Off Center
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

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.

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.