“You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.” The sage who authored this axiom must have had call centers in mind.
Clearly, maintaining quality is critical in every aspect of a company’s operation, but in few areas is it more important than in the call center. The reason is simple: It is often the initial customer “touch point”–that is, one of the first areas of a business with which a customer makes contact. Accordingly, the call center carries the burden of providing a company’s first impression. Whether that impression is positive or negative can help advance the relationship with the customer or prospect–or end it before it ever really begins. Consequently, managing quality in the call center has to be considered a top priority.
Although developing and sustaining a high level of quality is difficult enough in the call center of an established company, it can be exponentially more challenging in a company that finds itself in an expansion phase. Indeed, businesses that are growing at rapid rates have their hands full when trying to ensure that their call centers meet the quality standards that customers and potential customers expect. Let’s examine some of the obstacles that impede rapidly growing companies from attaining the call-center quality they so desperately need to thrive and how these pitfalls can be avoided.
At the (call) center of it all
Perhaps the most egregious error a growing company can make is to focus on the core operations of the company at the expense of the call center. There’s no question that sustaining the company’s most essential functions must continue unabated. A computer manufacturer, for example, has to continually explore ways to make its computers better and faster while reducing costs. But in doing so, many expanding companies put all their resources into these areas and neglect the more mundane interactions that occur in the call center on a daily basis.
Concentrating on core competencies while ignoring the call center can be commercial suicide. It really won’t matter how well your computers perform if the prospect’s interaction with your call center is off-putting, uninformative, and downright forgettable.
Agents and their roles
It’s not enough to simply have people filling the seats behind the phones. You must ensure that those seats are filled by the right people. Unfortunately, growing businesses are often so focused on simply filling positions that they are sometimes not as focused on the actual qualifications of the people they hire. Thus, in a hurried effort to get bodies into the seats, some companies don’t get the best people for this crucial role. In the end, the way these growing firms recruit people, the low wages they often pay, and the lack of training that they provide are all part of a shortsighted approach to a vital ingredient of managing quality while simultaneously managing growth.
The demographics of the population, including education levels, literacy, unemployment rates, and wage costs are all factors that must be accorded high priority. Before any hiring is done, however, it is crucial to define the exact roles that the people will play in your call center operation. The role of your call center agents also varies sharply depending on what you’re selling. When your product is actually a service (such as phone, cable, electric, etc.), your call center agents can’t just answer the phones and take orders; they have to provide a more consultative and empathetic interaction. Creating empathy starts with call center agents putting themselves in the customers’ shoes to understand every type of transaction and how to respond. By understanding how the customer feels, agents can respond with muscle memory when the situation arises.
Ultimately, once your business begins to “bust out,” you must reevaluate your current call center agents to confirm that they are the right people for the job. What’s more, the same diligence must be paid to the qualifications and temperament of the people who will hold this vital post in the near future as your company begins to blossom.
The quality footprint
There is a great deal of discussion about a person’s carbon footprint, which is defined as how each of us affects the environment by the actions we engage in as part of our daily existence.
Quality has a footprint, too. The actions in which call center agents engage every day serve to stamp a footprint of quality–or lack of quality–on everyone around them, not only in their own department but throughout the enterprise. A negative experience in the call center not only taints the customer’s or prospect’s overall perspective of your company; it also has a footprint that will be seen and felt in other operational areas. Thus, a customer who has just banged heads with a call center agent is likely to be much harder to please when he or she has an interaction with another department, such as technical support. Conversely, a positive call center experience can smooth out transactions with other company areas that may otherwise have proved troublesome.
The quality footprint is a concept that translates well not only to rapidly growing companies but also to companies of any size that want to impress on their call center agents the critical nature of their jobs.
Without question, the most effective way to measure call center quality is call monitoring. By listening to a statistically valid sample of customer telephone interactions and scoring them against various criteria, companies can learn if their agents are performing up to snuff while ensuring that the agents most in need of coaching actually get it.
The truth is, a surprisingly large percentage of companies still do not perform this critical function. Because resources are often stretched thin, this vital aspect of call center success can sometimes be overlooked. This is a huge mistake, mainly because the success of any call center relies heavily on measurable “metrics,” which can only be garnered through effective call monitoring and evaluation.
Many companies try to perform call monitoring using internal resources, but this approach, in many cases, is doomed to go awry. The prevailing reason is that the monitors are generally call center supervisors who, in times of high call volume, are pulled away from monitoring to perform other tasks or even to help answer phones. As a result, the monitoring program is cannibalized to meet the business need of the moment. In a rapidly expanding business, where call volume is likely to increase at a much faster rate than with companies experiencing more stable or flat growth, this problem is greatly exacerbated.
The alternative? Outsource the call monitoring function. There are three overarching reasons why outsourcing is a sound business strategy. The first is that it gets done; there is no need to rely on supervisors whose primary function is to supervise, as well as handle phones when the need arises. Second, it is, generally speaking, not part of a company’s core competency and should be left to dedicated professionals. Third, a comprehensive program can be set up quickly–far more quickly than an internal program of comparable quality.
Other reasons to go outside for this task include:
• Monitoring is a tedious and burnout job.
• An outsourcer will perform sufficient evaluations to ensure that the data are statistically valid.
• You can avoid a situation where your internal people become the local police, rather than being perceived as partners.
Keep in mind: You can’t outsource and leave it alone; as a company, you have to stay engaged in the process, constantly evaluating it and ensuring that everyone is rowing in the same direction.
What are you monitoring?
Call center monitoring is a discipline that is driven strongly by metrics. Virtually everything that happens in the call center is measured against a standard of some kind, whether it is quantitative (calls will be answered within a certain number of seconds), or qualitative (the customer’s problem was resolved on the first call).
In a rapidly growing company, it is probably unrealistic to measure a large number of complex parameters. It is far more reasonable to keep the number of criteria to a minimum, especially in a call center where new agents are coming on board on a continuous basis. This is especially true for companies that are just entering the call-monitoring arena; whether the call monitoring is being performed with internal or external resources, measuring too many factors will be confusing to management and will likely produce too much data to be actionable. Keeping it simple, at least at the beginning of the monitoring effort, is a sound principle.
It’s also imperative that the criteria being measured are actually important to the customer transaction, thus ensuring that it relates back to the primary goal: quality. Many companies, particularly growing ones, measure parameters that aren’t relevant to the quality of the agent/customer interaction. Rather, these parameters are intended to produce data requested by the marketing department for future ad campaigns, or the company is trying to confirm that the agent repeats the customer’s name a certain number of times. Although this information is useful in due course, it should be put on hold during the early stages of a growing company’s monitoring effort.
Training needs to accomplish several objectives: new business-process needs (pricing changes, new products) and training for compliance are the most common. Ongoing agent development is another. In the growing enterprise, where the first two of the aforementioned objectives can occur at an accelerated pace, the significance of regular training is substantially magnified.
There are various media through which to deliver this information: small process changes can be communicated via a standardized format e-mail. Another method is through desk-site e-learning–i.e., multimedia, which allows agents to see, hear, and interact with the training environment at their desks. This helps increase comprehension and the ability to repeat the desired skill.
Organizations can underestimate the value of off-the-phone time for training. One of the bigger challenges outside of quality monitoring is getting the operational team to spend the money to take an agent off the phone for refresher or ongoing training. In the call center business, there is always competition between answering the phone and educating an associate on a new product launch.
No one would debate the need for quality at all levels and departments of an organization. It is no less critical in the company’s call center, where a single, quick transaction can make or break a customer relationship. In rapidly growing companies, it can be a more difficult undertaking to ensure the quality of the call center operation, given the restraints on time, resources, and management focus. But if approached with the same diligence that the core operations receive, the call center can go from being the weakest link in the organizational chain to the strongest.
by: Lisa Renda, the CEO of BPA International (www.bpaquality.com) in the United States and director of BPA Corporate Facilitation in the United Kingdom. BPA International has grown since its inception to become one of the foremost leaders in the remote call-monitoring industry. The company was recently recognized on the Inc. 5000 list as one of the fastest-growing private companies in the United States.