Author: Mary Palmatier
Telecommunications Administrator at Capital District Transportation Authority (CDTA)
It was Valentine’s Day, 2007, and a massive blizzard hit much of the Eastern United States. Everyone knows snow is not uncommon in New York. Usually, no one thinks twice about it, but our experience in Albany that year was excessive: We got about three feet in just as many hours.
At Capital District Transportation Authority (CDTA), the situation was dire—not only for the buses and supervisors braving the roads but also for our customer service staff. A high volume of incoming calls flooded our facility. Eventually, the storm got so bad that it became too dangerous to provide public transportation at all. It was the only time in my 16 years at the CDTA that we stopped all routes.
At our customer service center, however, the calls kept coming. It was all hands on deck: Anyone available to answer a phone did just that. But we only had so many lines, and our system was not designed for that many calls. People called us because they needed to know if their bus was running, and they couldn’t get through. Instead, all they got was a busy signal. It was not a good look for CDTA. We knew we needed to do better.
CDTA is a public-benefit corporation overseeing public transportation in the Capital District of New York, which includes Albany, Schenectady, Rensselaer, and Saratoga counties. We provide short- and long-distance transit, whether someone takes the bus for a 10-minute ride within Albany or a 45-minute intercity journey. We also run STAR, a paratransit program that offers transportation alternatives to people who have difficulty using the CDTA fixed-route bus system because of a disability or impairment.
A company’s customer service center touches every part of the organization. Are your agents equipped to handle anything that comes their way?
I started at CDTA working part-time on the help desk. Today, I’m responsible for overseeing the primary phone system and the help desk software. Our customer service center touches every part of the organization and handles everything from basic customer service to arranging pickups for paratransit to bus drivers communicating with dispatch. We have introduced new ways for our riders to access information, but many of our customers still find it easier to call us for route information, issues relating to their transit pass, or new features such as our FLEX Service, an on-demand service akin to Uber.
Everything comes back to communication: Whatever service CDTA offers, our customer service center and help desk are there to help.
The snowstorm incident made us realize we needed a better solution for our customer service center and help desk. We began to look at solutions that would give us more lines, thereby increasing our capacity to address concerns and ensure that customers wouldn’t receive a busy signal. However, we are a public authority, so we have to undergo a lengthy process for evaluating and choosing any new solution. We tendered many bids from various companies, and we ended up selecting what is known today as the Interactive Communications Center (ICC) and Quality Management Suite (QMS) from Enghouse.
What stood out for us about the Enghouse software was that it solved all the problems we encountered during the snowstorm. Our top requirements were to add queueing and more live lines. Enghouse, along with our service provider, gave us the ability to use 96 lines for live calls, play announcements and we also got the option for callers to leave a message and receive a return call from us if they don’t want to wait on the phone. Enghouse delivered everything.
It was 2009 by the time we completed the procurement process and deployed the Enghouse solutions. Enghouse flew team members from across the country to help us with the deployment, particularly with training. Staff was used to picking up a desk phone, and we wanted to make sure they were comfortable using applications on their computer instead. The Enghouse team then stuck around while we went live, helping us with last-minute configurations and issues.
Today, using the software has become second nature to our customer service agents and they’ve continued to adapt to a number of different circumstances.
Three years ago, we adopted Microsoft Teams, which had compatibility issues with ICC. We looked for another system that could do everything ICC did, but we couldn’t find anything that came close. We switched to another Enghouse solution until the compatibility issues were resolved, and then we prepared to switch back to an updated version of ICC. This time, we had the added challenge of deploying during a pandemic.
The entire rollout was remote, so it helped that we already had experience with the platform. This upgrade gave us all the functionality we had come to expect and had the additional benefit of enabling agents to work remotely.
The physical area of our customer service center has changed quite a bit over the years, but we have consistently featured screens throughout the space that display the Communications Center dashboard. Using the dashboard, everyone can always see how many calls are in the queue, current wait times, the list of agents available, or if agents are on a call, how long they’ve been on that call.
Enghouse designed the software to stay out of the agent’s way. When an agent is on a call, they usually have several programs and windows open to address the customer’s concerns. Rather than have ICC software dominate the screen, it sits in a little pop-up window. A few years ago, we switched to Office 365 for email, and ICC also places those customer emails in the queue, saving the agent from hopping in and out of another program.
The look of the manager’s desktop, by contrast, is all about time-saving automation. Supervisors can set rules about time, such as how long is too long for a caller to wait. We’re cognizant of peoples’ time, especially knowing some of our customers have a disability or other impairment. With ICC, we can set up alerts so the manager can see when a call approaches that “too long” limit and assign an agent to that call.
Agents can also select a “work time” button when engaged in other work and not actively taking calls. If the manager gets an alert that the queue is growing, they can override that “work time” feature and route calls to an agent. Supervisors also can change the auto attendant announcement in the case of a weather advisory or high call volume.
Managers aren’t supposed to spend every minute monitoring the situation. Automation takes care of the more mundane tasks, letting managers step in when needed.
All of these features allow managers to get on with their other work. Managers aren’t supposed to spend every minute monitoring the queue—automation takes care of the more mundane tasks, letting managers step in when needed.
A supervisor has even more monitoring options with QMS, a call recording solution used for compliance, security, or improving service levels. Unfortunately, in our line of work, we sometimes receive threatening calls that we need to review for safety purposes. But call recording also helps supervisors train and develop customer service agents, and the updated version of QMS integrates seamlessly with other Enghouse software.
The search function has improved, too, and we use it to check for specific things, such as the proper ways to begin and end calls. Our supervisors perform a spot check at the end of every week to ensure their agents open and close the call correctly. Supervisors review an agent’s calls as part of their evaluation, and they will also take new agents through their recent calls. Often by just hearing their calls, an agent will identify performance improvements to enhance the customer experience. Alongside the coaching of their supervisor, these calls help make better agents.
Nothing compares to Enghouse’s communication solutions. The array of features, settings, timers, and overrides—you don’t get that from another cloud-based software.
Another reason we keep coming back to Enghouse is because of their level of support. They’re very responsive via email, and you can also call and get a quick response from their tier one and tier two support teams. Being in the business of customer service, I can recognize a job well done. If something isn’t a quick fix or an issue requires a technician with more specialized knowledge, they will schedule a time to call me back—and they always call back.
During the time we have been with Enghouse, our number of calls has increased dramatically. The call volume we received during that 2007 snowstorm is now just a typical Wednesday, but we don’t miss a beat.
On top of that, while a customer is waiting to speak with an agent, we can give them information. That’s a tremendous advantage when there’s a weather advisory and someone calls to find out the status of a route—they now have that info without speaking to anyone. We can also tell the customer about different ways to access information, inform them about new services we offer, and encourage them to leave a message for us to call them back, without leaving their place in the queue.
We can serve our customers better every day, and in the event of a disaster, Enghouse has removed the worry that our customers can’t reach us. That Valentine’s Day snowstorm was a bad day, but it started us off on the path to better service. Customers are never going to get a busy signal again.