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February 2009 | Volume 27 / Number 9
Workforce Optimization

Performing (and Exceeding) Expectations

By Brendan B. Read
Senior Contributing Editor, Customer Interaction Solutions

Managing contact center performance has never been more challenging. Not only are operations facing even more pressure to cut costs amidst a difficult economy but are often also being asked to maintain service levels and to cross sell/upsell to retain customers and grow revenues.

Many of the solutions to these needs lie in the data contact centers collect. It can be used to identify problems from customer information such as spikes in calls, find out what is going on, then report issues to prevent or limit rising costs and customer churn. It can also help improve sales and collections (see box). The insights that can be gleaned from them can help justify existing and possibly budget increases and investments in new solutions.

The sources of this data are in the vast amounts of reports: from ACDs to call recording, CRM, CTI, predictive and progress dialers, and workforce management (WFM) that contact centers receive. Yet these sources are too often rarely if ever consolidated to give that clear picture.

“You can’t understand what is going on if you’ve got 25 reports sitting on your desk,” explains Jim Davies, a research director with Gartner. “You need to have that single view so that you can then start to dig into data and look for trends, patterns, and correlations between the different applications and data streams.”

Enter performance management
That’s where performance management (PM) software comes in. These tools enable contact centers, like yours, to optimize their productivity by assembling and drilling down through vast repository of data to find the information you and your colleagues need to make decisions. These can include typical operations metrics such as average handle time and wait times. They can, and are increasingly include customer-retention related metrics, chiefly first contact resolution (FCR).

Performance management software is the next evolution from simple scorecards that mash up one or two metrics and fire them to supervisors and agents either to notice or reward them for superior performance or for coaching. With PM you now have a full view of your operations.

PM applications can and should be integrated with quality monitoring and WFM applications to enable optimal agent, team, and contact center output. It can be coupled with powerful analytics applications that inform you of what is happening and why. With analytics you can find out who is calling back, most often, and who is and who is not using self-service and offers reasons for their actions. You can also use them analyze sales effectiveness including agent and offer performance for different customer types and to put together agent profiles to find out which ones are most likely to stay or to leave.

You can in addition use PM to control facilities costs by determining how often seats are actually occupied. This information can help you develop a hot-desking strategy that reduces the space you need or allows you to add more capacity or consolidate centers or offices on the same floorplate(s).

For such and similar reasons more enterprises are deploying PM tools, integrated with other solutions. For example WestJet, Canada’s low-fare airline will shortly begin relying on the NICE SmartCenter for WFM and performance management. The PM application will aggregate data from WestJet’s critical contact center solutions, such as the WFM and its ACDs, to provide a broader and deeper understanding of the business through the unified view.

“We strive to provide our guests with an amazing experience,” says Todd Peterson, Director of Operations for WestJet’s distribution team. “The NICE SmartCenter solutions will enable us to further enhance the experience we provide, while lowering costs and promoting continued success for our people”.

Tapping the right metrics
To enable PM to optimize your contact center’s productivity you need to decide which specific metrics: whether operational, service, sales, collections you are going to source from your reports and analyze for further action. These metrics a.k.a. key performance indicators (KPIs) should also be aligned with your organization’s goals so that what happens at the contact center level, including changes made in response, can be translated into overall corporate results.

Rajeev Venkat, Director, Solutions Marketing, Verint Witness Actionable Solutions recommends selecting from an extensive set of predefined KPIs, creating a successful blend or combination of preset KPIs with ones developed specifically for your line of business. As each goal is accomplished, KPIs can be reevaluated and revised to take on a new set of center challenges and opportunities.

“When put together well, effective KPIs illuminate problems that were previously hidden or unsuspected,” explains Venkat. “For example, the KPI ‘unavailable time as a percent of staffed time’ can reveal previously unknown shrinkage problems. It might be useful to dive into this data in order to further refine the nature of the problem.”

The key debate in contact center metrics/KPIs is between concentrating on operations-focused data, such as average handle time and calls per hour, and enterprise-focused data, such as FCR as it leads to customer satisfaction, and retention. Yet the answer to this depends on the C-suite-set priorities of your organization: pure cost containment to stem losses or a balance between expense control and revenue enhancement.

“Contact centers have been focused, and their actions have been based on ‘we’re not meeting our operational targets rather than ‘we’re not meeting our customer goals targets’,” says Davies. “Instead of having that blinkered view contact centers need to take a step back and look at what their businesses are trying to achieve and what their goals are, and select and monitor the right metrics like FCR and act on them.”

At the same time you may require sales oriented metrics such as revenue and margin per agent and win/loss ratios for managing cross-selling/upselling and for blended inbound/outbound agent programs and functionality. With this economy you also probably need to look at collections metrics such as promise-to-pay and promises-kept.

Mark Gally, Director of Marketing Merced Systems sees more firms wanting to move to a blended service and sales environment to ensure customers stay with them, as well as increase revenues and customer lifetime value while managing costs. More contact center agents will be providing both functions either inbound or outbound.

The performance management platforms enable contact centers to look at these seemingly conflicting metrics and make business decisions based on corporate priorities. For example does it give a business higher value to be on the phone longer with customers to make sure they stay loyal? Is it better to deflect a future call or reduce average handle time on each interaction to increase immediate productivity? Should an organization focus more on retaining customers through better service via FCR or should it instead drive for more sales and revenues through cross-selling/upselling and outbound sales calls?

“With performance management platforms organizations for the first time are able to better look at that balance and make a determination how best to drive that overall customer interaction,” says Gally.

Even more importantly, your organization should take the information collected and analyzed via performance management tools and use this to implement and sustain a broader corporate strategy, such as increased customer satisfaction. For example if a new bill comes out and it starts to drive increased call volume, this strategy will require your contact centers to communicate with the billing department to see about changing bill presentment to deflect calls.

“While metrics such as FCR are very practical, there is often too much focus on individual metrics as the ultimate answer to meeting corporate needs,” explains Gally. “Instead, operations need to look at how the right balance of metrics supports broader strategies such as customer satisfaction to obtain increased revenues, lowered costs, and greater short-term and long-term profits and returns. This is a better approach than pinballing back and forth between different individual metrics that are not viewed in a bigger overall context.”

When assessing agent performance from the different functions and channels they handle avoid trying to be too granular in analyzing how well they did with what. Instead focus on the net results.

“Say a customer is on a three minute service call with an agent, and somewhere on it they resolve a service issue and transform it into a cross-sell upsell,” says Bob Kelly, vice president of Aspect’s PerformanceEdge group. “There is no way of knowing within that three minutes where that point took place, which makes it hard to apportion the call handle time between customer service and the cross-sell/upsell. Yet if the agent achieves good FCR and sales results then does it matter where that crossover occurs?”

Multichannel Performance Management
Complicating the ability to optimize contact center productivity is the growth in voice and web self-service, e-mail, chat, and SMS. These channels have led to a complex series of interactions. A customer may choose to call from a landline then follow up by e-mail or then sent a text message from a smartphone and later on go on your website.

Some of these channels can improve performance. For example agents can handle more customers with multiple e-mails or chat sessions compared with live calls but this depends on the response rates to these interactions. It takes less time to impart the same amount of information verbally compared with keying or in the case of SMS, thumbing this in. Also text-based communications requires much stronger grammar and spelling skills than voice.

“There is still no such thing as a universal multichannel agent, at least not the wages contact centers offer, “explains Gartner’s Davies. “Some are best at phone only while others are much more adept at text-based responses. That requires separate queues for each interaction type.”

Consequently contact centers often cannot compare the service experience from one channel to another. They may not be tracking key customer experience metrics such as cross-channel FCR.

“Contact centers must understand channel preference for customers, and provide information to agents if a customer typically uses another channel or has tried other channels to resolve the issue,” says Ronald Hildebrandt, founder and senior vice president of marketing at Enkata. “While they are striving to provide the same level of service with each channel, the customers’ experience is only as good as the weakest link.”

Keith Dawson, senior analyst, Frost and Sullivan, recommends a combination of channel-appropriate metrics and agent training to measure and maintain performance for the different kinds of interactions spawned by e-mail versus voice. These will not be the same as voice calls.

Aspect’s Kelly recommends using metrics such as completion rates, customer zero outs, time spent on the applications, call pickups, and calls generated from these applications. You can also track FCR in self-service applications.

“You want a holistic view of the interaction with the customer,” says Kelly. “You want to know how effective both your self-service is, how many times calls were transferred or made to live agents and their effectiveness once they get those calls. You also want to know how successful your direct voice, chat, e-mail, SMS interactions were, how long they took and how much agent time so that you are driving both efficiency and effectiveness from these channels.”

Merced’s Gally says performance management can help drill down into channel choices to determine which one is best at handling certain interactions to meet customer satisfaction as well as productivity goals. For example if it is less expensive to encourage customers to use e-mail for billing disputes rather than live agents will that ultimately prompt more, angrier, and longer calls resulting in higher customer churn? Or does e-mail maintain perhaps even customer satisfaction because it prompts customers to think through and outline issues resulting in clearer answers?

“While you have to look at these channel issues from the individual agent skillset perspectives, you also need to have sophisticated analysis to look at overall channel performance and its impact on the business,” says Gally.

Making performance management happen
To make performance management tools work most effectively contact centers, like yours who buy them/light them up need to set them with all of their reports so they can obtain a single view of their operations. That will require some serious integration work with the many different applications so that the data moves smoothly in the PM solution.

To fully utilize the capabilities of performance management software, you need to use it daily, rather than clicking on it to look at the occasional report. You should also set up adherence-based triggers so that if the performance drops below defined levels the software triggers alerts to supervisors and management.

Finally you need to act effectively on the data supplied by the tools. For live interactions that means coaching and talking with the agents to bring their performance to where you want it to be. Also make sure that you are managing right by measuring supervisor performance including ensuring consistency of management across the operations, and agent schedule adherence turnover; good supervisors engender loyal staff: who are then willing to do more to boost results.

“If I as an agent fall below a specific threshold don’t just send me a dashboard with a little icon but trigger a coaching or eLearning session,” recommends Gally. “If as a manager I want to make sure my supervisors do their jobs effectively; automated workflows within PM applications allow me to track supervisor activities and measure the impact of their coaching sessions. By identifying positive supervisor best practice behaviors, automated workflows allow me to spread these best practices throughout the organization to improve overall performance.”

Lastly, but most importantly you should evaluate your human capital: agent selection, new-hire training, job assigning, and retention process, and ensure that your managers have team, leadership and people-management skills to make you attract, pick, and keep the right staff. Empower your agents to help customers rather than buck up their inquiries to supervisors or overuse presence/unified communications tools (see related article) to get expert advice. Your contact center performance, and the results collected by PM software is as only as good as your people whose experience and knowledge, and their ability to assist are your keys to success.

“Contact center agents show up to work and want to do a good job… but too often the old paradigm of cost center holds reign over doing what these centers need to do to empower agents to do their best,” Natalie Petouhoff, Senior Analyst, Forrester Research points out. “And because agents provide the most direct and influential contact with a company, anything less than great service is like throwing money out the window.”

The following companies participated in the preparation of this article

Aspect (PerformanceEdge)


Merced Systems

NICE Systems


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