Maintaining and enhancing customer service can be overlooked in the rush to manage the costs of the contact centre, especially in the current, uncertain times. Equipment is installed; agents are trained and motivated but are the business objectives too simplistic and related to only to inputs rather than the outputs needed by the business? This applies equally to contact centres in the public or private sector, and to in-house and outsourced services.
Many organisations give their contact centre staff incentives, or monitor performance based on measures such as speed of answer, in the belief that it will encourage agents to work more quickly, answer more calls and therefore make more sales or answer more customer requests. Could such misplaced incentives and measurements be responsible for truly appalling levels of customer satisfaction with contact centre performance? For example, a study by Citizens Advice last year found that UK energy and phone companies were still providing customers with very poor service, with 81% of gas company customers dissatisfied with their last call, as were an astounding 89% of those calling landline telephone companies.
The fundamental flaw in thinking here lies much deeper than the incentives that are being given, or the way in which staff are working. It lies in not fully understanding the basic business objectives of the organisation, and the planning needed to embed these into contact centre design and operation. The key is for organisations to move their goals outside the management of contact centre inputs in order to understand the bigger picture in terms of the impact on total organisational performance, whether that is profitability or customer satisfaction. Both of these result from knowing who your customers are and what they want; a focus which is often neglected.
Contrary to popular belief, contact centres are not a quick fix solution to sales, customer service or marketing problems, nor should outsourcing equate to passing the buck. Improved long term business results will not be achieved if this is the level of thinking behind implementing or maintaining a contact centre operation. Organisations must be realistic enough to appreciate that a contact centre only offers an infrastructure with the potential to enhance business performance if it is set up and managed in the right way.
The Importance of Differences
It has become increasingly obvious that customer service is an all important differentiator between organisations. This, coupled with the boom in contact centres, has resulted in a large percentage of the general public coming into contact with a contact centre almost every day. Whether buying goods and services, booking a squash court, reporting a hole in the road or making a complaint, the chances are that the caller will be connected to a contact centre.
In order to define 'good' service for remote customers, an organisation must discover exactly what these customers want; establish which needs it is prepared to meet for which types of customers, and the total costs it is prepared to bear in relation to the expected level of return. Once it has established which customer needs are to be met and the standards to be achieved, it can set the levels of resources, people and technology required to meet them.
Setting Contact Centre Goals
Most contact centres set goals in relation to inputs, seeking to reduce costs and improve performance. These are typified by the benchmarking performance indicators adopted by many organisations. For example, measurements commonly used in the contact centre industry are time related, e.g. the percentage of calls answered in ten seconds, the average speed of response or the number of calls abandoned as a result of waiting too long. But are these benchmarks measuring the right areas, and can they really deliver?
Looking at benchmarks in simple terms, it seems to be very logical. Based on inputs, it leads to strategies that either reduce costs or improve input performance. For example, an organisation will calculate the cost of each incoming call and reach the conclusion that call throughput should be increased by reducing the length of each call. Staff costs could also be minimised by having fewer staff handle more calls because of shortening call duration. But is it really as logical as it looks?
To improve the utilisation of both people and technology, an organisation may also look at reducing the rate of calls abandoned, minimising the time taken to answer each call, increasing the number of outbound calls and reducing the number of blocked calls, to name but a few possible approaches.
Businesses taking this stance on contact centre strategies will, no doubt, have the effect of making their contact centre marginally more efficient and economical, but to make a radical difference, it must be made more effective. To do this, organisations must set output goals and then manage the inputs.
For example, travelling salesmen are measured on sales volumes and profitability because the company they represent relies directly on these factors for business success. So, a salesman must aim to sell as many products as he can in a day, rather than just knocking on as many doors as he can. He will achieve his goal if he sells products to five houses by taking the time to explain the merits of his product, rather than rushing around ten houses but failing to close the sales by not illustrating the key selling points due to his haste.
If this ethos is viewed against that in many contact centres, it accurately illustrates where contact centres' benchmarking is misleading. Contact centre agents are invariably measured on the number of calls they answer, how polite they are and whether they worked at the weekend. This is a scale of measurability of inputs not the outcomes of the travelling salesman and doesn't relate directly to the ultimate goals of the organisation, which in the example are sales volumes and profitability.
Organisations utilising contact centres must be aware that if they are measuring agents on quantity, rather than quality, agents are less likely to be providing the customer service on which the organisation prides itself. It is imperative therefore, that a business invests time and energy in planning the use of a contact centre. It must aim to motivate, train and measure agents based on what the business is striving to achieve, and not rely on just measuring call statistics.
An organisation must identify its business objectives and use these to plan its contact centre strategy. These must be tangible ones that can be measured, thereby discounting vague principles such as increasing shareholder value or improving contact centres. Once these objectives have been clarified, an organisation can begin to plan or manage an effective contact centre operation designed to meet these needs.
With measurable goals, an organisation can begin to devise the best ways of deploying technology and training, motivating agents, and measuring the success of staff based on the quality of customer contact outcome, rather than quantity.
Contact centres are frequently used by organisations to cut costs, but this idea can back fire without adequate time and planning. Agents must be fully trained in the products or services, skilled at using hands and an ear simultaneously, possess a responsive and helpful telephone manner and, because of the repetitive nature of the work, be correctly motivated and supported. If a company overlooks these fundamental prerequisites, it won't be enhancing customer service - merely frustrating and angering the caller.
Along with the right people must be the right technology, carefully selected to facilitate agents' work and used to maximum advantage, along with efficient processes that help rather than hinder the operation. This technology must be well-designed, implemented and monitored. Without these, an organisation may well be cutting overheads, but it is risking losing its customers too.
Advanced customer communication lies in the hands of those people interfacing with your customers. Contact centre agents are often the first point of contact for many customers, and the old adage about first impressions certainly rings true in a business environment. Contact centre staff represent an organisation. The way people are organised, their skills, product knowledge and attitudes are vital and must not be overlooked. These attributes must be combined to meet business objectives, again, something that will be included in a performance analysis, enabling the strengths required to be identified and matched with available skills.
Advanced communication with customers also relies on technology. An agent has limited time during a phone call, and can only work effectively if the correct technology is installed, for example a system response time could be acceptable for an internal computer system may far too slow if deployed to support agents whilst handling a call and result in a poor call outcome. A business must first assess its needs and look at the impact technology will have on the business, instead of being blinded by jargon and bowing to the many vendors who will claim that their technology is the answer, whatever the real problem. The bottom line is that technology must facilitate agents' work, improve effectiveness and give a better outcome for the caller and the organisation. This can only be done if businesses can first identify their overall business goals and translate these into a detailed set of requirements.
Where to Start
Undertaking a performance analysis for your contact centre starts by ensuring that objectives are clearly defined, shared and understood. The three key elements of success; planning, people, and technologies must be driven, primarily by the business objectives that result from such an analysis. These elements must then be combined through an integrated approach to ensure that your customer management strategy is well developed and managed in order to achieve the ultimate goal, keeping one step ahead.
Copyright PNC Consulting Ltd 31/3/09