Over the last decade in my research into contact center operations has revolved around the four operational challenges faced by center managers: to reduce average call-handling time, increase agent utilization, increase customer satisfaction and one recently gaining in importance, to increase first-contact-resolution rates. The first two clearly relate to the core issue of reducing operational costs; the latter two focus on customer retention. At the center of meeting all these challenges are the contact center agents. Those of us who follow relevant LinkedIn discussions see that many experts and center managers agree on his point, but most also point out that even skilled agents need technology to help them.
One often-cited approach to improving the performance of contact centers and customer service agents is skills-based routing. This involves tagging data about the skills of individual agents – for example, languages spoken, training courses passed or the ability to handle well a particular type of call – and using a call-routing system to deliver calls to an extension where an agent with the requisite skills has signed in and is available. Identifying the required skills typically is done by an interactive voice response (IVR) system or perhaps through the number dialed by the caller; in the latter case, a high-value customer might call a special number and identify the issue by selecting among options in an IVR system. Either way, matching customers and their requirements with agents skilled in dealing with them is thought to increase the chance that the customer’s issue will be resolved efficiently in the first attempt.
I have often seen evidence that contact center agents’ performance is strongly influenced by the key performance indicators managers use to judge, and often reward, their performance. In one extreme example I found that agents in a high-value-customer service center were rewarded if they kept the average call-handling time below two minutes. This sounded positive until I uncovered the common practice of agents dropping calls as soon as they reached two minutes, regardless of whether the customer’s issue had been resolved. This and other observations lead me to conclude that agent performance metrics should be chosen carefully, as companies will reap what they sow, and that companies must positively reinforce performance so agents deliver on the chosen metrics.
Most people involved with contact centers know of NICE Systems and its SmartCenter suite of workforce optimization products that support key contact center management capabilities such as call recording, quality monitoring, workforce management, customer feedback management and a variety of performance management and analytics tools. NICE recently received the top ranked Hot Vendor rating in the Ventana Research 2010 Value Index for Agent Performance Management.
In my recent vendor-specific research called Value Index for Agent Performance Management (APM), I took a different view of what customer service organizations operating contact centers need for APM than most industry observers do. Some equate APM with workforce optimization and so include call recording, quality monitoring, workforce management, training and analytics in it; others take a narrower view and focus only on agent-focused analytics and performance management. I believe that in addition to these capabilities, companies should include call routing, coaching and compensation management. Call routing fits here because which agent handles a call has a major influence on its outcome; coaching is equally important to maximize outcomes and includes one-on-one sessions as well as more formal training sessions. I include compensation management in APM because my research shows that agents, like other workers, are strongly influenced in their performance by the kind of metrics they are judged by.