West Corporation

Posted on April 24, 2013 by West Corporation 

Becoming More Agile

The software industry includes many different methods for developing and publishing code/software, including waterfall, prototyping, spiral and so on. Software development is like Baskin-Robbins ice cream — there are 31 flavors.

OK, maybe not exactly 31, but there is a wide diversity of software development methodologies. Rather than go into each one and touch on the pros and cons, I just want to briefly talk about agile development at a high level. It may be necessary to choose your software development life cycle (SDLC) flavor based on the size of the project and the complexity of the requirements. If you decide to practice some form of agile development, which is a strong possibility, then there are some things you should be aware of.

The agile software methodology is an incremental and iterative approach to developing projects and, much like software development life cycles, in general, it has a variety of diversity and practice. It focuses more individuals and interactions where those elements are more important than processes and tools. In some cases, in an agile approach, developers are required to have extensive knowledge and past experience developing systems as well as be co-located with the actual end-user as much as possible.

The customer or end-user needs to be just as knowledgeable as the development team, providing constant feedback, due to the ever-evolving requirements. Requirements in an agile approach are not initially well-defined, and for the most part, are incomplete at the outset of the project. Requirements rapidly change through end-user feedback loops and evolve over time as the project progresses.

There are many advantages to agile programming, the biggest of which is minimizing project risk due to developing an evolving product with minimal initial expectations. Constant end-user/stakeholder feedback grows the product into what is actually requested and at any point in the project, an actual functioning prototype exists.

Traditional waterfall methods do not provide that advantage; rather, the end-user’s involvement is mainly prevalent in the requirements phase and product-acceptance phase. Basically, the end-user provides a set of requirements, and the rest is up to the interpretation and understanding of the project team.

It is silly to assume or even believe that requirements are never going to change during a project. It’s the way of life for any project in any industry. If the outcome isn’t what the end-user requested, then one can end up in a costly situation. Agile methodology mitigates that risk by slicing the project life cycle into smaller more manageable milestones, with the end-user reviewing the product at the end of each milestone and providing feedback. Rework at this point is not as costly, since the product has yet to evolve. Lower-risk release cycles promote better design and communication.

Another benefit is that the end-user actually has a working product in their hands during the initial stages of the project as opposed to the traditional delivery near the end of the project. This gives not only the end-user but also the project team a sense of good progress.

One of the best practices for agile software development is to focus on the task and not the individual status. Focusing on smaller tasks, instead of the overall status of the project means more focused, smaller and more frequent releases, which ultimately equates to a feeling of accomplishment and progress. Smaller tasks are easier to track, and progress is measurable. Win-win all the way around.

In summary, the agile methodology is powerful. It offers a different style in managing and executing projects. Better communication, more sound expectations, greater flexibility and improved task-monitoring are only some of the benefits to being agile. There are plenty more SDLC methodologies out there. But, they aren’t all sunshine and rainbows, either. There are also consequences to adopting the agile methodology that fuel many great debates about which methodology is best.

As I stated earlier, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and, often, the choice is driven by the need. Up to this point, West has been consistent in our approach and application of the waterfall methodology. But over the years, I have been involved in many projects that have progressed iteratively that have ended successfully. As we place more emphasis on better speed to market, there may be good reason to tweak our methodology. We don’t have to go all-in on agile, but we can always become more agile, in general.

West Corporation

Posted on April 22, 2013 by West Corporation 

The Brave New World of Customer Care

Traditionally, the mobile channel has been the domain of marketing departments that leverage the channel to promote brand, sell and add e-commerce opportunities. Or technical departments looking to mobilize existing websites or internal work processes. Until recently, the idea of leveraging mobile for something as mundane as customer care was not even in the realm of thinking. Mobile is sexy and flashy. Why spend the time to mobilize customer care? There are four main reasons we are seeing with our clients today:

Consumer-Driven Care
Consumers are in the driver’s seat when it comes to communicating with our clients. More and more, they choose how to communicate and what device they want to use. Mobile is a channel that consumers want to use, and they are using it in their daily lives. Clients that we support know they must play in mobile to ensure that they are relevant to the consumers of their products and services.

Avoiding the Application Wasteland
Take a look at your mobile device. How many apps have you downloaded and how many do you really use? If you are like most of us, there are a handful of apps that you use other than games and sports apps. We use applications that bring value to our daily lives. Increasingly, we are seeing that customer care in the mobile channel is something that consumers will actually use. Customer care functions add value as stand-alone applications or tied to other existing applications, thus creating an enriched application that will actually be used. Mobile customer care also has a tangible return on investment that can be measured against other customer care strategies. This helps companies make the investment in their mobile care channel.

Customer Experience is King
Our clients are breaking down the silos that have traditionally divided internal teams who support their customers and are looking at the experience holistically. Organizations understand that they work hard to attain their customers and that one poor customer experience can ruin the relationship.

Mobile is helping bring companies together because it transcends these silos and offers a channel where consumers have the option to talk to an agent, call an IVR, search a website, launch an application and comment on all of the experiences in social media. Companies are investing in new “C” level positions (e.g., chief customer experience officer) and changing their philosophies around the barriers between internal groups. This has allowed departments like customer care, marketing and technology to come together and start to leverage the mobile communication channel to its full potential.

Connecting Channels to Improve the Customer Experience Is Key
With strategies and organizational structures that align with consumer-driven care, we are helping our clients connect channels to create personalized and intelligent care experiences. We can have the mobile channel aware of what is going on with other channels and adjust accordingly to ensure that the customer experience is effective and valuable. Each customer care touch point is so valuable in today’s tough economy and competitive environment.

We are all moving into the brave new world of mobile. Customer care is no different, despite its reputation for being back-office and behind the times. In the mobile channel, we have another opportunity to automate and perform customer care that will enhance the overall customer experience. It is all about choices for our customers and how they want to communicate with us. We are slowly adapting to customers who want to click their app rather than dial the toll-free number. The companies that embrace this have the best chance to service and grow their customer bases.

West Corporation

Posted on April 18, 2013 by West Corporation 

Sometimes Humans Are Still Better Than Technology

Do you know what this popular game is and when it was invented?

The Speak & Spell was first introduced in 1978 at the summer Consumer Electronics Show. This early speech technology was only the tip of the iceberg to where we are now with advanced speech and voice recognition.

Fast-forward 35 years: Apple launched a new iPhone with Siri speech-recognition software making the decades-old technology good enough for the average consumer. Rather than recognizing a simple word, Siri can interpret a stream of words and provide intelligent feedback.

Even with all of the speech and voice recognition software in place today, can we really afford to do away with the traditional transcription services? Sure, recognition software costs less than transcription; however, what is truly the “cost” to consumers?

Technology is important, but not more important than the quality that affects organizations and their consumers. Transcribers can intuitively correct simple errors of confusion, whereas the most advanced speech technology cannot. Speaking clearly and distinctly is essential for voice recognition software to work effectively. If a caller is in a noisy place or has an accent, then it may throw off the accuracy of the software. Conference settings and free-form feedback are other sources of inaccurate recording for the software. Transcription agents can filter out extraneous speech like, “umm” and “aah.”

An undisputed advantage of voice recognition is its speed. However, transcription can also be done in real time and doesn’t need to sit on backup tapes or servers overnight causing the common delays.

Transcription has been seen by some as a “routine” task. With so many technological advances of voice automation, it was thought that transcription would become obsolete. However, there are many aspects of transcription jobs that are not always routine. These instances require human judgment, error correction, formatting and clarification of the unclear. The judgment, experience and plain common sense can be an invaluable and priceless contribution.

Just because a computer can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that it should.

West Corporation

Posted on April 16, 2013 by West Corporation 

Generation Thumb, Part 2

A previous post  by a past colleague pointed out the significance of mobile to baby boomers. The ability to work, check email, tweet, check finances, etc., via a mobile device is becoming the standard for most and stresses the importance of mobility. However, as younger generations like millennials come into the picture, it is important to realize the importance of enhancing different channels beyond mobile to address the needs of these savvier tech gurus.

Mobile may be transforming into the new standard of communication, but we are seeing new technologies and strategies emerge that are both separate and entwined with mobile capabilities. For instance, having a social media strategy is starting to become the norm within marketing departments. Leaders are more concerned about brand protection, but they are kept awake at night because social media is becoming more than a marketing vehicle. Blogs, forums, Facebook and Twitter are avenues that also need to be connected into the care organization. Customers are using these avenues to discuss, complain and seek resolution to problems.

The obvious solution to some may be to make a public post apologizing for the problem and offer some kind of compensation for the loss. But, by taking a step back for a moment, customer care organizations are starting to recognize the importance of having both their mobile and social strategies tied together. A public statement may satisfy the masses, but companies can also use one-way and two-way communications through text or SMS to send a more personal message. Not only does this give the “warm fuzzy” that the customer is seeking, but it also shows the importance of how having a unified multichannel customer relationship strategy is the future.

Finally, as companies continue to address  needs around mobile and social, it is important to note that there is a third and equally vital part of this strategy involving the Web. Having some sort of Web presence is the norm for any company. Customers expect to be able to go to a Web address and get a preview of products, self-serve, shop and so on. However, the Web is turning into a greater part of an overall digital strategy that can be designed to engage customers and provide more value to them. Making the environment more virtual and engaging with multimedia, content, forums, chat, etc., not only enhances the experience, but also gives an organization the opportunity to capture vital information needed to be proactive with customers. Knowing who your customers are and some information about them will improve their experience increase your revenue. And both are vital to the success of your business.

The next generation of consumers is putting more emphasis on new technologies, forcing companies to be nimble and preemptive with their communication strategies. The ability to allow your customers to connect with you how and when they want is paramount to any successful strategy. The younger generations are our fastest growing customer base, stressing the importance of having a unified multichannel customer contact strategy. After all, keeping your consumers happy and addressing their needs is a lot cheaper than acquiring new customers.

West Corporation

Posted on April 15, 2013 by West Corporation 

Telecommunicators – the Heart and Soul of 9-1-1

Happy National Telecommunicators Week to all! My hat is off to each and every one of our Country’s emergency call takers. Thank You! Thank you for what you do!!

FIRST of the first responders. Unsung hero. Unseen voice. Calm in the chaos. All terms to describe our many professional public safety telecommunicators across America who staff over 6,000 of our 9-1-1 Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) across the United States.

Individuals who sit under the headset of our call centers ready to act when that phone rings from the citizen who may only reach out to us once in their lifetime; when an officer safety issue presents itself; when the hurricane or tornado wipes out parts of, or an entire community; or when that senior citizen calls for assistance for a “non-emergency”, or just needs to know what day of the week it is. YOU are the calm and comforting voice; they may never see or get to meet.

Each of you comes from a different walk of life, background, education and community involvement; big families to small families; and all with your own challenges. When you walk into that PSAP and approach the console and place that headset on; you leave all those “outside” challenges “at the door” and stand ready to be the calm and comfort for the citizen, the guiding voice for the police officer, firefighter or paramedic in critical times.

I look back on my tenure as a 9-1-1 Director and recall the team of dedicated professionals that I had the privilege to call co-workers and friends –  they were a “family”. They were newlyweds, moms and dads, brothers or sisters, even grandparents from all walks of life. Several were volunteer firefighters in their own community; a few were EMT/Paramedics as well. Two were officials or referees for organized youth sports programs within their community.

The common theme that emerges in our profession is a common bond with our community – communities that we serve, communities we support, and those that we participate in because you care!

You care because you work swing shifts, night shifts, holidays and forego many family activities to be there with your colleagues 24/7/365. Your family expands to include your co-workers, partners and fellow public safety professions within your agency and across this great profession. You attend training and provide education to your communities about 9-1-1 and what we do.

Many of you go beyond your agency and provide precious and valuable volunteer time to our industry’s professional associations:  NENA, APCO, NASNA and others. When I have asked why, the answer most resoundingly is “to pay back a great profession and industry”.

I can say without hesitation that the Intrado family appreciates what all of you do, day in and day out to provide such a vital service to your community. In many cases, I realize that you don’t very often get the true recognition so richly deserved.

Thank you for taking time to read my thoughts about a group of true professionals. And a personal thank you to each of you for what you do, and to your families for sharing YOU with your community and the 9-1-1 profession.

Be safe!  Keep others safe!  And be well. Thank you!

West Corporation

Posted on April 12, 2013 by West Corporation 

But You Called Me: How Companies and Customers Can Win in the Customer Service Game

Have you ever received a voice message from a company you do business with requesting you call them in regard to your account or a purchase? This type of message likely piques your curiosity and ultimately entices you to give them a call.

Now, how many times have you called back and were barraged with a choice of options on the automated system? Even if you are the savviest of users of automated systems — who understands that if you take the time to choose the right option, then your call is delivered to a customer service representative who can actually help you — you would not be sure where to start.

After bouncing from representative to representative to finally reach one who can help you, you are asked for the third time, “How can I help you?”

You respond with, “Ugh! You guys called me!”

By keeping track and leveraging context of customer interactions through various engagement channels, companies can personalize these interactions and increase customer intimacy.

For the above scenario, the automated system could have acknowledged me upfront and intelligently sent me to a representative who could have greeted me with, “Thank you for calling us back, Mr. Robeson. We have a question for you about a recent purchase.” It would have been a much better experience.

Organizations can save themselves time and cost, as well as increase customer satisfaction, by making sure the right hand knows what the left hand is doing. It is a win-win situation.

Organizational Wins

  • Consistent brand experience across all customer engagement channels, including Web, mobile, automated system and representative
    • Because customer satisfaction equals customer loyalty
  • Reduce transaction times and cost by streamlining the automated system transaction and sending the customer to the correct representative the first time

Customer Wins

  • Reduce customer effort by tracking experiences and context of interactions or the idea that, “It is easy to do business with Company Y”
  • Increase the level of predictability or the idea that, “I don’t mind contacting Company Y because it is likely they already know what has happened and it won’t take long to get an answer”

Remember that the company called you first, so to acknowledge the fact they called you is the least they can do when you call them back.

West Corporation

Posted on April 11, 2013 by West Corporation 

Better Than Coffee: A Top 10 List of Automated Application Best Practices

I am not aware of any formal scientific evidence of this, but I believe most people have a morning routine they follow after getting out of bed in the morning. A routine allows us to get from one point to another point with ease (in this case, from bed to work). Some folks may have one routine for workdays and a different routine for non-work days.  My routine, regardless of the day of the week, is coffee first — and lots of it. Coffee is what kick-starts my brain and body. Until I’ve had that first cup, nothing interesting happens or gets accomplished in my world. I look forward to mornings because that is the only time of the day I allow myself the luxury of coffee.  I love my morning routine.

So, this leads to the question, what does having a morning routine have in common with an automated customer service application? The answer is that your automated application should have a routine your customers can count on to follow and accomplish a task or multiple tasks with ease. Or, said another way, use industry best practices to ensure ease of use for customers.

Here is a top 10 list of routines (or best practices) that automated customer service applications should follow:

  • Begin the call with a welcome message and a brief description of what to expect.
  • Offer a maximum of five options at each prompt — If more than five options are available, then offer additional options under a “more options” selection.
  • Offer the most popular menu selection first, the second most popular second, and so on.
  • Offer a “repeat menu” option at each module.
  • Do not confirm unnecessarily. Frequent confirmation makes the call inefficient and aggravates the caller.
  • Re-prompt when a customer does not make a selection or makes an invalid selection.
  • Allow an agent transfer option after two errors (caller makes invalid or no selection) to minimize caller frustration.
  • In scenarios of specialized agent line groups, use the practice of the determining what the customer needs prior to transferring to an agent, “To make sure I route your call to the agent best suited to handle your call, please tell me what topic your call is related to.” This will prevent double transfers.
  • Use a silent agent option as deemed appropriate throughout the application.
  • Less is more — use the minimum number of words in the prompts.

And, finally, consider a “coffee” element in your automated application — something that keeps the customer alert, awake and paying attention. This can be as simple as using good voice talent that uses voice inflections to keep the caller engaged.

West Corporation

Posted on April 10, 2013 by West Corporation 

What’s Too High? A Six Sigma Approach to Caller Behavior Analysis

Is 95 percent transfer rate too high? Is 10 minutes in IVR to authenticate too long? Anyone in the IVR business would respond with a resounding, “Yes!” But what about a 60 percent transfer rate? Or 20 seconds to authenticate? The idea is that it’s easy to use business experience to judge the obvious extremes. It is not so easy when the numbers are in the gray area. The outliers can hide just close enough to “normal” to go undetected by the human eye, yet they can be far enough away to cause a financial impact.

Luckily there is a solution: Six Sigma. This well-known technique statistically defines exactly what is normal and to identifies outliers falling outside of the normal range.

The idea behind Six Sigma is to track a particular metric (e.g., number of calls made by a customer) over time to generate a distribution or histogram of its acceptable values (those that are close to the average) and unacceptable values. (those beyond a certain distance from the average). Sigma, or σ, is a symbol used by statisticians to denote this distance and is also known as standard deviation. Six Sigma says that more than two-thirds of the values of a particular metric would fall within one standard deviation from the average, while nearly all values would fall within three standard deviations (a total of six) of the average. Anything outside of that is a serious outlier.

West uses this approach to establish normal boundaries for repeat calls made by a single customer in a particular month. This study was important because our clients’ customers make upward of 600,000 calls per day, and understanding repeat callers is the key to decreasing such calls. The resulting distribution was not exactly text-book “bell curve” due to the nature of data; however, it did turn out that roughly 10 percent of callers were outside of normal.

Zeroing in on particular extreme behaviors, certain questionable customer practices were identified. For example, one customer who made 200 calls per month (with an average customer making three calls during the same time frame), turned out to be a small-business owner who used his familiarity with IVR and agent negotiation to get his clients (other customers) discounts for a cool $30 per service, i.e., per call.

West Corporation

Posted on April 2, 2013 by West Corporation 

911 Enable Announces Spring Webinar Series: E911 Feature Spotlight

Get the lowdown on the critical E911 features that can help your organization meet its E911 obligations and keep users safe

Spring Webinar Series911 Enable is pleased to announce its 2013 Spring Webinar Series will take place May 1 to 15, 2013.

The theme of this new series is E911 Feature Spotlight, focusing on Automatic IP Phone Tracking, On-Site Security Notification, and E911 Call Routing features.

Attendees will learn:

  • The E911 challenges these features help address
  • How these features work in different voice environments, including Cisco, Avaya, Microsoft Lync, and ShoreTel deployments
  • Who they’re for, and how they can be implemented in any organization

To learn more and register, visit

West Corporation

Posted on March 27, 2013 by West Corporation 

Does the Left Hand (of Your Customer Service Operation) Know What the Right Hand Is Doing?

Technology is changing at lightning speed these days — particularly technologies related to customer relationship management. This is exciting and brings with it new challenges and opportunities.

The opportunities are boundless: like integrating mobile and social solutions to help customers get service anytime/anywhere, or integrating comprehensive analytics to ensure that when customers call your support number, you know who they are and what they’re most likely to be calling about.

Of course, with opportunities also come challenges. One of the key challenges companies face today is how to seamlessly integrate their technology and human-based customer service elements to provide for a streamlined, efficient customer experience. For example, many companies have yet to address the age-old problem where their contact center agents have to ask customers the same questions as the IVR did, because they lack adequate systems integration.

In addition to situations like this, many companies face the added challenge of how to integrate outsourced customer support vendors and processes with their own, to provide for a seamless customer experience “from A to Z.” Leveraging third-party outsourcing partners is a good idea, but not if the partner’s systems and resources aren’t integrated effectively with the rest of the company’s on-premise infrastructure, agents and operations.

I recently had some first-hand experience with companies that have utterly failed in their customer service mission, mainly because they haven’t effectively integrated their outsourced service provider into their business and customer service operations.

My wife and I subscribe to a travel magazine that we both enjoy reading and look forward to, month after month. Although we use the magazine’s website a lot, we always await with anticipation the printed copy edition of the magazine. Recently, two of the print editions of the magazine went missing in the mail, so when we noticed that the magazine has a digital edition, we decided to stop receiving the print edition in favor of the iPad version.

Little did we know what a customer service mess we were stepping into. When I called the magazine company to tell them we’d like to start receiving the digital edition, the contact center agent said, “That’s fantastic, I’ll give you the phone number to call so you can start receiving the iPad edition.” I was a bit baffled with this and said, “Isn’t there any way you can sign me up to the iPad edition, given that you already have our account information?” The agent said, “Nope, we don’t actually support the digital edition. We rely on another company to do that. I can send them your information via email, but it’s not likely you’ll hear from them soon, because they are so busy with requests. Here’s the company’s name and telephone number for you to call so you can receive digital edition.”

I thought the whole conversation was bit odd, and by this time my wife was starting to get frustrated. On more than one occasion she suggested we just cancel the subscription because the company not only seemed to struggle in getting us the mailed version of the magazine but also seemed to have some kind of odd relationship with a rather invisible digital publisher that wasn’t really connected to the main publisher.

I decided to contact the company supporting the magazine’s digital version. When I reached a customer service representative, the agent said, “We don’t seem to show a customer record for you, so if you have a few minutes, I need to create one here for you so that you can receive the digital version of the magazine.”

“Uh, pardon?” I said. “You don’t have any record of us as a magazine subscriber?” The agent said, “Well, the publisher who sends you the paper-based version of the magazine has these details, but we’re the digital version and we don’t have them.” I ended up giving the agent all of the information she needed so that we could finally receive the digital version. The agent said that within 24 hours, we’d receive an email link outlining what to do to get the digital version. Almost a week had gone by and we still hadn’t received the email link that the agent promised to send.

The issue finally got resolved after several weeks and many phone calls. Rather ironically, any day now, we expect to start receiving the standard litany of renewal notices in the mail, threatening that if we don’t renew now, the prices will be going up and we’ll have to pay more to renew later and horrendous, frightening thunder and lightning storms will hit, as well.

Will we renew our subscription? I doubt it. We’ve lost confidence in the magazine publisher’s ability to manage customer files and customer service. If they can’t manage and integrate basic customer information, then what does that say about their ability handle credit card information, for example?

I’m a strong advocate of the notion of outsourcing to partners, particularly when it comes to fast-changing technologies like digital publishing and many others. Having said that, the key mistake (among a number of them) that this magazine publisher made was to not integrate its outsourcing partner effectively into the company’s technology, business and customer support operations — the result being poorly executed customer service.

The bottom line message is that outsourcing business activities and processes, including customer service, oftencan make sense in today’s fast-changing technology-centric environment. When done right, it can help companies save money, stay current with new technologies and improve customer service.

But when executed in a disjointed, haphazard manner like the magazine publisher did in this example, it can result in poor customer service, increased customer churn and eventually, erosion of revenue and profit streams. Case in point: As mentioned earlier, I seriously doubt we will renew our subscription to this particular magazine.

So, if you’re going to partner with a third-party provider for customer service and other types of transactions, be sure to take an integrated view from the outset of technology, operations and people integration, and contact center agent training. The only thing worse than the fact that the company’s technology systems weren’t integrated was that the agents from both companies seemed rather oblivious and/or indifferent to, the fact that they were actually supposed to be working together to support print and digital customers in an integrated manner. (I would tend to blame the agents’ managers, not the agents themselves.)

It seems obvious but is well worth repeating that from the customer’s perspective, the customer experience needs to be seamless and effortless, regardless of whether interaction is with one of your own customer service agents or an agent from your outsourcing partner. When you get a minute, try calling your own company’s customer service line(s), to get a feel for the experience that your customers go through every day. It’s well worth the time, and you might learn a few new things along the way that can help you to improve in the future.