The Unintended Call Center Consequences of the KPI Average Handle Time: A Sony Story

Dan Wiersma

I am not sure where I first heard the old saying about the law of unintended consequences. I do know I experienced it first hand when I took on the responsibility of overseeing customer service for Sony. Sony had a call center operation that had all of the human elements of being a first class call center. However, Sony customers felt the call center did not resolve their problem the first time in less than one out of two tries. This level of <50 percent was well below what was required and demanded by the President and COO.

One of my first requests was to see our key call center measures. The charts that came up on the computer were mostly related to measures such as AHT (average handle time), ASA (average speed of answer), calls handled, abandon rates and so on. Sony also had plenty of measures relating to our ratings of how we solved the customer issues, products and location segments.

An Expose of Call Center KPIs

When I asked what the key call center measures that the management team was concentrating on and reviewing regularly were, they said number of calls, speed or duration of calls, cost per minute and total cost of calls. Financial pressure on Sony’s call center to reduce call volume and the talk time pervaded the thinking of the call center management team.

The call center management team was smart enough to show me the customer level measures and they espoused that they were doing everything they could to improve the quality of customer service at Sony. Call center management had most of the customer facing measures but the management concentration was clearly on the time and financial performance even though the charter was taking care of the call center’s customers.

Call Center Data Dig

It was not surprising that when I dug deeper in the data I found that the call center representatives were just as paranoid about the time measures and KPIs as the managers at Sony. There was pressure by call center management to measure every call center representative in every location on the duration of their call times.

Some call center representatives were dropping calls if the time got too long just so the Automatic Call Distributor would show that the time was within some arbitrary average. I listened to calls and when the calls started to get close to the time limit suggested by call center management I could tell the call center representatives in some cases tried to hurry because they did not want to be on "the list" of those who took too long with customers.

Management had become so pressured to reduce the costs of calls that outsourcing call center responsibilities to low cost locations as well as reducing the average duration of calls was the focus of the organization, and the customer was getting less than acceptable levels of support as a result.

Learning To Be Proactive in Sony’s Call Center

Once I realized what was happening I told Sony’s call center management team that we needed to change our focus in terms of what we were going to emphasize and that the Sony customer was going to be what we put our concentration on going forward. While the words were coming out of my mouth I realized that I could easily—well, maybe not easily—change the call center measurement direction. I also wanted to change the style of the call center management. I foresaw that if we effectively did this Sony’s call center performance would improve; however, we would dramatically increase our costs.

The power of my position allowed me to change the direction that would result in another unintended consequence for the operation. Therefore we had to do something different than just pound our fist and demand a change in call center direction. It was going to require a change in strategy, call center measurement, communication and accountability.

An Evolving Call Center Strategy At Sony

We wanted to improve the Sony customer experience and at the same time reduce our call center’s operating expenses. In order to accomplish this we needed to become more operationally excellent, invest in better tools, utilize new approaches to delight customers, invest in and engage our call center teams.

After hiring a highly capable call center senior manager and creating our call center strategy we embarked on the process. The intention was to communicate a customer-focused message. That we would take care of our customers no matter how long that it took. The challenge was a financial responsibility to solve customer problems in an efficient and timely manner. We needed to escalate major issues to higher level technical people and service. We had to make some investments to improve our own tools and knowledge bases to solve problems more quickly.

We needed a regular feedback process from call center representatives and partners on key. Lastly we needed accountability surrounding both customer experience and financial performance. The goal of holding the teams accountable was rewards for those who acted in the best interest of Sony customers and Sony.

The Solution to the Unintended Call Center Consequence

Each month the call center management team would review all of the measures, including call time. The call center’s overall customer facing performance increased by more than 50 percent and costs also decreased. We continuously shared the results with all of our call center representatives and engaged the call center in our desire for continuous improvement. The call center management constantly was on the lookout for that unintended consequence adage to rear its ugly head again every time we wanted to try something new to make sure that we were not going to un-do something we had done successfully before.

Measures like average handle time play a key role, but not the only role, in managing a call center operation. The risk of leveraging KPIs that seem right for the short term but wrong for the long term can destroy the call center’s customer relationships. Be aware and don’t let the law of unintended consequences cause your call center to fall victim.

First published on Call Center IQ.