How the pandemic has changed the contact center: workforce, comms, tech, and insight

John Ernberger, Co-Founder, Stella Connect (a Medallia company)
John Ernberger, Co-Founder, Stella Connect (a Medallia company)
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This week, Sharad and I had the pleasure of chatting to John Ernsberger, the co-founder of Stella Connect.

The interview was short but high value, we covered topics like:

  • How to motivate employees in the contact centre, one of the toughest work environments.
  • What has John seen change in contact centres during the pandemic?
  • How contact centres are responding to their employees working from home with a new tech stack, transformed communication and digital learning & development.
  • How the volume and type of tickets taken by contact centres have changed in the past few months.
  • Why there might need to be a fundamental shift in the characteristics of the contact centre workforce.
  • How the way contact centres extract and use customer feedback has changed during the pandemic.
  • How you can get more information to frontline staff to ensure you have efficient training and QA, operational metrics, and employee feedback loops.

Phew, we covered a lot in that time. Safe to say this episode was thought-provoking and packed with insight.


John's been in the customer service tech space for more than ten years and worked closely with clients like Walmart, Mercedes, Warby Parker and AXA. So it was interesting to his insights on how things are changing under the influence of the pandemic.

We mostly focused on three themes: technology, employees and feedback.

Undoubtedly those of you who work in, or closely with, the contact centre of your company will have experience many of these difficulties first hand. Things like internet and phone service now being installed at home, pets and children randomly walking in during phone calls, and suddenly having the inability to learn in a classroom environment.

One topic that particularly struck me as interesting was the loss of an efficient customer feedback system. Pre-pandemic, at a small-sized organisation, it was relatively easy to understand reasons for customer contact, lean over to the product team and let them know you keep getting calls about a certain bug or product flaw.

AI for customer service ebook

For medium and large organisations, this method of passing product improving feedback to the relevant teams was already complex. Perhaps, it was done in an ad-hoc way in a weekly meeting between customer support and product teams, or perhaps, for the really advanced, reporting the customer feedback from support tickets was automated (maybe even using AI if you're our client..)

But for the majority of it was a pretty unprocess-like process. A bit messy and unmethodical.

Now that we've moved to a home working environment, long meetings via Zoom become too complicated and waste time. Yet many product teams still rely on frontline feedback to optimise and improve. In this new context, better collaboration tools and clear documentation become vital to scaling how a team relays customer feedback.

We dig into what those tools are in the episode and take a look at how John has seen their clients tackle the difficulties of work from home call centres.

Watch the episode

The work from home contact centre: tech, comms and insight

Ben: Hi John, welcome to the Support Insights podcast. It's an honour to have you here talking to us today.  For those of you who are listening at home, who don't know, John is the founder of Stella, a technology company that has just been acquired by Medallia.

John, for those people listening at the moment and who don't know, could you please give us your sort of one-minute pitch? What is Stella?

John: Yeah. So we primarily sell software to contact centres that helps engage and motivate the front lines like never before, and for supervisors and executives of the organization, we provide performance management, workflows,  and visibility ultimately to help manage a small, medium, and large team.

We work with companies that are 10 customer service agents and we work with organizations like Walmart and Quicken Loans here in the States that are 10,000, service agents. So kind of everybody in between but it's made up of a couple of different components like customer feedback, Q/A, quality assurance, and one-on-ones, and it's been around for going on five years now.

We launched the business in February of 2016 about a month ago i.e. last September we closed on the acquisition Medallia acquired Stella connect early on in September. So we're now a part of the Medallia family.

Ben: That's amazing. Congratulations. What was the driver behind the acquisition?

John: Yeah.

So Medallia is a customer experience and employee experience software platform that collects data from any customer or employee touchpoints helps to analyze and provides actionability for large organizations.

They've primarily been in the physical world space so working with airlines and hotel groups and retail in the physical world and so they built a big business. They went public, about two years ago and they're kind of on a journey of rounding out their product suite.

So one of the areas where they wanted to drive more market penetration is in the contact centre space and that's where Stella has really been excelling as initially we were a point solution and we started to build on to our platform become more of a quality sort of management platform and so Medallia got really interested in what we were, what we were up to. For us, it was a lot of the things that our customers were asking about and requesting, or what I would call enterprise kind of features and bells and whistles, not really bells and whistles, like table stake type of stuff that we were conflicted about building because it wasn't necessary. What really differentiated Stella from other competitors out there is more like permissions and groups reporting and stuff that wasn't going to differentiate Stellian connect as a business and so Medallia kind of snap of the finger has a lot of that.

And that's exciting from a product perspective and having those resources and timing the COVID kind of tailwinds. I was saying to you guys it's been hard to reconcile the good stuff that's happened to Stella in a year. That's been smeared with a lot of bad stuff globally but the tailwinds of this pandemic have made contact centres really blow up in a good way. In terms of volume, a lot of people are shopping online a lot more and our customers have been growing for the most part and so that obviously catches the eye of acquires and you know it kind of felt like the right time.  

Obviously, a lot of retailers are rethinking their physical world storefront model, especially here in the States where you know, a square foot of retail is just out of whack on a per capita basis. You think of America, you think of shopping malls and that's, there's a lot of truth to that so I think it's a major correction for kind of physical retail space.

Ben: I think because of what Stella focuses on it would be interesting to know what are the fundamentals that customer support needs to get right to actually engage and motivate employees. I've heard from lots of people that it is one of the hardest things for a customer support director to get right because a lot of the time a customer support agent’s job wasn't their dream job in the beginning and they're doing something that's quite repetitive potentially. And with people complaining all the time it can be a really difficult job. So how do you motivate that kind of environment?

John: Yeah, I think it's tricky and that's the reason why we started Stella. We were walking through large contact centres and seeing how tough of an environment it can be versus some organizations who are doing it well and kind of the opposite side of the equation. I think taking a step back and as a manager, the first-off kind of understanding this goes back to the book that I mentioned the Alliance, but understanding kind of the context of your department in your company's journey is very important and just in a very dramatic sense, the support team that you're running for an organization that has $0 in revenue, you know, trying to get from zero to a million dollars in revenue. That journey is very different and you're expecting your frontline people to do something and act differently.

I would say,  then maybe at 50 million or a 500 million or a billion dollars in revenue and, I think that's important because as a manager you always need to connect or do the best you can at connecting your employees work with the business, the goals of the business and the vision of the business, and to whatever extent you can connect those dots makes the frontline employee more loyal to the organization. And to the extent that you can kind of consider this idea of a tour of duty where loyalty from the front lines, it’s kind of rare. Like people will move on and your job as a manager isn't necessary to keep them there as long as you can it's to help them promote their career and give them the option to stay or go but be at a place where they feel like they're furthering their career.

So there's a lot into that but kind of setting that as a stage is really important but I think the basics and again this is going back to the basics of why support and services. So there's a lot of fun like you can kind of lean back on speed and quality at the end of the day and being quick and kind to customers and helping to kind of promote that goes a long way, but from people process technology perspective, there's a lot that you can do to kind of tee your organization up to provide the best service possible.

Ben: Definitely. You said part of keeping them motivated is that just knowing that the turnover is going to be high and accepting that not trying to keep people there forever, but just making it fun while they are there.

John: Yeah. I think kind of embracing that like “Hey, we want to get you in a position where let's look at this next year, this next two years to further develop your skills at this thing you know. So if you're a tier-one customer support person, really mastering the tier one type of issues and becoming an expert in that, or if you're developing that sort of part of your organization, you want to have the master, the domain of tier-one tickets and be able to, you know, ultimately educate and train others in that department, that might be an example of a chapter in their career.

And so if you've kind of set that as the stage, you make sure that's aligned with your organizational goals and the overall company goals, it's a win-win for the employee and you as a manager because you kind of get what you need out of that person and you also give that individual the freedom. There’s a kind of a start and an end to this journey in my career, which everybody thinks about on their own but it's kind of hard to put those milestones. And so you're motivated to kind of reach the finish line and do the best you can do so you can put that on your resume, you can kind of promote that in your next chapter your next journey. Does that make sense?

Ben: I think that the way I'm interpreting would be something “Okay, so you've just joined, like you're the bottom of the agent level but you could say to someone like within two years, we want you to be learning how to manage other agents and you can build that skill and that's the way. That's one of your aims for being here kind of thing.

John: Exactly. And a lot of organizations do it and it's not as easy as it is to kind of talk through because people are people and we're emotional beings. So managing is honestly one of the hardest things in my personal experience.

My professional experience is just managing careers, managing individuals because you want to help them so much but you can only do it in so far as the business grows and there's an opportunity and all of that.

Ben: Yeah. How have things changed, do you think in the contact centres now that everything's gone to like work from home?

John: Yeah, a lot has changed. I think number one, the infrastructure fundamentally has changed. So you're now working from home, you have to think through, how we're going to get internet and phone service at a high rate to folks on the frontline because that's imperative. And you have to deal with home life which we all know, especially with kids is incredibly challenging or pets or a spouse that's needy’s challenging.

That's a logistical challenge that a lot of organizations had to think through overnight. I was talking to one of our customers, Quicken Loans, who basically in one week had to get everybody, the equipment, home. So they had set up a kind of on the street sort of temporary parking where people could go in and get monitors and phone equipment and things like that between 5:00 PM and 8:00 PM on a Thursday night. So they could start hitting the phones the Saturday morning or Friday morning. I think just communication, in general, is different and one of the things too that I think is important to consider it is a table set and is important to consider as if you're running your business the same way you were in a physical environment, but in a work from home environment, you're really missing the ball and you really have to think differently about how you communicate for one in a work from home type of environment.

So you've seen platforms like Slack or Microsoft teams really pick up in popularity. You see the importance of asynchronous communication as more of things. So if you can't necessarily meet with people because they have other things going on in their life and more of that is kind of popping up in their home environment, you need to focus on written communication a lot more and be able to document things and have those updates live so that people can see that on their own time. It puts a lot more emphasis on written communication, being a good writer, and succinct, and it's really important and then I think for a lot of context centres. I hear a lot about learning and development. No longer do you have classroom settings to bring people in at midnight and bring your lunch and all of that it's over zoom or it's through platforms like Lessonly or other L and D learning and development kind of software platforms out there, or LMS. That's challenging again, it goes back to that written communication concept, like documenting how you should handle business and, allowing people the freedom to do it on their own time, those are a few challenges.

Sharad: And John, as a result of these challenges, specifically logistic challenges, are you seeing a major shift in how customer support is done with your current customers?

In the sense let's say maybe moving away from voice more towards tech channels, automation, self-serves and I think you also touched upon asynchronous communications. Are you seeing that kind of shift happening?

John: Yeah, for sure. What I hear and what I see is that volume continues to increase and that's across all channels really but the volume on an absolute contact basis is increasing. Then, allocation of those contacts are changing like people are emailing less, but like contacts on,  a total are increasing because of automation and certain software out there allows tier one, I'll call it to tier one type of issues to be handled in an automated fashion by going to the website, by typing in your reference number or order number, or what have you no longer are our customers contacting companies with those questions that's becoming fewer and fewer, but they are contacting those organizations with more complex issues.

And so the need for tier two and tier three and more technical more in-depth type of support is happening. And so you're seeing kind of a fundamental shift in the profile of customer service agent that is needed. Somebody who can take down the information and understand the problem on a deeper level and more of kind of a surface level and then get back to the customer is becoming more prevalent. So yeah, definitely some shifts.

Ben: How are companies overcoming that challenge because to have to like fundamentally shift that makeup of your workforce seems like quite a big challenge. How would it be coping with that?

John: Yeah, I think there are two ways. One is from a technology perspective so being smarter about your tech stack and being able to put more data in the hands of your front lines is something that every organization is trying to figure out and do. There are leaders and laggards based on their legacy systems and or not so that's one more information to people who are managing it.

The other is from a hiring perspective. There is a high turnover rate on the front lines and therefore you have an opportunity to change the way you hire the profile, the person that you're looking for, and start to understand who's doing it very well. And then connect those attributes or characteristics back to your ATS i.e. your Applicant Tracking System where you track all applicants, you interview people, you score them but you might be looking for different things based on what you're seeing in the market or who's doing it really well and so it's not an overnight fix to your point, Ben. This is you gotta be in it for the long haul.

Ben: Definitely. So you mentioned getting data into the hands of the front line. I want to know a little bit more about that like what kind of data are they going to need? How does the tech change for getting that data into the front line, what needs to change to improve that?

John: Yeah. So obviously it depends on who you're talking to. If you're talking about as a supervisor, who's managing a team of 6 to 12 people, or maybe even more in some of these larger contact centres but you looking at kind of three major inputs to how you evaluate performance.

One is kind of quality, two is kind of the operational metrics and three is a new one, but kind of employee feedback. You know, on the quality side, you're looking at customer feedback as an input. You're looking at, the kind of supervisor input. So Q/A them listening to calls and coaching, by listening to how you're handling yourself on real interactions, and kind of combining that with customer feedback. What Stella does, what Medallia does, “Hey, how was the call?” and taking a look at are you five star, are you four stars or somewhere in between. That shapes the visibility of how you coach for sure. You also look at operational metrics, which are more of the basics, which are not the fun stuff to talk about, unfortunately, but it's around attendance. It's around average talk time it's around issue resolution and some of the operational fact metrics that you're seeing and then that combined with kind of the employee feedback, how are they feeling and what are they seeing on the front line?

Like those three kinds of components can shape an effective and having visibility across your team. And then if you’re director inside a contact centre across your entire organization, you can start to be really smart about how you coach, where you spend your time, are you focused more on people who are really below the curve or maybe the meaty part of the curve because those are the highest potential to get above the curve?

Ben: I think it's interesting because I think we originally were talking about the issues are coming more complex, so you need to maybe a different type of person, a different type of agent, and part of what's changed is like getting data into the hands of the frontline is the key thing that you see. Being most important in the contact centre is about evaluating the quality of each agent and helping them to provide a good customer experience.

John: Yeah, I think it's one of the core tenants for sure. If you're talking about the tech stack of a contact centre, there's that piece of it, which is kind of the experience sort of piece, which is both employee and customer feedback you gotta be doing that. That's just table stakes you obviously have to have your contact centre solutions or your cloud telephony system or you know, email, live chat analytics, whatever to, to, to pipe in contacts and, and have those.

You also have to have a workforce, WFO platform i.e. work workforce optimization what's now becoming WEM, workforce engagement management software, which handles potentially scheduling and learning and development and stuff like that. Of course, you need your help desk / CRM like those are blending that's kind of the fourth piece and then the fifth is kind of an analytics tool. I'd say those are the five core categories of a contact centre technology stack but of course, Stella is the most important one of all of them.

No, I think that experience management is one of them and it's critical just like the other four.

Ben: Are these tools that you think are now more important or were already important to be part of your tech stack is this something?

John: Yeah. They're always important that they're shifting in how they're delivered and new innovative solutions are popping up across those five categories, which for an organization like I pick Warby Parker, which is you know a very hot retail story here in the States. They're not following the rules but they're asking the questions around, how do they deliver the best possible service experience?  

The answers that they're getting to those questions are pushing them to innovative products that weren't around 10 years ago and so that's kind of fundamentally like any industry, any category you have kind of disruptors, that is disrupted in the Star Wars brands, which is its part of the game.

Ben: Like us.

Sharad: Like Sentisum exactly.

Ben: Podcasts that talk about how great we are.

John: Yeah. I'm shocked. It's taken us this long to get that. Maybe we just cut this out and move it to the beginning.

Ben: I think it’s interesting because I know you did the zip code. Does the Stella connect summit?

John: Yeah Stella summit. It was called Level Up 2020. That's all about #levelup.

Ben: Nice. That's cool. How do you think this whole shift to working from home has now affected the way that contact centres can relay the customer's needs and the common complaints and the analytics kind of side of that to the rest of the team and product and operations. And if they were doing it well before it must have got a bit harder to do.

John: Yeah, it's difficult but you've heard it from a lot of leaders out there, kind of any crisis breeds, this moment of opportunity, which is pretty exciting. I'm an eternal optimist kind of guy so that's my slant as well.

I think from a people workforce perspective if you have an opportunity to give people time back if you're smart with how you enable your employees to log in and log out. So I think there's some interesting stuff that is happening and will continue to happen on letting people work wherever they want and being more flexible with the time blocks that they give to Walmart and Parker and you know these organizations where they're working on the front lines.

And by that maybe you log in for two hours from 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM because you know your kids and your husband are out to baseball practice this or whatever your wife is running errands or something. So you have an hour to kind of log in verses like these blocks of time. So from a scheduling perspective, I think there's a lot of opportunities and then kind of what I was saying before is like the documentation and I call it kind of your operating rhythm to the mix of like meetings and reports that run through an organization like those have to be sharp and with a purpose and there's a lot of wasted time on that stuff. But to your point Ben, like if product relies on the feedback from the front lines and you had a meeting pre-COVID in an office every Tuesday around product feedback and here are the trends going on how you translate that into a completely remote environment isn't necessarily let's have a meeting at Tuesday at 10:00 AM you know it might be but the documentation and the quality of that documentation and the details of that need to be sharp the people who receive it need to be sharp. There needs to be a clear kind of action items coming out of those meetings. There needs to be accountability around that and all that can be documented in a way that I think was kind of non-existent in the physical space. Again, that’s an opportunity I think but a couple of examples there.

Sharad: That's very interesting. The point you just made John, because pre-COVID like you are in the same room or the same office as a product owner, you can reach out to your support team and ask, “Hey, What are the top issues today?”

And similarly, for the manager or the supervisor, you're just sitting next to and you are so aware of what's happening in the company but now when everyone is working from home, I can imagine that how kind of anxiety this can create a lack of confidence it can create when you feel you are not the top of the things actually, you don't know what's happening. So that collaboration like documentation that you touched upon it becomes so important. Just to this one, John because you track feedback for the agents have you seen any specific insights which you can share like after COVID you have seen these qualities go up or where we have seen on these qualities where you have seen performance go down, maybe empathy, politeness or timeliness.

John: I'm thinking I don't have any off the top of my head. I think the Harvard Business School did a big study in conjunction with Gartner or one of the big sort of research shops around the different profiles of agents and how they're kind of seeing which ones are more successful in today's work environment and  I remember the kind of the title and you can look it up online. I think it's called kick-ass customer service something like that. It is from a few years ago it was pre COVID but I think it still rings true where there's this profile of agent called the Controller.

The Controller sounds a bit ominous but the Controller is somebody who can kind of gather the information, taken the information, communicate it back to a customer, and takes that problem on themselves individually, goes out, seeks the solution, and then gets back to that customer. That kind of flow for any customer service organization is kind of rare actually, where you get that kind of ownership and it comes back because of the complexity, then you need more people like that then somebody maybe who's just more of an empathize person and you need moments of empathy for sure but maybe more of the sweet empathizer who doesn't necessarily take as much control, that’s just a kind of an example.

Ben: That's cool. That's a good answer. And I think, for your next meeting, we should just wrap that up.

Yeah. So thank you so much for sharing that. Thanks so much for coming and talking to us.

John: Great to be a part of it. That's the left guys. Thanks.

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