According to Webopedia.com, Operational Efficiency is described as the “capability of an enterprise to deliver products or services to its customers in the most cost-effective manner possible while still ensuring the high quality of its products, service, and support.”
Notice that it does not say Operational Efficiency is “doing more with less.” Yet so often when the discussion of gaining efficiencies comes up in Contact Centers there is almost universally a sense of discomfort in the air. This is followed by defensive statements such as, “We have cut all the people we can,” “We can’t even buy coffee for the break room anymore,” and “Our training budget has already been wiped out.” These are topped off with the ever popular, “What else do THEY expect us to do?”
THEY is the first problem. Many in this situation have legitimate reasons to feel as though there really is an evil THEY out there put on earth to search them out and make their life a living Hell! However, generally speaking this is not the case. It is simply a belief that renders you impotent as a leader. Listen up … there is no THEY … it’s just US. So pull up your knickers and get down to the real business of making cases and producing results by adopting Operational Efficiency.
Operational Efficiency essentially targets improvements in productivity and reductions in cost. So what are the best ways to get some traction in these areas in the Contact Center? First of all, what do you think of when you think in terms of improving productivity? Does your mind immediately jump to frontline agents? If so, ask yourself exactly what actions come to mind. Should you try to get frontline agents to answer more calls per hour? Exactly how would you go about that?
I have seen many an effort in this arena and demanding that frontline agents answer more calls per hour often leads to desperate measures by the front line. You may find agents meeting the new objective by not actually satisfying the caller’s need because they are rushing to get off the phone. In environments where calls per hour are measured or (worse) incentivized, one can fully expect to see agents literally hanging up on callers. This occurs in many ways, for example, pretending to not hear the caller … “Hello, hello, I can’t hear you, bye-bye.” Even a hang-up COUNTS as a call. Sometimes the agent remains silent and the caller is the one saying “Hello, hello” to no response. The caller hangs up and this too COUNTS!
I have seen places where agents call each other and have deliberate short calls to “up the ante.” You know what I am talking about. It is a poor methodology to use if you want to claim improvements in productivity. And if your mind suggests you can stem this tide of poor service by studying the “short calls report” for agents you need to ask yourself, “Is this is really a contemporary leadership approach?” “Is this the way I want to spend my management time?” The answer is no, it isn’t. Don’t chase data for punishment purposes. Rather, commit to crafting requirements that don’t force agents to do stupid things when attempting to meet equally (or more) stupid and ineffective metrics that don’t make sense.
The other obvious partner to calls per hour is call duration. This is another factor that plays into productivity. Some organizations attempt to claim productivity improvements by lowering handle time. On the surface this makes perfect sense; but sadly it is often the approach leaders take to achieve this objective that confounds outsiders. I have recently found operations attempting to improve productivity by establishing a NEW handle time – one that if calls were within the new target metric the current staffing model would work. HUH? When one leadership team was asked how the agent is supposed to achieve this new handle time, we were met with blank stares and silence. I guess they are just supposed to.
So how do we positively impact productivity without simply manipulating metrics? Three things come to mind – Process Analysis, Technology Optimization, and Forecast Accuracy.
Process Analysis is the number one key to Operational Efficiency because inefficiency is often an output of poor processes. Conduct an audit by documenting the processes involved in each major contact type. Organize contacts by frequency and complexity and focus on high frequency transaction types first. This is where the biggest bang for your buck resides. Improving productivity via Process Analysis assures that each and every individual agent’s performance will reflect the improvement because it is process-based. The system is improved, steps are eliminated, the agent is empowered to act, etc. This approach “globally,” when married to a quality program, drives improvements on an individual and operational basis; this builds momentum toward streamlining and improving both the process itself and the skills of the agent. Attempting to make great gains in productivity one person at a time is a long shot. Fixing processes that improve the performance of every single user, every single time is what process improvement yields … genuine, honest to goodness, long-term Operational Efficiency.
The Contact Center runs on a technology engine that when properly provisioned and implemented provides a platform upon which to evaluate and measure performance. It also offers a means by which management processes (e.g., forecasts, schedules, skill assignments, etc.) can be optimized. Properly provisioned technology is a key ingredient in achieving optimization.
Based on the importance of technology infrastructure, one would assume that the folks selling and buying these complex tools would themselves be experts. Nothing could be further from the truth.
While expertise most assuredly exists in many organizations, in just as many it does not. Sadly, many IT departments have come to own oversight of the Contact Center’s technology infrastructure without having anything more than network and software know-how. This gap only takes the Contact Center so far. The Contact Center’s technology has many attributes that make the Center’s user group “unique.” It requires a real departure from applying the traditional IT approach of standard software deployment. In many cases IT lacks the operational know-how to define Contact Center requirements and the humility to admit it. IT’s exclusion of the “domain experts” when identifying requirements often leads to an unhealthy reliance on the vendor to provision; this often leaves the true user community short on functionality.
The way many Contact Center technology vendors operate today is not conducive to spending time with prospects to assure the best configuration and optimization. The entire industry is messy. For example, did you know that manufacturers (i.e., the names you may see on your phone or reports) generally do not “sell” direct to consumers. Instead they engage an army of Value Added Resellers (value to whom often remains to be seen), more commonly known as VARs. Their mission is to get the system implemented as quickly as possible and move on to the next installation. Sadly, the direction this is all taking leaves the end user with an enormous share of responsibility when it comes to design and implementation and the IT folks may not actually have been properly trained or certified. These conditions all lead to a place where technology optimization is unlikely.
I was recently in such an environment; the Contact Center could not even run its own reports and had to open a ticket. Then the reports arrived as PDFs and the Contact Center resource had to RE-KEY the data into a spreadsheet! Ridiculous does not begin to describe this approach, especially considering the fact that the Contact Center never bothered to ask if the reports could be sent as spreadsheets (they could) and the IT folks never offered. This is a case of the blind leading the blind … all while tens of thousands of dollars invested in a high tech Contact Center system go completely under-utilized and under-optimized. Tragic.
I can tell you from personal experience that organizations committed to Operational Efficiency do not fall into this trap. They recognize the value of internal expertise, inclusion of domain experts, and obtaining external support to deal with acquisition and vendor management. True … Operational Efficiency is not about NOT investing. It is about proper investment in systems, tools, and expertise to build an infrastructure upon which Operational Efficiency is a genuine option that can translate to reality.
Forecast Accuracy is perhaps the least focused-on metric in Contact Centers today, but it is the most important. Forecasting is about building a plan. Organizations committed to Operational Efficiency are very committed to having a full blown forecasting strategy in place. Forecasting requires systems, skills, and technology. Systems may be anything from a spreadsheet and a no-cost online Erlang C calculator (www.powerhouse1.com) to a full blown Workforce Management system.
Regardless of the approach, there is one requirement that will NOT be fulfilled by a system; it is the introduction of the FUTURE into the calculations. Systems store historical data which provides data on the demand; they forecast trends in demand, proportionate distribution, etc. What systems cannot do is know when Marketing is running campaigns, when a billing cycle has changed, or when a Process Analysis has reduced handle time. These conditions must be introduced proactively to the forecast. The forecast function requires gathering information cross-functionally so all demand can be properly represented in the plan. A forecast accuracy rate of +/- 5% is the goal. By measuring Forecast to Actual the Contact Center can get to the core of issues around service level, abandon, etc. Did the load expand due to a wildcard situation or an un-forecasted activity? Forecasts help to identify variations and areas where corrective action may be taken to improve performance.
Staffing forecasts also tell a story and when properly studied provide an early warning to conditions on the front line. For example, a forecast of Scheduled staff to Actual lets leaders know if there are trends emerging around tardy and absent conditions. Both are early indicators of turnover or burnout. This discipline allows leaders to take action before the condition spirals out of control.
Operational Efficiency is actually a noble pursuit. It yields true long-term improvements because the focus is on process, technology, and accurate forecasting – NOT on cutting people. Keep in mind that improvements in process and technology often yield reductions in cost and/or people; it doesn’t work the other way around. Cutting people to reduce cost without benefit of impact analysis is the polar opposite of genuine Operational Efficiency.
“There can be economy only where there is efficiency.” Benjamin Disraeli, British Prime Minister