• May 24, 2007
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

Call Center Strategies Ride the Bench

Customer service centers are the new front line in business differentiation as products and services become ever more commoditized. To successfully provide the best customer service, contact centers must achieve the highest productivity at the lowest cost, while remaining timely, accessible, and accurate. The Ascent Group breaks down these factors and identifies some best practices in its study, "Call Center Strategies 2006: Benchmark Study of Inbound Call Center Operations." "Agent retention may be one of the greatest challenges that a call center manager will ever face. Today's environment is particularly formidable," writes Christina Kozlosky, vice president of Ascent Group and report author. "There is a tight labor market across most of the U.S. To make matters more challenging, the call center industry is experiencing tremendous growth." According to Kozlosky, the growth rate is expected to reach 20 percent in the coming years. These factors contribute to a seller's market for labor, wherein employees can pick and choose their employers, taking valuable skills from job to job. To hold onto these valued workers, call center managers must offer the best environment they can but remain effective. Productivity, according to Ascent, is a combination of morale, experience, supervision, automation, technology use, incentives, and quality of work life. Broadly speaking, most of those factors add to the cost of operation--staffing and organization, wage rates, regulatory compliance, and employee mix. The factors for top service are convenience, accessibility, accuracy, timeliness, and skill and professionalism. One place where better employees can make a difference is abandoned calls. Ascent's research tabulated the abandonment rate of 13 verticals, and compared them against the "Best Performer Average," or mean score of the leaders in each vertical. Teleservices was not only the vertical with the lowest rate (3.3 percent), but the only one to outperform the best performer average, which was 4.1 percent. The report goes on to suggest some best practices to maximize call center effectiveness. First, respect and recognition of employees is critical. "Whether it's through pay that reflects the value of their skills, effort, or impact, or through simple reward and recognition programs, employees need to feel that they are being respected for their contribution,"Kozlosky writes. "If you are expecting employees to do more (handle e-mail, collaborate in chat sessions, answer phones, respond to correspondence, etc.), you must be prepared to pay them more. Employees need to feel that their effort has a positive impact on the company. If an individual feels respected, that respect will reflect positively on the customer as well. Location is also important, since a call center located near several others will have to cope with intense competition for labor and likely have high turnover. Similarly, a location in a college town can result in high turnover as students are "transient by nature," according to Kozlosky--either because of graduation or transfer, or other factors. Smaller centers are often better for retention, as they foster more of a community feel and allow managers to know their employees better. One-on-one training on the phones with a trainer, supervisor, or experienced agent is another important consideration for effectiveness, but Kozlosky writes that call monitoring is "inarguably one of the best methods of improving call quality and service delivery." Not only should reps be monitored, but the people doing the monitoring should be as well. "Listen to the calls they they have evaluated, compare evaluations, and coach. This technique instills accountability and offers the opportunity for continual improvement." Related articles: Shameful Service
Managing Home-Based Contact Center Agents
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