Off Center
As customer care and contact centers continue to evolve, so must the metrics that centers measure. Sure, some classic metrics – such as service level, quality and C-Sat – will be around forever; however less pertinent and impactful ones will fade away while newer, sexier measures emerge.

For example, in the early years of customer service, metrics like ATTCT (Average Time Till Carpal Tunnel) and NRPC (Number of Reps Per Cubicle) ruled the roost, but have since become secondary or tertiary metrics in most modern contact centers. As have such measures as HSPS (Headset Shocks Per Shift) and AAL (Average Agent Lifespan).

So, what fresh new metrics can we expect to emerge and soon bloom into powerful key performance indicators? I recently asked several noted contact center practitioners, consultants and analysts their opinion on the matter, but I forgot to record our conversations or take any notes, so here are my new KPI predictions instead:

FTR – First-Tweet Resolution. This will become an increasingly critical metric in this crazy age of social media. FTR measures the percentage of angry customers on Twitter that the contact center is able to “silence” before the customer posts any more tweets about how much they hate your company.

For example, let’s say that 10 of your customers write an incendiary comment about how the last agent they spoke to on the phone was an idiot or how your IVR system made them want to commit a violent crime. If your center is able to contact and persuade seven of those customers to not launch any additional 140-character verbal barrages, then your FTR rate would be 70%. But you will never achieve an FTR rate of 70% because 90% of human beings need Twitter to get the attention they desire but don’t get at home or work. So just shoot for a FTR rate of 10%-20%. 

Naturally, you don’t want the whole world seeing your desperate attempts to convince customers to stop flaming about your company on Twitter. Instead, it’s best to send each fuming customer a friendly private message via Twitter asking them to kindly call or email you to discuss how you might get them to shut up.    

ART – Average Refrigerator Time. This metric’s emergence is a direct result of the recent proliferation of home agents in the contact center industry. ART measures how many minutes per shift a home agent spends searching for snacks in the kitchen when they are scheduled to be on the phones. In contact centers that have a large percentage of former high school football linemen and/or aspiring Sumo wrestlers among their remote staff, ART is measured in hours rather than minutes.

To effectively measure ART, it’s essential to install in each home agent’s house a “fridge-cam” that captures and records every trip the agent makes to the kitchen while on the job. Unfortunately, it’s highly illegal to do so; nevertheless, the best contact center managers know that sometimes you have to break the rules in order to maintain the tradition and integrity of accurate and precise metric measurement.  

Most contact centers struggle to keep ART within acceptable ranges – not just because of the irresistible lure that the refrigerator presents for home agents, but also because most managers and supervisors in charge of home agents are uncomfortable telling an employee that he should watch his carb and fat intake. Some of the most forward-thinking centers have succeeded in lowering their ART rate by installing in each home agent’s fridge a sound card that says something like “You disgust me” or simply “AGAIN?” each time the refrigerator door is opened.

HSPH – Hand Spasms Per Hour. As web chat has grown as a customer contact channel, so have the debilitating finger cramps of the agents who handle chat sessions. A recent study that I conducted or maybe just had a dream about showed that contact centers that offer chat are 94.3% more likely to have agents who have hands that look like crab claws.

Thus, HSPH is fast becoming a critical metric in chat-handling centers that don’t like their employees looking like crustaceans. To measure HSPH, centers simply need to attach to the hands of each chat agent a small non-invasive electrode that detects each muscle spasm that occurs. HSPH scores in the 10-15 per hour range are considered normal; anything over that is a sign that the agent is at risk for moderate to severe hand cramping that could hinder their ability to compose coherent messages during chat sessions with customers. Once an agent’s HSPH score approaches 50 or more per hour, there is nothing left to do but pronounce their hand(s) legally dead, then move them into Sales, where all they’ll ever need to use is their mouth.

Few processes in the contact center are as contentious as quality monitoring. When not carefully explained and carried out with tact and sensitivity, monitoring smacks of spying. Cries of “Big Brother” and micromanagement are not uncommon in such environments, resulting in agent burnout, attrition, and poisonous darts being shot at QA staff.

Several studies have revealed that call monitoring can cause significant stress and dissatisfaction among agents. In one study – conducted by Management Sciences Consulting, Bell Canada – 55% of all employees responded that some form of telephone monitoring added to the amount of stress they experienced with their job to a large or very large extent.

In order to achieve the level of agent engagement and customer advocacy that today’s contact centers seek, managers need to aim for agents to not only accept and tolerate quality monitoring, but to embrace it. You may ask, “What kind of freak actually looks forward to having their every word recorded and keystroke captured while on the job?” Well, I’m not saying that agents need to be so excited about monitoring that they beg for it or do a jig when they find out that they will have 10 calls a month evaluated. However, in the best contact centers I have seen, agents do look forward to being monitored and coached occasionally – because they recognize the positive impact it can have on their performance, the customer’s experience and the organization’s success.

So how do these contact centers get their staff to embrace quality monitoring rather than run in fear from it? Let me count the ways:

They educate new-hires on the reasons for – and value of – quality monitoring.  In leading contact centers, managers don’t just tell new agents that they’ll be monitored on a regular basis, they tell them why. In fact, many centers do this with agents even before they become agents – taking time to explain monitoring policies and practices (and the reasons behind them) during the hiring process so that applicants know exactly what to expect before they take the drug test.

When describing the center’s monitoring program, it’s a good idea to lie just a little to make it sound more rewarding than it actually is. Tell agents that monitoring is not used to “catch them” doing things wrong, even though you know that it usually works out that way. Explain that having calls evaluated enhances professional development, builds integrity and helps to ensure customer loyalty, even though you know that such things are true only if your agents care about themselves, the company, and the future – which isn’t likely the case, what with the world ending in 2012. But hey, it’s worth a shot.

They incorporate post-contact customer ratings and feedback into monitoring scores. For some reason, agents would rather have a customer than a supervisor tell them that they suck at providing service. That’s why the best contact centers have incorporated a “voice of the customer” (VOC) component into their quality monitoring programs – tying direct customer feedback from post-contact surveys into agents’ overall monitoring scores.

Adhering to the VOC-based quality monitoring model, the contact center’s internal QA staff rate agents only on the most objective call criteria and requirements – like whether or not the agent used the correct greeting, provided accurate product information, and didn’t call the customer a putz. That internal score typically accounts for anywhere from 40%-60% of the agent’s quality score, with the remaining points based on how badly the customer said they wanted to kiss or punch the agent following the interaction. 

They provide positive coaching. While incorporating direct customer feedback into monitoring scores is key, it won’t do much to get agents to embrace monitoring if the coaching that agents receive following an evaluated call is delivered in a highly negative manner.

During coaching sessions, the best coaches strive to point out as many positives about the interaction as they do areas needing improvement. This provides a nice balance to the evaluation and makes agents less likely to strike the coach with a blunt instrument. Even if the call was handled dreadfully, good coaches always find something positive to comment on, such as the agent’s consistent breathing throughout the interaction, or how well they were able to make words come out of their mouth. 

They empower agents to self-evaluate their customer interactions. There are few better ways to gain staff buy-in to quality monitoring/coaching than to trick agents into thinking that they have even the slightest bit of control during the process. The best contact centers always give agents the chance to rate their own call performance; the center then pretends to factor such self-evaluations into the overall quality score that’s recorded.

Many managers report that agents are often harder on themselves than the QA specialist or supervisor is when evaluating call performance. Sometimes, after listening to a call recording, agents become so upset by their own performance and/or the sound of their own voice that they try to physically harm themselves during the coaching session, which adds a nice touch of comic relief to an otherwise stressful situation for coaches.

They reward solid quality performance. Generally speaking, people are more likely to embrace an annoying or uncomfortable process if they know there is at least a chance for reward or positive recognition. I mean, if it weren’t for the free toothbrush, who would ever visit the dentist? And if it weren’t for the free alcohol, who would ever celebrate the holidays with family?

The same goes for quality monitoring. I’m not saying that you should give agents a free toothbrush and some alcohol after every call that is evaluated – just the ones where the agent didn’t make the customer or themselves cry. And remember, there are other ways to reward and recognize staff than with toothbrushes and alcohol, I just can’t think of any right now.

I’d love to hear about some of the ways that you and your center make quality monitoring more palatable to agents. Share your insight and experiences here by leaving a comment.

The trouble I have always had with astrology is that it isn’t industry-specific enough. Anybody can make general predictions about everyday life; but it takes a very special type of prognosticator to produce a horoscope aimed at a specific profession. And by “special” I mean insane. And by “prognosticator” I mean somebody who makes predictions that are intriguing though likely untrue – somebody like your workforce manager.
You can’t honestly tell me that you aren’t at least a tad bit intrigued to find out what your career has in store for you in the coming years. So kindly read on, but remember – this horoscope applies only to individuals who: 1) lead, supervise or train in a contact center; and 2) have a birthday that falls somewhere within the 12-month calendar. 

ARIES (MAR. 21- APR. 19)
Your fiery self-will and pioneering energy will eventually lead your agents to believe that you abuse certain illicit drugs. If you do not learn to relax, however, you may very well experience health problems that will hinder your ability to panic during really stressful call spikes. The overall outlook for your career is promising, though it is almost certain that on October 6th, 2013 at approximately 2:41 p.m., you will be hit with the sudden realization that you actually dislike most customers.

Your borderline obsession with productivity will enable your center to achieve big efficiency improvements, but will likely inspire your agents to arrange to have you killed. Fortunately, your quickness and intelligence will enable you to survive the attempt on your life. Unfortunately, you will no longer feel comfortable conducting side-by-side monitoring sessions with staff.

You have an uncanny ability to see the many sides of a given issue, but are often unable to make any definite decisions in pressure situations, which is why you will soon become a consultant. Until then, you will continue to use your tendency for giving abstract and elaborate explanations to confuse the hell out of agents during training.

Your extreme sensitivity will continue to make you popular with staff, who secretly enjoy watching you cry when they don’t meet their performance objectives. Your caring, emotional nature enables you to get inside the heads of and truly understand others, except for the Director of IT, whose sideburns confuse you. In six weeks you will suffer a nervous breakdown while trying to clearly explain to senior management what social media means for the contact center.

LEO (JUL. 23-AUG. 22)
Your penchant for self-expression and your endless creative energy make everybody wonder why you work in a contact center. Nonetheless, you love your job and are destined to achieve great success, provided you stop writing memos in iambic pentameter and painting constructive feedback on agents’ clothing. Sometime in June or July of 2014, you will be forced to use up all your sick leave after a stack of ACD reports gets snagged on your belly-button piercing.

VIRGO (AUG. 23-SEP. 22)
You are known for your tendency to analyze things in a practical and emotionally detached manner; in fact, I could tell you that you are nothing but a big, callous jerk who is fiercely hated by agents, and you wouldn’t even get upset. Your love of order and refinement will eventually help you to become a master of forecasting and scheduling, and your big callous jerkiness will eventually help you to become an executive.

LIBRA (SEP. 23-OCT. 22)
Your borderline obsession with balance and harmony will eventually drive you out of the hectic contact center environment and into a career as a yoga instructor. But until that day comes, you will have quite a measurable impact on agents’ ability to touch their toes. You will also help to raise your center’s performance in several lesser-known metrics, such as Average Chant Time, Centerwide Chakra Levels, and Number of Agents that Can be Folded into a Cubicle.

You have an intense, innate power to affect change in yourself and in others, but not in senior management, who just rejected your budget proposal five minutes ago. But you will not give in; your willingness to confront all that is overwhelming and terrifying has always astounded staff and co-workers, and will likely come in handy next month when your contact center implements chat.

You are on a noble lifetime quest to discover truth and, as such, should avoid any and all contact with technology vendors. Your inquisitive and philosophical nature may get you into trouble during interdepartmental meetings, talks with upper management, and other situations where original thought is strictly prohibited. Eventually, your passion for trying to fully understand ambiguous concepts – such as love, death and speech analytics – will cause you to go insane and, consequently, get transferred to Accounting.

Your self-discipline and austerity are strengths, although your refusal to take part in the egg-toss at the last contact center picnic cost you in terms of agent endearment. But don’t worry; despite your hair being parted on the side and your tendency to stop and salute senior managers, you are a likeable person who will soon lead your center to the next level of mediocrity.

Your eccentricity and radical individuality is a breath of fresh air for the contact center, and will eventually lead to you being severely beaten by a Capricorn. While laying in recovery, you will come up with some of the most inventive ideas the center has ever seen, including having supervisors dress like Little Bo Peep to make them easier for agents to find, and having agents dress like sheep just for the fun of it.

PISCES (FEB. 19-MAR. 20)
You exhibit a mystical dreaminess that enables you to come up with highly creative solutions in the contact center. Some of your more innovative new-age ideas – such as a crystal-based pay program and the introduction of aromatherapy into new-hire training – will eventually have a huge impact on agent performance. Unfortunately, you likely won’t be around to witness such success, as upper management is already planning to replace you with a Nepalese guru who is willing to undergo accent training and work for much less money.


In many customers’ minds, this three-letter acronym is a four-letter word. It’s not uncommon for callers to mutter a diverse range of other forbidden words whenever interacting – or trying to interact – with a contact center’s IVR system.

But IVR is not deserving of such hatred. Unlike reality TV stars, IVR systems are not inherently flawed or evil, nor are the companies that use an IVR to front-end their contact centers. 

The reason why the general public’s perception of IVR is so negative is that so few of the systems that the public has encountered have been designed properly by the humans behind the scene. The technology itself has tons of potential; it’s what’s dumped into it by organizations overly eager to enjoy the cost-saving benefits of phone-based self-service that makes the machines such monsters.

Not all IVR systems in existence today are so beastly. Some, in fact, not only play nice with customers, they delight them and keep them coming back for more. So how have the owners of these much-maligned systems succeeded in getting callers to drop their pitchforks and torches and embrace IVR?

By adopting the following key practices, all of which I stole from a host of IVR experts and now pass off as my own:

Adhere to the fundamentals of IVR menu design. Most of what irritates and confounds customers with regard to IVR can be easily avoided. Callers often opt out of the system or hang up due to too many menu choices, confusing phrasing/commands, and fear of dying alone in IVR hell.

Here are a handful of essential menu features and functions common to the best-designed IVR applications:

• No more than four or five menu options
• The ability to easily skip ahead to desired menu choices (e.g., having the system recognize that the customer pressed “3” or said what they wanted before the system presented such options)
• Use of the same clear, professional recorded voice throughout the IVR
• (For touchtone systems specifically) Giving a description of an action/option prior to telling the caller what key to press for that action/option (e.g., “To check your balance without bothering one of our expensive agents, press ‘1’”; NOT “Press ‘1’ to check your balance without bothering one of our expensive agents.”) 
• The ability to opt out to and curse directly at a live agent at any time

Invest in advanced speech recognition. In leading contact centers, traditional touchtone IVR systems are being replaced by sleeker and sexier speech-enabled solutions. While you may not want to listen to a writer who thinks that IVR can be sleek or sexy, you should, as today’s advanced speech recognition (ASR) solutions have helped many customer care organizations vastly improve self-service, and, consequently, reduce the number of death threats their IVR system receives each day.  

I know, I know, you are thinking about how many dozens of times in the past 10-15 years you have read an article or seen a conference session titled something like, “Speech Recognition Revolutionizing Self-Service” only to find that the technology wasn’t quite up to par with the promise. Such hype used to annoy me, too. But the truth is, speech technology has rapidly matured in recent years, and is more than ready for prime time. Even if you don’t have it in your contact center, you have certainly used it while calling others, and you’ve likely witnessed it working well. 

Powered by natural language processing, ASR systems provide a much more personalized and human experience than traditional touchtone ever could. Traditional touchtone is like interacting with Dan Rathers, while ASR is like talking to Oprah. Even more importantly, ASR-driven IVR systems enable contact centers to vastly reduce the number of steps callers must take to get what they need. Customers can cut through unnecessary menu options by saying exactly what they want (e.g., “I would like the address of your call center so that I can punch the last agent I spoke to in the face”). 

NOTE: To help you better understand speech technology and achieve optimal results with your speech-enabled IVR system, I recommend you get a copy of one or both of Bruce Balentine’s books:

1) It’s Better to Be a Good Machine than a Bad Person
2) How to Build a Speech Recognition Application

Bruce is one of the smartest and funniest “techies” I know. He has no allegiances to any speech vendors, and thus never pushes any particular products.

Use CTI to ensure smooth, smart transfers. Even if your IVR system is perfectly designed and features the universally appealing voice of James Earl Jones, many callers will still want to – or need to – speak to a live agent featuring the universally less-appealing voice of a live agent. And when this happens, what’s universally aggravating to callers is – after providing the IVR with their name, account number, social security number, height, weight and blood type – having to repeat the very same information to the agent to whom their call is transferred.

To avoid such enraging redundancy – and to shorten call lengths/reduce costs – leading contact centers incorporate CTI (computer telephony integration) technology into their IVR system. These applications integrate the voice and data portions of the call, then, with the help of magic fairies, deliver that information directly to the desktop of the agent handling the call. With today’s technologies, it’s really quite simple (though, granted, not always cheap), and the impact on the customer experience is immense. Rather than the caller starting off their live-agent interaction with a loud sigh or groan, they start off with the feeling that the company might actually have a soul.

Regularly test and monitor the system. Top contact centers keep a close eye on IVR function and callers’ interactions with the system to ensure optimum functionality and customer experiences. 

One essential practice is load-testing any new IVR system prior to making it “open for business”. This involves duplicating actual call volumes and pinpointing any system snags, glitches or outright errors that could jam up the system and drive callers nuts.

Once the IVR system is up and running, leading contact centers frequently test it by “playing customer” – calling the center just as a customer would, then evaluating things like menu logic and speech recognition performance, as well as hold times and call-routing precision after opting out of the IVR. To give such testing a truly authentic feel, the tester – after opting out of the system and being transferred to an agent – proceeds to express to the agent how he’d rather have oral surgery without any anesthesia than have to interact with the IVR ever again.

Some contact centers have invested in solutions that automate the IVR-testing process. These potent diagnostic tools are able to dial in and navigate through an interactive voice transaction just as a real caller would – except with far less swearing – and can track and report on key quality and efficiency issues. Many other centers gain the same IVR-testing power by contracting with a third-party vendor that specializes in testing self-service systems.

Internal IVR testing alone is insufficient to ensure optimal customer experiences with the IVR. The best contact centers extend their call monitoring process to the self-service side. Quality specialists listen to live or recorded customer-IVR interactions and evaluate how easy it is for customers to navigate the system and complete transactions without agent assistance, as well as how effectively the IVR routes each call when a live agent is requested or required. Today’s advanced quality monitoring systems can be programmed to alert QA staff whenever a caller gets entangled in the IVR or seems to get confused during the transaction. Such alerts enable the specialist – after having a laugh with his peers over the customer’s audible expletives – to fix any system glitches and perhaps contact the customer directly to repair the damaged relationship.