Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Multilanguage Support in the Contact Center

In today’s business world, the desire to reach more consumers is a top priority. With global online purchasing easier to accommodate, and businesses expanding into new geographies, one can naturally expect a surge in non-English speaking customers. This is certainly having an impact on contact center strategies as we must determine how to provide support to these new clients. For enterprise level organizations with a global presence, the infrastructure may already be in place to address this. For those without, including the small-to-medium sized company, perhaps this presents a dilemma. How does a contact center without a formal multilingual support system handle non-English calls?

Before you answer, certain considerations must be made. It’s worth determining the percentage of your client base that is non-English speaking. Are these high value clients? Where are they located? These are just a few areas that must be analyzed, however, there are many, many more. In my mind, these questions should not be used to determine if baseline support will be offered to these customers. Every customer deserves your assistance! The end goal is to develop a plan that works best for the company AND the customer while enhancing the overall experience.

One should never lose sight of the customer experience. There are numerous studies that highlight how significant the customer experience is to your bottom line, including several 2013 reports from ICMI that clearly link customer experience to customer engagement and to the customer’s lifetime value. Are you still not convinced? Research also shows a rise in customer defections after only one bad experience! For those of us in the contact center, failing the customer is not an option.

I truly see the need for foreign language support. Not only are non-native English speakers moving to the US, but global markets are in need of services provided by US companies. If your product serves an international customer base, your support center needs to be able to handle it as well. While solely offering English support seems to do the trick for some companies, the lack of additional languages in the support center could ultimately be hurting long-term business.

Make no mistake; supporting additional languages is harder than one may think. For example, if you’re offering technical support, not only are you in need of someone with strong technical skills, but you also must look for someone that can speak the necessary foreign language. Not to mention, they need to meet all other criteria that you’re looking for. By simply adding that highly sought after foreign language as a criteria, your pool of applicants has nearly emptied. So what is one to do?

One contact center I am familiar with realized it was feasible to staff their team with new multilingual agents. They utilized Google translate to assist customers via email. As this is a small service center, this solution worked very well for them. This is not a viable approach for everyone. Perhaps an alternative is to contract with a language interpreter service. Whether on demand or onsite, these providers offer turnkey solution for your interpretation needs often at a lower cost than hiring new staff.

Let’s re-visit the initial question with a slight modification. How ideally would you offer multilingual support? When it comes to multi-language support, not only is the language itself different, but the culture behind the language is different. Whoever your customer base may be, it’s important to have native speakers, or highly fluent speakers familiar with the culture, ready to assist. They’ll better understand the tone of the conversation, and can then easily provide a better customer experience.

Sean is a Contact Center manager with over 13 years of experience. He has a terrific pulse on incorporating innovation into the contact center. He's implemented social, outsourcing partners, new technology, and new products, while maintaining an award-winning contact center.

His contact center is a past winner of the ICMI "Global Call Center of the Year" award for Small to Medium-Sized Centers.

Follow on Twitter @SeanBHawkins

Monday, July 21, 2014

Is it Ever OK to Hang Up on a Customer?

I am certain every contact center agent has encountered a customer that raised their stress level. For the most part, the vast majority of customer service personnel can effectively handle upset customers. That is a part of the job. However, there is a difference between an upset customer and a rude, insensitive one.

Irate Customers Expected

How does an agent respond in situations in which a customer is being obnoxious and mean spirited? I encourage agents to walk away from their desk briefly and regain their composure after such calls. But I also recall some years ago, a customer threatened to harm an agent. I have been called hateful names and cursed out on more occasions then I care to remember. I’ve had customers find me on Facebook or LinkedIn and turned a business matter into a personal assault. Over the years, I have seen it all. Because of that, I have always felt a need to protect the dignity of those I manage.

My grandmother had a saying, “all money is not good money.” What she meant was this; there are some things you should not be willing to do regardless how much money you could obtain. As a passionate advocate for customers, I am just as passionate for the contact center staff. There are things I will not allow anyone to do to them. As their leader and manager, I owe that to them.

For many years, I have had a standing order that allows agents to disconnect a call – it sounds better than saying hanging up – with a customer. The way I see it, they are not employed to take such abuse. Any suggestion that they endure such treatment implies the customer’s money is more important than the well being of employees. Again, all money is not good money!

However, I only allow agents to disconnect when the customer is using:

    1. Racial slurs
    2. Sexual or sexist comments

Advise and Consent

Now, to be fair, the agent must advise the customer that their comments were offensive and warn that if they continue, the call will be disconnected. The goal is not to end the interaction. Rather, the hope is for the customer to receive the assistance they need while ensuring the agent is given the respect they deserve.

My belief is that upset customers have a right to be upset. One should never mistake their justified anger with a lack of sensitivity. Empowering agents to disconnect a call should be done with proper training and a full understanding that the call will be reviewed. The service agent should utilize empathy and sympathy in an effort to bring effective resolution. They should not feel they have carte blanche to disengage a conversation simply due to the customer being frustrated. So, while I do feel there are instances in which it is okay to hang up on a customer, there must be significant training and understanding by staff of what is and is not acceptable.

Sean is a Contact Center manager with over 13 years of experience. He has a terrific pulse on incorporating innovation into the contact center. He's implemented social, outsourcing partners, new technology, and new products, while maintaining an award-winning contact center.

His contact center is a past winner of the ICMI "Global Call Center of the Year" award for Small to Medium-Sized Centers.

Follow on Twitter @SeanBHawkins

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Attitude: The Missing Attribute in Contact Center Hiring

Let’s face it; hiring new personnel can be a long, arduous task. Prior to announcing an opening, the job description must be created and approved. Recruiting efforts must be discussed with HR to ensure the best candidates are brought to the forefront. A lot of screening and evaluation prior to conducting the first interview must also take place.

I’ve spent countless hours mulling over applicant resumes to determine if a candidate’s skills translate into the skill set I am looking for. This scrutiny is very important and is often the most difficult of the preparation phase. After this procedure, the actual interview process can begin. I must confess I am old school by nature. As such, I focus on a few details prior to officially conducting the interview. While exchanging pleasantries, I focus on the applicant’s appearance and body language. Did they put forth a sincere effort to make a great first impression? To me, this shows a genuine desire on their part to secure the position. In addition, I look to see if they have a pen and paper. Sadly, these details are often ignored by many candidates. What better way to impress than to bring the necessary tools of the trade for an interview? As I mentioned, I am old school.

Get Away From the Resume

I will generally request the candidate provide more detail about themselves that is not on their resume. This is an ice breaker for them. This allows them to find a comfortable starting point in which to begin the interview. I firmly believe that everyone should be well equipped to speak about the one thing they should know best. For the most part, this works well in dissolving their nerves and setting them at ease. It is at this point, that I take an approach that veers from the norm.

Rather than discussing their resume, I begin by asking the candidate questions that speak to them as a person. I am curious to know the most recent book they’ve read or I the last movie they saw. The questions will vary but the goal is to determine WHO I am speaking to rather than what their skills are. It is my aim to hire the right person and teach the skills, versus hiring the skills and having the wrong person. To do so, I must discover what soft skills they possess, which are best defined as “The character traits and interpersonal skills that characterize a person’s relationships with other people.”

    It is my aim to hire the right person and teach the skills, versus hiring the skills and having the wrong person.

For my line of business, attitude ranks high on the list of soft skills. At the heart of customer service, is a desire to assist others with empathy and kindness at all times. I constantly remind myself and those in my charge that we are one call away from disaster should we deviate from exceptional customer service. This could be the loss of a customer, the loss of revenue, public embarrassment to the business, and at worst, termination. Therefore, the majority of my focus is not on someone’s technical acumen. Instead, I want to know who they are and how they handle pressure.

    Therefore, the majority of my focus is not on someone’s technical acumen. Instead, I want to know who they are and how they handle pressure.

I’ve heard it said, “What you say or do in difficult situations reveals who you are.” Now, I recognize we all make mistakes, and at times handle ourselves in a less than stellar manner, therefore I do not apply 100% certainty to this. However, I believe there is some truth in that statement. Tough times reveal our true character. Let’s face it; the contact center agent will be placed in stressful, difficult and upsetting situations. How they handle it is not based on the technical skills they posses. On the contrary, the interpersonal skills will come to the forefront.

So, what can be done to determine one’s character? I believe there are two easy approaches:

    1. Give an assessment/personality test

This is a great way to identify personality traits. There are a variety of tests available such as DISC assessment, Newcastle Personality Assessor, and The Winslow Personality Profile. Each is designed to reveal character or psychological makeup. I would suggest that any such testing programs be under the control of the Human Resources. This is to ensure issues of privacy are not violated and to be certain the overall control (testing and the results) of the program is consistent across the entire organization.

    2. Focus on past behaviors

Offer scenarios that require the candidate to discuss how they behaved in the past under difficult circumstances. I use customer interactions that have occurred in my contact center and place the candidate in the role of the agent. The goal is not to frustrate them, or test their knowledge but to assess their behavior. The assumption is their past actions will likely manifest thereby giving you a personal, real-time observation of what you may expect from this person.

While there are pros and cons to each, what is important is that you find the method that bests fit you personally as well as that of your company. Identify the company values, work as a team across departments and utilize the expertise of your HR staff. By doing so, you increase your chances of selecting the right candidate who will not only help the company grow, but they will also grow with the company.

Sean is a Contact Center manager with over 13 years of experience. He has a terrific pulse on incorporating innovation into the contact center. He's implemented social, outsourcing partners, new technology, and new products, while maintaining an award-winning contact center.

His contact center is a past winner of the ICMI "Global Call Center of the Year" award for Small to Medium-Sized Centers.

Follow on Twitter @SeanBHawkins

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

5 Things to Know About Millennial Customers

I haven’t attended a single conference in the past two years that didn’t include a session on millennials. It seems that this “younger” generation fascinates every CMO, CEO and CXO.

It’s easy to understand why. For starters, millennials (born between 1980 and 2000) now account for one-fourth of the U.S. population.  They are the customers of the future (and the present).  So how can you best engage with this new generation?

I’m an 80s baby so I’d like to think I’m somewhat of an expert on millennials, but you don’t have to take it from me. I watched a fascinating panel from the Interactive Intelligence user conference earlier this month, and it confirmed many of my experiences and beliefs.  The 45-minute panel discussion featured agroup of working 20-somethings and the insight they shared provided a revealing glimpse intothemillennial brain.

Interested in better knowing your younger customers? Here are few takeaways from the panel that will help you better engage with millennial customers.

Millennials Do Their Research

When it comes to shopping, millennials aren’t impulse buyers.  They shop around, comparing prices, selection, and convenience.  This goes for both online and traditional in-store purchases.

One panelist said they like to go see or try on items in store, and then search online for a better deal before they make a purchase.  Another panelist said she prefers to search online for selection and price, and then make the purchase in store.

Millennials Still Love the Phone

It’s a widely stated myth that millennials hate using the phone.  According to the panelists, this is untrue.

Yes, the phones may look different now than they used to.  And no, most millennials don’t have traditional landlines, but they still prefer to use the phone for customer service (chat came in second for the panelists).

Millennials on the panel indicated that they check their phones more than one hundred times per day.  So if your contact center doesn’t already have a mobile support strategy in place, the time to act is now.

Millennials Don’t Like Email

Email is not a preferred channel of communication for the millennial generation.  Most of the panelists said they only check their personal email once per week.

“If you really want to reach me, email’s not the way,” said one panelist.
So how do millennials prefer companies notify them? Via text and tweet were the most popular responses.

Millennials Value Interaction

Millennials crave personalized service.  They want to feel known and valued, and going the extra mile impresses them. Achieving this can is simple; sometimes as simple as responding with a clever tweet.

One panelists told the story of how Purina wished his family dog a happy birthday on Twitter.  That simple gesture created a loyal customer.
Millennials Aren’t All That Different From Your “Other” Customers

Perhaps the most “shocking” revelation from the panel: millennials are a lot like every other generation, especially when it comes to customer service expectations.

Make things easy for your customers, treat them with respect, and offer value.  If you do these things your customers will be loyal no matter their generation.

Erica is the Community Specialist at ICMI. With a background in marketing, public relations, and social media, she brings more than six years of community management experience to ICMI, and is particularly passionate about  the convergence of marketing and customer service. 

Erica graduated Cum Laude from Campbell University in North Carolina.  In her free time she enjoys traveling, watching sports, attending concerts, and drinking coffee.  She’s also a self-professed Twitter addict. Follow her on Twitter

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Tips for Improving Call Centers for Customers & Employees

Shaping a more positive public perception of call centers and call center employees can be a tricky task. Popular television shows and movies often depict the call center customer service environment as being generally apathetic, with customers continuously being put on hold and bounced around between representatives from a variety of different departments. The gentle tones of muzak underscore the angst of waiting for an available employee to pick up the call, and the quality of service provided is often made into the subject of many cheap jokes. So, what can be done to bring about change? Where can call centers begin to improve their images? The answer, it seems, requires some self-reflection.

According to, depending on the type and size of a call center, employee turnover rates can range anywhere from 20%-100% per year. There are even reports of turnover rates approaching 170% in some centers. With such high percentages, it’s not only difficult to establish a standard for performance continuity, but it’s near impossible to achieve performance success with new employees constantly coming and going. Plus, replacing those lost employees is expensive—it costs approximately $8,800 to replace a call center agent. To remedy the situation, there has to be reform in the way a call center’s management team trains and treats its employees. A call center that understands even the basic needs of its employees is one whose performance will drive results.

One efficient tool for ensuring uniform training procedures across the entirety of a call center’s staff is eLearning. Managers and supervisors can use virtual learning systems to assign specific lessons to their staff members in order to provide timely and relevant training without the expensive cost and inconvenience of classroom sessions. eLearning programs, such as the software provided by Impact 360, displays the assigned coursework, the duration and objectives of each lesson, and the completion deadline, all in an employee’s desktop web browser. Proactive employees can go even further by assigning themselves lessons to continue learning on their own time. Implementing high-quality training procedures is excellent for building employee confidence, and as a result, they will produce better work and be more likely to demonstrate loyalty to their jobs.

Providing proper employee training is only the beginning of the battle, though. Call center management is as much about preparing employees to handle their jobs as it is about making the workplace run as efficiently as possible. It’s an extremely difficult task to try and accurately forecast the staffing needs for any given day in a customer service call center. Workforce optimization and management can be extremely complicated, depending on the size of the call center and the number of employees on staff. The immensity of optimization work is such that it is often beneficial to invest in software solutions for assistance, rather than do it manually. There are nuances to scheduling that require special attention: government regulations, mandatory breaks, meeting times, etc. The degree of difficulty with scheduling, just as with training, increases tenfold with larger workplaces. The trick is to not do it all yourself: use helpful tools whenever applicable. Doing so will save time and money in the long run.

Even something as interpersonal as coaching a call center staff can be enhanced with the aid of quality software. Solutions exist which integrate coaching with training and scorecards, thus providing guidance for improving employee work and enhancing performance. A supervisor who takes the time to coach and encourage good performers on his or her team is more likely to build a loyal staff and drive results. Training, scheduling, and continuous coaching are a Holy Trinity for running a good call center: reversing high turnover rates begins with bridging the gap between management and staff. The lines of communication must always be open and clear.

Going beyond the walls of the call center floor, however, it is also important to consider the feedback of the customers who the center’s staff is serving. Well-trained employees are better equipped to provide excellent service, but it is the voice of the customer that can make or break a business’s customer service reputation. Depending on the nature of the business which a call center is supporting, dissatisfied customers may take their frustrations to go write negative reviews on Google and social media sites. There are some preventative quality monitoring solutions to consider for this problem, the most notable of which is call recording. Recording calls is helpful not only for manually monitoring conversations between customer service representatives and customers, but also for eventually collecting data from a large database of recorded phone calls. Speech analytics solutions can help to identify words, phrases, and other verbal cues from collections containing thousands of calls. This information gives managers insight to help decrease costs and enhance products, processes, competitive advantages, etc. Furthermore, speech analytics can help to categorize and analyze call content to reveal why customers are calling in the first place.

When customers do talk about a business’s customer service on the Internet, it’s important that their comments are analyzed and responded to appropriately. Text analytics tools are able to capture feedback from multiple channels, interpret it in terms of business objectives, and use it to immediately affect change. Text-based communications such as Facebook, Twitter, surveys, news and review sites, etc. are rich with data that is useful to businesses who are looking to improve their products and services. Harvesting that information is key to maintaining a good reputation online. As the user base of social media platforms grows, the need for a positive online presence becomes increasingly vital.

Providing excellent customer service in a call center depends on strong relationships between the management, employees, and customers in order to achieve success. When management turns a blind eye to the training and scheduling of its employees, turnover rates skyrocket. If call center agents don’t listen to the needs of the customers, an entire company’s reputation is made to suffer. Communication is crucial and utilizing appropriate software solutions is essential. Without both, the work will be much more difficult than necessary.


Tommaso Mauro is a goal oriented leader adept at identifying opportunities and executing sales strategies to maximize results; Proven ability in consultative sales and business development on a domestic and international scale; Highly effective in organizational and problem solving skills that strengthen a company’s growth-oriented performance; Entrepreneurial spirit and expertise in building business relationships. Tommaso is currently Director of Sales at KOVA Corporation