A distributed social workforce drives profit and performance | Opensource.com

A distributed social workforce drives profit and performance

Posted 30 Mar 2012 by 

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A distributed social workforce drives profit and performance
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LiveOps is the only contact center (call center) leader focused on providing the full platform, applications, and talent in the cloud.  Consumers increasingly expect on-demand information and constant contact with the companies with whom they do business. These needs have prompted the co-evolution of the contact center  and fundamentally challenged its traditional hierarchical organization and branding paradigms.

We discuss our experiences operating a 20,000 member geographically-distributed independent contractor network of contact center agents in the cloud, and how we create superior customer interactions by:

  • inspiring rather than supervising using community management techniques
  • driving superior service quality using a gamification platform
  • creating an immersive branding experience using social tools.

Context

Three major technology trends - cloud computing, social media, and mobile - are profoundly changing the landscape of customer service. Consumers are choosing to use a variety of social and mobile channels in addition to the traditional voice channels when communicating with each other and the companies with whom they do business. Customers have access to instant information and real-time updates, and they expect immediate answers and demand a new level of interaction from brands and solution providers. In parallel, the adoption of cloud computing by some of the largest and most trusted companies in the world has rapidly enabled companies to move from maintaining a traditional, premise-based call center to using a cloud-based contact center solution.

As a result, contact center agents need to evolve. LiveOps uses cloud computing technologies to deploy a multichannel and social approach in interacting with its agent community every day – using the social tools of forums, web chats, podcasts, virtual town halls, Twitter/Facebook and gamification with its 20,000 strong independent agent community. LiveOps connects, collaborates, communicates and forms a culture around a socially, consumer-aware agent all in the cloud.

LiveOps is a cloud software and applications provider that maximizes every sales, support and social customer interaction to ultimately drive brand loyalty. More than 200 companies around the world, including Salesforce.com, Symantec, Royal Mail Group, and Amway New Zealand trust LiveOps’ technology to enable effective multichannel, social and mobile interactions with their customers.  LiveOps' award-winning platform has processed more than 1 billion minutes of customer interactions and managed operations for the largest US-based cloud contact center of 20,000 home-based, independent agents.  With 10+ years of cloud experience, LiveOps is the partner of choice for companies wanting to migrate to the cloud. Headquartered in Santa Clara, California, LiveOps is a private company with approximately 320 employees spread across four continents.

Triggers

Transformations in communications technology have irrevocably changed how consumers interact with businesses today.  The days where an incoming customer service phone line available during limited daytime hours are a thing of the past.  The rapid rise of web and social technology over the last decade has complicated the picture; today’s consumers now expect on-demand information and constant contact with the companies with whom they do business.  To meet these consumer-driven needs, customer service contact centers (traditionally known as call centers) are undergoing a parallel transformation.  High performing companies are seeing the contact center not as a department merely optimized on cost, but rather as a critical direct touch point with consumers to address the high level of desired engagement.

LiveOps quickly identified the changing demographics of consumers as well as the need to balance cost optimization with quality interactions.  LiveOps Talent in the cloud solution began providing a distributed home-based workforce of US-based independent contractors for contact center work in the early 2000s. LiveOps uses a proprietary technology platform to allow entrepreneurial, independent contractors to bid for and perform contact center work for clients in Retail, Financial Services, High Tech, Insurance, and other industries.  LiveOps’ community of independent contractors is 20,000 strong and inherently manager free.  This initially created challenges compared to the traditional brick-and-mortar workplace paradigm in how to provide superior quality service to clients, particularly with regards to creating and maintaining a brand presence for clients in a completely virtual workplace.  LiveOps’ business model precludes traditional methods for managing direct employees like having a heavy supervisory presence or closely dictating the style of work.

Key Innovations & Timeline

1. Independent contractors have control of their work opportunities

By design, LiveOps’ distributed workforce has no managers and no standard business hours – contractors can bid for work each week and receive upcoming work based on their skills, historical performance, and when work is available (which is sometimes in the middle of the night or on weekends).   As independent contracting agents, they conduct themselves as business owners  and take that responsibility seriously in deciding where to put their time.  A contractor’s livelihood is dependent upon their quality of work and access to ongoing opportunities; independent contractors who aren’t engaged simply will not succeed.

In order to provide consistent service and quality, LiveOps has pursued a strategy of community management. Instead of command and control, the paradigm has shifted to social management based on results. We find that agents who have control of how they work are inherently more inspired brand ambassadors and this carries through to customer satisfaction and outcomes for their clients. We don’t supervise, we inspire!

Independent Contractor Comment: “I have to admit I am not at all competitive - but the opportunity to be on this program and view my metrics compared to others is very inviting.”

2. Facilitate community cooperation and competition for community management

Creating a community was a first step, but the next iteration of community management involved facilitating positive community behaviors like collaboration and healthy competition. While agents are bidding against each other for work, they are not engaged in a zero-sum game - if agents are successful at meeting client expectations as a group, they will bring more business to themselves as well as to other LiveOps independent contractor agents. Thus, it’s in the individual’s rational best interest to help other agents to improve even though they are still in competition.

Agent to Agent forum post: “I have to tell you that it was your tips and tricks on selling which I took to my phone calls and increase my sales on Saturday. I now use the same technique on all my calls... I am still not converting as well as I would like on all 3 products, but I am working on it. I don't get a lot of these calls, but with each sale I know that it all makes a difference.

We have found this to be true in practice as well as theory. LiveOps began to facilitate cooperation using a knowledge base and forums so that agents can share best practices with each other, as well as tools for peer coaching and networking. These tools also facilitate competition, because an agent who actively works on improving their skills using the aforementioned tools (as well as our e-learning suite) is able to get more business in a results-oriented environment.

 3. Gamification or Game Mechanics to drive improved performance

With competition in mind, we began to think about what agents needed to better understand how to build their businesses. Gaming was a great framework to think about this problem since it involves a community built around healthy competition. The competitive nature of agents has led to negative situations where system rules are set in such a way that they can be exploited – for example, if a client’s major success metric is limiting the time an agent spends on the phone with a customer and ties this directly to compensation, we would expect a small percentage of agents to rush callers off the line instead of producing a high quality customer interaction. If only customer satisfaction is considered for compensation, we would expect some agents to transfer away irate callers to avoid lower pay stemming from lower net promoter scores since a call is no longer associated with them.

However, competition can be your best friend in building a strong community by using clever system design to avoid these negative examples. Our next generation of community management involved providing instant and/or relevant feedback on performance and quality using gaming mechanisms. While the constructs we deploy are not by themselves novel, we find that their use creates outsized returns because they more rapidly connect an agent’s individual action and behavior with tangible outcomes; an agent who spends time improving their skills through Certification or achieving high quality metrics can then compare themselves to their peers using a leaderboard or other online social identity displays.

In fact, we’ve found that game mechanics drives even better performance and insight than just facilitating community interaction.

Agent Post: “We did it team  back on top of the leaderboard, let’s keep this momentum going, work lots of commits and keep converting, thanks to all for the great team effort!

By channeling the competitiveness in a positive way we’ve created a net benefit to our clients.  With rapid feedback comes even more accountability: if you managed to pacify an upset caller, everyone can know you did a great job - and if you didn’t reach a client’s expectations for service, it’s very motivating to see that you need to improve, every day you work!

4. Living in the social/mobile modern reality

LiveOps agents have one more large advantage because they are onshore contact center workers: they are themselves social consumers. We’ve found that LiveOps agents are immersed in a web 2.0 world – 79% are on Facebook – which makes them great brand ambassadors in today’s social/mobile reality. We’ve responded by deeply ingraining our client’s brands into our platform and have tapped into advances in social networking to create a more engaging environment than a brick-and-mortar contact center experience. Like Facebook, we’ve been able to study social behavior using data analytics to create our award-winning e-learning modules. These insights have also helped us to design tools for creating a customer conversation across channels with a consistent brand image. Through this we’re able to transform customer interactions in the cloud.

Challenges and solutions

1. Challenge: Create shared purpose and high quality customer-facing organization in a distributed virtual workforce with no managers

Solution: Engage workforce by facilitating ownership and cooperation in a self-managing community. Workforce is empowered to drive consumer performance and shares in overall community success through clear client goals and measurement. Provide transparency into performance and let agents make their own choices about how to achieve client mandates.  Define workforce opportunities and clearly state success goals and allow for individuals to opt-in to participate, catering to individual desires to succeed and excel.

2. Challenge: Foster peer-to-peer interactions and certification programs to allow self-paced skills improvement with little to no incentive for completion. All tools would have to be relevant to new independent agents, as-well-as seasoned agents who would be motivated to return and continue to participate.

Solution: Created an online community with gamification, reputation features, and awards that would engage and motivate independent agents. Providing up-to-date opportunities for work, clear indication of individual performance metrics relative to client goals, and leaderboards showing community frontrunners. Providing for online identity building through creation of a personal avatar and the ability to customize it by earning online points for positive behaviors. The avatar then becomes a method of identity and reputation in the community, quickly allowing for agents to recognize each other and self form groups. Points that are used to customize avatars are earned through performance goals, certification completion, and community interactions.  Also created customize avatar items for individual clients to further create social identity for high performers and allow for expertise mining by low performing individuals. For example, an avatar t-shirt with the client’s logo was only awarded to high performers with select metrics. Creating agent transparency showing high performer metrics and certification they completed drives self motivated performance improvement. Lastly, created learning mechanisms that facilitate ongoing peer-to-peer performance improvement using chat, blogs, and independent team formation.

3. Challenge: Address rapidly changing social aspects of teaming and competition

Solution: Use social consumers to also be the social workers. Leverage a social learning methodology to baseline independent agent knowledge through eLearning courseware, situational simulations, blogs, podcasts, virtual classroom sessions with role playing, and static reference guides to provide a consistent brand presence across many communication channels. This distance learning model facilitates peer-to-peer interactions and produces organic formation of teams that self promote a shared goal with individual pursuit.

social learning

4. Challenge:  Help agents understand performance that is driven by a wide range of skill types – for example, customer service calls (with softer metrics) as opposed to sales-driven calls that have order value / sales (as hard metrics)

Solution:  Created new metrics and measures to help contractors evaluate their own performance against performance targets set by the client – including customer and process satisfaction performance indicators.  Expose the skill types that agents need to succeed as client metrics embedded in the agent gaming experience.  

Benefits and metrics

1. Our US-based virtual workforce of independent contractors has many benefits:

  • agent turnover rates are low compared to brick and mortar
  • demographic matching to target-client’s US consumers
  • faster training times with large agent community carrying previous work experience and skills

2. Community management techniques provided more engagement than traditional management techniques. Following the launch of internal gaming platform:

  • 80% opt-in rate in first week, with 75% of agents returning to site on a bi-weekly basis to participate in challenges
  • 3.5 min average time spent on site (compared to 1 min average for internet)
  • Certification (not required) that was promoted with badge and point awards was completed by 72% of agents
  • Decreased Onboarding process from 4 Weeks of classroom training to 14 hours. Drastically reduced speed to proficiency by producing higher quality agents in a shorter period of time.

3. Gamification techniques produce superior client outcomes:

  • Service levels improved by about 10%
  • Average time to handle a customer inquiry decreased by almost 15%
  • Sales performance improvement of 8%-12%

Lessons

  • Motivating workers is easier when they understand not only the expectations for their performance, but also their relative performance to their peers. While we’ve illustrated this within the context of a distributed workplace, similar mechanisms have been used successfully in more traditional “brick and mortar” offices using cloud software products like Rypple or SuccessFactors.
  • It’s not as easy to jump into a classic gamification implementation – where users earn points for actions with associated rewards - as it may seem.  We’ve determined that iterative testing of gaming mechanisms in a community is the most consistent way to work towards this endpoint. Partnering with a vendor who provides a gamification platform (such as Badgeville, Bunchball, Big Door or others) can be a great way to start experimenting with your workforce. 
  • Our workforce always has individuals who are extremely competitive. If the rules of the system are unsophisticated, a portion will try to game the system and quickly exploit inefficiencies for personal benefit.  A truly sharp organization will use these same personality types to actually drive improved results-based performance, and recognize that any systems rules will have to co-evolve as new behaviors develop.
  • Consumers are increasingly requiring on-demand service. To meet these needs, companies need a highly self-motivated workforce that will immerse itself in their branding – which has the fortuitous side-effect of driving even more value from customer touch points. Businesses should look to leverage workers who are familiar with social media and have other shared cultural understanding with end customers to make the most of client facing interactions.
  • Communities that are self-managed are communities of passion. We notified our agent community about this article and encouraged them to read and comment on their own experiences. You can clearly see the engagement and passion that our independent contractors have for their work and our platform – and their success with clients speaks for itself! If you give control of livelihood to your workers rather than to bureaucrats, you will be amazed at the results. 
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