A common challenge among contact center leaders is advancing the perception of the contact center's value within the organization. Even managers in contact centers who generate the majority of revenue for their organizations often find themselves struggling to prove the center's worth. The misdirected search for the "secret sauce" in the contact center value recipe is the cause of a large number of the meaningless and distracting measures we see established in many centers.
In the contact centers I've led and worked with as a consultant, I've found myself continually reminding everyone that running a contact center is a whole lot easier than we make it. Much of the challenge is self-inflicted, and it's often rooted in metrics and measures that seem to provide an answer to that ever-present question: How is the center adding value to the organization?
It's a simple question, but one that most contact center leaders fail to provide a clear and articulate response. When asked this question by someone else in the organization, a successful contact center leader is able to eloquently and accurately highlight the critical role the center plays -- in a way that everyone from agent to CEO can understand.
Redefine the Meaning of "The Score"
The first step in being able to form a cogent response to the aforementioned question is to unlearn many of the common contact center missteps, and make sure that you have programs in place to prevent them in the future. Many of the often-cited metrics and numbers are about the center's "availability" score -- service level, average speed of answer, abandon rate, et. al. All of these are great measures, but they don't have much to do with "value."
Nonetheless, they're often at the top of every contact center scorecard, and the thing that executives frequently question. Sadly, this focus drives a continual evaluation of the scores, along with ways to ensure that we get the "right score" -- with little focus on the drivers or an understanding of the customer impact. To gain freedom from the "score," you've got to develop ways to help others understand what they're really looking at when they see the results.
Your availability scores are the most important numbers in determining many things about your contact center -- things like how many people you need by interval, how much time are you planning to take from customers before they get resolution, how much it's going to cost you to run your business and how you perform against other organizations. Since they're one of the main drivers behind these important outcomes, they also get a tremendous amount of real-time and historical analysis. This analysis is often unnecessary, as it's part of the plan, and done at the expense of looking for new ways to improve the experience from the customer's perspective.
For example, if you have a service level objective of 90/20 (90 percent of contacts answered in 20 seconds), and you answer every contact in exactly 21 seconds, your resulting metric is zero. A zero will typically get everyone excited and cause a lot of people to drop everything to analyze the reasons behind it. And all of this analysis would be a complete waste of time because your customers only had 21 seconds taken from them -- and, they're not likely to complain about that.
Contact Center Scores Are About Intervals, NOT Days
Prevention starts with educating everyone in the organization and creating an understanding of what these measures really mean and how they're calculated. Think about a brick-and-mortar retail environment: They advertise that the doors will be open for business during a certain time period, and ensure that people can get in during that time. That's really no different than your contact center availability objectives -- you're basically measuring if you had the door open for people when you said you would.
The difference is that you're managing it by interval several times a day; if you only look at it by the day, you could actually have the door closed for half the day and extra doors open the other half. The former is bad for the customer, and the latter adds cost to the company -- and neither adds any value to the organization. In a call center, we often try to make the numbers look better by throwing more bodies at the low accessibility numbers in the afternoon -- these are often the bodies we pay the most for (supervisors, seniors, etc.) and are, in almost every case, unnecessary and detract from the things that add real customer and organizational value.
When you see an accessibility score recorded for a call center, it means that it has already happened, and for those customers who were part of the score, there is nothing you can do to fix their experience.
The key is to focus on the drivers of the score. The best contact centers have an ongoing planning focus, and the scores provide insight on new ways to improve the plan -- from both the contact center's and customer's perspective. These environments focus little attention on historical results, and pour their energy into ensuring that they have near-term and long-term plans in place to help improve future scores.
Below is an example of a way to help your contact center learn to view accessibility scores for what they really are -- interval metrics that must be balanced. It also provides a quick way to understand the drivers of success: Did we get the right number of calls? Did agents do what we expected (adherence)? And did something about the process cause the handle time to be more or less than normal?
The goal is to get everyone who evaluates scores to begin thinking about ways to prevent problems from happening in the future, and to focus on the interval treatment of customers and on how much time the company took from them. Once you've got this in place, you can reduce the reliance on complex spreadsheets by combining your intervals with the results -- focusing on how many intervals of the day you were successful.
Looking at it this way provides internal and external leaders with a much clearer view of daily success, along with an understanding that the center is focused on planning for future improvements vs. trying to overanalyze what when wrong.
Quality Isn't Value -- It's Required
The other value-add that is often cited by contact centers is quality, which is too often determined from an internal perspective. However, more companies are beginning to view quality from the customer's point of view. As with availability measures, quality scores are important to know, track and report, but quality is not the way a contact center adds value -- it's basically the price of admission since, without quality interactions, customers will eventually leave.
High quality must be maintained, which can be a challenge, given the fact that the bar is continually being raised by the ever-changing expectations and demands of customers. Most customers base their expectations on the last interaction they had with a contact center and the quality of the service they received. Because of this fact, the minimum quality you must provide is a moving target -- what some consider world class today can become the norm by the middle of next month.
If quality is the price of admission, at what point does quality become a value-add measure for the contact center? It's when the customer's perception of the service quality has exceeded his or her expectation at that point in time. All of the internal quality metrics and scores mean nothing if the interactions don't exceed the customer's needs, and this is often the part where contact centers fail. Internal quality programs are necessary in all contact centers, and most centers have some type of program in place. Unfortunately, the programs are typically built according to an internal perception of what defines quality, with little focus on customers and their continually evolving expectations.
Once you understand that quality is the price of admission, your program and approach becomes less about metrics and more about improving the value from the customer's perspective. Moving the external quality metrics and numbers to a customer-driven and focused approach frees a contact center from the self-inflicted pain of managing internal quality to a number. You can leverage your internal quality program to improve the customer's perception, but not with a metrics focus. Like accessibility results, it's more about what you do with the findings than with the numbers themselves.
Quality programs need to be flexible to the customer and focused on agent development. A numerical, results-oriented program with potential agent disciplinary actions based on low scores creates a distraction for everyone and has little impact on the customer. Quality programs that focus on agent behaviors and use quality monitoring as a mechanism for developing critical skills/knowledge provide agents with the tools and feedback needed to truly improve the customer interaction. This is a tough transition for most contact centers, as it forces frontline leaders to become coaches vs. scorekeepers -- and coaching against a number is much easier than coaching against a behavior.
This tough transition is at the heart of most challenges in contact centers. As with accessibility objectives, the key is education and ensuring that everyone knows their role and is comfortable delivering the message. To accomplish the quality change (time, flexibility and focus), a contact center must commit to and deliver on the promise, and make it a focused and respected job activity. Without this focus, nothing will move and what you've always experienced is what you'll always get.
Moving Beyond Internal Objectives to Real Value
The best contact centers know that real value registers one contact at a time -- that every contact is an opportunity to add value to the organization. Just as you would go through a very thorough analysis to justify a new technology investment to land on a true return on investment (ROI), the same applies to every contact. Every interaction with a customer is an opportunity to learn about his or her needs, your organization, the competition and additional growth opportunities. Moving your organization and customers toward world-class status starts with an understanding that every contact has a return on investment, and that this ROI is the foundation in developing the true value in the center.
Contact centers that can make the ROI connection are the ones that easily move the conversation from cost to benefit -- adding new information to all parts of the organization. Key to getting buy-in from others in your organization is proactive communication/education -- taking the time to provide new information without being asked to give it. If you operate under the assumption that every call provides something from which others in the organization can benefit, you're 99 percent of the way toward moving your center to the next level. Crossing the finish line requires actually sharing your findings with others. This is the easy part, and something that most people in other parts of the organization welcome with open arms.
A word of caution: Don't confuse real value with static reports from your end-of-call drop-down menus or radio button reason codes. These reports simply capture the internal company-driven reasons why people call; they add some value as to "the why" and even what to fix, but are often just reporting the reasons why the contact center exists or the cause for all the cost. The way to really show value is by finding new ways to extract those things that people don't know. You'll need to do a little something extra at the end of each call, but if you get your agents involved, give them the time and provide them with a reason, you'll be rewarded with the information you need to communicate the true value of the center. It really is about listening -- to your customers through your agents.
Sharing the value with others is easy. The key is finding the things that work and add real value, and providing it to others in ways they can use. Every time your company interacts with a customer represents an opportunity -- make sure you're able to glean information that can truly transform the organization. Internal accessibility and quality are only the tip of the iceberg.
Tim Montgomery is founder of The Service Level Group. Prior to that Tim was a consultant, seminar leader and technology advisor with the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI). He can be reached at TimM@ServiceLevelGroup.com or (210) 687-2714.