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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.



 
“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.

 
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.



 
Last week in Part 1 of this post, I cited several quality monitoring practices commonly embraced by the world’s best contact centers, then stopped midway through in a desperate attempt to make you come back to my website this week.

Here we go with Part 2. I hope the wild anticipation didn’t cause you to lose too much sleep.
 
Incorporate customer satisfaction ratings and feedback into monitoring scores. Here is where quality monitoring is really changing. This shift in quality monitoring procedure is so important, it’s underlined here – and just missed getting typed out in ALL CAPS.

Quality is no longer viewed as a purely internal measure. Many contact centers have started incorporating a “Voice of the Customer” component into their quality monitoring programs – tying direct customer feedback from post-contact surveys into agents’ overall monitoring scores. The 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 punch the agent following the interaction.


Add a self-monitoring component to the mix. The best contact centers usually give an agent the opportunity to express how much he or she stinks before the center goes and does it for them. Self-evaluation in monitoring is highly therapeutic and empowering. When you ask agents to rate their own performance before they are rated by a quality specialist (and the customer), it shows agents that the company values their input and experience, and it helps to soothe the sting of second- or third-party feedback, especially in instances when a call was truly flubbed.

Agents are typically quite critical of their own performance, often pointing out mistakes they made that QA staff might have otherwise overlooked. Of course, the intent of self-monitoring sessions is not to sit and watch as agents eviscerate themselves – as much fun as that can be – but rather to ensure that they understand their true strengths and where they might improve, as well as to make sure they and your quality personnel are on the same page. Self-evaluations should cease if agents begin to slap themselves during the process, unless it is an agent you yourself had been thinking about slapping anyway.


Provide positive coaching soon after the evaluated contact. Even if you incorporate all of the above tactics into your monitoring program, it will have little impact on overall quality, agent performance or the customer experience if agents don’t receive timely and positive coaching on what they did well and where they need to improve. Notice I said “timely” AND “positive” – this is no either/or scenario: Giving agents immediate feedback is great, but not if that feedback comes in the form of verbal abuse and a kick to the shin; by the same token, positive praise and constructive comments are wonderful, but not if the praise and comments refer to an agent-customer interaction that took place during the previous President’s administration.

At the end of each coaching session during which a key area for improvement is identified, the best centers typically have the coach and the agents work together to come up with a clear and concise action plan aimed at getting the agent up to speed. The action plan may call for the agent to receive additional one-on-one coaching/training offline, complete one or more e-learning modules, work with a peer mentor, and/or undergo a lobotomy.


Reward and recognize agents who consistently deliver high quality service.  While positive coaching is certainly critical, high-performing agents want more than just a couple pats on the back for consistently kicking butt on calls. Top contact centers realize they must reward quality to receive quality, thus most have some form of rewards and recognition tied directly to quality monitoring results. Agents in these centers can earn extra cash, gift certificates, preferred shifts and plenty of public recognition for achieving high ratings on all their monitored calls during a set month or quarter. In some centers, if an agent nails there quality score during an even longer period (six months or a year), they may earn a spot on the center’s “Wall of Fame”, and perhaps even the opportunity to serve as a quality coach who can boss around their inferior peers.

To foster a strong sense of teamwork and to motivate more than just a select few agents, many centers have built team rewards/recognition into the fold. Entire groups of agents – not just the center’s stars – can earn cash and kudos for consistently meeting and exceeding the team’s quality objective over a set period of time. Such collective, team-friendly incentives not only help drive high quality center-wide, they help protect the center’s elite agents from being bludgeoned with their own “#1 in Quality” trophy by co-workers.


If you have some other key quality monitoring practices you’d like to share, please do so in the comment box below. If you’d like to take serious issue with the practices I’ve highlighted, get your own blog.


 
Quality monitoring is as old a practice in contact centers as sending electric shocks through agents’ headsets to help keep handle time down. But just because centers have been conducting quality monitoring forever doesn’t mean they have been doing it right.

Effective quality monitoring is so important, I’m going to do two successive blog posts on the topic. This week and next my posts will highlight the quality monitoring tactics and strategies shared by contact centers that are better than yours. Here we go: 

Gain agent understanding of and buy-in to monitoring from the get-go. In top contact centers, managers introduce the concept of monitoring during the “job preview” phase of the hiring process. Agent candidates learn (or, if experienced, are reminded) of the reasons behind and value of monitoring, as well as how much monitoring will occur should they be offered and accept a job in the center. Managers clarify that monitoring isn’t intended to catch agents doing something wrong, it just often works out that way. They explain how monitoring is not only the best way to gauge an agent’s strengths and where they can improve, but also to pinpoint why the people who designed the center’s workflows and IVR system should be fired.

Gaining agent buy-in to monitoring goes beyond mere explanations and definitions. The best contact centers show new-hires and sometimes even job applicants how quality monitoring actually works by having them listen to recorded calls with a quality specialist. The specialist goes over the center’s monitoring form/criteria, shows how each call was rated, and lets the newbies decide on a fitting punishment for the agent evaluated. 


Use a dedicated quality monitoring team/specialist. In many contact centers, quality monitoring is carried out by busy frontline managers and supervisors. In the best contact centers, the process is carried out by dedicated quality assurance nerds – folks whose sole responsibility is making sure that the center’s agents and systems aren’t making customers nauseous.

I’m not saying that frontline managers/supervisors don’t know how to monitor;  rather I’m saying that they typically don’t have time to do so effectively and provide timely coaching. With a dedicated quality monitoring team (or, in smaller/less wealthy centers, a single quality specialist) in place, there is time to carefully evaluate several customer contacts per month for each agent, and to provide prompt and comprehensive feedback to those agents about why they should have stayed in school.  


Develop a comprehensive and fair monitoring form. A good quality monitoring form contains not only all of the criteria that drives the customer experience, but also all the company- and industry-based compliance items that keep your organization from facing any indictments.

In top contact centers, the monitoring form is broken into several key categories (e.g., Greeting, Accuracy, Professionalism/Courtesy, Efficiency, Resolution, etc.), with each category – and the specific criterion contained within – assigned a different weighting depending on its perceived impact on customer satisfaction. For example, “Agent provided accurate/relevant information” and “Agent tactfully attempted to up-sell after resolving customer issue” would likely be weighted more heavily than “Agent didn’t spit while saying ‘thank you for calling’" or “Agent remained conscious during after-call wrap-up”.

In developing an effective monitoring form that agents deem fair and objective, smart managers solicit agent input and recommendations regarding what criteria should or should not be included, and how agents feel each should be weighted. Showing agents such respect and esteem is a great way for you to foster engagement and a great way for me to make money if I ever write a book aimed at agents.


Invest in an automated quality monitoring system. There are contact centers that still rely mainly on real-time remote listening to evaluate agent-customer interactions. There are also doctors that still use leeches for bloodletting.

If your center is staffed with more than 20 agents and you want a shot at lasting customer satisfaction, continuous agent improvement, and an invitation to private vendor cocktail parties at conferences, you must invest in an automated quality monitoring system. There is simply no better and faster way to capture customer data, evaluate performance and spot key trends in caller behavior and agent incompetence.

I’m certainly not saying that other monitoring methods are not useful. Real-time remote observations, side-by-side live monitoring, mystery shopper calls, hiding beneath agents’ workstations – these are all excellent supplementary practices in any quality monitoring program. But they should do just that – supplement, not drive the program.


Monitor ALL contact channels, not just phone calls.  As a researcher, I’m always amazed by how many multichannel contact centers have formal monitoring process in place only for live agent phone calls. According a study by ICMI, fewer than two thirds of contact centers that handle email contacts monitor customer email transactions, and fewer than half of centers monitor customers’ interactions with IVR or web self-service applications.

By virtually ignoring quality outside of the of traditional phone channel, contact centers allow poor online and automated service to continue, creating a breeding ground for customer ire and high operating costs. Failure to monitor the email and chat channel will not only lead to agents’ errors and poor service going unnoticed, it can actually propagate bad service. Agents who see that the center is so focused on the phones but not on email or chat are likely to give it their all during customer calls but let quality slip a bit when tackling contacts via text. They may even use…gulp…emoticons. :0 

The best contact centers have a formal process in place for evaluating agents’ email and chat transcripts for information accuracy, grammar/spelling, professionalism, and contact resolution. In addition, these centers continually test their IVR- and web-based self-service apps to ensure optimal functionality, as well as monitor those apps during actual interactions to make sure that customers aren’t being thrown into IVR dungeons or abandoning web pages to rip the company a new one on Twitter.     


That’s it for Part 1. I’ll share several more key quality monitoring practices in Part 2 next week. If you simply cannot wait that long, you have no other choice but to purchase a copy of my ebook immediately: http://www.greglevin.com/full-contact-ebook.html.