Customers: The best judge of agent performance

New tools are making it easier than ever to allow customers to provide feedback on their interactions with call center agents.

Here's a new line of thinking in contact center quality management: stop measuring it internally, and go straight to customers for their evaluation of agent performance. After all, customers are closest to the call experience, have an opinion unbiased by their experience as a company employee or their own interpretation of corporate goals, and are the only evaluators who know the true purpose of the call.

"The best people to help agents learn how they did are the customers themselves. Their perception is reality," said Paul Jarman, CEO of contact center provider UCN.

"In a traditional system you take one of your better reps off the floor and have them listen to calls all month long, take other reps into a room, listen to three calls, and score them," Jarman said. "Listening to 36 calls a year is just not a large enough sample, and feedback is normally not instantaneous — the calls could have happened two or three weeks earlier."

In the real world shifting the balance of call evaluation from internal, time-delayed monitoring to immediate customer surveying does not mean completely dismantling an internal quality assurance group, but it can dramatically change their mission.

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"You still need the [quality assurance] team to help decide if an answer was accurate, and did the agent comply to policy and procedure — that's the compliance part," said Jon Anton, director of benchmark research at Purdue University's Center for Customer-Driven Quality. "But for the non-compliance [review], the best person to do that is the caller."

Williams-Sonoma changed from internal quality assurance to survey evaluation in 2003.

"We found [quality assurance] was very subjective — you can have five quality people and each one will come up with a different evaluation, a different ranking, for one call, so calibration is really hard," said Leslie Noffsinger, Williams-Sonoma contact manager. "Now, we are getting far more information than we ever did with having a quality group about what our customers think of us and how we can do better."

The rapid-response surveys also help contact center managers recognize trends and spikes in customer satisfaction faster, enabling quick action when trouble emerges. "We can find out what business issues are driving service problems — if our distribution center is late getting out merchandise for shipping, I can look at the [survey quality] report and see how that drives my service level to my customers," Noffsinger said.

Williams-Sonoma uses email rather than IVR-based surveying, with a 17% response rate, the vast majority of which are filed in the first 24 hours. Customers are asked about the quality of their shopping experience, if the issue they called the service center about was resolved, and whether they will shop again.

"We have made changes on what we now know is important to the customer. We know that they want you to be responsible and answer the question and get the problem solved," she said. "We can be chitchatting all day about the weather and giving out $20 gift certificates, but people want to know where their stuff is, and they want to talk to somebody who is competent and can fix it."

UCN is among the companies that offer satisfaction surveys as an automated, post-call process. Working in conjunction with Anton's firm BenchmarkPortal, UCN gives its corporate subscribers the ability to present their customers with an immediate, IVR-based survey after the call or in a callback. "In that callback we can ask six or seven questions about how the representative did and how [the customer] felt about the company, and send that feedback immediately to the rep."

In addition to the push-button response, respondents are asked to offer free-form spoken thoughts about the company, which are stored digitally for playback and review by agents and managers. "Agents get to hear things like, 'If only you could have spoken slower.' It's almost like getting the caller to coach the agent," Anton said. "And the caller can do it for dirt-cheap, so you can [collect feedback] on a lot more calls."

Instead of the monthly review, Anton suggests that companies use their internal workforce management scheduling systems to allocate agent time to call-quality survey reviews, preferably on a daily basis. That sort of commitment requires management buy-in, which he believes should be easy to come by once executives realize the true meaning of customer survey responses.

"For years, bragging rights were about service levels," he said. "Service level is important, first-call resolution is important, but now that we can truly measure customer satisfaction in real time, that's the single North Star that should be bragging rights: What percentage of my callers give me a perfect score?"

Reprinted with permission from

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