Article : Sorry, But Your Big Investment in Coaching and Monitoring Will Never Improve Your Output Measures
No matter how well or poorly they are currently performing, call center leaders want to improve their overall outputs. They want more satisfied customers, they want higher first call resolution, they want more cross-sell, and they want lower handle-times.
If you were to ask those leaders what their plans are to improve those outputs, you would get a few “scripts,” a few “knowledge base search tools,” and a few “incentive programs.” However, the response you would get from every center leader would be that they are investing in “monitoring and coaching each agent.”
Those leaders need to buckle up for some bad news: their monitoring and coaching efforts…a big technology, people, and lost-time-on-the-phones investment…are not going to improve their center-wide output measures.
Let’s conduct a thought experiment about the prevailing belief that call centers can be improved by coaching and monitoring…essentially trying to improve a center by improving one agent at a time. Thought experiments have a long history in science in helping to solve problems. In fact, Albert Einstein created his theory of special relativity after conducting a thought experiment about chasing a light beam.
For this thought experiment, let’s assume we are trying to improve cross-sell from its current level. We want agents to sell on every attempt where appropriate (cross-sell % per call) and to increase the average order size of what they do sell.
Problem 1: The ideal process is likely not documented. It is rare that centers have detailed documentation on the best, in this case sales, process. Sometimes there are scripts for the agents to follow, but they are often not kept up-to-date as the best agents come up with new ways to get more sales. If the ideal process isn’t documented, up-to-date, and if all the coaches and monitors don’t know that process, how are we really going to effectively coach the agents?
Problem 2: There aren’t enough resources to determine the process each agent is really following on each call. We do know output measures…the % and average order size per agent…but there are not enough monitors or monitoring sessions to figure out 1) how often each agent is attempting a sale so we can track sales attempts on a daily basis and 2) what process the agents are using each time they do sell. In call centers, agents are the process and each agent does it slightly differently…some follow the process, some deviate, some are fast, some are slower, some always read the compliance statements, some do not. We can show the agents their output results…the “what”, but it is difficult to measure and track improvements in the agents’ process…the “how.”
Corollary to Problem 2: Since we can only listen to a sample of calls, how do we find the right ones to coach on? If the agents are consistently bad, there will be plenty of opportunities to coach, but if they are good or even great and you want to improve them, it is not going to be easy to consistently find and record the calls to help them improve.
Problem 3: Keeping agents on the phone usually trumps taking time out for coaching sessions. Most leaders are keenly focused on service levels and thus with keeping agents on the phone. How much are the center leaders really willing to invest in coaching sessions? In most centers it is one or maybe two times a month per agent, rarely is it a few times a week. Can a few coaching sessions a month really help someone improve? Also, because of limited resources, most centers are likely to just focus on the agents performing below the mean. How will the good but not great agents get better?
Problem 4: How are we factoring in turnover into the process improvement equation? Call center jobs are tough. They don’t pay well and it is hard to talk to customers all day, especially if they are frustrated or mad. As a result, turnover in most centers is through the roof: it averages 30+% in the US and can easily be 100% or higher. This is devastating for our efforts to improve our cross-sell rate. First, if we have been focusing our improvement efforts on the poorly performing agents and just as they are starting to improve a bit they leave, our process improvement investment just walked out the door before it was able to lift the overall mean performance for the center. Second, it is not just the poorly performing agents who are leaving. Yearly/monthly/daily our best agents…those with high sales per call percentages and high average order size also leave…to get off the phones or to get a better job elsewhere. They have to be replaced and when they are, there is no way brand new agents will come in performing at the level an exiting best agent had achieved. This further deteriorates the mean performance of the center.
To summarize, how can a center improve its cross-sell % per call and average order size when we have not documented an ideal process. We know the agents are not consistently following it but we don’t know which agents and we don’t know when. We aren’t taking enough time out to coach each agent and when our process improvement efforts walk out the door every year and we have to replace them with lower performing new agents?
You can’t. In fact, we really did not need to do this thought experiment. If it were possible to improve center-wide performance one agent at a time, centers would be able to pull out chart after chart of steadily improving agent metrics. But they rarely if ever can. Most output measures in call centers are treading water at best.
As a final proof point of the futility of this one-agent-at-a-time approach, consider a manufacturing plant. Manufacturing leaders are relentless about increasing quality and productivity…without this maniacal focus, their businesses would quickly become uncompetitive. Can you improve a manufacturing operation…reduce defects, reduce waste, take time out of the process…by filming each worker and conducting a few coaching sessions each month? (Hint: No). A common saying in manufacturing is “put good people in a bad system and the system wins every time.” Manufacturing’s track record of sustainable and repeatable successes in increasing quality and productivity comes, not from coaching sessions with the workers, but from improving the process the workers are following.
Again, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that is the only way call centers are going to be able to improve their overall metrics too.
Improve The Process Not The Agents
For call centers to improve center-wide output measures:
1. Agents have to have a process to follow (process standardization).
2. They have to want to follow that exact process because it allows them to deliver quality service and because it makes their work life easier.
3. Management has to have complete visibility into agent-by-agent and call-by-call performance so it can be continuously improved.
New software solutions can deliver these three critical components. Call flows can be built for the agents to follow in a tool on their desktop. Prerecorded audio files can be attached to this call flow that the agent can control/play during the call with the keyboard. Finally, because the system is keyboard/mouse controlled, we can tell exactly what the agents are doing on every call without recording or monitoring those calls…in short, immediate, “visual controls” of agent-by-agent, and call-by-call performance is made possible.
This type of call center system is not a fully automated solution like an interactive voice response (IVR) system. The agent remains on the call with the customer the entire time. It is an ideal combination of the consistency and accuracy of a computer blended with the intelligence, sensitivity and flexibility of a human.
If something occurs during the call that is outside the normal process, the agent simply interjects with his/her live voice. And though these voice recordings are in a voice other than the agents, customers have been completely accepting of the system because they are getting the exact information they need in a clear and efficient fashion.
The Essential First Step: Standardize The Process
A key process improvement principle is to standardize the process. Sadly, this is often the first challenge – no standardized process for a given call type has ever been defined. Though there may be a process that the training department recommends, it is likely not the process the best agents or even the majority of the agents are currently following.
It probably goes without saying, but if a call center wants to improve call handling, it has to define and standardize the processes it wants to improve. Until that is done, the whole call handling operation is, de facto, sub-optimized.
After Standardization, Optimization
While process standardization is essential, this does not mean the process is optimized. The quality or other outputs might not be at the right level. In addition, processes have several kinds of waste associated with them, including waste from having the product or people waiting around (in call centers, this could be dead air and hold times), waste from excessive steps or movement (taking two minutes to do something others can do in a minute, using too many words, doing unnecessary steps or other non-call related activities), waste from rework (repeating information, call backs, escalations), etc. With the software platform described here, a call center can apply the same continuous improvement techniques used in manufacturing to improve the call handling process.
In a recent application, a Telco client used the software to build a process for handling a cell phone activation call. A cell phone activation call is a relatively straight-forward, low-branching call type, but one that would be to hard to handle entirely with automation such as an IVR system.
In Figure 1, the top graph represents average talk time (ATT), the bottom graph shows after-call work (ACW), the time the agent is completing work on a previous call before he/she can take another call. The horizontal lines on the chart represent the targets the call center wanted to achieve.
During the period from October through November, baseline data from experienced agents taking the cell phone activation calls was gathered. The month of December was used for part testing, part training and part implementation with new agents. January through February was full deployment with all new agents. Brand new agents handled 95 percent of the activation calls after January 1st.
The December launch and testing period was done using a pilot cell of agents. Through this focused implementation, we learned what worked and what did not. Typical process improvement techniques were then applied. In the final version of the standardized process, word count was reduced by 27 percent and pauses/dead air were reduced by 84 percent. The result is that overall talk time was reduced by 45 percent, from 550 seconds to 305 seconds.
When the new call center process was launched with 45 brand new agents for the peak of activation calls, talk time and ACW were better than target and better than the more experienced agents had ever been. Moreover, there also was a reduction in variation in both talk time and ACW. This is significant because for many centers, variability in these two measures results in having to staff more agents (increase costs) to meet service levels (speed-to-answer measures).
It’s Time For A Fresh Horse
The performance of even the best call centers in the world is mediocre at best and everyone knows it. Customers are dissatisfied with the level of service they are getting, and the variation in output measures such as compliance, orders per call, average order size, handle time, and call resolution is all over the map. If a manufacturing operation were performing like a typical call center, it would be shut down.
The predominant approach to improving call center output measures…occasional recording, monitoring and coaching…is not only too expensive, it is completely ineffective. You simply can not improve a call center one agent at a time. The entire industry is riding a dead horse.
Senior management and everyone involved with call centers has put up with this sorry state for too long. As they say, whenever you find yourself riding a dead horse, the best advice is to dismount. The entire industry needs to steal a page from the manufacturing play book, let go of the tired, feckless, one-agent-at-a-time paradigm, and start focusing on standardizing and optimizing the process their agents use. It’s time for a fresh horse.
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About Dennis Adsit:
Dr. Adsit has been achieving results with organizations for over 20 years. He is currently the VP of Business Development for KomBea Corporation. Prior to KomBea, he was Senior Vice President of Call Center Operations at Intuit, where he drove dramatic change and tens of millions of dollars in benefits. From 1995 to 2000, Dennis provided leadership counsel to top executives in the area of Six Sigma quality improvement at Rath & Strong Management Consultants.
KomBea, Inc is a call center technology company. Their ProtoCallSM solution is designed to reduce variation in call process and output, deliver a better customer experience, and lowers costs. Their ReCallSM solution can allow low-cost, open-format call recording with no PBX-integration requirements and can make call recording and screen capture more affordable to any size center with any technical configuration.
Published: Thursday, August 30, 2007