Off Center
Sometimes the best coaching in the contact center comes from folks who don’t even work there.

As experienced and proficient as your supervisors and team leads might be at providing feedback on how agents can improve, it’s your customers’ direct comments that often have the biggest impact on agent development.

This is not to suggest that agents don’t require and value feedback from their superiors as well as from experienced peers, but there’s something about hearing things straight from the customer’s mouth that causes agents to really stand up and take notice. (Just make sure they don’t stand up for too long – they might end up out of adherence.) Having your supervisor tell you that you need to work on your empathy doesn’t hit you quite the same way as reading “The agent I spoke to had all the charm of a morgue attendant” on a survey completed by a customer you recently interacted with. Where agents may occasionally feel a supervisor’s or QA specialist’s take on their performance is subjective and unfair, there’s no arguing with the “voice of the customer”.

Some contact centers have modeled their entire quality program around the “customer as coach” concept. The North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) is one such center. The NTTA uses a VOC/performance management tool that enables the contact center to efficiently capture agent-specific customer feedback across all contact channels. Supervisors then share this feedback with agents to identify behaviors and skills that need improvement as well as those worthy of positive recognition. The center’s agents can access the system themselves whenever they want to view direct customer feedback on recently handled contacts. As much as 50% of the feedback received by agents following a monitoring session and during annual reviews comes directly from customers.

The NTTA’s agents wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Agents love the initiative,” says John Bannerman, Assistant Director of the NTTA’s Contact Center. “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.”

Whether you share customer comments taken from post-contact surveys, emails/letters sent from customers, customer’s direct conversations with supervisors/managers (following an escalated call, etc.), or from gas station bathroom walls, those words can do a whole lot to engage (or wake up) agents and drive them to overcome challenging performance barriers.

Your customers are much more than just potential revenue sources lined up in a virtual queue; they are viable contact center coaches. It doesn’t matter if they know this or not – what matters is that you do.

(This post was written by guest blogger Kevin Carly, one of the smartest and funniest contact center experts you’ve never heard of.)

In my time as a contact center leader, I’ve enjoyed many moments of profound success. Epiphanies, if you will. Chief among these include: 1) figuring out how to use the new coffee maker (which immediately led to more success and a sustainable, repeatable jolt to my morale); 2) determining that among my many minions there was at least one minion always willing to go get me more coffee; and 3) the value of benchmarking.

Now understanding the value of benchmarking was quite a struggle for me, ranking up there with understanding Erlang-C math and decaf coffee. Many a battle has been fought in my grand history regarding benchmarking. In favor of keeping my job, I dug deep within myself to determine how I should proceed. A favorite platitude of mine is, “When you don’t understand, start from zero.” Reluctantly, I accepted my own advice.

For me, starting from zero meant defining exactly what benchmarking is to me and to the contact center industry, and why it is always so important to my executives. I started with Webster's Dictionary:

benchmark: to study (as a competitor's product or business practices) in order to improve the performance of one's own company.

Essentially, benchmarking is studying what your competition does, how they do it and what their results are relative to your own business activities. It is akin to comparing apples-to-apples, except in practice it is more like comparing kiwi fruit and planarian worms.

Having arrived at this point, I reached out to some of my industry peers. (We contact center folks are migratory and at one point we all meet one another.) I learned that benchmarking is real and powerful, much like domesticated unicorns. Listed below for your reading pleasure are the finer points:

1) The Internet is your friend.  The Internet can be enormously helpful in finding existing and relevant information. Google and LinkedIn can be leveraged for such activities as benchmarking. For this critical research, however, I spent hours on Facebook. I questioned my associates on their knowledge of benchmarking. Their responses included 127 invitations to play Farmville, countless irrelevant memes, and 12 invitations to “singles” events. After thoroughly investigating all of the above, I switched over to Google and quickly discovered my competition did not publish their KPIs and other performance metrics. This is curious, yet good news. It meant I could create and present any interpretation of benchmarking results and nobody would know if it were truly accurate!

I also found sites where contact center leaders may volunteer their call data for benchmarking baselines. These companies then share your voluntary information with other contact centers…for a price. Moreover, they wanted my money to gain access to this treasure trove. But seriously, benchmarking is so important that we always have the foresight to create budget funding for the task, right? Right? No. Spending on benchmarking puts at-risk the coffee budget. I digress.

2) You can believe benchmarking data is honest.  Accurate benchmarking data may be useful. However, my contact center peers are hesitant to share their “trade secrets”. It really becomes a discussion of “You show me your FCR and I’ll show you mine.” I always fudged-down my numbers a bit and, in return, I’m sure I’ve received from my peers some numbers that are equally massaged up or down. I figure if my peers are doing a bit of benchmarking, and they want to do better than me, why not start them out aiming low, right? Instant benchmarking boost! Now I can tell my executives that we are already doing better than the competition! Call the Marketing Department and add this to their glossy collection of collateral!

3) Use your network to get more information. When seeking out benchmark-able material, call someone you trust. After you’re done co-griping about benchmarking, make good use of the time to feel out job opportunities where your trusted buddies work. This is also a good time to ask about attrition and upward mobility at your competition’s contact center. Quite possibly, this is the most valuable and useful time you’ll spend benchmarking.

Griping, benchmark data, and career opportunities – it’s a contact center trifecta. I’d add in coffee, but I’m not sure quadfecta is a word.

Also note that if your peers sound more dissatisfied than you, tell them how wonderful it is working where you are. Perhaps you can scavenge a few of their best people. Again, high value stuff here!

It’s all about networking.

4) The end-game.  When you are done, you will find that there are no apples-to-apples comparisons. As most companies arbitrarily establish KPIs anyway, spend some time deciding where you should be with your performance. Along the way, you might have picked up a few numbers here and there that can be referenced and they may even make your executive summary seem a bit more convincing.

Obviously, to appear compelling, you should show where you could improve. FCR is always an easy one. Executives love NPS, too. Trust me when I say your NPS is too low. If you are close to the top of your 0-5 NPS scale, switch to a 0-100 scale to show all of your upside and potential. Then have a few action points describing how you are going to bump up your scores in each category. 

This leads me to add a new entry in my own personal Contact Center Dictionary:

benchmark: to consume time chasing unicorns whilst leveraging one’s professional network, only to make up your own arbitrary goals that will convince your leadership team that you are doing okay but have plenty of room to improve. Benchmarking exercises are often performed under the influence of coffee.

What are your thoughts on benchmarking? Is it time well spent?  Are benchmarking data useful in sculpting goals for your contact center? Share your ideas and advice in the comment area below.

About Kevin Carly: Kevin grew up in the world of contact centers doing technical support for WordPerfect and Novell during their respective heydays. Nearly half of his career is entrenched in IT service management with companies such as Publicis Groupe and Rio Tinto. His unique-ish approach to leadership, technology and contact center expertise brought great success at DealerTrack. Kevin has four children (one in Afghanistan), and his nervous breakdown is scheduled for June 2018.