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6 Things To Do Now in Contact Centers

by Robert Schumacher , 11.11.2010

This article is re-posted from User Centric’s blog.

Having spent a lot of time observing people interact with software in contact centers, we have watched them do “back flips” and “pretzel moves” to accomplish what should be straightforward tasks.  During an average phone call, agents must typically scan a congested screen for pertinent information and juggle the view of numerous applications to perform common tasks in response to customer inquiries.  In many cases, contact center applications are not designed with the challenges of the user in mind, which in turn leads to a greater inefficiency and potential for error.

Many companies are more inclined to invest in training rather than improving the tools used by contact center agents.  However, we argue that even a modest improvement to the design of contact center applications is likely to have significantly more ROI compared with training contact center agents to use poorly designed systems.  For example, simply avoiding the use of ALL CAPS or UPPER CASE text on the screen and using “Title” or Sentence” case instead, will improve the user’s ability to scan the screen by 10-20%.  Whether you need to improve ROI or reduce FTE, here are the top 6 things you can to now to improve the design of contact center systems:

1. Eliminate reliance on memory.

During a given customer call, contact center agents are required to reference several important pieces of information in satisfying the customer.  In some cases, we have witnessed agents rely on their memory to recall key pieces of information that may be scattered across different screens within the application and therefore difficult to find.  Contact center agents are already faced with the challenge of performing many tasks simultaneously such as typing while talking, without the additional weight on their cognitive load of memorizing key information.

In helping agents not to rely on memory:

• Consider displaying key information in a persistently-displayed section at the top of the screen so that agents can refer to this section at any given time during the call regardless of which application or screen they are currently viewing.

• Consider using a tabbed display to present disparate groups of key information that are not feasible to show in a persistently-displayed section of the screen.

• Use tool tips that conveniently show more details about a particular field on hover, which limits the need to click and navigate to another screen or invoke a distracting pop-up window.

2. Reduce the number of options or steps.

Contact center performance is typically gauged by a timely response to customer inquiries.  The less information to process on the screen and the fewer steps to negotiate in performing a task, the quicker the agent can resolve the customer’s inquiry.  Reducing the number of steps and options is also likely to increase agent accuracy, as they have fewer choices to consider when doing tasks.  For example, contact center agents typically assign a code to each call to help management track the incidence of specific issues.  From our experience with contact center applications, we have observed agents access drop-down lists with up to a hundred different issue codes to choose from when assigning these codes.  Limiting the list of codes to a more manageable number will allow agents to categorize calls more accurately and promptly.

3. Avoid the use of ALL CAPS text

Many contact center applications use “ALL CAPS” or “UPPER CASE” text on the screen to represent key information, particularly in the case of “notes” fields.  Studies have shown that it is more difficult to read ALL CAPS text compared with “Title” or “Sentence” case. The use of ALL CAPS text actually slows reading by about 10-20% compared with “Title” or “Sentence” case.  ALL CAPS characters appear almost identical in width making it more difficult to distinguish from one another.  However, “Title” or “Sentence” case characters have a much greater variability in width that results in better legibility and scannability. Using “Title” or Sentence” text also helps reduce screen information density and economize on screen real estate, as “Title” or “Sentence” characters use significantly less horizontal space compared with ALL CAPS characters.

4. Keep hands on the keyboard

Contact center agents very quickly become expert users as they deal with many of the same types of calls, helping them to rapidly learn typical workflows and tasks.  Agents are able to navigate through multiple screens and applications at astonishing speeds by learning keyboard shortcuts that are essential in using legacy or “Green Screen” systems that have very limited graphical displays.  Keyboard shortcuts allow contact center agents to rapidly perform routine tasks by minimizing the time it takes to point and click with the mouse.  According to the GOMS KLM analysis, it takes 1.2 seconds to point with a mouse (excluding click) compared with .12 seconds for a “good” typist to press a key.  Keeping agents’ hands on the keyboard will help expedite common workflows while reducing overall handle time.

5. Enhance Screen Layout

We have seen many examples of contact center screens that exhibit symptoms of poor layout.  The following include some principles to consider in the layout of contact center screens:

• Ensure proper alignment of screen elements to make it easier for agents to scan the screen for pertinent information.

• Use appropriate grouping to divide the screen into more consumable chunks that will help agents distinguish groups of fields from on another.  For example, grouping fields under headers such as “Personal Information” and “Account Summary,” will allow the agent to focus on the relevant area of the screen according to the customer inquiry.

• Use Sans serif fonts such as Helvetica or Arial to optimize legibility on the screen.  Sans serif fonts are recommended for use at lower resolutions such as CRT monitors, because they lack the additional stroke or line (known as a serif) that appear in serif font characters.  The more uniformed appearance of San serif fonts are less complex to render on the screen than serif fonts.

• Limit the use bold text and too many font sizes to emphasize certain screen elements over others.  Using too much bold or too many font sizes makes it harder for agents to focus on what is important on the screen.

• Ensure a good contrast between text and background colors for better legibility.  Use dark text on a light background for optimal contrast. Avoid the use of red text on darker backgrounds as the text will appear to vibrate, known as the “simultaneous contrast effect.”

• Use appropriate whitespace to reduce the visual clutter and information density that are characterize contact center screens.  Dividing up the screen using whitespace aids legibility and helps agents distinguish between groups of information.

• Highlight important elements on the screen such as status alerts and product types by using appropriate iconography.

6. Make application messages understandable

Use more descriptive language in application messages that closely matches the user’s vocabulary and domain context rather than using of computer jargon or system nomenclature.  This is especially critical when such messages are intended to be relayed to the customer by agent.  The potential for misleading or misinforming the customer can be averted with more careful wording of application messages.

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