Previously Published in CRMguru.com
Not Your Father's Call Center -- Or Is It?
By Steven P. Salaway
There are many call center assessment services available in today's marketplace. Most provide industry benchmarks to help analyze performance and recommend improvements. Few, however, examine the entire workings of a center and therefore miss critical elements. A call center is a dynamic organization composed of people, processes and technology that exists to serve or sell to customers. For this reason, a call center assessment needs to account for how it accomplishes that work as a whole in addition to studying its individual components. This article briefly highlights a few of the methodologies and techniques used by the author to successfully audit, evaluate and fine-tune a call centers performance.
Up to 60% of a typical call centers budget is devoted to salary and benefits. This percentage is even greater if the commitment to technology is low. Review your center's organization structure. If agents are reporting to supervisors who in turn report to managers, ask yourself why? Is a division of labor critical to the organization's performance? In one telecommunication center, for example, supervisors had a deeper knowledge of a complex multiple product line than the agents. Initially, call transferring a customer for difficult questions made sense. However, as scripting technology became available even new agents had access to that knowledge content by way of a keyword search. The "knowledge pyramid" structure of that organization was not only greatly reduced resulting in the need for fewer supervisors, but the dangerous art of transferring a customer was eliminated. Annual staff savings of 10% was achieved, three days out of the 10 days training period were eliminated, and there was an improvement to overall call quality.
Since call centers are labor intensive, never underestimate the value in good management techniques. Policies, procedures and performance standards need to be written and highly communicated. Too many call centers spend valuable time in addressing performance issues due to a lack of clear performance guidelines and expectations. Turnover, which admittedly can be high in call center environments, is in part attributed to poor management. Good management helps make the call center an exciting place where all can contribute to its efficiency and boosts morale. In addition, many agents have had multiple call center experiences and can provide valuable insight for improving a center's operations. Hold brief regular meetings with all center staff and allow work to be openly discussed and improved upon. Create awards. Give recognition in both monetary and non-monetary ways!
Call centers should not be excluded from traditional BPI (business process improvement) techniques. Simply put, these techniques help identify tasks and processes to perform a given unit of work and through that identification enable replacement or more efficient ways to work. You should frequently perform "a-day-in-the-life-of" call center evaluation. Understand all the tasks that are taking place in order to service or sell on each call. An invaluable technique is a side-by-side audit reminiscent of the old TMU (time motion unit) methodology employed in the early years of the industrial engineering. In order to understand the work effort, monitor a sampling of agent calls with the intent of identifying a list of tasks an agent is required to perform for each call. If appropriate, do this for different call types. That task list will immediately reveal opportunities for improvement.
There are standard call center statistics that attempt to measure the above. One is "average call handling" time. However, average call handling does not reveal the total work effort. A good example was a major catalog retail store where agents used the latest CMS (customer management system) technology, yet certain warranty calls required reference to hard copy manuals surrounding their workspace. Call length was very much a function of searching through those manuals! Don't abandon the gathering and reporting of standard call center statistics such as average call length, average call handling time, etc. These are valuable metrics for monitoring performance. Just understand the limitations of each measure and the alternatives.
Drill down even further in your call center by examining processes or collections of tasks required to work a call. Can an agent be truly "one-and-done" or does he/she have to depend on others in working a call? The banking industry is a good example where traditional back office functions were part of the work flow approval process. Loans approvals took days if not weeks. What changed was not the legislation but the automation of the approval process that empowered the agent with the tools for making a decision in minutes. Traditional work flow charting techniques can be an invaluable aid in visualizing the work flow of a call center. One such analysis undertaken for a major financial services institution revealed each product line had its own individual 800 number. The enterprise-wide picture showed fifteen 800 numbers that the customer would be exposed to. The savings in 800 number consolidation alone on a national basis was in the millions of dollars. The simplicity of one number to the customer with seamless behind the scene branching was definitely a customer relationship plus.
Technology for the call center has exploded in the last 15 years. Telephony and the computer are truly one. Calls can be routed and transferred across geographies. Customer data can precede the call for the agent's readiness. Agents can capture customer comments for later marketing and product valuation. This article cannot possible review all the technology that is available today. Yet despite these tools, call centers are still struggling with efficiency issues. Again the issue of workflow arises. Technology does not automate environments, technology automates tasks or processes as discussed above. A good example is screen navigation. Most software today provides for customized navigation, yet few firms focus on the benefits of tailoring their agent screens to their own business model. More importantly, few companies revisit and analyze navigation performance over time in order to make the necessary adjustments.
Don't use your technology organization or vendor for just installations and troubleshooting. Partner with them to help them understand your service or sales mission. Share with them your Workflows, ACD (Automatic Call Distributor) and BPI analyses enabling them to better integrate and leverage all the technology pieces to that mission. Establish a team that is charged with the responsibility of technology review and encourage business case analyses with ROI at its focus.
The most overlooked asset in call center performance is the customer. Marketing has always used focus groups and other customer data to improve its products or services. Call centers should also do so. Listening to customers is the single most effective way of moving the call center performance needle from one of efficiency to that of effectiveness. There are many ways and techniques to accomplish this. End of call questionnaires are helpful, but if not designed properly can be a quality deflator. Direct feedback from your customer base, particularly for customer service operations, is critical. Segment your customer base, select appropriate candidates and conduct a focus group session. Design the session to allow for review of the services offered by specific areas, e.g., IVR (Interactive Voice Response) selection options, agent responsiveness, problem resolution, etc. One major Financial Services institution participates in the regular marketing focus group sessions leveraging their expertise in design and execution. No matter how the sessions are accomplished, you will be surprised at the invaluable suggestions that you will receive!
In conclusion, treat you call center as a factory. Manage, measure and assess your production. Use traditional process improvement and process performance techniques coupled with standard metrics that are unique to the call center environment. Add customer feedback and you will have a center that is both effective and efficient.