Turn On and Tune In to the “Stra-Tactical” Method of Contact Center Success

Doug Kolb Rants & Raves by Kathleen Peterson

I happily coined the phrase “Stra-Tactical” Blueprint (October 2011 Rant) to emphasize the need to move deliberately from a dialogue that focuses solely on strategy to one that integrates the tactical requirements of implementing strategy at the highest levels of the organization.

One thing is certain … today’s Contact Centers are very central to strategic plans of most organizations. Whether you know it or not, whether you believe it or not, and whether you like it or not – it is true. Contact Centers are the tactical center of the Customer Experience Universe which is at the heart of many strategic plans. The Contact Center and the Customer Experience are linked; hence there must be a “Stra-Tactical” Blueprint to execute the strategic plan.

As I see it, too often strategic planning is an isolated executive activity to define the goals and objectives any business has for the upcoming year, five years, etc. Typically strategic goals are articulated in very broad terms with painfully little attention paid to the tactical elements required to achieve those goals for the company, the customers, and the employees.

I believe the time has come to ask, “Is there a better way to deploy strategic goals?” Currently we see few tactical plans accompanying the strategic plan, leaving that blank to be filled in at the business unit level. This is akin to the playing the game of “telephone.” By the time the message reaches the front line it has morphed into what their leaders have culled related to what they must do NOW … more cuts to staff, training, incentives, etc. Lost is the essence of the strategy – what the company is, what it is trying to accomplish, how the brand will be protected, who the target market is, what the financial objectives are, where threats are, etc., etc. Where is the essence? Where is the passion?

There are many stories of organizations in which the “misinterpretation” of a strategic objective hijacked the brand and/or the Customer Experience. In 2008 when Howard Schultz returned as CEO of Starbucks (at the time he was Chairman of the Board), Starbuck’s stock price was “in the dumper.” It was down by almost 50% and things were not looking up. Starbucks had altered the hierarchy of what mattered; the move was away from the intimate experience of having a premium coffee in a relaxing and welcoming environment. However the pace of growth, the need for speed, and the alteration of essential experience elements sent Starbucks careening away from the Starbucks experience and toward a fast food experience. At the same time, McDonalds was launching its McCafe. McDonald’s was becoming more Starbucks-like while Starbucks was becoming more like McDonalds. Mr. Shultz sent a memo to employees that included this admission: “We have had to make a series of decisions that, in retrospect, have led to the watering down of the Starbucks experience, and, what some might call the commoditization of our brand.” It was time to regroup and communicate to every level of the organization that Starbucks was about the “experience” and that all decisions would now be measured against staying on brand!

I believe there is a better way. Lead the way to innovation in the tactical deployment of strategic objectives … Build a “Stra-Tactical” Blueprint. Below are three key tasks to think about.

1 – DEFINE THE ELEMENTS OF THE CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE.

Document a clear and concise definition of the Customer Experience in operational and behavioral terms. Hold a brainstorming meeting. (I recommend that if the executive level is not providing a forum for such a meeting do it yourself.) Have the Contact Center build its own blueprint of the elements necessary to deliver on the desired Customer Experience. Use your findings to support coaching, training, quality, performance assessment, incentives, etc. Essentially everything that drives Contact Center performance needs to be tied back to the desired Customer Experience. Here are two examples of Customer Experience elements: Customers are responded to by articulate and well-trained agents and Customers receive speedy and accurate responses to inquiries.

2 – ASSESS OPERATIONAL REQUIREMENTS.

Once the elements are identified, you must take the time to identify what will be required to actually deliver on the objective. Let’s look at one of the element examples above: “Customers receive speedy and accurate responses to inquiries.” It is critical to take this objective apart to identify its tactical requirements. When a “speedy” response is an element, the requirements are essentially things we in the Contact Center are all familiar with … proper staffing, scheduling, and forecasting. “Accurate” responses require training and easy access to relevant information via support tools and other resources. This not only creates a context for training and coaching but for budget. If in fact the executive level embraces the experience elements, the executives will only understand requirements if and when the leaders of the business units link them to operational requirements.

3 – DELIVER PEOPLE, PROCESS, AND TECHNOLOGY REQUIRED.

Once the Customer Experience is defined in operational/behavioral terms and the operational requirements are documented … people, process, and technology must be linked.

People

As far as people are concerned, competency requirements are a critical success factor. Document the requirements and identify pre-screening tools, probation periods, etc. If your company places Human Resources (HR) in charge of hiring, it must be on YOUR terms by which they hire. If HR is not provided the requirements and if they are not negotiated in advance, you may be “stuck” with staff unlikely to succeed at the job. This can potentially cost you in terms of the Customer Experience and as my father used to say, “Easy to get is hard to get rid of!”

People in positions of influence over the Customer Experience must learn what they are being hired to do and how it is to be done. Training, coaching, quality programs, and KPIs must all be challenged for their effectiveness. Training is the single most important element in Contact Centers. But still to this day we see programs that are too long, too complicated, and too poorly developed to be effective. Some companies even display an unwillingness to acknowledge this colossal failure and invest the money to DO IT OVER. There are simply programs that are too outdated, too poorly designed, and too poorly delivered to be effective. Yet all the organization wants to do is “make some changes” to something that isn’t working in the first place.! When training is poor, everything that follows will require inordinate amounts of front line management time to correct and re-educate. This is just plain inefficient. If the “Stra-Tactical” Blueprint indicates that in order to achieve your company’s goal training must be efficient, effective, ongoing, and contemporary – does your program measure up? When was the last time you conducted an evaluation of training and its effectiveness? We all need to keep moving forward, keep on asking questions, and keep on documenting both the “requirements” to deliver a particular experience and the “obstacles.”

Process

Process is the bane of existence in many Contact Centers. Why? Process is almost universally cross-functional. Far too often business units are built as silos (Budget, Leadership, etc.) where there is insufficient alignment or even the desire for alignment.

Alignment to other business units in the same process stream is critical to the Customer Experience objectives being achieved. However, far too frequently there is little alignment and more incentive to leave it that way than to change it. This is where Executive Sponsorship is often required; executives are the ones with the ‘juice” by which to “force” alignment or collaboration. Suppose another business unit – let’s say Marketing – takes an action that generates contacts and the Contact Center has not been informed. Not only does it foul your operation in the customer’s eye (and in the agent’s for that matter), it is also inefficient, ineffective, and incomprehensible that a need so obvious is ignored. Certainly there are more examples, but you get the picture. The idea is to empower yourselves in the Contact Center to report situations and experiences that put the Customer Experience at risk due to poor process alignment. This is a better career building activity than simply shrugging shoulders and accepting it as if a victim of circumstance.

Technology 

Technology is best as a process facilitator, though business processes should not be “backed into” recently purchased technology. The IT folks service the business. If IT is not aligned to the “Stra-tactical” Blueprint by  gathering requirements and holding a seat at the acquisition table for representation by the domain experts, the risks are huge. Far too often technology-buying decisions are not part of a blueprint. One day IT is buying telecommunications, the next day knowledge management, and the next day who knows what. For starters, IT MUST align any recommended technology investments to the “Stra-Tactical” Blueprint or at least offer some other reason why this investment should be made. In this day and age the Customer Experience is extremely dependent on technology investments that are thorough and address the needs of the contemporary consumer.

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All this to say … In order to deliver something as vague as a strategic directive related to the Customer Experience you MUST have a plan. The “Stra-Tactical” Blueprint forces the discussion around the operational elements that must be required in order to deliver. If no one in your organization has done this blueprint, go ahead and take a shot! And if you need help with it, just call me.

All the best,

Kathleen