Tag Archives: operations management articles

Call Center Benchmarking: A Path to Self-Improvement

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStat

Benchmarking is the comparison of your call center with statistical results from the norm of industry peers. These numeric measurements are called metrics. Metrics can be in the form of financial figures, operational quality and efficiency, human resource efficacy, or whatever is deemed the most valuable to the participants, though typically and primarily they are operational in nature. “If it can be measured, it can be improved,” asserted Kelly Doran of Simcoe Message Centre in Barrie, Ontario. The “objective measurement of quality standards can help highlight areas of strength and weakness in both individuals and teams.”

Successful benchmarking follows a progressive path towards a desired outcome. First, there must be a desire to obtain, have, and use the information. Next, you need to determine who will be invited to participate. The basic requirement is for participants to have an interest in the results and a commitment to contribute. Beyond that, it is imperative that all participants are in sufficiently similar business niches within a common industry. In many cases, it is wise to select those using a common hardware or software platform, since operational metrics are hard to reliably compare when their source is different, employing dissimilar statistical standards. Some will assert, that from the caller’s perspective, a call center is a call center and therefore it doesn’t matter who your center is benchmarked with as long as they are of similar size. Yet everyone knows that a telephone triage call center is much different than an order-taking operation and a physician’s referral line has different objectives than a literature request function. Quite simply, it makes no sense to compare your call center to another one that is in a different industry, pursuing different goals, and with different cost-benefit standards.

The third step is to determine which numbers to measure or gather. It is recommended to start small, obtaining only a few key numbers. As participants become engaged in the process and realize the value of it, then other metrics can be added. This is followed by developing a standard determination of how the information will be gathered or the calculations will be made. For without a standard methodology each participant will make the calculation as they see fit, rendering any results unreliable. These two steps can be both time consuming and contentious. Assistance from someone with experience in benchmarking or a background in statistical analysis is most beneficial at this point, serving to greatly simplify the process and save valuable time. Also, if this person does not have a direct stake in the results, they are able to more objectively guide the process.

The fifth step is a critical one. It is to develop the survey form, which includes documenting the source or calculation of the data. Although this seems like a simple and straightforward process, it is one fraught with peril, as a less than ideal survey form will doom the process to misanalysis or failure. Again, someone with experience in benchmarking or developing survey forms will be most helpful. Then, regardless of the quality of the survey form, or its developer, it is of paramount importance to test it. What may seem perfectly clear to those who developed and reviewed the form, it could cause confusion or misinterpretation among those completing it. Therefore, a small field test should be conducted. Any problems uncovered in the test will need to be corrected before the benchmark survey is distributed to all participants.

The next two steps are the most important, as concerns in these areas can cause otherwise willing participants to decide not to complete the survey or to color their responses. Quite simply these steps are to gather the completed surveys and then to compile the results. Concerns reside in who performs these two items. It is imperative that this person or group be trusted, respected by all participants, and that there not be any perception of a conflict of interest. As such, it is recommended that someone not participating in, nor who will benefit from, the benchmarking results be assigned the task of both collecting and tabulating the responses.

The results of the benchmarking survey should only be presented in aggregate form and then only to those who responded. All individual answers must be fully protected. In some cases, such as providing cross-sectional or demographic analysis, certain sections may need to be eliminated due to a small number of responses that would effectively expose one or two members. The results, often along with analysis and a commentary are distributed to all who participated.

Although conducting a benchmarking study once is valuable, the real benefit comes from repeated studies over the course of time. Therefore, it is important to follow-up with those who participated to determine any problem areas needing correction or additional data to be collected. These changes must be made and the survey repeated. Depending on the nature of the information, the survey should be repeated at least annually, possibly semiannually, quarterly, or even monthly. The benchmarking results then become a periodic report card showing your successes, your shortcomings, your improvements, and your relapses – all with respect to your peers. This provides the basis for celebration and self-improvement.


Some Examples of Benchmarking Metrics

Operational

  • Percent of calls answered
  • Average time to answer
  • Percent of calls placed on hold
  • Average hold time
  • Occupancy (percent of time spent working)
  • Average call duration
  • Average wrap up time
  • Number of calls answered per month
  • Amount of time spent on calls per month
  • Schedule adherence

Human resource

  • Annual turnover rate
  • Average employee (CSR) tenure
  • Cost to hire one new employee
  • Cost to train one new employee
  • Starting pay per hour
  • Average hourly rate

Financial

  • Percent of revenue spent on labor
  • Cost per call
  • Value of the call
  • Profit margin

Summary of Steps for Benchmarking

  • Possess a desire to obtain, have, and use the information.
  • Determine who will be invited to participate.
  • Determine which numbers to measure or gather.
  • Develop a standard for how calculations will be made.
  • Design the survey form.
  • Test the form and correct problem areas.
  • Distribute the form.
  • Gather the completed surveys.
  • Compile the results of the collected surveys.
  • Present the findings.
  • Analyze and correct any problems for next time.
  • Determine additional data to collect the next time.
  • Repeat the process periodically (at least annually).

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.

[From the Fall 2004 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

Outsource Your Calls – Not Your Best Practices

By Robert J. Camastro

There is no question that outsourcing of call center operations is a growing trend in North America as companies try to lower cost, avoid capital spending, and refocus on their core business. Nonetheless, there are plenty of in-house call center practitioners that would rather find other ways to deal with these issues than follow the trend, and wisely so.

One of the three most common reasons companies choose not to outsource is concern over losing direct influence over the service and sales effectiveness of their telephone staff. Another, which is less tangible but no less important, is losing control of the sound and feel of their product as it is presented over the telephone. Lastly, over time, companies who outsource often find themselves drained of in-house expertise in best practices for their own call center function, making them perpetually dependant on their outside provider. These are legitimate concerns, particularly given the less than inspiring history of the call center service industry and the typical business models upon which most providers rely for their success.

Service providers in the U.S. do not have a natural cost advantage over most of the clients they serve. They buy their labor, telecom, facilities, and equipment from the same market as their clients, and they also have to build a reasonable profit margin into their pricing. They are only able to get their costs lower than that of their clients by creating economies-of-scale that their customers cannot achieve alone. They do this by cross training their agents to handle multiple client applications and routing the calls from that group of clients into a single queue. The volume built up by this approach reduces agent idle time between calls and makes the collective workforce much more efficient than could ever be hoped for by the workforce of any single application.

However, as agents are cross-trained to handle multiple applications, their focus, loyalty, and detailed knowledge about any of the individual clients they serve begin to deteriorate. This is a natural result of cross-training because there is a great deal more for the agents to learn and fewer repetitions for any given application. In many cases, the client can’t even be introduced to the agents working their account because their calls are diluted among too many agents to make any sort of client-agent relationship a practical expectation. These factors can naturally create a negative impact on sales, service, and presentation, making it difficult for the provider to ensure that the best practices of the client are well preserved.

Compounding this problem has been the rising cost of labor and attrition in the U.S. call center industry. As service providers find that cross-training alone has not been enough to maintain a significant cost advantage, they have been compelled to look offshore at locations like India and the Philippines to further lower labor costs. Although these low wage locations have allowed service providers to recoup their cost advantage, they are left with the same best practice problems, albeit for different reasons.

With a North American workforce, human dynamics such as cultural awareness, linguistic skill, and service proclivity are taken for granted because the workforce is indigenous to its client base. While it was not necessary to give these factors much thought when the service industry was sourcing U.S. labor for U.S. based applications, it has become an issue of great concern today for anyone using offshore labor to serve U.S. customers. This is because culture, speech, and an understanding for the American customer’s service expectations are fundamental to achieving best practices in the U.S. market. Although offshore providers are working very hard to overcome this disadvantage, given that their workforce is not akin to the U.S. market, this will remain a persistent problem until the world gets quite a bit smaller than it is today.

A viable alternative to off-shoring is a solution referred to as near-shoring. Dominating this category is Canada who has seen explosive growth in call center business over the past ten years. Although the Canadians cannot compete exclusively on price with India, they can make a good run at the Philippine price points and will certainly out price most U.S. based providers. More relevant to this discussion, however, is the strength that the typical Canadian work force brings to the human dynamics issue. Here, the cultural awareness, linguistic skills, and service proclivity is non-distinguishable from that of their U.S. counterparts, making them ideal for the entire North American market from the standpoint of best practices.

Whether you are already outsourcing or just thinking about it and whether you choose to outsource to a provider next door or on the other side of the globe, the following guiding principles will help you get the most out of your service provider and outsourcing experience:

  • Try to negotiate the use of a dedicated workforce. If this option is too expensive, try to limit the number of clients in your work group to two or three at the most, with your application being the largest. This will help ensure that your agents are getting significant repetitions on your account and are not overly distracted by the other applications on their plate.
  • Get to know the agents in your work group and treat them like your own. Encourage them to personally identify with your company and create frequent incentive programs and activities to continually nurture their morale. The agents will appreciate the extra attention and in return, will strive to meet or exceed your organization’s expectations.
  • Do whatever you have to do to maintain in-house best practices expertise. Always remain one step ahead of your provider in terms of knowing how your business works over the telephone and how to maximize the quality of your sales, service, and presentation. Maintaining in-house expertise will also keep you from becoming intellectually dependent on your service provider and will allow you to change providers, if necessary, without losing your core telephone competency.

If your service provider does not allow you to, or discourages you from, implementing any of these guiding principles, it may be time to find another partner. There are plenty of providers out there who appreciate the value of this approach and actually encourage their clients to follow this formula.

Remember these guiding principles when looking for a partner. Good luck and happy outsourcing!

During his 25-year career in the customer care industry, Robert J. Camastro, Founder and President of Virtual-Agent Services, directed Planning and Development for United Airlines’ worldwide call center network involving over 7,500 agents and 45 domestic and international centers.

[From the Summer 2004 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

Multistate Nurse Licensing

By Mike Wilson, J.D.

One of the most common uses of telenursing is telephone triage with centralized phone banks. However, telephone triage by a nurse can run afoul of licensing laws when calls are taken from states in which the nurse is not licensed to practice.

Licensing of professionals historically has been a state matter. Recent technological advances make it easy for professionals to provide services in other states via the phone or Internet. Nurses, under the leadership of the National Counsel of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), are ahead of other medical professions in addressing the legalities of multistate practice with the Nursing Licensure Compact (NLC), approved by the NCSBN in 1998. Because regulation of nurses is a state matter, the decision to join the NLC must be addressed legislatively on a state-by-state basis.

According to the NSCBN, the Nursing Licensure Compact has been adopted and implemented in the following states: Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin. States in which the Compact has been adopted but is not yet fully implemented include Indiana, New Jersey, and Virginia.

The Compact allows for mutual recognition of state licensure among states that have adopted the Compact. A nurse who obtains a multi-state license in the state of his or her residence may practice in other states that belong to the compact. Individual states still establish their own rules and regulations related to licensure, practice, and disciplinary action while adopting their own administrative rules to implement the Compact. However, employers verify licensure through the state where the license is issued.

The multi-state license dispenses with the need to obtain a separate license in states that belong to the Compact. Nurses in compact states need not apply for multi-state licensing, but doing so has become popular. A survey by NSCBN found that 86% of nurses in Compact states have multi-state privileges. Employers report it is less cumbersome to hire nurses from a NLC state because there is no time wait for licensure. Nurses report that multi-state licensing saves them time, money, and trouble. Benefits of NLC cited by the Nurse Licensure Compact Administrators include the growing need for nursing practice to occur across state lines and the technologies nurses use that may cross state lines.

Even with a multi-state license, nurses still must obey the laws and rules of any state in which they practice. Also, each state still carries out disciplinary proceedings with reference to nursing practice in that state, whether the nurse involved is a resident or is a non-resident practicing under a multi-state license. A survey by NSCBN found that nearly 40% of employers of nurses say they do not understand the disciplinary proceedings under the NLC. Basically, only the nurse’s home state that issued the multi-state license can take action against that license. However, other states in which the nurse practices but does not reside can take action against the nurse’s privilege to practice in that state. As multi-state licensing is adopted by more states and nurses sign up for multi-state privileges, licensing concerns that arise in nurse triage by telephone should diminish.

Mike Wilson is an attorney and author. He teaches at Sullivan University in Lexington, KY.

[From the Spring 2004 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

What is Six Sigma?

By Jim Long, MBA

One of the most dynamic processes in the field of quality control over the last thirty years has been Six Sigma as pioneered by Motorola. Six Sigma is a quality control standard in which the goal is to reduce variability in every business practice within an organization.

The Six Sigma quality control standard was originated by the Motorola Company in the 1980s and was designed to help eliminate the rate of defects perceived to be caused by manufacturing variation. An organization that achieves Six Sigma is required to have, at the most, 3.4 defects for every one million customer requirements.

To illustrate how strict the tolerance for errors are in Six Sigma, consider the following. Many would consider having 90% quality to be pretty good. Certainly, many more would consider 99% quality to be excellent. But, how about 99.73% quality? Would this level of quality be acceptable or even above the expectations of the pickiest consumer? If the pharmaceutical, healthcare, and public sanitation industries met a 99.73% quality standard the following statistics may provide us with an accurate illustration. There would be at least 54,000 drug prescriptions filled improperly in the pharmaceutical industry annually. The healthcare industry would be responsible for dropping over 40,500 newborn babies every year. Additionally, there would be a period of two hours every month in which the public sanitation industries would allow the water quality to become unsafe.

Now, if Six Sigma were to be achieved in each of these industries, quality would be improved to the following level. There would be only one improperly filled drug prescription every twenty-five years in the pharmaceutical industry. Only three babies would be dropped every one hundred years in the healthcare industry. Finally, the public would only have to endure one second of unsafe drinking water every sixteen years.

Six Sigma strives to remove variability in all facets of an organization and challenges each member of the company to become committed to this culture. Six Sigma is much more than a way of removing flaws in the manufacturing process and the product. For Six Sigma companies, process improvement needs to be included in every business practice, including those jobs that are considered indirect labor or non-revenue producing. Six Sigma has been applied to unconventional business practices such as the percentage of properly filed paperwork, customer complaints, and even effectiveness of solvents used in restrooms.

Implementation of Six Sigma: The implementation of Six Sigma follows a strict protocol. First, projects are selected starting with those that are thought to have the highest organizational priority. For many years the process of Six Sigma implementation followed a five-step process referred to as DMAIC. However, there is a new eight-step Six Sigma Breakthrough Process that many organizations are using to rework quality issues. The eight steps include: Recognize, Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control, Standardize, and Integrate.

Member evolution: The Six Sigma training process is very organized and structured. This structure serves two purposes. Corporate decision makers can see progression at each level of implementation. Most importantly, the Six Sigma training process incorporates a climate of employee involvement. This employee involvement is very important as it ensures that the transition to Six Sigma has the best possible chance to succeed. When employees are involved, transitional management is much easier. As employees go through Six Sigma training they earn belts, similar to those earned in the martial arts. These belts signify the employee’s Six Sigma skill and knowledge.

  • Yellow belt: The yellow belt is the starter level of Six Sigma. When an employee goes through yellow belt training they are taught the essentials of Six Sigma and discover how the process works. Yellow belt training normally takes one week to complete. Upon completion of yellow belt training, the employee can serve as an organizational leader in simple projects or support green and black belts in implementation of more complex projects.
  • Green belt: Green belt training can normally be completed during a two-week seminar. Upon completion of this training the employee can lead Six Sigma projects with estimated returns greater than $25,000 annually. In this training program, potential green belts learn about various methods of measuring data, including many quantitative models that can be used to diagnose organizational inefficiencies. Most Six Sigma projects are led by green belts. A Six Sigma organization should have one green belt for every $100,000 in annual revenue.
  • Black belt: Whereas green belts fully understand the concepts of data collection and interpretation, black belts have an equal or greater knowledge of these statistical tools in addition to the knowledge of how to lead many groups of Six Sigma projects simultaneously. A Six Sigma organization should have one black belt for every $1,000,000 in annual revenue. Black belts serve as leaders and points of reference for green and yellow belts. Green belts will need to report to black belts regarding the status of their Six Sigma projects.
  • Six Sigma champions: The highest level of Six Sigma training is the Six Sigma champion. These employees are those who have proven to be effective as black belts. The champion training differs from the black belt training in that the employee focuses on organizational leadership and the strategic decision making process. A Six Sigma champion is often times connected with a member of the organization’s senior management in order to identify and lead projects of vital importance. Six Sigma champions are also referred to as master black belts.

Six Sigma Challenges: Certainly, the process of implementing Six Sigma is a challenge for any organization. The implementation process introduces a huge time of adjustment which is one of the primary challenges of Six Sigma. Many of the Six Sigma organizational implementations that don’t stick have to do with these companies not being fully committed to the process.

In addition, many organizations are faced with challenges regarding implementation of Six Sigma because they fail to assign metrics to all business functions. One of the necessities of Six Sigma is to quantify all business functions in order to improve on them. Even when it comes to support functions such as paperwork, quality of this function must be analyzed quantitatively. Stating that peripheral business functions are good or bad is not precise enough. It is essential to determine how many errors are made per million attempts.

Six Sigma Benefits: The division of Motorola that oversees their Six Sigma services is known as Motorola University. Motorola University claims that the return on investment for properly implemented Six Sigma projects ranges between 10:1 and 50:1. Few organizations would not be interested in learning more about a process that can offer that level of return on investment.

The popular literature is filled with the benefits that Six Sigma can provide organizations in which its principles are incorporated. Many of these benefits can be associated with how an organization must be aligned towards continuous improvement in everything it does.

  • Teambuilding: Teambuilding is an essential element of Six Sigma. Many organizations wish that their workforce would communicate effectively across functional silos. However, they have no idea how to initiate this communication. The Six Sigma process requires just this kind of cross-functional communication in order to succeed.
  • Constant improvement: One of the most basic tenets of Six Sigma is constant improvement. Six Sigma supporters state that while 3.4 defects per million attempts may be unattainable for the vast majority of companies; this goal serves as a constant reminder that there is no such thing as good enough. The only constant is the need for improvement.
  • Mandated training: Many organizations never seem to have time for training. Either these organizations do not properly prioritize training or they see it as an unnecessary expenditure of capital with no obvious correlation to revenue. The Six Sigma Quality Control Program mandates training in all aspects of organizational processes. Any business process that incorporates Six Sigma must be refined and this refining process requires training.
  • Return on investment: One of the greatest advantages that the Six Sigma Quality Control Program offers organizations is the reported return on investment. According to its 1997 annual report, AlliedSignal reported a $1.5 billion savings due to Six Sigma. GE chairman Jack Welch has been credited with claiming savings in the billions of dollars that directly correlated to Six Sigma implementation. Yet, in order to achieve these levels of return on investment, organizations must be willing to commit significant time, energy, and resources to the process. There is no such thing as partially committing to Six Sigma as it is an all or nothing proposition.
  • Increased aptitude for organizational change: Finally, Six Sigma can introduce an increased aptitude for change. Six Sigma is devoted to constant improvement and continual change in all business processes. All members of the organization are continually asked for examples of processes that can be improved and recommendations of solutions to these inefficiencies. This constant solicitation of input creates a corporate culture in which change is sought after and implemented with relative ease.

Jim Long, a former contact center general manager, holds a Masters in Business Administration, a Masters in Management, and is a Certified Professional in Human Resources. [For more, refer to Six Sigma Your Contact Center]

[From the Fall 2003 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

Six Sigma Your Contact Center

By Dr. Jodie Monger

The contact center is one of your organization’s most valuable assets. Ninety percent of your callers base their image of your organization on their experience with your call center. The contact center is (or should be) the center of the corporate universe. Why, then, is so much time spent by managers justifying its existence? Too often, high-level executives do not understand the value of the contact center to the company’s brand image or its contribution to shareholder wealth. Education within your company is your responsibility. How do you gain the positive attention to move the contact center into the center of the universe?

Many companies have been or are beginning to use the Six Sigma methodology to improve quality throughout their organizations. The beginning, middle, and end of this cycle of the Six Sigma process is the voice of the customer. A logical place to look for such information is in the contact center. Where else can the green and black belts, who are responsible for driving continuous improvement in the Six Sigma system, find the pulse of the customer?

Six Sigma provides a framework to identify your customer critical-to-quality metrics that lead to customer satisfaction and quantify the cost of poor quality. When routine customer interactions are not handled in the customer-correct standardized way, it is a defect and customers will be dissatisfied. As you identify and correct defects, resources are saved and the savings can be reinvested back into your processes to continue to increase customer satisfaction and organizational income. The cycle is quite powerful and is a competitive advantage.

Herein lies an opportunity to leverage the contact center. Make a connection with your company’s master black belt to let him or her know that the contact center is a Six Sigma resource and that you have opportunities for Six Sigma projects as well. Next to a manufacturing line, there are no other functions in an organization where the operational data is more readily available than a contact center. The ability to measure aspects of the function is critical to the Six Sigma effort – define, measure, analyze, improve, and control.

A Six Sigma project team requires the voice of the customer to determine a need for a project and to then determine the success of a project. In our effort to provide the mechanism to measure the quality of service delivery, completely automated telephone surveys of real-time customer feedback has provided the needed measurement for many Six Sigma projects.

The automated surveys also provide the channel for additional projects focused on other organizational aspects by also implementing additional fully automated telephone surveys in parallel. This ability affords the contact center the right to claim its status as the focal point of the organization. The contact center can implement a Six Sigma project related to call resolution while also fielding surveys to measure satisfaction with the billing process and the product quality/repair process. Essentially, you should become the go-to group for customer opinion measurement.

Be prepared for a change. The ability to measure customer opinion with a sound, inexpensive option has catapulted the status of contact center teams within the organizational hierarchy finally giving credit where credit is long overdue.

Jodie Monger, PhD, is the President of Customer Relationship Metrics, L.C. Prior to joining Metrics, she was the founding Associate Director of Purdue University’s Center for Customer-Driven Quality. For more information about completely automated telephone surveys contact Jim Rembach at 336-288-8226 or jim.rembach@metrics.net or call their demo line at 866-537-8500.

[For more information about Six Sigma, see What is Six Sigma?]

[For many organizations Six Sigma is simply means a measure of quality that strives for near perfection. It is a disciplined, data-driven approach and methodology for eliminating defects (driving towards six standard deviations between the mean and the nearest specification limit) in any process. The statistical representation of Six Sigma describes quantitatively how a process is performing. To achieve Six Sigma, a process must not produce more than 3.4 defects per million opportunities. A Six Sigma defect is defined as anything outside of customer specifications.]

[From the Fall 2003 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

Support Center Site Certification

By Greg Coleman

If you are considering site certification for your support center you are probably deluged by the sheer amount of information, facts, and myths about the benefits of earning certification. You may also wonder what being “certified” means, how to go about it, and why. In this article, we’ll sort all this out and take a broad look at some of the benefits of certification along with some of the things to look for when selecting a certification program. Certification methodology and quality of results can fluctuate widely between the various programs and the more information you have now, the better off you’ll be when selecting the program that will best help you achieve your desired results.

Who Should Consider Certification and Why? Here are some of the reasons organizations choose to become certified, along with what to look for when selecting a certification program.

A Roadmap to World Class Support: The program should provide a framework for the development of your support organization. The certification criteria should provide guidance for ensuring that best practices are followed and should focus the organization on delivering the highest quality support possible.

  • Address Specific Support Related Issues: The certification program should cover virtually every aspect of support center operations. It should provide a focus on key operational areas that need attention. By gaining this focus, support organizations will have the momentum necessary to address long-standing issues, and improve overall operations in the process.
  • Validate Their Current Practices: Those companies that feel they are already delivering top quality support can use a certification program as a means of validation. Inevitably, areas for improvement will be identified through the certification process that will drive even higher levels of performance. The certification process should validate the practices in place within the organization and allow for attainment of industry recognition for the quality of support being delivered.
  • Market Support as a Competitive Differentiator: The certification program should provide the type of external validation required to help communicate the quality of support being delivered to your customers. Certified support organizations should have the rights to use the certification logo in marketing materials, enabling your company to better promote its services.
  • Drive Consistency in Support Delivery: Many support organizations deliver support through multiple support centers both regionally and across the globe. Consistent service delivery is a key component in maintaining and driving higher customer satisfaction levels. The certification program must provide a common framework through the program criteria and define the practices necessary to deliver consistent service levels across multiple support centers. The program should then measure the degree of consistency through the certification audit process.

Benefits of Certification: The benefits associated with earning site certification for your support organization are numerous. Among them:

  • Increase Customer Satisfaction: Increased customer satisfaction and loyalty through improvements in operational effectiveness and staff productivity
  • Benchmark Against the Best: You can benchmark your support operations against industry best practices and compare your operations against those of other world-class organizations.
  • Gain an Advantage Over the Competition: Your clients, shareholders, investors, and prospects will recognize the commitment your company has made to become certified. Use the certification process to set your organization apart from your competitors.
  • Improve Service Delivery: The improvements that you make in an effort to achieve certification will benefit your customers by providing them with improved service delivery and better trained staff, as well was better implementation and documentation of key processes and procedures. Virtually all support organizations could improve in one area or another.
  • Retain Customers by “Blocking-Out” the Competition: Your customers will recognize the commitment your company has made to becoming certified. Use the certification process as a customer retention tool to set your organization apart from the competition. It’s one thing to claim quality support; it’s another to prove it.
  • Leverage a Continuous Improvement Program: New products and services, changing customer demands, competition, and new markets are just a few areas that offer ongoing support challenges. Certification helps assure that your customers will receive a high quality of support. In addition, ongoing re-certification can drive continuous improvements year after year. You’ll have a continuous improvement program in place that enables you to provide world-class service to your customers.
  • Gain Consistency Across your Support Organizations: By certifying each support center in your organization, you drive process and performance consistency across your organization. For example, the Support Center Practices (SCP) Certification program defines a common vocabulary and best practice roadmap. Providing a common goal and vocabulary eliminates traditional organizational barriers that can derail other continuous improvement efforts across support centers.

Return on Investment: Certification creates value in many ways. It focuses your support center on results that directly affect your bottom line. Depending on the certification program you select, your initial investment can be less than one-half of a full time equivalent per support center with minimal implementation costs.

  • Efficiency: With a leading certification program you can expect greatly improved effectiveness and/or efficiencies of the processes in place within your support centers, including improved response times and lower operational costs.
  • Differentiation: Achieving certification with a leading program means you have joined the best of the best. It isn’t easy, but recognition of value seldom is. The best programs require you to pass a rigorous onsite audit covering all program elements to attain certification.
  • Consistency: Certification should improve the focus on strategic planning for your support organization. You should be able to implement common support practices leading to high quality support delivered consistently worldwide, develop consistent use of tools, implement standard set of support metrics, and enhance your support strategy and vision.
  • Recognition: Certification can help raise the internal and external awareness of value of the customer support organization. Internal recognition elevates morale within your organization and your customers will appreciate the value of post sales support. This helps you leverage service as a competitive advantage.

Selecting a Certification Program: Once you’ve decided to seek certification, do your homework, and select the program that is best for you. A few things to consider:

  • What is the program’s record of accomplishment? Who developed the certification criteria? Who sponsors it? How long has it been available?
  • Who are the certified participants? Check the names of organizations that have been through the certification process. How are they perceived in the market? Call a few of them and ask for their direct feedback and ask about the benefits they have received.
  • What is the market acceptance? Is the program the internationally accepted standard to which others are compared? How many organizations have adopted the certification program?
  • What are costs? Are all fees stated upfront? Are there associated consulting fees? Some certification programs require costly consulting engagements or additional fees. Research all the costs up front to avoid unwelcome surprises.
  • How often is the program revised and updated? Being world-class today doesn’t mean world-class next year. New trends and technology are continually raising the bar on superior customer support levels. Make certain that the certification program you selected is updated and revised on a regular, published schedule.
  • Program content: Look for a program that can quantify the effectiveness of your support based on stringent performance standards that represent best practices in the industry. The program should establish a foundation to build on existing quality processes and provide a clear focus on measurable results. Make sure the program is designed specifically to increase customer satisfaction and loyalty through improvements in operational effectiveness and staff productivity. Ensure that the certification program provides a continuous improvement process that enables you to provide world-class service to your customers. After all, that’s the bottom line.

Greg Coleman is the Vice President of Certification Programs for Service Strategies Corporation; call 858-674-4864 for more info.

[From the Summer 2003 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

Benchmarking Your Call Center

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStat

What is benchmarking? At its simplest, benchmarking is objectively comparing your call center with others. Brad Cleveland of Incoming Calls Management Institute states that “Benchmarking is comparing products, services, and processes with those of other organizations, to identify new ideas and improvement opportunities.” Whereas Dr. Jon Anton of Purdue University defines benchmarking as “A structured, analytical approach to identify, deploy, and review best practices to gain and maintain competitive advantage.”

Benchmarking is a safe, anonymous, and effective way to obtain input from peers which can be used to compare and contrast your call center operation to others. This feedback provides a baseline for determining areas of deficiency, as well as success. Benchmarking produces quantifiable results, real numbers from real businesses, thereby offering real solutions. Also, once a benchmarking process has been implemented, it can be easily repeated and updated on a periodic basis. This provides a time line of successive snapshots of your business. In essence, benchmarking makes it possible to create a report card showing your successes, your shortcomings, your improvements, and your relapses – all with respect to your peers, but done so privately and confidentiality.

Therefore, call center benchmarking is the comparison of your operation with statistical results from the norm of industry peers. These numeric measurements are called metrics. Metrics can be in the form of financial data, sales numbers, operational quality and efficiency, human resource efficacy, or whatever is deemed to be the most valuable to the participants, though typically and primarily they are operational in nature.

Successful benchmarking follows a progressive path towards a desired outcome. First and foremost, there must be a desire to obtain and use the information. Next, you need to determine who will be invited to participate. It is essential for participants to have an interest in the results and a commitment to contribute. Beyond that, it is imperative that all participants have sufficiently similar businesses. In many cases, it is wise to select those using common equipment or software platforms, since operational metrics are hard to reliably compare when their sources employ dissimilar statistical paradigms.

The third step is to determine which numbers to measure. It is recommended to start small, obtaining only a few key numbers (as participants become engaged in the process and realize the value of it, then other metrics can be added). It will then be necessary to develop a standard determination of how the information will be gathered or the calculations will be made. For without a standard methodology, each participant will make the calculations as they see fit, rendering any results unreliable. These two steps can be both time-consuming and contentious. Assistance from someone with experience in benchmarking or a background in statistical analysis is most beneficial at this point. This outside assistance serves to greatly simplify the process and save valuable time. Also, if this person does not have a direct vested interest in the results, they are better able to objectively guide the process.

The fifth step is a critical one. It is to develop the survey form, which includes documenting the source or calculation of the data. Although this seems like a simple and straightforward process, it is one fraught with peril, as a less than ideal survey form will doom the process to misanalysis or failure. Again, someone with experience in benchmarking or developing survey forms will be most helpful. Then, regardless of the quality of the survey form – or its developer – it is of paramount importance to test it. What may seem perfectly clear to those who developed and reviewed the form, could cause confusion or misinterpretation to those completing it. Therefore, a small field test should be conducted. Any problems uncovered in the test will need to be corrected before the benchmark survey is distributed to all participants.

The next two steps are the most important, as concerns in these areas can cause otherwise willing participants to decide not to complete the survey or to color their responses. Quite simply these steps are to gather the completed surveys and then to compile the results. Concerns reside in who performs these two steps. It is imperative that this person or group be trusted and respected by all participants and that there not be any perception of impropriety or a conflict of interest. As such, it is recommended that someone who is not participating in, and will not benefit from, the benchmarking results be assigned the task of both collecting and tabulating the responses.

The results of the benchmarking survey are only presented in aggregate form and then only to those who responded. All individual answers must be fully protected. In some cases, such as providing cross-sectional or demographic analysis, certain sections may need to be eliminated due to a small number of responses which would effectively expose one or two participants. The results, often along with an analysis and commentary, are distributed to all who submitted data.

Although conducting a benchmarking study once is valuable, the real benefit comes from repeated studies over the course of time. Therefore, it is important to follow-up with those who participated to determine any problem areas needing correction or additional data to be collected. These changes must be made before the survey is repeated. Depending on the nature of the information, the survey should be repeated at least annually, possibly quarterly, or even monthly.

Some examples of benchmarking metrics:

Operational

  • Percent of calls answered
  • Average time to answer
  • Percent of calls placed on hold
  • Average hold time
  • Occupancy (percent of time spent working)
  • Average call duration
  • Average wrap up time
  • Number of calls answered per month
  • Amount of time spent on calls per month
  • Schedule adherence

Sales and Marketing

  • Number of sales made
  • Sales per hour
  • Average revenue per sale
  • Number of inquiries
  • Closing ratios
  • Source of leads

Human Resource

  • Annual turnover rate
  • Average employee (CSR) tenure
  • Cost to hire one new employee
  • Cost to train one new employee
  • Starting pay per hour
  • Average hourly rate

Financial

  • Percent of revenue spent on labor
  • Percent of revenue spent on marketing promotions
  • Percent of revenue spent on all sales and marketing efforts
  • Number of clients
  • Average revenue per client
  • Cost per sale
  • Profit margin

Conclusion: Benchmarking is a valuable mechanism to bring outside experience, information, and knowledge into a business. With this input, business goals become more defined and realistic; direction, clearer; and focus, sharper. It is an opportunity for improvement that should be seized.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.

[From the Summer 2003 issue of AnswerStat magazine]