National Association of Call Centers

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NACC Blog (18)

Taxing the Bots?

This month I received an unsolicited e-mail press release from the University of Surrey in the U.K. The press release was promoting an event at the University in which a professor will discuss artificial intelligence (AI) and the challenges AI presents to current law.

Lawyers at the University of Surrey are proposing the creation of a “robot tax” that taxes the use of robotic labor the same way governments collect taxes from human workers. They argue that without such a law, companies are essentially encouraged to automate, which will reduce tax revenues and reduce the number of people gainfully employed.

According to the lawyers, automation presents a clear and present danger to jobs and to tax revenues and they claim that in 2017 none other than Microsoft founder Bill Gates endorsed the idea of a tax on automation.

At first glance, I thought this was just another example of how things tend to get screwed up once the lawyers get involved. I thought the idea of taxing bots was a bit of a stretch, especially since bots in the contact center are designed primarily to enhance the customer and agent experience, not to replace a job.

Then I came across a story that gave me pause to reconsider. The role of bots is evolving as fast as new roles for robotic assistants and processes can be dreamed up. The story that stopped me in my tracks ran in the March 7, 2018, USA Today insert in the Arizona Republic newspaper. The story was entitled, “Sizzling Circuitry! Robocook Takes Over the Grill.”

The story detailed how a California restaurant chain called Caliburger had just implemented a robot that was programmed to flip hamburgers all day long. Named Flippy, the robot takes burger patties off of a tray, places them on the griddle, monitors their temperature, flips them, then takes them off the griddle to serve. Flippy can flip as many as 2,000 patties a day.

The reason the Flippy story made me reconsider the validity of a bot tax is the simple fact that, probably like many of you, my first job was flipping burgers. Not counting my paper route and lawn-mowing business that started at age 12, when I reached age 15 ½ I got my parents to sign a consent form to let me work and I got my first “real” job at the Red Barn restaurant in Redwood City, California. That job? Flipping burgers.

I didn’t learn any particularly useful job skills flipping burgers, but I learned very useful life skills like how to show up for work on time, how to give and follow directions, how to work with others and how to earn a paycheck. That’s also when I started “donating” my wages to the government in terms of taxes and social security contributions.

According to McKinsey Global Institute, more than half of all tasks associated with fast-food restaurants are poised to be automated. That represents a lot of wage tax revenues that will disappear, not to mention entry-level jobs that serve to bring young people and others into the workforce.

So, maybe the idea of taxing bots isn’t that crazy after all. It’s not inconceivable that in the future, those same bots helping the agent do a better job on the desktop may also find themselves being chased by the IRS every April 15th.

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Disruptive New Labor Laws: Coming Soon to a Contact Center Near You?

In November of 2016, voters in Arizona approved Proposition 206 to boost the state’s minimum wage and require employers to provide paid sick time.  Called the Healthy Working Family Initiative, the proposition calls for the minimum wage to gradually grow from the minimum wage in 2016 to $12 per hour by 2020.  In addition, employers with fewer than 15 employees must provide each employee 24 hours of paid sick time each year.  Employers with 15 or more employees must provide each employee 40 hours of paid sick time each year.In November of 2016, voters in Arizona approved Proposition 206 to boost the state’s minimum wage and require employers to provide paid sick time.  Called the Healthy Working Family Initiative, the proposition calls for the minimum wage to gradually grow from the minimum wage in 2016 to $12 per hour by 2020.  In addition, employers with fewer than 15 employees must provide each employee 24 hours of paid sick time each year.  Employers with 15 or more employees must provide each employee 40 hours of paid sick time each year.


At first glance, this does not sound unreasonable but the catch comes with how the sick time can be used by employees.  Proposition 206 defines the conditions under which this sick time can be used to include physical or mental illness, family member illness, a public health emergency, domestic violence, sexual violence or stalking.  


So why is this new labor law and others like it potentially disruptive?  The problem is, the employer can’t question, challenge or take any performance action on any employee for absenteeism until those 24 or 40 hours of paid sick time have been used.  And since employees can use sick leave for any number of reasons, there is the possibility of abuse.  For example, an employee could call in sick every Monday for five weeks and the employer cannot question the employee’s motives or take any corrective action on behalf of the contact center.  It is only after these 40 hours are used can an employer take any action regarding questionable absenteeism.
Similarly, an employee who might be running late or maybe just overslept can simply call in and use an hour or two of sick time to avoid corrective or punitive action.  Management can’t act in any way against this employee.
In a production environment, such as a contact center, this new law is a concern for obvious reasons.  This is not to suggest that most contact center employees are out to game the system.  Just the opposite, in fact.  I still believe that most employees want to do a good job and take advantage of the careers that the customer service profession offers.  But there will always be those who will take unfair advantage of well-intentioned aspects of labor laws such as Arizona Proposition 206.  This is where the challenge may lie.  Making it easy for an agent to be absent for any period of time will make it difficult to schedule adequate coverage for workforce management analysts.  
I could be completely wrong about this, but I believe it’s worth carefully watching the impact of Proposition 206 on the Arizona contact center industry.  In the meantime, it might be a good idea for contact center executives in other states to start considering management strategies should a similar labor law pass in own their state.

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Research from Aspect Pinpoints Differences between Millennials and Other Generations

I consider myself a bit of an authority on millennials.  I raised two of them so I feel I have the inside track when it comes to understanding the psyche of the millennial generation.  Most of these self-congratulatory assumptions I made about myself and how well I understood millennials were recently confirmed by the results of a study conducted by Aspect in conjunction with Jason Dorsey, who calls himself the Gen Y Guy.

The results of the study were released during the SXSW conference in Austin, TX earlier this month.  As a former resident of Houston and a member of the generation that embraced outlaw, Americana and Texas music, I was familiar with the SXSW event as an alt-country, indie-music sort of affair, which is what it was back in 1987 when SXSW began and I was a carefree, millennial-free graduate student.

Since raising and paying for my millennials has kept me pretty much chained to my analyst desk for the past couple of decades, I lost track of the SXSW festival along with most other fun things to do. That’s why I was surprised to see the results of Aspect’s generational research presented at an event that I always associated with Robert Earl Keen.

Apparently SXSW is still a music event but it now includes a conference track covering technology, social issues, and politics while yet another track screened 145 feature films. Sounds like a multi-media extravaganza ideal for the short attention span that characterizes the millennial generation, and a perfect place to premiere the results of how millennials view and respond to customer service issues.

The first thing that struck me about the results of Aspect’s research was that the customer service experiences and expectations of the millennials were not significantly different than my own despite the generation gap between us. Like millennials, I have moved my business from one company to another due to poor service and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. I don’t mind solving a problem without talking to customer service and, in fact, have found myself in that position by default many times. Ever tried to get help from Adobe?

Where the results show we do differ significantly usually had to do with preferences. For example, 33 percent of millennial respondents indicated they would rather clean a toilet than speak to customer service. 26 percent said they would rather change a dirty diaper. I’m assuming that this is also the percentage of respondents who have never cleaned a toilet or changed a dirty diaper. I’ve done both many times throughout my life. Give me customer service every time.

36 percent of millennial respondents claimed that they would contact a company more frequently if they could text. This is where we really differ. I don’t see texting as a medium for solving complex problems or developing complete thoughts. I do text a lot, especially with my millennial daughters, but it’s just for quick questions or thoughts. Anything more complex and they go old school on me and, brace yourself, use their phones to call.

The survey also validated a lot of suspicions the industry as a whole harbors toward millennials. For example, the survey revealed that 77 percent of millennials believe that customer service should be available in a wide variety of channels. If you work in a contact center that doesn’t yet have an omni-channel communications strategy in place, this might be a good time to get busy.

Not surprisingly, the instant-gratification generation expects customer service to be fast and they have little patience for waiting in line. Many legacy companies today are at risk of losing business to newer companies that have built a “legendary customer service” reputation. Case in point: Zappos.

If you think the results of Aspect’s survey aren’t important enough to act upon, think again. The survey revealed that as consumers, millennials are poised to outspend every other generation by the year 2017. As the father of two millennials, I can vouch for that.

For more information on Aspect’s survey visit www.aspect.com.

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Charles Dickens Revisited: Finding the Heart of the Industry

I just submitted my November column to Contact Center Pipeline magazine. The topic of the column was putting veterans to work in the contact center industry. This is the third time I’ve written about this particular matter, the first time being in the March 2011 issue and the next in the July 2012 issue of the magazine. I’ve also taken the fight to the field, so to speak, in my attempts to get the contact center industry to rally around this problem and find a solution.

 

The result has been deafening silence. Companies with huge profits and expansive resources have shown no interest that I can detect in getting involved with giving back. The singular focus is usually on a relentless pursuit of ever greater profits.

 

Since this narrative is beginning to sound a lot like a classic Charles Dickens novel it is time to introduce the ray of hope – a light of good in the otherwise dreary story of greed. A few weeks ago I was introduced to a small contact center cloud company in the San Francisco Bay Area called BrightPattern. They are taking on the problem of unemployed veterans and are taking on challenges that companies a hundred times their size don’t have the (guts? nerve? fill in the word of your choice here) to take on.   I was introduced to BrightPattern by my longtime friend John Reynolds, a Vietnam veteran and founder of the not-for-profit Veterans2Work (www.veterans2work.com). What BrightPattern lacks in company size, they make up for in the size of their heart.

 

Yesterday I saw another hint of industry heart in a news release from Interactive Intelligence soliciting grant applications for the Interactive Intelligence Foundation, a nonprofit corporation whose mission is to use available resources and funding to improve the lives of at risk youth around the world with a primary emphasis in their hometown of Indianapolis. The Interactive Intelligence Foundation was born when executives at the company saw a need in the community and took the unusual step of doing something about it. The Foundation idea was proposed to Interactive Intelligence’s CEO, Dr. Don Brown, in 2010 and an industry charity was born.

 

Today the Interactive Intelligence Foundation supports a diverse group of charities with missions that range from the care of abused and neglected children to a group that is fighting hunger in central Indiana. The Foundation raises money through a variety of activities, including an annual gala that raised funds exceeding $53,000 for the Foundation this year. Interactive Intelligence employees volunteer their time to run the foundation and Interactive Intelligence picks up the tab for the Foundation’s overhead and administration. Aside from the direct costs of the gala, every penny raised for the Foundation goes to the charities it supports.

 

Last time I checked Interactive Intelligence seems to be doing pretty well. I imagine stockholders probably don’t complain about the money the company spends on the Foundation instead of putting into dividends, and giving back to the community doesn’t seem to have had a detrimental effect on Interactive Intelligence’s industry standing or performance.

 

Differentiating factors are everything in today’s competitive contact center industry. While most companies look toward product differentiation, the companies mentioned in this blog differentiate themselves in a way that will live on long past the heyday of whatever technology solutions they offer. These companies distinguish themselves in a way that isn’t measured in quarterly profits and year-over-year financial performance. These are companies with heart and in the long run, that’s what will really matter.

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No Health Care for Obamacare Contact Center Agents

During a recent phone conversation with Kevin Hegebarth, who is the VP of marketing at HireIQ, Inc., he brought to my attention a contact center story that would be hard to believe if it wasn’t so well documented and there wasn’t a government agency behind it. The story involves the recent establishment of a contact center in Contra Costa County, California. It is one of three contact centers to be established in the state of California for the purpose of fielding Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, calls beginning October 1st.

 

In July the county advertised the availability of 152 new, full-time Obamacare contact center agent jobs. They received 7,457 applications. 1,947 of the applicants passed the civil service exam and moved on to the next phase. 600 applicants went through the interview process before the final 152 agents were hired. Some of the successful applicants were people emerging from a long period of unemployment, some were people coming from small home-based businesses that they started to try to weather the recession and many were people who left other full-time positions in the hope of finding greater stability in a county government contact center job.

 

Once hired, many employees were surprised to discover that the full-time jobs they applied for and were hired to fill were actually part-time jobs. On top of that they were informed that as part-time employees they would not be eligible to receive health benefits in their new Obamacare support jobs. These new part-timers were given the opportunity to contribute to their health care benefits as a part-time employee at a cost of $600 per month. The cost for an individual to enroll in Obamacare through a health insurance exchange is $243 per month. After doing the math all but 42 part-timers left.

 

Anna Bakalis, a spokeswoman for Service Employees International Union Local 1021 said the situation at the new call center follows a government employment trend of “part-timeization,” where formerly full-time jobs are now part-time so agencies don’t have to offer health benefits. Does anyone else see the irony here?

 

As it stands now the contact center is trying to come up with a 50-50 split of full-time and part-time positions. In the meantime they are dealing with the fallout that has come from hiring people with no health care benefits whose job it will be to help people get health care benefits.

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Aspect’s Mobility for the Contact Center Workforce

On June 27, 2013 Aspect Software announced the availability of Aspect Workforce Mobile. This new software solution provides contact center agents mobile access to Aspect’s workforce management solution. This makes it possible for agents to view and request changes to their own schedule using their smartphone or tablet computer. Agents can also view their own performance metrics and productivity statistics on their mobile device from any location. For those agents who are motivated to get ahead and/or are working toward a career in customer care, this capability will prove to be an invaluable asset.

 

For supervisors, Aspect Workforce Mobile offers the ability to look at workforce schedules and make or approve changes as necessary from their mobile device. Supervisors with a mobile device can also view intraday statistics, forecasts, performance metrics and nearly every statistic provided by Aspect’s workforce management software.

 

What I found so extraordinary about this announcement is how stunningly practical this Aspect solution is. With the proliferation of mobile devices in the U.S. today, which currently stands at approximately 1.1 mobile communications devices for every man, woman and child in the U.S. and all of its territories, it only makes sense to extend the usage of these communications tools to those in the customer service profession. The next generation of workers has been raised with a mobile phone in hand and it is typically this generation’s resource of choice for nearly all information. Contact center executives should welcome the ability to access work information on a personal mobile device with open arms.

 

I was particularly interested in the proactive broadcast capabilities of Aspect Workforce Mobile. Any piece of information that can impact the workforce schedule in any way can be quickly automated and broadcast to a mobile device. For example, if a contact center finds itself with overtime hours available this opportunity can be promptly broadcast to its agent population. Agents can log on to the workforce management system with their mobile device and quickly check their schedule against the available overtime hours. Again using a mobile device from any location, agents can apply for the overtime hours as appropriate.

 

Credit for Aspect Workforce Mobile belongs to an Aspect customer and Aspect’s Innovation Group, which developed the solution at the request of this specific customer. The customer has been using Aspect Workforce Mobile with its nearly 3,000 agents and estimates it will save about $500,000 per year. I’d call that an acceptable return on investment (ROI).

 

As previously mentioned, this is a practical solution that I expect to find immediate and widespread acceptance in the worldwide contact center industry. Beyond that, I’m happy to see that there are still contact center solutions providers that are creating solutions that directly address and impact the actual, existing productivity challenges faced by contact centers today.   With so many vendors that seem to have their head in the cloud, so to speak, it is reassuring to see that Aspect still has its feet firmly planted on the ground.

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Interactive Intelligence Interactions 2013 Impresses

The InformationWeek 500, published annually by Information Week magazine, is a list of the nation’s 500 most innovative users of business technology as determined by the editors of the magazine. As a provider of business technology for the contact center, it appears that Plantronics (www.plantronics.com) practices what it preaches because it has earned a spot on the InformationWeek 500 list for 2012. Plantronics has been recognized for its adoption of a cutting edge workplace strategy called “smarter working.”

Smarter working is a relatively new approach that places people over place and delivers flexible solutions that allow people to cooperate and collaborate across work environments. For a global company like Plantronics the ability to work with customers, partners and employees across time zones and geographies is critical to success. Employees can now effectively communicate with each other regardless of where they are located or which type of communications device is being used.

I had the opportunity to visit Plantronics’ headquarters in Santa Cruz, CA this past June and saw the construction of their new work environment in progress. Although not technically in Silicon Valley, the Plantronics work environment should, and probably will, put to shame the work environments in what most of us think of as progressive high tech companies. The physical environment in the workplace is as important as the work process for those who adhere to the principles of smarter working.

At Plantronics, the workspaces are flexible and open, encouraging collaboration and communication. The cube farm has been replaced by a friendly collection of work areas where it is apparent that employees share energy as well as ideas. The beneficiaries of the smarter working initiative are not only the employees – Plantronics’ customers will benefit as well. Here’s how.

Plantronics makes headsets for the contact center industry. Contact centers are noisy, busy places. With the new Plantronics open work environment, part of the “buzz” is due to the fact that employees are talking to each other more frequently, creating a workplace environment that is very similar to the typical contact center. As a result, Plantronics has just become a test bed for its own headsets.

Despite its industry leadership position, Plantronics continues to innovate in more ways than one. With the new smarter working strategy in place the employees win, the customers win and, for the icing on the cake, Plantronics gets an award. Plantronics continues to prove that its industry vision extends well beyond the world of audio communications.

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"Smarter Working" Nets Multiple Wins for Plantronics

The InformationWeek 500, published annually by Information Week magazine, is a list of the nation’s 500 most innovative users of business technology as determined by the editors of the magazine. As a provider of business technology for the contact center, it appears that Plantronics (www.plantronics.com) practices what it preaches because it has earned a spot on the InformationWeek 500 list for 2012. Plantronics has been recognized for its adoption of a cutting edge workplace strategy called “smarter working.”

 

Smarter working is a relatively new approach that places people over place and delivers flexible solutions that allow people to cooperate and collaborate across work environments. For a global company like Plantronics the ability to work with customers, partners and employees across time zones and geographies is critical to success. Employees can now effectively communicate with each other regardless of where they are located or which type of communications device is being used.

 

I had the opportunity to visit Plantronics’ headquarters in Santa Cruz, CA this past June and saw the construction of their new work environment in progress. Although not technically in Silicon Valley, the Plantronics work environment should, and probably will, put to shame the work environments in what most of us think of as progressive high tech companies. The physical environment in the workplace is as important as the work process for those who adhere to the principles of smarter working.

 

At Plantronics, the workspaces are flexible and open, encouraging collaboration and communication. The cube farm has been replaced by a friendly collection of work areas where it is apparent that employees share energy as well as ideas. The beneficiaries of the smarter working initiative are not only the employees – Plantronics’ customers will benefit as well. Here’s how.

 

Plantronics makes headsets for the contact center industry. Contact centers are noisy, busy places. With the new Plantronics open work environment, part of the “buzz” is due to the fact that employees are talking to each other more frequently, creating a workplace environment that is very similar to the typical contact center. As a result, Plantronics has just become a test bed for its own headsets.

 

Despite its industry leadership position, Plantronics continues to innovate in more ways than one. With the new smarter working strategy in place the employees win, the customers win and, for the icing on the cake, Plantronics gets an award. Plantronics continues to prove that its industry vision extends well beyond the world of audio communications.

Read more...

Outsource the President!

Outsoruce the President!
July 30, 2012
By: David L Butler, PhD
Executive Director, National Association of Call Centers
www.nationalcallcenters.org

Well, not really. But the title is catchy. At the National Association of Call Centers and through the Call Center Research Laboratory at The University of Southern Mississippi we have been collecting data on the call center industry for over 10 years. This data includes call center openings, closings, expansions, contractions as well as a host of other data for the industry both domestically and internationally. Having data over time allows us to see trends which cannot be seen with data over just a few days, months or years. One such trend that shows up every four years is...

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