Thursday, December 21, 2006

Highest Rated Call Center Newsletter

My day job is Chairman of The Taylor Reach group, Inc. a call center and contact center consultancy with offices in North America and Australia. One of the services we provide to our clients is a free newsletter called Customer Reach®. Customer Reach® is one of the highest ranked call center or contact center newsletters in existence. The newsletter is one of the top scoring newsletters in terms of page rank and more than 53% of readers have implemented change within their call centers.

So I thought that I would share this newsletter with you. Below is a description of the current issue and a link for you to access it. Let me know what you think of the publication. We are always looking for ideas and suggestions to make this even better.

In this issue we examine why Home Based should be considered by everyone, reveal of survey findings on outsourced Workforce Management, look at the dangers of not doing your homework when outsourcing, as well as news, views the Poll of the Month a new career opportunity and a case study. We have attached a pdf copy of this month's issue to this email or if you prefer you can download your copy by following this link

Each month we send Customer Reach® out to more than 5,000 call center executives around the globe. In addition we see more than 1,000 issues downloaded from our website. In the last month more than 35,000 people visited the TRG website.

Please feel free to pass your issue onto friends or colleagues or suggest they visit our website to subscribe for their own copy at

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

New Call Center Manager- Congratulations or Condolences

Congratulations! you are the new Call Center manager/ what?

Should it even be congratulations? Perhaps condolences would be more appropriate. Why would this not be a celebratory moment? Well consider that ,
more than one third of a call center managers time is wasted on recurring everyday problems (firefighting) can we prevent fires if we are too busy fighting them?
Only 38% of executives have the tools to solve customers problems can we improve customer satisfaction without the proper tools?
The staff you will rely on is likely untrained, 30% of Supervisors receive no formal training! can we expect them to complete a job they have not been trained for?
Is this a recipe for success? Is it any wonder that 58% of senior executives said that they don't deserve their customers loyalty? ...So it can't be much of a surprise that almost one third of all call centers and contact centers miss their KPI's at least one a week

The prime business objectives for call centers and contact centers today are improving efficiency and reducing costs. So against this back drop I ask if you really want this role?

It reminds me of a story where a sea captain in the 1800's is sailing in pirate infested waters and one day the look out shouts "Pirate ship straight ahead", The captain turns to his mates and says "bring me my sabre and my red shirt". The mate does so and after a fierce battle the captain and crew successfully drive off the pirates. A few days later the look out shouts "two pirate ships dead ahead", Once again the captain asks for his sabre and red shirt and the mate comply. Following a hard fought struggle the captain and crew are able to win the day and turn back the pirates. As they recovered on the deck the mate asks the captain about his pre-battle requests, the mates says "captain I understand why you ask for the sabre, but why the red shirt?", The captain answers "that's easy since we are going into battle I don't want the crew to become frightened or concerned if I were to be wounded and bleed in the fighting...with the red shirt they won't see the blood". The mate nods and now understands. The very next day the look out shouts down to the captain, "five pirate ships coming towards us". The captain without a seconds pause turned to the mate and says..." bring me my sabre and my brown pants"

OK not original, but I think you get the message. With so much lined up against you how can you succeed? The answer requires you to step back from the day-to-day and to look at the center holistically. You need realize that every activity and process that occurs within a call center or contact center is inter-related and that dealing with the symptoms will not cure the disease.

Congratulations or Condolences, I say Congrats, because given the poor state of service in business today there is lots of room for improvement and lots of opportunities for those that can rein in chaos and create effective, efficient, productive contact centers

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Money from the Taxman

Yes, that's right I said money from the taxman. If you operate a call center, contact center or tele service company you could be entitled to receive money back from the government. As we rush towards the end of the year and time to file another tax return few of us may remember that in May the Treasury Department announced that it will no longer seek to collect the 'Long Distance Telephone Excise Tax' and that further the IRS will issue refunds of tax on long distance service for the past three years.

So this is the chance for all of you who operate contact centers, call centers, tele service and tele sales within your companies to get your money back with interest.

For more information click on

Monday, December 11, 2006

Quality Assurance & Quality Monitoring

I recently received a request for a good 'quality' document for use in call centers and contact centers. The following link provides a good start

Outsource, Insource, Offshore- Which is the way forward

Well its December 12th and I am in Atlanta. In town to meet with clients and prospects. It is a nicer day here than it would have been in Toronto.

had a meeting a financial services company this morning. They are working to determine a way forward to enhance their customer service delivered through there contact center. They are looking at familiar options: Outsource, In-source, off-shore. Today they operate with an outsourcer and have confirmed that they can save 45%+ in the contact handling fees by moving offshore they don't yet have a handle on the organizational costs required to support this type of a move.

Research has demonstrated that companies that offshored to India expecting to save 30%, 40% even 50% of their costs actually netted savings closer to 12% once the organizational costs to support such offshore activities were factored in.

If the savings were only expected to be 12% how many of the companies that have offshored their call center & contact center activities would not have bothered? i suspect it would be the majority. Virtually every call center and contact center I have seen can achieve more than 12% savings without outsourcing or offshoring. This would eliminated the bad press, frustrated customers and reduced customer satisfaction scores that affect most companies that move their call centers or contact centers offshore.

With any luck we will have the opportunity to assist this organization chart its best path forward.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Can we Forecast the Future...Yes

The Importance of Forecasts
How often have you seen or heard about call center management struggling with the senior executives or their own staff regarding the resources needed by the center to do the work. Missed service levels, tired or worn out staff, blocked calls, long hold times, incomplete and/or inadequate training and development goals are but a few of the issues facing call center management everyday. Is there a better way?

Fortunately yes! One way is to have a forecast of work volume and staff for at least six months by week and eighteen months by month. This type of forecast can usually be done with a few hours work and a spreadsheet program. No, I am not talking staffing forecast of between one to five weeks out. That type of short term staffing forecast is fine and needed to plan the shifts and ‘work-arounds’. It does not however provide the kind of insight needed or desired by senior officers of any organization.

There are many applications and tools out there now that provide very decent calculations of the number of staff needed to provide a given level of service. For many centers this is the point at which they stop.

For a few, it is the starting point. From here the few gather other key information. Such as: volume by period for the last 18 months by transaction type, this shows any seasonal variations that need assessing; rate of absents, sickness etc., this allows a judgement of extras or additional capacity from existing staff that is likely to be needed; planned roll-outs, upgrades, vacations, how many man-days and when, (service still needs providing, but staff seem to like vacations, go figure); training, personal development, special events or marketing efforts likely and they range of effects on the work load, while not exact something is better than nothing.

Engineering, marketing and sales will be pleased that you cared enough to ask. Be aware that many “forecasts” from marketing and sales are more likely goals and objectives for the campaign. Be sure to check past campaign result information for projections and actual results. This provides a good indication of the range of response that is possible. Finally training and special projects need identification and planning. Training for both new staff and on-going refresher or upgrading for existing staff. Special projects allowance is always good to have in reserve. These provide staff with an opportunity to demonstrate skills and knowledge outside their usual arena. This can be a very good morale booster for everyone.

From this basic measure of work a staff, full time equivalent can be determined. Depending upon the center policy toward full, part-time and contract mix will dictate the number of total staff and the number of seats needed for the load by period.

With this in hand any center executive can discuss with everyone, staff, operations, HR, senior officers any aspect of the center based on the work being ask. From here decisions can be made about the ebb and flow of part-time hours, outsourced work, budgets, equipment, call diversion or best of all ways to reduce the calls in the first place.

A forecast of this type is a powerful tool. By updating on a regular basis, comparing actual results to projections management, staff and supervisors quickly gain confidence that management has foresight and is anticipating issues and problems before they arise.

While no forecast is perfect, something is better than nothing. This tool provides more value at less cost than another in the call centers arsenal.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Technorati Profile

Service Standards...You can't manage what you can't measure

Service Standards

It is essential for all organizations to assess and then define the standards of service they will deliver to their clients and customers. These standards set the expectations in the customers mind as well as in that of the organizations staff. This white-paper sets out the rationale and framework for establishing service standards within any organization.

A recent TARP survey indicated “that 30% of Customer dissatisfaction was caused by incorrect customer expectations and a further 30% by Marketing setting improper expectations”. According to a recent survey 46% of customers who had called a contact center are dissatisfied with the service they received[1]. So it may be unfair to lay the blame for all customer dissatisfaction at the doorstep of the call center. In some cases they are just the messenger. Regardless of the source, customer expectations will drive calls to the call center. The customer will hold up their expectations to their own experience and then voice their objections at any (real or perceived) deficiency.

Service Standards can be powerful tools in setting customer expectations, through advertising. We are all familiar with the following advertising tag-lines that impact on customer expectations;
· “Quality is Job 1”,
· “When it absolutely, positively has to get there”,
· “Satisfaction guaranteed or your money refunded”,
· “We try harder”,

Each of these advertising tag lines tells you that the company will live up to these expectations. But what if your Ford is always in the shop or if in your opinion the counter staff at Avis didn’t try harder? Well the next step is often a call to the company contact center to complain.

Companies must look long and hard at the expectations they are setting when they make commitments. This is not only true of advertising but in each and every customer interaction. Many companies know the damage they can inflict upon themselves by not living up to the promises they have made. Failure to live up to customers expectations is frequently cited as one of the top reasons for customer defection.

So how can companies keep themselves clear of this potentially dangerous situation? Well firstly they must acknowledge that no company can control all expectations a customer may hold as they are based upon not only statements made by the company but also by the customers’ perception of those statements. Secondly they must know and prove to you that you can and will meet these expectations.

FedEx tracks all service contacts (calls, pick ups, deliveries etc.) they has set an acceptable failure rate of 1 failure per million interactions. This they believe equates to and supports their advertised tag line. Lastly you must regularly test and retest your own performance to ensure that you are meeting your own metrics.

The following guidelines will provide some parameters for use in developing or re-assessing service standards;

1. Test your current performance,
2. Identify variations that impact on the performance
3. Compare current performance to established Goals/Targets,
4. Revise performance standards if they are not meeting goals/targets,
5. Reassess every 6 to 12 months.

It is better to have no defined Service standards than it is to have ones that are not delivered. The failure to meet an identified service standard not only dissatisfies the customer who was expecting better because you told him to, but also communicates a very dangerous message to your staff…”we don’t have to do what we said we would do.” The impact on morale and performance can suffer greatly under such thinking. “Why should any employee go above and beyond the call if the company won’t?”

Under this thinking you can see why a high service standard that is missed by 10% is much more dangerous than a lower standard met every time.

So in what areas should you look to set service standards? The following is a list of possible service standard objectives and measures;
1. Access and availability - ease of access when you want it
2. Reliability or accuracy - consistency of service each time
3. Knowledge and competence - those providing service are well informed and competent
4. Courtesy and helpfulness - the manner of how dealing and contacts are handled is satisfactory
5. Promptness and efficiency - the transaction is handled speedily and efficiently
6. Responsiveness and resourcefulness - willingness to adapt service to needs
7. Price and value for money - when the service is paid for
Different organizations in different industries will have different service standards but each will share two key attributes;
1. They will define a key element of service that is important to their customers.
2. The Standard will be easy to understand and easy for customers (and staff) to measure. The Standard(s) must be kept simple and straightforward to ensure that you keep track and understand the results that are being achieved.

The establishment and attainment of defined and meaningful service standards that can be consistently and profitably met will support improved customer satisfaction, improved customer loyalty and reduced customer churn which are all hallmarks of successful and growing companies.
[1] YouGov

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Customer Satisfaction- A How to Guide

Quality is what the Customer says it is

Intuitively we know that better service and higher satisfaction is good for our business, but why is this often very difficult to put into practice? There are a number of factors that contribute to challenge organizations. These include;
· Difficulty in hitting a moving target- Customers are a fickle lot at times and what they want will shift. This makes it difficult to get an accurate and current picture of the actions and attributes that will result in improved Customer Satisfaction.
· Difficulty in measuring Customer Satisfaction. Annual or semi-annual omnibus satisfaction surveys are fine and can be a helpful tool in assessing overall customer satisfaction, but these surveys too often confuse issues of product quality with service quality and fail to adequately differentiate amongst the different channels through which service quality can be delivered ( branch, call center, web, email, distributors etc.). The result is a report that often is too vague and infrequent to be actionable.

As a result of the above challenges many organizations have created internal ‘Customer service quality metrics’ to act as a substitute for ‘real’ customer satisfaction. We must remember however that ‘Quality is whatever the customer says it is’, so internal quality metrics, disconnected from the customer are often doomed to fail.

When you care enough to give the very best service

So what is an operator to do when faced with ineffective internal systems and an absence good ‘real’ customer satisfaction data? The following points will outline some of the options available to improve your measurement and ability to act upon ‘real’ customer satisfaction data;

1. Start to sample Customer Satisfaction on a Monthly basis. This can be done in a number of ways;
a. Mail out surveys to your customers who called the Contact Center each month,
b. Call back your customers who have called the contact center an administer a Satisfaction survey,
c. Send email questionnaires to customers who were served via the web or email,
d. Enable your IVR to administer a post call survey to callers when they call into your center.
Whether you do one or more of the above ensure that the questions their structure and content is the same across all channels.
Remember a third party will have more credibility and be less likely to lead the customer and/or skew the results than if completed ‘in-house’.
2. Ensure your survey design will deliver actionable results. The design should focus narrowly on their experience…don’t ask them about your web site unless they have visited it. This also means that it must focus on what is important to the customer, for a contact center satisfaction survey you should include;
a. Was their inquiry handled to their satisfaction?
b. Was their problem/challenge corrected?
c. Was it resolved on the first attempt?
d. Were they transferred?
e. Were they put on Hold?
f. Would they recommend your company to friends?
g. Have they recommended your company to friends?
h. You must design the survey to get specific positive/negative feedback for some of the questions. A four point scale for describing satisfaction is more effective than a five point scale as it forces them to deliver a positive or negative message.
Generally the survey will feature 20-25 questions in total, any larger and you will limit response.
3. Provide input into the annual omnibus survey that will ask the same questions (in the same way) that you have been asking in the monthly survey. This will add value to the overall process and will ensure that the Omnibus results are relevant to the contact center.
4. Share your results with management. Visibility regarding the satisfaction your center is achieving from your customers perspective in more powerful than internal quality observations. This can also assist you to build business cases for technology, process, people or methodology changes that will improve customer satisfaction.
5. Act upon the results you achieve. One of the most common shifts that occur with contact centers once they begin to study and understand the importance of customer satisfaction is a move away from quantitative metrics to qualitative metrics. Metrics are the numbers and reports you employ each day to run your center. If you are primarily looking at ASA, GOS, Abandon rate, AHT, Occupancy, these are quantitative measures. They tell what was done, but not how well it was done. Adding qualitative measures such as First Call Resolution, Active referrals, transfer and hold reports will help you improve your alignment to attaining increased Customer satisfaction from your customers.
This article has barely scratched at the opportunities and positive benefits that can accrue to a contact center that is focused on the satisfaction of their customers. We all get complaints and some customers are never satisfied, but if we abdicate our responsibility to improving the overall satisfaction our customers will vote with their feet

Customer Satisfaction- How not to

Customer Satisfaction versus Customer Service

Each and every business on the planet sets out to satisfy the needs of its customers. This is true of the hardware store on the corner, the big box electronic retailer and the bank you deal with. If this truth is ‘self-evident’ then why is the actual service that is delivered to customers so poor?

A recent Transversal survey indicated that customers’ opinion of a company (brand) declined in 53% of the cases after contacting a company call center!

To understand this dichotomy let us first clarify the opening premise. Each and every business on the planet sets out to satisfy the needs of its customers, within reason. The addition of ‘within reason’ makes obvious what we already knew. Companies will not do anything to keep a customer satisfied but they will do some things. The companies must select from the list of possible activities and select a smaller sub set of activities. Generally these activities selected will be influenced heavily by the three specific drivers:
· Cost impact and relationship to Customer Life Time Value
· Competitive Pressures- what the competition is doing.
· What they believe the customer wants-

Every discussion and decision regarding the level of service to be provided will include the above three points. The financial costs to the organization to provide the service are generally easy to quantify as is a relationship to retention and by extrapolation Life Time Value. The Sales department will have a good idea what the competitors are doing, recent customers who have defected to you can tell you more and mystery calling or ‘secret shopper’ programs can test the veracity of the service being promised. Often the most challenging and elusive driver is ‘knowing’ what customers want.

Do your customers want you to use their name or fix their problem?

Despite the use of focus groups, market research, lost customer ‘post-mortems’ most organizations do not really know what their customers expect of them. In the place of ‘real’ knowledge of the customers, most organizations substitute what they feel the customer should want. This is reflected in the internal Quality Assurance programs being run in most centers today. Have a look at the vast majority of internal contact monitoring forms and you get a sense of what is going on here. Some forms score almost 40% of total points based upon the greeting and frequent use of the customers name. While I will agree you only get one chance to make a good first impressions and that everyone pays more attention and enjoys hearing their own name, these can have negligible impact on the customer satisfaction.

A company we worked with was experiencing an increase in complaints and a decline in customer satisfaction even though by their own internal quality metrics the service had never been better. We worked with the company and quickly discovered that their internal system had very little connection to satisfying the customer. What it did focus on were points such as:
· The greeting,
· Providing the Agent name,
· Using the customers name,
· Maintaining control of the call,
· Not placing the customer on Hold
· Not transferring the customer anywhere else

Unfortunately not one of these points reflected whether the customer problem/inquiry was satisfied or if follow up was required. These omissions have far more impact on the satisfaction of the customer than would the points being monitored. Further the Agents in the center knew how they were being scored on the calls so they focused on getting better scores (and additional compensation) and not on meeting the customers’ needs and expectations.

The truth of the matter is what most organizations are tracking has little to do with actual satisfaction.

Let me know what you think of this post

Monday, December 4, 2006

Call Center Zen- Everything is Connected

We have all heard that when a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon rain forest it can cause an avalanche in the Swiss Alps. This story reflects a belief and understanding that everything is connected to everything else. This is certainly true in a contact center environment. In continuing to assess call and contact centers it constantly amazes me the level of inter-connectedness that exists. Each and every process, procedure, technology or methodology impacts not only on the area of its focus, but on numerous other processes and procedures operating in the contact center.
In this article we examine some off this inter-connectedness. When establishing a contact center hiring and recruiting are among the first activities you plan and map. Now as illustrated by the ‘Poll of the Month’ question most organizations still employ a direct approach to sourcing staff as apposed to employing an agency.
How are you to know how many staff to recruit? Most center managers tell you that they base this number on the volume of calls/interactions expected, the average handle time (AHT) and the grade of service (GOS) desired. All of these key elements are input into an Erlang calculation and voila, how many staff is needed.
While this is correct, it fails to examine a number of interconnected aspects of the center operation such as: what is your desired staff compliment or mix between Full Time, Part Time and temporary/casual, what are the hours of operation of the center, what level of staff turnover and Churnover do you expect, what is your forecast for year and have you included time for vacations, sick days, on-going training, what is your budget based on…is it headcount or FTE etc.
Each of these points and processes are interconnected and interrelated. You cannot identify the number of staff until you know what the hours of operation will be. You cannot determine the number of staff required to meet your hours of operation until you determine the mix of staff. Similarly creating a staff base that doesn’t provide for vacation and sick days (which agents will take) leaves you short staffed or over budget. A staff plan that doesn’t allow for on-going training (this is a very common problem in most centers today) ensures the staff do not develop skills. This then manifests itself as poor morale and higher turnover.
It is essential that all of these issues are addressed in concert as you plan and assess your staffing needs. Now lets say that having done all of this; you know your operating hours, you have determined your staff compliment, you have estimated turnover and Churnover, set GOS and ASA targets and have made allowances for all of this plus sick days and vacations in your rolling 18 month forecast. From this you can extrapolate the Full Time Equivalents (FTE’s) required to meet the GOS and ASA through your Erlang calculator. The resulting FTE or total hours required number can then be broken down across you staff compliment to determine how many staff you need to meet service standards and when or how this staff count changes throughout the year.
Recognize the interconnectedness, interrelationships and inter-dependencies of a contact center environment. If you act with these in mind you create a foundation for an effective contact center that is significantly ahead of where the majority of contact centers are today.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

What do you expect, when the unexpected happens?

It was a beautiful day, light snow/freezing rain falling ( here 2 hours north of Toronto) on Friday. As night fell the wind whipped up. I woke up in the morning and wondered why it felt cool. A quick check determined that the power was out. No doubt the wind and freezing rain had brought down a few power lines. Of course the first thing I did was call (thank goodness for old phones that draw power over the telephone line) Hydro One our local power company. Being surrounded by seasonal cottages I wanted to make sure the utility knew we were out of power.

The call was answered by a virtual agent, who stated they had a 'reported power outage in my area'- thank you calling line ID. Of course I don't know how fine tuned this power outage location was so I still wanted to make a report. Guided by the helpful virtual agent I identified myself and completed an automated ticket and the virtual agent terminated the call.

After a few hour of stoking the wood stove and fighting to maintain 50 degrees inside I thought I would call Hydro One again and try to get an update. the first five calls resulted in a "due to unexpectedly high call volume we cannot answer your call please call back', but on call six I succeeded and got in the door. I selected the speak to an agent option, and was placed in queue. Now I know one or two things about call and contact centers so I knew Hydro One was operating in a defined queue depth environment (hence the we are too busy call back message), so I knew that once I was in then there was an expected rough time line to answer. For example if they had 20 agents on who took 20 calls an hour and they wanted a maximum queue depth/delay of 30 minutes then they would set the queue depth to 200 calls. I know the power was out and I knew that I wasn't the only one affected so I expect a delay. I assumed that the queue depth management approach I felt they were employing would ensure a delay of 20 to 40 minutes. Boy was I wrong, after 90 minutes of silence; no queue messages, not even a thank you for holding, I abandoned. What I believe happened was that I was giving the call center management way too much credit. I had assumed they scaled the queue depth based upon the day of week or agents scheduled...but now I don't think so. What I think happened was that the center which may staff 250 agents Monday through Friday and only 40 or 50 on Saturday never adjusted the queue depth so my 30 to 40 minute estimate was likely off by 500%!

There are some lessons for those of us who manage call & contact centers including;
1- If you will report that you already know about a problem, provide enough detail to provide reassurance to customer that you really do know about the situation otherwise they will often call back for the reassurance,
2- Employ queue messages, we all want to know that we are still connected, but don't simply tell us we are important...this will get a little old and sound a bit ingenuous after 2- or 30 minutes.
3- You need manage your tools, simply setting up queue depth thresholds, or schedules based upon a normal day doesn't cut it. This isn't hard to do and ensuring that your have scaled based upon your available resources will ensure you provide better service.

The power did come back on after a 14 hour outage, so now we are toasty and warm. I wonder if anyone at Hydro One will examine their blockage reports on Monday and do a root cause analysis and come to the same conclusions I did...I doubt it.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

When Outsourcing, Hope is not a Strategy

Outsourcing: Hope is Not a Strategy
Almost every day we read about another company or organization announcing that they are outsourcing or off-shoring some function or work, often call centers. It is now fashionable to do so. For example just today I read that 43 states have outsourced federal programs they administer. One hears less frequently of the failures and problems associated with unsuccessful outsourcing or are provided with any learning of how to avoid these issues. In fact according to Deloitte Consulting some 70% of survey respondents reported significantly negative outsource experiences.

All outsourcing follows a distinct pattern of three stages: Stage One - Preparation Evaluation and Planning, Stage Two – Proposals, Assignment and Transition, Stage Three: Maintenance, Monitoring and Oversight. Successful projects are those where the management is attentive to the details of all three stages and possess the skills to ensure the disciplines for each are followed. We will focus here on Stage One considerations.

The first and most common point of failure is the skipping over Stage One and jumping directly to a proposal from the vendors either domestically or offshore. This happens so often that some vendors count on it for part of their profit.

2500 years ago Sun Tzu wrote in the Art of War in the chapter on Offensive Strategy:
o Know the enemy & know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.
o When you are ignorant of the enemy, but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal.
o If ignorant of both your enemy and of yourself you are certain in every battle to be in peril.

It is this ignorance of one’s self, or organization that is the cause of much peril for the organizations outsourcing their call centers and customer service. One good practice is to have a thorough audit done of the call centers or other functions to be outsourced. This puts the client organization in a better position to deal with the vendors and others who come calling. Knowing what is; aids with the negotiations, the estimates of what it will take to move over, what will be saved, what the goal of the exercise is and how much money needs spending to achieve the end. Knowing “what you don’t know”, allows you to focus on solution providers who may have expertise which you lack internally. It should be kept in mind that generally speaking outsourcers do not “fix” dysfunction processes or mismatched alignment related issues. Outsourcers simply replicate what you have been doing and do it for less based upon their economies of scale and/or dollar arbitrage. Addressing fundamental and structural issues before outsourcing can dramatically improve the likelihood of success.

Again from Sun Tzu’s Estimates: With many calculations one can win. With few one cannot. How much less a chance of victory has one who makes none at all?

There are number of outsourcing checklists are available. Most often these are developed by vendors to aid the transfer of your business to them. What is less apparent is the “why” behind the questions posed to facility the “how” of outsourcing.

Why is outsourcing being considered?
If the only answer is cost, then have all other approaches to reducing the demand and effort required to complete the work been exhausted? Changes to marketing, sales, service or service offerings can often generate as much if not more long term savings than outsourcing alone. This is important because once the work is outsourced; changing anything, the processes etc. usually becomes much more difficult and longer to affect. For instance, if the vendor is paid on the number of talk-time minutes, there is no reason for them to aid in strategies to significantly reduce the number of calls or the call length, since this affects their revenue base. Since the vendors are now closer to the calls, demand, they are likely to see opportunities to reduce the demand before the client company does. Unless there are very good controls and transparency to the relationship and work, clients may never see these opportunities.

Vendors also often count on the client firms to overlook being organized with good documentation. Additional tasks and activities that were not clearly identified up front can drive up the costs and sometimes is the causes outsourcing projects to failure because the cost is higher then it was in-house.

What is the size of the project and revenue in relationship to the vendor revenues?
Many companies and their staff considering outsourcing want to go with a large secure vendor in order to minimize risk. The old adage “Nobody gets fired for buying from IBM” comes to mind here. The risk is that many companies the amount of work is a fraction of the vendors total revenues and therefore the work will not get the time and attention it deserves from their senior managers and experienced staff. Many organizations simply become a small fish in a a very big bowl. Too small a vendor and the risk is that opposite. The client is too large a portion of their revenues. Any hiccup in vendors operation, financing, staff and the client is left high and dry with little or no means of recourse or recovery. To solve this last risk many clients spread the work over multiple vendors, thereby compounding the management oversight required to keep the quality of work at their standards, multiplying the reporting issues and points of failure.

What is the exact extent of the work and functions being considered for outsourcing?
This question requires that a detailed Scope of Work document be developed. The organization must examine every aspect of the activities they are considering to outsource. Once again effort that is invested here can pay huge dividends and those who gloss over this step will dramatically increase their likelihood of failure. Again a detailed assessment of the call center encompassing all of its’ activities can provide the basis for this document.

When was the last set of process maps done for all functions in the center?
If the answer is “we don’t have any” then they need developing before sending them to an outsourcer. The vendor will usually do as you ask. With good up-to-date documentation this is relatively simple. Without it, the transition is fraught with risk to both the client company and the outsourcer. Without definition and boundaries both firms will have difficulty achieving the goal of reducing cost and maintaining good quality customer service.

It is dangerous to think of call centers as only a cost centers. Remember that your call center is likely the primary communications channel for customer interactions. In fact there are only two types of calls that any organization will receive in their call center; Fault calls and Value calls. Fault calls arise due to some action taken or not taken by the organization that requires a customer to call to ‘Fix’ something and Value call generates revenue. In our experience most call centers expend fully a third of their call center efforts (and budgets) dealing with Fault calls. Looking at the work in the center should reveal details as the number and ratio’s of fault versus value calls. If the issue is one of absolute costs, then what is the value of having a center in the first place. Sell to the customers and forget giving any service. There must be some value or the center would not been started. Call centers and customer service defends the revenue and customer base generated by sales and marketing. Unfortunately the following is also true.

“54% of customer have a lower opinion of a company/brand following a contact with that company’s call center then they had before the transaction” – Transveral Study

One goal of outsourcing could be to increase the level of service while either reducing or maintaining the costs. This is a laudable goal and a worthy one to pursue. If this is the intent it is even more important to do it right.

How will you measure the Outsourcing project?
Some organizations who examine the outsourcing option fail to properly prepare themselves to assess the success or failure of the relationship. It is critical that the metrics that will be employed to complete this assessment are known and in place. Further these comparisons must be ‘apples to apples’ and not to grapefruits. Don’t not measure the performance of the outsourcer to what you wished you could have achieved but rather to what you actually did achieve. This is true not only in securing pricing and negotiations but also in the day-to day management of the program.

One client we worked with issued an RFP to outsource a part of their business and included mandatory service levels significantly greater than those achieved in the in-house center. The net result of course was that the outsource vendors priced the solution to the service level desired, which was more labor intensive and submitted the corresponding price. The Call Center manager used the RFP responses to justify retaining the business internally “since there was no cost advantage to outsource”.

Similarly you must ensure that when comparing costs that the cost burdens are also equivalent; if rent was charged to the call center internally then rent relief or a credit should credited to the department if the work is outsourced and the space no longer required.

Of course there are other metrics beyond the financial; customer retentions (churn), average order value, customer satisfaction etc. Regardless of the metric(s) employed be sure that you maintain a level playing field and can compare ‘apples to apples’. Also make it abundantly clear to any potential outsource provider the metrics you will require and how you want to view them.

Check References:
While this seems obvious, we have seen companies that expend significantly more time and effort checking the references and background of a new TSR, than they do checking the references and background of a potential supplier who will invoice the company millions of dollars. Ask for references, ask for references that are similar to your needs, Nobody wants to be a guinea pig. Then check the references, bear in mind that the company will only provide those references where it expects a positive response, so also ask for former customers in the same or a similar vertical. When doing reference checks ensure you do more than just verify they worked together; ask how the relationship was managed, how disputes were resolved, speed of action, sense of urgency and about the access to management. The answers to these questions will give you an insight to how the company is operated and where their priorities lie. Addressing this in advance will eliminate potential problems downstream.

Sun Tzu, “So assess them to find out their plans, both successful and the failures. Incite them to action in order to find out the patterns of their movement and rest”. This is always good advice in battle of in business

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Sometimes the future is obvious

Just saw an article in the local paper today. A company we had spoken to about a year ago, they were interested in outsourcing their call center services to India, we recommended against it as we felt that as new business, trying to establish themselves they would be better to retain close control of their client interactions.

They chose otherwise and outsourced their call center. The article in the paper was a litany of problems they had with the call center...commitments made and not honored, lost call records, credits gone missing. The result a negative article in the local paper which will likely do more damage to the reputation than the actual call center errors actually did. The result will be huge challenge to the senior management and contact center management. Now they need to over come bad press as well as a poorly functioning infrastructure.

This situation should not be an indictment of outsourcing as hundreds of companies do this well on every call every time. It is I think more of cautionary tale about the repercussions of our actions.

I suspect there may not have been enough due diligence in selecting an outsourcer and their reputation and processes. There were also likely challenges within the organizations and their ability to effectively manage an outsource relationship half way around the world.

The morale to each of us should be that these decisions are not just about individual calls and contacts but may have far reaching consequences that impact the business well into the future.

Our customers are our most important assets, we have an obligation to them, to our stakeholders and to our shareholders to treat this assets with care respect, lest we end up in an article in the local paper.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Are Contact Centers a Loyalty Leak?

The increasingly important role that call and contact centers are playing as the primary communications conduit between a company and their customers, inevitably leads to customers judging the company based upon the access and service quality the center delivers. (In a Purdue University study 92% of consumers said they formed their opinions regarding a company based upon their call/contact center experience. )

So the lowly agent in the contact center is becoming a key individual in the process of retaining customers and securing their loyalty... so then why is the overall quality of service so poor?

Most companies have failed to recognize the growing importance that the call/contact center channel plays in customer satisfaction and loyalty. Too many organizations are still focused on developing self-help environments that eliminate the need for a customer to actually speak with a company. Certainly this can reduce the cost per transaction, but there is not any opportunity to build or reinforce a relationship with that customer. Each transaction or interaction provides the opportunity to build satisfaction and loyalty or to erode it. The absence of customer intimacy must inevitably lead to erosion of customer loyalty. It is difficult to build loyalty with a machine.

With live agents, the environment exists to build or reinforce customer satisfaction and loyalty, but so does the opportunity to erode and damage the relationship. Poorly trained agents, poor availability and access, too few staff, turnover that is too high, all handicap the companies ability to deliver a positive relationship building dialogue and make it far more likely that the exchange will weaken and erode the customers connection and the positive image of the company.

The choice is ours we can make our center a strategic asset in acquiring customers and improving their loyalty, satisfaction and life time value, by investing in our contact centers and the staff that manage and work there or we can waste the millions of dollars spent on advertising and marketing to secure the customers in the first place, by delivering unprofessional, poor quality service that frustrates and drives away our customers.

The contact center can buttress loyalty or become a loyalty leak.

What choice will your company make?

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Is Your Call Important?

We have heard the phrase a thousand times…”your call is important to us please hold”. This is the standard message we hear when we call a company’s call center. Interspersed we may hear about “an unexpectedly high call volume” and other variations on the theme. All of these messages serve to keep us informed of the call volumes impacting on the call center and thus are intended to mitigate our frustration with the call not being answered immediately. But what is a reasonable delay in answering our call… 20 seconds, one minute, twenty minutes? What event had impacted on the center and caused them to be unable to answer our call?

The general public can only guess about the underlying causes while we, in the call and contact center industry, know the truth about this guilty little secret. There was no unexpected run on the call center, no surge that caught the center blind. The reality is that there are only two likely reasons why the call wasn’t answered promptly; either the management of the company has determined not to or the call center senior management is incompetent. What other reasons can there be?

Ignorance or Neglect, your Choice

Call and contact centers produce a huge amounts of data and the center management can analyze the data and information to determine call volumes and patterns and forecast what volume of calls to expect when. This forecasting process is a basic tenant of call and contact center management.

Senior corporate executives constantly communicate a message that their customers are their number priority, yet these otherwise intelligent, savvy and effective communicators fail to support the customers when they have the opportunity…when the customer contacts the center.

I recently had to tell the CEO of a Fortune 500 company that their Mission Statement was a lie. I told him that the company’s’ commitment to “world class customer service” was incompatible with a wait time of more than 20 minutes to get a phone call answered. Perhaps this wasn’t he best way to begin a consulting engagement and certainly this wasn’t a pleasant conversation of either of us, but it was the start of a process that today has this company answering their calls within their stated service level parameters.

So let’s examine the reasons why companies don’t answer our call in a timely manner. First let’s look at why a company would neglect and alienate their primary asset: their customer.

Familiarity breeds contempt

The nature of contact and call centers provide some insight to this problem. Call centers in particular employ a device that we use and take for granted each and every day…a telephone. We have grown up using the phone, we don’t see this as complicated technology. We view the phone as a basic everyday item. This point of view can lead us to not fully appreciate the challenges and dynamics that come into play when you put 10 or 20 or 300 phones and agents together in a room and ask them to service customers. As I was once told by a senior VP at a packaged goods company, “we don’t need your help to answer the phones, I have one of these at home”, he said while holding up his telephone set, “I use it every day”. This familiarity can breed contempt. If instead of a telephone, we were employing some ‘black box’ technology with a catchy three letter acronym (TLA), then we wouldn’t be so eager to dismiss the complexities and subtle nuances that managing incoming calls can present.

A second root cause for the lack of focus on meeting customers needs when they phone the call center may be traced back to the evolution of the call center itself. In many organizations call centers weren’t planned. They just sort of happened. A ringing phone prompts all of us at home or at the office to ask, often out loud, can somebody get the phone. The same process occurred in offices leading to more people and more resources being deployed to ‘answer the phones’; pretty soon you have a call center.

This background may be interesting, but still doesn’t explain how otherwise savvy and bright executives end up in a situation where they are at best complicit in and at worst intentionally creating an environment certain to alienate their customers. Research shows that customers judge a company based upon their experience with that company’s’ call or contact center. In fact 92% of consumers in a recent Perdue University study said they judge a company based upon their experience in dealing with the call center. A Transversal study provided even more distressing news: 54% of consumers had a higher opinion of a company before they contacted the company call center than they had after their call center experience.

Senior executives in many organizations are forming opinions and making decisions based on faulty information. One of the most common myths we have seen is “It costs too much to provide good service” This is patently incorrect. Consider this not so hypothetical example.

The Death Spiral is not a Strategy

A company is having difficulty answering their phone calls. So the average speed of answer (ASA) increases. With the increases in ASA comes a matching increase in the frequency of customers mentioning and complaining about their wait time. This increase in complaints increases the average handle time (AHT) that a call takes to be completed. This increase in AHT means that an agent handles fewer calls in each period and the ASA for new incoming calls increases again. Also as the AHT increases so does the cost for each call handled and the budget is consumed exponentially. Meaning that fewer resources can be deployed to handle future calls. This cycle as you can see can cycle over and over creating a call center ‘death spiral’.
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