3.3 Twelve characteristics of the best-managed call centers

3.3 Twelve characteristics of the best-managed call centers

Some call centers exude energy that may take one or more different forms: a feeling of community, pride of workmanship, and results that spring from good planning and coordination. Everyone in the center knows what the mission is and is focused on attaining the objectives. They are all pulling in the same direction, just like a well-trained sports team. A number of benchmarking studies address the subject of what makes a well-managed call center. But while these surveys report on the results obtained by these centers in terms of customer satisfaction and retention, service levels, planning accuracy, organizational structure, costs and revenues, employee satisfaction and turnover, they seldom describe how positive results were obtained.

The following 12 characteristics have been compiled from the experience of industry analysts and call center managers and represent a summary of those qualities that contribute to a well-managed call center. They are the attributes of some of the world's best-managed call centers, those that consistently outperform others in their respective industries based on commonly accepted measurement criteria, including customer surveys.

Recognize people as the key to success

Call centers that recognize the direction in which the business is going are continually cultivating CSR skills. They provide training and present attractive career paths to their people. They also consider the whole person when hiring and when rewarding for good performance. They pay attention to people's inherent talents and abilities, not just the job categories and specific duties.

Leading call centers also develop formal and informal communication channels in their organizations. Keeping people well informed helps them prepare for and accept change. Change is personal, and its meaning and level of acceptance are based clearly on how change is communicated and how it is perceived.

Receive support from the corporate culture

Corporate culture, often referred to as "the value principles" of an organization, tends to guide employee behavior and can either support and enhance the best-laid plans for organizational change or ruin them. There is no magic formula for creating a supportive corporate culture; however, managers in well-run call centers agree that shaping the culture of the organization is a primary leadership responsibility. They do not believe that this process should be left to fate, and they therefore devote considerable effort to understanding their organization and the people who are part of it.

Effective communication is a primary ingredient of a high-performance culture, creating meaning and direction for people. Organizations of all types depend on the existence of shared meanings and interpretations of reality, which facilitate coordinated action among employees. Many management training programs fail to appreciate the complexity and paradoxical nature of human organizations. Unfortunately, thought processes that should be involved in management principles give way to how-to-do-it formulas and techniques and slogans and homilies as the principle management guidelines. The most effective call center managers are comfortable with the fact that it is seldom possible to completely master interpersonal relationships and that compromises are necessary. Understanding this reality of life means spending more time on "people issues" than on anything else.

Focus quality on customer expectations

The best-managed call centers have a strong focus on evolving customer needs and expectations, and they are continually redefining quality around those expectations. They appreciate the fact that what worked yesterday may not necessarily work tomorrow.

Establish a collaborative planning process

A major objective of good call center planning is to "get the right number of people in the right places at the right time." Systematic planning accomplishes other positive objectives, however, including contributing to effective communication and creating a body of information that wouldn't otherwise be available. Call load patterns support the structure of schedules. Planning is the catalyst that encourages people to think about the future and see their contributions to the overall picture. Systematic planning is also important because it requires communication on issues such as resource allocation, budgeting, and workload priorities. Constant communication about these activities is a requirement for all active call centers.

Consider the incoming call center a total process

Call centers that consistently get the best results view themselves or "the operation" as a "total process" in the organization's day-to-day business activities. This view of the call center takes several forms and results in a number of desirable characteristics:

  • Assisting in the development of an effective, collaborative planning and management process

  • Enabling people to understand how the call center supports the organization's direction

  • Ensuring that everyone in the call center and those with key supporting roles outside the call center have a basic understanding of how call centers operate

  • Assisting managers to take the initiative in coordinating and relating to other departments

  • Recognizing that most quality problems occur in the process stage and continually trying to improve processes

  • Integrating the call center's activities effectively with other departments within the organization

  • Providing the capability to respond to changing conditions

The days of the call center as an island unto itself, separate from the rest of the organization and considered simply as "the place where they handle sales and customer service," are fast fading. The true nature of the call center has become recognized—it is the "front wall" of the organization and an important part of a much larger corporate business process.

Establish an effective mix of technology and people

In the call center environment, personal contact with callers has to be reduced because there is simply too much caller demand for CSRs to handle routine calls or tasks that technology can readily handle. However, it is an important and fundamental aspect of good customer relations that callers are not relegated to machine responses when they need a real live person or when they prefer live answers to product or service questions.

Leading call centers continue to work to find the right mix of people and technology. Although technology can take an organization where it's going, very quickly, it's a good idea to be headed in the right direction! This means recognizing both where technology fits and the importance of the human element in making technology work effectively.

As noted in Chapter 2, new technologies are not passive; they are continually changing caller expectations, causing reallocations of resources, power shifts in call centers, and changes in the responsibilities of CSRs and managers. The challenge for call center professionals is to sort through the many choices, identify the technologies that can further the mission of the organization, and then implement them with the necessary foresight and planning.

Provide the correct mix of specialization and pooling

Pooling resources is one of the key characteristics of the incoming call center industry and is a primary function of technology tools such as ACDs, networks, and other supporting devices and systems. The advanced capabilities and increasing sophistication of intelligent ACDs and network services provide call centers with the means to mix and match the incoming call load in a variety of ways. The pooling activity that takes place in call centers that have the latest technology represents a continually changing mix of specialization and pooling. The technology available to handle each call according to its individual needs and characteristics requires call center planning, operation, and management to remain focused on cross training and broadening the skills of reps. There will be overlap, however, and contingencies in the operation that must be managed with intelligence and rationality. Leading call centers have an edge over other, less-productive call center environments because they have been able to strike the right mix of specialization and pooling—one of the reasons they obtain high marks for their successful operations. To accomplish this objective, they do the following:

  • Expand responsibilities for CSRs

  • Avoid unnecessary complexity in CSR group structures

  • Improve information systems and training so that CSRs are capable of handling a broad range of transactions

  • Implement a flowchart system and network programming to identify weaknesses in routing logic

  • Hire multilingual agents, where possible

  • Position the call center as close to the "pooled" end of the spectrum as possible

Leverage key statistics

The indicators of high-level call center performance include

  • Average call value (for revenue-producing call centers)

  • Successful forecasts of call load versus actual load

  • Service level

  • Cost per call

  • Customer satisfaction

  • Adherence to schedule

  • Percentage of abandoned calls

  • Errors and rework required

  • Average call-handling time

Related to these operating statistics are three common characteristics of call centers that get the best results:

  • They ensure statistical measurements are accurate, complete, and as unbiased as possible.

  • Reports are viewed in relation to each other.

  • They are aware that simply tracking high-level measurements won't inherently improve results.

They know that a single report, outside the context of the others, can lead to erroneous conclusions and that statistics can often be misleading. They prefer to work on the root causes of problem areas.

Receive budgets and support as needed

Often in call center operations, the budget is presented to call center managers before objectives have been stated and before anyone has agreed that objectives could be met within the assigned budget. It is much more logical for the "budgetsetters" in an organization to ask the individuals responsible for meeting defined objectives how much money they need, what other resources, and so on. A good analogy is the airline industry: Airlines couldn't possibly operate flights without a tangible connection between the results they want to achieve and the supporting resources. They start with an objective to fly a certain number of people to a particular destination and then budget to do this. The goal is a specific, predetermined outcome supported by carefully calculated resources. This is the way senior corporate management should consider call center operations—specific objectives that require a certain level of resources. The best call center managers decide on their objectives first and then obtain the necessary resources to support those objectives through careful planning.

Hurdle distance, time, and politics effectively

The evolution of computer and telecommunications technologies has resulted in the birth of new companies and the growth of existing companies that can span both geography and time. Fiber-optic cables crisscross the globe, and satellites provide virtually worldwide telecommunications service. Trends in the call center industry reflect these developments in the global marketplace. Distributed call centers, in which two or more centers share the call load, can span a region, a country, or the globe and are becoming commonplace. Telecommuting programs continue to proliferate at a growing rate. Call center personnel have been formed into cross-functional teams, with responsibilities for everything from forecasting the workload to improving quality.

Although new technologies have provided an increasing array of new capabilities, the natural barriers that exist between people who work in distributed environments remain, resulting in the following situations:

  • People who work in different places and/or at different times often have difficulty seeing themselves as an integral part of a larger, unified team.

  • Informal opportunities for relating to each other in traditional settings—lunchrooms, hallways, and break room—are only rarely available.

  • Significant information may be exchanged outside the formal context of memos and meetings, resulting in an uneven distribution of this information among the dispersed group.

The changing workplace means that call center managers increasingly have the responsibility for managing people who work in different locations and don't report directly to them or don't work at the same time. Managers in the best-managed call centers recognize that the success of their operations depends on how well they master the art of managing and leading in a distributed, often widely geographically separated, environment. As some authors of leadership texts have pointed out, the key to leading a dispersed team to high performance levels is building trust. Unfortunately, trust cannot be bought or mandated—and there are no foolproof, specific formulae or rules for achieving trust. Like leadership itself, trust is hard to define and has no recipe for managers to follow to create it. Despite this fact, the experience of managers in the best-managed call centers has led to a set of guidelines—management processes that have been successful in many cases—to building a desired level of trust among employees, particularly in geographically dispersed centers. Following these concrete steps is more likely to create environments in which trust will flourish than taking no action at all:

  • Create a clear vision for the call center and its objectives

  • Ensure that everyone in the center receives key information at the same time

  • Create opportunities for people in the distributed environment to get to know each other

  • Make an extra effort to develop relationships among the more "distant" members of the group, whether the separation is due to time or geography

  • Minimize the impact on call center staff of unnecessary hierarchies and cumbersome bureaucracies, which can affect distributed teams adversely

Be prepared and willing to experiment

Reassessing and reviewing operating procedures to determine how well the center is doing compared to its objectives is another hallmark of the most successful call centers. These reviews attempt to answer such questions as What areas can be improved? What activities can be terminated? What assumptions no longer make sense? What can be done differently? Is there an opportunity for outsourcing some call center activities?

Be capable of vision

The call center industry has come a long way in recent years. Customer expectations are high and call centers are gradually learning how to meet them. Most of the best-managed incoming call centers have learned how to deliver value to their organizations and its customers. Collectively, these organizations have invested billions of dollars and considerable time and effort in equipment, networks, and software, as well as in human resources, including many hours spent training and equipping call center staff to meet their responsibilities. Centers are now fully versed in the nuances of forecasting, staffing, and the behavior of queues. They have identified evolving customer needs, are constantly changing and improving processes to meet those needs, and finding new and better ways of operating in an increasingly competitive business environment.

Summing up the overall characteristics of well-managed call centers demonstrates that the best-managed centers are those that have excellent resource planning and management processes that are systematic, collaborative, and accurate and that result in the productivity, service level, and quality that make them industry leaders.

The future of call center management

Some call center mangers may view the future with some trepidation and may have reservations about the impact of the next wave of technology, but the future can bring many benefits. The growth of e-commerce and the changes it will require in traditional call center operations and processes will certainly have a significant effect on how call centers operate, as will the changing business environment. Call centers will therefore be required to handle an increasingly diverse mix of transactions. Managers wonder about how to keep up in an environment that is moving at a very rapid pace, in terms of changing technology, changing customer expectations, and heightened competition. But uncertainty also brings opportunities and challenges to overcome, and experienced call center professionals will be in demand by organizations that need people who can help them meet those challenges and make the transition into the new era of business.