• August 31, 2020
  • By Ian Jacobs, vice president and research director, Forrester Research

Stop Trying to Make Us All Productive

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‘And the best thing you ever done for me/ Is to help me take my life less seriously/ It’s only life after all” —Indigo Girls (‘Closer to Fine’)

LET’S FACE IT: Before the pandemic, contact centers were far from chill places. Employees locked their electronic devices in lockers. They sometimes then had to pass through security turnstiles reminiscent of medieval torture machinery, or more charitably, the floor-to-ceiling subway entrances in New York City, in which I always seem to catch my hands. And then they were often forced to have a completely bare workspace with no personal touches. But what most defined contact centers as uptight were the metrics companies used to define success.

Those metrics were often all about efficiency. Every interaction was measured 245 ways to Sunday, as was every agent. Companies set contact center goals to reduce the average amount of time spent interacting with each customer. Or to reduce the amount of time agents spent on the work required after they completed an interaction. Or to drive up the adherence percentage. (For those not in the know, adherence is a particularly ruthless metric of efficiency. It measures the percentage of time agents spend working of their scheduled time.) Or the contact center was simply told to hold the line on costs, even as interaction volume ballooned. These proficiency metrics defined life in contact centers; if you were unlucky enough to manage a center for a company with such an efficiency mind-set, your job was to essentially squeeze an extra drop or two of blood from the stone.

Over the past two years, many companies had started to rethink this cutthroat focus on efficiency, recognizing that customer experience—and more recently, employee experience—are the real drivers of great customer service. We saw organizations begin to emphasize customer-obsessed metrics such as customer satisfaction, customer effort, and first-contact resolution. Some brands, following the example of customer service poster child Zappos, even went so far as to toss average handle time measurements onto the ash heap. The eminently reasonable thinking was that, for most companies, interacting with customers more should be considered a positive, not a scenario to avoid.

And then came COVID-19, which upended . . . well, everything. But for the purpose of this column, I’m concerned that the pandemic has reversed much of the progress toward customer-centric thinking. While I’m hearing much less talk about efficiency, that talk has been replaced by chatter about productivity. Executives at contact centers that went full-on work-from-home point out that, when push came to shove, their agents stepped up and kept up their productivity. Companies are scrambling to find technologies to help contact centers remain productive.

Productivity is efficiency for a socially distanced time. But like efficiency before it, productivity as a focus for contact centers may set companies up to fail the customer experience challenges during these trying times. If companies view the reality of contact center employees forced to work from home only through the lens of productivity, they may well miss the costs of that productivity. The ordeals that contact center employees now face—childcare, eldercare, concerns about their health and their finances, etc.—can be sublimated for a while in order to maintain productivity. But eventually some of those agents will burn out. Some of them may flame out spectacularly. Productivity married with a view on employee experience and life experience would be a much healthier way to measure how well employees are able to provide differentiated customer service experiences.

To be fair, contact centers are not alone in falling into the productivity trap. My own bosses have crowed about how my company’s employees have managed to keep productivity high despite the challenges of the pandemic. So we all have something to learn!  

Ian Jacobs is a principal analyst at Forrester Research.

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