Swim teams and quality management

My kids are on a swim team this summer, their first experience with that, and we all find the meets to be lots of fun. One of the best things is the next day practice, when they hand out ribbons. There is one ribbon in particular that stands out in my mind, its the personal best ribbon when a swimmer improves their recorded time for a particular event. Its a colorful ribbon, and the kids always seem particularly proud of them, which shows a wisdom beyond their single-digit years. It occurred to me there is a corporate quality analogy here.

How does this apply to call centers? Well, first I should confess that the analogy breaks down because, despite an industry obsession with Average Handle Time, customer interactions are not a race against time like a swimming heat. They are a race against discontent customers, and since customers don't like spending time on calls any more than call center managers do, lower handling time is a byproduct of winning this race. The pride in a personal best carries with us from childhood. My kids are learning quality management in the pool: define a process (the entry, the stroke, the reach for the wall), measure the process, analyze and improve the process (morning practice!), and the real reward is not the ribbon, but what it represents: results.

The opportunity is to see, through the example of kids on a swim team, how when we are made aware of the elements that are in our control, how we can improve them, and we know the measures used to validate that improvement, the drive to better results and its own internal reward is a natural human inclination.

So what is in an agent's control, that is vital to winning the race against discontented customers, that we can isolate and coach, and that is measurable? Two such measures are Net Attitude Change and Net Experience Gap. The approach is to listen to calls and measure attributes (can be agent or customer oriented or general) that apply to a particular phase of the call, a key event, or the entire call. Out of the typical 60-80 attribute-value pairs that can be captured for a single call, views of what is really happening on calls can be quickly created. Views that are not available via CRM, surveys, ACD data, QA conformance monitoring, or CRM systems.

The most important view is how the customer's attitude changed over the course of the call, and the difference between the customer's measured experience and what the experience could have been based on our mash-up analysis. Agents and contact center management now have a measure that is vital to the organization, that is within their control, that is quantifiable in simple terms, and that provides the underlying detail to foster effective coaching and improvement. There are many organizations that are at a crossroads from chaotic changes in their call centers, from offshoring to onshoring, insourcing to outsourcing, mergers and acquisitions, changing call routing strategies and agent specialization, and shifting priorities and associated metrics. Maybe its time to empower something more basic: ignite that natural human inclination to chase those personal best ribbons and put the tools in place to support it.

The truth about support costs vs. customer satisfaction

As Jack Nicholson said, “You want the truth? You can't handle the truth!”

The truth is, we need to understand customer interactions, at the ground level, in order to improve customer interactions, and improving customer interactions not only retains and grows the customer base, but it has this interesting side effect of actually reducing support costs. I know this because the company I work for has been consistently achieving 10-20% increases in customer satisfaction concurrently with 20-30% decreases in applicable customer support costs. Those results contradict the assumptions of many, who assume there is a conflict between raising customer satisfaction and meeting cost reduction targets. Knowing that the companies we've worked with who are implementing this truth are outperforming their peers in profitability and market value, what will you do with the truth?

Back in the day, Henry Ford remarked, “you can have the car in any color you like, as long as it is black.” We know that we don't live in that world anymore, and we've seen the wreckage from companies who lost market dominance from not listening to customers. A case in point is Motorola, who lost control of a market that they owned when an upstart from Europe started making colorful mobile phones. Do you think any customers told them they wanted more style, more pizazz? I'm sure many did, but no one was listening, at least no one with an orientation toward larger business issues and market drivers. But those are the competitive advantage benefits to listening, we are focusing here on the more pragmatic, near term objective of improving contact center performance.

Traditional methods of analyzing customer support grew because they were readily available and they generated simple metrics. These methods include the metrics generated from call center equipment, the analytics generated from CRM and other IT systems, QA montoring and surveys. They have their uses, but not for telling you what is really happening on calls and how it can be fixed. At best, they provide a trailing indicator of the performance of customer facing operations. You know, the metrics that look in the rear view mirror and announce, “yep, we ran over a customer back there, don't know how that happened.” They also have the pitfall of being one-dimensional: focusing on a measure like handle time just adversely affects other important measures, like customer satisfaction, retention, and first call resolution. And while it is true that QA monitoring is a listening technique, it raison d'etre is process conformance, not process improvement.

So if we want to improve the customer experience, and we acknowledge that this customer experience is formed by the real interactions they have with us (I call these "moments of truth"), the solution must involve getting inside those interactions. We need to be able to understand real interactions as they occur, observing real customer behavior. I'm not "in the moment" when I respond to a survey, I am just using my imperfect recollection.

So you want the truth? You can handle the truth: support costs can be reduced while also increasing retention and customer spend. But it is done not by chasing one-dimensional metrics (e.g. handle time, reported CSAT) but by improving interactions: their flow, sequence, key moments and events, and missed loyalty-building opportunities.