12 Step Program

Rethinking The Role Of The Contact Center And Implementing A Strategic Roadmap To Drive Results

An airline’s contact center is often the first exposure customers have to its brand. Therefore, it is essential that this part of the organization implements and follows a strategic roadmap, utilizing a holistic approach that leverages both the best people and technology and addresses key performance indicators (KPIs), hiring practices, training, performance management and compensation.

Contact centers are often viewed as necessary evils. Many companies do not realize their intrinsic value to the corporation and fail to leverage their hidden assets. As well, leadership often focuses on technology and statistical output while overlooking the people part of the equation.

By implementing a strategic plan, or roadmap, to optimize performance and distribute meaningful data to the rest of the company, contact centers can play an integral, active role in day-to-day operations.

Recognize Today’s Issues

The tendency in many centers is to invest in technology that automates procedures and tracks overall performance. The trap many leaders fall into is automatically accepting these performance statistics as performance indicators for their contact center agents.

Talk time is not a performance indicator, although admittedly, it is easy to measure. It is simply a symptom. It could be a symptom of changes in service, weather, or possibly, ineffective call-handling techniques. If the latter proves true, the information should be used to drive performance discussions not measure performance.

Most companies have developed some type of profile of their “ideal” customer, but it is equally important they have a description of their “ideal employee” — created from their customers’ point of view. A company’s front-line employees, including contact center agents, are one of its largest expenses, but also one of its most valuable assets.

Unfortunately, contact centers are notorious for low employee retention, which is often driven by the pressure to answer and end calls quickly while resolving customer issues promptly and satisfactorily. In addition, they tend to be low-paying, highstress jobs that few people can handle or desire to handle, so turnover rates are high. By either improper planning or delayed hiring plans, a company resorts to simply filling vacant positions and neglects to make quality hires. As a result, agents are treated as expendable resources, and the overall quality of new hires and existing staff steadily deteriorates.

Companies need to invest in the hiring process. One of the best ways is to ensure management is actively engaged with potential new hires during interviews. In addition, companies must follow a roadmap that states objectives, outlines processes and measures results as well as encompasses all levels beginning with individual employees through senior management to the business as a whole.

Real-life example:

A South Florida travel company contact center was known, like most of the centers in the area, for conducting mass hires to fill vacant positions.

The company implemented a strategic roadmap, which suggested raising its hiring standards. During the first two nights of interviews only three to five applicants were selected for the final screening process, instead of the usual 20 to 30 candidates.

To be continued …

It took longer — 4 weeks — to get the number of new hires the company needed, but the long-term results were worth the extra time investment. By increasing its level of selectivity, the company attracted new hires who viewed the job as an entry-level position in a company where they could build a career.

Strategic Roadmap: 12-Step Guide To Improved Performance

The strategic roadmap, a comprehensive tool offered by Sabre Airline Solutions®, focuses not only on traditional key performance measurements (KPIs) but offers a holistic view of the entire process from hiring, training and performance management to compensation as well.

The following steps are a guide to the development and implementation of a strategic roadmap within an organization. Initially developed for a contact center, the plan can be adopted for many types of organizations, including airlines, travel agencies, customer help desks, etc. While the steps are described individually, some of them can be accomplished simultaneously, depending on the availability of resources.

Step 1: Identify Internal Needs

First, determine the resources, traits and ideals the company values the most. List those currently measured and those that should be measured.

Once the list is prepared (it may be long), identify the items that are most relevant to the company based on answers to the following questions:

  1. Is it important and why?
  2. How is it reported, or how should it be reported?
  3. Is the data that is reported easily accessible?
  4. What information does the data provide?
  5. Is it a symptom or a metric?
  6. Does the employee have control over it?
  7. Will improvement make any difference?

This exercise helps company leaders understand where the main areas of focus are and where they should be.

Strategic Roadmap: Steps To Improved Performance

Strategic Roadmap There are 12 steps an airline’s contact center can adopt to significantly reduce booking-experience complaints, boost productivity and build employee morale.

Step 2: Conduct “Critical Debriefs” With Customers

Feedback is the No. 1 way to determine consumer likes and dislikes. Interview, in person, as many customers and potential customers as possible. Inform them that the company desires to improve its service and their opinions are a valuable part of that process.

Most interviewees initially relate their feelings or emotions in response, rather than providing facts about a situation. Keep asking, “Why?” until the employee action triggering the initial response is uncovered.

Ask the interviewee to describe his or her best experience with a company and why, as well as his or her worst experience and why.

Observe, listen carefully and take detailed notes, especially as it pertains to actions that triggered positive and negative emotions.

Remember, few people are truly hesitant to offer their opinions, and asking them to provide feedback gives them a sense of empowerment while creating a positive brand image for the company.

Step 3: Establish KPIs

List the key trigger points from the customer debriefs, placing each in either a “positive” or “negative” column, depending on whether the trigger resulted in a good or bad customer experience. Evaluating how many times each trigger point was mentioned provides a good estimate of their relative importance to customers. Then list the items — both positive and negative — that are most important to customers.

Real-life example (cont’d):

Based on feedback gathered from customer interviews, the travel company identified the five most common positive and negative items from the list of trigger points. When executed appropriately, a trigger point frequently resulted in a positive customer experience. On the other hand, when utilized poorly, the same trigger point often resulted in a negative experience. Not surprisingly, several trigger points are similar for most contact centers:

  • Provided truthful and timely information (positive)
  • Repeatedly requested the same information (negative)
  • Placed customers on hold, sometimes without telling them (negative)
  • Addressed customers by name (positive)
  • Offered a sincere apology when a mistake was made (positive)

Once the list is created, it is time to identify the core traits employees should possess to meet customer expectations.

Real-life example:

In this case, the contact center identified three core traits needed by its agents to effectively provide the desired level of customer service. These were:

  • Knowledgeable
  • Active listener
  • Courteous

By linking the top trigger points with the desirable employee core traits, it is now possible to establish customer-driven KPIs from this data for the contact center agents. Revenue and customer satisfaction are the top priorities for most companies. With that in mind, a company may not need to develop many KPIs, as most issues fall within these two or three categories.

Real-life example (cont’d):

Using the data, the travel company developed two customer-driven KPIs:

  • Accuracy completion rate (how many times an agent presented information accurately)
  • Courteous behaviors

Of course, a company may develop additional KPIs, but in general, most traits fall into two or three KPI categories.

Now, review the list of internal needs and compare them with customer needs. In light of customers’ expectations, how should the company-driven KPIs be handled?

Reduced Booking-Experience Complaints

Improved Customer Booking Experiences By closely following the strategic roadmap, an airline will see a significant decline in booking-experience complaints, a clear indication that the strategic roadmap is working appropriately.

Real-life example (cont’d):

The travel company contact center adopted the two customer-driven KPIs that were previously identified, which also addressed customer satisfaction, an important factor to the company.

Recognizing that revenue generation was also important to the company, the contact center utilized revenue per hour (RPH) to compare each agent’s revenue performance with the top performer group (TPG) for the contact center. Travel company contact center agents were expected to perform between 60 percent and 80 percent of the TPG. If the TPG averaged US$1,000 in sales each hour, then the expected range for a contact center agent was US$600 to US$800 RPH.

In the end, the travel company decided to adopt three simple KPIs for its contact center agents: two were customer driven, and one was company driven. They were:

  • Accuracy completion rate
  • Courteous behaviors
  • Revenue per hour

Are three KPIs really enough to measure an individual employee’s performance? Review the list of internal needs initially created. Most companies discover that the items they thought needed measuring are most likely imbedded in one or more of the KPIs they have developed.

Real-life example (cont’d):

After an evaluation of its KPIs, the travel company realized most of its concerns were adequately handled by the three KPIs it adopted plus an additional one. For example:

Talk time — For agents to meet their RPH targets, they need to work each call efficiently, using effective call-handling techniques to control the conversation. They also must employ good listening skills to avoid repeatedly asking customers for the same information.

Slippage (amount of time an agent is off the phone for an unauthorized activity) — Agents who are not at their assigned position taking calls as scheduled are unable to make RPH targets.

Call work time (time spent unavailable between calls) — Again, this will impact agents’ ability to make RPH targets.

Attendance — While attendance is normally handled as a separate performance issue, some contact centers include it with other performance statistics. Nevertheless, agents with poor attendance have a hard time making RPH targets, as they are not at work often enough to build a solid average.

While some of the KPIs may not be suitable to measure at the individual level, it may make sense to include them as additional KPIs for higher-level management. For instance, since there is a cost element associated with talk times, it is reasonable to expect this would be a component on a director’s or vice president’s “balanced scorecard” (which is discussed in a subsequent section), since he or she most likely has some type of budget responsibility.

Step 4: Build Infrastructure for KPI Reporting

Once the KPIs have been identified, the company’s IT team or solutions provider needs to develop a reporting system to deliver the balanced scorecards to contact center agents and management. The ideal situation would be a fully automated process.

In most cases, electronic distribution of scorecards is preferable over paper distribution, which can quickly become cumbersome.

Step 5: Create Profile of Ideal Employee

Based on feedback obtained during the critical debriefs, a company can identify core traits its employees should possess to provide the level of service its customers desire. These traits are the foundation in the creation of an “ideal employee” profile. Other characteristics can be added to the profile as needed.

Real-life example (cont’d):

The travel company determined the “ideal employee” in its contact center needed to be knowledgeable, an active listener and courteous. Therefore, it needed to hire individuals who were capable of learning, retaining and effectively sharing information. So contact center management added good communication skills to its “ideal employee” profile.

Step 6: Revamp the Hiring Process

With the “ideal employee” profile as a guide, revamping the hiring process now becomes high priority. Creating a stringent hiring process that actively involves contact center managers and directors sends a clear message to current and potential employees that a high value is placed on talent.

Throughout the pre-screening process, initial interviews, simulations and one-on-one interviews, potential candidates should be evaluated in light of the company’s “ideal employee” profile.

Step 7: Update New-Hire Training

The hiring of higher-caliber employees will undoubtedly prompt a company to review its new-hire training program to reinforce desired skill sets and behaviors.

Divide the training courses into modules to facilitate training and encourage the regular review and update of course information. Modules may include:

  • Effective-call handling techniques,
  • Identifying buying behaviors,
  • Effective use of customer relationship management and other contact center tools,
  • Customer-service policies,
  • Information management (i.e. how to find the information needed when talking with a customer).

Step 8: Begin New-Hire Training

It is the responsibility of the contact center management team to welcome new hires and answer questions they may have about the company before the training begins. Invite management from other departments as well to provide an overview of their areas. The upgraded quality of new hires will be viewed as a valuable resource pool for filling open positions in other departments.

Step 9 and 10: Conduct Skill-Gap Analyses And Training For Current Employees

As a company implements a strategic roadmap, it is imperative to utilize a holistic approach that incorporates both new hires and existing employees into the planning and execution. Contact center agents want to be treated as professionals, so communicate the high points of the change and the business needs driving it. It is important to address areas where current employees are struggling.

Testing and analysis of current performance can help identify areas where employees may need additional attention and training. Deliver it in a friendly, non-threatening environment. Change often makes people nervous. Assure current employees their expertise is valued and needed.

Recognize some current employees may not adjust to the changes. If this becomes apparent, work with them to find another place in the organization that is a better fit.

Typical Contact Agent Accountability

Effective Call Handling Skills For a contact center to be successful and not exceed the “talk-time” budget, an agent must keep control of the conversation by using effective call handling skills. If an agent doesn’t meet his or her targets, it’s essential for the contact center’s management team to conduct coaching sessions to help get the agent back on track prior to taking disciplinary action.

Step 11: Introduce The Balanced Scorecard

In order for any type of change to truly impact an organization, each individual must feel responsible and be held accountable, no matter his or her “official” role within the company.

Create a balanced scorecard at the individual, supervisor, manager, site and division levels. The balanced scorecard is a performance management framework that measures an entity’s performance in relation to company strategies and objectives. Individual scorecards roll up to the supervisor level, supervisor scorecards roll up to the manager level and so on.

Conduct small group meetings with front-line agents to review the components of the balanced scorecard. Explain each metric and how individuals are measured. Ideally, scorecards should be accessible at any time for employees to view their performance.

Explain the concept of “accountability at all levels,” which helps ensure supervisors and managers are held accountable for their performance, in addition to meeting regularly with and coaching direct reports.

Adopt a philosophy that an unaddressed performance issue is the responsibility of the person who ignored the problem. For example, if a supervisor is aware his team is performing poorly overall but has not identified and coached the individual employees who are struggling, the supervisor is held accountable.

Real-life example (cont’d):

After explaining the accountability-at-all-levels concept, the travel company quickly learned contact center supervisors rarely met with agents to review their performance. This situation naturally rectified itself with the introduction of the balanced scorecards.

Step 12: Align Compensation To Scorecard Performance

As the company and employees become accustomed to utilizing the balanced scorecard approach, performance should be aligned with compensation. Government labor laws may determine if and/or how a company can do so. Naturally, this can be a complicated process.

Management must work closely with human resources to ensure compliancy with government labor laws and corporate policies.

Reap Tangible Results

By following a strategic roadmap modified for its specific needs, a contact center should experience immediate tangible improvements. When coupled with a strong communications plan during and after implementation, there is also an increase in employee satisfaction and morale.

Real-life example (cont’d):

The travel company contact center found booking-experience complaints declined substantially, more than 70 percent year over year, after it implemented a strategic roadmap. With the proper KPIs and reporting system in place, the contact center was able to sustain the gain.

In addition, other departments began recruiting from the center for open positions prior to seeking external candidates.

Share The Wealth

Contact centers are a rich source of information. Companies often conduct several focus groups a year and pay large sums of money to obtain the information already collected during agents’ phone transactions.

A contact center is a living, breathing focus group, and the information it possesses needs to be mined and shared with company leadership. Monthly reviews help identify and eliminate root causes that result in reduced costs, increased revenues and improved efficiencies.

Getting Started

The business consulting team at Sabre Airline Solutions works with businesses in the global travel industry to create a holistic roadmap that leverages both people and technology through improved business processes. By doing so, valuable data regarding customer behavior, including desires and dislikes, can be analyzed and distributed in a way that benefits the entire organization.

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