Call Center Metrics: Measuring Isn't Managing



Brian Cantor
09/18/2012

When leaders in today’s era of customer management downplay the importance of "efficiency" metrics like average handle time, hold time, call volume, speed of answer and the like, they are forgetting one key aspect of call center leadership: measuring is not managing.

Even if one buys into the notion that emphasis on efficiency metrics is detrimental to the customer experience, which is a very debatable notion that presumes customers do not value efficiency and that agents cannot be trained and/or trusted to efficiently offer meaningful resolution, that person is forgetting that the customer support team is, ultimately, a business unit.

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This is not a rekindling of the old "cost center" debate—by now, many organizations value the call center as a profit opportunity—but it is a commentary on reality. It takes an investment to staff and operate a call center, and when a business is making that investment, it needs to be certain it is doing so as efficiently as possible. If the business’ processes, strategies and organizational structures do not assure a maximum return on the outlay, the business its failing itself, its shareholders and, very likely, its customers.

And so whether one views the call center as a "cost center" and wants to minimize the spend on supporting customers or as a "profit center" and wants to use the center as a tool for improving the bottom line, assurance of cost-efficient operations is a necessity.

The unequivocal result is that call center operations need to be measured. When it comes to making decisions about staffing, resources, technology and coaching, call center and organizational leadership needs to understand the efficiency of the operation. It needs to understand what kind of service level is required to deliver a certain customer satisfaction level. It needs to know the marginal impact of each agent it either adds to or removes from the equation.

The idea, therefore, that metrics like average handle time could ever be irrelevant is nothing short of baffling. No company guided by a quest for customer satisfaction and profit can possibly ignore an extensive assessment of how its call center is functioning and where its strengths and weaknesses lie.

That does not, however, mean that all call center operations need to be managed against metrics like average handle time.

While prevailing wisdom still shows that many are wrong to assume "building a relationship with a customer" means keeping them on the phone for longer than is necessary, it is of course possible that managing agents to make a low average handle time their primary objective is a mistake. Some support inquiries do require a time investment, and if that is the kind of support deemed most valuable to the customer, average handle time might not be the best benchmark of success.

As the cross-section of seasoned experts, including former Herbalife executive Michele Crocker and current Hershey manager Justin Robbins, revealed at CMIQ’s Call Center Performance, Productivity and Metrics event, a call center should be managed towards alignment with greater business objectives.

Instead of worrying about the metrics that typically speak to the insular excellence of a call center, customer management leaders should commit themselves to driving the business needs of its center. That is how the department demonstrates its worth and therefore how the department best delivers a return on investment.

And, interestingly, even though "efficiency" metrics might not fit into this equation from a management perspective, they are quite necessary in analyzing the best way to forge a connection between the call center and the greater business. Only the fullest glimpse of call center performance efficiency can provide the intelligence necessary to determine which metrics matter to the business and which do not (or, worse, run counter to business objectives).

When it comes time to figuring out how to manage the call center, that perspective is absolutely necessary. A decision to abandon management against efficiency metrics might make sense for a given business, but if it does, the sense should not be declared in a boardroom based on the "theory" of how to support customers. It should be declared based on the quantitative reality of how elements of the call center operation impact satisfaction and thus impact the business.

Now might be the "age of the customer," but it is certainly not the time to forget the call center is a business, and to assure the leader can understand how agents are performing relative to each other and the objectives of the greater enterprise, the key efficiency metrics must be measured.

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