How to Mix the Right Technology and People to Get Quality Customer Service
For Internet retailers, having friendly, knowledgeable customer service agents available to customers 24/7 can lead to a sustainable competitive advantage. The strategy has worked well for us at Overstock.com, and it can work for you too-whether you're in retail, financial services or any other service-oriented company. The following are a few lessons that Overstock.com has learned about contact center technology and its role in providing customer service excellence.
Rollout, review and repeat
Once you've rolled out your contact center solution, keep a close watch on the customer experience. You'll want to monitor customer satisfaction levels and continue to look for ways to improve. Today's solution may not be able to solve tomorrow's problem.
Since its inception, Overstock.com has employed a range of call center infrastructures and configurations. They've gone from completely outsourced to completely in-sourced to some of each. Early on, we used a premise-based phone and routing solution. The experience was positive. However, maintaining premise-based call center technology in a production environment was costly, and finding qualified engineers to support it was difficult.
We subsequently deployed other premise-based call center solutions, but these, too, had associated issues. Maintaining the complex call center infrastructure was consuming extensive IT department resources, and causing our staff to continually operate in a reactive mode rather than a customer-centric, proactive mode. We didn't have the expertise to continue supporting the technology ourselves, and it would have been difficult and costly to build up the needed staff.
Consider core competencies
After stints with various contact center configurations, we clearly understood how our core competencies related to various aspects of the contact center. Sooner or later, you will too. For instance, do you have-or want to find, develop and then pay for-the in-house IT expertise to run a premise-based system? Do you trust the passion of outsourced agents?
For Overstock.com, we wanted to hand off the technology and its management tasks to a partner with renowned call center and customer service experience. But we also wanted to maintain direct control of agents to ensure the best possible customer care. For us, an on-demand, hosted contact center solution made the most sense.
Partner to meet primary needs
Know your primary needs when picking a contact center partner. At Overstock.com, we needed a partner that could provide a virtual call center, built on a solid foundation using best-of-breed technology-but in a hosted model. A hosted model, often referred to as an ASP (application service provider) or an MSP (managed services provider), provides the complete solution on a pay-by-the-drink model, based on the total number of agents.
Considerations for partner selection should include your partner's reputation for providing world-class, 24/7 customer support, and their guaranteed SLAs (service-level agreements) for high system reliability. In addition, don't forget to check references. Your partner should have enterprise customers that will confirm its reputation.
Another key consideration for Overstock.com is our seasonality. Like most retailers, our sales peak during the last quarter of the year. During that holiday season, we would annually supplement our 175 regular agents with another 200 agents (provided either in-house, at home or through an outsourcer). Ideally, our partner would also be working with outsourcers, thereby providing us with choices often referred to as "multisourcing" of agents. This is an alternative where all our call centers and all our in-house and outsourced agents use the same technology platform.
Based on these requirements, and after a very careful vendor selection process, we chose to partner with Echopass, using its end-to-end services that incorporate best-of-breed components that include Genesys technology.
Focus on the customer
The shift from a technology focus (that is, managing infrastructure) to a business focus (that is, on customers) can free up the resources needed to noticeably improve your customers' experience. At Overstock.com, we have a measurably better agent pool today because we focus on people and training instead of technology.
For example, in the past, we struggled to meet our SLA goal to answer 80 percent of calls within 90 to 120 seconds. With our new hosted call center technology from Echopass, 93 percent of callers now reach an agent in less than 60 seconds.
Other before-and-after Echopass numbers reveal similar improvements. An NPS (Net Promoter Score) is a satisfaction rating for customers who had to contact customer service. Our old NPS averaged around 15 percent. Now with Echopass, our NPS for just those customers who had to call with a problem is more than 30 percent. By comparison, the overall NPS for Overstock.com is more than 70 percent-way above the industry average of 40 percent.
Look for leverage
Look for ways to improve customer service and loyalty by leveraging your contact center solution. For instance, with our new hosted contact center platform, our agents are not only receiving more training, they're more effective with our hosted contact center's monitoring and call recording capabilities. Previously, we were using digital recorders. We could teach agents what to do, but we couldn't show them how they were performing. Call recording gives us that tool. Going forward, we plan to turn on screen-capture services and tighten the integration with our CRM application.
The big payoff
The right call center technology can make a big difference in your customers' experience. You will increase customer satisfaction by reducing customer wait times. You will also improve your agent productivity, while actually lowering overall costs in the call center. At Overstock.com, our sales are increasing, yet we have had to add few additional agents to handle the increased growth in our business. This is because our current agents are more efficient. And, most important, with our focus on customer passion instead of technology management, our customers are much happier.
Carter Lee, vice president of Information Systems and Technology, is responsible for IT infrastructure at Overstock.com. Carter has also served as the director of Internal Systems at the company. Since joining Overstock.com in 2001, Carter has supported the technology that services corporate headquarters, customer care and the fulfillment centers.
Prior to joining Overstock.com, Carter was a systems engineer for Hospice of the Valley, and vice president of a computer hardware supplier in Phoenix, Ariz. He can be reached at email@example.com.