agents. Blended agents may also "cherry pick" social posts out of a common queue. They can also be governed by sophisticated filtering controlled by supervisors.
I make this point to help practitioners avoid the mistake of lumping all of their decisions on blending under the auspices of an ACD model. You do not have to use a full-blown ACD to have agent blending, but in some cases it makes a lot of sense. Let's review some common scenarios…
The Stand-alone Social Command Center
Just like there are clusters of chat and email-based agents that are separate from phone-based agents, there are and will be clusters of "social only" agents. Why? Because social engagement for customer care is still pretty new. And because it is still pretty new, practitioners, supervisors, and brand managers are still trying to figure out how to manage social-aware agents. Theses same people are still trying to figure out what metrics truly matter in tracking SLAs and KPIs effectively. With all of this doubt, it is common to see managers "circling the wagons" by standing-up social-only command centers. Consider the fact; however, that over time social engagement for customer care will no longer be "new." It will become more standard. And when it becomes more standard, the management of the companies employing these social agents will begin to demand common metrics for agent occupancy, performance and the overall efficacy of the service they are providing. And when this happens more and more, social agents will begin to report to the contact center folks instead of being in a segregated command center. This shift, which ostensibly is forced as a result of economy and scale - forces the issue of blending. You may be at this inflection point right now, so it may not be a future event for you. But for most, this is a future event.
Stand-alone social command center tips:
1. Use systems with role-based analytics. You will need great team and individual reporting so your social team gets used to the idea of service level monitoring and individual performance metrics. This will prepare them for the inevitable merger with the greater contact center eventually.
2. Provide agent assistance tools. Just like in larger contact centers, your agents will need tools to do a better job of serving customers. These include semi-automated agent assistance scripts, CRM-like qualities, and next best actions triggered by in-house policies and workflow rules.
3. Supervisory oversight and controls. Even in a stand-alone operation you will need the ability to control incoming social traffic so certain items can go to one group of agents and other items are routed to a separate group of agents. Just because it is "social only" does not mean different skills are not going to be used.
Blending in the Stand-alone Social Command Center
So if you have a segregated social command center, can there still be blending? Yes. Stand-alone social command centers that are primarily set up to do social engagement can nonetheless have blending. For example, the idea of pushing callback forms to social customers is now a reality with several social engagement vendors offering this. The callbacks can be set up to connect to an agent's direct DID number or cell phone. Those agents may also occupy a seat on a PBX or even ACD so they have a telephone instrument to use, but the call comes in as a bypass of the ACD queueing and simply goes to the extension of that agent. That's blending without universal queue routing, but it is blending nonetheless. In this scenario, an ACD or similar infrastructure can still be used as a "wire" to facilitate a phone call, but the logic for getting the call to the agent does not have to necessarily live in the ACD.
Tips on blending in a segregated environment:
1. Forget the forklift upgrade. Be careful to use blended media in such a way that no forklift upgrades will be required. For example, if you want to offer phone calls via callback, insist on using "overlay" technology that can layer on top of existing phone systems.
2. Establish specific cross-channel protocols. Be sure to plan ahead of time in which circumstances jumping to another (blended) channel is appropriate. You may want to set up specific policies that dictate when a callback, for example, is justified. Perhaps you only trigger a callback when sensitive information has to be discussed, or if a real time conversation must happen because what needs to be discussed goes beyond 140 characters. Here, you must be sensitive to the preferred media channels of the customer. After all, if the person you are tweeting with hates phone calls, you may have to resort to email.
3. Contact center linkage. Even if your team is a social-only team, you can provide a blended experience to your customers by doing hand-offs to agents that work the multi-channel contact center. Here, you can establish rules for "transferring" a social post to a blended agent in the greater contact center. This can be done in several ways, but one popular method would be to provide the hand-off in the form of a new case opened in a common CRM or trouble ticketing system. You can copy and paste a social post and your agent's reply to it in a case and provide instructions for a callback or an email.
Migration into the Contact Center Fold
There are many cases where doing full-on blending right from the start makes a lot of sense. For example, you may have inbound telephone traffic peaks and valleys in your legacy contact center. The valleys are great times for agents to work on social post items or emails for example. This keeps agent occupancy rates higher and reduces costs. Of course you will need to provide cross-training so some of your legacy agents have the ability to answer social posts. This is similar to the cross-training that occurred over the past decade with chat and SMS. Another benefit to using full-blown blending in a ACD-like environment is customer affiliation. In many high-touch contact centers, agents can become closely affiliated with certain customers - kind of like concierge service. In this instance, it is good to have agents that are channel agnostic so they can help their customers regardless of medium. Another great benefit of moving into the greater contact center fold is the "blending" of supervision and coaching. Having common role-based analytics, coaching and supervisory reporting is much less tedious than using disparate platforms. It's also much easier to roll-up reports for senior management this way. And bonuses are easier to administer if it's all blended together.
1. Focus on efficiency. Just because you have the technology to fully blend, that does not mean you do it for all agents just because you can. Even in blended environments, it is OK to have social-only agents set aside to do certain types of transactions. The idea is to focus on what works for your organization. Do not let the mere existence of technology dictate to you what is best for your customers.
2. Skills Tune-Up. If your blended system has true skills-based routing capability, it is a good idea to revisit all of the agents' skills and update them. For example, you may want to add "social" as a skill in its own right. Even though all of the agents in the center may be able to take a social post routed to them by your ACD, it may be worth setting up a triage so the best-skilled agents in social get them first.
3. Stay close to customer needs. I coined a term over a decade ago called "The democratization of media types." This means that customers should be able to "vote" one what channels they want to use. The implication is that we as practitioners should be able to respect our constituency and let them use what channels they prefer. Further, this means agents should be able to "switch channels" to accommodate the channel whim of the customer. This is entirely possible (technically) but you have to anticipate these votes by organizing your contact center around a variety of blended channel scenarios. To do this, keep track of what channel blends seem to be voted on the most by different types of customers. This will help you to stay on top of customer needs and it will reinforce loyalty with those customers.
Whether you are using a stand-alone social command center, a stand-alone center with blending, or a full-blown contact center with social channel support, agent blending is going to be a big issue for your company. Avoid making rash decisions that demand forklift upgrades. Try to leverage existing rules, workflow and agent tools. Above all, keep tuning-in to customer needs and mobilize your agents across channels so they can collaborate better.
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