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Raising the Maturity of Contact Center Performance Management
[July 20, 2005]

Raising the Maturity of Contact Center Performance Management

Performance Management Columnist

Call centers have a checkered history. From both a business and a customer point of view, they are generally viewed as not being very successful. Typically, the business thinks they are too expensive while customers don’t believe they deliver great service. Many centers remain very basic in the way they operate, the technologies they use and the measures they employ to manage performance. But some companies have raised their call centers’ levels of maturity and now are reaping the rewards in improved customer satisfaction, additional revenues and greater business effectiveness.

Historically, call centers have operated based on two conflicting objectives: to increase customer satisfaction and to keep costs low. But as organizations migrate their customer care strategy away from contact centers designed to protect back office departments from customer calls into multi-channel contact centers that are part of a strategic imperative to deliver improved business performance, the very nature of the contact centers begin to mature.

In most cases, the call center is initially viewed tactically. It is usually a voice-only system and functions as a central point of contact for customers, and in some cases it is little more than a glorified switchboard. These low-level call centers are driven largely by cost management, with metrics such as calls waiting, calls abandoned, number of calls completed and the like typically displayed on wall boards. At this level, nothing remotely resembling business performance concerns plays a role.

The next step in the evolution to more advanced centers involves adding more channels of communication (email, fax, postal mail, the web) as part of a campaign to improve customer satisfaction. However, the driving force at this stage remains a determination to reduce costs. After all, real time agent interactions are the most expensive customer service channel: the more customers call, the more agents are required and the higher the costs rise. By introducing non-real-time channels, company executives can spread the workloads and arrange response patterns to fit available resources. Moreover, since the customers are not online, customer service representatives and supervisors have more opportunity to review responses, which can help avoid costly mistakes.

Unfortunately, all the evidence points to the fact that customers prefer speaking to an agent. As a result, the utilization of these channels hasn’t been quite what organizations have hoped for. The challenge therefore is to make call- handling more effective as well as more efficient.

The next step involves coming to view the contact center as a strategic business tool. To achieve this, organizations are beginning to apply to call centers some of the performance improvement techniques that have become commonplace elsewhere in the business. Business process management, business intelligence, analytics and scorecarding can be used to identify contact handling process improvements, and then these can be addressed using available technologies.

Emerging technologies offer an array of new features and functions, and organizations need to evaluate market offerings to determine what is now possible and what would be cost-effective. However, change cannot be brought about through technology alone. One major area of effort required in contact centers is a re-examination of how most effectively to align call center operations with the balance of the business. The days of just measuring call handling performance are gone.

Since for many organizations it is now their primary customer touchpoint, bringing innovation to the contact center is one of the most effective ways to improve business performance and remain competitive. And one of the most effective ways to drive down the cost of the contact center lies outside the walls of the center. It is to eliminate the issues that drive customer interactions. For example, if customer invoices were understandable and correct, then the number of queries and complaints would fall dramatically. An analysis of inbound contacts is certain to uncover root causes in the form of issues generated in the back-office business departments that can then be addressed and corrected.

The contact center can also provide the testbed for exploring new patterns of interaction and collaboration among departments. As the nexus for all customer issues, the contact center is an ideal environment to try out reengineering approaches and then implement new ways of doing business. With the investment of some strategic thought and with appropriate technology in place, a solution such as customer self-service becomes a realistic possibility without impacting customer satisfaction.

Taking this journey may not prove to be easy, but it is straightforward. The first step is to re-evaluate the company’s overall strategy for the center and tie it more into its business objectives. Next what’s required is to thoroughly examine the process and people changes required to accomplish the realignment. Finally, company executives must explore the technology required to build an effective and efficient contact center – a non-trivial task, since these customer interaction tools are some of the most complex systems on the market.

However, as vendors increase their penetration of the marketplace through development, acquisition or partnering, the number of islands of technology will diminish. And as the tools improve, the amount of effort required to integrate them will diminish, as will the amount of data stored in separate silos. Then the task of producing cross-functional, cross- technology analytics will grow simpler, allowing the whole organization to get a better picture of how the centers are performing and how they are better connected to the company’s core processes and bottom line.


Richard has over 25 years experience working in the IT services industry, with companies such as Sema Group, Price Waterhouse, eLoyalty and Valoris. He now leads Ventana Research’s Contact Center Research practice, as well as working with both senior business operations managers and IT managers to ensure that businesses get the best performance from today’s highly complex application products.

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