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Quality, Productivity, and Striking the Right Balance

When I say “metrics” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? If your answer is spreadsheets and dashboards packed with tons and tons of analytics, you’re probably not alone. And while many of these metrics have their purpose, when it comes to agent performance, there are really two types of metrics that matter. The first is a productivity metric and the second a quality metric.

There’s something critical to note about these two metrics. Neither metric is mutually exclusive, requiring the right balance between the two to achieve the positive results you’re looking for in your contact center. In cases where quality and productivity are out of balance, negative consequences are likely to follow. Before we talk about the ideal balance, let’s first define these metrics and discuss some of the consequences that can result if one is valued more than the other.

Measuring Productivity

In a traditional call center, we might use average handle time to understand how many calls agents are handling per hour, but this is a tricky metric when we look at newer channels like email, chat, text, social, etc. For email, text, and social media it’s often a guessing game as to how long they take agents to complete. Time tracking is getting better but still nowhere near what we have for phone. Chat, as long as it’s synchronous is a bit easier to track because there’s a start and an end to the conversation, but it can get tricky to gauge total time chatting when agents handle more than one at a time.

While handle times will naturally vary between channels, a better way to measure productivity is to quantify the output on an hourly or daily basis. For email this might be emails solved per hour, for phone it’s calls per hour, and so on. While you’ll find that output will vary by channel, this removes the need to rack your brain over figuring out handle times and creates a consistent metric type across all channels.

Consequences of focusing too much on productivity

Imagine that your company was just featured on a popular television show and overnight your email backlog jumped from 100 to 20,000. You instruct your staff of 10 agents to get through that backlog by the end of the week. I did a little math, and that’s like 400 emails per day. If that’s the requirement, what kind of quality do you think you’ll see? Probably not great, right?

Your agents will likely begin creating canned responses and sending them as quickly as possible with little to no personalization. This increases the likelihood that customers receive replies that only partially address the issue, resulting in a dive in customer satisfaction and increased follow up emails from customers. This is a great way to keep that backlog from never disappearing.

Now imagine you’re looking at productivity for your phone team and discover that one of your agents handles calls two minutes faster than the rest of the team and takes significantly more calls than everyone else. You might be tempted to call them a rockstar until you discover that they’re disconnecting customers before they’ve fully resolved the issue all in the name of efficiency and productivity.

While these two scenarios may seem far fetched, I can assure you that they’re both based on true stories. Clearly, a singular focus on productivity has some serious flaws.

Measuring Quality

The other type of metric is a quality metric. When I say “quality,” I mean a couple of different things. There’s the traditional method of a quality assurance form with a set of criteria that a supervisor uses to review and score customer interactions. They then arrive at some coaching points and a score to share with agents with the goal of helping them improve.

Also under this umbrella are customer-facing metrics like customer satisfaction (CSAT), Net Promoter Score (NPS), and Customer Effort Score (CES). The questions and collection methods may vary, with some surveys being more focused on the customer’s impressions of the company and others focused on the service provided by individual agents. Regardless of your flavor of choice, most companies likely have both internal and external quality metrics.

When we focus too much on quality

How many contact center leaders heard about the 10-hour long Zappos customer service call and immediately released their agents to spend as much time as they needed to take care of customers? Zappos got a whole lot of positive PR from that call, but I don’t recall many other contact centers making a serious run at the record.

Let’s translate this to email and imagine that you as a leader allow your team to take as long as they need to provide the best possible answer. This isn’t an unreasonable ask but what if you forbid the use of canned responses or macros? Authentic or bust! You may find that your agents are spending as much time writing their customer service emails as it took me to write this blog post. The result is an ever-increasing backlog of email, and the reality that if you’re not going to get more efficient, you’ll need to hire more people.

Striking the right balance

In a perfect world where money grows on trees, I’ll take quality over productivity 100% of the time — but we don’t live in that world. I recommend striking a balance between the two sets of metrics. Here are some suggestions for doing so in your contact center:

  1. Look at quality and productivity side by side in a performance dashboard or scorecard. Inevitably you’re going to have some agents that excel in quality but not productivity and vice versa. Sometimes this goes with the territory when you hire new staff and are ramping them up to full productivity. Be sure to track how long it takes new agents to achieve the balance in both areas and provide plenty of coaching along the way.

  2. Replicate what your stars are doing. You’ll also have a handful of agents who are truly your stars that excel in both areas. Frequently these are more tenured folks who have figured out how to deliver high-quality customer service efficiently. That’s what you want to bottle up and spread throughout the team. A great way to do this is to pair up a top performer with a lower performer, allowing them to shadow one another, and allowing the top performer to share their productivity tricks and hacks.

  3. Embrace canned responses. Don’t run from them. Templates, macros, or canned responses don’t have to be your enemy. When done right they help agents deliver a consistent message and significantly cut down on email time. They also help newer agents become proficient faster. Be sure that your agents learn to tailor and personalize each response appropriately.

  4. Improve your tools and technology. I said it in a previous article and am probably starting to sound like a broken record, but there are technologies designed to help agents find just the right response and customize appropriately. Leveraging the right technology can not only improve quality but also improve efficiency by reducing the amount of time searching for answers and decreasing the number of clicks required for agents to support customers.

As I stated at the beginning of this article, there are most certainly plenty of other metrics on your dashboard and for a good reason. No need to throw them out on my account by let’s be a bit more intentional about how we track productivity and quality. When it comes to these metrics, be extra careful that you strike the right balance.