Category: Interactive Services

Category: Interactive Services
West Corporation

Posted on October 2, 2013 by West Corporation 

Open-Source: A Matter of Price or Innovation?

Free beer anyone?

You may be familiar with the term “open-source software.” Typically, first thing that comes to mind when we hear open-source is “free.” The philosophy that defines the open-source software community broke off from the free software community in the late ’90s. The differences are small, and nearly all free software is open source, and nearly all open-source software is free.

According to the free software community, when software is referred to as “free,” it means the users’ have the freedom to run it, to study and change it, and to redistribute copies with or without changes. This is a matter of freedom, not price, so think of “free speech,” not “free beer.” The open-source software community on the other hand emphasizes more on the development methodology.

But is open-source software just about price? I certainly don’t believe so. It is about innovation — innovation that is powered by vast community rather than a single company. It is the type of innovation that makes it feasible to reach and impact people across the whole world. We all have the power to contribute. It is indeed by the people, for the people. Open-source is disruptive innovation. Open-source developers did not create iPhone, but they certainly are the ones that put iPhone-like capabilities in the hands of billions of people through Android.

In his opening speech at Open Source Business Conference (OSBC) in April in San Francisco, which I had the opportunity to attend, Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst laid out compelling arguments that enterprises today don’t models. He argued that commoditization of technology changes the way innovation occurs, moving from vendor-led to user-led.

Every technology company and technology buyer should be thinking where they should be using open-source. Following are some benefits of using open source:

  • Great Value — Provides enterprises cost savings and desired ROI with low cost of entry, especially for pilot projects and initial rollouts.
  • Quality — Open-source software is adopted because it is reliable, resilient and adaptable. Its performance exceeds most of the commercial software.
  • Secured — The open-source community can fix security vulnerabilities much more quickly than commercial software vendors can.
  • Collective Intelligence — Open-source community resources are available to answer questions, explore ideas and resolve issues.
  • Source code — Complete access to source code is made available, allowing you to be in control of your destiny. Enhance it, contribute to it.

Be innovative. Be open. Using open-source technology one can build something that is not available anywhere else, and then a price tag can be put on it.

West Corporation

Posted on September 25, 2013 by West Corporation 

Five Simple IVR Best Practices That Work

Providing good customer service these days is a challenging task, as we all know. And it’s getting tougher every day, with the proliferation of smartphones, tablets, social media and the like. While many companies now offer customer support options in social media, and via mobile applications, agent chat and email, the fact is that a large number of customer inquiries still come via IVR (touch-tone or speech). Certainly many mobile users call IVR systems. At West, we find that more than 50 percent of all of our clients’ IVR calls come from customers using their mobile phones.

There are some poor IVR systems out there, as you know. Yet there are many good ones, too; they just don’t get talked about that much. What makes a good IVR system? Of course, there’s a lot more to the answer than a few bullet points, yet I wanted to pass on to you some high-level thoughts on what makes (or can help to make) a good IVR.

1. Make your IVR system simple and easy to use. More than ever before, today’s customers are time-pressed and impatient. They don’t want complicated, confusing menus that waste their time. One timeless best practice for touch-tone IVR systems is to use short, clearly worded menus that have three or fewer options at each branch. Have you called your own IVR system lately to see how simple (or not) it is to use?

2. Don’t Set up your IVR and walk away from it. An IVR system (particularly speech-enabled IVR systems) is like an automobile: It needs care and attention, including a tune-up periodically, to continue running smoothly and be an effective and efficient tool for your customers to use. When was the last time you tuned your IVR system? Our experts recommend reviewing a mature IVR at least monthly and a new IVR daily or weekly, depending on call volumes.

3. If customers ask to speak with an agent, connect them. Many companies make the mistake of trying to make it overly difficult for customers to reach contact center agents. They assume (falsely) that if they put up enough roadblocks in the IVR menu that customers will ultimately either give up and stay in self-service or simply hang up and never call back. Our experience tells us that many callers are content to use IVR systems that work well; what they really dislike is being blocked from speaking with an agent. It insults their intelligence and wastes their time. How easy is it for your customers to get to an agent if they have to?

4. Avoid insulting the intelligence of your customers. For example, avoid telling callers the website address of your company in the IVR. Chances are, they are calling you because they have tried a transaction on your website or have checked for their answer in social media but haven’t succeeded. Additionally, when you ask for their phone number, don’t tell callers how to say (or input) their phone number to your system; our usability testing at West shows that callers are familiar with how to offer this information without excessive guidance.

5. Show your customers that you value their time. Avoid superfluous marketing messages in your IVR when customers are trying to get help. There is a time and place for marketing, but it’s not when your customer’s Internet is down or their package hasn’t arrived. Our experts find that out-of-place marketing messages are one of the top irritants of IVR users. Additionally, it’s always a good practice to let your customers “barge-in” in prompts, so they can pre-empt menu verbiage and get their business done quickly.

What do you, as readers, think about this topic? I’m interested in your thoughts on this handful of sample IVR best practices and in hearing your views on what makes a good IVR.

West Corporation

Posted on September 10, 2013 by West Corporation 

Tune Up Your IVR

Just like your car, your IVR solution needs a checkup to ensure that it is performing optimally. Here are some best practices to use to ensure your IVR is tuned up and providing your customers with the best automated experience possible.

  1.  Baseline your containment rate. What is the amount or percentage of your customers who are able to completely service their needs in the IVR system? This is an essential metric that you should be measuring.
  2. Track your transfers within the application. Is there an area that sees a higher amount of transfers?
  3. Conduct focus groups with your customer service representatives (CSRs). Key in on areas that have seen a high transfer rate in the application. Ask the CSRs to help you understand why callers are transferring at that point in the call. What do they need assistance with? Also, ask if there are any repetitive tasks that the CSRs are handling that might easily be automated in the IVR.
  4. Call and listen to your IVR as a customer. How does it sound? Do you like the voice talent? Does it sound smooth and not choppy? Ensure that you are using only one voice talent for the length of the call.
  5. Use business intelligence in your IVR design. If callers routinely call in once a month to make a payment, then build in intelligence that will enable the IVR to ask customers if they are calling to make their monthly payments.
  6. Consider using speech technology to make the call more natural. If the call flow is natural, then it will be easier for your customers to self-serve their needs.
  7. Build an ROI to justify the cost for the changes. If your changes increase automation, then your cost justification should be easy, as you are reducing calls and time handled by your CSRs.
  8. After your changes are installed, measure the results. Did you increase containment rate? Were you able to service more of the call in the IVR?
  9. Set a plan to tune up your IVR annually. Technology changes every day; by tuning up your IVR annually you will give your customers an efficient and effective customer experience.
West Corporation

Posted on August 27, 2013 by West Corporation 

RFM: It’s Not Just for Direct Marketing Any More

One of my all-time favorite books in direct marketing was The New Direct Marketing by David Shepard and Associates (1999). It’s an oldie but a goody. This book is probably the closest thing to getting an MBA in direct marketing, and I had the pleasure of working with David on an engagement years ago.

For those not in the field, RFM is an acronym for “Recency–Frequency–Monetary Value.” Direct marketers would examine their customer base and segment them on these attributes. For instance, if you break each of these components (RFM) into five buckets (e.g., recency = 0 to 3 months, 4 to 6 months, 6 to 12 months, 12 to 18 months and 18+ months), ultimately you would have 125 different cell combinations available (5 x 5 x 5).

Next, they would arrange their accounts depending on the three scores from 1-1-1, worst, to 5-5-5, best. The 5-5-5 group had the most recent purchases, they were frequentpurchasers and they spent a lot of money in these purchases. Each group would get marketing strategies and treatments accordingly. Nine times out of 10, the best group (5-5-5) would out-distance the other groups.

This clearly isn’t rocket science, no Ph.D.s are required (although it doesn’t hurt to have one), but what you might find incredulous is how many times I’ve run into clients who have no form of account segmentation or contact strategy plans. They are more than happy to spend their resources on the best accounts as they are on their lowest performing accounts. This carpet bombing approach is not only costly and time-intensive, but it probably chafes their customer.

At West, when the Center of Analytics Excellence is engaged in any communications or sales campaigning, one of the first things we ask our clients is whether or not they had a contact strategy or a customer segmentation plan in place. Quite often, the answer is no, or it’s inconsistent. When these situations arise, we typically engage in some form of pseudo-RFM segmentation and work accounts smarter, not harder.

The methodology and application of dialing more intelligently really do speak for themselves. In a controlled pre-/post-test environment we had one client experience:

  • 20 percent reduction in the need for sales associates
  • 33 percent reduction in accounts worked, but
  • 15 percent increase in actual customer contacts
  • 83 percent increase in sales dollars

While not every client sees these dramatic results, working a differentiated inventory always is a more efficient and practical way to approach your customers.

West Corporation

Posted on August 20, 2013 by West Corporation 

Five Ways to Motivate Employees That Don’t Involve Money

The ability to motivate employees is a valuable tool in a good leader’s tool belt. Money isn’t always the key to keeping morale high in the workplace. Here are five ways to build (and retain) a passionate and hard-working team:

  1. Praise and acknowledge. Everyone wants to be appreciated and it’s one of the easiest things to give. Praise every employee who goes out of the way to make a difference. Not only will they be happy that you noticed, but they’ll also be much more likely to repeat that same behavior. Think about it: You are more motivated (and inclined) to help and serve people who routinely recognize the good, hard work you put in versus those who don’t. A little gratitude can go a long way.
  2. Make everyone a leader. Highlight your top performers’ strengths and let them know that because of their excellence, you want them to be the example for others. You’ll set the bar high and they’ll be motivated to live up to their reputation as leaders.
  3. Trust and be flexible. Tell your employees that you trust them to do their jobs and to do them well. Be flexible with their schedules. If they have a dentist appointment in the morning, let them do it without taking PTO. If they have a sick child and need to work from home for a day, allow it. As long as they’re producing high-quality workmanship and meeting deadlines, show them a bit of freedom. Chances are good you’re going to need them to be flexible with you (e.g., occasionally working off hours or weekends). If, in the end, they abuse that trust, you can always take away those privileges. Most will be motivated to maintain that freedom.
  4. Give recognition and small rewards. Give a shout out to someone in a staff meeting for what they have accomplished. Send a small certificate of appreciation to a colleague (copying their boss) for a job well done. Tangible awards that are relatively inexpensive can work, too. Try buying an employee lunch, establishing a traveling trophy within the team/organization or awarding PTO hours.
  5. Make it fun/make it family. It’s no secret that many workers spend more time with their colleagues during the week than with their families. Knowing that, you should do whatever you can to make the work environment a place where employees enjoy spending time. Schedule regular outings (e.g., once every month or two, have your team leave at 3 p.m. on a Friday to participate in a self-funded off-site activity — bowling, picnics, golf, etc.). Conduct team-building activities in the office (e.g., carve out 15 minutes at every staff meeting to do something “fun,” like asking trivia questions, doing lateral-thinking exercises, etc.). Have food days. Breed a culture in which you get to know your employees and they get to know each other so work feels like “a family” even when they are away from home.
West Corporation

Posted on August 19, 2013 by West Corporation 

Exercise Communication Strategies When Bad Things Happen

Recently while returning from vacation, I spent way too much time waiting in a long line filled with grumbling airline customers — myself included. As my wait grew past 90 minutes, I distracted myself by playing the mental game of how the airline could improve the situation. Since this was a delay caused by weather, it really wasn’t the fault of the airline. However, in my opinion, they could have scored points with dissatisfied and angry customers with better communication. Communication is often the most important factor when bad things happen to relatively good companies. When communication is handled well, it can be the differentiator in how a customer remembers the event.

In my opinion, a well-executed incident communication plan has five fundamental elements:

1.       Acknowledge and reassure.
Don’t shy away from communication because you don’t have all the details at first.  Let the customer know as quickly as possible what you do know and what you are doing about it. Reassure them that the right people are engaged and resolution is their top priority

2.       Establish expectations.
Some customers only want updates when a situation is resolved; others prefer updates at a stated frequency. Find out which approach works best for your customers, as that helps them feel in control. Don’t forget to set expectations for your internal groups working toward resolution of the issue. They need to know what update frequency they need to deliver to you.

3.       Keep your word.
Whether you have something new to report or not, meet your commitment to deliver updates. Nothing can turn a situation from bad to worse faster than avoiding conversation simply because you have nothing new to report.

4.       Deliver updates that are simple, easy to understand and honest.
Don’t sugarcoat the situation or bury a customer in lengthy, overly complicated details. If you are still diagnosing the problem, don’t fake it. If you are contemplating various alternatives, share enough of the details if possible so the customer knows that multiple options are being explored to resolve the issue.

5.       Make it right when it’s over.
That may be as simple as an apology and a statement regarding what you are putting in place to avoid the situation in the future. Closing the loop on the situation gives you one last opportunity to differentiate yourself during a challenge.

A customer once said to me in a difficult situation, “I’m not a mushroom. I don’t like being kept in the dark.” That quote has always stuck with me and validates the value of the five-step approach.

So, how did the airline delay turn out? I missed my connecting leg and was offered a flight two days later. So, I took the situation into my own hands and rented a car then drove 10 hours to my final destination. It was not a good travel experience but it was a good reminder to me as a service provider.

West Corporation

Posted on August 14, 2013 by West Corporation 

Leveraging Big Data for West Interactive Clients

Over the past year, West Interactive has been making strategic investments in technologies specifically focused on state-of-the-art business intelligence platforms that will help us to further analyze and use increasingly complex data in support of our clients.

As we grow with our clients and support them on their customer contact transformation journey, the level of sophistication and need for data analytics has increased dramatically. The data necessary to drive customer interaction improvements and create new solutions has driven new requirements across all channels. We are proud to say that our investments will be leveraged to support the level of storage needed, the structure of the data, and our ability to assess and analyze big data in real time.

Our investment in a business intelligence and reporting platform that specializes in enterprise deployments with complex data requirements and a powerful, dynamic business intelligence engine will allow us to further leverage our behavioral, transaction and billing data to increase the value of our solutions to our clients. Our new portal will also extend capabilities to our clients to facilitate management of day-to-day and strategic objectives.

We are excited to roll out this functionality to clients throughout the rest of 2013 and into 2014 in a phased approach that includes customer training and documented resource materials. We believe that this process will yield exciting new ideas and solutions to improve customer satisfaction, help drive new opportunities for revenue and efficiently manage customer interaction costs.

West Corporation

Posted on August 13, 2013 by West Corporation 

Create Efficiently Repeatable Reporting or Redo, Recreate and Redesign?

When working with my financial analysis team, I only have two requirements for new reports: They must be efficient to generate and they must be repeatable. So, I termed this new approach ERRor — efficiently repeatable reporting. The alternative is to continually redo, recreate and redesign.

But before you can create your ERRor, you must understand the roadmap to your final reporting destination. The ability to influence reporting results boils down to presentation and promptness.

Presentation is the key to all reporting. You must understand the end-user’s expectation and application for the report. You must challenge yourself to understand how much information and data to provide to each recipient. Higher management demands more summary reports that provide the high-level impacts. Middle and lower management will need to know the finer details that are driving these high-level impacts so they can know what adjustments to complete if needed.

Promptness in recreating your reports now becomes the focal point. The best report presentation is useless if you cannot recreate it in an efficient time frame. Today’s world moves so fast that yesterday’s report can become trash with one client’s change in data elements. Now is when your report development time will pay dividends as you can recreate with a few minor changes.

Now that you know your requirements for presenting the information, how do you craft the perfect report?  The following are the three main areas to build into your reporting structure:

  1. Data input — Where outside reports can be dropped in to begin the calculations
  2. Calculation area — Where all of the real magic happens to consolidate the inputs
  3. Presentation area — The summary reports you drive for your end-users from your calculations

Don’t wait until the report format is perfect to start presenting. The data that you think is most important may not be, but it is better to keep the process moving forward than to get stalled. Edits are a key component in supplying the best reporting for your end-user. These edits may be to reposition the data in the presentation mode, add new filter and search features, or perform some additional calculations.

Break the silos within your business structure. Many companies have separate business units that focus on product- or service-specific offerings. It is your job to work with your peers to find the best presentation methods. Many of these reports are climbing the ladder to higher management that must now orientate to each business. Your work to create synergies within the business units will save management the time of knowing each report has a specific function and analysis.

In the end, craft the report for less but more impactful information. You can always go back to the more detailed data when questions arise.  And remember, it is best to create an ERRor process.

West Corporation

Posted on August 12, 2013 by West Corporation 

Designing IVR Applications From the Inside Out

I have been designing automated phone systems, otherwise known as interactive voice response (IVR) systems, for many years. Anyone can take stab at writing an IVR script — just like anyone can draw a pretty picture — and everybody is a critic. Designing IVR scripts requires a thick skin.

So, who do I think is the most important person in IVR design? The caller is. And to listen, you need to talk to customers. It may seem obvious, but it’s not as common as it should be.

We’ve all used a really bad IVR or web site. What makes them offensive is their lack of intuitive interaction. Simply put, you just don’t know what to do. That’s what can happen when you design for flashy technology and not for your customers. This is what I like to call “inside-out design.” It is like hiding the seaweed that binds a sushi roll with the rice on the outside.

So, you have some new shiny database and big switch that can react to three pieces of customer information. Therefore, three options on an IVR menu, right? Ideal. Expectations are high for good performance. But the callers have other ideas and ask for a live person.

At West, we like to talk to customers in several ways:

  • Moderate Focus Groups
    Focus groups are a marketing technique used to introduce new products or ideas, and to measure emotional reactions to brands and demonstrations. Avoid overreacting to comments. Just because customers dislike speech recognition, doesn’t mean you must avoid it. Make it better. Use your design skills to offer solutions.
  • Talk With Call Center Agents
    Use agent roundtables. Agents have an ear to thousands of callers. They know how callers talk and what they ask for. Talk to agents to hear their experiences. Then, use your design skills to offer solutions.
  • Conduct Usability Testing
    We have customers test drive our IVR design. They tell us what they like and don’t like. But don’t overreact if what you see during the tests is negative. Again, use your design skills to offer solutions.

In reality, the caller already knows why they are calling you. It’s you who doesn’t know. You need to get OUT in front and talk to customers to get the INSIDE scoop … the actual reasons they call. Then use your design skills to offer solutions.

West Corporation

Posted on August 7, 2013 by West Corporation 

The Speech Bandits: Who Is to Blame When an IVR System Can’t Help Your Customers?

There are three diabolical criminals on the loose, and they’re coming to steal your company’s money. But make no mistake, this is no smash and grab — they are thieves in the night, prowling cats for the chance foul up the IVR caller experience and send the call to a costly call center agent. They’re so conniving that they even have a scapegoat: speech recognition.

It happens when a speech-enabled IVR shows a rise in callers failing at prompts, resulting in transfers to an agent. “Speech is broken!” they’ll yell. The speech bandits slink off into the shadows while speech recognition gets framed.

So who are these masterminds? Just like with any great twist, they’ve been under your nose the whole time. The three usual suspects that can mask IVR trouble as a speech problem are the following:

1.       Middleware
There are uncountable parts to the deployment of an IVR: data tables, API queries and hits, client-side systems, Web services, data centers — all important to the operation of the application. And as with any system, more complexities mean more possibilities for something to go wrong.


2.       Internal Marketing Miscommunication
In response to a recent promotion, callers might be saying, “Survey coupon,” but was that added to the list of possible utterances recognized? If not, then it counts as an error. Two or three of those, and just like that, they’re off to an agent.

3.       User Interface Design
Is there a business rule getting in the way of a streamlined, confusion-free experience? Maybe the questions are asked in a confusing order. Do the response prompts fail to constrain possible caller responses by not giving clear instructions (e.g., please say yes or no)? Is cognitive overload being caused by too many options in one menu? All of these can cause problems with the turn-taking nature of the speech user experience, and it’ll be in the user interface design where they’ll be fixed.

So, When Is Speech to Blame?                                                                                            
Yes, you can blame speech recognition, but only when specific exceptions occur. These include:

  • Synonyms for accepted responses are missing. For example, “billing” is an accepted response but “pay my bill” is not.
  • The standard by which the speech recognizer judges utterances to be understood well enough (the “confidence threshold”) is set too high. That means the IVR is ruling out otherwise acceptable utterances.
  • One of the expected responses has a weighting that is set too high. So, when the IVR compares your utterance to the list of accepted options, one of them is weighted to be chosen more frequently than the others, which can invoke an entirely different option than what the caller requested and send the caller down the wrong path.

In the world of maintaining speech applications, these are quick fixes that are usually a mere oversight.

It’s easy to see why speech recognition gets framed as the culprit so often. It’s a complex human faculty that serves as the only way the caller “touches” the IVR. As such, it’s in plain sight and is an easy target to make into a patsy. So, while speech may sometimes be the issue, due diligence to fix a problem demands that we chase down every possibility, from middleware and system interactions to marketing and user interface design, before we bang the gavel and proclaim the guilty party to be speech recognition.