As yet another year draws to a close, we couldn't help but take a moment and reflect on the highlights of 2011. So we asked a few of our team members to share their most memorable experience with our customers from 2011. Their thoughts (sarcasm & humor included), below. We'd love to hear your favorite memories from 2011 - please share in the comment section below. Wishing you a safe and happy New Year!
Anthony Kantor, Astute SRM Lead
Providing information that has been otherwise unobtainable in the past is one of the most rewarding aspects of working on our social media product, SRM. Prior to joining forces, one of our customers had a pretty good idea of their social reach. Their issue was the time and effort it took to manage and respond to their customers through the multiple outlets social networks offer. When we first demoed our product their eyes lit up as they could see a slew of opportunities and new ways to communicate with their current and prospective customers. Now, instead of searching through endless posts on their Facebook wall, they are alerted within minutes of a post which may need personal attention. Statistics are at their fingertips and unknown geographical information is readily available.
It has been quite a year, and I’ve had such great experiences with our customers. Creating solutions within the capabilities of SRM as well as generating new capabilities has provided our entire social team with exciting and challenging endeavors. I’m looking so forward to taking on even more of these challenges in the new year.
Todd Skaggs, Customer Support Engineer
Here in the trenches of Customer Support, the days (and weeks and months) sometimes blur together. Specific incidents and issues meld together in to a blob of ‘whew, glad we figured THAT out.’ I think for me, rather than an incident or issue that sticks out, it’s more of a phrase. I would have to say that each of my customers has said this magic phrase at least once during the lifespan of an issue. “Are you getting sick of me calling you yet?” Show of hands out there in the blogosphere—how many of you have said that to me (or any of our Support reps)? It’s ok…I can’t really see your hands.
I laugh every time I hear the question. To one customer (whom I’ve known for years), I answered, “yes…I kinda am.” And we both laughed about it. Because we both knew it wasn’t true. I don’t get sick of my customers calling. How could I? It’s the reason I’m in this position. To take the calls and help our customers solve their problems. Whether it’s tracking down why a log file won’t write to a particular directory (hint: it’s usually permissions), or tracking down which suggestion filter has the empty row on it- the goal is the same- to help find a resolution. And before you ask…yes, I do have a favorite customer. (Shhh…don’t tell the others, but it’s YOU).
Jen Holzhauser, Customer Success Manager
Most people realize that Astute Solutions is based out of Columbus, OH. What many may not know is that if you happen to LIVE in Columbus, OH you are more than likely a fan of The Ohio State University athletic teams. If you have been to an OSU game of any kind you know that they do it big— the tradition, the excitement, the band and all that goes with it. Those of us that live here are exposed to the Buckeye mania over and over again, and living here, we all just tend to become a fan (unless you hail from another Big 10 state - which shall remain unnamed).
I have one particular customer located in, let’s just say in a “basketball state in the Central Plains region of the United States”. Not a conversation passes that doesn’t involve some good spirited jabbing about the most recent football game, scandal or basketball loss (those “losses” are of course, are few and far between, so that doesn’t happen often J).
For me, the best memories I’ve had this year are as a result of the relationships we have with our customers! It is important to keep a sense of humor in a relationship, even a business-based relationship. Thank you to all of the customers who have worked with me over the last year —whether during a presentation, project or visit, you have all been a pleasure to work with. (Just don’t forget who is #2 in NCAABB right now – you know who you are!)
Evan Nore, Customer Support Technician
It is often the little details that customers recall even more than the issues that are resolved. This past August, I had the pleasure of working with one of our customers - the leading jean retailer - concerning a product and size import process for their training environment. With our Astute headquarters in Columbus and their offices in San Francisco, the time can pose somewhat of a challenge. I received a call late in the day requesting assistance with setting up a custom utility in their training environment. Without going into too much detail, there were a few more pieces involved than the typical import process.
It was after hours and our Support department had closed. I continued to work with our customer to test the newly created process. Once everything was set and working, I ensured that their issue had been resolved and closed the case. About a week later, I received a card in the mail from the team in San Francisco thanking me for my support and for staying after hours to assist. It is moments like these that make my job worthwhile and the reason I work in customer service today.
Dustin Biddle, Implementation Consultant
My most memorable experience this year can be summed up in Dutch – “dank u wel” – as that was a saying I came to say over and over again. Picture this: A challenging go-live filled with 14-hour work days and a very tired, yet eager crew. We were training, preparing and finishing ePowerCenter for the prototype of what would become a huge initiative between Astute Solutions and Danone.
In the several weeks I spent in The Netherlands with the fine folks on team Danone, we grew quite close, and those fine folks threw a surprise adventure for me that would create memories to last a life time. Close to our project completion, the team took me out in Amsterdam where we enjoyed a canal boat ride, dinner, and an interesting walking tour through the red light district. Did I mention it was me, along with 6 ladies? You can imagine the excitement everyone felt as we saw the sites! We ended the night at an old pub for a pint, and then I bid my farewell and went back to my hotel in Zoetermeer. It was an incredible experience both in what we accomplished within the business operations at Danone, and what we experienced in Amsterdam.
Written by Susan Sever
Happy Holidays to you and yours from the team at
(Pictured from left to right: Sean Hensley, Technical Trainer; Susan Sever, Business Development Specialist; Chuck Miller, Director SaaS Operations; Evan Nore, Customer Support Technician; Scott Cumming, Customer Support Specialist)
Twas the night before Christmas and all through the call center, not a creature was stirring, not even an agent;
The KPIs were hung by the manager’s office with care, in hopes that a year-end bonus would soon be there.
The agents were nestled all snug in their cubicles, while visions of happy customers danced in their heads;
And the manager in his office and the director in hers, had just settled down for a long web-ex.
When out on the call center floor there rose such a clatter, I sprang from my desk to see what was the matter;
Away to the center of the floor I flew like a flash, maximized the reporting screen of the main desk top computer.
The light from the computer gave a luster of midday to the objects surrounding;
When what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a lot of calls with shorter AHT and reduced escalations!
With lower call volume and fewer repeat calls, I knew in a minute, it must be Knowledge Management!
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came, and the agents whistled and shouted and called them by name;
Now accuracy! Now reduced hold time! Fewer escalations and quicker ramp up time! On AHT reduction! On efficiency! On responsiveness and resolving!
To the top of your cubicle to the top of your desk! Now increase these efficiencies and improve them all!
As dry leaves before the wild hurricane fly, when they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the phones the coursers they flew with an application full of resources and reporting, too!
And then in a twinkling, I heard on the call center floor, the prancing and pawing of each agents’ little feet.
As I drew in my head and was turning around, through the hallways came the agents with a bound.
They were dressed in jeans, skirts and slacks and their headsets were perched on their heads ready to take calls;
A bundle of tools at their fingertips, professionals they were, just waiting to answer a question.
Their eyes how they twinkled! Their dimples how merry! Their cheeks were like roses and noses like cherries!
Their droll little mouths were drawn up like bows, and some had beards that were brown, black and white…as snow!
The mics to their head sets were close to their mouth, you could hear them smile as they spoke to their customers in the north, east, west and south.
Some had broad faces and little round bellies that shook when they laughed like a bowl full of jelly.
They were right jolly agents as they used the new Knowledge Management tool, and I laughed when I saw them, in spite of myself.
A wink of an eye and twist of a head, soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
They spoke to their customers and went straight to work, and answered each question without any challenges leveraging the company’s existing data to respond to the customer’s needs.
And laying a finger on their keyboards, and giving a nod, with the easy to use tool they answered the question in a conversational tone.
At the end of their shifts, they sprang from their seats, to their cars they ran. And away they all drove like the down of a thistle.
But I heard them exclaim as they drove out of site, thank you Knowledge Management Tool and to all a Good Night!
Susan Sever works as a Business Development Specialist at Astute Solutions. She is passionate about customer experience strategy, knowledge management and optimizing business processes. Find her on twitter here.
Written by Guest Contributor Esteban Kolsky
Between September and October of 2011 I ran an experience-based study of the Virtual Agents market. Experience-based studies are not driven by surveys, rather I talked to vendors, practitioners, consultants, researchers, and – well, just about anyone who wanted to talk about Virtual Agents. I then compiled their stories, experiences, and the lessons they learned into a report. Consider this a guide to succeeding with a specific tool or technology as told by the people who already did it.
Among the many lessons learned, there were three that were shared by virtually everyone in the study – even those who did not adopted them hoped they would’ve done. These are the three secrets to succeeding. In no particular order, they are:
1) Pilot. The most interesting statistic we found? Less than 60% of organizations take the time to pilot their Virtual Agents implementation before committing to it. This is quite interesting, considering the a well-run pilot can not only demonstrate whether the virtual agent will indeed perform as expected in a specific situation, but it can also be a time- and money-saver. While most vendors charge a nominal fee for a pilot, we found some practitioners had piloted two or even three products before committing to one. To them, the investment in the pilots gave them the confidence they had found the ideal solution for their implementation. Among those that did not pilot prior to selecting and deploying a solution, the overwhelming majority wished they would’ve done it so they knew more about maintenance and deployment issues that they did.
2) Strategize. In the early days of Virtual Agents (late 1990s into the early 2000s) there was no need to craft a strategy for virtual agents used in customer service: for the most part, they would be used in a stand-alone situation to automate interactions that were time-consuming but easy to complete. Airlines and railways operators used them to handle lost luggage (well, that reason is that it is easier to place a virtual agent to deal with an irate customer than a human being, in my opinion) as the earliest example; they worked quite well and offloaded the responsibility from those agents that could later spend their time finding the lost luggage (we’d like to think). These early success cases, coupled with faster and better algorithms, are fueling the current growth in this market: more organizations looking to implement or grow their Virtual Agents deployments are doing so based on single-channel successes. Most of the highly successful deployments have created a strategy for their Virtual Agents that goes far beyond simply supporting a specific transaction or solution to one where the Virtual Agents become one more channel in their multi-channel or cross-channel strategy. Certainly, the most interesting cases we have seen are those that embrace Virtual Agents across channels, processes, and make them part of a larger Customer Service strategy as a concierge.
3) Maintain, Maintain, Maintain. I thought this went without saying, yet – almost thirty percent of the people I interviewed said this was their biggest surprise in their implementation. They said that the maintenance of the virtual agent took longer and was more complicated than they originally thought. They understood, rather learned from experience that maintenance is what makes the difference between long-term success and long-term abandonment of the solution. What was once considered the biggest problem of Virtual Agents precursors (decision trees), is actually a lingering issue. Although not nearly as demanding as a decision tree, a virtual agent still needs to be maintained, trained, and “taught” what to do in each situation. This maintenance is what makes a virtual agent more reliable and their resolution rates higher. There is no amount of emphasis that can drive home the point that maintenance is critical so let me refer you to a case study to showcase it. I have a client who implemented a virtual agent and did not set out procedures to maintain it. In spite of their best effort at initial setup, within 6 months the virtual agent’s automated resolution rate had dropped from 42% out-of-the-box to a mere 13%. The easier solution was to start again, rather than try to fix what had been done.
The rest of this study will be published in January 2012 – but until then, you can use the above lessons to start planning your virtual agent deployment.
I’d love to hear from you – are these the keys to the success with virtual agents? Am I missing something more basic? Simpler? What is your experience? Share below in the comments; I’d love to learn more about how to use Virtual Agents effectively.
Esteban Kolsky is a customer strategist, thinker, researcher, speaker and consultant with over twenty years experience in customer experiences. Find out more about Esteban here.
Written by Jen Holzhauser
One of the most difficult things to deal with during a system transition is agent adoption. Even when your agents had been previously dealing with an out of date, difficult to use application— change is sometimes perceived as an even less-attractive option. In most cases agents had learned to maneuver the antiquated system, working through the system using work-arounds, tribal knowledge and undocumented workflows to get their jobs done. So when a new system or major workflow is introduced, an organized approach to the transition and eventual battle for the hearts and minds of the agents is an investment worth its weight in gold. Here are 5 tactics that I’ve seen over the years which greatly increase agent adoption:
Keep agents involved – document their pain points, which tasks cause them the most frustration and note those which are most time consuming. Are there information sources that they regularly use that could be leveraged in a new process? Do they store letter templates on their individual PC rather than using those that are stored within their current application? Do they have ideas on how to communicate with departments or respond to customer inquiries or complaints? Remember— they are on the front lines and although they may not have time to put these ideas into an overarching strategic plan, when a manager or supervisor collects and prioritizes these needs, they are ‘hearing’ their agents and can address those needs via the new application or process.
Start a Campaign – Every call center in the world has cube walls or bulletin boards or white space on the wall. Brand your initiative. Marketing and Sales aren’t the only teams that need to “sell”. Make it fun! I have seen contact center teams create characters around the product – build powerpoint cartoons to drive agent interest around the new time saving processes (think superheroes there to save the day and make issue resolution easy). The bottom line is that change is hard for everyone, and sometimes you have to sell it to the team for the project and implementation to be successful.
Training – Agent training is key! This needs to be delivered by internal trainers or supervisors to most effectively relate how the new system or process aligns with previous daily activity. Make sure that agents are given the appropriate time to learn the new system with hands on excercises in a test version of the application. Remove the agents from their normal environment so that they can focus on the training provided.
Go-Live – This should be an event! The main focus is having enough helping resources on hand to assist agents through system snags. The last thing anyone wants is a delay in a response to a customer because of an internal system or process issue. Have supervisors and technical support roaming the call center floor to help in a moment’s notice. Define a way for agents to get the attention of the support staff quickly – flags, bandanas, internal chat or e-mail, etc. – anything that allows them to get help without negatively impacting the consumer interaction that they are dealing with currently. Bring in lunch – who doesn’t love a potluck or a catered lunch to the department. Seriously, all this change acceptance deserves some pampering!
Post Go-Live – Once the big ‘event’ is over, the agents must be supported. Help through the new process and use contests that keep them heading in the right direction (Reason Code Bingo, Knowledge Management Scavenger Hunts, etc.) Keep agents from slipping back into old habits – reward them for using the new tools that the organization has invested in. Revisit that pain point list and make new ones – every system needs fine tuning.
Jen Holzhauser is a Customer Success Manager at Astute Solutions and has over 15 years in Contact/Call Center Operations.
Written by Sean Hensley
One of the things that people have all kinds of problems with is keeping their Favorites section from getting completely unmanageable. One of the first things that we can do is to go through them and delete the ones that you don’t use. Now , now…you know you have a bunch of favorites in there that you haven’t used in FOREVER. So go ahead and open up Organize Favorites, Right-Click and Delete some of those bad lads.
Second thing to do is to take all of those scheduled reports, action processors, and the whole realm of other stuff and move them over to a new system user. What that does is it allows you to put the important reports and utilities in a place that no one can get to and change them around which (as everyone can attest) causes issues.
All you need to do to move them to the new users is:
- Create the User (duh!)
- Create the report (skip to 3 if this is existing)
- Distribute the report and the schedule to the new user (set it to ‘Protected’ for safety purposes).
- Delete the report from your Favorites
And Lastly, create hierarchies of folders. There may be a need to have a folder in a folder.
Sean Hensley has been with Astute Solutions for five years as both an Implementation Consultant and now as the Technical Trainer. In his previous life he was a call center manager for companies like Amazon.com, giving him some rare insight in to what it is like working on the “front lines” of customer service.
Written by Guest Contributor Neal Schaffer
More and more Fortune 500 companies are making their presence felt in the social media sphere, particularly on Twitter. According to a recent study conducted by the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, 308 or 62% of the 2011 Fortune 500 companies have Twitter accounts and have tweeted in the past 30 days, representing a 2% increase since last year.
On a per-industry basis, retail, food and consumer products, financial services, utilities, computer software and office equipment, and telecoms companies constituted those with the greatest Twitter presence. Additionally, among these companies, it appears that a good number are responding to mentions of their brand or company consistently, with 103 companies (35%) consistently responding with @replies or retweets within 72 hours, and others replying more often.
While companies can benefit from Twitter, as from social media, in a variety of ways, it is clear that Twitter is becoming a popular channel for customer service. Some tend to look at using Twitter for customer service as a last resort, but there are a growing number of companies who are sharing their reasons for proactively engaging on Twitter as part of their customer service efforts.
The National Consumers League (NCL) points out several advantages of adding Twitter to a company’s Customer Service arsenal. Consumers are getting increasingly tired by customer service phone lines, as well as the music they need to endure during the wait. As an alternative to phones, Twitter is proving to be an effective and immediate means to respond to customer needs for the growing number of customers that are on Twitter.
Since Twitter is a public service, consumers’ tweets are visible to everyone with a public account on the Internet, making it a powerful megaphone for consumers. With the phenomenal growth in Internet usage in recent years, consumers have begun posting business and product reviews online as well. Through Twitter, there’s a bigger potential for thousands of users to share negative brand experiences through the viral ReTweet functionality. Naturally, this is something that companies would like to manage, if not entirely avoid. Numerous Fortune 500 companies are now assigning staff and setting-up departments to monitor dissatisfied customers in order for them to respond directly to their concerns via a designated Twitter agent. Some well-known examples of these companies are cable provider Comcast, budget airline Southwest, and Bank of America.
The NCL notes that while the quality of Twitter-based customer service varies from company to company, consumers who have tweeted about their bad experiences have, in increasing instances, received a much quicker and more competent response and follow-up on Twitter than through a traditional customer service hotline.
To give a clearer picture of how companies are utilizing Twitter for customer service, let us take a closer look at some case studies.
Frank Eliason, then Director of Digital Care at Comcast, came up with what was then a marvel idea of using Twitter to interact with customers, especially disgruntled ones, by personally tweeting back to offer them tips and suggestions on how to fix the problems they had encountered with their services. He discovered that by doing a search for the word “Comcast,” he was able to find tweeters with service complaints he could easily address. This led him to being dubbed as the most famous customer service manager in the US by Bloomberg Businessweek. ”This is just one way people have gotten to know us,” said Eliason. “It’s a little more personal. More back-and-forth discussions, and it’s less formal. And it gives immediacy to interactions.”
Southwest Airlines has been connecting with customers through social media for five years now. Christi McNeil, Southwest Airlines’ emerging media specialist, states that they make use of Twitter to give people a behind-the-scenes look at the story behind the airline, to help break news, announce promotions, to help answer concerns of customers, and to connect to them at a “deeper level.” On Twitter, they have about a million followers and get to engage in a one-to-one communication with customers. Here, tweeters get to share their personal experiences aboard their flights–and perhaps post a picture or two. Useful and helpful info, such as how to secure an aisle seat for instance, also find their way into their Twitter feeds. As such, Mashable voted them as one of the Top 40 Best Twitter Brands in 2009.
Bank of America or BA, one of the largest US banks, set-up a Twitter customer service account that is manned by six customer service representatives. It’s a highly active account, tweeting messages to target customers every few minutes, with each tweet signed by the initials of the rep who tweeted it, thereby assuring accountability. A study of BA’s Twitter presence states that customers feel taken cared of in a personal way with the speed by which a response is received, which then leads to increased loyalty. Furthermore, the report adds that the way the BA Twitter account is handled illustrates going above-and-beyond in terms of online customer service, as other queries are entertained even if they’re not directed to the account.
If the statistics released by the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth is any indication, coupled with the above-mentioned case studies, customer service through Twitter is proving to be a potent tool for reaching out to one’s customer base. If your company hasn’t begun a Twitter customer service channel, it might be the time to begin looking at implementing one.
Neal Schaffer is an author, speaker, and social media strategy consultant, and has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg Business Week, Yahoo!, and the American Express Open Forum.
Written by Susan Sever
What is the cost of doing business and how can you measure it within your own organization?
Some may say that it starts with your brand or product, while others may argue that it begins with the customer. But who is selling and supporting your brand or product to your customers? That person is who needs to be empowered and engaged. They need to be measured to be sure that the customer is getting the answers to their questions and issues addressed in a timely manner as well as have the correct information and knowledge at hand to relay, so that your consumers can become brand advocates and therefore an extension of your organization.
But how do you measure this?
Which Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) does your organization use to be sure your company representatives are engaging the consumer and keeping them happy and loyal?
What to measure may be dependent upon your organization, industry and the customer. To start, it should be a 2 prong measurement.
First, the internal: policy, procedure and process. The agent can be measured on regulatory and consumer complaints. Tracking consumer complaints are a must in some industries such as insurance. Of course regulatory and state by state regulations need to be compliant when audits are run. Other procedural and process items to look at are those such as escalation of calls, average handling time, attendance, performance and responsibility.
The second prong is the external: Customer Satisfaction. Consumer complaints fall into this category as well. Other attributes in this area are customer experience, quality, accountability and responsibility.
How do we measure them? Merging these two metrics and then weighing the results so that agents can review, evaluate and make appropriate adjustments will aid in the performance gauge. Success has also been realized when performance is measured on attributes and skill rather than a number or score. By taking away the “score” the agents will truly need to and want to review the evaluation to see what needs improvement and what is working. If there is only a number to review, they simply confirm that it is a passing grade and move on from there.
So how do you get your agents on board and excited about following and succeeding these metrics? It really is quite simple…empowerment, communication, reward, recognition and passion.
Empowered agents will increase customer satisfaction.
If they have the tools and the knowledge they need, they will be more apt to know what the customers are looking for and what they need and want. When they offer the correct information and there is no need to escalate or put the call on hold to find the answer, the customer is satisfied and the agent is ready to take on more calls like that one.
In order to stay on the same page as your agents with these expectations, regular communication is key.
Offer support by way of one-on-one coaching, pairing seasoned reps with new reps to learn from each other and other mentoring programs. Communication is effective not only when it comes from their direct supervisor, but from a team lead, another team supervisor or even a quality analyst within the organization. When your agents are doing well, reward their performance. Be sure to reward not just at the regular monthly meetings but also have a little spontaneous recognition, then they will always be on the ball, excited to see what can happen next!
When these factors are surrounding you and your agents, it will create a passion, a drive, to want to enhance the customer experience, improve the company’s bottom line and to succeed over all.
So perhaps the formula shouldn’t be TLC + KPI = ROI rather it should be:
Empowerment + Communication + Reward + Recognition = Passion
Passion = ROI
Susan Sever works as a Business Development Specialist at Astute Solutions. She is passionate about customer experience strategy, knowledge management and optimizing business processes. Find her on twitter here.