Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Insider Interview #1: Sarah Stealey Reed

A Conversation with Sarah Stealey Reed- Content Director, ICMI
By: Sean Hawkins
I had the pleasure of working for and with Sarah Stealey Reed for nearly four years during her tenure at iContact. As Senior VP of Customer Support, Sarah was instrumental in aligning our contact center with the overall goals of the organization while transforming us into a world class call center. In addition, she has a played a vital role in my understanding of the call center environment, and my career advancement. I recently had the opportunity to converse with Sarah about her start in the call center world, her management philosophy, and the changes she sees on the horizon for call center professionals.

How did you get started in call center management?
By chance and circumstance, of course! I’m a journalist by education and a networker by birth, so doesn’t it seem natural that I’d get into contact center management? In all seriousness though, I had a phenomenal opportunity right out of college to be the vendor manager for a media buying agency. I was introduced to all the logistical aspects of call centers and I fell in love with the mechanics of them. I realized that I had a knack for balancing all the moving parts of a contact center’s operations, and that I also had a passion for the employees and the customer experience. I’ve been fortunate to manage teams of all sizes, and all over the world. Although this isn’t what I planned for as a career, I couldn’t be happier that it found me.

For new managers to the call center environment, what would be your one piece of advice? 
One piece? I honestly don’t think there is just one piece of advice to give. It’s unfortunate that you can’t graduate college with a degree in contact center management, because there is actually that much to learn!  Here are a few words of wisdom that every direct report of mine has heard (more than once or twice)
  • Be willing to take risks, but never risk your customers or your employees.
  • Rigidity won’t get you far in this industry. There are so many outside factors in contact center management that you have to be ready and willing to make fast and informed decisions.
  • Learn everything you can about the fundamentals of the call center. No matter what, you can control your processes, and in those inevitable times of chaos, you can always go back to the basics and manage the call center effectively.
  • Happy employees make happy customers.
  • Be creative! Running an award-worthy call center requires innovation and ingenuity. It helps if you have unlimited resources, technology and money, but that is rarely the case. So network, ask for help, and be open to trial-and-error.
  • Behind every metric is a behavior; behind every behavior is a person.
What has been the biggest challenge you had to manage in the call center?
I can overcome just about any challenge, except when the overall organization doesn’t have true appreciation for the customer and the value of the contact center. Don’t offer customer service if you are willing to do it poorly.

How do you keep your staff motivated and engaged?
Do not ever forget the power of the frontline staff! Customer engagement begins inside the walls of the contact center! That means you as a leader need to be engaging with your people on a regular basis. You need to know what motivates people to come to work each day, and what provides them with fulfillment. So hire for the culture and experience you want to provide, do regular check-ins (employee surveys, focus groups), empower appropriately, balance work and play, and communicate what and where you can.

What new technologies or trends do you feel are changing the way call centers do business?
We are in such an exciting time right now! No one can ever say that contact centers are boring! We are in the middle of a customer service revolution and it couldn’t be more exciting. The connected customer is changing our contact centers through social, mobile, and other emerging channels requirements like advanced self-service. That’s impacting how we schedule, how we train, how we monitor and score for quality, how we compare and benchmark against the competition, and ultimately how we support. On the agent side, new multi-channel agent platforms are really going to improve how agents communicate and engage with their customers. Businesses have lost brand loyalty, but I think that customer service as a differentiator is going to bring loyalty back.

What metrics do you feel are most important?
What is most important to your business? Contact centers can measure just about everything, but metrics are useless unless you understand:

1) What your business goals and values are,
2) What metrics support those goals and values,
3) What drivers cause your metrics to fluctuate,
4) What impact that fluctuation has on your business,
5) What you are going to do about it?
Industry benchmarks and standards are a great place to start and then modify accordingly. They all have a place in the operations on the contact center…Service level, ABA, and AHT are necessary for forecasting, scheduling, and everything workforce management. FCR and Response Rates lead into Quality and Agent Comprehension. Activity Compliance and Schedule Adherence provide the base for your Occupancy and Utilization. Remember that earlier statement about people driving the behaviors that drive metrics? 

If I had to choose just one? Customer satisfaction. Every contact center should strive to create satisfied customers. And most of your other metrics ultimately feed CSAT.

You made the decision to get your support center engaged in social media support early on. What led to that decision? For those centers getting involved in social media support, what advice would you give them?
Social media is just another customer service channel!  It just happens to be one that is very public-facing and has potentially louder consequences if not handled correctly. We got into it because it was a natural progression for our customers to go. If they want the channel and are using the channel, then we have to support the channel! In my opinion, the contact center is the absolute best place to support social because you already have the processes in place to manage customer interactions.
If you are new to social? Use what you already have in place!  There are good lessons to start off with, and good companies have already done the trial and error for you: train a select and tenured group, monitor heavily at first, manage responses tightly, collaborate with the marketing team, determine response times and KPIs, and QA often.  In due time, you need to integrate social just as you would with any new channel.

You supported your support staff's desire to own and brand social media separate from that of the corporation's. Why did you feel this was important and what impact did it have on the overall customer experience?
I was talking with both LiveOps and inContact recently and we all agree that social has become the catalyst to FINALLY bring marketing departments and contact centers together as joint customer owners. The customer is ALL our responsibility, yet we all have a different purpose to provide them. Your customer doesn’t call into the marketing department with a technical issue concerning your software, so why should they get a marketing person responding to them when they inquire about the same problem socially? Customers are people first, and therefore they will take the natural path of least resistance. If they see there is only one twitter handle and Facebook page for your company, then that is where they go for everything. If you have a separately branded ‘help’ or ‘support’ one, then they can be taught or directed to use that for customer service issues instead.
As a support team, it is your responsibility to provide a consistent customer experience, no matter which channel a customer comes in to you from. That consistency and the ability to move the customer seamlessly from one channel to the next creates an exceptional customer experience. You can’t do that if you don’t own the channels.

How would you define customer service?
Anyone can provide customer service. That is defined simply as:  I want, and you give. Now, exceptional customer service that creates a customer EXPERIENCE is another definition all together. It is here that you give me a level of excellence that I didn’t even know I wanted! An exceptional customer experience is memorable, and is service by which all others are benchmarked against. An exceptional customer experience creates a lasting impression that I want recreated over and over again. You can call it customer love, customer loyalty, or customer engagement…nonetheless, it is the customer service holy grail.

Sarah Stealey Reed is the Content Director at the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) and is a member of the ICMI Advisory Board.

As the Content Director for ICMI, Sarah is responsible for the editorial content and community strategy for icmi.com. She provides contact center consulting and advice to the ICMI audience, and often participates in Technology user summits and customer groups as a customer service advocate. She's a frequent panel moderator and speaker on customer support and emerging channels at national events and through online webinars.

Sarah's also an active writer, blogger, and social poster, on all things customer and the contact center.
Recently she came in at #99 on Call Centre's #CustomerService100 as one of the top influencers in the customer service arena.

Customer Experience leaders and Contact Center professionals interested in contributing to icmi.com should contact Sarah directly at sstealey@icmi.com, follow her on twitter @sstealey, or connect via LinkedIn.

Sean is a Customer Experience, Contact Center and Help desk manager with over 12 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.

In 2011, his team was awarded the ICMI "Global Call Center of the Year" for Small to Medium-Sized Centers.