For Effective Call Center Management

Clients frequently ask me what is the single most important activity they should undertake to ensure that their center is operating and performing at an optimal level. Like all of us they are looking for the magical, simple solution to their issues and challenges; just one thing; the magic pill, silver bullet, panacea that makes their jobs as a center managers easier and more productive. Unfortunately there is no ‘Silver Bullet’.

What I tell these call center operators is that to be effective they need to know their center…at this point I get a look of indignation…”of course I know my center., what are your suggesting?”. They are thinking and assuming that this consultant has finally lost touch with reality. But what I mean is that to be effective you must really, really know and understand your operation. There is a Zen dialogue where a student asks the teacher what the secret to meditating is. The teacher tells the student the secret is Attention, “what is attention”, the student asks and the answer from the teacher is Attention is Attention”, We must pay attention to each and every activity in the center.

While this sounds simple or at least simplistic, this can be a huge challenge. Most managers manage from point to point in a sequential process, “OK, today I will focus on the new cross selling initiative and tomorrow on agent occupancy and then Thursday on the forecast revision that we need to do based upon the new marketing materials we are using next quarter. This sound perfectly reasonable and it is, but it reflects our linear and sequential management approach…first this, then that and later the next thing. This approach is great for knocking tasks off a “To Do’ list, but by its’ very nature it ignores all of the other aspects and activities that are not on the “To Do List”.

We know that there are literally thousand of activities that take place in a call center. Each call may involve tens or hundreds of discrete activities, knowledge points, applications, processes, clicks and keystrokes. It is these activities that are the ‘meat and potatoes’ of a call center operation. It is also these activities that receive very attention until something goes wrong. Once there is a problem then the specific activity in question is a candidate for inclusion on the “To Do List”. For many organizations the “To Do List”, devolves into little more than ‘firefighting; dealing with crises rather than proactively improving the call centers’ operation. But given the vast scope of potential customer interaction activities in the call center what other options are there for staying on top of the ‘thousands of moving pieces’ that are occurring in real time every minute of every day?

One of the options generally suggested at this point is ‘benchmarking’ comparing your operation to ‘leading’ or ‘best practice’ call centers. This has a subtle tinge of more than a few of the seven deadly sins; envy (well they are best practice aren’t they), covetousness (thou shalt not covet thy neighbors call center), sloth (no need to solve it myself lets just plagiarize) and lust (enough said).

These disturbing comments notwithstanding let’s look at logic behind benchmarking. If we benchmark our center we compare ourselves to other call centers. While this sounds good at this level it is little different than looking at your neighbors’ car and comparing it with your own without understanding their income, expenses, goals and objectives. This exercise of comparing oneself to the “Jones” has dubious value. So say the benchmarkers “lets only compare ourselves with ‘best practice’ organizations”. Once again fine at first blush. But who is determining what ‘best practice’ is? Is a best practice always a best practice? Doesn’t it matter what industry and vertical we are speaking about? What best practices are most important? When we look at our neighbors’ car a safety best practice may be to drive a Mercedes, but a value best practice may be to drive a Hyundai.

Benchmarking also purports to compare your center with ‘best practice’ centers in your industry or vertical. Where this is actually achieved it could be of value. But who decides what your industry is? How close need it be to be relevant? Can we really compare a small regional bank with Citibank or with a direct service ‘no bricks and mortar’ bank? I suspect that the goals, objectives and strategies for realizing the goals and objectives are different for each of these organizations, so how can a comparison of their tactics be viewed as a solution to another companies call center ills?

The key is context, just as your neighbor has different income, expenses, goals values and aspirations so do companies, even in the same industry and even in the same market. This isn’t to say that there is no value to learning how other companies are meeting challenges, there is always a better way of doing business, we just haven’t discovered it yet. But this is learning, seeing what others are doing and adopting those tactics and strategies where appropriate, it isn’t blind acceptance of a purported best practice regardless of context. The key to securing meaningful improvements in your call center operation therefore doesn’t likely lie with replicating a claimed ‘best practice’ that someone else has found to work within their company, but rather to develop your own ‘homegrown’ practices that improve you operational effectiveness.

This process we call operational innovation as it seeks to identify, codify and leverage opportunities that are relevant to your call center, your departmental and company goals, financial constraints and realities and business aspirations. If we look at Southwest airlines if they had simply followed the ten prevalent industry ‘best practices’ then they to would be dancing with bankruptcy, rather than leading the industry in earnings. Jet Blue reflects yet another example of operational innovation employing home based reservations agents .Both Southwest and Jet Blue, ‘broke’ the ‘best practice’ mold in order to find a better way of doing things, this willingness to challenge conventional (and yes even best practice) thinking is essential to obtain true, meaningful and sustainable operational innovation in your call center.

So if benchmarking isn’t going to allow us to stay on top of the thousands of moving parts and isn’t conducive to securing operational innovation what other alternative do we have to the firefighting “To Do List’ mindset that is so pervasive today? Assessments are important, but ultimately ‘the race is against yourself’ and not against another call center. Your center, your career will be determined by how your center functions and how it performs opposite the goals and objectives that have been set.

Regular, ideally annual, end-to-end strategic assessments allow assessment of all of the ‘thousands of moving parts’ in the call center and examine each of these for improvement opportunities. It is often this attention to the minutia that leads to breakthroughs that deliver operational innovation.

At TRG our process is to examine these ‘moving parts’ within the context of the call center operation as well as within the context of the entire organization. Most processes and technologies do not simply operate in the call center, but across the enterprise. For ease of use and comprehension we have developed the following graphic that sets out the major elements and components that should be assessed;

(insert customer experience model)

The above is a starting point fro the assessment process and broadly categorizes the activities under four headings; People, Process, Technology and Methodology. In next months newsletter we examine how the assessment process is managed and the common pitfalls encountered by the unsuspecting.

Let us know what you think of this article or any suggestions you have for future issues by email at [email protected].

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