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Cutting-Edge Technologies For The Contact Center
July 2004


Performance Management Drives The Call Center

By Rosemary Turley, Performix Technologies

Improving customer service starts with your staff. That sounds clich', yes, but managing employee performance in the contact center is, without doubt, the most overlooked part of successful customer service ' and offers the richest financial windfall for the business. The challenge for management is to tie the daily individual performance goals of the contact center staff with the goals of the business in a way that motivates employees to drive performance and improve overall customer service.

 

But how is that possible? The recent trend toward a new breed of employee performance management software raises the stakes for contact center managers and leaves nothing to chance. Employee performance management, or EPM, software starts with an analysis of the real goals of the business ' not only the productivity quotas of the center but also a balanced range of metrics that cover everything from number of calls handled through to quality of interaction and level of customer satisfaction. It then aligns the measurements, objectives and targets set for the employee to those goals, and it systematically uses statistical data to automate, manage and drive the employee performance management process. The software helps set clear expectations for employees, provides employees with daily feedback on their performance against those expectations, rewards employees for performance through incentives and performance-related pay and creates and executes targeted development plans, all delivering sustained performance improvements for the organization.


The key to all of this is putting the employee in charge of performance, giving each agent online access to a performance report of how he or she stacks up against business goals ' every day. This results in employees having the tools to keep their eyes on the prize ' and goals guaranteed to impact the bottom line. Bottom line results can be dramatic: productivity improvements; revenue increases; cost reductions and even lower turnover rates ' all through managing performance of existing staff.


Various industry reports have pointed to optimizing agent performance as the primary challenge facing the contact center industry, particularly as it attempts to improve productivity and reduce costs without compromising customer service. One analyst, Saddletree Research, forecasts the number of sites implementing performance optimization software to grow at more than 50 percent over the next five years. Another, Frost and Sullivan, sees agent performance as a 'critical success factor' for contact centers as they face the challenges of today's business environment. Such challenges include:


' Managing through an economic slowdown;
' Reducing operational overhead without compromising service;
' Staying ahead of the competition and limiting customer churn and
' Continuing to deliver service and customer satisfaction with a smaller budget and more competition.


Marcus Buckingham, a pioneering re-searcher and global practice leader at the Gallup Organization, has found that when employees are 'engaged' (motivated and committed), business performance is significantly improved. Based on his research, companies with engaged employees are 56 percent more likely to have higher than average customer loyalty, 38 percent more likely to have higher than average productivity, 27 percent more likely to report higher profitability and 50 percent more likely to have lower agent turnover.


Therefore, whether the main objective is customer satisfaction or bottom-line profit, a key element is making every employee more productive, more focused and more fulfilled than he or she was the day before. On average, contact center agents handle around 2,000 customer contacts every month. Businesses are quickly learning that contact center agents are a vital and essential part of their business success ' or failure ' and are acutely looking at improving the use of these resources as a path to profitability.


But a successful contact center is like a well-tended garden ' even the best tools only work well in the hands of sound and competent managers. Success is a combination of technology and tenacity. What follows is a series of steps that can help turn any contact center or customer service operation into a progressive, customer-focused center by improving the productivity and performance of its agents.

1. Take time to find the right people.
Customer service will always be a people business, so you might as well start there first. Committed and motivated employees lead to a productive environment, as Buckingham discovered. Employing people who are not right for the job has a serious impact on profit in terms of their salaries and training cost. It can also affect customer service and leave customers with a poor impression of the company. But finding the right people is tough. So what should you look for? First, learn to do 'competency-based interviewing.' When recruiting for a position, you should have a certain skill set in mind for your ideal candidate. If it's a customer service-focused contact center, the agent will typically need excellent communication and time-management skills, a good telephone voice and the ability to convey empathy to callers with complaints or issues. Don't cut corners on this. Assembling the right team will take time and dedication, but it will pay handsomely in the end.

2. Align employee objectives to business strategy.
If a contact center is to be successful and profitable, everyone in the organization must focus on that success. All activities must gear toward driving the business forward and satisfying the customer. This requires a top-down and bottom-up approach. Start at the top by identifying the strategic goals of the business. Is it building the company's reputation and increasing customer satisfaction? Is it building sales, maybe by upselling or cross-selling? Whatever the goals, they need to be distilled into key performance indicators, which then cascade down into team and individual objectives. That way, every employee focuses, from the bottom up, on what matters to the organization and customer, rather than valuable hours being spent chasing targets that are unimportant to the business and don't impact the bottom line.


Additionally, management must have a clear and up-to-the-moment view of performance throughout the call center ' knowing who is performing well, where the weaknesses are and what tactics are working best to arm managers with the information needed to fine-tune the process. Daily (yes, daily) information on performance is critical to success.

3. Win over your employees through motivation.
Once you've hired the right people and have them necessarily focused on the objective, all that's left is to keep them motivated. The more satisfaction an agent gets from his or her work, the easier it should be to break the 'go in, do the job, get a pay check' cycle. This is why it is important to set individual targets, rather than team-based targets. Setting realistic targets and slightly raising them each day will better affect and increase the chances of the agent becoming a long-term player.


Another key to success is allowing the agent direct access to his or her performance versus objectives metrics. Making the agents accountable for their own actions and behavior will motivate them to improve. Visibility of personal performance on a day-to-day basis, in terms of activities important to the business, gives agents a sense of involvement and ownership of their own career and professional development. Employee motivation is synonymous with both employee retention and customer satisfaction.

4. Make better use of employee feedback.
A good staff can give you a clear view of what your customers are thinking about your company. Don't underestimate the value of employee feedback. Too often, appraisals and feedback are all about filling out forms and following corporate policy. This is a poor handling of communications. For feedback to be effective, it has to be a day-by-day, hour-by-hour process. Contact center agents handle as many as 2,000 queries a month, which can amount to a lot of customer damage if the performance is not at its best. The feedback and appraisal process must be frequent, accurate, specific and timely. Most importantly, it must be two-way ' not something managers do to subordinates.


Good feedback enables good performance management, and that provides direction, linking individuals with the bigger picture. Most people want to feel they are contributing in some way to the success of the organization, and regular feedback will give them that. Additionally, good performance management and feedback will help to identify specific developmental needs that relate to the individual and his or her particular skill set. In short, good performance management and feedback ensures all parts of the organization are focused on the same goals. And that can only help to increase productivity, customer satisfaction and, therefore, profitability.

5. Recognize and reward the individual.
Contact centers are often based on team effort, but how do you really know each individual is pulling his or her weight? Inevitably, all contact centers carry passengers, so how can you make sure they're in high gear rather than struggling to keep up? The answer to this is two-fold. First, every person needs personal objectives that have been together worked out with the manager. This allows agents to change behavior depending on what is required of them, and it also gives senior management visibility to identify key players, as well as those who need to pull more weight.


Second, offer incentives. Many contact centers have team-based award and recognition programs. These work well in their way, but they foster mediocrity and fail to motivate the individual. This is especially frustrating for those team members performing well ahead of the others. It is crucial for each individual to know what is expected of him or her, in terms of specific deliverables. If he or she performs well and is rewarded accordingly, the response will be one of loyalty and high productivity.

6. Target your training and development at the individual.
The training and development of agents is an expensive business. The period of time during which they are being trained is time when they are not fully contributing to the team. So how do you improve the effectiveness of your training, increasing the return on investment at the same time? Individual focus is the key. Blanket training may seem to be a rapid, time-efficient and cost-effective way of teaching a group of people the same things at once, but it can also be a total waste of time and money. Training needs to be tailored to individual needs and weaknesses. In other words, spend your training dollars where they are needed most. But how do you know where they are needed most? Again, good employee performance management software can identify an agent's shortcomings, and schedule remediation well before the issue becomes a problem.


Training should be linked to a specific skill set identified as deficient in an individual agent. Targeted training not only improves the ROI on the training itself but also gives agents the confidence to improve their interaction with customers. In turn, this increases customer service, satisfaction, retention and, ultimately, profit.

7. Take a balanced approach to performance measurement.
It's common practice to monitor scheduling, call rates and response times on calls. This is one of the industry's biggest flaws. There should be a more balanced focus on both productivity and quality. Most organizations build their customer service strategy on the basis of overhead, measuring success in terms of call volume and duration, the ultimate goal being to handle the greatest number of clients with the fewest resources. So if an employee handles 100 customers in a mediocre manner, this so-so agent could be rated above somebody who tackles 80 calls extremely well.


While most operations make basic attempts to measure satisfaction, the fundamental focus on cost means that a whole range of business opportunities, from promotional activities to upselling, is being ignored. Given the evidence that generating repeat business is significantly cheaper than acquiring new clients, this whole approach is flawed. Equal attention should be paid to three main areas: quantitative monitoring; qualitative monitoring and cultural aspects ' for example, the competencies of employees, how they work in teams, etc. All of these factors will give a balanced view of how the contact center is operating and will ensure that customers' queries are not only answered quickly, but also answered well.
The lessons for successfully managing any service-centered business are clear.

 

First, focus on the employee as a member of the company team. You must have the correct business objectives in place ' down to being sure every person knows what they must do every day to help the company deliver on its mission.
 

Second, once the objectives are right, people must have the ability to see those objectives so they can act to achieve them. It's not simply about monitoring employee performance (Contact centers are already the most monitored industry on the planet) but about using performance information to drive employee action across your entire business. The numbers that rise to the top line are no more than an output of activity from the employees at the bottom. You simply mustn't forget that the performance of every employee is vital to business success. If human beings are truly the contact center's most significant asset, then finding ways to maximize their performance will certainly produce the best return for your business.

 

Rosemary Turley has been involved in dozens of employee performance management projects over the past decade. She serves as vice president of Global Marketing for Performix Technologies in Burlington, MA. Performix is a provider of employee performance software solutions. Its flagship product is Emvolve Performance Manager. Ms. Turley holds a BA in social anthropology from the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland. She can be reached at rturley@performixtechnologies.com.

 

[Return To The July 2004 Table Of Contents]


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