Elimination is Infinitely More Powerful than Automation

Kathleen Peterson Rants & Raves by Kathleen Peterson

Whether at home, at school, or at work, the ability to eliminate excess allows space for clarity, productivity, and a genuine contribution to well being.

Every business unit in every company today is faced with doing more with less (usually money), while simultaneously being asked to improve the Customer Experience, increase productivity, reduce errors, increase revenue, reduce cost, and all manner of other lofty goals. Technology often enters here with great promises of meeting and even exceeding these goals. The touted solution often includes the recommendation to automate, automate, automate – add a channel, improve your web site, offload to an IVR, use speech recognition, etc., etc. The only thing that we have not been able to consider automating is in fact the customer, although I am quite sure that if someone found a way it would generate great interest. Certainly with all the bar codes, RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), web, Bluetooth, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology it is a wonder that the vacuum, the fridge, and the water heater can’t report itself in for service or that our refrigerator can’t report us to our physicians. Just wait … I am sure we’re almost there.

For now however, we must carefully evaluate automation recommendations and ask ourselves, “Is this automation truly going to yield the greatest efficiency?” When technology offloads human contacts, does it then add staff in IT to support it? Simply moving costs around is not really the objective (although for some, moving it off their budget is good enough). Silos support this thought process, also categorized as “Cross-functional Dysfunction.” (However, this story is not about that; we will save that story for another time.)

Automation is all about process. This is one reason why the best way to arrive at the decision to automate is to do a process analysis FIRST. Then you can determine if there is technology to improve it, whether you should offload it, or (more powerful than either of these) whether you should ELIMINATE it.

The “best practice” of determining the WHAT before the HOW means that analysis is done prior to arriving at the solution. Far too often objectives are established or technology purchased with little or no process analysis. Few requirements are defined; this leaves the way open for the people you are buying from to define your needs rather than you defining them. This abdication often results in attempting to back your processes into a system that may cause more problems than it solves.

I once worked with a Contact Center where a Senior VP charged the Contact Center with increasing the percentage of calls handled in the IVR from 20% to 30%. The Contact Center team nodded in agreement and returned to the Center. Their first order of business: remove the zero-out option and the calls will look as if they were completed in the IVR. Bingo! Stats were up and the Center was on its way to hitting that 30%. Problem solved. If only the VP knew how this increase had been accomplished (a Customer Experience bummer) or that the most frequent call type was “billing error.” If only the Contact Center team had been able to make the case for fixing the billing system, the majority of calls would have been ELIMINATED! This most certainly would have accomplished what the VP was after. Surely, it would cost more and take longer. However, the impact would last longer and it would be a one-time cost. Elimination positively impacts resource requirements, the Customer Experience, cost, and quality.

Elimination is an outcome, not unlike cleaning the house, closet, or garage, where the objective is to get rid of things that are in the way (or no longer add value) or to reorganize for better access. We must be cautious when improving processes to assure that we are not just doing some “cleaning” and will soon refill the now-available space due to habits, rituals, or lack of focus.

Tools are important in evaluating processes for improvement or elimination. They range from something as simple as asking your front line, “What are the dumb things we do here?” to the more sophisticated application of technology such as “speech analytics” software that is emerging as part of Quality Recording Systems (e.g., Verint). A great example of this is a Canadian financial institution that used its speech analytics application to “mine” recordings for phrases that were repeated within calls. This allowed the company to dig into specific issues and move from anecdotal to empirical data that is much more actionable. This operation now reviews all mailings to customers in order to eliminate the cause of many phone calls that were generated by confusing language in mailings. This is only one of many improvements it was able to make in order to drive cost down and quality up. That is often the power and the outcome of elimination – there is a streamlining of the experience.

Too many steps in a process make it ripe for errors. Errors and rework waste time and cause customers to contact us. Streamlining a process translates to fewer contacts and an improved Customer Experience. Yet it takes time and the skill to know how to evaluate a process from end to end. It takes cross-functional support because like our Canadian example, the fix may lie outside of your particular area of responsibility. All those business units in the Customer Experience Continuum must align in order for elimination to occur.

Warehouses that receive poor order information from the web or the Contact Center will waste time, energy, resources, and money on picking and packing the wrong merchandise. Never mind the returns, the impact on inventory, and the customer’s needs not being met. Speed and accuracy are critical; all participants in the process must commit to working together to discover opportunities for elimination.

I once wrote an article about an organization where the Contact Center Manager instituted a role called “Director of Causal Analysis.” Her job was to eliminate as many process issues as possible that drove customer complaints. Her team had responsibility for all Quality evaluations, the Agent Assist queue, and the analysis of customer call data.  The team met weekly to identify any customer that called in repeatedly (within thirty days). All recordings were pulled and listened to, records were checked, the cause of the call was identified, and a determination was made as to what exactly the trigger was for this contact. In some cases, an agent needed more training. But in more cases it was a backlog or back-office bungle in another department that was contributing to the problem. The team’s position was not to simply search for the guilty; it would partner with the department in question to resolve the process issue. This actually resulted in improvements within two business units, not just one.

The Director of Causal Analysis and her team did not wait until an issue arose to initiate a cross-functional dialogue. They identified those business units in the Customer Experience Continuum and proactively reached out to them. First they asked for a single contact that would understand the relationship and be on board for contributing to the discovery of improvement opportunities. When issues arose, a relationship was already in place. They were not met with a defensive posture and many problems were eliminated due to collaboration. This is a “Functional Cross-function.” In one case the Contact Center sent several of its agents to be trained in order to help eliminate the backlog. Likewise, the back-office folks were trained to handle calls in order to be available during peaks. Everyone benefitted. The team enjoyed quite a good reputation. Unfortunately the company was sold and the new regime did not adopt this model. My guess is that they will likely have to resurrect it in a few years!

We are in a massive state of change. Let’s hope it all works out for the best. Get on board this wild ride; look around your business unit and look into your life. What is in need of attention? Be silent for a while and listen to the wisdom of your inner voice; it will come to you. Pay attention, take action, be kind, and have fun. Optimism is more important now than ever. Be the messenger of possibility.

Finally, ask that question about the dumb stuff you do. The frontline LOVES to let management know where it is being stupid. Make it FUN. Have the frontline vote for the #1 DUMB THING. Publish the findings and give away copies of the movie Dumb and Dumber. That will eliminate some of the stress folks are feeling this year and will very likely identify several processes in need of attention. This is a great time of year to do something nice. So be nice to yourself and to your team. Eliminate all your barriers to optimism and work towards positive elimination.