I just submitted my November column to Contact Center Pipeline magazine.  The topic of the column was putting veterans to work in the contact center industry.  This is the third time I’ve written about this particular matter, the first time being in the March 2011 issue and the next in the July 2012 issue of the magazine.  I’ve also taken the fight to the field, so to speak, in my attempts to get the contact center industry to rally around this problem and find a solution.   The result has been deafening silence.  Companies with huge profits and expansive resources have shown no interest that I can detect in getting involved with giving back.  The singular focus is usually on a relentless pursuit of ever greater profits.   Since this narrative is beginning to sound a lot like a classic Charles Dickens novel it is time to introduce the ray of hope – a light of good in the otherwise dreary story of greed.  A few weeks ago I was introduced to a small contact center cloud company in the San Francisco Bay Area called BrightPattern.  They are taking on the problem of unemployed veterans and are taking on challenges that companies a hundred times their size don’t have the (guts? nerve? fill in the word of your choice here) to take on.   I was introduced to BrightPattern by my longtime friend John Reynolds, a Vietnam veteran and founder of the not-for-profit Veterans2Work (www.veterans2work.com).  What BrightPattern lacks in company size, they make up for in the size of their heart.   Yesterday I saw another hint of industry heart in a news release from Interactive Intelligence soliciting grant applications for the Interactive Intelligence Foundation, a nonprofit corporation whose mission is to use available resources and funding to improve the lives of at risk youth around the world with a primary emphasis in their hometown of Indianapolis.  The Interactive Intelligence Foundation was born when executives at the company saw a need in the community and took the unusual step of doing something about it.  The Foundation idea was proposed to Interactive Intelligence’s CEO, Dr. Don Brown, in 2010 and an industry charity was born.   Today the Interactive Intelligence Foundation supports a diverse group of charities with missions that range from the care of abused and neglected children to a group that is fighting hunger in central Indiana.  The Foundation raises money through a variety of activities, including an annual gala that raised funds exceeding $53,000 for the Foundation this year.  Interactive Intelligence employees volunteer their time to run the foundation and Interactive Intelligence picks up the tab for the Foundation’s overhead and administration.  Aside from the direct costs of the gala, every penny raised for the Foundation goes to the charities it supports.   Last time I checked Interactive Intelligence seems to be doing pretty well.  I imagine stockholders probably don’t complain about the money the company spends on the Foundation instead of putting into dividends, and giving back to the community doesn’t seem to have had a detrimental effect on Interactive Intelligence’s industry standing or performance.   Differentiating factors are everything in today’s competitive contact center industry.  While most companies look toward product differentiation, the companies mentioned in this blog differentiate themselves in a way that will live on long past the heyday of whatever technology solutions they offer.  These companies distinguish themselves in a way that isn’t measured in quarterly profits and year-over-year financial performance.  These are companies with heart and in the long run, that’s what will really matter.

During a recent phone conversation with Kevin Hegebarth, who is the VP of marketing at HireIQ, Inc., he brought to my attention a contact center story that would be hard to believe if it wasn’t so well documented and there wasn’t a government agency behind it.  The story involves the recent establishment of a contact center in Contra Costa County, California.  It is one of three contact centers to be established in the state of California for the purpose of fielding Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, calls beginning October 1st.

In July the county advertised the availability of 152 new, full-time Obamacare contact center agent jobs.  They received 7,457 applications.  1,947 of the applicants passed the civil service exam and moved on to the next phase.  600 applicants went through the interview process before the final 152 agents were hired.  Some of the successful applicants were people emerging from a long period of unemployment, some were people coming from small home-based businesses that they started to try to weather the recession and many were people who left other full-time positions in the hope of finding greater stability in a county government contact center job.

So I wasn’t going to write about Avaya for fear of sounding unnecessarily negative, but the glaring differences between the Avaya of old the Avaya of today are crying out for commentary and I just can’t resist.  Avaya is the epitome of the old school contact center vendor.

Yesterday we saw record revenues and profits announced by ShoreTel, within hours of Avaya’s announcement of revenues that went up less than three percent over the prior quarter and were down eight percent year over year.  Avaya’s announcement credited revenues to increased demand in the U.S. and the U.S. federal government.  If anyone’s spending freely anymore, it’s the U.S. government.  These are good days to be GSA approved.

The failure of Nortel marked the beginning of what I believe is a period of major upheaval in the U.S. and, for that matter, global contact center industry.  Where Avaya was once the absolute industry leader, seemingly unbeatable with their massive market muscle and product innovation, it is now more like the fading industry star.  Rather than leading the market with product ideas it is chasing the market and the innovations of smaller, more nimble specialty companies like VPI, Nexidia, Calabrio, OpenSpan and many others.

On June 27, 2013 Aspect Software announced the availability of Aspect Workforce Mobile.  This new software solution provides contact center agents mobile access to Aspect’s workforce management solution.  This makes it possible for agents to view and request changes to their own schedule using their smartphone or tablet computer.  Agents can also view their own performance metrics and productivity statistics on their mobile device from any location.  For those agents who are motivated to get ahead and/or are working toward a career in customer care, this capability will prove to be an invaluable asset.

 

For supervisors, Aspect Workforce Mobile offers the ability to look at workforce schedules and make or approve changes as necessary from their mobile device.  Supervisors with a mobile device can also view intraday statistics, forecasts, performance metrics and nearly every statistic provided by Aspect’s workforce management software.

 

What I found so extraordinary about this announcement is how stunningly practical this Aspect solution is.  With the proliferation of mobile devices in the U.S. today, which currently stands at approximately 1.1 mobile communications devices for every man, woman and child in the U.S. and all of its territories, it only makes sense to extend the usage of these communications tools to those in the customer service profession.  The next generation of workers has been raised with a mobile phone in hand and it is typically this generation’s resource of choice for nearly all information.  Contact center executives should welcome the ability to access work information on a personal mobile device with open arms.

 

I was particularly interested in the proactive broadcast capabilities of Aspect Workforce Mobile.  Any piece of information that can impact the workforce schedule in any way can be quickly automated and broadcast to a mobile device.  For example, if a contact center finds itself with overtime hours available this opportunity can be promptly broadcast to its agent population.  Agents can log on to the workforce management system with their mobile device and quickly check their schedule against the available overtime hours.  Again using a mobile device from any location, agents can apply for the overtime hours as appropriate.

 

Credit for Aspect Workforce Mobile belongs to an Aspect customer and Aspect’s Innovation Group, which developed the solution at the request of this specific customer. The customer has been using Aspect Workforce Mobile with its nearly 3,000 agents and estimates it will save about $500,000 per year.  I’d call that an acceptable return on investment (ROI).

 

As previously mentioned, this is a practical solution that I expect to find immediate and widespread acceptance in the worldwide contact center industry.  Beyond that, I’m happy to see that there are still contact center solutions providers that are creating solutions that directly address and impact the actual, existing productivity challenges faced by contact centers today.   With so many vendors that seem to have their head in the cloud, so to speak, it is reassuring to see that Aspect still has its feet firmly planted on the ground.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013 15:34

The ACE up Aspect’s Sleeve

Last week I attended Aspect’s ACE 2013 customer gathering in Scottsdale, AZ.  This was Aspect’s second ACE, which stands for Aspect Customer Experience, since putting the program on hiatus four or five years ago.  If absence makes the heart grow fonder, it was certainly apparent at this event as the enthusiasm of Aspect executives was matched equally by the enthusiasm of the several hundred Aspect customers in attendance.

The mark of a good customer event is, in my opinion, the accessibility of company executives with their customers.  With a spate of new executives, Aspect ensured at the start of the event that executives were not only available, they were individually identified in the main session so attendees could find them if desired.  Aspect CEO Stew Bloom kicked off the event with an overview of Aspect that described in detail what the company has been doing to address the re-invented customer experience in a world where the relationship between consumers and organizations is undergoing radical changes. 

Stew also provided an overview of new solutions that Aspect expects to release to the market in the near future.  Although I can’t specifically discuss these solutions yet, suffice it to say that they address real industry problems and that they are or will be in high demand from contact center professionals according to the research that Saddletree has conducted in association with the National Association of Call Centers (NACC) at The University of Southern Mississippi.

While adequate coverage was given to emerging technology solutions such as cloud-based contact centers, conference sessions for the most part were firmly rooted in reality.  Concentration on social media, mobility issues, customer interactions strategies, and workforce optimization (WFO) ensured that Aspect customers left the conference with practical customer care knowledge that they can immediately put to use in their contact centers.

I continue to be impressed by the caliber of executives representing the relatively new Aspect management team.  I believe the diversity of the executive staff has invigorated Aspect in terms of strategy and ability to execute while recharging longtime Aspect employees who have steadfastly stuck with the company through the various changes of recent years.

I want to say that Aspect is like a whole new company, but that’s not really true.  This is clearly an enthusiastic company, reenergized by a new management team, encouraged by renewed investment in research and development, and optimistic about the future.

Revitalized is what the company really is.  That’s the ACE up Aspect’s sleeve.

Last week I had the opportunity to attend Interactive Intelligence’s Interactions 2013 global conference held at the JW Marriott hotel in Indianapolis.  I have attended one previous Interactive Intelligence analyst/customer conference several years ago and I didn’t find it to be useful in terms of getting the information I need in order to do my job.  I was hoping for a better experience this time.

I don’t have much of a relationship with Interactive Intelligence, business or otherwise, so my knowledge of the company is limited to the few phone briefings I’ve had with them over the past year.  Interactive Intelligence seems to have their favorites and Saddletree Research isn’t one of them, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when I received the invitation to attend this year’s analyst/customer conference.

Overall I was favorably impressed by the event.  The venue was first class with excellent meeting facilities and exceptionally generous meals, refreshments and accommodations throughout.  I think the meeting planners at Interactive Intelligence did their best to pack as much information into the analyst day as possible although some of the presentations only skimmed the surface and left me wanting more in-depth detail.  While the subject matter was a mile wide it was only about a foot deep, but I give Interactive Intelligence credit for their efforts to make the day as diverse and interesting as possible.

If you took to heart the Interactive Intelligence conference marketing message you would get the impression that the entire contact center industry is in a mad scramble to move all their customer care solutions from the premises to the cloud.  Our research has shown that this is simply not the case.  Saddletree Research clients have in hand our April 22, 2013 report entitled “Finding the Silver Lining in the Contact Center Cloud” that details the demand and lack of demand for cloud contact center solutions by vertical market and size of contact center.  At this point the data doesn’t mesh with the Interactive Intelligence marketing message.  I got the impression that Interactive Intelligence has invested heavily in cloud solutions and now expects the market to respond, thus their conference emphasis on the benefits of the cloud-based contact center.

When I visited the conference exhibit floor it was packed with Interactive Intelligence customers and a variety of interesting exhibitors.  Among the most intriguing of these exhibitors was a company called OrgSpan (www.orgspan.com).  OrgSpan is a startup founded by a former Interactive Intelligence software engineer and funded by Interactive Intelligence founder Dr. Don Brown.  OrgSpan offers a cloud-based (what else?) employee directory and customer support tool designed to help organizations of any size find and connect with the right person at the right time.  Besides offering internal enterprise support for finding personnel resources it can also be used to allow customers to find the best customer support representative to help with their service need.  It’s something like LinkedIn for enterprise and customer support.  It’s worth a look.

My impression of Interactive Intelligence remains positive, reinforced by the company’s demonstrated commitment to the continued development of their platform solutions.  Interactions 2013 was a well-planned, well-executed and worthwhile event.

The InformationWeek 500, published annually by Information Week magazine, is a list of the nation’s 500 most innovative users of business technology as determined by the editors of the magazine.  As a provider of business technology for the contact center, it appears that Plantronics (www.plantronics.com) practices what it preaches because it has earned a spot on the InformationWeek 500 list for 2012.  Plantronics has been recognized for its adoption of a cutting edge workplace strategy called “smarter working.”

 

Smarter working is a relatively new approach that places people over place and delivers flexible solutions that allow people to cooperate and collaborate across work environments.  For a global company like Plantronics the ability to work with customers, partners and employees across time zones and geographies is critical to success.  Employees can now effectively communicate with each other regardless of where they are located or which type of communications device is being used.

 

I had the opportunity to visit Plantronics’ headquarters in Santa Cruz, CA this past June and saw the construction of their new work environment in progress.  Although not technically in Silicon Valley, the Plantronics work environment should, and probably will, put to shame the work environments in what most of us think of as progressive high tech companies.  The physical environment in the workplace is as important as the work process for those who adhere to the principles of smarter working. 

 

At Plantronics, the workspaces are flexible and open, encouraging collaboration and communication.  The cube farm has been replaced by a friendly collection of work areas where it is apparent that employees share energy as well as ideas.  The beneficiaries of the smarter working initiative are not only the employees – Plantronics’ customers will benefit as well.  Here’s how. 

 

Plantronics makes headsets for the contact center industry.  Contact centers are noisy, busy places.  With the new Plantronics open work environment, part of the “buzz” is due to the fact that employees are talking to each other more frequently, creating a workplace environment that is very similar to the typical contact center.  As a result, Plantronics has just become a test bed for its own headsets. 

 

Despite its industry leadership position, Plantronics continues to innovate in more ways than one.  With the new smarter working strategy in place the employees win, the customers win and, for the icing on the cake, Plantronics gets an award.  Plantronics continues to prove that its industry vision extends well beyond the world of audio communications.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012 15:54

Contact Center Social Media Stalls

While social media applications become pervasive in virtually all aspects of everyday life, the adoption of social media in the contact center has stalled.

 

Saddletree Research just published a research report that updates the 2010 survey of contact center professionals that was undertaken in conjunction with the National Association of Call Centers (NACC) at The University of Southern Mississippi.  The results reveal that even though interest in social media as a customer service tool continues to be high, there has been no significant increase in the use of social media in the contact center since 2010.

 

In the 2010 survey, 18 percent of respondents reported that they were actively using social media in the contact center.  Despite the fact that 18 percent of respondents in 2010 indicated that they were planning to add social media to their customer communications channel mix in the next year, the growth failed to materialize.  The 2012 survey revealed that 18 percent of respondents were actively using social media in the contact center.  Growth in the use of social media over two years was virtually non-existent.

 

I believe the problem lies in uncertainty concerning the management of social media once it is put into use.  It is clear that existing contact center customer service rules are not relevant in the world of social media.  For example, does a posting on a company’s Facebook page that says something to the effect of “I hate your company” deserve the time and consideration of a response, or does the business risk ignoring it and seeing the poster launch some sort of viral anti-company phenomenon that takes weeks or longer to fix?  Does the rant of a 15 year old who hates his/her cell phone warrant the time of a customer service representative and the effort of a response?

 

While attending the Verint Driving Innovation user group meeting in New Orleans last month I met someone who seems to have a unique understanding of how to handle social media channels in the contact center.  Kym Banks, Social Media manager at Telvista, has a good grip on the process of filtering the good from the bad and the ugly when it comes to social media postings.  Watch for my column in the September issue of Contact Center Pipeline magazine and read about the lessons Kym and her team have learned as they travel the social media learning curve.

Last week Aspect announced a partnership with Nexidia to provide the speech analytics component of Aspect’s Unified IP workforce optimization (WFO) solution.  I didn’t think much of it until I dug a little deeper into what this new partnership can potentially bring to the table for Aspect, and for the contact center industry as a whole.

 

Speech analytics comes in a couple of flavors.  One of the most popular flavors requires the recorded speech to be transcribed into text before the speech analytics engine searches the text for any critical phrases as defined by the user.  The other flavor translates a bit faster in that the actual voice recording is searched using phonetic indexing, which looks for key words and phrases using phonemes, the smallest discreet units of human speech.  Both flavors have their strengths and weaknesses, but Nexidia has taken speech analytics and bumped it up to the next level.  This is bound to capture the attention of the contact center industry.

 

Although there hasn’t been any flag waving or chest pounding on the part of Nexidia, they have developed technology that allows the analysis of a voice conversation in real time.  What this means for the contact center is that all conversations, not just select or random conversations, can be monitored as they are occurring.  It will be possible to conduct root cause analysis and trigger alerts as the call is in progress.  This is pretty heady stuff.

 

Consider, for example, the integration of real time speech analytics with agent screen pops.  In this case, anytime a word related to a particular topic is spoken it triggers an agent screen pop reminding the agent of the procedure for these types of calls.  Or, perhaps the call is from an important customer and a keyword is spoken that automatically triggers a real time alert and bridges the call to an account manager, or it notifies the supervisor that this important customer call is in progress and offers an option to silent monitor the call.  Given a little imagination, the possibilities for real time speech analytics in the contact center are endless.

 

The problem for Nexidia has been that although they have the real-time speech analytics engine, it’s not much of an application by itself.  That’s where the Aspect partnership comes in.  Aspect has the applications and the experience to take real-time speech analytics, make it an integral part of their workforce optimization suite and potentially shake up the industry.  Aspect will be tasked with taking this new technology from Nexidia and creating applications with a practical use in the contact center.  It will be a complex undertaking but if history is any indicator, Aspect is up to the challenge.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011 17:13

Must See TV: Contact Center Industry Growth

Just in case you haven’t seen this news segment from ABC World News a few weeks ago, it is worth a couple of minutes of your time.

 

http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/video/jobs-call-centers-back-us-14243481

 

Underscoring this story are employment numbers that Saddletree Research reported in a recently published research note.  As illustrated below, the U.S. contact center industry has experienced employment growth for the entire year of 2010 and thus far in 2011.

 

Quarter                                                Jobs Gained

 

Q1 ’10                                                 1,643

Q2 ’10                                                     649

Q3 ’10                                                 3,929

Q4 ’10                                                 9,695

Q1 ’11                                                 1,740

Q2 ’11                                                 11,787

 

It should be noted that industry employment has actually grown for the past nine quarters in a row.  We think employment growth is a testament to the value of the customer service function regardless of economic conditions.  In the worst of times, the customer service function can be a powerful weapon in the fight for customer retention and loyalty.  In the best of times, the customer service function can be a significant contributor to sales and business growth efforts.

 

We foresee no reason why this growth will not continue in the future.  Although there is no clear pattern apparent in the graph above, we still expect to see positive growth numbers in contact center employment for the remainder of 2011 and into 2012.

 

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