Off Center
For most contact center managers, the battle against agent attrition is a long-lasting and losing one. It seems that no matter how hard they try to keep agents in place, no matter how creative they get with their motivational tactics, their staff end up splitting for better, higher-paying jobs as a pamphleteer or migrant farm worker.

But the battle against agent turnover needn’t be such a bloody one. There are a number of highly innovative agent retention tactics that managers can implement but rarely do for fear of being too unconventional, or of being institutionalized or arrested.

But hey, if you want to truly tackle turnover, you need to not only think outside the box; you need to collapse the box and cut it up into cardboard confetti that you throw whenever celebrating agents’ fifth year with the contact center. 

Here are a few highly creative ideas that will almost definitely help you dramatically reduce turnover in your center and that will most definitely make you wonder why I am aloud to walk freely among society. 
Fake a contact center reality TV show.
Everybody these days wants to be a reality TV star, but only about 75% of the population will actually ever get a chance to be one. You can play off of the current reality TV craze to retain your agents and ensure that they perform at optimum levels. All you need to do is tell your frontline staff that one of the big networks is piloting a new show called  “So You Want to Be a Contact Center Agent?” and wants to feature your contact center in it. Explain to your staff that each week, any agent who doesn’t meet his or her quality and adherence to schedule objectives will be kicked off the show, and that the agent with the best stats at the end of the season will get to move their cubicle near a window. 

Naturally, you will have to invest in some fake TV cameras and cameramen, a fake producer and a fake director to trick agents into thinking the show is for real. And whenever agents ask you when the show is going to start airing, tell them not until 2016, but that it is guaranteed to be a huge hit, so they should really do their best to stick around until then.

Implement a true remote agent initiative. Study after study has shown that letting agents work from home can greatly increase retention and engagement. The trouble is, with the economy being in the state it’s in, many agents are homeless. But you can’t let things like employee home foreclosures and bankruptcy get in the way of your center’s retention efforts. Instead, you need to implement a truly remote agent model that allows staff to handle customer contacts from wherever they live – be it a cardboard box, a cave, or a van down by the river.

With today’s virtual technology, the walls have come down; anything is possible. Managers and supervisors in the contact center can view the real-time performance of an agent who is handling calls from an abandoned train boxcar just as if that agent were working onsite. Regardless of where they are working, you’ll be able to tell if the remote agent is logged in and handling contacts with quality. And, if they are not, you can send somebody out to make sure the agent hasn’t succumbed to hypothermia or a severe rat infestation. 

It’s a true win-win. The contact center wins because it is able to retain talented staff regardless of how destitute they have become, and the agent wins because they get to have a job without walls – or, in some cases, even a floor or a ceiling.

Make quitting grounds for termination. If all else fails, you can crack down on voluntary agent turnover by creating serious repercussions for such actions. Nobody wants to be fired and be forced to deal with the shame and loss of self-confidence that goes along with it. By making quitting grounds for employee termination, agents will seriously think twice before grasping for freedom. 

I know of one center that implemented a strict “quit and you’re fired” policy, and was able to reduce annual agent turnover by nearly 85%. The center did see a spike in anonymous graffiti and arson, but to this day still boasts one of the highest agent retention rates in the industry.

They’re calling you
The calls are falling through the cracks
All you can do is watch all the calls in queue stack
They soar past
The calls don’t match the forecast
It’s an attack, and today just might be your last
Let me ask you
Who’s watching your back?
Your supervisor?
His two eyes are on your scores, Jack

It’s a mess if you miss objectives
The nest of execs likes to press directives
All the reps are restless
Execs don’t get this
They don’t address the mess
They just inspect the metrics
I guess the stress gets the best of reps vexed
The next step’s retching – reject your breakfast 
Every second’s getting monitored
You fret the checklist
So get a gin and tonic
Get set, forget this

Your desk is shaking
Nearly every call is escalating
You press release so recklessly
But all the rest are waiting
You’re hating this
There’s no break and so you shake a fist
You’re breaking wrists
It’s Carpal Tunnel
No debating this

So many pissed reps
What – there’s no wrist rests?
No wonder satisfaction’s going under
It’s distress
The next step?
Get your self-respect back
The future of your neck and back health is jet black

NOTE: The effect of the above rap is intensified if, while singing out the lyrics, you proceed to raise your hands in the air, and wave them like you just don’t care.  

DOCTOR’S NOTE: Greg is currently being treated for a severe case of Rapilepsy – a rare condition that causes him to break into spontaneous rhyme with little to no regard for his safety or his readership. He should be back to writing normal prose by next week, assuming he takes his medication and stops listening to Eminem.

Conversations about contact center metrics often cause controversy – especially if you are having that conversation with me, and especially if I’ve been drinking at a conference cocktail reception. Drinking brings out the bold truth in me, and the bold truth (ok, my bold opinion) about metrics tends to stir things up amongst contact center folk. It’s one of the main reasons why I’m rarely invited back to industry events.

But I’m not looking to make friends – according to my Facebook page, I already have four. If what I write here results in me receiving hate mail or having things thrown at me by detractors, so be it – as long as the customer care industry as a whole improves.

In the interest of time and space, I’m not going to expound on what I feel are the most critical contact center metrics (Service Level, C-Sat, FCR, Contact Quality, Forecast Accuracy, Adherence to Schedule, and E-Sat). Instead, I’m going to discuss three popular metrics – those that have been coveted in our industry since its inception  – that I feel need to be clarified and brought back down to earth once and for all. These metrics certainly have their place – just not at the top of the heap.

1) Average Speed of Answer

No doubt that tracking how many seconds on average each caller is forced to wait before reaching a live agent is important. Then why isn’t ASA listed among my metrics A-list? Simple: It gets trumped by service level – a mightier metric that gives managers key information that already includes an ASA component.

ASA is like the unstable cousin or brother of service level – closely related to SL but much more likely to cause problems, mess things up, or get drunk and start a fight at a family wedding. What ASA lacks is the “X% in Y seconds” attribute of its blood relative, thus it does not always give the most accurate representation of what callers experience when trying to reach an agent in the contact center. ASA is a straight average, and many managers when seeing an ASA figure – say, 30 seconds – make the mistake of assuming that this figure is indicative of how long most customers waited before getting to an agent. However, the reality is that many callers get connected much more quickly than 30 seconds while many other customers may get connected after much more than 30 seconds.

So if you are looking to more accurately gauge what is happening to individual callers and not just hang your hat on a sometimes unreliable average – one that could conceal a host of irate callers who have access to social media and know how to use it – then it’s best to keep service level as your main accessibility KPI.

However, there is no need to disown ASA. It is still a useful metric in its own right – it can help in calculating trunk load and serves as a solid back-up measure to service level (since it comes from the same set of data as SL). Just remember that it can be dangerous to fully embrace this somewhat unstable metric or to invite it to important family functions.

2) Abandonment

When I say abandonment, I’m talking about the accessibility metric, not the feeling that contact center managers experience after asking senior management for a budget increase.

A contact center’s abandonment rate is the percentage of callers who hang up before their call is answered by a live agent. This data can be obtained directly from ACD reports. The most common formula used for calculating abandonment is:

Total # of calls abandoned ÷ (total # of calls abandoned + total # of calls answered)

While abandonment is an important metric and one that should be tracked on an interval basis by all contact centers, it is not an ideal measure of accessibility. True, high abandonment rates usually indicate a problem with the center’s staffing levels – but not always; sometimes conditions beyond the contact center’s control result in higher than usual abandonment rates, and sometimes a large group of callers are just cranky and impatient because their football team lost the day before.

Another problem with relying primarily on abandonment as an accessibility measure is that a low abandonment rate – while certainly the goal in any contact center – does not automatically signify smooth operating. Again, different conditions often affect how long a caller will wait in queue before hanging up. For example, on a typical day, a contact center may achieve a respectable abandonment rate of, say, 1.5% and everything is fine with regard to service level and customer satisfaction. However, the next day let’s say that the company runs a “limited time” online promotion (“Call now and receive a…”); the center will likely receive a flood of calls and few customers will hang up because they have an incentive to wait – for long periods of time. So abandonment may be less than even 1%, but does this mean that service level is good, costs are contained, and that customers aren’t getting perturbed? Nope. Nope. And nope. 

3) Average Handle Time

Back in the pre-historic era of call centers, when cost reduction/efficiency was the only real objective, AHT ruled the land of metrics. But customer contact has evolved rapidly over the past couple of decades; and in the best-run organizations, so have the performance metrics. Top contact centers today, while still keeping an eye on AHT, focus more on quality, call resolution and customer satisfaction. It’s the Age of the Customer Experience. And though it’s still important to control costs and be efficient – just as it is in any business or industry – winning organizations realize that they stand to make a lot more money if they focus on their customers first to create lasting loyalty and advocacy. 

Contact centers should certainly not do away with such traditional productivity metrics as AHT and number of calls handled per hour/shift. After all, the center needs to have an idea about how many calls a typical agent is handling and how long those calls are lasting to help pinpoint any scheduling adjustments and/or special training/coaching that might be required. But the best contact center managers don’t set strict “hit this target or else” AHT objectives. For one, they recognize that many factors influencing handle times are out agents’ direct control – e.g., call complexity, caller mood, electric shocks from cheap headsets, etc. And secondly, these managers know that if they do set and rate performance based on a strict AHT target, agents will do what it takes to hit that target, which may include rushing calls, sloppily inputting data, and yelling “fire” before hanging up on customers and running out the building.   

Instead, managers in leading contact centers set acceptable ranges for AHT and only really focus on the numbers when the center’s or an agent’s AHT falls far outside the normal range, which typically indicates a problem with staffing levels, agent adherence or agent skills/knowledge.

Progressive managers view AHT reduction ultimately as their responsibility, not that of their agents. They realize that it’s up to them to make sure that the center’s forecasting and scheduling processes are sound and that agents receive the coaching and training needed to handle calls efficiently and effectively. What smart managers do hold agents accountable for is adherence to schedule. Agents can, for the most part, control when they are in their seats ready to take calls. And when they are where they should be, things like AHT and other productivity metrics tend to take care of themselves. No whip-cracking nor threats of physical harm to agents or their family are typically necessary.

Finding fresh water in the middle of the desert doesn’t help you – unless you drink it.

It’s the same thing with obtaining timely customer data and direct feedback via a C-sat surveying process: It won’t help your business – or your customers – unless you actually “take it in”. The aim of the best C-sat initiatives is not merely to measure C-sat, but to better it – to spot trends and uncover opportunities that can lead to continuous improvement and customer advocacy.

Top contact centers carefully analyze C-sat data and customers’ comments and suggestions on a regular basis, and, importantly, act on the key findings. Here are several examples of how these centers use information gathered during the C-sat measurement process to enhance service and avoid hate crimes against them.     

Setting up service alerts to quickly “recover” customers. This is one of the simplest and most impactful C-sat measurement/management practices shared by leading contact centers. In these centers, whenever a customer – while completing a post-contact survey – compares their experience unfavorably to a root canal procedure without Novocain, an alert is immediately sent to a manager, supervisor or quality assurance team member. This person either contacts the disgruntled customer him or herself within a couple of hours or less, or has a recovery specialist do so. Either way, the goal is to quickly uncover specifically what went wrong during the interaction in question, and what can be done to regain the customer’s favor and keep them from forming a riot squad via Twitter.       

Many customers will tell you that the mere act of being contacted personally regarding their recent dissatisfaction is often enough to make them forget how angry your company made them. Of course, sometimes more is required – such as a free offer or upgrade – to repair the damage and sustain a positive relationship with the customer, who may be considering seeing other people.

It’s not them. It’s you.  

I’ve seen numerous contact centers – typically larger ones – that have an entire dedicated service recovery team in place. Of course, if you require a team that spends everyday doing nothing but contacting unhappy customers, perhaps your center blows more than most.

Capturing individual customer preferences to provide more personalized service and sales. I typically avoid using the hackneyed term “CRM”, but that’s really what this is all about. C-sat surveys supply the center with a wealth of customer trends and specific preferences, and the best contact centers are careful not to let such invaluable data slip through their fingers.

After a customer completes a post-contact survey, top centers update the customer’s profile/account with any relevant notes/preferences so that agents who interact with the customer in the future can kiss their butt and cater the products/services they offer to that particular customer’s needs and expectations.

Even more importantly, leading contact centers share key data and customer trends with other departments – e.g, Marketing, Sales, and Product & Development – in exchange for better parking spaces.

Uncovering gaps in training and other processes. Whenever a customer expresses significant dissatisfaction, rarely can the blame be placed squarely on the shoulders of the agent who handled the contact. True, there are some agents who are just plain mean and/or grossly incompetent, but that is still the fault of the center for hiring such freaks in the first place. But usually when a customer is livid over their latest interaction, it has more to do with problems in the training that agents receive or the information they have available to them, and less to do with agents being sociopaths.

What frustrates a customer more than anything is when the issue they contacted the center about is not resolved during the first or second interaction with the company. Lack of first- and second-contact resolution is very often a result of insufficient training (the agent hasn’t been shown how to fix the problem/handle the issue), poorly designed workflows/knowledge bases (the agent doesn’t have quick access to the information they need to fix the problem/handle the issue), or agent narcolepsy (the agent has no control over when they fall asleep during a call).

Customers also get very frustrated over poor accessibility to an agent – e.g., having to wait in queue until they grow a full beard or until the Cubs win a pennant; getting hopelessly lost in the IVR system; getting routed to a tech support nerd when what they need is a warm fuzzy hug from a customer service softy. Again, none of these problems have to do with the agent who (eventually) handles the contact going out of their way to provide bad service. No, they all have to do with poor processes and systems.

The best contact centers, via in-depth root-cause analysis of C-sat findings, are able to pinpoint gaps in training and real-time communications, problems with information systems and workflows, and issues with workforce management, IVR menus, call routing, web self-service application function/design, as well as other processes/systems. Once they pinpoint such problems and shortcomings, they up their antidepressant dosage, lie to senior management about the extent of the problems, and work quickly and diligently to make reparations.

Many contact centers make the erroneous assumption that email is something that can wait… and wait… and wait to be answered by an agent. Certainly the days of one-week response times or of completely ignoring customers' email inquiries are over – at least in companies that still turn a profit. However, it is not uncommon for a contact center to average two days or more before a live agent responds to email inquiries. Not so good.

Another erroneous assumption that many email-handling centers make is that all of their agents know how to read and write. It’s probably better that a customer’s email inquiry isn’t responded to at all than for them to receive a response with more grammatical gaffs and syntax errors than Dan Quayle’s autobiography.    

Ok, enough about contact centers doing email wrong; let’s talk about those that are doing it right. Following are several best practices in email management that I have uncovered during my many years in the industry acting like a guy who knows stuff.   

Prepare agents for email-handling success.  Top contact centers not only train existing agents on effective email handling, they proactively screen for candidates with decent writing skills, strong reading comprehension and ample email savvy during the hiring process. In doing so, the center is forever staffed with agents who know better than to use inappropriate acronyms and emoticons, and who know how to spell without the use of numbers. Studies have shown that such email messages as “OMG! LOL!” and “Have a gr8t day – we are always here 4 u!” are 83% more likely to cause customer nausea and to lower C-sat than is a message that appears to have been written by a fully functioning adult with more than a fourth grade education.

Email training in leading contact centers focuses on such things as:

• The center’s performance metrics/objectives for the email channel
• The types of email contact agents will be receiving
• How to incorporate existing text templates into answers to help increase email response times
• How to quickly access knowledge bases and other resources needed to fully resolve customer email inquiries.      

Determine an email response time objective that works well for YOUR contact center. There is no set industry standard for email response times that applies to all contact centers. It really depends on the types of contacts your center receives, what your customers expect, and how much Red Bull you can get your agents to drink.  

Contact centers need to play around with response time objectives until they find a feasible target that the company can afford to hit and that still meets customer expectations. If you consistently meet a response time objective of eight hours or less yet constantly receive follow-up contacts and complaints from customers, it’s time to up the ante. On the other hand, if you consistently meet the aforementioned objective and never once get a sign of customer impatience and dissatisfaction, you could probably scale back a bit on your response time goal and use the money you save to pay agents bonuses for never using “LMAO” during a customer email interaction.       

Invest in an advanced email management system. While it is possible to get away with using Outlook and other rudimentary email management tools, centers that do rarely if ever achieve a high level of email performance and C-sat, and often get teased or beaten up by better equipped centers at parties.

Today’s email management systems are robust solutions that enable centers to handle email inquiries not only efficiently, but effectively and “intelligently” as well. Features like advanced auto response, user-friendly text templates, skills-based routing, automated post-contact surveys and detailed performance reports enable contact centers to join the A-list of e-support. 

Use auto-response to acknowledge receipt of email and to set response expectations.
“Thank you for your inquiry. One of our agents is currently working on it and will send you a response within X hours.”

Email auto-response messages such as this give the customer instant peace of mind that their issue/inquiry hasn’t been eaten by cyber goblins – and can reduce the number of costly follow-up contacts by 75% or more, assuming your center actually delivers on its response time promise. If it does not deliver, there will be customer cries of “liar liar, pants on fire” across the social globe and in your poor agents’ ears.  

Extend quality assurance to email. While many things in a contact center are easier said than done, email monitoring is not one of them. The best contact centers, as well as many average and mediocre ones, have a quality assurance specialist or at least a supervisor evaluate a few agent-customer email transcripts (which are easy to obtain since email is an electronic text-based activity) for each agent per month. During these evaluations, agents are rated on accuracy of information provided, professionalism, grammar/spelling and resolution of the customer’s issue. Agents that struggle in any of these areas receive prompt coaching or a dictionary, while those who consistently achieve high email quality scores are sent to a lab for cloning.