My research continues to show that the most important key performance indicator (KPI) for call centers is average call-handling time (AHT). Furthermore, second in importance only to improving customer satisfaction is the challenge of reducing operating costs, which invariably involves trying to reduce AHT, which contact centers need to do without negatively impacting customer satisfaction. An indicator of the complexity of this issue is its persistence as one of the longest-running and most active debates on LinkedIn.
The solution, which runs through many threads of the discussions, hinges on two things: the interaction-handling process and the agents. The interaction-handling process is the steps and activities agents have to go through to answer a customer’s call. Based on my experience as a long time industry consultant, I break this process down into five major steps: identify the customer, identify the issue, resolve the issue, determine whether the caller has any other concerns and finally close the call (which might include a quick customer satisfaction survey). The more complex companies make each of these steps and the more activities their agents have to go through during each step, the longer the average handling time will be. To simplify the process (and reduce the AHT), the first thing to do is understand what agents actually do as they handle a call, and in particular determine whether there is much variation in how different agents handle the same type of call. A key tool for acquiring this information is analytics applied to the agent’s desktop; it is available from vendors like Enkata, Metrica, NICE Systems, Verint and VPI. These systems capture exactly what agents do at their desktops (the systems they access, the data they enter, their navigation and other actions) and in effect map their interaction-handling processes. With this information, companies can set about optimizing the processes for each type of call and ensuring all agents follow the best practices the company identifies.
This brings us to the other subject of this discussion, the agents. Desktop analytics also can provide insights into what agents are handling what parts of calls well or not as well. This knowledge becomes vital input for training and coaching them. My research into agent performance management shows that on average agents actually receive a lot of training and coaching, but much of it is focused on general issues rather than the individual’s weaknesses. Agent desktop analytics, however, can point out these specific requirements. Then, to ensure that agents are scheduled to received personalized training and coaching, companies can use tools available from vendors such as Enkata, Envision, KnoahSoft, Merced Systems, NICE Systems, Verint and VPI. The end result should be more skilled agents, and having skilled agents following best practices should bring down AHT.
One other key element in achieving these joint objectives is the agent’s desktop. My research into the technology used in contact centers confirms what most companies know to be true – the typical agent desktop is a mess. Agents have to log on to multiple applications to start, they typically have to jump around in several applications to resolve any request, they have to enter the same data into multiple applications, and they can’t easily see all the information they need to identify the customer, the issues and the resolution. The answer to this cumbersome technology is better technology, specifically what I call the smart desktop from vendors such as Cicero, Cincom, Jacada, NICE Systems, Openspan, salesforce.com, Smartpoint and UpstreamWorks. All these tools either replace existing desktops with a new one that has a process-oriented user interface that hides all other applications, or they use a rules-based system to pop information onto an existing desktop and advise agents what to do next. Either way makes the agent’s life that much easier, speeds up processes and reduces the number of potential errors that agents might make. Once again the result should be shorter calls and happier customers – and agents.
Many people, including me, argue that focusing too much on AHT will degrade customer satisfaction simply because agents won’t have enough time and support to deliver great customer experiences. But the technologies outlined above can help lower AHT while ensuring agents have the skills and support to deliver great experiences. I don’t believe the quest to lower contact center operation costs will go away, so I recommend to companies that haven’t yet investigated the benefits these systems can deliver what they do as soon as possible.
Richard Snow – VP & Global Research Director