Off Center
 
(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.


11/1/2012 11:00:01 pm

Unicorns are very fast and Kevin is very funny!

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11/1/2012 11:05:33 pm

I fully concur, Antoinette. And I predict that, soon, as many people who believe in unicorns will believe in Kevin Carly. Children of contact center professionals will even start decorating their rooms with pictures of Kevin.

(That came off much creepier than I intended.)

Thanks for your comment!

-Greg

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Kevin Carly
11/1/2012 11:28:58 pm

GL,

Once I achieve your level of fame, my pictures will be all over the place. Just like that one weekend of tequila and merry making, except the police in three states disagreed with my definition of fun.

Kev

Kevin Carly
11/1/2012 11:26:15 pm

Right on both points, Antoinette! Though I must say that in the past I have published accurate benchmarking data AND captured a unicorn. Really.

Thank you for the response! I hope you enjoyed the article.

Kev

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11/1/2012 11:17:08 pm

To be honest: I never understood the urge for benchmarking. I have accepted it as one of those things that seem to be inevitable in contactcenters. Comparing “kiwi fruit and planarian worms”can be fun for an hour or two when you’re trying to avoid yet another coaching session with that agent you can’t seem to fire, but it is useless.
For years now, I’ve been trying to convince managers and marketingguru’s to forget about the competition and focus on creating a vision of their own. Surely, when we put our minds to it, we must be able to come up with an idea of how we want to serve the customer? Even if all competitors have a FCR of 80%: who cares? We aim for 99%

Ah well.. at least I know how Don Quijote felt

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Kevin Carly
11/1/2012 11:36:20 pm

Peter,

I've found that no matter what we come up with, and in spite of how accurate and/or applicable it is, benchmarking data is as useful as we want it to be. Most places move past the benchmarks and define their own SLAs and KPIs anyway. You're right...we end up aiming for 99%. It boggles the mind.

Thank you for your comments!

Kev

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J.R. Hardenburgh
11/1/2012 11:28:14 pm

Good article Kevin. To overcome the "fudge factor" in KPI's you need lots of data. Going to several comrades in arms on Google or Linked In will not produce enough accurate metrics (fudge included) to be meaningful. You have two choices; figure out what a meaningful (and achievable) benchmark should be for each KPI given your decades of experience under the influence of Columbian java beans or, cough up some money from the Christmas party budget to purchase a report from Benchmark Portal or Metric Net, who have thousands of centers contributing to the numbers, eliminating the fudge factor.

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Kevin Carly
11/1/2012 11:32:18 pm

J.R.,

I toyed with those sites and services, too! They do offer a great deal of potentially useful data. You make excellent points here and certainly benchmarking data doesn't need to be fudged. You are right! Thank you for this feedback.

Now, would you mind sending me your user ID and password, I can fix this situation straightaway...

Kev

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11/1/2012 11:46:51 pm

Ah Greg, as much as I love you, I must disagree with passion. I think benchmarking is a complete waste of time. Here's why: A benchmark is the average of average businesses/people/departments, etc... what you end up with is the average of averages or, in other words, adequate at best.
Folks spend lots of money and/or time finding out what others are doing, when they should be trying to understand what their customers want. Skip the benchmarking and do some real digging.
I hope you still love me.

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11/1/2012 11:51:54 pm

Ah Michael, someone didn't read the post very carefully. Not only did I not WRITE it (the brilliant and hilarious Kevin Carly did), the entire piece was highly tongue-in-cheek. Kevin (and I) are hardly huge proponents of benchmarking.

The good news, though, is that this means we AGREE, thus my love for you can continue.

Kisses and punches,

Greg

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Kevin Carly
11/1/2012 11:59:19 pm

Michael,

Nothing like re-writing weeks worth of work into one sentence. Well done, if you are aiming for the Succinct Restatement trophy!

As GL states, we agree completely. Indeed, I would add that if you want to start nailing realistic targets, ask your clients what they need and talk to your team about how to get there!

As J.R. stated above, there are plenty of benchmarking services with similarly useful data. I personally enjoy M#tr#c N#t (no free endorsements here!) . But the real answers come from your client base.

Thank you for your comments! I hope this all makes sense now.

Kev

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11/2/2012 12:48:35 am

The need for benchmarking is a social idiocy. We all know it's corrupt, we all know it's ultimately for fools, yet we long for it because we think it will provide a sense of euphoria like we have never experienced before. It's this same idiocy that is exploited the marketers of the Furby and the Snuggie. You see, exploiting idiocy can make you millions! Common let's go stand in line for 2 weeks and wait to buy the iPhone6.

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Kevin Carly
11/2/2012 12:58:30 am

Jim,

Thank you for your comments, though I remain unclear with how you really feel about benchmarking.

In some ways I can relate, as I purchased the Furby and several Snuggies. My iPhone purchase will wait, however, until I know where they are putting the headphone jack...because, like benchmarking, we all know that is a game-changer!

Thanks for your comments!!

Kev

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11/2/2012 12:52:38 am

I'm loving all the snark! Seems my man Kev struck a nerve -- and shared some wisdom.

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12/9/2012 02:48:32 pm

I can't see what all the fuss is about. I have built a career on benchmarking. It has allowed me to
- Travel the world
- Talk to interesting people
- Look at call centres
- Avoid making decisions
- Get my boss of my back

As a management practice there are few to top it. It benchmarks highly (sorry)

James

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Kevin
12/11/2012 02:16:42 am

James,

Thank you for your feedback. In the contact center industry, we always love to hear of successes where we talk to interesting people. Usually that happens at the bar AFTER work, however.

I also have had opportunities to travel the world, but INTERPOL always seems to have different plans for me.

Finally, you've given away the game. Between traveling, looking at call centers, and avoiding decision making, it is clear to me that you are a benchmarking executive. Well played, sir.

Kev

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