Stop Using Your Call Center Strategy as an Excuse

Brian Cantor

If you are in customer management, you have undoubtedly heard the tired clichê about how the rise of self-service and social media as outlets for "transactional" support inquiries has opened the door for the call center to serve more strategic, relationship-minded calls.

The real question, however, centers on how you are using that clichêd, albeit relevant, assessment to shape your contact center strategy.

Are you employing it as a reminder that your contact center agents must be hired and coached on the basis of their ability to engage callers in meaningful interactions that transcend the scope of the specific complaint or support inquiry for which they are calling? That they must represent a human, versatile alternative to the robotics of self-service and IVR implementations?

Or, are you using it as an excuse to justify mediocre performance in your traditional call center environment?

The common strategic corollary to the discussion of a relationship-minded call center is a shift from "traditional" performance metrics. Factors like average speed of answer, average handle time and, in some cases, even first call resolution rate—measures that used to be revered as gospel in the call center—are increasingly being dismissed for their transactional approach to calls.

And, from a certain perspective, that dismissal is quite wise. If contact center interactions are meant to be more substantive than learning of the problem and offering a robotic expression of sympathy and a half-hearted attempt at resolution, they likely will require lengthier calls, maybe even multiple ones. As such, scoring performance on brevity when customer satisfaction is based on depth seems counterproductive.

But what drives that logic? What drives the desire to align metrics with this new, "strategic" vision of the traditional call center?

If average handle time and average speed of answer are being eliminated due to a negative impact on customer satisfaction, then it absolutely makes sense to think about call center interactions from a relationship-driven perspective. The call center should serve to strengthen, not undermine, the customer experience, and if pressing agents to keep their calls curt is doing the latter rather than the former, it is indeed time to change how you benchmark agents.

Unfortunately, amid all the pressure to approach call center inquiries from a more strategic standpoint, many are inclined to believe they should eliminate traditional performance metrics without necessarily rooting that normative judgment in the voice of the customer.

Though we clairvoyantly envision a customer management environment in which the simple, transactional calls are handled through low-impact, online channels and the complex ones--those with opportunities for upselling and long-term loyalty creation--are handled through the traditional call center, vision and reality are two vastly different things.

For all the talk about customer preference for online channels, those same studies typically confirm that a significant number of customer issues are handled on the telephone. Some of these calls are indeed the "strategic" calls that benefit from lengthy, detail-driven discussions with knowledgeable and friendly agents, but many are just as transactional as those suited for self-service. They involve payment issues, power outages and product malfunctions—all things for which speedy, efficient resolution remains ideal.

As long as these calls continue coming through, organizations are doing a disservice by dismissing the efficiency metrics that directly reveal an agent’s ability to handle the calls as the customers desire. And it is customer satisfaction—not clichê—that should dictate the difference between a successful call and an unsuccessful one.

As such, it is logical that most organizations, at least for the foreseeable future, should continue evaluating call efficiency when measuring performance. This does not necessarily mean specific metrics like average handle time are anything better than antiquated, but it does mean that organizations cannot dismiss the importance of rapidity if it matters to the customer base.

If customers are still calling with transactional inquiries, the call center cannot just decide to approach all such calls as complex, strategic ones.

Those call centers that do overlook efficiency metrics despite receiving calls that command efficiency are, quite simply, not performing optimally. In those cases, "live phone reps are for strategic, relationship-minded calls" is a phony excuse being used to justify middling call center performance (or poor call center strategy) rather than a philosophy aligned with the expectations of today’s multi-channel customer.

More importantly, even as the nature of customer interactions does approach that idealized state in which calls only come from customers primed for relationship-minded interactions, it is just as misguided to assume that factors like speed, single-agent interaction and completeness of resolution no longer matter. Customers might be interested in spending an extra minute or two on the phone to talk about personalized ways to improve their accounts, but it does not mean they are any more inclined to hold or deal with agents who waste time asking boring, qualifying questions to pull up the proper details. Efficiency will not simply cease to matter.

Just the other day, I had to follow-up with Bank of America about a "suspicious charge" on my account. After going through an IVR, I was then placed on hold for at least ten minutes, before eventually hanging up out of frustration. Given the bank’s repeated tendency to flag this shockingly-normal purchase as "specific," I fully intended to engage in a lengthy discussion with the agent to share my feedback, discuss improvement options and assure this never happened again (even if that meant opening a different kind of account). I was a "strategic" caller.

But that does not mean I do not want my issue expedited. It does not mean I do not want the bank to give the impression that no issue takes precedence over my own. I might not have been looking for a ten second interaction, but I still demanded efficiency. I still wanted to eliminate the hold time, the pleasantries and the qualifiers (they did, after all, give me an "issue code" that was supposed to expedite the qualification process) en route to a dialogue with the agent.

(As an aside, I do want to praise the Bank of America social media team, which was exemplary in responding to my frustration)

So, again, the death of efficiency metrics is not inextricably linked to the rise of strategic calls in the call center. Unless it can be tied to specific customer demand, it is a bogus excuse being used to justify call center underperformance.

Call center performance management should be about facilitating the best possible environment for achieving the highest possible satisfaction. Relevant metrics, as a result, should be determined by their importance to the customer experience—not for their consistency with an idealized vision about the type of customer inquiries that should be addressed on the phone.

Maybe your customer base’s needs render average handle time obsolete. Maybe they don’t.

Either way, your call center performance management mechanism should be selected on the basis of how well it drives agents to deliver what customers want.

If you instead opt to align it with a generic vision of what the call center will be one day, prepare yourself to accept accountability for the frustration and dissatisfaction you cause your customers.