Improving Customer Service: Taking a Strategic Approach to Measuring Contact Center Performance

May 1, 2006

For health management organizations, the business environment, programs and customer needs are constantly changing and the contact center must respond accordingly. While most contact centers have risen to the challenge of supporting volume of calls or containing costs, few have yet taken a strategic approach to measuring performance. Instead, most rely on metrics better suited to speed and efficiency than customer satisfaction and retention, revenue or other business goals.

Joseph Heinen is vice president, strategy, Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories Inc. Contact him at [email protected].

For health management organizations, the business environment, programs and customer needs are constantly changing and the contact center must respond accordingly. While most contact centers have risen to the challenge of supporting volume of calls or containing costs, few have yet taken a strategic approach to measuring performance. Instead, most rely on metrics better suited to speed and efficiency than customer satisfaction and retention, revenue or other business goals.

While virtually everyone agrees that measuring performance is important, the issue essentially boils down to: What should be measured and how? As contact centers have become more sophisticated, significant opportunities to transform the customer experience, add value and multiply returns are available. Most contact centers in the healthcare industry, however, continue to concentrate primarily on managing incoming interactions, with their focus on counting out time.

“Speed of answer” remains a core quality metric for many organizations even though answering the phone quickly is only part of the equation. If the agent answering the phone lacks the necessary knowledge and skill level to solve the customer’s issue, then the only thing the company has accomplished is frustrating its customer 20 seconds sooner. Efficiency is still critical, but as a singular goal, it is not effective at leveraging the intimacy of regular customer interaction to proactively add value to customer relationships and build loyalty.

Thinking Strategically
Although the ability to collect performance data has become more automated, the fundamental approach and the key performance indicators of success have changed little over the years. Traditional technology platforms, such as automatic call distribution (ACD) and interactive voice response (IVR) systems continue to produce reams of data. Call centers typically are pretty good at measuring what happened in terms of when a call arrived, where it went and how long it took, but are not as good at linking the result or outcome of the call. In addition, most of these traditional measurements are averages (e.g., average talk time, average answer speed) that can disguise the specific events or opportunities that affect customer satisfaction or other desired outcomes.

What has been missing is a critical strategic focus on the metrics that actually predict success. For example, leading organizations use their call centers to generate additional sales, drive down costs, build stronger relationships or achieve other vitally important goals. They do this by changing the measures of success to a more balanced scorecard that can change throughout the day, or even on a call-by-call basis. For example, they let agents talk as long as necessary to callers that are targeted for retention or additional services, and they focus their measurement on the retention or selling rate. Leading organizations impose talk time limits only during busy times when calls are in queue, and let agents talk longer and build the relationship during less frantic moments, thus putting aside managing by averages. For these organizations, a short call may not be a goal in itself, especially if the customer hangs up irritated and unsatisfied, or if the customer has to call back because the information was incomplete. In other words, there is no point in limiting handle times to five minutes if this requirement has no impact on customer behavior, or does little to advance the underlying business goals.

Agent for Change
Companies that have shifted their metrics have seen great success. For example, one medical insurance company, a leading provider of direct-to-consumer products, prescriptions and services, recently shifted from measuring handling time to measuring the customer’s willingness to accept a call back.

For compliance purposes, the company can only call its prescription customers back with their permission. The company found that retention and repurchasing increases dramatically when they are able to check on deliveries, ask whether a refill is needed, or expand the relationship to provide other products or services. However, the company did not want their agents to randomly make outbound calls unless those calls fulfilled an existing need, such as following up on an order. By rewarding agents who were able to arrange regular callbacks, the company quickly changed agent behavior, while increasing both sales and customer satisfaction.

If agents are measured strictly on talk time, they may not care whether they solve a customer’s problem, as long as they wrap up the call quickly. The company’s accountants or the contact center manager may be happy, but hardly anyone else is. The bottom line remains: speed does not necessarily translate to customer satisfaction.

In some instances, the contact center’s goals actually are at odds with the company’s overarching goals. For example, is the best agent the one who answers the most calls or the one who sells the most products? Does a company benefit more by saving 20 seconds on a call, or by winning a customer for life by taking extra time to create a satisfying experience? The problem lies in how metrics, which are most important for measuring agents’ performance, are determined; and how the information is used to motivate agents, identify specific problems and improve their performance.

While gathering good raw data is still a high priority for contact centers, making meaningful performance improvements will require a cultural transformation and a new measurement and analysis paradigm. This includes moving away from the existing quantitative industry culture to a more strategic focus of measuring what is truly important. In other words, it is about switching the call center’s mindset from meeting arbitrary efficiency metrics to maximizing the value of each interaction.

Voice of the Customer
In any call center situation, the most improvement gains are possible when performance metrics are driven by achieving quality from the customer’s perspective. First call resolution, based on the concept of resolving the customer’s concern or issue upon first contact, is one of the more difficult metrics to evaluate in terms of a cause and effect analysis. That is because “success” depends on the customer’s perception of resolution, which is largely subjective and may not be determined by what an agent says or does. Moreover, agents are not always in a position to influence the outcomes of calls; i.e., they may only be able to explain what callers are entitled to under the terms of their health plans.

The classic difficulty of this metric is that outcomes are often reported by people who are incented to report that the issue was resolved, even if the customer has a completely different perception of the outcome. In other words, agents are not necessarily the most accurate reflection of customer satisfaction, because they have a skewed view of the result.

Leading practitioners factor the voice of the customer into the equation, and they do this in new ways. While companies frequently conduct mail and phone surveys to assess the quality of customer service, the survey results are not generally associated with the individuals who actually provided the service, thus losing the link between cause (a specific untrained agent) and effect (an unsuccessful customer transaction). All that might be deduced from the results is that 50 percent of customers are unhappy. However, the question of why they are unhappy, or where to focus improvement efforts, is not answered.

More powerful techniques give customers the option of answering automated survey questions from an IVR system upon completing a call, or right after the service interaction. The survey results of satisfaction and resolution—in the callers own terms—are linked to the specific transaction details, the individual agent involved, and even the supervisor. This provides data that can be immediately acted upon in terms of agent coaching, or to trigger actions designed to save potentially lost customers to competitors. This is the clearest way to isolate problems and identify how and where to focus improvement efforts.

Building Customer Satisfaction
To build a customer-centric environment, companies need to track details, measure and reward agents for performance that achieves the desired business outcomes, and capture the voice of the customer. Using the voice of the customer as a quality metric encourages agents to deliver better performance, because they have a direct stake in what they are being measured against. The key is the ability to link the outcomes with the people and the processes that were involved in each of the transactions. This will result in more accurate evaluations and help focus training efforts.

Accurate and well-defined performance metrics enable companies to optimize their business by ensuring that individual contributions remain focused on corporate goals, and that deviations are quickly identified and corrected. Metrics can be a powerful way to set targets, measure success and identify problems as they surface, so long as the metrics’ users clearly understand their company’s issues and goals.

Tremendous opportunity exists for companies to drive more costs out of each interaction while driving more value in, from both the enterprise and caller perspective, when the measures link closely with customer service goals.

For more information on Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories,