Complexity Is the Enemy of Customer service

Save money. Save time. These are the main benefits to implementing a truly streamlined technology suite. Call centers all have the same end goal, but has anyone truly created the formula to successfully align technology with business strategy? What are the ways in which call centers or customer care centers can achieve that balance?

Liz Osborn, Vice President of Product and Solution Marketing at Five9, answers all these questions and more.

I interview Liz Osborn, Vice President of Product and Solution Marketing at Five9, about the new face of multichannel interactions.
I interview Liz Osborn, Vice President of Product and Solution Marketing at Five9, about the new face of multichannel interactions.

Your technology should help you achieve three things: Create a better customer experience, increase revenue and improve cross-sell and upsell capabilities, says Liz Osborn, Vice President of Product and Solution Marketing at Five9, which is one of the leading providers in the cloud contact center space and offers inbound, outbound, blended voice services, contact center infrastructure and multichannel.

The modern customer is self-sufficient and prefers self-help customer care models. It’s ever more important, therefore, that your company’s technology works across all channels to not only aid your customers, but more efficiently support all roles in the contact center. Agents, administrators and management all benefit from the universal view achieved with a unified platform and interface.

Complexity is the enemy when it comes to customer service. Call center agents and management need to think about service from the customer’s point of view. The way to do that is by using a unified interface that maintains simplicity for both the agent and the customer. This leads to the question of what next generation multichannel interactions will look like.

The first thing call centers need to recognize is that customers don’t think about the channels they’re using to interact with your company. They don’t understand that – and are unforgiving if – information about them is lost between their interactions with you. Whether they contact you via social media, by picking up the phone, by using live chat, or by physically going to the store, customers expect the company’s technology to follow their touch points and journey.

Context – the ability to seamlessly move from one channel to another and still have memory of previous interactions – should be the main technology piece call centers should look for in the future.
Further, call centers need to utilize technology to analyze predictive behavior based on buying patterns, Liz says. We need to “be able to take that context and add a number of other external triggers of customer history, skills, a number of other SLAs, and make real-time decisions about how to treat that customer and send them to the best resource available,” she says.

But there are three main inhibitors to maximizing agent productivity; the first is in regards to the customer, the second is in regard to the agents,and the third is the operations around the contact center.

1. With the customer the challenge is servicing them in the channel that they really desire. Five9 conducted a survey of customers,
consumers and contact centers. Customers said over 50% of them would move to a competitor if the competitor offered a channel that the current company didn’t.

More and more people want to be served on social. Customers are asking to be served on social, and yet 60 percent of contact centers surveyed aren’t servicing in social.

2. When it comes to the agents, there are a number of challenges involving the rolling complexity of the different channels. Most
contact centers are still in silos, so they have different applications for chat. If they do operate on social channels, they use a different application for it than for other channels such as voice. Five9’s survey found that around 50 percent of agents use more than four applications to service a customers – and many use up to fifteen. These multiple applications are non-productive for an agent and frustrating for a customer.

3. Operationally, call centers need to take a step back and take a holistic look across channels. This can be very challenging, since
most centers have silo channels and struggle to figure out what the customer journey is and what their best SLAs are across channels.
This is further complicated by the dependence on four or five different applications.

To remedy this issue, Liz and her team developed Five9 Connect, which combines email, chat, social, visual IVR and mobile, which she says is “a secret weapon to allow contact centers to really focus their resources on the highest priority interactions. It includes natural language processing that helps contact centers understand what’s important, relevant and trending in all of the text channels, social, email, chat. It includes business roles to apply your policies, and be able to decide where that interaction should go and what priority it should take. And then finally it includes a number of agent assistant tools to allow the agent to quickly resolve what the issue is, whether it’s a customer service or a sales issue.”

The future of call centers is bright. “I love the words of Peter Drucker. He says that, ‘The whole goal of business is to create and keep customers.’ And I think in the future, as time goes on and companies are understanding that the customer and customer service is a competitive differentiator, that contact

centers have more and more of a strategic role to play … creating and keeping customer service and becoming a profit center and more strategic to the business. So I think it’s exciting times ahead.”

Beyond the Headset: Listen to Your Agents to Create Culture

The first step to managing employee expectations, goals and demands
is to understand what those demands are. The only way to do so is to
ask them. Transamerica, a financial services institution, conducts annual
employee satisfaction surveys, but they don’t just complete the survey
and then put it in a box and file it away. They look at them, evaluate
them and then slice and dice them to identify the top three areas of
opportunity. Action plans are then put into place; the results of which
are later communicated to staff.

Crystal Wyland is the Vice President of Customer Experience at Transamerica.
Crystal Wyland is the Vice President of Customer Experience at Transamerica.

In this interview, Crystal Wyland, Vice President of Customer Experience, explains why Transamerica doesn’t just ask for employee’s opinions. They act upon them.

Listening. It’s all about listening. You should listen to your customers; but you should also listen to your employees. Listening is the key interlocking piece that can help you satisfy business demands while also meeting and exceeding employee goals.

Crystal Wyland is the Vice President of Customer Experience at Transamerica, a financial services organization with more than 10,000 employees across the U.S. The firm evaluates employees annually, but they also make a point to conduct a mid-year evaluation for career pathing reasons. Crystal says the regular evaluation of employee performance helps the firm better understand what they’re looking for and perhaps determine other areas of interest within the organization.

Crystal spoke on “Updating Your Recruiting, Training & Developing Practices to Keep Up with Employee and Business Demands” Crystal Wyland, Vice President of Customer Experience, Transamerica When an employee first enters a large organization such as Transamerica, they’re only really aware of the job they’re entering into. So, they created what they called foundations training, which was an idea that was born out of employee satisfaction survey feedback. Now every new employee goes through foundations training to learn the history of the company, the leadership, and the various locations, products and offerings they provide so that an employee is more enabled to see and develop a career path and understand what’s available to them within the organization.

Another example of how evaluations enabled empowerment was with time off.

With contact centers, it’s always difficult to balance how much time to allow off or how many people to allow off in order to still meet service or contractual obligations. There was a period of time where they weren’t balancing it appropriately in the staff’s view, which was hurting morale.

“We didn’t want that, so instead of operning it up on a quarterly basis, we opened [the leave schedule] up for the full year and allowed them to schedule their time throughout the entire year,” Crystal says. “It really did a lot for improving the employees’ morale and meeting their expectations.”

Ampersands — Use sparingly

Did you know this symbol has a name?

An ampersand is the informal symbol for "and."
An ampersand is the informal symbol for “and.”
It’s called an ampersand and it’s grossly over-used in business writing. Ampersands are pronounced as written: am-per-sand.

The ampersand is an over-used abbreviation for the word “and” – it really should be limited to a few situations in formal, business writing:

1.) In company names where it’s warranted (Smith & Jones Law Firm)

2.) When artistic considerations dictate; e.g., a logo

3.) In specific academic references (Grant & Smith Publishing,2001)

4.) Addressing a couple on an invitation or envelope (Mr. & Mrs. Smith)

5.) When items in a series are related, but this is bridging on unacceptable (John has experience in Marketing, Research & Design and Business Management)

In general, it is not proper grammar to simply abbreviate the word and replace it with an ampersand. Why? Because the ampersand symbol is considered more casual. If you’re working for a business-to-business or business-to-consumer company, you should not be using it. If you want to send it in a text message to your bae, however, that’s fine by me.

In conclusion, it’s not that I hate the ampersand, it’s just not correct in formal, business writing.

Expedia Has Technology to Thank For Its Five Star Service

Expedia moves millions of people around the world. It supports a multitude of languages, geographies and brands in more than 20 countries. And yet despite its scale, the company excels at making its customers feel like they know them personally. How do they do it? With their technology.

Mikko Ollila is Senior Project Manager at Expedia.
Mikko Ollila is Senior Project Manager at Expedia.
In this interview, Mikko Ollila, Senior Project Manager at Expedia, explains how they empower agents to meaningfully relate to customers.
By Hannah Hager

In an organization that handles millions of calls annually, the task of ensuring agents are effective, efficient and operating in a meaningful way can feel cumbersome. Agents need to be empowered to relate to customers. The key challenge is to have a scaled operation that can quickly ramp up or down agents based on their peak seasons. To address this issue, Expedia relies on its technology suite.

Mikko Ollila is the Senior Project Manager at Expedia. He manages more than 30 call centers supporting 9,000 agents that field customer service and sales calls who handle roughly up to five million calls per month. Not only do his agents take a lot of calls, but they may struggle with relating to what the caller is experiencing.
Travel is highly stressful. The stakes are really high — Expedia’s customers are often celebrating important life events such as honeymoons, anniversaries, reunions or visiting dear friends. If the company drops the ball, it leaves a negative imprint on the customer that is going to stick around, Mikko says.

Reliance on the correct technology is paramount. It allows agents to see a full picture of what happened and take that context to have an idea of what a customer may be calling about. In essence, it enables them to get to the heart of the matter at a faster rate.

“We have a lot of context about you. We know your itinerary; we know what’s happening to your flight or your hotel reservations. You might be flying into some weather and you don’t yet know it yet, but we do,” he says.

In the future, conversations will continue to swirl around multichannel, Mikkos says. Expedia currently has the ability to see what the customer did on their website, on their mobile and what happened if they called or used the IBR. “That tells a complete, almost like a movie, sort of frame by frame of why you are now on the phone with us and how we can best help you,” he says.

An effective technology suite translates to a competitive advantage, Mikko says. Expedia utilizes a broad stack of technologies to store and understand data from various sources. Expedia is building things on Hadoop, which is the open source data source system, and they’re also using external third-party packages, such as Pegasystems for case management. It also does a lot of its own Java-based development.

But, not all call centers have these luxuries. They may lack time, budget, the back-end ability or support from their executive suite.

“The advice from our experience is; ‘Be nimble, be opportunistic, because you have to be, but also keep it in the back of your mind that there will be a day when you might have to pay a price for if you don’t keep yourself in check, and allow your tools to proliferate in an uncontrolled fashion,” he says.
In the future, technology should continue to allow for better one-on-one communication with the customer. Times have changed. Today’s customer expects their brands to know them from all of the different ways they’ve conversed with the company. Every customer wants to feel special and none want to be treated like the next person.

“That change in customer mindset over the past couple years and going into the future has a huge impact on how we’re allowing ourselves to interact with the customers and make those interactions truly more specialized and tailored,” even while they’re dealing with millions and millions of customers, Mikko says. “All this technology that we’ve been talking about really gives us the capability to do [that].”

“Real Help” 211 LA County’s Motto, Is a Model for Customer Experience Success

The theory behind excellent Customer Service isn’t complex: Do everything in your power to assist caller inquiries in a timely manner and do so with a smile. Simple, right? Not so fast. Support environments are complicated and mired with numerous hiccups.

Amy Latzer and her team at LA County's 211 offer "Real Help" to their in-need callers.
Amy Latzer and her team at LA County’s 211 offer “Real Help” to their in-need callers.
Amy Latzer, Chief Operating Officer at 211 LA County, says providing excellent Customer Experience starts with proper training. In this interview, she answers the question, “How do you train and develop a staff that is able to possess a skillset that goes above and beyond the caller’s expectations?”
By Hannah Hager

What is it that your customer wants? This seems to be a simple question, yet the end goal of customer happiness often gets lost in support environments that are mired by multiple transfers, dead-end calls, impersonal agent interactions and disjointed communication across channels. These poor practices damage customer loyalty and, in turn, deliver your clients straight into the hands of your competitors. So how do you temper the issue of when a call center unintentionally loses sight of the end goal: a successful interaction — from the customer’s viewpoint?

An excellent customer experience is always front of mind for Amy Latzer, Chief Operating Officer at 211 LA County. 211 LA County is a private, nonprofit organization based in San Gabriel, CA. Its 60 agents serve all 10 million residents of Los Angeles County, fielding nearly half a million calls per year.  The center, which has been in business for around 35 years, will soon celebrate its 10 year anniversary of receiving the 211 designation.

She and her team are in a unique position when it comes to implementing an effective Customer Experience strategy – 211 callers are most often in a state of mental or physical distress. Therefore, her team must respond in an especially caring and compassionate way from the get-go.

How do you train and develop a staff that is able to possess a skillset that goes above and beyond the caller’s expectations? Amy says it starts with training.

“It starts with the hiring selection.  It really, really requires a very specific skill set and personality type.  These are not easy calls.  We’re handling calls from some of the most vulnerable, at-risk population in LA County,” she says.

Unlike many call centers that field requests that can be mitigated with the click of a few buttons, 211 LA County callers sometimes cannot comprehend or express the root issue of their problem. Further, not only do they not know what they need, they don’t know what to ask for or what resources are available to them. This has potential to significantly dilute the Customer Experience process and underlines the importance of hiring quality from the beginning.

Issues with Customer Experience arise when agents are devoid of training and instead are given checkboxes on a Quality Assessment scorecard. What happens then is that an agent will plug in an empathetic or validating statement somewhere in the call that doesn’t sound natural or make sense. This is not the kind of experience 211 LA County expects from its agents.

To deliver truly exceptional customer service, you have to impress a sense of humanity within your agents, Amy suggests. She trains her agents to be curious, sensitive and possess the natural ability to be and sound empathetic in order to offer the caller validation.

“Real Help” 211 LA County’s service delivery motto, means to impress that the call line is more than just a number and the agents are going to give more than just a number for another service.

Lastly, after the call is concluded, she and her team collect the information from each call in order to analyze the reason behind the call and determine the effectiveness of the service rendered. They couple this with the gathered demographic information, which helps tell the full story of who is really calling. In the end, these steps lead to better referrals and better service.

“Understanding our caller population helps us really paint a picture of our community, so that people are going to have a healthier life and families and individuals will thrive,” Amy says.  “If we do not do a good job, if we do not create a good experience, those opportunities are going to go somewhere else.  So it’s really important that we deliver on that promise.”

Its versus It’s and Their, There, They’re

Here’s a little grammar lesson for the day:

Okkkkkkkkkkkkkk. So. Let’s talk about these little guys. Put simply:

Its – no apostrophe – shows possession

It’s – with apostrophe – is a contraction of it is or it has

 A contraction literally means to make smaller, therefore the apostrophe is replacing letters. This also applies to they’re:

They’re = they are

Their = shows possession (consider the “I” is a pronoun and only a person can own something)

There = defining a location.

Let’s (let’s is a contraction of “let us,” see what I’ve done here) delve deeper:

Its vs. It’s

Rule 1: When you mean it is or it has, use an apostrophe

It’s a beautiful day.
It’s got to get warmer outside.
It’s so nice to meet you.

Rule 2: When you are using its as a possessive, don’t use the apostrophe.

The dog is eating its bone.
The jewelry store celebrated its ninth anniversary.

Note: Apparently the possessive was also written it’s until modern times, quite possibly dropping the apostrophe in order to parallel possessive personal pronouns like hers, theirs, yours, ours, etc.”

Their, There, They’re


Use “their” to indicate possession. It is a possessive adjective and indicates that a particular noun belongs to them.

  • My friends have lost their tickets.
  • Their things were thrown around the apartment.


Use there when referring to a location or place, whether concrete (“over there by the building”) or more abstract (“it must be difficult to live there”).

Also use there with the verb BE (is, am, are, was, were) to indicate the existence of something, or to mention something for the first time.

  •     There is an antique store on Madison Avenue.
  •     There are many documents that are used in investigations.


Remember that they’re is a contraction of they and are. It can never be used as a modifier, only as a subject (who or what does the action) and verb (the action itself).

They’re always late to meetings.

They’re going to Dishes for lunch.

They’re going to the baseball game over there to celebrate their birthdays…. Whew

Lastly, the best way to remember these things is to do some swapping.

If you wrote there, will the sentence still make sense if you replace it with here? If so, you’re using it correctly.

If you chose their, will the sentence still make sense if you replace it with our? If so, you’ve chosen the correct word.

If you used they’re, will the sentence still make sense if you replace it with they are? If so, correctomundo


Happy Weekend!


The Owner’s Perspective on Modular Construction Implementation

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Martin Clutterbuck, Manager of Fabrication & Modularization at Devon Energy Canada has a unique perspective as an Oil & Gas Industry Owner. It enables him and his team to have a birds-eye view of the entire modular construction process from feasibility through to operations. In this interview, he discusses the benefits and inhibitors to this ability, and more.

In what ways do you believe your perspective as an Owner enables you to have a birds-eye view of the entire modular construction process from feasibility through to operations? What are the benefits and inhibitors of this ability?

You’re correct that we do have that bird’s eye view as owners, so we get the whole picture. We get to see from early development into what sort of projects we’re looking at and then we can develop and see what the modularization and fabrication plan is for the project. We do that early so we’re there prior to us really getting into the engineering stage and that discussion happens as a group within our organization a lot earlier than would normally happen if we came in later during an engineering phase.

Where, in your opinion, do organizations fall short with their modular and prefabrication implementation plan? Which factors are often overlooked and therefore inhibit success?

I think part of that is we have the opportunity to have some input and support the design and we can really get what we want. We can really focus on the requirements of our modularization plan. We typically know the list of fabricators we want to go to. We have the opportunity to really support the construction execution plan build. We understand what the start up and the commission criteria is and obviously, ultimately it’s operations and their need to maintain an operating facility.

One of the things where some people may fall short is the discipline to wait long enough for the design. Modularization projects tend to take more work and effort upfront and you have to have the discipline to wait until you have all the information, and the correct information, to go into fabrication and modularization. What you can’t do is continually change your mind and I know as owners sometimes we have that thing where we change our minds but we need to make sure we have that level of detail and information we need to have before getting into fabrication.

How do you determine which prefabricated modules are best suited for your construction plan?

I think ultimately you have to have a philosophy within your organization of what you want to modularize. You have to make a decision early and upfront of what that is, so you should have an idea of what your modularization goals are. For example, you may want to look at what percentage of the plant you want modularized or what can be modularized within the facility. You want to look at where the facility is located, what resources are available to you to build it and, lastly, whether you need to build it offshore or locally or wherever possible reducing your risks out in the field.

Listen. Learn. Love. Write.


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