At the heart of even the most technology-driven contact centre is its people. Knowing how to manage them can play a big role in determining the effectiveness and efficiency of your contact centre.
By Philip Wong, Alexia Chianis & Chris Yates
Why the Contact Centre Experience Matters
Many reports confirm what we already know: The role contact centres play in defining the customer experience can’t be overstated. Highlighting this fact, a Forrester study found that more than 60% of customers said they would stop recommending a company because of customer experience failure or poor contact centre etiquette. Furthermore, once a customer’s business is lost due to a poor service experience, that company has only a one in five chance of winning the customer back.1 It’s not surprising that according to research by Walker (a customer intelligence consulting firm), customer experience will trump price and product quality as the key brand differentiator by 2020.2
With over 25% of consumers believing that companies are now less focused than ever on delivering good contact centre customer service, providing them with an exceptional (or even good) experience can have a significant positive impact on revenues.3
If there was ever a time to take a critical look at how you manage your contact centre—and identify opportunities for improvement—it is now.
- https://www.salesforce.com/hub/service/call-center- best-practices/
- https://www.walkerinfo.com/knowledge-center/featured- research-reports/customers2020-1
Since the earliest call centre dating back to 1877, contact centres have evolved in step with advances in technology. Today, it is not uncommon for a typical contact centre to be responsible for serving customers through as many as nine channels, including website queries, instant messaging, email, SMS, social media, and video chat, in addition to the humble telephone.
Technology and solutions providing everything from advanced call recording and speech analytics to workforce optimisation and forecasting capabilities, through to portals for integrating data from legacy systems, all occupy a large part in the minds of contact centre managers in their day-to-day work.
Yet for all the emphasis on technology and systems in contact centres, an often overlooked aspect is how the approach taken to manage and develop contact centre staff can have a significant impact on managing performance and costs. Consider this: Total labour costs – including recruitment, training, development, attrition and management, just to name a few – commonly account for 70% or more of total operating costs of a contact centre, despite being viewed as a technology intensive operation.
This article is aimed at helping you – the contact centre manager – critically review your approach to contract centre management, while also identifying opportunities to improve how you manage the most critical factor behind any contact centre’s success – your people.
Defining and Aligning on Quality: Determining “Fit for Purpose”
While most contact centre managers are able to express the target Service Quality for their centre in terms of a combination of measurable metrics, such as Grade of Service (GOS) or Average Speed of Answer (ASA), Average Handling Time (AHT), Customer Advocacy or Satisfaction and First Call Resolution (FCR), many fall short in being able to articulate what Service Quality means to an agent in the context of handling a call or performing any other duties.
“Call Quality” is viewed as a separate and sometimes independent matter to “Service Quality”, rather than one of two critical agent related drivers of it (the other critical driver being Agent off-phone behaviour – adherence to schedules breaks etc.). This can lead to a misalignment between agents and the business about what each perceive as Quality. Staff either don’t know or don’t agree on what “good” looks like, with each person applying their own interpretation.
Action: Quality is about being “fit for purpose” and as such is highly contextual. This context needs to be clearly defined by the business after consideration of what its customers expect. Contact centre managers need to not only understand the target service requirements and measures for their centre, but also understand and be able to articulate what this means in terms of agent behaviour – on and off phone.
Establishing the business context of what “Quality” is and isn’t for your people helps set clear expectations, avoid mixed messages, and establishes a foundation for accountability.
Average Handling Time (AHT): What’s the problem with using it as a ‘target’?
In considering a “target” AHT, what is the basis of the target AHT range? How was it derived? Whilst the two most common answers – “it’s always been that” and “that’s what the budget is based on” may each be true, neither are sufficient to justify the use of the figure as the benchmark for how long a call should take. Indeed – while “you get what you measure” may be a reasonable guiding principle for developing KPIs, it also needs to be balanced with the caveat of “be careful what you ask for”. Trying to manage “the number” can lead to all sorts of negative behaviours whilst missing the purpose of the indicator – to flag an issue for attention and deeper examination.
The fundamental principle in determining how long a call should take is this: As long as is needed to produce an appropriate business outcome, but not one second longer.
Application of this principle requires the underlying driver of calls to be readily identified to trigger appropriate action. While modern Interactive Voice Response (IVR) Systems have reasonably good success rates at routing calls depending on the nature of the customer’s needs, applying rigour in training your agents to be able to quickly identify the underlying need driving the call and handle it accordingly is never wasted effort. Similarly, paying close attention to any “constraints” imposed by the business (e.g. mandated scripts & processes) that impact handling times and optimising these for respective call types is also an important approach to increasing service efficiency.
When these are achieved, you will start to get a better grasp of what “right” looks like in terms of AHT and have a more meaningful baseline from which to assess whether a given agent’s AHT is “high” or “low”. When agents are trained to handle their calls effectively and their performance discussed in terms of how well they managed “the flow” during their calls in meeting a caller’s needs, metrics such as AHT tend to take care of themselves showing better consistency of handling times, centred within a properly derived range that fits with what “right” looks like.
Remember, “AHT problems” (duration or variation) are really problems with Quality – either with how well we deliver our service, or with our expectations of effort to deliver on mandated service outcomes, or how we measure Quality in the first place.
Understanding the “Anatomy” of Your Calls: Knowing What ‘Right’ Looks Like
The reality for many contact centre agents is that AHT performance is one of the key metrics on which they are judged for their performance against a target AHT range. While AHT is undoubtedly a critical determinant of contact centre staffing (and therefore operating cost), a manager’s overzealous fixation on AHT (“the metric IS the goal”) can have dire consequences for centre performance and agent morale.
Given that AHT is a by-product of how calls are handled, it is somewhat questionable to even have a “target” AHT. The betterplaced focus is Call Quality – either how the agents handle the call or how they are directed by the business to handle the call through scripts or Quality requirements (e.g. length of standard greeting, number of times customer’s name is to be used, duration of ID verification step, requirement to verify contact details). Many centres fail to appreciate how Call Quality can impact AHT—treating them as separate or competing considerations rather than different expressions of the same parameter: service delivery.
Action: Contact centre managers need to have a clear and detailed understanding of the “anatomy” of the calls that their centre handles and know how their agents should be handling these calls to yield the most effective and efficient outcome for their customer. It’s time to stop treating AHT and Call Quality as unrelated elements.
Make Performance Visible and Understood
In most contact centres, there is no shortage of data and performance reporting. Whiteboards, noticeboards, and plasma screens display Volumes, GOS and AHT, to shrinkage, adherence and abandonment rates.
However, many centres lack either some or all of the three key elements that are needed to unlock the benefit of data and performance reporting:
1. Detailed understanding of what ‘performance’ means and the drivers of it
There is little point talking about performance if people cannot agree on what it means or how it is impacted by the activities of the operation. Performance needs to be articulated in terms relevant to the target audience such that it is immediately clear how their actions affect it. Therefore, establishing a clear link between activity and performance outcomes is critical.
2. Forum for Deliberate Review of Performance Reporting
Once a common understanding of performance is in place, a deliberate review becomes meaningful and important for assessing where you are at – How well did we do? What can we learn? What needs to change or be reinforced?
Whether it be through a regular huddle or review meeting, the practice of conducting a timely, detailed critical assessment of the performance from the previous timeframe is the second essential ingredient.
3. Specific Actions to Address any Identified Variances that are Tracked for Completion
Regardless of how astute or insightful any commentary on performance is, without any definitive action, the value of such observations is largely academic.
Whether it is to ‘stop’, ‘start’ or ‘continue’ something, there will invariably be some type of action that needs to be taken to derive any benefit. Also, simply noting what can be done is not enough – the importance lies in what is to be done and then ensuring that the action is completed.
Action: Contact centre managers need to ensure that everyone understands what ‘performance’ is, how the group is performing in these relevant terms, and how their specific actions have an impact.
This is not only important for managing performance, but also a fundamental element for keeping your staff engaged in a common purpose: This is what we are working toward, here’s how it’s going, and this is why what you do matters.
Provide Feedback and Coaching for Success
A contact centre manager’s role is to work with the agent to understand what they are doing, why they have or haven’t done well and the impact. Feedback must be specific, based on facts and observations, and timely.
The difficulty with most contact centre metrics is that they are largely numericallybased— making it difficult for an agent to identify what actions they took that caused a particular result.
For a manager to be effective they must be well-acquainted with details of what is required and provide the agent with specific areas to work on. Merely indicating that a person’s adherence is poor, sales are low, or their AHT is too high serves as neither effective feedback nor a meaningful basis for coaching.
Few if any contact centres would contend that they do not provide feedback or coaching to their staff, however what is dubious is the amount or quality of time and development feedback that is provided. Time management is an ever present issue for contact centre managers. However, investing the time to know how each agent is performing is critical to manage and lead your people to meet or exceed the centre’s required performance outcomes— and isn’t that what you are there for?
Action: Take time to deliberately nurture the skills of your people and help them succeed. This can be done in several ways, including the “buddying” of developing agents with highly proficient agents to observe control of the call and use of systems, or listening to calls (live or recorded) – then providing specific, actionable development feedback (i.e. ‘Stop’/‘Start’/ ‘Continue’ saying or doing this).
Check-In with Your People
The nature of contact centre operations makes it very easy for agents to become isolated from their team, their manager, and even the broader business of where they work.
Maintaining a connection with your agents without unduly impacting the operation can be a challenge, but no more so than balancing any other competing priority in a contact centre. The key is to recognise that having a regular touch point with each of your people on a frequent (more than daily) basis is a valuable practice in helping maintain the connection and two-way flow of communication.
While technology can provide many cues and indicators of how well an operation is going (usually in highly numerical terms), an equally important (yet overlooked) source of information is feedback from the agents on the floor in real time. The focus of such check-ins is to obtain further insight to help gauge how well the ‘work’ is going on the floor and how your people are faring in the context of this work.
Make no mistake – it is not pulling each of your people offline for a social chat – this is a workrelated interaction with a human dimension. How are you going? What is happening? Even on occasions where it is not possible to have even the briefest of conversations, don’t discount the effectiveness of non-verbal communication that in effect says I can see you are busy – I am available to help – you aren’t alone.
Regular check-ins can also improve the effectiveness of periodic interactions such as ‘one-on-one’ reviews or discussions. This is because both parties are more closely aligned at the start of such interactions, allowing for a more targeted, higher-quality of dialogue (as opposed to both parties saving up a laundry list of discussion points).
Action: Incorporate check-ins as part of your operating rhythm to provide a mechanism for maintaining a “finger on the pulse” of what is happening on the day, gain insights into what is going well and what can be improved.
Check-ins offer you an excellent opportunity to support your people, and help them deliver superior outcomes.
Contact Centre Management, the Bottom Line
With the increasing complexity of customer channels and interactions, coupled with an increasingly level playing field with regard to ease of access to technology, relying primarily on systems or technology to gain a competitive advantage is unlikely to yield success.
Developing your understanding of the impact you as a contact centre manager can have on performance (both service and cost) as well as your ability to lead and develop your people – irrespective of the particular system or tools in place – can provide a more cost-effective and enduring basis for achieving and sustaining contact centre performance. Change starts with you, the manager, and now is your moment.