Off Center
_ A few years ago, the North Texas Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) made a strategic decision to put its money where its mission statement was – implementing a dynamic “Voice of the Customer” (VoC) initiative that has since had a Texas-sized impact on agent performance, customer satisfaction and the company’s bottom line.

“[We wanted to] synchronize with customers and measure performance through their eyes,” says John Bannerman, Assistant Director of the NTTA’s Contact Center. “Our goal was to transform our culture to fully embrace our mission statement in becoming a truly customer-centric organization. It has become more than a mission statement to us – it is the way we treat our customers and each other.” 

Turning Customers into Coaches

The key component driving the NTTA’s VoC initiative is a unique and potent customer experience/performance management solution called Customer Driven Management (CDM), developed by Tamer Partners Corporation ( Using this new tool, the contact center is able to cleanly capture and analyze detailed customer feedback across all contact channels right after an interaction, thus arming the NTTA with timely employee-specific scores and commentary that can be used to continuously improve performance.

Here’s how it works: Following an interaction with one of the NTTA’s agents, the customer receives an email asking them to provide “advice” to the agent about service they provided. The customer clicks on a link to access the survey, which features questions about things like the agent’s skills/knowledge, courtesy/professionalism and ability to efficiently resolve the issue at hand. But this is not your everyday generic customer satisfaction survey application. What sets CDM apart is its customization; the NTTA is able to create “Individual Action Surveys” that ask for customer feedback on particular areas that each agent is working on.

In essence, CDM has turned the NTTA’s customers into coaches, says Bannerman.

“CDM not only provides feedback directly to the service representative from the customer; it also adapts to the unique skills of each representative and seeks feedback from each customer to directly guide the employee on their specific opportunities for improvement. Our customers are now directly coaching employees on all areas of improvement including listening skills, empathy, call control and energy, to name a few.”

The NTTA has programmed the CDM system to provide alerts whenever a customer scores an agent either very high or very low, thus enabling supervisors to identify issues as they arise as well as to praise/recognize agents whenever they receive accolades.

CDM stores all customer responses including scores/ratings, yes/no responses, and text comments. The NTTA’s supervisors and managers can view and report on all surveys and responses for their team. Each of the center’s agents has access to their personal feedback in the CDM system, as well.

Lower Headcount, Higher Performance on the Frontline

The NTTA hasn’t handed its entire QA function over to its customers. The contact center’s internal quality monitoring staff still evaluate recorded calls to ensure that agents are providing accurate information and complying with established policies and procedures.

Still and all, Bannerman says that efficacy of the CDM solution has eliminated the need to hire four additional frontline managers. He adds that the supervisor-to-agent ratio has increased from 1:12 to 1:17 without sacrificing the level of coaching/support.

Of course, the VoC initiative isn’t all about managerial headcount reduction; it’s about providing a forever better level of service. Since implementing the initiative, the NTTA has seen agents’ quality and productivity results improve significantly. “We’ve found that the best opportunity for frontline change was putting our customers in charge,” says Bannerman. He points out that CDM scores and feedback are used not only during quality monitoring coaching sessions but also in annual agent evaluations and action plans. As much as 50% of the feedback during an agent’s annual review comes directly from customers. “Customers are effectively managing the quality of their future service experience by coaching and developing employees to meet their needs and expectations.”

And that’s just fine by the employees, Bannerman says.

Agents love the VoC initiative, particularly CDM. They get far more [positive] feedback from customers than a supervisor would have time to provide for their entire team on a daily basis. This provides encouragement and motivation [for agents] to continue doing things well, and makes them more willing to accept suggestions for improvement.”

It also apparently makes them want to stick around longer.

“As a result of consistent positive feedback from customers, our attrition rate is 12% annually, which by contact center standards is very low.”

NTTA – the Big Picture:
Location: Plano, TX
Hours of operation: Mon-Fri 7am-7pm; Sat 9am-5:30pm
Number of agents: 152
Products/services provided/supported: Account maintenance, toll tag acquisition and general customer service
Channels handled: Phone, IVR, email, web self-service, and store front
What’s so great about them? They’ve vastly improved agent performance, the customer experience and the bottom line via a highly dynamic “Voice of the Customer” initiative.

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.