321 — Taking the Stress Out of the Call Center: Preventing Operational Failure

Jul 9, 2002 | Conteúdos Em Ingles

by Hammer Technologies
Thanks to CRMXchange.com

In a recent survey of call center managers, 44% said that they had experienced a serious outage in their call center within the past twelve months. 32% had experienced a serious failure within the last six months. Perhaps these statistics shouldn’t be surprising, given the complexity of today’s integrated call center operating environment. You would be hard pressed to find a call center manager who couldn’t recount one or more personal experiences of critical failures in their call center operations. Yet, many of these outages could have been prevented by the use of automated test systems as part of a comprehensive Call Center Quality Assurance process, including In-Service Monitoring of call center network connections, systems and applications.

It is surprising that so many call centers, given the relatively high potential of experiencing a serious failure, take few if any preventative measures. Most call centers today perform only minimal testing of new or modified applications and systems prior to live deployment. Most testing that is done is manual, including testing of VRUs and other CTI systems. Manual testing typically consists of a handful of people dialing in, and trying to find problems

Achieving Improved Call Center Reliability
Manual testing, in most instances, simply cannot replicate the conditions that cause call center systems and applications to fail. This is because many network, system, or application failures only show up under load – (normal operating conditions) or under stress (extreme operating conditions). Manual testing cannot replicate the call volumes or variability in call type and duration that cause systems and applications to fail. Manual testing also suffers from a lack of consistency and repeatability; two critical requirements for effective test plans. As a result, it is the customers who are finding most of the bugs and problems in call centers today.

This doesn’t have to be the case. Automated telecommunications test systems designed for testing CTI applications, like the Hammer IT from Hammer Technologies, make it possible for call centers to thoroughly test their systems and applications before, during and after deployment. Automated tools, like e-Test Suite from RSW Software, also exist for load testing and monitoring corporate web sites. Using automated test systems and a process of Life-Cycle Testing, call centers can achieve higher levels of quality and reliability by pinpointing and eliminating system and application problems before they impact customer service.

The High Cost of Call Center Failures
The benefits resulting from improved application and system reliability in call centers can be significant. In a call center receiving 1,000 calls an hour, a 30-minute outage can potentially mean 500 customers who are negatively impacted. If your web site is down or overloaded and difficult to reach, you could be negatively impacting similar numbers of customers and you might not even know it. Even a brief outage can translate into hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue if you are an airline reservation center or brokerage firm. It’s simply too easy today for the customer to contact your competition. In addition to measuring the cost of lost customer transactions, you may also need to consider the cost of losing a customer. What is the expected revenue value of a lost customer to your business? How much does it cost to find a new customer to replace one that has been lost?

Quality Assurance Is More Than Monitoring
The Quality Assurance process in most call centers needs to be expanded. The customer’s quality experience doesn’t begin when they reach an agent or Customer Service Representative. It begins from the time they pick up their phone to call your company or attempt to access your company’s web site. A small but growing group of leading-edge call centers is starting to address the need for a broader definition of quality assurance in the call center by implementing Life-cycle Testing programs for their call center applications.

Life-cycle Testing implements a comprehensive program of testing including:

-Feature/Function testing of new applications
-Load & Stress testing of the integrated call center components
-Regression testing of software revisions prior to going “live”
-In-Service monitoring of the call center network, systems, and applications

Some of the measurements that a comprehensive testing process takes include:

-Time to answer at increasing load levels
-Number of busies
-Rings before answer
-Timing between prompts
-VRU/Host response times
-Time in queue
-Call/screen pop timings
-Database response times
-Prompt errors
-Call handling errors
-Life-Cycle Call Center Testing
One large financial services company, known for the high quality of its call center operations, is starting to embrace the concepts of Life-Cycle Testing as a means of achieving maximum uptime and the highest quality standards in its call centers. The company has mandated that all new call center application- and system-level software be rigorously tested in the company’s telecommunications test lab prior to “live” deployment in the call centers. Any software revisions must also go through an extensive series of regression tests prior to deployment.

This same company has succeeded in automating nearly 90% of all customer inquiries using a combination of VRU systems and the Web. As a result, a comprehensive test program for the company’s automated customer self-service systems is particularly critical. Any failure could easily and quickly swamp the company’s Customer Service Representatives. The company has put in place automated monitoring of its VRU systems to quickly identify and pinpoint the cause of any failures before they can impact customer service. Because Web-based customer transactions are assuming greater importance, the company has also begun a program of load testing its web site to assure predictable, superior performance.

Life-Cycle Testing begins with automated Feature/Function testing during the application development phase of call center applications to ensure that bugs are identified as early as possible. Feature/Function testing breaks systems into functional areas and assures that all features and system interactions work to specification. Tests are designed to look at each state change in the system, internal and external system actions, as well as identifying valid, invalid, and boundary conditions in the application.

Many call center system and application failures will only show up under load. Load and Stress testing lets call center developers know where, when, and how call center systems and web sites will fail. Load and Stress testing needs to be performed on the integrated call center and web site systems. Even though individual component systems may pass tests successfully, this provides no assurance that the systems will work properly when they are integrated together
Duplicate Real-world Conditions
Ideally, a test plan duplicates actual expected calling and web site usage conditions and patterns. Automated testing is capable of generating thousands of test calls or web hits. Test systems should be capable of also duplicating the variable actions of real callers or web site users, including the ability to step through IVR call paths, determine if the correct prompts are playing, and measure timings. The test plan should identify stress bottlenecks in the systems and develop a Load Service Curve that can be used for capacity planning purposes.

Under Life-Cycle Testing, regression tests are run on all new software releases and bug fixes prior to deployment on “live” systems. Regression tests are used to determine that nothing new has broken and that the application and system performance characteristics haven’t been adversely affected. Once automated call center system and application tests have been created, regression tests are fast and easy to run.

In-Service Monitoring
If you are only evaluating quality by monitoring agent interactions or measuring service statistics like wait time, you are missing significant potential sources of customer dissatisfaction. It is possible that customer calls or contact attempts may not even be reaching the point where they show up as a statistic in your call center. This is why In-service Monitoring is a vital component of a Life-Cycle Testing program. In-service Monitoring generates periodic test calls that duplicate the actions of real callers and use the PSTN and call center systems the way actual callers would.

In some call centers, seventy or eighty percent of customer interactions or calls are at least partially automated. Customer self-service is a growing trend. Customers today can use, and may prefer, IVR systems or the Web for many or most of their transactions. If these self-service systems fail, even partially, there can be serious operational and business ramifications. Customer service representatives can suddenly become inundated with calls. Wait times can skyrocket. Business can be lost

Unfortunately, failures in automated customer self-service systems are not always immediately apparent. Carrier and network routing problems may be intermittent. A handful of VRU ports may not be working properly. The wrong prompts may be playing. Customers may be getting disconnected. At one major computer manufacturer, their VRUs were answering customer calls but taking customers to a prompt that played the message “All customer representatives are busy. Please call back later,” and then disconnected the customer call. The call center manager wasn’t even aware there was a problem.

Automated Test Calls
Examples like this are why a growing number of leading call centers are implementing automated testing programs that periodically generate test calls that duplicate the actions of real callers. One major US bank places automated test calls every night to over 4,000 VRU ports to ensure that each one is working properly. These test calls use prompt recognition and step through a representative call flow to not only ensure that the VRU ports are up and running but also that the correct prompts are playing and that there are not any excessive timing delays in database access. The test systems check to see that the call reaches the VRU, the VRU port answers the call, responds properly to DTMF tones, and transfers calls out of the VRU directly.

During the day the same automated test systems are used to generate calls to a random sample of the bank’s VRU ports, measuring the same parameters as the more extensive overnight tests. If problems are found, the test system automatically pages a technical person to alert them to the trouble. Using this system, the bank has been able to minimize the impact of VRU port failures on the bank’s call center. It has also reduced the probability that the bank’s customers will encounter problems using the bank’s automated VRU-based transaction systems. This has resulted in improved over-all customer service levels for the bank and provided a potentially significant competitive advantage.

The call center is the primary point of customer contact for many companies today. Companies have identified quality of service in the call center as a source of sustainable competitive differentiation. Many have implemented Quality Assurance programs in their call centers. A comprehensive call center Quality Assurance program should include Life-Cycle Testing of systems, applications, and corporate web sites using automated test systems. Automated test systems have demonstrated that they can play a significant role in quality improvement by finding and pinpointing the source of network, system, and application failures that would otherwise negatively impact customer service and quality.

Drew Knowland is Director of Call Center Marketing at Hammer Technologies. Hammer’s automated Computer Telephony test systems are widely used by CTI equipment manufacturers, carriers, and leading call centers for quality assurance testing

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