Friday, November 21, 2008

Facts, Figures and Trends

A few more or less random observations on the call and contact center space that has come across my desk in the past few days;
-According to Accenture 68% of respondents to a recent survey reported that they had moved their business to new companies as a result of poor service received at the incumbent firm. This is up from 59% last year. This is even a higher percentage than moved due to price (68% to 53%), in the US in particular this trend was even more pronounced with 73% switching providers due to poor service, compared with 47% who switched based on price!
There is a cost to these defections with half of the respondents reporting moving $4,000 worth of business to new providers.
-33% of consumers said their service expectations were higher this year than they were 12 months earlier, 50% said their expectations were higher than they were 5 years.
-20% said they would leave a company immediately over poor service versus 13% in last years survey.
- Embarq the telecommunications company spun off from Sprint/Nextel has announced that they have replaced their IVR with live agents, due to customer dissatisfaction with automated service. In addition these call are answered domestically.

It looks like it is finally beginning to dawn on companies that superior service can be not only a differentiator, but also one of, if not the primary driver of customer loyalty.


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Piss off the Call Center Agent at Your Peril

The following article was published recently the UK Press and I found it to be very chilling.
Whenever any organization outsources work to a third party organization, in tranferring the business they also transfer a great deal of power. Power to mimprove or erode customer relationships and as this news story indicates power that can be used in a punitive manner. Let this story be a wake up call for all of those firms that outsource to ensure that they have appropriate controls and audit trails on changes made to their customer records.


Indian call centre worker 'froze customer's account and changed his identity' as revenge for having service criticized
By Luke Salkeld
Telephoning a bank's call centre can be a frustrating experience. And after he was finally put through to a 'rude' and 'arrogant' operator, George Bates felt justified in making a complaint. Taking part in a follow-up survey to monitor customer satisfaction, the 23-year-old made clear his opinion of the call centre employee - who took revenge by putting all of Mr. Bates' finances on hold. When he contacted the bank later that day, the self-employed carpenter was unable to access his account for 'security reasons'. He then visited his local branch and was horrified to discover his identity had been swapped to that of a Ugandan divorcee ten years his senior. Mr. Bates also discovered his overdraft facility had been withdrawn and several direct debits had been cancelled - landing him with £60 in charges. He said: 'This arrogant phone operator has obviously seen that I've given him bad feedback and decided to change all my details in revenge. 'I rang up and I couldn't understand a word of what he was saying. He was rude, arrogant, and very pushy. 'He was really unhelpful but he had the cheek to pester me to give him a good rating after the call.' He continued: 'When I heard my details had been changed to Ugandan I was errified that my account had been emptied by somebody else and I'd never have my money ack. 'His spiteful actions have caused me a massive inconvenience and I've changed banks now because I'm scared he could still access my account.' Mr. Bates' rang Abbey's telephone banking service last month to extend his overdraft by £200 to cover direct debits which were due to come out of his account. The operator, who spoke with an Asian accent, extended it from £1,500 to £1,700, but refused to extend it a second time in one day. Mr. Bates claims the worker then pestered him to give maximum scores of seven in an eight-question automated survey which customers take following a call. The frustrated bachelor answered the questions with ones and twos, the lowest scores, because the phone operator had been so unhelpful. But when he rang up the following day to try and extend his overdraft again, he failed to access his account using his correct name, date of birth and account number. He was advised to visit his local branch but was unable to get there during the working week - and then had his cash card swallowed by a hole-in-the-wall dispenser.
The next week he visited the Abbey branch in Broadmead, Bristol, where a manager informed him he was listed on his account as a 33-year-old Ugandan divorcee born in July 1975. The bank manager corrected his details but over the next few days George discovered his overdraft and six direct debits totaling £750 had been cancelled - incurring 4 different charges totaling £60. Mr. Bates, who is single and lives in Bristol, then went back to his bank to demand his overdraft and direct debits were reinstated. All the changes have now been rectified, and Mr. Bates offered £200 in compensation. But he is still not a satisfied customer. He said: 'I am not happy with the service and the fact that the call centre Abbey uses is in India. They offered me £200 compensation but that's not a good apology to me. 'I've been forced to take lots of time off work which has costs me several day's wages and the stress of it all is really frustrating. 'Even though they did eventually sort everything out I'm still unhappy and I'll be switching back to a bank with call centres in Britain.' Abbey, who have five call centres in Britain and two in India - one in Bangalore and one in Pune, say they have 'fully investigated' the incident but refused to confirm whether any disciplinary action has been taken against the worker involved. A spokesperson said: 'An error occurred on Mr. Bates' overdraft. We have since returned his account to the correct position and refunded any charges relating to this error.
'In relation to Mr. Bates' other claims, we can confirm that we have fully investigated these complaints but we do not comment on individual employees.' In 2004, the bank came under fire after announcing plans to close three UK offices, which affected 1,300 jobs and
saw the majority of call centre work transferred to India. The following year following a barrage of complaints from customers, the former building society pledged to bring the jobs back to
Originally published on MailOnline

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Outbound, Outsourcing and the New World Order

Outbound, Outsourcing and the new world order

With the introduction of the Do Not Call (DNC) list most people both within the call and contact centre industry and those outside of it, assumed that this would be the death knell for outbound calling. The DNC eliminated huge volumes of people who you couldn’t phone and while there are exemptions and exceptions it forced many firms and organizations to change the way they did business.

Telemarketing or outbound calling was once the primary activity of call centres. Companies employed outbound telemarketing because it works; thirty years ago people often were genuinely happy to receive a call from hundreds or thousands of miles away. Over time more and more companies and organizations began to use to outbound telemarketing themselves or contracted with a third party outsource agency to place call on their behalf. The introduction of predictive dialling greatly improved the number of calls that an agent in a call centre could make and the number of calls soared. Pretty soon consumers were receiving two, three five calls a day and their frustration with telemarketers calling to ‘sell them something’ became common.

Enter the Do Not Call list and the frustration with telemarketing calls crystallized into 150 million Americans signing up. In Canada a DNC list has just been launched and on the first day the number of people calling overwhelmed the operator. It is likely that we will see more than half of all Canadian phone numbers registered under the DNC.

According to Contact Babel Legislation has had an impact on outbound telemarketing activities “14% of respondents said that their outbound calling had greatly
reduced due to legislation, although 56% said that it had reduced in some way (which is up from 41% last year)”. This reduction of outbound activity has been seen over the past decade from approximately a 50/50 split between inbound and outbound to today only an estimated 18% of call centres would define themselves as exclusively or primarily as outbound.

So with fewer people to call what are companies and organizations doing? Perhaps surprisingly they are still calling. Sales calls to new customers are still the number one activity even though the universe of ‘call-able’ numbers has been greatly reduced, cross selling and customer service activities represent other significant segment of outbound telemarketing.

Increasingly companies and organizations look at outsourcing and off-shoring their outbound calling requirements and much of this activity is provided through third party outsource agencies. There are a number of reasons for this:
Outsourced firms tend to cost less than completing the work internally (much less if an offshore provider is employed),
Access to skills, staff and technology that the company may not possess internally,
Compliance issues related to legislation (DNC)

Outbound calling completed by third party firms will generally be completed on a cost per hour basis, on a dollars per sale basis, often called ‘pay for performance’ or P4P, or on a base plus bonus structure. These rate structures reflect risk and which of the parties (outsourcer or client) is accepting the risk. As expected cold call selling is often outsourced on a P4P model as it does not cost the company any money unless the outsource firm actually makes a sale. Of course this is not completely true a company the sponsors high volume P4P campaigns does run the risk of eroding Brand value due to the volumes and/or quality of the calls. Hourly rated programs tend to be service and customer satisfaction type of calls and Upselling, cross-selling and renewal activities are often structured on a base plus bonus basis.

There is a high correlation between P4P programs and offshoring. A casual study completed by the author found that more than 75% of P4P program opportunities reviewed were targeted to offshore firms calling into North America. The reason for this is cost. While it is virtually impossible to make a cost comparison on P4P activities as the unit price varies by product and/or service it is possible to look at hourly costs to establish as baseline. A recent survey completed by The Taylor Reach Group, Inc. found that hourly rates varied across Canada from a low of $20 per hour to a high of $32 per hour for outsource firms located in Canada. Generally Toronto (and other major urban centres) had the highest rates and more distant and/or rural locations had the lower rates. This compares with hourly rates in the $12 to $14 dollar range offshore.

There are challenges and risks to bear in mind before you rush to offshore your outbound telemarketing activities. From an effectiveness perspective these include; language issues, geography issues, inflexible scripting , issues understanding the product or service if it is not prevalent in the culture of the off shore location and issues of context if the offshore agents are not familiar with the culture in North America. There are also risks from a financial point of view; the stated rates do include the cost to source, vet, negotiate nor contract with an offshore service provider, nor do they include the 20%-30% premium to manage an offshore partner. Lastly offshore outsourcers generally have a lower sales conversion rate due to the challenges above. Once these considerations are taken into account to costs offshore become similar to those onshore.

If you are presently completing outbound telemarketing outsourcing to a third party firm should certainly be considered, but you need to ensure that the rate structure is appropriate to the type of calls you wish to have placed (sales, service, satisfaction services etc) that the technology employed is appropriate (predictive, progressive or preview dialling) and that you risks related to legislation are mitigated through a compliance program. The first organization to be fined for violating the US DNC was AT&T, through one of their outsource partners. This is not what you want to have happen.

Outbound telemarketing is not going away any time soon. Companies and organizations that employ or wish to employ outbound calls will need to be vigilant and know and mitigate the risks. Third party outsource firms have developed compliance programs to ensure that their actions are compliant with the rules. Outsource firms have significant risk to their livelihood if they are not operating under the rules, far more than most of their clients would have. And as a result these companies will have and continue to invest in maintaining their compliance.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Incentives in your Centre, What is right for you?

Incentives in your Centre, What is right for you?

How do you motivate your call or contact center agents? I have been asked this question hundreds of times. The questions keep coming up because centers are constantly struggling with how to engage their staff. Engaged staff is more productive, has lower attrition and positively impacts the overall center morale.

Motivation in many centers is a purely tactical activity; Tactical, short term programs and incentives. Other centers take a more strategic approach with over arching incentive, compensation and recognition programs. Tactical programs are generally implemented to drive productivity increases, strategic programs drive productivity, quality and compensation alignment.

There are number tactics and tools employed in both tactical and strategic programs. In this article we examine theses options to provide an overview to what works, what doesn’t and why.

The choices are almost endless: cash, coupons a multitude of gift cards, recognition and rewards schemes and programs. But what are the most effective programs to put into place and what will work best in your center to help you achieve your goals and objectives?

First let’s divide incentives into groups of similar types of incentives: Cash or similar, Travel, recognition and hybrid programs. Cash and similar programs are by far the most popular form of incentives. They are employed both in tactical short term programs as well as on-going and strategic programs. Cash program employ actual money, similar programs employ rewards that are tied to money, but are not cash. These would include gift cards (Amex or Visa cash cards, Retails cards: Best Buy, Sears, Wal-Mart etc., coupons or passes for Restaurants or movie theatres. The most prevalent form of agent incentives is still cash. As the old saying goes “it is always the right size and color”. Cash programs are the easiest to implement, no issues or discussions are required to determine if your staff will be able to use the reward and it is easy to budget and track. Though always welcomed cash incentives can present a number of challenges. These challenges can include the appropriateness of the level of incentive: if the cash level is too low, agents may feel that the incentive is not worth seeking or may even feel insulted by a $0.25 incentive which will actually erode morale in the center and can depress rather than incent improved productivity. In setting a cash program there is instant transparency regarding the value of the incentive a dollar is a dollar, unlike other programs where the value or perceived value may be unknown or variable. So it is critical that the incentives be targeted appropriately to incent the actions or behaviours you wish to reward and not be set too high or too low. At both extremes agents may not be motivated as they perceive the targets to be unattainable or to require too much effort for to little reward. This can be a particular problem with short term tactical programs, strategic programs often are geared to permanent change of behaviour and as such are often commission based or structured on a similar model. These commission models are less incentives and more part of the compensation model.

Gift cards are employed by many centers and this type of incentive often is perceived to be more effective than cash as it the reward doesn’t get frittered away. In the hands or pockets of most agents cash incentives vanish, the money just get spent with no attributable purchase or result. Gift cards and coupons on the other hand generally result in some specific purchase or event being associated with the reward: a book, CD, DVD, dinner out etc. The connection with a tangible purchase or acquisition positively reinforces the value of the incentive each time the agent thinks about what they did with the incentive/reward.

As outlined above caution must be taken in developing the criteria for the reward and specifically with gift cards and coupons the suitability of the incentive to your staff base. For example in a center where the staff earns minimum wage and incentive usable only for electronics may be less well suited to staff that are having trouble buying groceries and cash or grocery gift cards may be better suited to your staff.

Travel incentives are generally employed in long term or on-going strategic programs. Often they are structured to reward the top X performers with a trip to a nice destination (resort or similar). Suitability and appropriateness for your staff is critical in programs of this type. Common in sales call centers travel incentives generally require longer periods of time from start to finish and can be challenged to retain relevance throughout the program. If the trip is for the top sales person and the same person wins each time, other staff will quickly (and sometimes instantly) lose interest in the program as they do not feel they can win. This perception can be a challenge with any ‘all or nothing’ program structure.

Studies regularly inform us that agents value recognition equal to or above cash compensation. As any centre manager will tell you it is important to recognize achievements by agents if you wish to keep your staff motivated. There are too many recognition programs to address all of them individually here but some of the most common programs would include: Employee of the month awards, choice parking privileges, choice of shifts, choice of lunch or break schedules. Some of the most interesting programs can involve contact centre radio stations where the reward is selecting the programming and or coaching the CEO or similar senior executives as they take calls for a day.

Hybrid programs will involve one or more of the above incentive models. These are often structured to reward points for various achievements and performance results. Hybrids can incorporate short term incentives for tactical objectives within the overall point structure. Hybrids can be extremely effective as they can evolve constantly so they are never perceived to be boring or mundane. As they can reward various activities sales, volume, most up-sells, highest customer satisfaction, peer mentoring etc. they hold a broader appeal to agents versus an ‘all of nothing’ incentive. This said Hybrid point systems require more design and management time to build and operate these programs.

So which type of program is right for your centre? Incentive and reward programs can be wonderful tools for centre management to get more from their staff when properly implemented, but they can also increase costs, reduce efficiencies, increase staff turnover and erode employee morale when they are poorly conceived and executed.
While there is no one-size fits all solution, the following checklist can help you to determine what will work best for you in your centre.
Analyze your staff and the suitability of reward types,
Align the objectives of the reward program to centre objectives,
Determine if you should employ a tactical or strategic program,
Identify the behaviours you wish to incent and improve,
Quantify how you will measure these improvements (always employ objective over subjective measurements),
Quantify the impact of the program on the centre, what will we realize as a result of the reward program,
Assess the amount of time it will take to build and manage the program,
Quantify the costs to operate the reward program (hard costs: the rewards themselves and Soft costs: management and reporting),
Develop a Return on Investment (ROI) model for consideration by management.

Whatever programs you choose to implement consult your staff in the development of any program, it the agents after all that you wish to engage through the incentive program.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Recessions and Contact Centers

Impact of a recession on contact centers

The US economy is generally thought to be in a recession today the Canadian economy is slowing and many fear is heading towards a recession as well. In the face of declining consumer confidence and spending many companies and organizations are looking to reduce expenses and improve efficiencies to help them weather the upcoming economic storm. What are the prospects for those of us employed in the contact center industry given the uncertain economic times? In this article we will examine the prospects for call and contact centers in the coming uncertain economic and potentially recessionary times.

Call and contact center were born from efficiency initiative: by gathering all of the staff that dealt with customers in one place a company was able to provide centralized management of staff, gained the ability to employ premise based technology such as Automatic Call Distributors (ACD’s) and provide more consistent responses to customer and prospect inquiries. All of these elements drove improved staff effectiveness and operational efficiency.

As companies realized the value of call centers as a lower cost method of providing customer service and support many of the traditional channels for customer service were scaled back or eliminated…when was the last time you went to your cable company’s office to speak to someone about your bill? The consolidation of service delivery channels spurred even more growth in call and contact centers.

In the past ten years an increased focus on efficiency has led to organizations working diligently to try to further reduce expenses in their contact centers and/or generate revenues to help offset or defray these expenses. The drive for ever increasing efficiency has led to a dramatic increase in outsourcing and offshoring of customer service and technical support activities, an increase in technologies to support self service and service automation within contact centers.

What is the prognosis today for contact centers in recessionary times? They say that those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it and in this case the past presents strong themes which will govern the call/contact centers in the near term. The recurring themes have been: efficiency, technology and outsourcing, all three of these themes will continue to govern the landscape as we move forward into an economic slowdown or recession.

All three of the themes (efficiency, technology and outsourcing) will continue to combine and drive changes in contact centers. Companies faced with uncertain economic prospects will tighten their belts and look for ways to reduce costs. This cost reduction exercise will lead to increased examination of outsourcing as a potential solution. Outsourcing can, when it is well researched and executed can reduce operational costs and at the same time maintain or even improve service quality. Offshoring the call or contact center activities can further reduce the costs, but carry a significantly increased risk of service and quality erosion. Outsourcing can reduce costs through three primary organizational traits: labour arbitrage (they operate in lower cost environments and pay less than in-house centers), technology (they employ state of the art technologies that in-house centers may find difficult to fund) and process management (outsource agencies only provide outsource services and as such they have developed very robust operational model and highly efficient processes that are often absent form in-house centers).

The primary reason for an organization electing not to outsource their call or contact center activities is political, they have determined that they must serve their customers directly. Such organizations will look to technology as a driver for increased efficiency. Where once technology and the desire for efficiency motivated companies to create call centers to centralize and simplify service management, today technology and the desire for increased efficiency now leads companies to promote tele-working and home based agents. Home agents can access all of the tools that are generally available in a contact center and are delivered via the internet, often through a secured VPN. The voice can be delivered through the internet and/or through assuming the agents home phone line. Home or virtual agents reduce or eliminate the need for ‘bricks and mortar’ contact center saving the company on real estate and operating costs and further since the most common model is to employ home agents as ‘independent contractors’ the company eliminates their benefit and burden costs associated with employees, finally home agents have reduced expenses versus agents who work in a contact center: no transportation costs, reduced meal and wardrobe expenses and this often leads to lower labour related costs. Technology also can play a role in improving efficiency and reducing costs through the increased use of self-service options and non telephone contact channels. We are all familiar with the dreaded Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system, that prompts us to enter one for this and two for that yet never somehow actually seems to have the information we seek nor any easy or logical way of getting to a live agent. IVR’s are ubiquitous today and are increasingly being replaced by voice enabled systems and systems such as Bells’ Emily that mimic a live agent interaction. More and more companies will direct inquiries to the web and reduce or eliminate access to live agents. Alternate communication technologies will also see increased use in poor economic times as they offer lower costs while still providing a level of service. These technologies include email integrated into the contact center, web chat and even SMS messaging.

Companies and centers’ under economic pressure may intentionally degrade the quality of service they provide: increasing the average speed of answer, the abandon rate or the resolution rate and laying off staff. These tactics can reduce costs, but it is a dangerous strategy to risk customers’ ire in this way.

Some companies will degrade service and, many companies will adopt or pursue Outsourcing, home agents, and technology enhancements and a few organizations may seize upon service as a key differentiating factor separating their contact center from those of their competitors. We have seen this happen already in the UK where a major bank in their television ads focuses on the fact that their contact centers are in the UK and not offshore. In the ‘Book of Five Rings’ it states “in chaos there is opportunity” and economic slowdowns and recessions can create chaos in contact center and service focused organizations. With most of the companies scaling back, degrading service, increasing automation there is likely a great opportunity for other firms to increase and improve service quality, and promote this as a key element of their value proposition. These same companies can employ outbound tele-sales and direct marketing to target competitors’ customers and increase share while the competitors have ‘hunkered down’ to ride out the storm.

Regardless of the tact your company elects to pursue in recessionary times, your contact will likely change and continue to evolve and each company must determine their own equation to calculate the impact on their company and brand of reduced service, increased automation on their customers’ loyalty. Regardless of the strategy employed we will be experiencing the Chinese blessing or curse of “living in interesting times”.

Contact Colin Taylor @

Monday, September 15, 2008

Advocacy and The Customer Experience

Advocacy and The Customer Experience

In many organizations their own systems, processes and procedures doom the ‘Customer Experience’ to be substandard. The contact center often acts as if their mandate was to protect the company from its customers. Multiple transfers, long hold times, recapturing customer information, restating company policies all can contribute to a negative customer experience.

But what if the contact center agent was the customers’ advocate within your company? After all, who knows the company better: its policies, systems, processes and protocols?

What if instead of , “thank you for calling ABC Inc., my name is John, can I have your account number?’ we heard, “Hello my name is John and I will be your advocate in helping you resolve your inquiry today to your satisfaction. How can I assist you?”

What would you think?, How would this make you feel?...Well I suspect that once you got off the floor, you might think that just maybe here was a different kind of contact center.

What if the advocate was actually and meaningfully empowered to help resolve your issue? What if the outsourcer you employed would take financial responsibility for this empowerment if the client didn’t agree with it?

What could this approach do to your Customer Satisfaction, Customer Loyalty, repurchase, churn and the entire Customer Experience?

Could it be that the contact center could resolve more issues, faster and ultimately cheaper? Of course we will all need to overcome scepticism, not just our own, managements, but also that of our agents and most importantly our customers. Customers and Operators alike have become quite jaded…
“Your call is important to us…please hold”
“How can I help you?”
“In order to serve you better”
All of these have become late night talk show punch lines.

If we truly become advocates, our customers will spend the balance of the call waiting for the ‘other shoe to drop’. Over time and with repetition our customers will appreciate that our advocacy approach is borne out of our sincere and genuine desire to help them. What a novel concept, Customer Service that ‘serves the customer’.

Of course I feel a little like the boy who pointed out that the Emperor had no clothes on or perhaps more appropriately like Tom Cruise in the movie “the Color of Money” whose contrarian re-visioning of the sports agent industry, who was wildly applauded by all for his strategy and was all but, run out of the business by the same people.

Can this happen?, Can we serve?, Can we be advocates?
Each of us must answer this question, but I have already begun this journey.

So what are steps we must take
First you must identify all of the barriers or potential barriers that limit and agents ability to be an advocate: this will include at least some of the following:
Systems, Processes, procedures, policies, technologies, hiring, training, management, goals, objectives, quality assurance, forecasting, scheduling to name only a partial list. In fact you will need to reassess every aspect of an agents interaction with the company and ensure that all contact points are aligned to empower the agent and allow them to serve the customer.

Certainly there will be challenges, but there can also be huge rewards:
· Vertical leading loyalty,
· Near 100% CSAT,
· Cost reductions…yes reductions,
· Significantly reduced staff turnover,
· Significantly improved customer loyalty,
· Significantly improved employee morale,

We need courage to embark on this journey and it will not always be easy. But what of merit is easy? The choice is yours…I have made my choice.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Butterfly Effect

I was speaking at Reinventing Call Center Management in Toronto last week and describing Chaos theory (otherwise known as the butterfly effect). "CHAOS theory- a butterfly flaps its wings in marketing and the call center has problems. We are all familiar with this occurrence though few realize it originated in call centres. Marketing (or Sales) activities result in Substantially Higher Incoming Traffic which adversely impacts the Forecasted Agent Number. Of course in colloquial speech we call this the SHIT hitting the FAN"

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Travel Update

That has been one tiring week and a half. Spent one week in Ireland meeting with a number of major call and contact center operators. Great meetings, the change in the economy is staggering over the past 20 years!
The price of everything is expensive, beer and a club sandwich at $ 25, homes are multiple million Euros and even call center wages are incredible.

Then spent a couple of days in Portland with clients/prospects and now back in Toronto and preparing for a seminar session tomorrow on Leadership Strategies for High performance Contact centers.

I will report more shortly.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Top 50- a great approach to share a message

It has certainly been a long time coming. When I read Claudia Hathaways' note on eCCF ( regarding the UK Top 50, I thought this is a great idea and hopefully one that will cross the Atlantic to North America.

I think this is a great idea and approach that we should all get behind.

The Top 50 Call Centres for Customer Service
The Top 50 Call Centres For Customer Service is a groundbreaking initiative, poised to become the single biggest PR exercise in the history of the call centre and customer service industries, helping to redress the negative perception of call centres in a media-friendly way.
Modelled on The Sunday Times — 100 Best Companies to Work For programme, the results of The Top 50 will be published in its very own magazine supplement in The Sunday Times. These results will be judged by customers, making them incredibly powerful for reporting.
This exciting new initiative combines a robust benchmarking tool, rankings, a detailed research report to be published in the mainstream press, and a gala dinner and awards night.
“The Top 50 Call Centres for Customer Service is the chance to highlight customer service best practice on a national level and will set the annual industry standard for organisations that are serious about the quality of service they deliver.”Steve Hurst, Editor of Customer Strategy
“The Top 50 Call Centres for Customer Service provides a wonderful platform for call centres to shout about their achievements based on actual customer experiences, making it an incredibly compelling positive story for reporting in the mainstream press.”Claudia Hathway, Editor of CCF and CCF Online

Monday, February 25, 2008

Leadership Strategies for a High Performance Contact Center

Leadership Strategies for a High Performance Contact Center

What is a high performance contact center? High performance is generally accepted to mean performing at the top of any possible performance range. So a High performance contact center is one that meets or exceeds the performance parameters or metrics expected of it. In contact center these parameters will include quantitative: grade of services, AHT, ATT, ASA etc., and qualitative: First Call Resolution, Customer Satisfaction, Quality scores etc., measures.

So what steps can a leader in a contact center take and what actions should they complete to achieve high performance within their center?

In order to answer this question we must first understand the environment that the contact center operates within. Of course contact centers exist in every industry and vertical each of which has its’ own unique aspects and elements. But there are consistencies and constants which are universal and are present in each center regardless of the specific industry.

The first of these ‘universal truths’ is that all things are connected. We already know that that our center is connected to the broader organization: when Marketing creates offers, Sales sells a new client or when Distribution ships or doesn’t make a shipment the phones will ring. The Butterfly effect is alive and well in our centers…when a butterfly flaps its wings in Marketing the effect is more calls into the center. We know that when staff calls in sick, our Service Level may suffer. A contact center any contact center is collection of thousands of moving parts that are connected in obvious and hidden ways. The clover diagram below illustrates the inter-connectedness we see in contact centers.

The second ‘universal truth’ is that our contact centers are ‘always on’. A contact center is a live environment where we operate in the moment. A ringing phone must be answered. Many center managers spend their entire day ‘putting our fires’, this leave little time for fire prevention.

The third ‘universal truth’ is that our centers are staffed with individuals. A center is in fact a community or a village. Like most small communities we have the familiar characters, the village idiot, town drunk, busybody, the flirt and the gossip. Are centers are full of cliques, groups and loners all of whom have their own goals aspirations and agendas.

Against this backdrop of the universal truths that form the basis for all of our centers we strive to build a center that can meet the defined goals and objectives that our senior management team has established for us and that we have established for ourselves. Let’s examine some of the strategies that can help you transform your center to a high performance environment.

Building & Understanding Teams:
In any center we will have a number of teams: teams of agents under a supervisor, an HR team, a workforce management team, a quality team etc. We will also have the management team within the center. The Management team often consists of Supervisors representing each discipline, as well as the Manager(s) and/or Directors. Like all individuals each member of these teams has individual goals and aspirations. It is essential for a team to function effectively that the individuals identify as a member of a team rather than as an individual. This can be an extremely difficult task. Likely each of us has been on a team where one or more team members couldn’t or wouldn’t subjugate their personal agenda for that of the team. When this happens the team can become dysfunctional: not all members participate, the workload is not shared equally or fairly and the team can easily devolve to individuals striving against the teams’ own lack of direction and ineffectiveness. It is of course the Team Leader who has the responsibility to try to prevent this from happening and the leader is just as familiar as we all are about the importance of teams. In the language of business being a ‘team player’ is seen as a valuable attribute, but in reality you cannot manage a team unless you are a team builder. This is the first strategic point where great centers and companies can differentiate themselves from the average and the good ones.

So how do you build effective teams? There are bookshelves full of books that have attempted to answer this question and certainly a number of their approaches can be successful. My favourite approach is one set out by Patrick Lencioni in his book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”.

Teamwork is one of the most prevalent ‘buzz words’ employed in business today. Everybody who reads the business press hears constantly about the need for teamwork. Virtually every author who has written a business or management book in the past fifteen years devotes significant ink to this topic.
But how do you ensure that your teams function effectively and achieve their goals? In my experience, ensuring that teams are effective is a far more challenging exercise than ‘buying in’ to teams and teamwork.

The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team

The most effective way to ensure that your teams succeed is to examine the most common ‘traps’ or dysfunctions that often (or almost always) creep into the team managed process. According to Lencioni, there are five primary dysfunctions of a Team. At the bottom of the pyramid is the fundamental dysfunction that will sink a team even if they are doing everything else right, which is unlikely in the absence of trust.
To understand the interrelation of these dysfunctions lets look at the pyramid from the top down. In order to be attentive to results you must be able to hold to team members accountable. In order to hold team members accountable you must have their commitment. In order to gain their commitment, you must engender Productive Conflict. In order to achieve Productive Conflict, you must ensure that there is a high level of trust and vulnerability within the team.
Now when we look at Teams we must remember that no two teams are alike because no two people who are on any given teams are alike. Therefore it can be dangerous to generalize, however the 5 dysfunctions are, in my experience powerful indicators of the effectiveness that a team achieves. Let’s look at some of the dysfunctions in a little more detail.
In order to be successful in any relationship we must be open and honest. Furthermore we must trust those around us. A key aspect of trust is opening ourselves up, sharing our thoughts, opinions and experiences. Of course opening up in this manner may also make you vulnerable to attacks. It is specifically this vulnerability that allows us to trust other members of our team and them, to trust us. You need to know that it is safe. If we don’t trust those around us with our reputations then we cannot trust them with our opinions. In short we cannot have an open and honest dialogue, or make commitments, drive accountability or achieve the results we desire. The establishment of Trust is the first key step to building an effective and productive team. In many organizations that I have worked with there are numerous teams they are comprised of people who have worked together, often for many years, but they don’t really ‘know’ each other and their actions show me that they don’t trust each other very much. Now if I asked them if they trusted their other teammates, of course they would all say they did. But in their meetings there is a complete absence of healthy, productive ideological conflict. This healthy ideological conflict is probably the best indicator of trust level within a team. Good Trust = Good Conflict.
So how do you as the team leader engender trust? Well you can’t just write a memo declaring that starting tomorrow we will all trust each other…it just doesn’t work like that. What you may want to do is to walk your team through the 5 dysfunctions so that they can see the ‘connectivity’ of the dysfunctions and then encourage them to open up with the group. It is decidedly easier to trust someone you know rather than someone who is a mystery. A good device for doing this is to use a ‘Check In’ at the beginning of a meeting. At the start of the meeting each person goes to the whiteboard and tells their life story from when they left school. As their life improved they draw a line going up on the whiteboard, as they faced challenges in their life the line trends down. You have only 5 minutes to review your entire life to date. These ‘check ins’ are often entertaining and elicit laughter and positive feelings. More importantly perhaps, they provide a fuller and deeper understanding of the individuals participating in the ‘check in’ than any team member had prior to this exercise. I was told by one executive whose team was their senior management group, “that even though we have been together for more than 5 years, I have learned more about these folks in thirty minutes than I knew going into this meeting”.
Understanding your teammates and what drives them creates the openness that fosters vulnerability and Trust. Whether or not ‘check ins’ are for you the key is to get your team to be open and vulnerable to each other. Once you have achieved that then you can move forward knowing that you can now have healthy ideological conflict,

Now most people assume that conflict is something that should be avoided. Why? Conflict makes all of us uncomfortable. Everyone prefers to stay in their comfort zone.
But what is the alternative to Conflict in a business setting? In most organizations it is ‘false harmony’. I call it false because there only appears to be harmony. In fact there is generally none. People are afraid to state their thoughts and opinions, due to a lack of Trust. Now you need to push them into Conflict. Yes push them. Because human nature and the way most companies and center train their staff teaches us to avoid conflict.
We need healthy, ideological conflict. That is to say conflict about issues and not about personalities. For it is only with Conflict which is open, honest, sincere and involving everyone can any issue or decision be aired to allow all of the team members to Commit to the outcome. Without commitment to a course of action the team struggles and often fails. Further team members fail to commit fully if they did not participate in the debate. Without getting their ‘two-cents’ on the table they feel left out of the decision making process and that lack of involvement absolves them from taking actions (being committed) to ensure success. It seems counter-intuitive but Conflict is good and essential. Conflict ensures Commitment, which in turn allows you to hold other members of the team Accountable for their individual actions in support of the goals of the team.
As this process takes hold the level of commitment and activity within the team grows. This is likened to someone who has ‘got religion’ because the team members ‘believe’. With the team committed, they are all held Accountable. This accountability allows the team leader to focus on the results being attained. The vast majority of teams never get to look at results since teams are so dysfunctional that they rarely make any decisions. Those decisions that were made were not committed to and were doomed to failure. The freedom to focus on Results allows the team to challenge their assumptions and fine-tune the process to gain the results they desire.
It takes time to break the bad team habits. When you accomplish this, teams meet and exceed their objective and enjoy the process a lot more.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Congratulations, or Condolences

Congratulations, you are the new contact center manager…now what?

Recently we were asked, what are the first things a new manager has to do to be effective in their new role as the Contact Center Manager (CCM)? In particular what can a new CCM do in the first thirty days to be successful?

Contact Center Manger may well be one of the more challenging positions in any organization. The CCM must deliver the company’s service promise to hundreds or even millions of customers. The CCM must understand and deal with technology that supports customer interaction. The CCM must deal effectively with unexpected events or circumstances that impact on the center and its performance. Perhaps most challenging the CCM must take individuals, perhaps hundreds or even thousands in some centers, and make them into an effective team that serves their customers to the best of their ability. Just to complicate matters, all of this must be developed, delivered and managed in a ‘live’ environment, with no ‘do-overs’ or second chances.

So where to begin? As with any new manager the first thirty days are critical. It is during this period of your tenure you will be under a microscope. Both the staff and your superiors will watch and assess every move to see how it aligns with their expectations of you. Each act taken or omitted builds your reputation. Regardless of the role the first thirty days sets the tone for the way you interact with your superiors and the way your staff interact with you. Being successful in your first month can be a daunting task to be sure. So where do you begin?

Here we set out tasks, activities and processes that characterize the activities completed by successful CCM’s. Of course there is no single way to succeed, just as there is no one type or style of manager that will always succeed. The following is a compilation of our experience in working with, training and developing effective CCM’s. These observations are augmented by our experience operating centers, both our own and our clients. The following outlines themes that align well with building effective centers and succeeding as a CCM.

So back to the title of this article, “Congratulations, you are the new contact center manager…now what?” The first activity is to meet and understand your direct reports and staff. Your first task must be to take your direct reports, this group of individuals and bring them together as a cohesive team.

There are a number of dynamics underlying your interactions with your team in first few months when you move into this new role. Just because management has awarded you the position of CCM, doesn’t mean that your direct reports and their staff will automatically believe that you are the most qualified or even best person for the job. You should expect that one or more of your direct reports was also considered for this role and did not secure it. Additionally each member of the team understands how your predecessor completed the task. Many will expect you to maintain the status quo. Human nature is such that status quo is comfortable and is safe for most staff. Change on the other hand is uncertain and involves risk. So the backdrop as you walk into your first team meeting will have undercurrents of jealousy, suspicion and an expectation of more of the same.

As you look to your team, you will likely realize that they are not a team at all but a collection of individuals each being governed by their own individual concerns and perceptions about you and your ability to lead them. Your challenge as their leader is to take these individuals and bring them together as a team. One of the most effective ways to do this is employ the framework developed by Patrick Lencioni in his book “The Five Dysfunctions of the Team”. In his book Lencioni sets out a hierarchy of activities required to build effective team. I will paraphrase these steps below:

  1. Trust is the pre-requisite for any effective team. You cannot have trust without vulnerability, or more accurately the ability to be vulnerable to each other member of the team.
  2. You cannot have open and honest communications within a team with out Trust.
  3. You cannot gain buy-in from team members unless there has been open and honest communication,
  4. You cannot hold team members accountable unless you gain their buy-in to a course of action.
  5. You cannot secure the desired results without holding team members accountable.

I would recommend reading Lencioni’s book for more insight into this hierarchy, but for the sake of this article we will take the truth of this hierarchy as a given and focus on how to achieve it.

Set up a meeting with your direct reports early on in your tenure. The focus of this meeting is a team building exercise. At this meeting set out the expectation that this meeting will be to get to know each other better and to build a more effective team. Of course, you will need to establish some ground rules for all discussion and team interactions.

These rules should include: honesty (all team members must commit to be honest and frank in all of their dealings); Engagement (all team member commit to be active participants in any discussions); Cohesiveness (all decisions made, must be supported by all members of the team, regardless of their support or opposition in prior discussions); lastly it is important that each team member understands that while it is the desire of the team to foster open communications and that each team member is expected to be an active participant in all discussions. The team is in no ways a democracy. You the team leader will make the final decision. While you welcome the teams input, you reserve the right to make any decision you feel is appropriate…after all that is your job and your responsibility.

For the initial meeting with your direct staff identify a vision for the section and group. Don’t make this a huge exercise. You can refine it later as more facts become evident and your understanding of the organizational requirements improves.

Provide an overview to the above hierarchy at the first meeting. Secure their buy and support for the hierarchy. Tell the team that your objective is to build a high performance team and to do that you need everyone to participate in the process. Ask each member to provide a 5 minute synopsis of their lives. Have them start from graduation from high school. Have them punctuate the highs and lows in their life by drawing a stock chart on a whiteboard or easel. This process will produce an number of results: first, each team member will know more about their co-workers, Second, each will share some low points in their lives that make them vulnerable to other members of the team. Finally the whole team will now have a shared experience the builds the cohesion of the group.

Once you have established the ground rules, and presented the hierarchy of team communications and have shared a little about their lives before they joined this team we can now move onto the second key step.

This step sets the stage for success of the contact center and for you as the Manager…building the contact center Strategic Plan.

In preparation for this meeting it is important to prepare the facts and current understandings for sharing with everyone.

What is the center’s capacity? Complete an inventory of what the center has: staff, equipment, processes, budgets etc. Most important, get a forecast of the demands for the center for the next 3 to 6 months; how many phone calls and/or other transactions are expected? Map the demand by week. The people doing the schedule are a good place to start. Make sure they check with marketing, sales and other stakeholders who generate traffic into the center.

Estimate any variance between the capacity and the demand. Does the center have the staff and equipment required to meet the demand projection? What is the state of the budget and how does that affect the ability to meet the demands you foresee?

Decide what changes need making and how that will be accomplished? Here it is presumed that you have the authority to make these changes. If not, you may need to get buy-in from others, including your staff. Get your staff involved in the data gathering and the analysis. If they help assemble and prepare the data and information for the meeting they are each more likely to draw the same conclusion as you when it is presented in the meeting.

No doubt as a part of the interview and selection process, you became familiar with the role of the center; and the expectations of senior management for the contact center within the organization. So with this big picture in mind, you can move forward to the second stage in your thirty day plan.

There are already goals and objectives in place for the center established by the senior management. In the vast majority of organizations these goals and objective fit into one of two categories: Extremely High Level or Minutia. In fact a number of centers will have both in place.

The Extremely high level goals or objectives are often taken from the company’s Mission Statement and employ phrases such as “to provide world class customer service” or “to deliver an unrivalled level of service”. These are in fact not goals, per say, but are rather philosophies. They are unconnected to a means of attaining the goals. They lack measurements to confirm the attainment of this level of performance.

I can hear the naysayers now chiming in. ”But we have metrics and KPI’s. So these are in fact goals.” In a few rare cases this may be the case. But out of thousands of centers that we have worked with, we almost never found this to be the case. What the measures and KPI’s really are is Minutia. These are an incredibly granular look at the individual transaction sets and agent performance against a backdrop of arbitrary numbers and figures, some with merit but many without.

The purpose of the Strategic Contact Center Plan is to create the connectedness between the Extremely High Level goals and the day to day metrics and KPI’s. This ensures that all measures support the attainment of the stated goals and objectives for the center and that the center goals support those of the organization.

Start the discussion by examining what are the corporate goals? Which of these can be achieved or supported by the contact center? Once this list has been identified the next question becomes what metrics, KPI’s or measures can be established that support or improve performance?

While this may seem quite straight forward and logical, in actual practise this is very rare. Most centers establish metrics, measures and KPI’s based upon what they have seen employed elsewhere or what they read is a Best Practise. The result is that centers’ often put in place measures that they think are best practices and are consistent with well run centers. The result is metrics and measures that are disconnected to the attainment of the stated goals and not aligned with the centers’ experience and history.

So which metrics and KPI’s should you employ? This is a point for discussion with your team. As a primer you will want to review the two primary types of KPI and/or contact center metrics: Quantitative and Qualitative. Quantitative measures are based upon numbers and efficiency. For instance how many calls per agent, Service Level, ASA, Grade of Service, Average Handle Time (AHT), Average Talk Time (ATT), Availability, Occupancy, etc. These are the most common metrics employed in contact centers today. Metrics of these types are useful in assessing individual or center efficiency with certain limitations. Example: ASA cannot be controlled by an agent. This is more a reflection of calls offered and agents scheduled. These metrics are numbers and counts related to the transactions but are silent regarding the quality of effectiveness of the transaction.

Qualitative measures assess the quality of service or effectiveness being delivered in the transaction. Qualitative measures include: Customer Satisfaction (CSAT), First Contact Resolution (FCR) and internal Quality Assessments derived through monitoring and assessing the contact against a set of pre-determined criteria.

Qualitative measures are less common as they can be much more challenging to implement than quantitative metrics. In the majority of centers qualitative metrics are frequently limited to internal quality assessments.

Qualitative assessments often require the joining and mingling of data from different sources unlike quantitative measures which are produced by the ACD or other systems,. Internal quality monitoring can be an effective tool. It requires the development of meaningful criteria that accurately reflects the quality of the transaction. If the assessed elements are flawed then the value of the process is reduced or rendered invalid. We have all seen centers with frivolous internal quality elements including: annoying neighbours, chewing gum and being in on time. It is clear that none of these factors actually impact on any individual transaction. Each of these reflects agent performance and adherence to policy rather than to contact quality.

Internal quality assessments can be characterized as what we believe is or should be important to our customers. Customer satisfaction can be best described as what is actually important to our customers. While logic would suggest that these two sets of metrics should be quite close this is often not the case. There is a fairly consistent gap of 20-30% between internal (QA) and external (CSAT) measures of satisfaction. Additionally the customer’s perceived value on common attributes is often quite different from the weightings employed in the Internal Quality Assurance process.

For example Average Speed of Answer is consistently ranked as one of the most important elements in call/contact center operations yet customers do not place nearly the same value upon it. The customer is much less concerned with getting their contact answered in speedy fashion than they are in getting the question or inquiry resolved.

To accurately measure CSAT focus specifically on the contact center interaction. A general satisfaction survey that focuses on the brand or the products does not provide meaningful data regarding the performance of the center. The contents of the survey must focus solely on the center and must be specific to an individual contact. Common questions posed in this process include:

  1. Was your call/contact answered in a timely fashion?
  2. Was the agent professional?
  3. Was the agent helpful?
  4. Did the agent help you to resolve your inquiry?
  5. Is the center and company easy to do business with?
  6. In the past have you ever recommend that a friend or acquaintance contact center?
  7. Following your most recent contact would you now recommend a friend or acquaintance to contact the center?
  8. Based upon your most recent interaction with the center has that contact: Improved your opinion of the center, reduced your opinion of the center or left you opinion of the center unchanged?
  9. On a scale from 1 -5 where 5 is exceeding your expectations and 1 is a complete disappointment, how would you rate your most recent interaction with the center?

Of course there are a number of additional questions that could be asked and numerous ways of phrasing each question. The above survey assesses the agent (professional, helpfulness and resolution); the center (timeliness of answer, ease of use, top box (1 -5 scale); and impact versus previous opinions (recommendation and impact of most recent contact). Each of these components are essential in assessing how satisfied a customer is.

Tracking and measuring FCR is also challenging for a number of reasons including: unidentified expectations; absence of systems; and dissatisfaction with company policy or procedures. For example when is a contact really resolved? Is it resolved only when the customer gets the outcome they desire? Or is it resolved when the agent informs a customer that they cannot get the resolution they seek? Must you ask the customer if their reason for the inquiry has been resolved or is this a judgment call the agent should make? What happens if resolving one inquiry logically leads to a second question or inquiry? Are these two distinct inquiries or is it one inquiry with two elements? Can we track FCR based upon frequency of contact? Is a contact deemed resolved if the customer doesn’t re-contact the center for three days; but unresolved if they re-contact in two days?

As you can see there are a number of aspects that must be kept in mind when designing how to measure FCR in a contact center and the method you select can easily skew the results attained. For example if agents are being asked to decide if an inquiry was resolved, they will often say that it is. If the customers for these same contacts were surveyed the results are often quite different. This is a similar phenomenon to the gap between internal and external measures of satisfaction and the result greatly depends on the point of view and perspective of those involved. An agent who has responded to the questions and answered with the appropriate replies will often feel that they have properly resolved the inquiry, based upon their adherence to policy and process. The customer, however, unencumbered by knowledge of the policy or process will only want what they want and will feel the inquiry is unresolved unless they get what they wanted.

So how can you improve the accuracy of the process? It is unlikely that you can ever get to the point where all of the ambiguity is removed; you can however create an environment where the points of view, of both the agent and the customer become as transparent as possible. Then ensure that at the end of each interaction these points of view are reconciled. This is often harder than it looks to be with many challenges in a ‘live’ environment.

Most agents jump to conclusions regarding what they believe the problem to be without letting the customer explaining their point of view. This is both human nature (we love to interrupt), a reflection of the training the agent has received (active listening isn’t featured in most training programs) and a result of the guidance the agent has received (“your talk time is too high, you have to get off the calls faster”), which encourages guessing the question rather than listening to it.

By asking the customer how we can help them and listening to their request/query in full, we are halfway home. The agent then must restate what the customer wants to ensure that there is no confusion or ambiguity, then and only then, should the agent begin to answer the customer’s question or resolve the query. Once the agent has responded fully to the customer query and before wrapping up the contact the agent should then restate the question or query and the response and ask the customer if this resolves their inquiry. In some cases the customer will not be able to get what they want and in these cases they agent should explain why they cannot get the desired outcome and then ask if this resolves their inquiry. For example a customer may not be able to get a refund because they waited too long to request one. In this case the agent may reply by explaining the company’s policy on refunds and offer a point of escalation for the customer to pursue and then ask if the query has been resolved. It can be helpful to ask the agent if there was anything else they could have done to assist the customer and if the answer is yes, then the inquiry was likely not full resolved.

In your meeting you and the team need to join the dots between the high level goals and the daily and weekly metrics and explain how each metric supports the attainment or progress towards attainment and of each and every goal. If you cannot specifically demonstrate the value of a metric in realising or progressing towards a goal, drop the metric. The plan needs to include specific targets and goals for the center, each team and ultimately each agent. The tracking and reporting has to be defined it must also be objective data and not subjective or based upon opinion. This plan must be documented and once completed should be reviewed by the team for accuracy and reasonableness. The final step is to present this Strategic Plan to senior management and gain sign off from the senior executive that the plan reflects the goals and objectives of the center, that support the attainment of defined goals and objectives of the company and that the defined measures and metrics will be the sole basis for assessing success in achieving the stated goals.

If in your first 30 days, you can build a team, set the contact center strategic plan, secure management support and implement the associated metrics you will be well on your way to success in your new role.