Industry Watch with Brad Cleveland: 15 Ways to Strengthen Your Contact Center
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Industry Watch with Brad Cleveland: 15 Ways to Strengthen Your Contact Center

I was recently part of a conference panel discussion designed to share a wide range of ideas on improving call center operations. The rules were simple: Each idea had to be conveyed in less than a minute, and had to be applicable to any type of center. In that spirit, here are 15 ways to strengthen your center (they are presented here in no specific order, and I use the terms call center and contact center interchangeably):

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Brad will cover these topics and more in ICMI’s upcoming Principles of Effective Contact Center Management two-part virtual classroom course. This popular web-based seminar outlines in step-by-step format the fundamentals, critical skills, and metrics you need to thrive in today’s demanding contact center environment and raise the level of value for your entire organization!

Prepare an "annual report" on your call center. Much like a public company's annual report, focus on what you accomplished, improvements made, challenges you face, and plans for upcoming months. This can be a great tool for communicating the center's value and accomplishments – and for taking stock of where you are.

Post the 10 customer expectations prominently. Don't make a major management decision without considering the impact on them. They include:

  • Be accessible
  • Do it right the first time
  • Meet your commitments, keep your promises
  • Provide well-trained and informed employees
  • Tell me what to expect
  • Be socially responsible and ethical
  • Treat me courteously
  • Be responsive to what I need and want
  • Do what I ask promptly
  • Follow up

Be an advocate for our profession. I don’t mind the bad press that call centers sometimes get (some of it is deserved) but there’s a ton of good news out there as well! Tell your local news teams about the major initiatives you have underway, how you’re incorporating new channels to serve customers, the impact you have on employment in the area, etc. There are so many great stories – just waiting to be told. (See these videos from finalists in ICMI’s recent video contest on improving call center culture: Starbucks and Lifestyle Lift Contact Center.)

Teach everyone in your center a basic fact about queues… each person makes a huge difference! In a call center of 20 people, one or two agents can double service level when the queue is backed up. In a center of 200 people, fewer than ten can mean the difference between hitting your service level objectives and having a day you’d rather forget. The best way to do this is to use one of the many low-cost staffing calculators to illustrate tradeoffs (e.g., ICMI's QueueView program or any alternative based on Erlang C or simulation).

Build an integrated cross-functional forecasting team. If you've ever stepped into a contact center the morning after an unannounced marketing campaign, you likely came to the painful realization that the marketing folks need to be an ongoing, tightly integrated part of this process. And so do the people in legal who change terms and conditions, the people in IT who are making system changes and anybody else that impacts the center's workload. A cross-functional meeting (minimum once per week) is essential. The motto of this team: No surprises!

Ensure you have and use these seven categories of measures. They are ordered here from tactical to strategic. (In many centers, only some are in place; but each is necessary because they drive so many other results.)

  • Forecast accuracy
  • Schedule adherence
  • Service level/Response time
  • Quality of interactions/first call resolution
  • Employee satisfaction and loyalty
  • Customer satisfaction and loyalty
  • Strategic value (e.g., the contact center’s contributions to business results, as well as improvements in products, services and processes)

Educate your team to interpret first call resolution correctly. For example, a falling first call resolution rate can be a good sign. How? In too many cases, organizations with high first call resolution rates (e.g., in the mid- to upper-90 percent range) are resolving calls they shouldn't be handling in the first place. When you begin preventing those calls at the source, those left in the workload are of a more complex nature. So, be sure all understand the real drivers of this metric.

Flip key numbers upside down to improve understanding. For example, a first call resolution rate of 86 percent looks good – but reporting that 14 percent of calls are not resolved on first attempt often puts healthy focus on the issue (interpret carefully – see last point). Similarly, a report showing that 91 percent of customers are satisfied doesn't attract much attention; pointing out that 9 percent are not happy tends to compel more action.

Avoid daily summary reports. Consistent performance, interval by interval, is one of the telltale signs of a well-run call center. The good news is, you don’t have to get buried in data to report such thing as service level, forecast accuracy and other important operational metrics by interval. A simple alternative is to create a table with five or six rows and then input the number or percent of increments that were within, say, 2.5 percent of your target (first row), 5 percent (second row) and so on. You determine the thresholds—and you can tighten them down the road as performance becomes more precise.

Use skills based routing sparingly. Some call centers can’t say with precision where contacts go because their skills- or contingency-based routing environments are so complex. Keep your routing contingencies simple enough to manage. Then invest the time necessary to forecast, staff and schedule for the specialized mix of contacts the center is handling. Keep it simple!

Pressure-test your call center. Some routinely write off bad days – when they miss their objectives by a long shot – as, well, bad days. But those are likely the days that customers needed those services most. Fluctuations in the financial markets, bad weather, unexpected publicity, whatever else – these are the times we really need to get it right!

Develop an up-to-date customer access strategy. Customer access strategies are like business plans in the sense that some are well-documented and others exist only in pieces and in the heads of various managers. Too often, the latter is the case. But there are standout examples of plans that are effective and up-to-date. The best define customer segments, track access numbers and email addresses, document service levels and other objectives, and provide guidelines for rolling out new services. (See the new version of the book Call Center Management on Fast Forward for more on this topic, including incorporating social and other emerging channels, www.icmi.com/fastforward.)

Have colleagues outside the call center help you quantify the center's value. A financial organization realized a $1.5 million annual cost reduction from self-serve improvements, by including call center agents in systems design. A hospital saved 29,120 hours of staff time – that’s 14 people – by pulling in and effectively handling contacts were previously going to a hodgepodge of departments. You don't have to come up with these numbers yourself – pull in your colleagues from other areas and have them help you put a pencil to these contributions.

For every major call type – ask, why? Why are we getting those contacts? Can/should they be prevented? What can we learn from them, e.g., to make system and process improvements? What other channels or social communities may make sense – and how can we encourage customers to use them?

Create an organization chart with dotted lines that illustrates your "real" team. This chart is for you – it reminds you of everyone across the organization and beyond who helps make the call center wheels go round. It includes those who impact the call center's workload and/or benefit from the customer intelligence the call center captures. Creating this picture reminds you of key players – and underscores the collaboration that must happen to create great results.

Please drop me a note with your stories, comments, feedback… I’d love to hear from you.

Brad Cleveland
bcleveland@icmi.com



Topics: Site Operations

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Lon Hendrickson — 2:45PM on Sep 24, 2012

Brad - Great article. What organizations do you know that are doing a good job on this aspect: "Build an integrated cross-functional forecasting team." Do you see this as becoming a more formalized process or position?

Cassey Curtis — 12:43PM on Oct 10, 2012

I like the article as much as I like our outsourcing partner. http://aicomcorp.com

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