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A guide to call center metrics

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Call center agents’ behavior should be focus -- not clunky metrics

A consultant at the recent ACCE call center expo urged call centers to drop the glut of performance metrics and favor a human approach.

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A guide to call center metrics

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SEATTLE -- Call center managers would do better to scrap that binder stuffed with hundreds of metrics for gauging call center agent performance and instead consider the perspective of the customer.

That means treating agents in the same manner as customers: as people and not numbers, according to a speaker at the ACCE 2012 conference and expo.

Tim Montgomery told an audience at the expo this month that using only a few behavior-centric metrics can better assess agents’ performance and help them improve.

“Metrics are everywhere. You can turn everything into metrics. But it’s not the metrics. It’s what we do with them,” said Montgomery, CEO of San Antonio-based CSG, a call center consultancy.

Mentoring call center agents and letting them see how their performance matters gives them a sense of pride and will decrease turnover, he said. Whereas overloading agents with measurements and rules will compel many of them to game the system and shortchange the customer.

To illustrate how an overemphasis on metrics can backfire, Montgomery told the story of how a call center manager’s overreaction to an agent’s long bathroom break jeopardized the adherence to schedule metric of dozens of agents.

The manager had knocked on the bathroom door to see why the agent hadn’t been at her station for 20 minutes. The agent, who was sick, felt even sicker about the intrusion, and soon got a doctor’s note, spelling out that she could use the bathroom any time and for as long as she needed. She also told her colleagues about the experience, and soon more than 30 of them got the same note.

Take focus off of call center performance metrics
Montgomery -- who has worked with USAA, Coca-Cola and others -- advises companies to not only use fewer metrics but to show front-line agents no numbers at all. Rather, he recommends working closely with agents, highlighting expected behaviors and detailing what they do well and what needs improvement.

His suggestions had at least one call center manager considering changing how his company reviews agent performance.

Ralph Weiss, supervisor of the sporting goods manufacturer Mizuno’s Atlanta call center, said he would think about decreasing metrics from several to just two key ones that emphasize quality assurance. Mizuno will continue to score agents’ calls, but Weiss might exclude the numbers from the reports he sends to the agents.

Mizuno already takes the more people-centric approach endorsed by Montgomery, emphasizing behavior instead of call center performance metrics to reach goals, according to Weiss and the supervisor who works underneath him at the center, Matt Beckett.

“What’s the difference between a 75 and an 80?” Beckett said. If not sufficiently explained, agents question the meaning and value of performance scores, he said.

The key to motivating agents is to tell them what they do well and not “beat them over the head” about skills that need improvement, Beckett said. Instead, talking over expectations leads to better results, he said.

Montgomery realized metrics needed an overhaul a few decades ago, when he bended them as a call center agent.

He was measured on calls per hour. He exceeded his goals by hanging up quickly on customers and not using spellcheck when he typed their information. His misleading call-per-hour stats led to a promotion, which had him telling his team how to cheat the system. When he finally got promoted to an upper-management position that took call quality seriously, he decided to improve the metrics.

“If we have metrics, and people know how to game them, they’re the wrong metrics,” Montgomery said. “If people are not hitting their numbers, we put them on a corrective action plan. Do employees like that? No. So they’ll game the metrics.”

Computer manufacturer Gateway famously serves as a cautionary tale for gaming the system, Montgomery offered. Once recognized as a leader in customer service, the computer company decided it wouldn’t give call center agents monthly bonuses if they spent more than 13 minutes on the phone with a customer.

Agents then did anything to stop short of 13-minute calls, including hanging up on customers and sending them new computers when they didn’t need them, he said. Gateway’s referral business, once 50% of sales, fell to about 30% of sales.

Instead of worrying about metrics such as abandonment rate, call center managers should ask their agents, “How did you answer the phone?” Montgomery said. Make sure agents feel comfortable and valued and have everything they need to perform well, the same approach companies take with customers, he added.

Using call center managers to boost performance
When Montgomery advises Fortune 500 companies to have managers stay on the floor to work with agents, executives tell him that strategy won’t work because employees always perform better with supervisors nearby, implying that they don’t work as hard when unsupervised.

But Montgomery laughs at that argument, because close contact with supervisors is what agents want, he said. They want to be mentored, shown what’s expected of them and how to achieve those standards.

Call centers implement metrics because everyone else does and often use ones that don’t make any sense, he said.

“If you get away from numbers and focus on behavior and what your quality program can provide … it can get you to look at what you need to improve,” he said.

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