Is A Strategy For The Contact Center Necessary?

Is A Strategy For The Contact Center Necessary?
By Colin Taylor
In our call center and contact center consulting practice, we are often asked this question.

Johnson and Scholes (Exploring Corporate Strategy) define strategy as follows:

“Strategy is the direction and scope of an organization over the long-term: which achieves advantage for the organization through its configuration of resources within a challenging environment, to meet the needs of markets and to fulfill stakeholder expectations”.

All businesses have a strategy, many by definition and constructed to reflect their own business realities, customers and markets. Some strategies are undocumented and driven by entrepreneurial zeal, but every bit as much of a strategy as those defined. In short a strategy provides the organization with a goal and direction towards that goal that it aspires to realize through the conscious and determined efforts of its staff and stakeholders.

So is a strategy required for elements within the organization such as customer service or contact centers? I would suggest that yes. A strategy or strategic plan is essential for the contact center to support the organization as it works to realize the corporate goal.

Companies in developing their strategic plans define who their customers are; and their primary audience focus on how to create value that underpins the strategy: The Customers come first or the Employees come first or their shareholders come first. If the focus is on the customer then the contact center will be critical to interacting and serving customers needs and requirements. If the focus is on employees, it is often extrapolated to explain that happy employees will work harder and deliver superior service to customers. Even in the cost conscious shareholder value creation model customers must be serviced. The reality is the contact centers are the most common communications channel between customers/consumers and the organization. The contact center plays a critical role in supporting the corporate strategy and influencing customer satisfaction.

So how to develop a strategy or strategic plan for the contact center? First acknowledge that as contact center leaders we do not have a ‘blank canvas’ to work with. The corporate strategy has already been defined and is evident in the Mission Statement, Vision and Values documents. In reviewing these documents we can gain an insight into the strategy, the customers served, the manner in which value is created, the goal and objectives of the strategy and the values which are the touchstone for making difficult decisions. So the development of contact center strategy is completed in the context of the corporate direction.

Second we know that our role is to interact with the customers in a manner that supports the corporate strategy. Lastly we know what the Vision for the future is. We know where the company is going. Our challenge as contact center operators is develop a roadmap and plan to support the evolution of the contact center in lock-step with the evolution of the company towards its Vision.

The key of an effective call or contact center strategic plan is to support and align with the overall strategy for the business. Implementing this sounds fairly straightforward but can be fraught with challenges and problems. For example what is the appropriate service level target for the defined primary customer group versus a secondary customer group, who, while not primary is still a significant source of revenue? How can you reduce the costs to serve one customer segment while increasing resource allocation and delivering superior value to another? How does your agent or representative model map to these distinct groups? Can everyone serve both customer segments? Can they do it well? How do you embrace new Customer Satisfaction (CSAT) goals to support the strategy? Are you even sure that your current metrics, such as internal quality are providing accurate customer satisfaction data?

The first undertaking that the center operator must complete is to ensure that they understand fully and in detail the corporate strategy. Too often contact centers launch initiatives to improve customer satisfaction, or reduce costs only to discover later that the corporate goal wasn’t an across the board CSAT improvement; or that the cost reduction initiatives undermine revenues and repurchase from the primary customer segment. Sit down with the management and review the mission, vision, values statements and any additional detail and specifics that the manager can provide.

In the context of the two examples cited above what is meant by customer satisfaction? In which segments of the customer base should satisfaction be improved, why and how? What is the intention for the remaining customer segments? How will the segmentation of customers to allow a focus on the primary customer group? What is the impact for example on the queuing structure and methodology? Is the CSAT of the remaining segments to remain unchanged, decline or increase? What is the budgetary impact anticipated with these changes?

Regarding cost reduction what are the boundaries associated with this change? Is this change really desired to improve the profitability of customer transaction? If profitability is the real goal then the actions taken to reduce costs cannot at the same time reduce sales conversion (the percentage of the customers who buy), nor reduce average order size or frequency. The establishment of boundaries limits the range of options open to the operator and also supports alignment between the two strategic plans.

Alignment is critical. Without both strategic plans being in synch, they can be working in opposite directions, and the attainment of both of the plans objectives and goals can be compromised. As the primary communication channel between customers and the organization the call or contact center can have a disproportional impact on the overall performance of the company in attaining its stated goals and objectives.

Alignment goes beyond the Vision statement and the future state end goals of the organization. The center must be aligned with the core Values established as well. If the company has determined that its value creation model focuses on an Employee First strategy then the contact center must ‘walk the talk’. In an Employee First strategy, the premise is that happy employees will create happy customers who will continue to patronize the company and buy its products and services.

How can an operator embrace an Employee First strategy in an ‘always on’, high change and structured contact center environment? What do we do with our existing metrics? Is Average Handle Time (AHT) an effective or even an appropriate metric in this environment; or does it simply encourage representatives to feel conflicted. For example “Does the company want me to satisfy the customer or get off the phone quickly?” Such conflicts are not aligned to employee satisfaction (ESAT). Where there is conflict there will also be confusion and frustration. This hardly sounds like a successful Employee First strategy. So examine the metrics and KPI’s to ensure that what is measured is what you want to attain.

The steps outlined so far focus on immediate operations in the center: how the center has to change on a call by call basis. But what about a long range view. How do these changes impact on the incoming demand in terms of volumes of calls, emails, chats and self service? The operator needs to make and challenge assumptions regarding how these changes affect and impact demand. This is important. It is the forecasted demand, along with service level and AHT that determine the labor costs and budgets.

In concert with reviewing the demand the operator also needs to revisit other key aspects of the center operational model: people, process, technology and methodology. Aligning to the corporate strategy impact requires changes in how the center operates. The wise operator looks at how the operations of the center can be changed to improve overall alignment. How can we change the processes to align better with the strategic goals? Is there a technology available that better manages demand or facilitates better segmentation and cost management? These could be structural changes in terms of how the contact center operates today, who it serves and how it serves those customers.

Structural change is almost certainly required to align and support the attainment of the results set out in the corporate strategic plan. Albert Einstein said that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” If what the contact center was doing today delivered the results sought by the strategic plan then the strategic plan would not have been created.

To review, there are 7 steps that must be completed before a contact center strategic plan can be developed. Complete each step fully before articulating the contact center strategic plan
7 Steps to a Contact Center Strategic Plan
1- Understand fully the corporate Strategy,
2- Understand customer segmentation and priorities,
3- Identify the impact of customer segments and priorities on queuing management,
4- Understand applicable boundaries,
5- Examine your metrics and KPI’s
6- Review and revise your demand forecast
7- Examine you operational methodology for structural changes
With the 7 steps created you can articulate a contact center strategy with the knowledge that it will support the business goals; and move the organization one step closer to the realization of the corporate strategic plan.
For more information on developing a contact center strategic plan visit our website at or contact the author.

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