January … the Door of Possibility

Kathleen Peterson Rants & Raves by Kathleen Peterson

The parties are over and the holiday decorations all packed away. It is January, named for Janus, the Roman god of gates and doorways and depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions. January is the door to a new year.

January is a great time to challenge everything, to set the stage for the year, and to allow a theme (of sorts) to be created. Per usual, there are many choices related to what doors to walk through. Will it be the door of fear and powerlessness or the door of possibility and passion? Leaders have a unique responsibility to influence the overall direction that their business unit will assume. This is true even when one is faced with the kind of conditions many must confront today – leading people to understand that it is not conditions that shape destiny. It is choices. This could very likely be the most important leadership message you will ever send.

Pessimism, fear, and frustration do not yield a resourceful state of mind. Quite the opposite … people often become “stuck” in what-ifs and in pointless worrying. They worry about something that has already happened that they can do nothing about. Or they worry about something that HAS NOT happened and in fact MAY NOT happen. This is a serious waste of valuable energy and leaves one exhausted and immobilized.

Optimism is a better choice. Optimism provides the framework for creative thinking, a sense of possibility, and an understanding that all conditions we face are temporary, not permanent. One of my favorite definitions of optimism is the “ability to overcome adversity.” Many interpret optimism as an inappropriate response to challenging times, as if somehow an optimistic view is not “serious.” Certainly, blind optimism is just that. But the ability to look to the future – to instill in those around you a sense that this too shall pass, a belief that what is gained from difficult times has more lasting value than what is learned in better times, and a constant focus on identifying challenges and facing them head on – creates a powerful force upon which people can draw and contribute.

When you make a choice about setting the tone for the year, action is required to produce any results. Many face objectives that on the surface seem impossible to achieve. But look at the “essence” of the objective. In most cases, the essence is around cost reduction and quality improvement. When you really think about it, what’s so new? Today’s leaders will be responsible for demonstrating the ability to balance what essentially amounts to cost and quality while fighting those who do not know better and insist that downsizing people or automating processes is the obvious answer. So what to do?

First and foremost, check your state of mind to assure that you are truly grounded in “what is possible.” Then take a long and hard look at your operation from the not so obvious angle. I am not suggesting that proper Workforce Management (WFM), technology, and current quality programs are not worthy of evaluation. I assume that routine assessments around these areas are being conducted. But the “gateway to action” is what you do creatively with what you have found, what else you examine, and how you report your findings.

As an example, Workforce Management is both an art and a science. The numbers are reflective of how effective your planning is and how productive your staff has been. However, a solid WFM assessment will also alert you to turnover and burnout behaviors. Turnover is relatively easy to spot but not necessarily easy to fix. Burnout behaviors often precede actual turnover. When there is a jump in tardiness, absences, and error rates and a reduction in overall productivity and quality, your operation is in a slump. As much effort as there is on individual reprimands or coaching, seeing the bigger picture alerts leaders to a more pervasive condition, that MUST be identified and acknowledged.

The most common cause of turnover is management. When fear and pessimism get a grip on an environment, some managers (particularly less experienced frontline managers) think they can force performance to meet objectives. As far as I know, this simply does not work, especially with those staff that you would most like to keep. Nothing will drive them away faster than a poor manager. So you see the importance of creative analysis as you uncover one issue and then “peel away” other layers.

Leaders must closely monitor frontline management to assure that traditional data is being used to identify more global issues. Many Contact Centers have been misled by their ACD reports. Over the past decade, technology advancements in ACD reporting have resulted in literally hundreds of agent reports – perhaps suggesting that agents represent the best place to look for trouble spots and improvement. While it is important to monitor agent performance, there are many more global, pervasive, and process-driven issues that relate to management performance and actions. No amount of focus on individual agent performance will ever match the powerful impact of identifying challenges and improvements at a high level to improve the performance of all.

For instance, when the customer data record is provided at the same time a call is delivered, the entire Contact Center enjoys the benefits of shortened handle time, error reduction, and a sense from callers that the organization is savvy and state of the art. When a handoff or escalation is eliminated, the caller is more likely to be handled within a single call; this avoids callbacks and multiple parties being involved in the Customer Experience. If a Center is “chopped up” into small groups, identifying cross-training opportunities reduces delays for callers, improves staff utilization, adds value to each agent advancing in skills, and creates an opportunity to develop a career path. This in turn decreases turnover and retains skills and talent – providing a better experience for customers and employees and a reduction in error rates and hiring/training costs. The list goes on and on.

What were the challenges you faced last year? What were your most significant improvements in 2016? What didn’t work? What did you learn? What have you done in the area of high level or global change in the Center? What needs to be the focus in 2017? And perhaps most importantly … Do your executives understand the Contact Center?

A survey of executives conducted by Bain and Company found that only 30% agreed that their service operations contributed to customer loyalty; only 26% agreed that they understood the cost of service to customers and offer optimal service, and only 17% agreed that their service operations were the most efficient in their industry.

How would your executives respond? This is not someone else’s problem. It falls squarely on the shoulders of those leading Customer Care in any way, shape, or form. Those that provide internal support to enable service to the customer are just as responsible as those with direct contact. It all works together.

Here are some thoughts to consider for 2017. First, think process. An analysis of processes is the most effective method for improving efficiency and reducing costs not only in the Contact Center but also across multiple business units. The “low hanging fruit” is in the tasks and activities involving paper, handoffs, transfers, approvals, and escalations. Any added steps in a process must be evaluated for the primary purpose of elimination and the secondary purpose of automation. Suppose you work in the Customer Care department of a bank where frequent requests come in for loan information, payoffs, car titles, etc. If your front line is busy printing out requests, copying them onto a form, and sending them off into a paper abyss, you may need to address a system or process issue.

When streamlining processes, there is often the uncomfortable requirement of conducting an in-depth evaluation of the technical infrastructure. Unfortunately, many companies have cobbled together decisions made in isolation by multiple departments or have approved “home grown” applications that cannot interface with any 21st Century tools. This results in the “elephant in the room” that everyone sees but no one acknowledges. Fear takes over and forces workarounds, undocumented procedures, band aids, and other inefficient activities – rather than facing the reality that as long as the technical infrastructure is behind the times, the service operation will be hard pressed to gain genuine efficiencies.

The other side of the process improvement challenge relates to cross-functional relationships. Few processes are confined within the walls of Customer Care or Support. There is generally a continuum that flows throughout the operation. Within this continuum is often a hierarchy. Someone is more important than someone else. Someone has more “clout.” Someone doesn’t want their budget impacted negatively by cooperating with another department. I characterize this as “cross-functional dysfunction.” These realities only serve to complicate certain tasks that on the surface appear to be relatively simple.

Take what you have already learned and grind out the real issues. Put your front line leadership/management team in a room for a couple of hours and gather information on what the team views as major challenges. Does it match what the senior leadership teams see? What solutions do they recommend? Then do the same thing with a group of agents. If the two groups are pointing fingers at each other, it is time for a major overhaul of the department’s front line. Adversarial relationships within a department rarely, if ever, produce effective results. Also, look for the voice of sanity in both groups; unidentified leaders often emerge from these sessions.

If you choose to conduct a session, consider calling it (for example) “Mining for Possibility.” Make it fun and exciting by using mining metaphors and encouraging honest participation. Regardless of the name, DO SOMETHING. Frustration is often the result of conversations begun but actions not taken or action taken but not communicated to all.

I guess it really amounts to knowing what your staff does all day. How productive are the processes and systems they utilize? After all, your staff is only as efficient as your processes.

Lead with passion and optimism. Search for improvements within your team and with cross-functional colleagues. Communicate – succinctly – with senior executives about challenges, improvements, and impacts. Make yourself a valuable resource to the executive that may not really understand the role of the Contact Center, thinks only in terms of metrics, and winces at allocating additional budget dollars. You can change this. This is the time for Contact Center management to lead efficiency and quality gains. Let us know how you do … you may not have money, but you have time, and time is money, well … never mind. It is January … open the door of possibility!

“Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.” Unknown Author 

My Best,