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How to Scale Your Customer Contact Center


How to Scale Your Customer Contact Center

Call centers are fast-paced environments and experience surges in activity at different points throughout the year. Whenever a spike in incoming contacts hits, your customer service representatives (CSRs) may find it challenging to cope with increased contact volumes. As a result, the customer experience (CX) can suffer, and people are more likely to defect from your brand.

Look around, and you'll find plenty of data showing just how big this problem is for retailers:

  • U.S. adults spend more than 900 hours on hold in a typical year. That translates to an average of 10 to 20 minutes each week on hold (Marketwatch)
  • 96% of people will defect from a brand after a high-effort experience (Gartner
  • Nearly 60% of US adults will switch to a new brand if they have a subpar experience (Microsoft)

Undoubtedly, reducing wait times and lowering customer effort is critical to improving CX and keeping customers from jumping ship. But adding in-house personnel isn't always the way. Each new CSR adds overhead costs and may not be fully engaged during slower seasons.

What's a brand to do? Knowing how to predict surges and add contact center capacity is critical. You need a multi-faceted plan to scale your contact center before contact volumes escalate. 

Watch Your Metrics

The good news is that contact centers are highly structured environments, so many activities are easily measurable. Having a standard set of operational metrics that you monitor consistently can give you essential insights into shifting contact demands.

Here are a few to watch:

#1: First Response Time

First response time (FRT) is the measure of the time from when a person reaches out for service to when the company responds.

How quickly should you be responding to inbound contacts? A long-standing 80/20 goal has persisted in the contact center industry. That means: Organizations should aim to answer 80% of contacts in 20 seconds or less, with industry leaders pushing to answer 90+% of calls in less than 20 seconds.

While those metrics are a good baseline, the average first response time varies widely across channels. On average, it takes companies 12 hours to respond to incoming contacts, with chat having the quickest response time, at less than one minute

Importantly, research from the CMO Council has found that fast response times are a top factor affecting the customer experience:

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Keeping this need for speed in mind, you can calculate your FRT using this formula:

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If you find your FRT exceeds acceptable benchmarks, it's time for some adjustments in your contact center.

#2: Abandonment Rates

Even with the best intentions, long wait times happen, and they can be immensely frustrating. Every person can reach a point when they give up waiting.

You can analyze this phenomenon by measuring your abandonment rate. For this calculation, you'll need to know the number of contacts received and the number of contacts handled:

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Keep in mind that most companies exclude contacts that abandon in less than five seconds. Often, these indicate someone clicked on a link or called a number by mistake.

What's an acceptable abandonment rate? Less than 5% is a good goal, and anything higher than that indicates a problem. 

Another thing to keep in mind: People are often more willing to wait on hold for support than for sales. After 45 seconds, people will abandon a sales contact, compared to 95 seconds for support, according to research published in Call Centre Helper:

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#3: Active and Waiting Contacts

Active and Waiting Contacts is another Key Performance Indicator (KPI) that can help you gauge the health of your contact center operations. It compares the current volume of active contacts to the number of people waiting to connect with a brand representative. Being attentive to this metric in real-time lets you know if your agents are keeping up on the volume of incoming contacts.

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While encouraging agents to resolve contacts efficiently can help reduce the number of people waiting, you should never sacrifice quality for speed. If you do, people who contact you can feel rushed and may have a poor impression of your brand. Instead, strategizing ways to scale your contact center by adding on-demand professionals or messaging can let you handle growing contact volumes while delivering high-quality service.

#4: Customer Effort Score

Lowering customer effort and delivering high-value experiences go hand-in-hand. In fact, Gartner reports that low-effort experiences are one of the most significant factors driving customer loyalty.

When a customer needs to wait for an excessive time to reach you or drops off a call and calls back to avoid a long wait, the amount of effort they expend climbs. 

To calculate CES, start by surveying customers using the following standard question:

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Then, calculate CES by subtracting the percentage of difficult experiences (scores of 1, 2, and 3) from the percentage of easy experiences (scores of 5, 6, and 7):

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Scale Your Contact Center

If your metrics reveal that your current support team isn't keeping pace with customer needs, it's time to look at options to scale your contact center. Although adding headcount is one strategy, it's rarely the most cost-effective path. 

Instead, you may need to explore expanding contact channels and respondents, prioritizing messaging, or coaching customers on using self-service. Another option is adding on-demand care professionals who can cover evenings, weekends, or surges and ensure you have an expert at the ready anytime a customer reaches out.

#1: Offer Multiple Contact Channels

 In the past, the only way to reach a brand was to visit a branch location or make a phone call to a support center. The latter option produced notoriously long wait times and spawned interactive voice response (IVR) menus that routed callers through mazes of prompts. It's no wonder that the idea of calling a company is distasteful to many people.

A phone-centric customer care department can be painfully inefficient as well. Typically, agents can only handle one interaction at a time. Long queues of on-hold customers are common, and waits to access service cause caller frustrations to rise.

That said, a voice contact option will never completely go away, as it's a necessity for some complicated or sensitive issues. As Forrester explains, voice has shifted from a primary contact channel to an escalation for "complex issues like account closure, booking a complex multi-city set of flights, or an explanation of smart metering billing policies for a phone conversation." Often, scenarios like these take more time to discuss and provide prime opportunities to foster stronger customer relationships. So a call can be beneficial in those types of instances.

By now, you have likely recognized the importance of offering multiple contact channels. Nearly every company has a "contact us" page or a support email that people can use to seek information or answers. Social media is another venue that allows people to reach out for support. And self-service--such as online frequently asked questions (FAQs) or user communities--can help people navigate issues without going through official company channels. Today, live chat and video-assisted chat are also gaining momentum.

These approaches can cut down on the long phone support hold queues that are bad for your business and your customers alike. With more contact options, you can handle more incoming queries and meet customers where they are, on the channels they prefer.

#2: Use a Mix of Digital Respondents

Recent years have seen digital channels take center stage, with web and mobile chat emerging as a top resource for customer contact. The best digital approaches use a mix of respondents instead of using a one-size-fits-all approach.

What does that mean? Think about the old way. When people called a company, they placed a call and waited until they finally connected with a person. Branching IVR menus gave customers a bit of choice. They could figure out simple answers like store addresses and business hours. But that's it. Customers had limited options, and the path to access the answers they needed was not always straightforward.

Today's customer support environment is much different. Most digitally savvy customers are likely to try to find answers on their own first and only request help if they can't resolve issues on their own. But that doesn't mean every customer needs to have a 1:1 conversation with a support team member.

Instead, retailers can use artificial intelligence (AI) to understand the behavior of visitors on their sites. Using this intelligence, retailers can offer the right support to visitors at the right time. 

Here's how it works: If a visitor invests time in a few product pages and puts items into carts, those behaviors are someone looking to buy. By contrast, people reviewing help topics in a knowledge base most likely need support. 

Rather than offering invitations to contact care in both situations, AI can help identify pre-sales shoppers and direct those people to on-demand experts instead of internal care teams. So AI can deflect inbound customer support calls and related costs, often very significantly. In fact, one well-known electronics retailer set a goal of deflecting 45% of its inbound support calls using this approach.

Ultimately, brands can present site visitors with three choices:

  • A chatbot that can gather information, resolve simple questions, and point people in the direction of available resources. Bots can also collect information to pass along to service professionals to streamline interactions.
  • A customer care professional who can offer guidance to current customers on purchases, returns, warranties, subscriptions, payments, and more.

Giving your customers multiple options helps them feel more assured that they'll get the answers they need in a timely way. It also prevents every contact from being routed to post-sales customer support team, which lessens their burden and lets them focus on issues where they can add value.

#3: Prioritize Messaging

Messaging is fast becoming the preferred contact channel for many people. Here's some data: A recent consumer survey found that nearly two-thirds of people say they would switch to a brand that offered messaging as a communications option. And 72% agreed that they would prefer to purchase from a website that lets them conned with a real person, in real-time, via chat messaging. 

What's more, 61% of people said they would advise friends and family to switch to a brand that offers real-time communication.

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One of the big reasons why messaging is so popular is that it lets people connect with a person for live support very quickly. Here's why: Agents can typically engage with more than one person at a time. This multi-tasking allows agents to initiate chats more rapidly and cut down customer wait times. 

Plus, customers and agents can benefit from asynchronous messaging. With this approach, customers and agents can return to conversations over time instead of wrapping up issues in a single chat session.

Keep in mind that messaging can take many forms, including text, web or mobile chat, or use of third-party messaging services. Naturally, using more messaging channels empowers brands to provide more customers support. Forward-thinking brands use a mix of messaging options, including SMS, WhatsApp, Apple Business Chat, Facebook, and Twitter, to expand their reach.

Another advantage: Messaging enjoys high customer satisfaction (CSAT)  scores. One research study found that average CSAT scores for live chat rose in 2020 by 1.5% to an all-time high of 85.6%. Interestingly, average chat duration also increased. The takeaway is that customers are willing to invest the time to get their resolve via messaging and are often happy with the results.  

#4: Promote Self-Service

Brands have turned to online self-service options to try to deflect customer service contacts. Those efforts have been somewhat successful, as most people prefer not to engage with a company for support unless necessary. According to a recent CX study, 69% of people seek to resolve issues independently, with 63% visiting a brand's website to find information to address questions or problems.

As Forrester explains, self-service offers several advantages:

  • Accelerates resolution speed 
  • Increases conversion rates and revenues
  • Fosters customer engagement
  • Improves customer satisfaction

While creating online resources and frequently asked questions (FAQs) is an essential first step in self-service, it's not the end game. Even the most robust online self-service offering won't be intuitive to all customers--and some people will inevitably reach out for live support. 

What happens then? 

Forward-thinking brands recognize contacts as opportunities for agents to act as self-service coaches. Instead of merely fixing an issue and ending the contact, brand representatives can let customers know how to navigate similar challenges in the future. 

Showing customers where to find the information they need on a company website, portal, or app can empower customers to resolve questions independently without intervention. It's a win-win: Brands can deflect a future contact and save costs, and customers can achieve their goals more quickly.

#5: Add Capacity with On-Demand Service Professionals

For many brands, having more people on hand to connect with customers is the right solution. But this doesn't have to mean the added expense of hiring new full or part-time employees. Instead, brands can take advantage of the "gig economy" and access the millions of people who are independent contractors in flexible jobs.

According to statistics, the gig economy is substantial--and growing. In 2017--before the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic--the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that 34% of the U.S. workforce, or 55 million people, were gig workers. And data from the World Economic Forum show the gig economy growing at a 17.4% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) with expected gross volume transactions of $455 billion by year-end 2023.

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How can the gig economy model work in customer support? Brands can engage freelancers who work at home, choose their own hours, and receive compensation only for the contacts they support. With this model, brands can offer around-the-clock support for a fraction of the cost of staffing a full-time care team. Customers can get the personalized attention they need, and brands don't need to break their budgets.

Deliver New Levels of Service Excellence

For years, brands have thought of their contact centers as burdensome cost centers. Efforts to reduce costs through IVR menus, bots, self-service, and strict attention to call duration metrics were the result. But these approaches often resulted in short-changing service interactions, which led to bad experiences and diminished customer loyalty.

It's time for many retailers to shift their thinking about their contact centers. The perspective of customer care as a cost center grew out of a time when in-person contacts dominated. Today, as Gartner explains, more customers are moving to digital-first channels, like self-service, bot-assisted interactions, and messaging. 

As a result of this migration, Gartner predicts that by 2025 40% of customer service organizations will emerge as "profit centers by becoming de facto leaders in customer engagement."

Today, your challenge is not just to figure out ways to add contact center capacity and meet ever-escalating customer demands. Your challenge is to reinvent your service approach and recognize the potential of driving new business goals and growth through your service centers.

Metrics can tell you when it's time to start scaling up your contact center. But the right technology—coupled with the opportunity to add capacity by accessing on-demand gig workers—are crucial for success. Smart, strategic actions can put you ahead of the curve and give you stature as a next-level service leader.

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