Friday, May 31, 2013

Agent Perspective: Insights from Best Call Center Agent of 2013

This blog post originally appeared on ICMI

At the First Annual Global Call Center Awards Dinner a few weeks ago, I had the privilege of being seated at a table with Noe Vazquez of North American Bancard.  As it just so happens, Noe was named Agent of the Year.  After spending the evening getting to know him a little better, it was evident why he was selected.  To say this guy has a big personality is an understatement!

Noe was kind enough to allow me to interview him following the awards, so this week for the Agent Perspective, I bring you insights from the Agent of the Year.  Find out how he got in the business in the first place, what has made him so successful, and what advice he offers up for new agents.

Q:  How did you get started in the Call Center environment?

A: I got started in the industry working at a small pre-paid cell phone company in 2002.  It was a very
 small center, with only about 7 agents. The owner was looking for a Spanish bilingual agent, and within my first two weeks I was given a raise for the number of calls I took and the great feedback I received from customers. The company was eventually bought out, so I then tried applying with Verizon Wireless, but they never called me back. I have to admit, I was a little upset.  I think applying for a job is a little like asking a girl out, no one likes rejection. But, I got over it, and that’s when I got an email from North American Bancard asking me to work for technical support as a Spanish bilingual agent, and I have been there ever since. Being bilingual, I would take calls in different departments such as customer service, collections, account maintenance, finance, underwriting.  That experience paved the way for me to begin working in the Escalations/Retention department since I had a background in every department in the company.

Q:   What is your personal Mission Statement for how you approach your job?

A:    Working in Escalations/Retention I know that all the calls and issues are challenging.  I think working at a call center, the biggest obstacle agents have is taking the calls too personally and not being able to recover, which often results in taking that frustration to the next call. My personal mission is to try to retain as many accountsas I can by working out problems customers may have and negotiating dealsso the customer is happy and the company is in good shape. This is not a job for everyone, so I have to take it one call at a time, and tell myself you can’t save them all.

Q:    What’s your strategy for making every customer experience a positive one?

A:     My strategy is very simple. Be myself, listen to the customers, and reply to them with real, unscripted answers.I believe part of my success has a lot to do with the conversations I create with the customers.  The customer feels the difference and I’m able to establish a relationship with that person, then work out a deal that satisfies their needs.

Q:    Besides offering great service to your customers, what else do you feel contributed to you winning this award?

A:    I think it was my personality and passion. Everyone keeps telling me you can’t teach personality or passion, so it must be true.

Q:     What motivates you most in your current customer service role?

A:   I know a lot of people would say money. The money is nice, obviously I have bills to pay and I love buying Coronas on the weekend, but I really want to make sure the customer leaves happy and with a positive impression of the company I represent. I want to make a difference and if that gets me recognized for a job well done, that’s as close to being famous as I’ll get, and I’ll take it.

Q:       What advice would you give to other call center agents out there?

A:      The first thing I tell the agents that sit with me when they are training is, don’t take it personally and don’t be afraid to show some personality. You have to take it one call at the time, which is the hardest part of working in a call center. You have to be able to roll with the punches and if you have a bad call, reset your attitude and start fresh with the next one. It’s easier said than done, but a bad call will really ruin your day if you’re not able to get over it, and not only will it affect you, it will affect the level of service your customers receive. 

Also, be a person who shows some emotions and personality. I know personally,based on customer feedback, thatcustomers appreciate speaking to a real person and someone who listens to them. They don’t want to feel they’re just talking to a machine giving out rehearsed answers with no emotion.

Q:  How do you define customer service?

A:   I define customer service as listening to and assisting a customer to the best of your abilities and providing a fast solution. In cases where you can’t provide the solution to their needs, that means getting them to someone who can as quickly as possible. Our job is simply to provide customers with a solution to their problems as quickly as possible.

Q:   What is the most rewarding part of your job?

A: What’s most rewarding for me is to hear the customer say that I did a good job. I know it sounds corny, but I really don’t like hearing people talk badly about me or the company I represent; when customers send positive feedback, that’s rewarding for me.

Q:     How does it feel to be recognized as the Agent of the Year by ICMI?

A:  It feels awesome, I still can’t believe it. With all the great companies and agents represented at the awards, it really was an honor just to be considered a finalist, but to bring home the trophyis a great feeling! I can’t thank ICMI enough for the opportunity. This recognition and the opportunity for someone from the front lines to provide feedback about what’s working and what’s not, as well as take advice from the best in the industry, is priceless.  It will definitely provide opportunities for me in the future, so once again thank you to the entire ICMI staff for the opportunity.

Oh, and I hope Verizon is reading this ;-)

Noe is a bilingual Customer Solutions Associate with the Customer Solutions Team, commonly referred to as a Retention team, within North American Bancard’s call center. In his tenure with North American Bancard, Noe has set a new standard for existing team members and made new team members excited to reach his level of success. He was named Employee of the Month eight times in 2012, an honor calculated based on the percentage of goal achievement in five categories: inbound call volume, outbound call volume, reactivated merchant accounts, retained accounts, and account conversion, all while maintaining exceptional quality scores. Noe trains and coaches new associates and his calls are used to coach existing associates on a weekly basis. In addition to his valuable training input Noe has made suggestions to streamline processes, and even implemented changes around a paperless initiative the company took on, which saved 5,000 sheets of paper and seven man hours per week. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Tour of UserVoice

by: Brooks Webb

I recently took a trip to the UserVoice office located in the center of downtown Raleigh, NC.  I went for their monthly Customer Service Breakfast, where people from the Customer Support industry meet to discuss and share ideas.  Topics have included Customer Service Training, Dealing With Angry Customers, and the importance of Internal Company Communication. It's always educational and highly recommended for anyone who wants to expand their knowledge of the Support environment.  That goes for both mid-upper level management as well as front-line agents.

While I took a lot away from the discussion that can be applied towards my own role as the manager of a support team, I was also interested in how UserVoice handles their own support processes. The office in Raleigh only houses a handful of employees, two of which are Support agents who love their jobs. Typical of most support centers, they are extremely customer focused and seek customer feedback for ways to improve.  They handle support via email, live-chat, and the occasional Skype request. They occasionally work remotely from home, but absolutely love their office space. Though there were only two support agents, they were the support team and their office was the support center.

Untypical of most support centers, it's in what used to be a luxury residential apartment in downtown Raleigh, it's on one of the most active streets in town, and there's just the two of them handling support inquiries.  There are a few developers located there as well, but the support reps have a room with a view instead of the common cubicles that most centers have.  The rest of the UserVoice team is located in San Francisco.

As mentioned before, the office used to be an apartmentThe building itself, built in 1913, houses a restaurant and bar downstairs, the UserVoice office upstairs, with a coffee shop and bakery next door.  Within the office space, they have a full kitchen, arcade machines, and a direct view to the hustle and bustle of downtown Raleigh.  When work is over, they can literally walk downstairs for dinner and drinks if they like. 

I've only been working in the call center environment for a little over 3 years now, but this has to be one of the most unique support centers I've seen.  Morale at this place was through the roof, and it was apparent by their attitudes and their high customer satisfaction rating.  It goes to show that keeping your employees happy really does translate into a better customer experience.  UserVoice maintains morale with their environment and flexibility.  What does your center do?  Or better yet, what could they do?

Brooks Webb is the Manager of the Premier Support team at iContact, where his team handles all second level support inquiries, including Billing Support, Level 2 Technical Support, and Support for all Top Level Managed Accounts. Follow Brooks on Twitter @WBrooksWebb

50 Facts That Will Make Businesses Rethink their Customer Service from Desk

Friday, May 24, 2013

Opposing Viewpoints: The Helpdesk and Support Team Take on Mobile

Note: This was originally posted on 5/21/13 via

The helpdesk and support team play very different roles within the contact center. As such, they approach and see things differently.  We want to explore those differences.  Each month, we’ll bring you the perspectives of two iContact employees on each side of the spectrum. Brooks Webb (Manager of the Premier Support team) and Jeremiah Methven (Team Lead for the Support Engineering team) will share their challenges, insights, ideas and successes. This month, Brooks and Jeremiah share their thoughts on mobile customer service.

ICMI: If your boss came to you today and said you had less than a month to implement a mobile SMS channel for customer support, what would be your initial reaction?  Why?  
Brooks: First of all, I know nothing about Mobile Support.  My team handles the most common channels of support right now (Phone, Chat, and Email).  This would be a big step in a new direction and I’m not sure how the team would react.  I think they would be up for a new challenge, but their current workload is pretty heavy.  On the other hand, this could be a good break from the norm, and it could certainly open up more opportunities for the team.  Ultimately, I would have to research the details to have a better understanding of how many customers might utilize it, how we’ll need to staff/schedule, any new technology involved, etc.  

Jeremiah: I have the benefit of having been involved with the implementation of social media support in our call center, which although it requires a different approach from mobile SMS support, shares the feature of being a fairly new channel where standard industry procedures and metrics are not as clearly defined as they are with phone, email and chat. Based on this experience, I would approach it in the same way that I would approach any new channel. This would involve answering key questions such as: How much volume do we anticipate? What is the average expected handle time? The answers might just be guesses but we would need to ensure we were staffed appropriately.

ICMI: What do you see as the biggest challenge(s) of implementing texting as a customer support channel?
Brooks: Getting complete buy-in from the team would be the biggest challenge.  Within the past year, we’ve taken on several new products to support.  It hasn’t been the easiest transition, but everyone is finally getting comfortable with the new software and the new processes associated with it.  Giving them a new direction at this point could take a hit on morale.  While some might embrace mobile support, others might see it as a hurdle.

Jeremiah: The biggest challenge can be how it fits in to the current contact center model. At our center, agents manage an inbound call queue which is their first priority. They already work emails in between calls so there wouldn’t necessarily be bandwidth for our core group of agents. As the lead for our ‘Tier 3’ team, we have been able to incorporate social support into our daily tasks. If texting could be handled in a similar manner, then it might be feasible for my agents. My concern would be that volume would be too high and that it wouldn’t be feasible to have the same agent managing several different channels. This might create the need to hire agents who would specifically manage the SMS channel.

ICMI: What do you see as the biggest advantage(s) of implementing texting as a customer support channel?  
Brooks: Mobile Support will open up the support lines to a new group of customers who are more adaptive to modern technology and do absolutely everything on their mobile device.  Giving more customers easier access is always going to be good for the customer experience, which means it should be good for the business as well.  

Additionally, bringing in a new channel of support might encourage some of the team members to really step up in order to become experts.  With something that’s as new as this, there is plenty of room to grow. We could be looking at future thought leaders and not even know it.

Jeremiah: The biggest advantage is adding increased flexibility for the customer. As more and more customers use phones as their primary means of going online, it is only natural that they will expect customer service to adapt with them.

ICMI: Other than SMS texting, what are some other ways you think contact centers can best use mobile as customer support channel?
Brooks: I think Text-to-Callback would be a great feature.  It would give someone an easy option to get a call back instead of waiting in a queue for the next available agent.  A Mobile app specific to your company’s Support Department would also be great.  At that point, there are multiple directions to take.  You could have a Search feature for your Knowledge Base, Twitter and Facebook integrations for Social Support, as well as the Click to Call or Click to Callback feature.

Jeremiah: Providing easy to navigate knowledge base and self-service options within a mobile app is a great place to start. There could also be click to call options so that users can easily place a call to Support for further assistance. Chat apps could be incorporated into mobile. Under our current call center model, these options strike me as being more easy wins than adding an entire channel for SMS texting where it didn’t exist before.

ICMI: Why do you think so many contact centers are hesitant to implement mobile support?

Brooks: It’s new and it’s extremely different from your common channels of support (Phone, Chat, Email).  I don’t think a lot of companies give it a second thought.  Those that do probably have a hard time justifying it if they’re already slammed or have a budget to consider.  They also have to consider their customer base.  Are their customers the type to consistently use Mobile support or will they continue to pick up the phone and dial a number instead?

Jeremiah: If a contact center doesn’t have multi-channel experience they may find it overwhelming to add a new channel, especially when that channel comes with a lot of unknowns. There are not really very many established metrics, and a lot of trial and error would be required. I would have a bit more confidence as my team was able to successfully add a social channel while also performing phone and email support. Another concern would be whether SMS texting will be a fad or a permanent part of supporting the customer.

About Brooks Webb:
Brooks Webb headshot
Brooks Webb is the Manager of the Premier Support team at iContact, where his team handles all second level support inquiries, including Billing Support, Level 2 Technical Support, and Support for all Top Level Managed Accounts. Follow Brooks on Twitter @WBrooksWebb

 About Jeremiah Methven:
Jeremiah Methven
Jeremiah Methven is the Team Lead for iContact’s Tier 3 Support team. The Tier 3 Support position at iContact is a specialized role requiring both technical expertise and outstanding customer service skills. We handle phone and email support for our API and iContact for Salesforce integration, manage an internal ‘hotline’ where Tier 2 agents can call for assistance, document software bugs and their impact on customers, and respond to any inquiries from customers on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Five Most Important Words

By: Yvette Jones Hawkins

Growing up in a family business I learned the first level of customer service early. Sitting on a stool – being too small to see over the counter – with a pen and paper, the first words I uttered to the customer was “How may I help you?”. I didn’t realize the importance of those five words.That simple phrase is not just a salutation, but it is also the first step to developing a personal relationship with a customer.  At that moment the business becomes a living, breathing entity, because representatives bring your business to life. They are not only saying, “Can I take your order?” or “What do you need?” They are really asking the customer three very important questions: How may I help you love my product; how may I help you believe in our product, and how may I help you become a loyal customer?

How may I help you love my product? Every business owner has fallen in love with the product they are selling, and they want the customer to love it, too. They have spent countless hours perfecting their merchandise and believe that if you incorporate it into your life, you will love it also. The only problem is they know more about it than the consumer. This is where marketing comes in. Businesses spend thousands of dollars trying to convince the public to fall in love with what they are selling. When customers meet the representative through any form of media, they, too, are given the chance to convince someone to fall in love. A car salesman will let a potential buyer test drive a vehicle in hopes that they will fall in love with its intricate details. That initial encounter gives the company another chance to help you love the product in way you never thought was possible.

How may I help you believe in our product?The representative is given an opportunity to enhance a customer’s awareness about what the company has to offer. It is a great opportunity to sell and up-sell your company’s mission. This can be done by giving samples, upgrades, or discounts.  In the restaurant business, it gives us a chance to offer samples of food they may not have tried with the assurance that if they are not satisfied then we could change things for them. It’s a great time for the company to clear up any misunderstanding, misrepresentations about their product.

How may I help you become a loyal customer? This is crucial to the longevity of any company. It is just as important to maintain existing customers as it is to gain new ones. Most customers will remain faithful if they feel that you are loyal to them. If they feel that you are genuinely grateful for their business and care about their experiences with your company, they will stick around. As stated earlier, the phrase“How may I help you?” is the first step to establishing a personal relationship with your customer-a relationship that is based on loyalty and faithfulness on both parts.

At the age of 8, I didn’t understand the impact of greeting customers could have on our family restaurant,and neither did my parents,otherwise they would not have given it to a kid. However, it’s ironic that the first job they taught me was how to greet the customer,the first step to building a successful business. “How may I help you?” establishes a very important relationship between the company and their customer because that first encounter and every one thereafter can determine if you have won over another faithful buyer or have given them away to your competitor. By focusing on what is implied by those five words and the power behind them, hopefully we realize that it is not an insignificant greeting at all, but instead a very powerful message that has an opportunity to transform your customer’s entire experience.

Yvette Jones Hawkins has over 30 years of experience in the Restaurant & Hospitality industry.  She's worked at the executive level in the private and corporate sectors.

Yvette's experience began in her family’s chain of restaurants, Everett & Jones BBQ, which has been successfully operating for over forty years in Oakland, Ca. and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Currently, Yvette is continuing her college education and writing her first novel.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Most Important Metric

by: Sean Hawkins

This past Tuesday, I celebrated my 43rd birthday. Thanks to my wife and kids for making it an awesome day! Having taken the day off, my coworkers texted and tweeted their birthday wishes to me throughout the day. Upon arriving to work the next day, I was surprised to see my desk was festively decorated, I had presents and they had brought in snacks. Everyone sang Happy Birthday and made me feel very special. Not one to lose my composure, I fought back the tears.

For the rest of the day, I was amazingly happy. I realized their act of kindness positively influenced my day. As the work day came to a close, an agent walked up to me and said “because you care about us, we wanted to show you our appreciation.” I offered a heartfelt reply and made my way out of the building. On the way home I began to think about that conversation. So often, call center agents are rushed from one call to the next, evaluated against metrics they don’t understand and berated by upset customers. It is not hard to understand why there is so much turn over in the call center.

I have been fortunate to work with great agents who are great people. Most I know on a personal level having been invited to weddings, BBQs and the like. I’ve always tried to respect them as people first rather than call center agents. Furthermore, I constantly remind myself that people are behind each customer interaction, metric, and decision I make.

As the saying goes, “attitude reflects leadership.” I’ve always felt the best way to show the agent what exceptional customer service looks like, is by practicing it with them. Only then will they pass that on to the customer. Angry staff produces angry customers. When agents are happy and feel their leaders value them, they will produce quality results. Each day, I review no fewer than six reports to determine how the call center is operating. Some days the numbers look amazing while on others, not so good.

Most often, numbers can be explained and adjustments can be made as needed. With several years in the call center under my belt, this is the easy part. To me, the best indicator of how we are performing takes place with the interactions I have with the staff. When morale is high, performance is high. Conversely, when morale is low, so is the overall performance.

A good part of my day consists of walking the floor and interacting with the staff. We joke, tell stories or sometimes I just let them vent. Because of this, we’ve come up with some great initiatives such as Friday Breakfast, Interaction of the Week, and a weekly Morale Raffle. While these may seem trivial to some, to the agent, it’s as significant to them as my birthday surprise was to me.

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. Follow on Twitter- @SeanBHawkins