Three Ways that Pressure Can Reduce Service Levels
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Three Ways that Pressure Can Reduce Service Levels

Call center representatives are often faced with situations that cause them to be under enormous amounts pressure, such as when hold times soar, email queues spike, and supervisors run themselves ragged trying to keep their team going. Service failures typically increase as pressure rises, and some common practices found in many centers can amplify pressure and make matters worse. Here are three examples along with a simple solution for each one.

Jeff Toister at Call Center Demo & Conference 2012:

Session 403: Journey to a Customer-Focused Culture. What’s the secret to outstanding customer service? Legendary customer service companies all have one thing in common – a customer-focused culture that’s more than just a clever slogan crafted at an off-site retreat. Establishing and building a customer-focused culture is a continuous journey, requiring hard work, dedication, and commitment at all levels of the organization. A culture that drives employee performance, retention, and engagement enables companies to earn more referrals, retain more customers, and deliver service more efficiently than the competition. Through experiential activities, collaborative discussion and real-life examples, you will take away actionable ideas to implement upon returning to your center.

1. The Display

Chances are that your call center has displays that provide real-time updates of the number of calls in queue, average wait time, and other vital stats that impact the average speed of answer. Speed of answer is an important service metric, so these displays also let call center reps know that they need to try to finish calls faster, or reduce their wrap-up time when call volumes are high.

Reps may improve speed of answer when they work faster, but working faster can negatively affect other important service quality metrics such as first call resolution and customer satisfaction. For example, in one call center I worked with, the reps put off so much of their wrap-up work in an effort to take more calls that customers would end up calling back to check the status of their issue. This increased call volume even more and negatively impacted first-call resolution suffered. The displays continued to cause problems when call volume was light because the overworked reps took this as a signal to relax and recover mentally, rather than seize the opportunity to catch up on a backlog of after-call work. Ultimately, customer satisfaction suffered, because it took even longer for customers to get a resolution to their issues.

Solution: Defy conventional wisdom and use your displays to flash product updates, customer service tips, or other helpful information that isn’t about call volume. Let your reps focus on one customer at a time and leave the worrying about hold times and other statistics to your schedulers.

2. The Email Queue

Contact center representatives who handle emails are typically able to see how many emails they have in queue. They may even have a productivity standard for the number of emails they need to respond to each day. Similar to high call volume, reps feel pressure to work faster when they know they have a lot of emails to respond to. Unfortunately, this can cause reps to skim customer emails and not take the time to fully understand what the customer wants or needs.

Even a small misunderstanding can lead to an unhelpful email response that frustrates the customer and generates additional emails. The customer may even conclude that email is ineffective and attempt to call instead, adding to already high call volumes.

Solution: Supervisors should spot-audit emails, emphasizing both quantity and quality. Make sure emails are professionally written, fully address the customer’s needs, and anticipate any additional questions that the customer is likely to ask so that information can be provided too.

When I instituted a daily spot-audit in a call center that I managed, I was initially surprised at how many poorly written emails my reps were sending. Fortunately, my reps got better at writing emails as they received more feedback and learned to take the time to thoroughly respond to each message. Best of all, improving the quality of their email responses reduced the number of customers who sent a second email because their initial question wasn’t properly answered.

3. Too Many Direct Reports

It’s not uncommon for a call center supervisor to have twenty or more direct reports. A supervisor with twenty direct reports might only monitor one or two phone calls per month, which is hardly enough feedback to help reps continuously improve. If poor performance goes uncorrected, contact volumes increase, causing supervisors to spend a lot of time handling escalations or even taking calls themselves. Supervisors in this position often put even more pressure on their reps to work faster to clear out contact queues which in turn continues to negatively impact service quality.

Solution: Conduct a cost-benefit analysis on hiring more supervisors to decrease the CSR-to-supervisor ratio. Here are just a few metrics that might be positively impacted as a result of better training, monitoring and coaching practices that an increased number of supervisors can provide:

  • Decreased cost of credits and discounts offered for service failures
  • Improved first call resolution, which in turn reduces call volume and improves customer satisfaction
  • Expensive employee turnover could be decreased by allowing supervisors to spend more time developing their reps

If you manage a call center, I urge you to take a hard look at ways that pressure can negatively impact service levels. By refocusing on service rather than speed, you will likely be rewarded over the long-run with reduced operating costs and higher customer satisfaction.

Topics: Metrics, Learning & Development, Site Operations, People Management


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Jeff Palzkill — 1:47PM on Oct 10, 2012

Jeff - Spot on! Never been a fan of the wallboards as it does create the old "death spiral" of calls in queue, agents speed up, questions are 100% answered, customer calls back, calls in queue. I've had the agent to CSR discussion on this space as well (see discussion with Brad on his article).

jeff palzkill, MSTM, CCOM

Jeff Toister — 1:01PM on Oct 14, 2012

Thanks, Jeff! I spoke to a few folks at ICMI's Call Center Demo & Conference last week who were finding success by re-purposing the displays in their call centers to flash product updates, tips, etc. to their reps. It was good to see that some call centers are moving in this direction.


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