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Contact centers to the rescue

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How an organization prepares for and handles an emergency can have profound consequences for customers and also impact how they view a company or government entity in the future.

Today, contact centers are increasingly playing critical roles in helping organizations handle crisis situations. It could be a wildfire on the West Coast, a tornado in the Midwest, a hurricane in the South, or a blizzard in the North, a man-made disaster, or just a run-of-the-mill power outage. But, throughout the year, the never-ending series of situations that require immediate information and action is routinely putting contact centers on the front lines of customer service.

Recently, Kelly Koelliker, director of solutions marketing at customer engagement vendor Verint Systems, explained how knowledge management software is elevating contact center workers to heroic status by helping them to disseminate vital, up-to-date information when it is needed most.

Verint acquired KANA Software, a provider of customer service solutions delivered both on-premise and in the cloud 5 years ago, rolling it in to Verint’s larger workforce engagement suite of products, helping the company to improve CX and expand the application of knowledge management.

In December 2018, Verint also signed a definitive agreement to acquire ForeSee, a cloud voice of the customer (VoC) vendor, serving 50% of the Fortune 500 and 90% of U.S. government executive branch departments. The acquisition adds ForeSee’s causal modeling, predictive analytics, and benchmarking to Verint’s existing omnichannel VoC portfolio, helping marketing and operational executives to achieve a unified VoC view across digital, voice, surveys, email, chat, and social media.

According to Koelliker, today more than ever, the call center is becoming the lifeline that customers and constituents depend on in an emergency and they expect it to be the source of up-to-the-minute information.  In a non-crisis situation, more people are availing themselves of self-service updates via websites or recorded help center messages, but when it comes to a really serious situation, said Koelliker, they want to speak with a human.

What customers really want

Kelly Koelliker, Verint“We are hearing about the death of the phone but that is not true in times of crisis,” she said. Furthermore, when they do connect with a contact center employee, they expect that person be empathetic and reassuring. And, going beyond the ability to provide up-to-the-minute information, people increasingly have an expectation that they will even be provided with information proactively—such as when they can expect help to arrive or service to be restored—by phone, email, or text before they have to initiate contact. 

According to Koelliker, the proactive nature of customer interaction in times of crisis is a new expectation. Under normal circumstances, customer expectations have increased tremendously. They want answers delivered immediately, and this has carried over into unusual or emergency circumstances to a heightened degree, even though those situations are often significantly more challenging for contact center teams.

To be prepared for these more difficult situations in which information is changing quickly and new alerts and instructions must be conveyed, Koelliker advises that companies be prepared.

Ensuring that a KM system will be effective in supporting contact center personnel includes these three steps, she said:

1-Have a mechanism in place for disseminating real-time information. In routine situations, there are typically mechanisms for knowledge management approval, but in times of danger, there should be way to bypass standard approvals and reviews so information can get into the hands of agents immediately. There should also be a way to broadcast information and alert agents that there is new information for them.

2-Have the ability to flexibly adjust routing rules.  Typically, a contact center has a certain mix of calls, such as 20% regarding billing, 30% something else, and the balance is a mix of topics, said Koelliker. There should be flexibility to adjust the organization’s call routing rules in times of crisis to prioritize the emergency callers.

3-Put a back-up plan for additional resources. Some call centers have made arrangements with other call centers a distance away so that in the event a physical contact center is affected by a disaster or outage, information can be made available to a backup contact center in another part of the country that makes some of their resources temporarily available.  For a smaller company or even local governments in which a call center or centers are centralized geographically, this is important, said Koelliker.

“In those situations, you would be dead in the water without knowledge management because those [remote call center] people don’t work for you. The only way they are going to be able to do their job is knowledge management.  The back-up call center agents have to rely on there being a source of information they can access immediately and in a natural way,” said Koelliker. “Knowledge management is key if you have something like that set up with people that have no familiarity with what you do or the situation you are in. If they are asked even the most basic question, they will have no idea how to answer because they have not been trained.”

Covering the basics

And then, of course, said Koelliker, organizations must have their normal disaster recovery procedures in place as well. “You need to have—if not a hot standby—a warm standby, of your up-to-date information because, again, if you lose your contact center application, your knowledge base, and you don’t have another one you can turn on quickly that has up-to-date information, you are not going to be able to provide service as well. Just from a standard IT procedures perspective, your must-have application requires the correct disaster recovery procedures to be in place.”

Cloud is key for redundancy, and the ability to change or add information for users who might not normally access it is also important.

For organizations using the cloud, ideally, their infrastructure has accounted for recovery, said Koelliker, but many still have a lot running on-premise or in their own private cloud that is not architected the right way. Whether they are running on-premise or in the cloud, organizations need to ensure that they have the appropriate disaster recovery procedures in place.

What is new on the horizon for call centers

  • Real-time alerts that can pop up on the agents’ desktop and return a notification to supervisors that the agent has indeed opened and read it. This is not really new, said Koelliker, but it is surprising how many contact centers still don’t have it.
  • Communities that enable information sharing. The use of internal communities that allow people to post information in real time and collaborate with one another to share what they are hearing and what the latest information is, is a newer approach that can be integrated into a knowledge management system.
  • Connecting the knowledge management system into the IVR (integrated voice response) system.  In a real crisis, contact centers are often short on people, stated Koelliker. Having the ability for the most common questions to be answered automatically by the phone/IVR system, and then escalated if the caller needs more information, is a newer way of dealing with call volume and potentially expediting answers. For example, said Koelliker, the IVR could say, if you are calling about the power outage, punch in your ZIP code and we will tell you the most up-to-date information about when your service will be restored.

Even though knowledge management has been around for about 30 years, it is one of the hottest technology areas now, said Koelliker.  “We are in this age of information, and a time when people need for things to be instantaneous. Knowledge management is almost becoming a buzzword right now, where a lot of people are talking about it, but perhaps don’t understand the use cases and tangible benefits. Most organizations will have to deal with a chaotic or crisis situation at some point. Obviously, we see this a lot with our public service types of customers where citizens are in need—but it is pertinent across all industries.”

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