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November 2008 | Volume 11/ Number 11
Viewpoint: Voice of the Customer

The Numbers Trap

All too often these days, people ask me about numbers — What’s IVR containment for others in the insurance industry? What’s the average handle time for the rest of the banking industry? In many cases, they’re interested less in what’s best for their customers and more in what their competition is doing.

Just a look at TV news shows, or a scan of the web makes it clear that we’re awash in numbers, from overnight presidential polls to voting on reality shows. And because contact centers are numbersdriven, we’re pressured to measure something (or lots of things), and we end up measuring what’s easy, not what’s really important. One of the keys to running a successful contact center — or business — is to clearly identify what it is you want to measure, not just what you’re able to report on. The “wrong” numbers not only mask bigger issues, they also send the wrong messages up and down the line, from agents to senior management.

Is Benchmarking a Numbers Game?

Benchmarking is a good example of where numbers can be misinterpreted. People may adopt a key statistic from a benchmarking study in their industry as a goal, assuming it’s a best practice. But often, benchmarking exercises expose not best practices, but common ones. That’s not to say that benchmarking can’t be valuable. It helps us understand the competition, gain insight into what’s going on outside of our own world, and find ways in which we can gain an edge. We may even find darn good practices that we can adopt. But what we get from mining published surveys are not necessarily the best statistics for our business.

In identifying models for best practices, it’s important to look not only at what’s going on in your industry, but at organizations that are leaders in customer service outside your industry as well. Really understand the criteria for customer service success in your business from a strategic perspective and identify others who meet — or exceed — your criteria for success. What are they doing differently that you can adapt and use? This is an ongoing exercise, as you find that best practices are not static — they change as companies develop new products and services, as technology changes, and as customers’ experience and sophistication evolve. This is critical for companies that want their customer experience to be excellent, not just run of the mill.

Making Numbers Meaningful

There’s no denying that contact centers must run on some set of standard operational metrics. The key to having meaningful metrics is to tie them to strategic enterprise-wide goals. So, for example, if your key strategy is building customer intimacy, you’ll want to measure things that show success in building customer relationships. Rather than obsess about average handle time, you focus more on the quality of the contact. Instead of focusing on the number of web hits, you focus on the level of visitor involvement with your site.

Conversely, if your customer strategy is built around being a cost leader, your focus will be on measuring and improving efficiencies wherever you can. This may be through shorter handle time as a result of improved systems or processes. Or it may be through excellent self service that actually offloads calls from the center. You can’t gain these kinds of efficiencies just by following the pack.

It’s easy to fall victim to the numbers trap, especially when so many senior executives drive this obsession. Our customers care less about how we compare to others in our industry and more about how we compare to an especially good experience they had with a company that has nothing to do with our business a day ago. As with all things, use numbers judiciously, and use them to drive behavior that supports your business goals. IT

Elaine Cascio is a Vice President at Vanguard Communications Corporation, a consulting firm that specializes in contact center processes, operations and technology. She heads Vanguard’s selfservice practice. Visit them at or contact Elaine at [email protected].


Did you know...

A Purdue University (News - Alert) study indicates that 92 percent of callers form an opinion about a company based on their experience with the company’s contact center and its agents. Interestingly, 68% of those would-be customers polled said they would immediately abandon any brand and/or service if they weren’t satisfied with the company’s contact center performance. Thus, first-call resolution for customers (and prospective customers) remains of paramount importance for any kind of organization.


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