3 Keys to Making the Most of Your Call Center Metrics



Brian Cantor
09/12/2012

As business leaders increasingly transition from a "transactional" service approach to one predicated on relationships with customers, many fall into a trap of overzealousness regarding the elimination of performance metrics.

Metrics, they argue, portray customers as numbers and service interactions as costs, and thus serve to minimize the very real engagement benefits of customer support.

Average handle time, for instance, places a premium on interactional brevity. But if the call center actually represents a ticket to value and an opportunity to create and sustain meaningful relationships with customers, is that not the opposite of what is intended?

The answer is a resounding…it depends.

To fully understand whether the metrics used by a call center organization are strengthening or weakening its ability to evaluate performance management through three lines of strategic questioning.

Who is deciding what customers want?

When individuals begin their careers in large enterprises, they inevitably stumble upon an illuminating revelation: not all professionals want to be managers.

In a power-hungry society that hails kings, presidents and prime ministers as the truest leaders, it seems intuitive that the same lust for ascension exists in the corporate world. Should not every professional eventually want to be president or CEO? And insofar as that is true, should they not embrace every opportunity to move up the corporate ladder?

What new professionals quickly learn, however, is that every business decision requires context. Accepting a managerial position comes with a plethora of perks, including prestige in the office, a higher base salary and a great opportunity to pad the resume, but it also comes with the additional responsibility of overseeing other employees and, in sales situations, a potential limitation on one’s ability to engage in commission-generating activities.

If my motivation for working is to provide money for my family, and I can make the most money dedicating my time to sales rather than managing others, why should I want to change that for the sake of "power?"

The same logic rings true when thinking about customer’s motivations and expectations for engaging with brands.

Insofar as all customers want to be satisfied, the intuitive assumption is that they desire these lengthy, strategic calls for which average handle time and, in some cases, even first-call resolution represent inappropriate measures. Customers want brands to value them, this new school of business leaders argues, so of course they want agents to spend ages on the phone with them.

But that bold assumption will prove false with many customers in many different industries.

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Customers indeed want to be valued by organizations, but value is not necessarily a synonym for length. Not everyone needs a detailed greeting and a lengthy dose of banter about vacation plans and household pets; some define a valuable interaction as what gets them what they want as fast as humanly possible.

Efficiency might not be the only relevant metric in the call center, but it is hardly an extinct one. From parts supply orders to trips to the local McDonald’s, not every customer is looking for a "strategic" experience. Not every customer is looking to engage in a multi-layered "relationship" with the brand. Some just want their product delivered or their issue resolved. Once that happens, they want to be on their way, leaving the brand—and its customer service agents—outside of their calendars and outside of their lives.

In these cases, neglecting average handle time is actually the biggest mistake an organization could make, as it would be inviting agents to act against the customer’s wishes and best interests. It would be working to support the brand’s vision of what the customer wants, which is a worthless vision when the brand can instead focus on exactly what the customer wants.

The reality is that the supposed move towards "strategic" customer service is not a signal that performance no longer matters. Whether customers indeed want lengthy relationships with brands or simply want efficient transaction management, they expect the brand to deliver as efficiently and effectively as possible.

As long as the metrics drive performance in alignment with what the customer wants, they remain as relevant and necessary as ever in customer management.

What purpose do metrics serve?

Metrics are meant to provide a quantitative means of assessing performance, and insofar as that is true, they should be geared to the broader objectives businesses try to achieve.

Businesses exist to satisfy customers, and by virtue of delivering that satisfaction, they are able to generate desired financial results. The specific lens through which an organization evaluates customer satisfaction and overall business results will vary on a case-by-case basis, but it is rigidly defined nonetheless. A business, at the end of the day, knows what it wants to achieve.

Performance metrics are intermediary measures designed to position businesses for achieving that success, but they are not signals of excellence in and of themselves. A CFO is not going to proudly inform shareholders that his call center reduced average handle time by 20% if quarterly revenue and profit were down.

Rather than managing to metrics, departmental leaders need to use metrics to help manage to the business’ truest objectives. If data shows a strong correlation between first call resolution, customer satisfaction and renewal rates, then it absolutely makes sense to push for improvements in FCR rates. But the point is that the call center is serving as an instrument for the success, as a means to the end rather than the end itself.

While call center advisories and "best practices" can provide enormous wisdom about how to effectively run a customer support operation, the most literal translation of those insights only has relevance for the specific organization from which they were borne. Since any two different businesses will ultimately have different conceptions and standards of customer satisfaction and financial excellence, no rational call center leader can assume another organization’s performance management strategies will be equally-suitable.

How do organizations transform performance into results?

Until the connection between agent performance and business results is firmly established, the "intermediary" approach to metrics is merely a philosophy.

For an organization to actually drive the desired results, it must establish a firm mechanism for tangibly aligning metrics with business outcomes and then actually achieving the performance levels needed to fuel the process. Connecting call center performance metrics to customer satisfaction and revenue levels is worthless if call center leadership cannot maximize performance against those benchmarks.

Rising from conception to execution requires a management and supervisor class that understands the call center’s role in the greater business. Customer management leaders cannot focus simply on whether their call center is functioning smoothly; they must constantly understand the footprint their operation is having on the rest of the organization.

Once they understand how activity in the call center is impacting the organization, they can modify management strategies and performance criteria to amplify the positive results and mute the negative ones. A call center manager whose tunnel vision renders him unable to see that great performance against speed-of-answer and FCR metrics is not necessarily a sign of a valuable call center will not lead his team to excellence.

He will also fail to properly coach on context, which is a pivotal element of a successful call center strategy. Agents, too, must understand the role they play in the greater business, or they will be unable to optimize their own performance.

If, for instance, an agent knows he will be measured against average handle time but does not realize that a call’s depth and resolve is still the greater driver of business success, he will be curt and dismissive of customers, therefore damaging the brand’s relationship with them.

But if he knows that average handle time is merely meant to assure he resolves calls with efficiency, he will more readily be able to tailor his performance to what the brand needs. He will assure the call center delivers its desired value.

Like any business unit, the call center must perform with as much impact and as little cost as possible. Performance measurement is the key to fulfilling that expectation, and it is therefore a sin that customer management leaders are mistaking the notion of "strategic calls" as a reason to excuse inefficiency.

The renewed emphasis on customer-centricity does, however, ask call center managers to assure their metrics are achieving true value and not present simply for "best practices"’ sake.

Call Center IQ managing editor and community director Brian Cantor is at the inaugural Call Center Performance, Productivity and Metrics event and will be providing detailed updates from the conference.

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