Six Sigma, a methodology that Motorola developed for manufacturing several decades ago, has emerged during the past few years as a hot topic in call centers. At our conference last month in Austin, TX, one of the sessions outlined what call center managers should know about how to apply Six Sigma to their operations.
The speaker at this session was Jim Rembach, vice president of Customer Relationship Metrics, a Sterling, VA-based research firm. The company specializes in applying a key principle of Six Sigma – Voice of the Customer – to help call centers survey customers on how to serve them better.
We spoke with Rembach shortly before his session. As he explains in his presentation, and as we noted last year in an article in our February 2005 issue, the aim of Six Sigma is to minimize defects so that no matter what process you manage, the process results in no more than 3.4 defects per one million opportunities. Is Six Sigma relevant to call centers? After all, it's much easier to come up with specifications for a perfect widget than for a perfect call.
Yet that's precisely why Six Sigma is important. Communication with customers can involve metrics that are more subjective than metrics associated with manufacturing. But the true test of a metric is whether it helps you learn from past experience.
The value of Six Sigma is that the methodology emphasizes cumulative progress, rather than hitting a target for a single metric. For call center managers, who sometimes believe that there is, or ought to be, an industry standard for metrics like talk time or hold time, Six Sigma is a framework for managers to rethink such narrow notions of performance.
In practice, as Rembach points out, Six Sigma is more than a framework; it typically comprises a cycle of actions: define, measure, analyze, improve and control. With Six Sigma, you have a way to understand the evaluation of your call center's performance as an ongoing effort. There is no such thing as a perfect call, but, if you can continually assess which metrics are most meaningful to your business and to your customers, you can increase the likelihood that outcomes of calls improve over time.
Our Q&A with Rembach follows below. For further background on Six Sigma, check out our feature article on the topic from our February 2005 issue.
CC (Call Center): What is the most important aspect of Six Sigma for call center managers to keep in mind?
JR (Jim Rembach): One of the things they need to be prepared for is that their key performance indicators (KPIs) can change. You never want to have a singular KPI as a target.
CC: One component of Six Sigma that call centers increasingly focus on is Voice of the Customer – that is, establishing a continual process of gathering feedback from customers to learn from them how to improve service. Why are traditional call center metrics, such as handle time, not sufficient?
JR: Voice of the Customer is supposed to be the foundation of all your decision making. Unfortunately, a lot of companies are only looking at cost cutting and defects. The customer has not been involved in setting goals.
CC: What is the aim of applying Six Sigma in call centers? Is it to reduce costs?
JR: No. When cost is number one in importance, you've already lost.
CC: How can call centers – which are themselves businesses within businesses – apply Six Sigma so that they align goals of improving service with their efforts to reduce costs?
JR: They can reinvest savings into enhancing the customer experience. Six Sigma really helps you to become a better business owner.