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A Call for Improvement

Use basic tools to ramp up call centers

by Harry Coifman

It's a common perception that customer phone support is a resource-draining operation. This results in many call center cost reduction projects but few process improvement initiatives. Basic tools can be used to improve a call center. The scope of this article is an inbound technical support or issue resolution environment. With a few modifications, the method described also can be applied to sales calls.

The first step is to recognize the four phases of a call: greeting, root cause identification, issue resolution and closure. The greeting step includes answering the call, locating the customer's account and authenticating the caller. In the closure stage, customer expectations for off-line processes are set, and the account is documented. The root cause identification and issue resolution steps tend to be rich with improvement opportunities.

Understanding the current state

Currently, many call centers collect volume and time data. This information is rarely collected by call type, however, and manual collection might be required. It is impractical to pursue all call reasons, so use a call-volume and customer-impact weighted matrix to prioritize your efforts.

Customer impact weights are usually rated on a 1 to 10 scale. Make sure rankings are based on customers' opinions, not perceptions. If results need to be presented, a Pareto chart provides an easy-to-understand format. Focus on the highest-ranking call reasons.

The remaining reasons should be covered in subsequent cycles of your continuous improvement (CI) program.

Next, focus on understanding the process for the top issues. A decision tree provides a useful visual. Place the callers' symptoms at the top of the tree, the resolution at the bottom and the decisions required to identify the appropriate resolution in between.

Creating a future state

Having prioritized the call reasons and documented the current process, the future state can be addressed. Convert the decision tree into a process map, and complete a value added analysis. Then, research best practices, and create a standardized resolution for each call type.

Customers don't want to experience problems, but if one does occur, they expect a quick and effective resolution. Ideally, the root cause should be eliminated, but if this is not viable, optimize the call flow by eliminating redundant or nonvalue added work. Avoid transferring the call—surveys have shown this call reduces customer satisfaction by 20%.1

Make sure the agent has the necessary tools, authority and knowledge to resolve the issue. A survey by Mike Desmarais, president of Service Quality Measurement Group Inc., found that issue resolution is the most important factor for the caller.2

When designing the new process, controlled customized solutions can be included. For example, solutions A, B and C can be offered to highly profitable customers and D, E and F to all others.

For example

After data and value added analysis, a service provider found that regardless of the call type, a certain procedure was always required. The company also discovered process inconsistencies—given the same scenario, agents' methods differed, resulting in erroneous conclusions and ineffective resolutions. Also, the company found various instances when a customer would call multiple times to "fish for a good agent."

In response, the company created a desktop tool that assists agents during the decision process. The agent selects the symptom from a drop-down list. Based on this input and other data automatically collected by the system, the desktop tool provides the recommended actions, which the agent can override. This tool reduces call handle time and guarantees consistency.

This process should be incorporated into a CI process. Also, validate that off-line processes meet the expectations set during the call. Otherwise, your efforts will be offset by the subsequent experience. Don't forget that eliminating the root cause is preferable to managing it. If this is not feasible, however, the approach will help build a more effective customer support process.


References

  1. Service Quality Measurement Group Inc., "Contact Center Call Escalation Benchmarking Study," http://sqmgroup.com/escalation.html, March 2007.
  2. Mike Desmarais, "Let Your Call Center Customer Service Representatives be a Judge!" https://brc.manpower.com/BRC/files?name=Let_the_CSR_be_a_Judge_Article_09_27_06.pdf (case sensitive), September 2006.

Harry Coifman is an associate director of operational excellence for MCAP, a mortgage and equipment financing company in Toronto. He earned a bachelor's degree in industrial engineering from Northwestern University and an MBA from McGill University. Coifman is an ASQ member and a certified Six Sigma Black Belt.


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