Salt River Project – one of Arizona’s largest utilities – has long engaged agents (and customers) with its positive and powerful culture of service. I recently had the honor of interviewing SRP’s Director of Residential Services, Yolanda France, who was gracious enough to share many of the practices and approaches that drive the contact center’s high employee satisfaction and performance.
(In the Q & A below, “GL” is me and “YF” is Yolanda France.)
GL: I hear that at SRP, rewarding & recognizing agents is a high priority. Please describe some of your rewards/recognition programs and practices, and the impact they have had on agent engagement.
YF: We value our representatives and know that they have a very challenging job – perhaps one of the most complex in our company! We want to let them know that being here and doing a good job assisting our customers is very important and that we really appreciate them.
We have an award given monthly for the best call for a specific topic. An example of a specific type is a high bill call. The winning call is chosen by a committee of fellow phone reps who listen to the call and decide if their peer was able to help out the customer. Prizes include movie tickets, lunch with a supervisor, the rep’s preferred schedule for one week, and an extra-long lunch hour.
All of our reps can also qualify for the “Perfect Attendance” award. Being tardy or absent disqualifies a rep for that award, which is given out on a monthly basis – we randomly choose three winners among those who qualify each month. So, it pays to come to work, literally!
Here’s what a couple of our contact center supervisors have to say about our employee rewards and recognition practices:
Gene Gerhart, Supervisor: “We hear all the time that reps like to be recognized. The opportunities and rewards we provide them motivate them – and a happy employee stays.”
Frank Garshak, Supervisor: “We want to let our reps know that we appreciate their effort because without them we would not be able to have a world-class organization.”
GL: How do you balance individual awards and team awards to ensure that not only the “stars” get recognized? Do you do any “recognition for recognition’s sake” types of things to keep center-wide morale up?
YF: We like to recognize people for their strengths. They don’t have to be the star, but we really concentrate on finding out what they do well and maximizing that talent. For example, if we have a person who is technically inclined, we may have them help with testing of new functionalities of our customer relationship management system. We also have a whole team devoted to doing fun events. They are called the “SWAT” (Spirit Work Activities Team). They plan events for various occasions throughout the year for holidays and Customer Service Week. The team also coordinates things like pot-lucks, games, parties and salsa challenges as well as holiday food drives, Adopt-A-Family volunteering, and many other activities that support SRP’s community involvement. You say you’re having a "lack-o-fun" emergency? Call in the SWAT!
GL: Do agents have a say in the types of incentives and awards that are provided? Do you seek their feedback to ensure that the various rewards & recognition programs are effective?
YF: Absolutely! In fact, many of our current awards programs come directly from feedback given by reps. Call Center management meets monthly with reps to update them on various projects throughout SRP. These meetings also serve as a forum for reps to provide feedback on what is and what isn’t working in the Call Center. We have sessions with the Senior Director of Customer Services, Renee Castillo, known as “Rappin’ with Renee.” And myself, the Director of Residential Customer Service, have meetings called “Yappin’ with Yolanda.” See a pattern here?
GL: I understand that agents have ample opportunities for cross-training and other development initiatives to add diversity to their core job function. Please provide some examples.
YF: Reps are often selected by their supervisors for opportunities to cross-train in other functional work areas within Customer Services, such as Billing, Accounting, Research & Communications Services, and Field Services, just to name a few. Reps can also participate in a variety of special projects and teams. As I mentioned, they participate as user acceptance testers for new software releases and upgrades to our customer relationship management system. They are the primary users and know when things work and when they don’t. These activities do not come with pay raises but build a knowledge foundation and provide networking opportunities when our reps feel they are ready to become Lead Customer Service Reps or move on to other departments within SRP.
GL: Is there a clear career path in the contact center (i.e., various agent levels, team lead/supervisory opportunities, management training, etc.)?
YF: Many of our reps are promoted up the Call Center ladder, so to speak. The traditional progression is to start as a rep, then progress to a Lead Customer Service Rep, and then possibly to Call Center Supervisor or Call Center Analyst, and then to Manager. As an interesting tidbit, 14 of the 19 members of the Call Center management team (Supervisors, Managers and Director) were SRP reps at one point in their careers.
GL: Your agents seem to stick around for a long time. Surely your hiring practices help set the stage for such high retention... can you share how you hire and select reps?
YF: Certainly. We have a pretty comprehensive hiring process. We ask candidates to take an assessment test. Those who pass the assessment are then invited to call for a quick phone interview. Those who pass the phone interview are invited to participate in a “speed interview.” Managers and supervisors throughout Customer Services along with members of our Training Development and Customer Interaction group interview the candidates. Each candidate gets two minutes to answer a question and then moves to another seat where another interviewer asks another question. We’ve found that candidates tend to be less nervous, and get to meet people with whom they would be working. In turn, managers, supervisors, and our Training group get to meet potential reps and, collectively, select the best of the best.
GL: Is there anything else you would like to add?
YF: I’d like to share some comments from a couple of members of my esteemed team. I think what they have to say pretty much sums up our contact center environment:
Di Witt, Supervisor: “We really feel that having a balance of fun and professionalism is important so that employees come to work and know that we want them to be happy coming to work. If they are happy, our customers will be happy too.”
Seth Bingham, Rep: “I’ve worked in customer services for over 10 years with five different companies. SRP is the best by far! The caliber of the people who work here is amazing. [Management] makes everyone feel welcome and like they are family. Work has never been so enjoyable until I started working here!”
SRP – the Big Picture
Contact center locations: Two (Arizona) locations: one in Tempe, and one in Queen Creek
Hours of operation: 24/7
Number of agents employed: 230
Products/services supported/provided: Electric utility service
Channels handled: Phone, IVR, email, web self-service and social media
What’s so great about them? The center prides itself on its excellent rewards & recognition practices, as well as its strong focus on agent development and empowerment.
You might find call centers that report a higher FCR rate than Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan’s; however, few have embraced the drivers of true FCR success as intently or as effectively as BCBSM has.
“BCBSM stepped up its FCR efforts considerably in 2009,” says Amy Frenzel, VP of Service Operations. “Our decision to do so was driven by the need to improve our customer satisfaction and experience results, and the need to drive unnecessary cost out of our business. We also recognized that our metrics for measuring performance did not include enough of the ‘voice of the customer.’”
In just a little over a year since implementing its FCR program – which centers around enhanced agent training, improved systems/workflows, better call analysis and direct customer feedback – the call center’s FCR rate has jumped 10 percentage points. Even more importantly, customer satisfaction has increased by 5% over the same period, thus confirming that the FCR initiative truly has teeth.
The call center has raised more than just its FCR rate and C-Sat scores; it recently raised a trophy – the one presented to BCBSM for “Most Improved FCR” at the 2010 annual SQM North American Call Center Awards conference, hosted by FCR/C-Sat benchmarking firm SQM Group. Frenzel says she and her team are honored to have received the award, though she hasn’t let the accolades go to her head.
“We are proud of our accomplishments, but realize we have more work to do to continue to improve our results.”
Educating, Empowering and Rewarding Agents around FCR
One of the biggest drivers of BCBSM’s FCR improvement since the beginning of the initiative has been agent education. Without agents’ full understanding of and enthusiasm behind what FCR is and does, progress is impossible, says Frenzel.
“We visited each servicing team multiple times to explain why we were placing such an emphasis on FCR, and we spoke to the agents specifically about what was in it for them.” She points out that this approach continues today during initial training, with all new agents learning about the impact of FCR on the organization and on the customer and agent experience. “Our staff now clearly understands the importance of the FCR measurement. CSRs now look forward to their coaching sessions to review the customer’s survey feedback results.”
Of course, agent understanding alone isn’t enough; staff still need the skills, knowledge and access to key resources in order to actually carry out their FCR mission. Frenzel and her team have done plenty to ensure this occurs, including continually revising call scripts and workflows, updating training materials, and providing ongoing coaching on FCR – not only to agents but to supervisors, as well.
Often, it’s the agents themselves who come up with ways to enhance FCR-related processes and resources. Managers and supervisors encourage and actively solicit staff feedback and suggestions during each team’s daily huddle meetings. In addition, agents can participate in determining root causes and coming up with viable solutions to reduce repeat calls. “We are in the process of implementing a Share Point site in which team members can submit their issues and ideas for resolution,” says Frenzel.
To help keep agents continuously focused on issue resolution and quality, management has built some alluring incentive programs around such customer-centric metrics. In one such recent program, agents received $25 for every post-call customer survey indicating a “World Class Call (WCC)” experience. As Frenzel explains, “WCC is determined by the customer’s top box score for satisfaction with the CSR, satisfaction with the overall service experience, and [first-call] resolution.”
Effectively Measuring – and Moving – the Metric
No FCR improvement initiative is complete without an authentic and accurate process for tracking actual FCR rates. Unfortunately, too many centers rely on internal quality monitoring or repeat-call tracking technology alone to gauge FCR, thus failing to take a very critical element into consideration – the customer’s direct perspective.
No such problem exists in BCBSM’s operation. While quality monitoring and call-tracking tools do play a part in the center’s FCR measurement approach (as they should), VOC-based caller surveys are what really drive the process, helping to provide a truer reading of FCR achievement as well as valuable insight into the customer experience. Following an interaction with an agent, callers have the option of completing the brief automated IVR survey, which asks callers to rate their service experience and to confirm if FCR was achieved.
Up until recently, the post-call surveys were conducted live by a third-party survey specialist, but the center decided to switch to the automated approach to quicken the feedback process, says Frenzel.
“We have increased our opportunities to hear the ‘voice of the customer’. The automated survey tool allows us to see real-time customer issues that need an immediate response. Whenever we receive an ‘action alert’ indicating a highly dissatisfied customer [based on their survey responses], the leadership team analyzes the customer’s file, and contacts them for service recovery.”
Recovery is nice, but prevention is even better. That’s why the center calls on its aforementioned “2+ Call” research team to identify and, where possible, fix the underlying causes of poor service experiences and issue resolution woes. Thanks to such ongoing efforts, BCBSM has seen its “average number of calls to resolve an inquiry” improve from 1.65 to 1.55 (which has reduced overall call volume). “Our goal is to reduce it to 1.40 by the end of 2011,” says Frenzel.
Not Just a Call Center Thing
FCR is typically considered “property of the call center” in most companies, but continuous FCR improvement always requires collaboration with other key departments. After all, some callbacks are often the result of an employee outside the center not completing a follow-up task (e.g., form processing, etc.) after an agent “resolved” a customer issue during an initial call. And some initial calls could be avoided in the first-place with better interdepartmental communication and accountability.
Recognizing all this, the BCBSM team have worked hard to make FCR improvement an enterprise-wide initiative at BCBSM.
“When we [used to talk] about first-call resolution, employees around the organization would immediately think, ‘That’s a call center thing’. We had to do a lot of education to make sure our partners in other areas of the company understood how what they did each day could positively or negatively impact first-call resolution.”
The campaigning has paid off.
“FCR is now a component of one of the company’s long-term goals. This has taken FCR from the call center to the organization, and heightens the sense of accountability and ownership beyond just the servicing team.”
BCBS of Michigan – the Big Picture:
Location: Primarily Michigan-based, spread geographically throughout the state.
Hours of operation: Monday-Friday 8:00am-9:00pm EST
Number of agents: Approximately 950, supplemented by external partners when needed
Products/services provided/supported: Individual and group health insurance coverage.
Channels handled: Phone, IVR, web self-service, limited email, social media
What’s so great about them? Their VOC-based first-call resolution initiative has resulted in a legitimate10% increase in FCR in just over a year – with future improvements expected.