Productivity in Contact Centers – The dirty word –

small arrow green upThe mainstream discussion on the best way to reduce costs of customer services seems almost entirely focused on topics like Social Media, WOCAS, Voice of the Customer, Customer Experience and The best service is no Service. Nowhere in the discussion around quality up & costs down (which is the basic philosophy of any of the themes mentioned) driving productivity increase is mentioned in a positive way. Stronger even: quite often we see the argument that one should focus on the effectiveness of Customer Care processes and not on the productivity of the transaction. One could say that Productivity is The Dirty Word of today’s word of mouth around Customer Care & Customer Contact.

I would like to argue here that productivity management is as much a tool for quality management as is quality monitoring. If executed in the right way productivity management can contribute as much to decreasing volume as self-service-robots. I even dare to state that productivity management is the cheapest and fastest way to get better results on First Contact Resolution, Customer Satisfaction and Customer Experience.

Why? In my blog “How do I understand Why” I stated: “CEM (Customer Experience Management) is about taking it back to where it all starts: The Customer places a Call.….And ask yourself: WHY?” The same applies here:

Productivity is about taking it back to where it all starts: The Customer places a Call…. And ask yourself: WHY does it take so long (on average, because that is what we contact center professionals look at) ?

Again this question is rarely easily answered. At best there is some form of skill-based routing (do not overdo that) and few fully multi-skilled agents. This enables the organisation to assess what type of contacts (and processes/customer experiences driving these contacts) are complex, take more time to handle and would require improvement first (on experience, quality and productivity). Also most contact centers do not have fully multi-channel CTI-connected and integrated systems which would enable full contact type productivity analysis on an individual level.

To cut it short: In main-stream contact center-life there is very little insight in the reasons why AHT/productivity is what it is. The result of which is that contact centers managers continuously have to explain why it has gone up over that week, month etc etc. And of course they hardly ever have good founded answers and start tracking ICT-problems and other department failures and alike to cover their [Dirty Word Here].  That’s part of the reason why productivity management is the pain in the [DWH] of today’s customer care and contact center business. Other reasons are: Productivity management is not sexy & Productivity management is not making you popular and liked.

Why is Productivity Management the cheapest and fastest way to increasing quality?

In my humble opinion and experience there is a clear relation between customer satisfaction and the average length of a call. In my past experience as Business Unit Manager of a Contact Center Outsourcing Service Provider I was, among other Clients, responsible for a part of the first and second line tech support for one of the world’s leading Game consoles. I say part, because this business is multi-vendor outsourced as well as multi-regional executed within my former company.  There was a very clear focus from the Client on Customer Satisfaction (top 2 Box on a scale of 9) and First Contact Resolution (measured by customer feedback). Because of the multi-regional set-up there was intensive (healthy) competition and best practice sharing between the sites. In the last year I worked for this company my location showed best (above target) CSAT (and almost on target FCR)  results throughout the entire year worldwide. At the same time our AHT was lowest within the company I worked for.

This “proof” brought me to dig into the details and I discovered that not only AHT was lower on overall average, but at the same time the variance in AHT between the different agents was much smaller compared to the other projects running on “my” site. When I asked the responsible manager(s) to explain to me what, in their opinion, made the difference it became clear to me: Productivity management is not about managing AHT, it is (again) about managing the way the agent approaches the call and guides the customer through the process of problem/question resolution. If you know what makes a good call (and really it is not about mentioning the customers name three or more times and also not about 6 critical errors out of 12 error opportunities) and you have the ability to teach and coach your agents how that is done, and you empower your agent with the right systems (access) and authority, you will get the shortest contact possible with the least risk of repeat calling This will also be the call with high customer satisfaction and good to great customer experience. Although the latter might be because others are not doing that well in general ;-)

A practical approach to improving productivity and increasing quality at the same time

To conclude what you could do to make quick and cheap results on quality and productivity with one and the same measure:

  1. Get a list of all employees and their respective AHT and define the agents that have AHT > 15 % above overall AHT (do not be surprised if this is more than 30 % of you agent population)
  2. If possible cross-check (and correlate) with quality monitoring results (and you will establish the correlation yourself)
  3. If monitoring results are not available start monitoring these agents and establish any gaps in knowledge or behaviour they have adopted that does not aid to delivering the best for your customer in a call
  4. Develop an awareness, training & coaching program focusedon How do I approach a call for this group only (at first, to keep it cheap and quick) and train on any knowledge gap if applicable.
  5. Train – Monitor+Coach – Monitor+Coach – Monitor+Coach – Train – Monitor+Coach with high intensity for several weeks to a few months and you will see:  quality monitoring results will go up and AHT (for the respective agent and overall) will start dropping significantly. At the same time you should be able to track a drop in repeat traffic (if the agent group you are attacking is of a significant size and takes a significant number of calls of course).

What you should keep in mind:

  1. Do not make this program about AHT reduction for the agents involved (not even for the coaches/teamleads involved). Make it about improving their ability to help the customer in a pleasant, effective and efficient way and make it about customer satisfaction. 
  2. Your second step should not be about repeating the first, but about the agents with AHT more than 15 % below the overall average. You will definitely find some rotten apples in there that you need to get out too.
  3. When you do individual productivity analysis make sure to also keep track of hold-time. Excessive hold-time is a clear indicator that there is a lot of feedback asked from others (or time spend waiting for others to help) or that too much time is spend on performing analysis. In all cases there is a gap of knowledge you need to close.
  4. There will be hopeless cases: empower and support your team managers to get the best out of everyone, but you should also be willing and able to empower to lay-off someone (which might be legally easy outside Europe, but not in most countries inside Europe) even if this will cost you some.

To conclude: you can start with this today, do not spend lot’s of money on (selecting) new systems, but focus on the customer experience that counts: The Call with the Customer.

Have fun, and please share your thoughts/experiences.

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12 thoughts on “Productivity in Contact Centers – The dirty word –

  1. Pingback: AHT as call center management evaluation metric « Contact Center Intelligence

  2. Hi Ro and Sharidan,

    Thx for your input. I’ve read both papers swiftly and will surely get back soon with a new blog on this topic. I don’t know why, but this is the best read article on my blog with lots of strong and now also different arguments (that all tend towards the same direction though: do not use AHT as a KPI).

    @Sharidan: thx for the “pitch”. Nevertheless its true: multiple systems cost a lot of time and also cause higher risk in mistakes. That should be abolished! ;-)

    @Ro: its always best to “fight” someones opinion with his own arguments.. yours definitely put a smile on my face today ;-)

    Did you (and vermeer) also convince me? wait and see.

    Thx again & contact me any time if you want to discuss through this blog or on twitter.com/wimrampen

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  3. Hi Wim,

    I recently found an eGain White Paper online that tackles the same issue discussed here, while taking a look al Contact Centers in the same way Stephen Covey looks at business and organisational improvement.

    Thought you might find that interesting ;-)

    Go here: http://www.callcentrehelper.com/white_papers/egain_whitepaper_7habits_effective_contact_centers.pdf
    and check out page 6 (habit 4) for the part on false metrics, industry best practices, and AHT.

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  4. Thx again for your clear comment and argumentation.

    Considering the strenght of your language as an indicator for the strenght of your opinion, and with full respect for your view on this topic, I think it’s best to agree to disagree at this point.

    Wim Rampen

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    • It is always easier to disagree than to argue, to argue is not to agree or to disagree. Politicians in Belgium, who do not know how to answer a question, often say : “I don’t say no, I do’nt say yes, on the contrary”. Clearly, sometimes truth is too simple, people do not like their illusions (like “AHT”) unmasked. Worldwide, CSR’s/agents are in danger.

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  5. Thanks for your comment on my answer dated May 11 on your blog about “Productivity in Contactcenters”. I am pleased to see that you agree with a lot of my statements and I am glad to notice that you also detract the value of AHT, in recognizing that AHT should probably be “not more than a PI (Performance Indicator) with relatively LOW weight”. But let’s not beat about the bush : even that recognition is giving far TO MUCH credit to AHT because :

    1) You write that AHT is an important metric in Contactcenters. This is certainly NOT true, because at this very moment we are pleased to see that more and more Contactcenters, worldwide, are totally omitting AHT as a metric ! In the first place because the cost of a call is only PEANUTS in comparison with the revenues of retention, sales and appointments. In the second place, the problem with AHT is that people are trying to measure the WRONG thing, because focusing on reducing AHT equals : “A contest to minimize the average time it takes an agent to LOSE good customers, by rushing, interrupting and snapping those customers, in order to produce BAD service a few seconds faster”. So, AHT may NEVER be defined as any idea of ‘performance’ and it has NOTHING to do with managing ‘productivity’. The risks associated with AHT are not acceptable, we should NEVER allow any metric to short-change the conversation with customers. In other words, AHT is totally without merit, it is a non-issue, it is an aberration and it should therefore be abolished. There are more than enough OTHER metrics that provide insight in the number of sales/appointments, retention and the effectiveness of activities in Contactcenters ! ;

    2) It is NOT true that ‘AHT’ and ‘productivity’ are synonyms. ‘AHT’ is acting more like a ‘symptom’ and an ‘indicator’ of MANAGEMENT effectiveness, because the control-point for AHT is certainly NOT the agent. After all, AHT is directly affected by the management’s ability to PROVIDE the agent with the necessary and appropriate environment, facilities, knowledge, systems, scripts, processes, systems response speeds, services, assessments, quality metrics, tools and expectations ! This means that AHT is not a measure of the agents approach or willingness to follow direction, but a measure of the management’s ability to facilitate, empower, hire, train and empower their agents. Let’s not beat about the bush : there are more than 14 reasons why AHT cannot be controlled or influenced by the agent ! ;
    3) The revenues of AHT have never been proven in Contactcenters, not at the least because the number of sales and appointments lost and the number of customers LOST (after bad service a few seconds faster, by using AHT), must also be taken into account ;

    4) Undoubtedly someone, somewhere deep in the guts of a corporation, who probably NEVER took a call in his life, once set this ridiculous AHT-goal, under the mistaken belief that an INTERNAL metric like AHT could be of any use in combination with ‘a computerized watch’. No wonder that there are no globally or industry agreed-on definitions or standards whatsoever on applying a thing like AHT.

    Let’s read what experienced CSR’s/agent’s and managers have to say about AHT :

    a) “A WOW-call means you blew your AHT, which means you’re one-step closer to getting fired. So, the better I do, the more I help the customer, the more likely I am to be fired for messing up my AHT stat. So, I will be replaced by newbies who can also will not be able to meet the AHT, but who also will not be able to handle the complex issues as well and who will hand out a good bit of misinformation. Thus lowering customer satisfaction, increasing call backs” ;

    b) “I have noticed that at this particular company, many of the people who have their AHT 300 seconds or below are the ones who brush off calls, refuse to respond to the customer’s problems, etc. This causes an agent such as myself to have to call for supervisor assist several times more than necessary, if the first supervisor assist would have responded accurately in the first place. Also, company management rewards people with lower AHT without examining if the lower AHT was achieved by brushing off the call, not doing the job, having the customer call back (until the customer gets an agent who will and can handle the call) etc.” ;

    c) “You hit the nail right on the head ! I am a CSR. The pressure to maintain a certain AHT is intense, my job depends on it. Customer service is often sacrificed in order to keep my AHT in check and keep my job” ;

    d) “I was introduced to the callcenter world over 10 years ago. Up to three years ago it was very satisfying helping people. Once our customer service department, for the company I now work for, got on the AHT-craze, I posted out to another department. Either that or get fired. I refused to watch the clock and time a customer on how long they had to get their issue resolved. My customer compliments increased but my AHT decreased. To the management the numbers meant more than the positive feedback from customers. Something is definitely wrong with that picture” ;

    e) “I have been in the Call Center business for 26 years and have even managed large call centers. AHT was always one of my least favorite ‘metrics’. Today I speak at industry conference and company call center events. For the first time I am seeing companies actually taking the AHT metric away from the agent ! And what’s more, as a result those companies are seeing much better FCR-rates and other benefits. Finally companies are begining to realize that AHT has been attained for the most part at the customer’s expense” ;

    f) “I am glad to see that I am not alone in this view and that more and more people actually start to speak out against the draconian measures of cutting back AHT and evaluating CSR’s by the amount of time spent on the phone. A few great American companies that still recognize the value of superior customer care and instead of outsourcing it to India, invest into building and educating their CSR teams are the ones that are going to succeed in the future” ;

    g) “The typical Contactcenter is an exercise in paradox. At many companies, the center is the only direct contact most customers have with the company — and even then only a handful of times a year. Yet the emphasis in many Contactcenters is to keep that contact as short as possible to reduce costs — even though it could be a unique chance to affirm, improve, and increase the value of the customer relationship, to make sales/appointments and to keep the customer” ;

    h) “What AHT actually does is incite bad behavior, i.e. the kind of behavior that you do not want your agents to learn. For example, an agent can keep AHT low by opening up a box of tricks like, amongst others, picking up a call and immediately hanging up on the customer, or saying the connection is bad, etc.” ;

    i) “Continuing to do the same thing over and over again while expecting a different outcome
    is insanity. As an example, let’s consider a metric like AHT in a contactcenter. This metric learns the agent to manage the call to a certain AHT stat, which does not take the customer and their reason for the call into consideration. It is insane to expect this goal to contribute to an effective service experience for the customers and it is too tempting for the agent to watch the amount of time on the phone and end the call when it comes close to the AHT stat – an ending may be a rushed summary and close or it may be hanging up on the customer. Obviously this is not the behavior we should encourage. Moreover, metrics like AHT reinforce the dangerous perception that a contactcenter is only a costcenter to your organization” ;

    j) “It’s a shame that, in the midst of this financial crisis, thousands of agents in contactcenters loose their jobs. Why ? Because the more those agents are helping their customers, the more likely they are to be fired for messing up their AHT stat. Let’s not forget that the same agents are often the commercial geniuses in contactcenters, by making 1000 or 1200 appointments and 800 or 1000 sales every year, leading up to revenues of more than $ 1.000.000,–. It is extremely sour that colleagues who manage to produce miserable service a few seconds faster, by managing their calls to a certain AHT, keep their jobs. In England the proverb for such an aberration is ”Penny-wise, Pound-foolish”.

    It’s quite simple : there should be NO disconnection between agent incentives and organizational objectives. Why don’t some companies and Contactcenters get it ? Why are they still using a lethal metric ? Let’s abolish AHT !

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  6. Pingback: Sunday Summary « Contact Center Intelligence

  7. Thx for your comment on my blog about Productivity in Contact Centers A.Vermeer

    I agree with a lot of your statements as there are:
    – Contact Centers are strategic and one of the most unexploited assets in companies
    – Costs of new acquisition are higher compared to costs of keeping your customer in
    – If you reward (only) for low AHT you will get low AHT but probably miss out on lots of opportunities and create poor quality

    Nevertheless AHT or productivity is an important metric in Contact Centers. Regardless if it are “just” cost centers or profit centers. In the latter the focus might be less on AHT, but surely there will also be a focus on metrics like: sales per hour / conversion rate per contact etc.. All of these are productivity metrics that provide insight in the effectiveness of the activities that you do.

    Whether a business (case) is successfull depends simply on the following equasion:
    Revenue minus Costs = Profits.
    If over 70 % of costs are employee costs the logical consequence is that productivity (or effectiveness) comes into play (provided that you do want to make profits and do not want to raise prices every year with the consequence of not being able to sell anymore).

    The methodology in my blog also applies to profit centers: Focus your improvement efforts on the performance “outliers” and you will see significant overall performance improvement.

    To conclude: I believe that AHT as an absolute figure (e.g. 240 seconds) should not be a KPI for agents/CSR’s (it should probably be a PI with relatively low weight in the mix of (K)PI’s). I do believe that AHT variance (no more than 10 % of CSR’s have an AHT that exceeds 110 % of the overall AHT, as well as to the lower end) should be a Key Performance Indicator contact center management should measure and act upon. If the balance is out of your team in productivity/AHT you can be sure that the balance is also out of your performance on other (K)PI’s such as FCR/Client Satisfaction/Conversion etc etc..

    Looking foreward to your comments/replies.

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  8. Comment posted at other/wrong article. For discussion and reference purposes I copied it to here.

    Comment by: A. Vermeer // May 11, 2009 at 11:30

    ABOLISH AHT !
    Contactcenters using ‘AHT’ (=Average Handle Time) as a KPI (Key Performance Indicator) make a very big mistake ! The task of Contactcenters is to serve customers memorably, to generate more revenues than expenses for the company as a whole and to exploit all (sales)opportunities, also within an economic downturn. Operating at the highest levels certainly does’nt mean processing the most calls in the shortest possible AHT, constantly driving agents to a AHT that nicely links to a ‘budget’ ! Striving to produce bad service a few seconds faster will not have any effect and rewarding agents on the basis of a short AHT is a real recipe for disaster. The customers are the ultimate losers ! Some old-fashioned Contactcenters unfortunately still focus on a reduction of AHT and fail to recognise the immense opportunities that customer contacts gives them. They should realize that AHT drives behaviour to rush customers. There are really no benefits at all in calls being rushed as quickly and as cheaply as possible by minimizing AHT (neither for Contactcenters nor for customers). The Management should realize that serving a customer memorably does not imply that a customer or a call is a thing to be ‘handled’ …as quickly and as cheaply as possible (after all, a customer doesn’t want to be handled, he wants to be served !). We should realize that Contactcenters are a strategic asset and one of the most underexploited resources in modern enterprises. So, we should exploit literally all opportunities to align the companies actual business objectives with organizational goals such as profitability, revenue, return on investment (ROI), earnings per share (EPS) and company growth. Contactcenters have immense sales opportunities for the company as a whole, they have the ability to further secure and strengthen the relationship with existing customers (customer satisfaction, retention).
    Losing high life-time customers greatly increases cost to companies, because the cost of acquiring new customers is TEN times as high as the cost of customer RETENTION. Failure to exploit these opportunities will put Contactcenters – and the companies they serve -at a growing disadvantage.
    Let’s not beat about the bush : if you reward short AHT’s, you will finally get short AHT’s ! But you will also get lousy service, agents in too big a hurry to satisfy the customer, lower sales/upsell/cross-sell, less appointments and retention, more call-backs and complaints and a lousy ROI. As a package deal, you will also get lower agent-motivation, stress, burnt-out agents and higher training cost for new hires. It’s as simple as that. Why don’t Contactcenters “get it” ???
    Taking it from the perspective of Contactcenter agents, AHT is a metric (KPI) which largely depends on sheer circumstances and situations which CANNOT be controlled by the AGENT, such as : • nature of calls taken, type/language of client ; • number and complexity of questions or complaints ; • process changes, changes in products, services, systems, requirements, metrics, scripts or assessments ; • time of day and week : agents working in the evening and weekend will encounter a significantly longer AHT (customers have more time and want to have a chat ; the behaviour of customers may differ ; • missing, late, incomplete or wrong scripts and/or (agent)information ;
    • system speed, system response time ;
    • malfunction of systems, too many systems, new system(s)/technology ;
    • malfunction of the internet, intranet or telecommunication (telephone, email etc.) ; • malfunction or missing facilities (e.g. airco, heating, wall-displays, catering) ;
    • alterations/substitutions of products, services or tools ; • auditing, training and/or coaching-on-the job of collegues and new-hires, etc. etc.

    Moreover, we should realize that ‘performance’ or a ‘KPI’, as a Contactcenter defines it, goes well beyond measures such as AHT, because :
    > the validity of the results from AHT is doubtful because there are no industry agreed-on definitions or standards on applying it ;
    > focussing on lowering AHT will have many undesired consequences, amongst others for the number of sales and for the balance between quality and customer focus (i.e. retention and customer-satisfaction) ; > defining success and measuring in AHT is a blunt and obsolete internal metric which has little to do with enterprise reality and with what a Contactcenter should most care about ; > measuring in AHT it is short sighted, counter-productive and causes problems in other areas of the Contactcenter ; > given the immense opportunities of customer contacts, running a Contactcenter as a ‘Costcenter’ (= “a department in the organization that does not generate profit”) is a pure waste.

    No wonder that there is a loud and growing call to measure and define success in Contactcenters with more value – and outcome-oriented metrics than AHT. Increasingly, Contactcenters are only measuring in profit-based metrics (such as OCR, number of sales and appointments, ROI).

    Eliminating AHT in a Contactcenter pays off with improved sales conversion, first-call resolution, customer satisfaction, retention, revenue, ROI and EPS, thus putting the Contactcenter into a much stronger strategic and rewarding position within the organization as a whole.

    As a result, more and more Contactcenters enter into negotiations with their board of directors in order to transform their Contactcenter from a ‘Costcenter’ (“the poor stepchild”) into a sound ‘Valuecenter’ !

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  9. Pingback: Focus on outliers; creating benefits for customers, companies and costs « Fredzimny’s CCCCC Blog

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