Off Center
 
Picture
I'm not one to criticize or judge, except perhaps when I'm around other people. However, I feel I must voice (or, more accurately, write) my opinions regarding some common problems that plague the contact center industry.

Following are what I have found to be among the most common stupid things contact centers do, along with some suggestions to help avoid such idiocy.


Borrowing another contact center’s Service Level or Response Time objective. In choosing a Service Level and/or Response Time objective for their center, many managers simply use the same objective that is in place at centers deemed "best in class." What these managers fail to realize is that their particular customers may very well be bigger pains in the butt than those of best-in-class centers, making them more likely to complain and become irritable if their call isn't answered immediately.

Take for example a manager who, after reading an article about an award-winning pharmaceutical company's contact center with an 80/30 Service Level objective in place, implemented the same goal at his center. What he failed to realize was that 94 percent of the pharmaceutical center's customers were using a leading anti-depressant, and thus thoroughly enjoyed humming along to the centers' on-hold music for as long as possible. Our guy, on the other hand, managed a helpdesk for novice voodoo practitioners, where it wasn't at all uncommon for callers who were forced to wait even just 10 seconds for a connection to start sticking needles in little dolls wearing headsets.

The key point to take away from this ridiculous example is that I am very prone to run-on sentences. Another important point is that, whenever deciding on performance objectives, it's essential to choose the best objectives for YOUR contact center, and to ignore those of respectable ones.

 
Failing to incorporate customer feedback into coaching. One problem with relying solely on your own QA staff or supervisors to provide monitoring feedback to agents is that your agents don't like your QA Staff or your supervisors. Many of your agents would rather have their gums scraped or read a technology vendor’s whitepaper than take your supervisors' advice. That's why the best contact centers have started incorporating direct customer feedback (taken from post-contact surveys) into monitoring scores and coaching efforts. True, most agents don't like your customers either, but are more willing to accept their input because customers never have coffee breath and rarely if ever order your agents to go home and change out of their cut-off Rage Against the Machine tee-shirt on Casual Fridays.

Research has revealed several key benefits of implementing a direct customer feedback initiative. One study, for example, found that contact centers with such initiatives in place have up to 25% higher customer satisfaction rates, up to 15% higher agent retention rates, and up to 1% fewer incidents of QA staff and supervisors being gang-tackled by staff.


Waiting for bleeding-edge technology to become boring. I'm not saying that all contact centers should take big risks on unproven customer contact tools. I'm merely suggesting that those that don't are totally chicken. Now you may argue that investing in unproven solutions is not an intelligent, well thought-out business move. That's fine, but if you are interested only in things intelligent and well thought-out, then you have no business reading my blog.

Show me an award-winning contact center, and I'll show you a manager who has dared to make some dangerous moves with regard to customer contact solutions. Granted, occasionally such deployments fail at these leading centers, but persistent and progressive managers do not let such events stop them. Instead these managers continue to think about the next advanced technology to revolutionize their center and, once their request to leave the mental health facility is granted, eagerly begin meeting with vendors seeking beta-testers.


Treating agents like employees. If you treat agents like employees, they are going to act like employees, and few organizations can recover from such damage.

A recent study by a leading consulting firm revealed that employees are one of the biggest threats to a corporation's health and prosperity, second only to the CEO. Absenteeism, poor work performance and stapler-theft were among the many harmful acts found to be carried out more by employees than any other living entity.

On the other hand, the report found that such undesirable behavior is almost never associated with grandmothers, infants or lemurs. That's why, as I've been saying for years, contact center managers would be wise to stop spending so much time micromanaging and monitoring agents, and start spending more time providing them with rose-scented perfume, colorful rattles and pictures of Madagascar.


For those who find it insulting that I’ve used the term “Stupidity” in the title of this blog post, don’t be dumb. I was just trying to shake things up a bit and bring about some positive change.

For those of you who actually stuck around and kept reading, feel free to share what YOU feel is a common stupid thing in our industry. And please don’t say “Greg Levin”. I may be a highly judgmental and critical jerk, but I do have feelings. Moron.



 
“Smile, you’re on Customer Camera.”

Such a statement isn’t quite as silly or absurd as it sounds. Video calls are no longer just a whimsical fantasy. The technology that drives video interactions with customers is ready for prime time, and has been for a while.

Not a lot of contact centers have experimented with video calls to date, but some have and even report success in the visual medium. These centers claim that video calls aren’t just a gimmicky trend but rather something that many customers want – particularly those who are voyeurs and/or exhibitionists.

Video calls break down the barriers that exist with faceless phone conversations (and emails, chats, tweets), thus enabling companies to establish stronger rapport and more personalized relationships with customers. And because video lets customers put a face with a name, it makes it much easier for a disgruntled customer to find the exact agent he wants to slap after driving (or flying) to the contact center site, thus saving innocent staff members from any harm.

Achieving success with video calls, however, requires careful planning and strategy. Easy to overlook when implementing video are the unique performance metrics the center needs to measure in association with this new contact channel. While many of the metrics used for traditional phone calls also apply to video contacts, there are a few new measures that are particularly essential for success with video, including…

Food Particles In Teeth Per Shift (FPITPS): Agents who handle traditional voice-only calls can get away with having a piece of spinach or broccoli caught between their teeth, even if it does disgust their coworkers. For video agents, however, such a common occurrence can cause a customer experience disaster. In fact, a recent study found that video callers are 87% less likely to continue doing business with a company whose video agents fail to floss effectively.

Video agents should be coached and trained not only on proper pre-call flossing but also on the use toothpicks and hand mirrors to ensure that their FPITPS numbers remain very low. While there is no industry standard for FPITPS, the best video-enabled contact centers aim for between 0.0 and 0.2 food particles in teeth per shift for the entire center. The exception is suicide prevention hotlines, where higher FPITPS numbers are not only tolerated but encouraged, as studies have shown that agents with food caught in their teeth on camera helps emotionally distressed callers feel a lot better about their own lives.

 
Agent Smile Radius (ASR): Agents have historically been told to “put a smile in your voice” (and your emails/chats/tweets). Despite being an annoying and ambiguous command that makes agents feel like punching their supervisor, this practice has been shown to increase customer satisfaction. Now, with video, agents must learn to put an actual physical smile on their face when interacting with customers – no easy task when you consider the long hours, verbal abuse, physical confinement, low pay, and corporate motivational posters that agents must contend with each day.

To ensure that agents smile widely on a consistent basis during video calls, it’s important to hold them accountable and reward them for achieving an ambitious yet feasible Agent Smile Radius (ASR). ASR is the distance from one corner of an agent’s mouth to the other when forcing a smile during customer interactions. When choosing an ASR objective, select one that requires agents to smile big enough to make customers feel warm and special, but not so big that the customer mistakes the agent for Julia Roberts or Mick Jagger.
 
If you have some agents who simply cannot force a smile onto their face during video calls, consider using some strategic tools and props to help elicit genuine grins from these grumps. Possible smile-inducing tactics include having a supervisor stand off-camera wearing a pinwheel hat, and investing in workstation chairs that tickle.

 
Average Eye-Roll Rate (AERR): For traditional phone agents, the rolling of eyes while speaking to bothersome customers is as common a practice as sobbing alone in the break room or beneath a workstation. However, video agents must strive to keep such insulting actions in check. If customers see an agent rolling his/her eyes, they will feel the company doesn’t value them – thus increasing the likelihood of them taking their video contacts to a more caring company where agents merely have food particles stuck in their teeth.

Given the idiocy of some customers today, it’s unfair to expect video agents to completely refrain from rolling their eyes. Still, it’s important to keep eye-rolling to a bare minimum. Establishing a strictly enforced Average Eye-Roll Rate (AERR) objective and educating agents on said objective will help in this endeavor.

For best results, reward and recognize video agents who maintain a low AERR over time, or who last more than 10-15 minutes without rolling their eyes even once during a shift. And be sure to deal with problematic eye-rollers swiftly and sternly, either by docking their pay or by telling them that if they don’t stop rolling their eyes, their face is going to stay that way. 


Got any good (read: funny) metrics for video-enabled contact centers you’d like to recommend? Please share them in the comment section below.


 
In this age of social media, sound bytes and ADHD, people love quick and catchy stats. Unfortunately, in the contact center and customer care space, there seem to be only a handful of snazzy stats in circulation. The same ones just keep getting regurgitated over and over (yes, that’s redundant), especially on Twitter.

This is perplexing considering how dynamic customer care is and how much contact centers have evolved. It’s actually worse than perplexing – it’s depressing. Every time I see someone tweeting the old chestnut , “Satisfied customers tell only 3 people about their experience, while dissatisfied customers tell 8-10 people” (or some variation of this), a part of my soul dies. I even wept a little just now while typing that stat.

Rather than just complain about the lack of statistical variety being promoted by self-proclaimed customer experience experts in the Twittersphere, I aim to remedy the situation. Following are several fresh and captivating stats about customer care and contact centers that I believe you and everybody else will feel compelled to talk and tweet about:

  • 86% of customers would be willing to pay more for better customer service. 100% of contact center managers would be willing to pay more for even mediocre customer service.  

  • 70% of contact centers list Average Handle Time among their key performance metrics at the agent level. Of those centers, 100% need a clue.

  • Only 17% of contact centers really mean it when they say “Your call is very important to us”. Of the remaining centers, 38% feel “Your call is somewhat important to us”, 24% feel “It’s surprising how unimportant your call is to us”, and 21% feel “It’s hilarious that you are still holding for a live agent.”

  • 73% of contact center managers claim to know how to accurately measure First-Call Resolution. The remaining 27% of managers are telling the truth.

  • Engaged customer service agents are 35% more likely to provide a positive customer experience than are customer service agents who are already married.

  • The top three criteria contact center managers consider when selecting work-at-home agents are: 1) Past performance; 2) ability to work independently; and 3) body odor.

  • Every time a caller must provide his/her name and account number to an agent after having just provided that exact same information via the IVR system, a puppy dies.

  • 97% of contact center agents fantasize daily about sending a hungry Bengal tiger to the home of abusive callers. The remaining 3% of agents fantasize daily about sending a hungry Siberian Tiger.

  • 81% of contact center agents are empowered to do exactly what their managers and supervisors tell them.

  • Each year, over 150 customer care professionals die from overexposure to acronyms.

  • 50% of managers feel their contact center is highly unprepared to handle social customer care; the remaining 50% do too.  

  • The three people that satisfied customers tell about their experience are Sue Johnson, Dave Winthrop, and Bud Carter. All three are tired of hearing about these experiences.

  • 42% of contact center managers say they will not hire an agent applicant unless said applicant has a pulse and/or can work at least one weekend shift a month.

  • Four out of five agents represent 80% of all agents. In contrast, the remaining agents represent only 20% of all agents.

  • The average agent-to-supervisor ratio in contact centers is 20:1. The odds that this is enough to provide agents with the coaching and support they need to succeed is 2000:1.

  • 100% of managers destined for greatness and wealth purchase a copy of the Full Contact e-book. 0% of managers understand why the author of said e-book looks so angry and aggressive in the photo on the book cover.



 
“Why is morale so low?”
“Why can’t we hang on to our best agents?”
“Why do we lose so many new-hires during or right after initial training?”
“Why are some of our agents carrying around voodoo dolls, and why am I suddenly experiencing such sharp pains in my face and back?”

If you often find yourself asking one or more of the above questions, it’s likely due to one or more of the following issues:

1) The metrics you measure (and enforce) are killing agents' spirit and the customer experience. Your agents bought into the “customer-centric” culture you sold them during recruiting and came on board excited to serve, but then the center started slamming them over the head with rigid Average Handle Time (AHT) objectives and Calls Per Hour (CPH) quotas their first day on the phones.

Focusing too strongly on such straight productivity metrics – and punishing agents for not hitting strict targets – kills agents' service spirit and compels them to do whatever is necessary to keep calls short and to handle as many as possible. This includes rushing callers off the phones before their issues are resolved, speeding through after-call work and making costly mistakes, and even occasionally pressing “release” to send unsuspecting customers into oblivion. You need to start emphasizing metrics like Contact Quality, Customer Satisfaction, First-Call Resolution, and Adherence to Schedule (the latter is a productivity-based metric your agents actually have control over). Do so, and you’ll be surprised how things like AHT and CPH end up falling in line anyway. Oh, and better do it soon – before your agents AND your customers decide to leave your company in the dust.   


2) Your quality monitoring program emphasizes the “monitoring” much more than the “quality”. Your supervisors and/or QA team are too focused on your internal monitoring form and not enough on how customers actually feel about the quality of the interaction they recently had with your center and agent. All agents see are subjective scores and checkmarks on a form that is likely better suited for measuring compliance than quality.

To get agents to embrace the quality monitoring process, let them have some input on what the form should contain, and, even more importantly, start incorporating direct customer feedback/ratings (from post-transaction surveys) into agents’ overall quality scores. For some reason, agents prefer it when a customer – rather than a supervisor – tells them how much their service stunk. Who knows, some agents might even try to improve.


3) Your contact center doesn’t fully embrace a culture of empowerment. Your contact center has failed to recognize and/or act on the fact that agents possess a wealth of insight, and know your customers better than anyone. It’s time to start empowering agents to use that insight and knowledge to improve existing processes and come up with new ones. This is probably the best way to continuously better the center while simultaneously making agents feel respected and valued. You’ll be amazed by the positive impact their ideas and suggestions will have on operational efficiencies, revenue and customer satisfaction. And because empowerment greatly increases engagement, you should see a big reduction in agent attrition and arson attempts.   


4) Coaching & training continuously get buried beneath the queue. Agents are eager to continuously develop and add value, but your overworked supervisors can’t find the time to stay on top of coaching and ongoing training. Your center needs to begin exploring feasible and effective ways to fit coaching and training into the schedule, such as using “just in time” e-learning modules, creating a peer mentoring program, and empowering agents to take on some supervisory tasks – which will free supervisors up to conduct more coaching and training while still giving them time to go home and visit their families on occasion.  


5) Agent rewards & recognition programs are uninspired – or non-existent. You’re merely going through the motions in terms of motivating and recognizing staff – futilely hoping that such stale incentives as cookies, balloons and gold stars will get agents to raise the roof performance-wise. It's time to revamp your agent rewards & recognition programs with proven approaches like: a Wall of Fame that pays tribute to consistent high performers; opportunities to serve on important committees or task forces; nominations for external industry awards for agents; fun happy hours where agents get to socialize and receive public praise for their concerted effort; and inspired events and contests during Customer Service Week and National Kiss Your Agents on the Mouth Day.     


6) You're handing the wrong people a headset. Maybe you are actually doing all the positive things I’ve suggested thus far, and are STILL struggling with low agent engagement and retention. Well, then you may want to take a close look at your recruiting and hiring practices. Regardless of how well you train, empower and reward staff, if you are attracting and selecting sociopaths and others who aren’t cut out for contact center work or your company culture, you’ll never foster the level of agent commitment or performance that’s required to become as good a customer care organization as your customers demand and deserve.   


A slightly different version of this post originally appeared on the “Productivity Plus” blog put out by the very good people at Intradiem.

 
True contact center success comes when organizations make the critical switch from a “Measure everything that moves” mindset to one of “Measure what matters most.” Given that we are now living in the Age of Customer Influence, “what matters most” is that which most increases the likelihood of the customer not telling the world how evil you are via Twitter.

No longer can companies coast on Average Handle Time (AHT) and Number of Calls Handled per Hour. Such metrics may have ruled the roost back when contact centers were back-office torture chambers, but the customer care landscape has since changed dramatically. Today, customers expect and demand service that is not only swift but stellar. A speedy response is appreciated, but only when it’s personalized, professional and accurate – and when what’s promised is actually carried out.

AHT and other straight productivity measurements still have a place in the contact center (e.g. for workforce management purposes as well as identifying workflow and training issues). However, in the best centers – those that understand that the customer experience is paramount – the focus is on a set of five far more qualitative and holistic metrics.

1) Service Level. How accessible your contact center is sets the tone for every customer interaction and determines how much vulgarity agents will have to endure on each call. Service level (SL) is still the ideal accessibility metric, revealing what percentage of calls (or chat sessions) were answered in “Y” seconds. A common example (but NOT an industry standard!) SL objective is 80/20.

The “X percent in Y seconds” attribute of SL is why it’s a more precise accessibility metric than its close cousin, Average Speed of Answer (ASA). ASA is a straight average, which can cause managers to make faulty assumptions about customers’ ability to reach an agent promptly. A reported ASA of, say, 30 seconds doesn’t mean that all or even most callers reached an agent in that time; many callers likely got connected more quickly while many others may not have reached an agent until after they perished.


2) First-Call Resolution (FCR). No other metric has as big an impact on customer satisfaction and costs (as well as agent morale) as FCR does. Research has shown that customer satisfaction (C-Sat) ratings will be 35-45 percent lower when a second call is made for the same issue.

Trouble is, accurately measuring FCR is something that can stump even the best and brightest scientists at NASA. (I discussed the complexity of FCR tracking in a previous post.) Still and all, contact centers must strive to gauge this critical metric as best they can and, more importantly, equip agents with the tools and techniques they need to drive continuous (and appropriate) FCR improvement.


3) Contact Quality and 4) C-Sat. Contact Quality and C-Sat are intrinsically linked – and in the best contact centers, so are the processes for measuring them. To get a true account of Quality, the customer’s perspective must be incorporated into the equation. Thus, in world-class customer care organizations, agents’ Quality scores are a combination of internal compliance results (as judged by internal QA monitoring staff using a formal evaluation form) and customer ratings (and berating) gleaned from post-contact transactional C-Sat surveys.

Through such a comprehensive approach to monitoring, the contact center gains a much more holistic view of Contact Quality than internal monitoring alone can while simultaneously capturing critical C-Sat data that can be used not only by the QA department but enterprise-wide, as well.


5) Employee Satisfaction (E-Sat). Those who shun E-Sat as a key metric because they see it as “soft” soon find that achieving customer loyalty and cost containment is hard. There is a direct and irrefutable correlation between how unhappy agents are and how miserable they make customers. Failure to keep tabs on E-Sat – and to take action to continuously improve it – leads not only to bad customer experiences but also high levels of employee attrition and knife-fighting, which costs contact centers an arm and a leg in terms of agent re-recruitment, re-assessment, re-training, and first-aid.

Smart centers formally survey staff via a third-party surveying specialist at least twice a year to find out what agents like about the job, what they’d like to see change, and how likely they are to cut somebody or themselves.


For much more on these and other common contact center metrics, be sure to check out my FULL CONTACT ebook at http://www.offcenterinsight.com/full-contact-book.html.


 
In an effort to gain recognition and respect, too many struggling contact centers try to bite off more than they can chew – implementing performance goals that they have as much chance of meeting as I do of being crowned Miss America. 

I often encourage managers of poorly performing contact centers to stop reaching for the stars and to instead just concentrate on not sucking. You have to crawl before you can walk, and you have to walk before you can run a world-class operation.

With that in mind, below are some key performance objectives that managers of sub-par centers might want to consider implementing to help earn some quick wins, build some confidence among staff, and quit drinking so much in the morning.

Contact Resolution. Don't worry about first-contact resolution (FCR) right now. True, resolving customer issues on the first contact has a big impact on customer satisfaction, agent engagement and operational costs, but chances are your center just isn't yet ready to achieve a lofty FCR objective. Instead focus on a more feasible and less intimidating metric – fifth-contact resolution (5CR).

Studies have shown that it is easier to fully resolve customer issues on the fifth try than it is to do so on the first, second, third or fourth try. Research has also revealed that centers that are able to resolve customer issues within five contacts report higher customer satisfaction, agent retention and cost savings than do centers that don't resolve customer issues until the sixth, seventh or eighth contact.

Service Level.
Don't set your center and agents up for failure by shooting for an ambitious service level objective of answering 80 percent of calls within 20 seconds, or some similar challenging goal. It's much wiser to start out with the following, more palatable service level objective: 80% of calls answered… period. The number of seconds that it takes to do so should not be a major concern at this point – that will come later, assuming customers don’t burn your center to the ground in the meantime.  

Adherence to Schedule. Most contact centers focus too much on whether or not agents are in their seat at the right times. Your center will be much more likely to meet/exceed its adherence objective if you don't emphasize the "in your seat" and the "at the right times" parts so much. Instead, go a little easier on your staff by explaining the importance of them at least trying to stay within city limits during their shift. Agents will greatly appreciate the fact that you recognize how challenging and restrictive their job can be, and, as a result, will strive to meet the new objective you have set forth. Or not. 

Contact Quality. When it comes to assuring quality in struggling contact centers, the emphasis should be less on agents achieving high monitoring scores and more on whether or not the person rating the call throws up. When no vomiting occurs, be sure to praise the agent publicly, and consider grooming him or her for a supervisory role. If, however, vomiting does occur during a call evaluation – and it will – provide the agent with positive and nurturing pointers on how he or she could have made the interaction with the customer less nauseating to the person evaluating it.      

If you follow all the suggestions and recommendations provided here in this blog post, I guarantee that your contact center will move from being absolutely abysmal to being just a little pitiful in no time. Best of luck!


For performance measurement and management tactics that are even MORE practical than those highlighted here, be sure to check out my book,
Full Contact: Contact Center Practices & Strategies that Make an Impact.



 
Few metrics have made contact center managers drool like first-call resolution has. And with good reason: FCR has been shown to have a significant impact on customer satisfaction, operational costs and employee morale. So we’re looking at a metric trifecta – a measurement that is both qualitative and quantitative, and that is also engaging for agents.

Unfortunately, FCR is also one of the most misconstrued and mis-measured metrics in the contact center. Many managers get so caught up in the potential benefits that FCR can bring, they simply add it to the center’s scorecard and start tracking it haphazardly – without really grasping some key concepts or taking the customer’s perspective into full consideration.

To avoid the typical FCR pitfalls that doom many a contact center and customer relationship, it’s critical to understand the following:

Accurately measuring FCR takes work. This metric is not easily captured and calculated. You can’t just rely on callback tracking technology, as some customers may not call back even if their issue wasn’t resolved. For instance, they might instead contact the center via another channel (e.g., email, chat) or perhaps even defect to the competition out of frustration. Nor can you just have your quality monitoring folks decide if a call has been resolved (though that doesn’t stop many centers from doing this to gauge FCR); it has to be measured from the customer’s perspective. And while asking customers about issue resolution via post-contact surveys is highly recommended, that method alone isn’t sufficient for accurately tracking FCR either, as sometimes a caller might think their issue was resolved during a call, but then the agent or somebody else doesn’t follow through with what needs to be done to complete the resolution, resulting in a later callback.

The best way to track FCR is to use a combination of the aforementioned methods, and to then just hope you are catching the metric at enough angles to get close to what your actual FCR rate is. That’s a lot of work to still be unsure, but the good news (sort of) is… 
 

...Customers don’t actually care if you know how to measure FCR – they simply want you to ACHIEVE it. It’s important the managers don’t get so obsessed with measurement of FCR that they forget to focus on what processes and practices actually drive FCR improvement. Who cares if you are doing a bang up job of tracking FCR if all the reports show that your rate never goes up. Top contact centers worry less about numbers and more about positive customer experiences, and thus embrace such FCR improvement tactics as:

      -Providing agents with the training and resources to quickly and effectively resolve contacts.
      -Ensuring that there are no conflicting performance objectives hindering customer-centricity and

         FCR achievement (like rigid AHT goals).
      -Mastering skills-based routing so that callers get sent to the right agent with the skill-set to handle 

       their issue.
      -Building agent incentives around FCR goal achievement.
      -Empowering agents to make improvements to FCR-related processes.
     

A high FCR rate isn’t always something to cheer about. Even if your center effectively measures FCR, and your reports consistently show a rate in the 90%-95% range, don’t assume you are an FCR rock star. While rates that high can be legit, more often than not they are inflated by simple “slam dunk” inquiries that the call center could have avoided entirely by providing (and effectively promoting) strong self-service options (e.g., speech-enabled IVR; dynamic web self-service tools.) A potent self-service strategy not only can save the company mucho dinero, many customers prefer self-service when it comes to basic transactions and inquiries.

A high FCR rate doesn’t always account for the amount of effort expended or pain endured by the customer. Sometimes an issue may get resolved on the first call, but not before the customer considered suicide while stuck in a IVR hell only to get transferred to an agent who, while equipped with the answer required, was not equipped with much courtesy or professionalism. That’s why no FCR initiative is complete without solid Quality monitoring and C-Sat measurement practices in place. They are key to ensuring calls are resolved AND relationships are cultivated.



 
There are those in our industry who shy away from answering the most pressing and challenging questions regarding call center management. Then there is myself, who probably should.

But it’s not going to happen today.

Below are three of the most common queries amongst today’s call center and customer care professionals, followed by my comprehensive responses. In composing said responses, I drew from years of call center research, case studies, expert presentations and conversations with industry leaders. But mostly I drew from a bottle of Shiraz.   


1) What are the most important metrics we should measure?  While every company and customer base is a bit different, there are a handful of critical metrics that all call center managers need to embrace. Service Level (SL), Contact Quality (CQ), Customer Satisfaction (C-Sat) and First-Call Resolution (FCR) are certainly among the most important. However, topping the list is probably Manager Sanity (MS), and the closely related Supervisor Sanity (SS).

The reason behind this is you cannot ensure that your call center is accessible and that reps are performing at peak levels if you have completely lost your mind. Studies have shown that all other key call center metrics take a hit whenever a manager or supervisor comes into the center wearing nothing but a propeller beanie and carrying a briefcase full of cheese.    

It’s important to continually gauge your MS/SS level by self-administering a Rorschach inkblot test twice daily. If you find that all the inkblots look like Gregory Peck or a man driving a giant turnip, you are a danger to yourself and others and should be removed or restrained immediately. If you find that all the inkblots look like customers coming at you with a pitchfork and torch, you are fine.     


2) What is the best way to reduce agent turnover? This may come as a surprise, but my thoughts on agent retention tend to go against conventional wisdom. Most experts will tell you that to hang on to staff you need to empower them, continually reward and recognize them for their efforts, and create a highly positive culture in your call center.

Wrong!

Many centers do all those things and still lose their best agents to the Marketing department or an outside company three weeks after training. The best way to reduce – nay, eliminate – agent turnover is through a combination of fear tactics and massive bureaucracy. The next time one of your agents gives you their two-week notice, show them a picture of a workstation with a giant grease stain on the carpet, and tell them: “This is what happened to the last rep who tried to leave.” If by chance, the threatening photo doesn’t shake them and they still insist on quitting, tell them all they need to do is fill out a 20-page “termination request” form in triplicate with their weak hand, in Sanskrit. Then inform them that the processing of such requests takes anywhere from 4-13 years.  


3) Just how big of an impact will social media have on call centers and customer service? Social media is set to have a huge impact on the future of call centers and customer service – unless we do something to stop the onslaught right now. It’s hard enough just trying to manage customer calls, emails, chats and self-service transactions; if we let social customer care plow on through, we will all perish.  

So, we must band together as an industry and “just say no” to social customer care. This includes not only refusing to monitor activity on or offer customer support via social sites, but also helping to kidnap the handful of call center leaders whose organizations are actively engaged in such activities, as they are raising customer expectations and demands for the rest of us.

In addition, we need to silence all the vendors who pedal and promote social customer care-related products/services, as well as stop all the trade pubs and analysts from publishing articles/reports about social customer care. To assist in this matter, I’m working on creating a pill that, when force-fed to a solutions provider, will make them think that they are living in 1998 – when relatively harmless CRM hype ruled the day. 

If we work together and do all of these things, we’ll be able to limit social media to what it was originally intended for: Tweeting about which Starbucks you just stopped at; bitching about the weather, and spreading the word about how my Off Center blog has changed your life.


NOTE: If you are interested in receiving an even higher level of customer care insight, you won’t have trouble finding it elsewhere.

 
If you stick a human being in a cramped cubical, tether them to a desk and pay them $9.50/hr to handle calls from demanding customers for 8-10 hours each day under fluorescent lighting…

…bad things are bound to happen. Bad things like burnout, poor performance, turnover, substance abuse, and most commonly of all – supervisor kidnappings.

Ever since the invention of the call center, companies have struggled mightily with keeping agents inspired and in place. What’s truly disconcerting is that, in many organizations, low agent retention and engagement is in some ways part of the plan. That is, they view burnout and turnover as the “nature of the beast” in the call center – accepting it as inevitable due to the repetitive, restrictive and stressful “nature” of call center work.

Of course, not everybody has such a defeatist attitude. In the best call centers, management strives to change (or at least tame) the nature of the beast. While they do acknowledge that frontline work is challenging and potentially monotonous, they also recognize that there are countless ways to counter that – to inspire agents not just to show up to work but to excel at it, and to relinquish any spray paint, drugs or weaponry in their possession before coming through the door.

I know this because I have seen it first hand, time and again – at leading customer care organizations during my nearly two decades sneaking into call centers and conferences.

So how exactly DO the best call centers achieve high levels of agent engagement and retention? Let me count the ways – seven of them, at least:


1) Put your metrics where your mouth is. When your company tells everybody in the world that it’s a highly customer-centric organization focused on quality and issue resolution, you can’t then tell your agents (whom you attract with such proclamations) that their main performance metrics are Average Handle Time and # of Calls Handled per Hour. Doing so will quickly sap staff of their enthusiasm and trust, thus resulting in high turnover, poor customer satisfaction and your head getting mounted on the CEO’s wall.

2) Provide meaningful rewards and recognition. When it comes to motivating agents, you don’t have to break the bank, but if you write off rewards and recognition entirely – or go at it half-assed – agents may break their computers, or your legs. There are plenty of fun, affordable and meaningful ways to reward/ recognize individuals and teams when they achieve key goals or come to work sober more than two days in a row. I talked about a few of these in a previous post:
http://goo.gl/pDSzO

3) Empower agents beyond the phones.  Your agents possess a wealth of skills, knowledge and experience – assuming your center’s hiring and training programs don’t blow. Empowering staff to use their expertise and experience to come up with better ideas and approaches than you can think of yourself is a great way to better the center while simultaneously making agents feel like they didn’t make a mistake by dropping out of high school. In addition to improving processes and employee morale and retention, having agents help out on committees, task forces and special projects frees you up to spend more time on things like coaching and online poker.      

4) Kick agents out of the call center. Other than threatening agents with serious physical violence if they quit, giving agents the opportunity and the freedom to work from home is the best way to retain them. In fact, in a study on call centers with home agents in place that I conducted this past spring, nearly every participant (93%) reported that the use of home agents has had a “very positive” or “positive” impact on agent retention. If you think I’ve been drinking and am just making this up, check out the key findings from the report – or better yet, purchase/download a copy of it – by clicking here: 
http://goo.gl/6hfQt

5) Invest in agent wellness. I blogged about this a few months ago (
http://goo.gl/L3VFk), but feel compelled to mention it again here after visiting several call centers recently and witnessing incidents of repetitive stress injuries, insanity and cannibalism among agents. Fact: If you show agents you care about them by providing things like fitness amenities, healthy food options, de-stress areas and wellness courses, they will not only stay healthy and perform better, they will feel highly valued by and committed to the organization. If, on the other hand, you make no effort to improve wellness in the call center, agents WILL eat one another, thus making it difficult to schedule enough staff during peak periods.

6) Covet community service as much as customer service. People are inspired by and want to work for companies that care about all human beings – not just customers and employees. You are much more likely to hang on to talented staff if you can show them the reason their wages are so laughable is that half of what they should earn goes toward feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and rehabbing former child TV stars. Also, be sure to give agents a few paid days off each year to volunteer for their favorite charity/non-profit organization; the time off the phones will help to minimize their whining about back pain and Carpal Tunnel flare ups.      

7) Administer formal engagement surveys – and act on the findings. The very act of measuring agent engagement can help to increase it – but only if agents see that the 15 minutes of their life they wasted filling out the engagement survey actually leads to some positive changes. You can’t ask a child if he wants a piece of candy and then not give him a piece after he says “yes” – as tempting and fun as doing so might be. When gauging agent engagement, be sure to use a reputable third-party surveying specialist or, if you don’t have the funds, just use the Ultimate Agent Engagement Survey I created and shared in a blog post a few months ago:
http://goo.gl/yYnTK


Regardless of what my wife says, I DON’T think it’s “all about me.” I’d love to hear about some of YOUR ideas for increasing agent engagement/retention in the call center. (Use the comment box below.) Just don’t write too much – I refuse to be overshadowed.   

 
Show me a call center that does not bother to measure Service Level – and do so correctly – and I’ll show you a call center that likely struggles in practically every key area of customer contact management. Service Level is THE metric for gauging accessibility, and as such it is tied to and has an immense impact on customer satisfaction, workforce management decisions, call center budgeting/costs, and agent sanity.

Service Level (SL) is defined as X% of calls (or chat sessions) answered in Y seconds. A common (but NOT an industry standard!) SL objective is to answer 80% of all customer calls in 20 seconds – typically stated as “80/20”. This means that out of every 100 calls, the call center aims to route at least 80 of them to a live agent within 20 seconds. If the agent to whom a call is routed is not alive, its best to dispose of the body immediately before it affects the health and/or morale of others on the team.

So why doesn’t every call center strive to answer 100% of calls in 20 seconds (or 15 seconds, or 10 seconds)? Well, while doing so would positively delight customers, they would not remain delighted for very long, as the company they are calling would likely go out of business. To deliver on a 100/20 or 100/15 SL objective, a call center would require a daily staffing budget bigger than the CEO’s country club dues. (The exception, of course, is emergency services call centers – e.g. 911 centers – which must answer 100% of calls in a very short period of time by law, and are thus staffed/funded accordingly.)

Such infeasible SL objectives aren’t even necessary; most customers don’t mind waiting 20 or 30 seconds or even a little more before reaching a live agent – especially if they are informed beforehand of the expected wait. That’s why many of the best call centers implement a “visible queue” tool – an automated attendant that tells callers the estimated time until an agent will be available. Studies have shown that call centers with visible queues are 74% less likely to be burned to the ground by a disgruntled customer, and 26% more likely to not be burned to the ground by a disgruntled customer.

Now, an 80/20 SL objective does not indicate that the center ignores or doesn’t care about what happens to the 20% of calls not answered in 20 seconds; it simply means that those callers may experience longer wait times and be given a chance to sing or hum along with the call center’s on-hold music. Top call centers focus on side metrics such as Longest Current Wait Time and # of Customer Curse Words per Hour to ensure that no callers are being avoided like the plague, and to stay abreast of call volume trends that may require real-time action to evade an accessibility crisis and/or customer revolt.


Selecting an SL Objective

So, what is the right SL objective for your call center? I have no idea – and neither does anybody else outside of your organization (except perhaps for an experienced consultant familiar with the ins and outs of your operation). The best SL objective depends on several variables specific to your center: Your average call volume; your customer’s expectations and tolerance levels; your staffing budget; as well as the SL objective of competing call centers in your industry (though, still, you don’t want to just play copy-cat, as other key variables may differ).

That is not to say that there aren’t some common SL objectives shared by many centers – e.g., 80/20, 80/30, 90/20, 90/30. However, just arbitrarily picking one of these objectives without first conducting careful analysis of your call center’s resources and your customers’ expectations will often lead to either very angry callers (and agents) or very angry executives (and stockholders) – or both.



Keep Quality in the Equation  

Of course, no conversation about SL is complete without mentioning quality. You could take the time to carefully select a solid SL objective and consistently achieve that objective (without going too far over, as that indicates costly over-staffing), but it won’t mean jack squat if those calls that are routed quickly are being handled sloppily. Accessibility means nothing without quality. Getting seated immediately at a trendy, popular restaurant is great, but not if the maitre d' laughs at your tie, the waiter spills your wine, and the cook burns your steak.

Leading call centers understand this, and therefore never let efficiency supersede proficiency and professionalism. From the moment a new agent is hired, these centers indoctrinate them into a customer-centric service culture where things like empathy, accuracy and not comparing customers unfavorably to microorganisms are strongly emphasized and coached to. When such behaviors and values are encouraged and embodied, fewer mistakes are made, fewer call-backs are required, and fewer agents and customers burst into flames – thus making it much more likely that the call center (assuming good forecasting and scheduling has occurred) will meet or even exceed its SL objective.