The essence of Six Sigma is quality control. Traditionally, quality control has been about establishing performance metrics and then measuring whether they were achieved. Six Sigma turns this on its head by focusing on defect rates and how to reduce them.
This works well in manufacturing environments, where it is possible to set tolerance levels at each stage of the manufacturing process, measure whether they are being achieved and, if not, adjust the process until the measures reach allowable levels. In other words, each item can be measured; if a certain percentage fall outside established limits, the process can be examined to discover why and what can be done to bring the outputs back within acceptable limits. Continuous improvement is achieved by gradually making the tolerance requirements more exacting until they reach the defined Six Sigma level of only 3.4 defects per million opportunities.
Applying such a model to the contact center is challenging, not least because there aren’t any physical deliverables. Yet the principle of taking a rigorous approach to quality control in contact centers is fundamental to improving customer service and maintaining a competitive edge. Evidence clearly indicates that the main business imperative for contact centers remains cost control; companies still strive to reduce the average length of calls, maximize the productivity of agents (and perhaps reduce head count), encourage the use of self-service channels and otherwise reduce expenses.
There is much talk about turning contact centers into profit centers, but apart from a few advanced cases, there is little proof of progress being made. The main barriers always seem to come down to insufficient training and investment.
These barriers are rooted in business and management culture. Beyond them lies a bigger issue that adoption of Six Sigma would certainly address: process change. As noted, one core Six Sigma principle is to examine defects across the complete process chain and then to make changes until defects fall within an acceptable range. Two obstacles to achieving this exist in the contact center. First, far from being process-oriented, contact centers often rely heavily on the individual initiative of agents to deal with customer contacts. Second, it is difficult to examine the end-to-end processes involved, both within the center and across the enterprise. The magnitude of the challenge is revealed through a glance at the amount of repetitive questioning and information collection that occurs when a call is handed from one agent to another – a common situation that is one of the greatest sources of customer frustration.
Looking across the enterprise is difficult. The customer relationship management (CRM) approach involves viewing customer contacts in the context of a complete relationship, across its lifecycle. Contacts in the contact center therefore need to be viewed as parts of end-to-end processes that stretch from marketing to sales to support and maybe even to termination. Without this visibility and this understanding, it is unlikely organizations can consistently achieve real customer satisfaction. Yet the separate divisions involved in these interactions rarely communicate and plan in any synchronized way.
Another major difference from manufacturing is that the contact center depends far more heavily on people and the way they behave. If each caller and call is different, and people on both ends of the call react in different ways at different times and under different circumstances, then reaching the Six Sigma goal of reducing variation may be impossible in a contact center. However, it is possible to reduce some of the variation by identifying common call types and focusing on the outcome of those contacts rather than on traditional measures. For example, account balance inquiries are standard. If call center managers conclude that customers should be given a 100 percent accurate balance 99-plus percent of the time, no matter what the channel of communication, so they don’t need to call again, then the process can be changed and measured to ensure this outcome.
However, measures represent another major barrier. Most contact centers store vast volumes of data and huge numbers of measures. The question is whether the measures are the right ones and whether organizations are making the best use of the data. Six Sigma tells us to measure defects across the process and make process changes until the number of defects falls within range. But because most contact centers don’t have end-to-end processes, most measures -- length of call, for example, or hold time or number of transfers -- are isolated targets against which the performance of an individual task is measured.
Some observers say the biggest barrier is the lack of appropriate technology. Today this is just not the case. There are more technology developments in the contact center market than in just about any other market, among them the Voice over the Internet Protocol (VoIP), voice analytics, business intelligence (BI) specific to contact centers and outbound intelligent messaging. The real problem is the lack of understanding what the organization is trying to achieve, how to bring about process change and how to train the agents. Only when these challenges are addressed will it be time to identify technology to support a more efficient operation.
The solution to the challenge of greater customer satisfaction at the contact center involves a focus on performance improvement. Ventana Research recommends an approach based on three steps: Understand, Optimize and Align.
Understand involves two elements. One is to identify the organization’s strategic objectives for contact management, how they fit into the overall business objectives and their implications for how the contact center should operate. The second is to measure how the contact center is performing today, looking at people, business process and technology aspects, and what is working and not working -- in other words, the defects..
Step two, Optimize, reviews processes and technology and sets a program for change that will improve the way the processes and people are working and improve their use of technology. The third step, Align, carries out the program, transforming the processes, educating people and improving or changing the supporting technologies.
Each of these changes must be supported by analysis of how the center is working. Once the improvement program has been executed, it will be possible to measure that improvement and move on to repeat the cycle to gain even more improvement.
Six Sigma requires a new way of thinking. It is fundamentally about process change supported by more relevant measures. For many organizations, making these changes seems a daunting task – but without them, attempting to turn a contact center into a profit center may be doomed to fail.
Richard Snow is a regular monthly contributor to TMCnet. A complete archive of his columns can be found on his columnist page.