A story about Contact Center Software

Friday, December 02, 2005

What is the purpose of your call center - part 2

Three questions remained open from the previous blog, namely  "How do you manage your call center on a macro and micro level?",  "How do you turn your agents into knowledge workers?" and  "How to improve their performance and morale?"
To recap, a summary of the previous blog.
If your call center does not have a precise defined purpose, you will never be able to optimize it. You need a mission statement. Not only you, but your (co-)supervisors and agents must know that there is one and they must act accordingly. That is the first point. Next, they must listen very carefully to your clients, and use that knowledge to help your R&D department - they should be the first ones to hear about product defects and provide valuable input for new products. As you can read in the first part, these are important to archieve a world class performance.
Now let's answer the next questions.
How do you manage your call center on a macro and micro level? Let us cut this one in two. First managing a call center on a macro level. This is all about understanding what your global group of customers want. You can divide them into segments and look at it from different perspectives. Are VIP customers treated right? Do we have good SLA's for the new campaign? What is a team's performance of the last week? All this information is highly usefull to steer your call center in the right direction, long term. Note the 'long term' there; macro level management is always used for long term. Be sure that you get the right Key Performance Indicators to get a good 'Gut Feeling' on what is going on in your call center.
Second half: managing a call center on a micro level. Sometimes instant problems arise and need to be taken care of. Often immediate - they are more often that not burning problems. For example, you have an angry customer that wants to talk to the boss of the boss of the agent; an agent is performing very bad during the last two days; your IVR is not working due to technical problems. All these issues need to be taken care of directly. You don't get the time to think things over - you need to react directly. In the blink of an eye. The trick here is to try and delegate as much as possible. When you don't do that, you end up doing only micro-management without having time for your macro-management.
Try to delegate more and have your team-leaders, (co-)supervisors and agents report back to you how they did it and what the result was. When you hired those people, you hired their hands and got the brain for free - so use it! You'll be surprised of their abilities. And, when the result is less then expected, steer them in the right direction for the next time.
Turn your agents into knowledge workers? Is that a new fancy word for the same people? No. Not really. Actually, absolutely not. Knowledge management is about people and capturing what they know. When you have agents they will do the same work over and over again, no matter if it is repetitive or not. When you have a knowledge management system in place, those same people can edit, adapt and create knowledge in a central repository and everyone can benefit of it. Think of it as a enterprise wiki. Have a look at wikipedia for instance. Thousands of people have contributed to it resulting in a huge website full of information about anything and everything. You can do the same for your organisation. The instant-knowledge that your people (I won't speak of agents anymore, of course) acquire should be turned into company knowledge by capturing it via a knowledge-style application.
You do have a FAQ for your agents, do you? Right. They can edit those FAQ's themselves? No? I thought so. The classical way of thinking is that agents can't think for themselves and if you would let them edit the FAQ's it would become a mess and no-one would find anything anymore in three business days. So only supervisors can edit the FAQ. With the result that knowledge has to pass from caller to agent to supervisor to FAQ. With a lot of intermediar steps where it can and will go wrong or just plain stop. Perhaps the agent has a good idea, but fails to tell the supervisor - because he is just too busy. Perhaps the supervisor really wants to put it in the FAQ but just does not have the time right now (and forgets about it afterwards).
In short, look at expensive enterprise knowledge management systems and at their price tags and at a wiki as (often) open source alternative. Include this in your call center and tell your agents that they should put their collective knowledge in there - to be able to search it afterwards. Reward the agent that has put the most (useful) information into the wiki. Do whatever is necessary to make capturing knowledge into the corporate repository a thing that everyone just does.
Improve the performance and morale. That's easy. Just empty a room, put a pool table there and the morale will rocket. Sky high. You don't believe me? Of course, you say, but nobody does such a stupid thing. Well, let me tell you a different story. I'm currently writing this blog in a hotel room. I returned to one of my favorite clients that had some performance problems with their database after 5 million calls or so and I'm in the process of solving it. They have this room. With a pool table. And a television set. Sofa's. The works. So, there is at least one call center that does this. At first - now three years ago - I was surprised. 'You are really spoiling your agents', I told them. 'No', they replied, 'Just make the calculation'. And they went on telling me what a room and pool table cost and what hiring and training an agent costs. 'So', they continued, 'when we retain the agent X months longer, we break even. And we do better than that'.
As a small sideline, this call center is in a bank. A big, well known brand-type of a bank. And it is not in my home country (.be) - it is in a country that some 10 years ago was behind the dreaded 'Iron Curtain'. Can you imagine that?
Of course, morale and performance go side by side. But you should not improve the morale and wait for a possible performance increase - you should also push for the improvement on that side. This is seen as a difficult point amongst supervisors I meet. How can I improve the performance, they ask - I can't tell them to speak any faster, can I? No you can't. But what you can do is apply some auto-management. This comes back to the delegation I described above, but now you are delegating the management of the agent to themselves.
Listen very carefully - I will say this only once.
Put a nice window on their screen indicating all sorts of figures regarding the call center / campaign, calls in queue, first call resolution / average talk time / average handle time / number sold / SLA / etc. / etc. / etc. and this for the call center and for the agent, either relatively to his or her baseline (as explained in an earlier blog) or in absolute figures. This will help them to see how their performance is currently (let's say in the last 30 minutes), during the day and the week, compared to the rest. It shows also how busy the call center is, so they will know whether they can chat a little with the client, or if the need to hurry up. Not having these ministats, they won't know that, and when they have a talkative client, they will perhaps take the opportunity to talk a little outside of the regular business. Which is fine when the load is low, but potentially disastrous when there are lots of calls in queue and the SLA is not met for the last hour...
So have the agent motivate themselves via this window - be sure to put the right figures there. Don't put those there that YOU think is interesting, but talk with your agents and see what they perceive as important values. Then add yours in the mix and it will be fine.
Again, not a small blog. And yet still much to say about it. What do you think? Post your feedback or send me an e-mail. Your feedback is appreciated.