In a recent SKS survey, we found that nearly half of all call centre managers admitted customer satisfaction levels of less than 40 per cent, and our research suggests that the reason why customers are so dissatisfied can ultimately be traced back to the phenomenon we term ‘knowledge decay’.
The knowledge which we refer to here is an agent’s knowledge of:
Use of current systems, which can be many dozens in some cases, especially if on top of your main applications you include intranet sites, various spreadsheets, documents and process maps the agent needs to access in order to complete a task;
The application of processes which they must follow in order to service a customer request and ensure company requirements, especially any regulatory ones, are adhered to;
Good detailed understanding of the products, services and promotions currently being offered by the company or ensuring that, at the very least, the agent has access to the same information as the customer contacting them.
Couple this with the decay that happens as a result of:
- The continual and crippling loss of expertise that occurs when, over time, skilled people leave a company or change roles;
- New regulations forcing changes to your operating model or your company introducing new products, services or processes due to competitive pressures;
- Agents losing familiarity with complex and or rarely-used procedures leading to either their inconsistent usage or inefficient completion of tasks.
As a result, knowledge decay directly affects customer service and customer satisfaction in several ways:
- It limits first-call resolution rates (FCR) because FCR depends on the skill and experience of the agent to handle the complex procedures and information systems needed to satisfy the customer’s requirements;
- It inhibits customer service because the extent to which a customer’s requirements are met on the first call is largely dependent on the experience of the agent. With varying levels of experience in the call centre, service may be less than perfect and is often inconsistent;
- In turn, dependence on the agents’ varying levels of expertise causes unwanted secondary effects such as repeat and problem calls which further effect customer service, call centre efficiency and call-handling costs.
We therefore believe that knowledge decay is an inevitable consequence of the traditional but flawed approach to training agents.
The complexity of many modern operations is such that it can take an agent 6-10 weeks off-the-job training before they are able to take calls. Even then, it may take 3-6 months before they become fully productive. When coupled with the high rate of change within most companies and staff turnover is taken into account, this is a huge overhead for the call centre and a highly inefficient way to impart and retain critical knowledge when often in a matter of months, it is out-dated due to knowledge decay.
Furthermore, knowledge decay also happens when knowledgeable experts in back-office roles and other areas depart without leaving behind comprehensive documentation.
A new approach
Instead of trying to tackle the symptoms of the problem by trying to reduce training times and agent turnover, it would be better to tackle the underlying cause of the problem. So, rather than trying to put the expertise into the agents’ heads, we suggest that the expertise should instead be put into the system.
Until now, attempts to ‘systemise the knowledge’ have usually taken one of three paths; scripting, knowledge bases or workflow management. Although they have their strengths, each has fundamental drawbacks and only addresses part of the challenge.
- Scripting for complex issues, such as fault diagnosis, may ultimately achieve the objective, but is tedious for both the customer and the agent when the script includes questions that are clearly inappropriate but part of the defined sequence. Callers therefore become frustrated and the agent sounds wooden and unintelligent. Furthermore, scripts typically require time and effort from the hard-pressed IT function, and are therefore often out of date and become less useful over time;
- Knowledge bases build a repository of solutions but typically, the more solutions that are stored, the harder it is to find a particular solution as the agent has to search through an ever-growing set of possible solutions. Even when the solution is found, it requires agents to work their way through the information to the relevant and required section;
- In theory, workflow management using a process design tool should provide the business analyst with a quick and effective way to design and update business processes and procedures. In practice, the level of technical expertise needed usually requires IT support and therefore fails to provide the necessary business agility.
Is there an alternative?
Coupling the power of business process management software with a smart unified desktop technology, call centres can now quickly design, deploy, automate and optimise their processes, rules and knowledge themselves with the agility demanded by the business.
This is done by separating, but loosely coupling, the underlying systems with the business processes and rules. In this way, each layer is independently managed, providing ultimate flexibility and agility. The environment can be modified and enhanced by IT without affecting the business processes and rules while the call centre is empowered to change and optimise their processes with no dependence on IT.
This solution also provides for the first time the ability to ‘see’ inside the call. So rather than relying on call close codes for an indication of the call content, management can now track the call content as well as measure key call attributes such as the duration of any part of the process within the call and a count of each time the agent made a particular decision or took a specific action on behalf of the customer. These can be used in several ways, for instance to feed an executive dashboard, provide business intelligence on customer decisions and behaviours, or let the system automatically make decisions or present agents with live recommendations as events happen.
The advantages of this approach are many. For the customer:
- With the knowledge in the system, good customer service no longer relies on which agent picks up the call – in effect, every agent becomes the best agent;
- It is far more likely that the customer’s requirements will be met by the first person they speak to if that person has all the necessary system, product and procedural knowledge at their fingertips all working together rather than as individual systems;
- No more long periods of silence or on hold while the agent seeks the advice of a more experienced colleague, searches through the systems for the right information, or writes their wrap-up notes during the call.
And for the call centre:
- You only have to put the knowledge into your system once, instead of continually into every new agent that replaces a trained one or when your processes, systems or services change;
- Instead of knowledge decaying as trained people leave, you benefit from knowledge accumulation as the expertise in the system increases and is optimised over time;
- You can handle peak loads without affecting service levels because with the knowledge in the system, you can deploy part-time or home-working staff at short notice who can depend on the system to support them rather than their half-forgotten training;
- Ultimately, the knowledge in the system can be used to further drive down costs or improve service either by migrating calls to a self-help facility or employing and training agents for their people skills rather than contact centre and systems experience.
Alan Smith is sales and market director at SKS Solutions.