Congratulations, or Condolences

Congratulations, you are the new contact center manager…now what?

Recently we were asked, what are the first things a new manager has to do to be effective in their new role as the Contact Center Manager (CCM)? In particular what can a new CCM do in the first thirty days to be successful?

Contact Center Manger may well be one of the more challenging positions in any organization. The CCM must deliver the company’s service promise to hundreds or even millions of customers. The CCM must understand and deal with technology that supports customer interaction. The CCM must deal effectively with unexpected events or circumstances that impact on the center and its performance. Perhaps most challenging the CCM must take individuals, perhaps hundreds or even thousands in some centers, and make them into an effective team that serves their customers to the best of their ability. Just to complicate matters, all of this must be developed, delivered and managed in a ‘live’ environment, with no ‘do-overs’ or second chances.

So where to begin? As with any new manager the first thirty days are critical. It is during this period of your tenure you will be under a microscope. Both the staff and your superiors will watch and assess every move to see how it aligns with their expectations of you. Each act taken or omitted builds your reputation. Regardless of the role the first thirty days sets the tone for the way you interact with your superiors and the way your staff interact with you. Being successful in your first month can be a daunting task to be sure. So where do you begin?

Here we set out tasks, activities and processes that characterize the activities completed by successful CCM’s. Of course there is no single way to succeed, just as there is no one type or style of manager that will always succeed. The following is a compilation of our experience in working with, training and developing effective CCM’s. These observations are augmented by our experience operating centers, both our own and our clients. The following outlines themes that align well with building effective centers and succeeding as a CCM.

So back to the title of this article, “Congratulations, you are the new contact center manager…now what?” The first activity is to meet and understand your direct reports and staff. Your first task must be to take your direct reports, this group of individuals and bring them together as a cohesive team.

There are a number of dynamics underlying your interactions with your team in first few months when you move into this new role. Just because management has awarded you the position of CCM, doesn’t mean that your direct reports and their staff will automatically believe that you are the most qualified or even best person for the job. You should expect that one or more of your direct reports was also considered for this role and did not secure it. Additionally each member of the team understands how your predecessor completed the task. Many will expect you to maintain the status quo. Human nature is such that status quo is comfortable and is safe for most staff. Change on the other hand is uncertain and involves risk. So the backdrop as you walk into your first team meeting will have undercurrents of jealousy, suspicion and an expectation of more of the same.

As you look to your team, you will likely realize that they are not a team at all but a collection of individuals each being governed by their own individual concerns and perceptions about you and your ability to lead them. Your challenge as their leader is to take these individuals and bring them together as a team. One of the most effective ways to do this is employ the framework developed by Patrick Lencioni in his book “The Five Dysfunctions of the Team”. In his book Lencioni sets out a hierarchy of activities required to build effective team. I will paraphrase these steps below:

  1. Trust is the pre-requisite for any effective team. You cannot have trust without vulnerability, or more accurately the ability to be vulnerable to each other member of the team.
  2. You cannot have open and honest communications within a team with out Trust.
  3. You cannot gain buy-in from team members unless there has been open and honest communication,
  4. You cannot hold team members accountable unless you gain their buy-in to a course of action.
  5. You cannot secure the desired results without holding team members accountable.

I would recommend reading Lencioni’s book for more insight into this hierarchy, but for the sake of this article we will take the truth of this hierarchy as a given and focus on how to achieve it.

Set up a meeting with your direct reports early on in your tenure. The focus of this meeting is a team building exercise. At this meeting set out the expectation that this meeting will be to get to know each other better and to build a more effective team. Of course, you will need to establish some ground rules for all discussion and team interactions.

These rules should include: honesty (all team members must commit to be honest and frank in all of their dealings); Engagement (all team member commit to be active participants in any discussions); Cohesiveness (all decisions made, must be supported by all members of the team, regardless of their support or opposition in prior discussions); lastly it is important that each team member understands that while it is the desire of the team to foster open communications and that each team member is expected to be an active participant in all discussions. The team is in no ways a democracy. You the team leader will make the final decision. While you welcome the teams input, you reserve the right to make any decision you feel is appropriate…after all that is your job and your responsibility.

For the initial meeting with your direct staff identify a vision for the section and group. Don’t make this a huge exercise. You can refine it later as more facts become evident and your understanding of the organizational requirements improves.

Provide an overview to the above hierarchy at the first meeting. Secure their buy and support for the hierarchy. Tell the team that your objective is to build a high performance team and to do that you need everyone to participate in the process. Ask each member to provide a 5 minute synopsis of their lives. Have them start from graduation from high school. Have them punctuate the highs and lows in their life by drawing a stock chart on a white
board or easel. This process will produce an number of results: first, each team member will know more about their co-workers, Second, each will share some low points in their lives that make them vulnerable to other members of the team. Finally the whole team will now have a shared experience the builds the cohesion of the group.

Once you have established the ground rules, and presented the hierarchy of team communications and have shared a little about their lives before they joined this team we can now move onto the second key step.

This step sets the stage for success of the contact center and for you as the Manager…building the contact center Strategic Plan.

In preparation for this meeting it is important to prepare the facts and current understandings for sharing with everyone.

What is the center’s capacity? Complete an inventory of what the center has: staff, equipment, processes, budgets etc. Most important, get a forecast of the demands for the center for the next 3 to 6 months; how many phone calls and/or other transactions are expected? Map the demand by week. The people doing the schedule are a good place to start. Make sure they check with marketing, sales and other stakeholders who generate traffic into the center.

Estimate any variance between the capacity and the demand. Does the center have the staff and equipment required to meet the demand projection? What is the state of the budget and how does that affect the ability to meet the demands you foresee?

Decide what changes need making and how that will be accomplished? Here it is presumed that you have the authority to make these changes. If not, you may need to get buy-in from others, including your staff. Get your staff involved in the data gathering and the analysis. If they help assemble and prepare the data and information for the meeting they are each more likely to draw the same conclusion as you when it is presented in the meeting.

No doubt as a part of the interview and selection process, you became familiar with the role of the center; and the expectations of senior management for the contact center within the organization. So with this big picture in mind, you can move forward to the second stage in your thirty day plan.

There are already goals and objectives in place for the center established by the senior management. In the vast majority of organizations these goals and objective fit into one of two categories: Extremely High Level or Minutia. In fact a number of centers will have both in place.

The Extremely high level goals or objectives are often taken from the company’s Mission Statement and employ phrases such as “to provide world class customer service” or “to deliver an unrivalled level of service”. These are in fact not goals, per say, but are rather philosophies. They are unconnected to a means of attaining the goals. They lack measurements to confirm the attainment of this level of performance.

I can hear the naysayers now chiming in. ”But we have metrics and KPI’s. So these are in fact goals.” In a few rare cases this may be the case. But out of thousands of centers that we have worked with, we almost never found this to be the case. What the measures and KPI’s really are is Minutia. These are an incredibly granular look at the individual transaction sets and agent performance against a backdrop of arbitrary numbers and figures, some with merit but many without.

The purpose of the Strategic Contact Center Plan is to create the connectedness between the Extremely High Level goals and the day to day metrics and KPI’s. This ensures that all measures support the attainment of the stated goals and objectives for the center and that the center goals support those of the organization.

Start the discussion by examining what are the corporate goals? Which of these can be achieved or supported by the contact center? Once this list has been identified the next question becomes what metrics, KPI’s or measures can be established that support or improve performance?

While this may seem quite straight forward and logical, in actual practise this is very rare. Most centers establish metrics, measures and KPI’s based upon what they have seen employed elsewhere or what they read is a Best Practise. The result is that centers’ often put in place measures that they think are best practices and are consistent with well run centers. The result is metrics and measures that are disconnected to the attainment of the stated goals and not aligned with the centers’ experience and history.

So which metrics and KPI’s should you employ? This is a point for discussion with your team. As a primer you will want to review the two primary types of KPI and/or contact center metrics: Quantitative and Qualitative. Quantitative measures are based upon numbers and efficiency. For instance how many calls per agent, Service Level, ASA, Grade of Service, Average Handle Time (AHT), Average Talk Time (ATT), Availability, Occupancy, etc. These are the most common metrics employed in contact centers today. Metrics of these types are useful in assessing individual or center efficiency with certain limitations. Example: ASA cannot be controlled by an agent. This is more a reflection of calls offered and agents scheduled. These metrics are numbers and counts related to the transactions but are silent regarding the quality of effectiveness of the transaction.

Qualitative measures assess the quality of service or effectiveness being delivered in the transaction. Qualitative measures include: Customer Satisfaction (CSAT), First Contact Resolution (FCR) and internal Quality Assessments derived through monitoring and assessing the contact against a set of pre-determined criteria.

Qualitative measures are less common as they can be much more challenging to implement than quantitative metrics. In the majority of centers qualitative metrics are frequently limited to internal quality assessments.

Qualitative assessments often require the joining and mingling of data from different sources unlike quantitative measures which are produced by the ACD or other systems,. Internal quality monitoring can be an effective tool. It requires the development of meaningful criteria that accurately reflects the quality of the transaction. If the assessed elements are flawed then the value of the process is reduced or rendered invalid. We have all seen centers with frivolous internal quality elements including: annoying neighbours, chewing gum and being in on time. It is clear that none of these factors actually impact on any individual transaction. Each of these reflects agent performance and adherence to policy rather than to contact qualit

Internal quality assessments can be characterized as what we believe is or should be important to our customers. Customer satisfaction can be best described as what is actually important to our customers. While logic would suggest that these two sets of metrics should be quite close this is often not the case. There is a fairly consistent gap of 20-30% between internal (QA) and external (CSAT) measures of satisfaction. Additionally the customer’s perceived value on common attributes is often quite different from the weightings employed in the Internal Quality Assurance process.

For example Average Speed of Answer is consistently ranked as one of the most important elements in call/contact center operations yet customers do not place nearly the same value upon it. The customer is much less concerned with getting their contact answered in speedy fashion than they are in getting the question or inquiry resolved.

To accurately measure CSAT focus specifically on the contact center interaction. A general satisfaction survey that focuses on the brand or the products does not provide meaningful data regarding the performance of the center. The contents of the survey must focus solely on the center and must be specific to an individual contact. Common questions posed in this process include:

  1. Was your call/contact answered in a timely fashion?
  2. Was the agent professional?
  3. Was the agent helpful?
  4. Did the agent help you to resolve your inquiry?
  5. Is the center and company easy to do business with?
  6. In the past have you ever recommend that a friend or acquaintance contact center?
  7. Following your most recent contact would you now recommend a friend or acquaintance to contact the center?
  8. Based upon your most recent interaction with the center has that contact: Improved your opinion of the center, reduced your opinion of the center or left you opinion of the center unchanged?
  9. On a scale from 1 -5 where 5 is exceeding your expectations and 1 is a complete disappointment, how would you rate your most recent interaction with the center?

Of course there are a number of additional questions that could be asked and numerous ways of phrasing each question. The above survey assesses the agent (professional, helpfulness and resolution); the center (timeliness of answer, ease of use, top box (1 -5 scale); and impact versus previous opinions (recommendation and impact of most recent contact). Each of these components are essential in assessing how satisfied a customer is.

Tracking and measuring FCR is also challenging for a number of reasons including: unidentified expectations; absence of systems; and dissatisfaction with company policy or procedures. For example when is a contact really resolved? Is it resolved only when the customer gets the outcome they desire? Or is it resolved when the agent informs a customer that they cannot get the resolution they seek? Must you ask the customer if their reason for the inquiry has been resolved or is this a judgment call the agent should make? What happens if resolving one inquiry logically leads to a second question or inquiry? Are these two distinct inquiries or is it one inquiry with two elements? Can we track FCR based upon frequency of contact? Is a contact deemed resolved if the customer doesn’t re-contact the center for three days; but unresolved if they re-contact in two days?

As you can see there are a number of aspects that must be kept in mind when designing how to measure FCR in a contact center and the method you select can easily skew the results attained. For example if agents are being asked to decide if an inquiry was resolved, they will often say that it is. If the customers for these same contacts were surveyed the results are often quite different. This is a similar phenomenon to the gap between internal and external measures of satisfaction and the result greatly depends on the point of view and perspective of those involved. An agent who has responded to the questions and answered with the appropriate replies will often feel that they have properly resolved the inquiry, based upon their adherence to policy and process. The customer, however, unencumbered by knowledge of the policy or process will only want what they want and will feel the inquiry is unresolved unless they get what they wanted.

So how can you improve the accuracy of the process? It is unlikely that you can ever get to the point where all of the ambiguity is removed; you can however create an environment where the points of view, of both the agent and the customer become as transparent as possible. Then ensure that at the end of each interaction these points of view are reconciled. This is often harder than it looks to be with many challenges in a ‘live’ environment.

Most agents jump to conclusions regarding what they believe the problem to be without letting the customer explaining their point of view. This is both human nature (we love to interrupt), a reflection of the training the agent has received (active listening isn’t featured in most training programs) and a result of the guidance the agent has received (“your talk time is too high, you have to get off the calls faster”), which encourages guessing the question rather than listening to it.

By asking the customer how we can help them and listening to their request/query in full, we are halfway home. The agent then must restate what the customer wants to ensure that there is no confusion or ambiguity, then and only then, should the agent begin to answer the customer’s question or resolve the query. Once the agent has responded fully to the customer query and before wrapping up the contact the agent should then restate the question or query and the response and ask the customer if this resolves their inquiry. In some cases the customer will not be able to get what they want and in these cases they agent should explain why they cannot get the desired outcome and then ask if this resolves their inquiry. For example a customer may not be able to get a refund because they waited too long to request one. In this case the agent may reply by explaining the company’s policy on refunds and offer a point of escalation for the customer to pursue and then ask if the query has been resolved. It can be helpful to ask the agent if there was anything else they could have done to assist the customer and if the answer is yes, then the inquiry was likely not full resolved.

In your meeting you and the team need to join the dots between the high level goals and the daily and weekly metrics and explain how each metric supports the attainment or progress towards attainment and of each and every goal. If you cannot specifically demonstrate the value of a metric in realising or progressing towards a goal, drop the metric. The plan needs to include specific targets and goals for the center, each team and ultimately each agent. The tracking and reporting has to be defined it must also be objective data and not subjective or based upon opinion. This plan must be documented and once completed should be reviewed by th
e team for accuracy and reasonableness. The final step is to present this Strategic Plan to senior management and gain sign off from the senior executive that the plan reflects the goals and objectives of the center, that support the attainment of defined goals and objectives of the company and that the defined measures and metrics will be the sole basis for assessing success in achieving the stated goals.

If in your first 30 days, you can build a team, set the contact center strategic plan, secure management support and implement the associated metrics you will be well on your way to success in your new role.

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