Tag Archives: change

PI considerations in a call center environment

Call centers serve customers in many industries and service sectors, including healthcare and  insurance, often in the context of claims. These may refer to property damage such as a car crash or theft, a house fire, or illness or damages suffered by the person, such as a serious injury or even death.  This post focuses on Lean considerations and other process improvement (PI) aspects that may lead to better customer service.

A Lean take on call handling

It is well known that call center staff follow prepared scripts in trying to answer customer queries and respond efficiently to people who are often angry, scared, or stressed due to unforeseen events such as those mentioned above.  Looking at this aspect of call handling, it is easy to spot potential deficiencies in customer service, to wit:

  1. overly long or unstructured scripts
  2. scripts that require the customer to answer questions that are not applicable to their specific situation, because the script is either too structured or too generic
  3. forcing the customer to stay on the line while a rep becomes available
  4. not having the customer information immediately at hand when the conversation starts
  5. making the customer repeat information they already shared with another handler on a previous call or even on the current call, as they are transferred.

Lean teaches us that there are several categories of waste potentially incurred when performing a task. By definition, waste does not add value and we should do what we can to eliminate it.  Types of waste include overproduction, excess movement, defects, waiting, inventory, and non-utilized talent, among others. In our case, all of the above examples have non-value-added (NVA) steps involving, at the very least, defects, extra-processing, and/or waiting. Transferring a call without much thought to a handler whose skills do not allow them to properly service the customer while the a handler with the right skills sits idle is, additionally, an instance of talent not utilized.

Potentially wrong fixes

Much of the corrective focus by management tends to be on retraining staff to follow deficient scripts that are judged to be too time consuming to redevelop.  Another tack often tried is brute-forcing a ‘solution’, by throwing more bodies at the problem to try to reduce wait times in the face of growing work volume. Doing this is likely to be insufficient and results in outcomes that are just as poor but that come at a higher cost. For example, the cost of having to train new handlers becomes an additional, distracting task for experienced but potentially overworked call center staff. The alternative, classroom learning, is unlikely to be good enough to allow a new rep to hit the ground running. There is also the additional complexity of coordination overhead due to more resources on the floor of the call center, and this is complicated by the potential unavailability of more senior staff on unpopular night shifts or weekend rotations. As work volume grows, the temptation exists for management to skimp on training and treat every staff member the same as to proficiency, even when individual capabilities clearly indicate this is not the case and the need for something else exists.

Sources of error

As we have seen, not having the right training and tools can negatively impact call center operations.  A more subtle source of errors and poor service comes from processes that are not well thought out, including not assigning the work to reps with different degrees of skill according to its complexity, not capitalizing on handlers who may be better at managing their queues, and making senior staff who are specialists at handling certain very complex situations be on the phone as ‘first responders’, a task to which other specialists may well be better matched.  The impact of constantly having to refocus on the work after a call has been wrapped up leads to repetitive setup time, cognitive overload, and reps feeling weary. From there to making mistakes or sub-optimal decisions is but a short step. These mistakes may lead to being out of compliance as well as failing to treat or compensate the victim of the damage accurately and in timely fashion.

Ways to try address these issues include paying great attention not only to both staff and complaint tiering, but also to scheduling and leveling the workload in the sense of calls handled per person, and to performing proper call (re)routing when the right rep is not available and response time targets are not being met, which may end with calls being assigned willy-nilly to anyone on the shift. I mentioned already the skill some reps have in managing their queues, and these ‘heuristics’ as to prioritization should be studied and used to teach others how to be more efficient, something that is separate from being proficient at claim assessment.

Proper metrics and the pace of change

Another aspect requiring close attention is designing good metrics.  This is no easy task.  For example, performance metrics should take into account the potential conflict between the number of calls handled (typically, higher is better) and the rest of the work to be done and having to do with the actual processing of the complaint or claim. It is unfair to penalize staff for what are conflicting goals set by management.  The average handling time (AHT) for a call is one such heavily used and abused metric, since it does not reflect the quality achieved in servicing the customer. It is no good to be ‘quick’ if the customer is dissatisfied, just as dragging a call on for an unnecessary length of time is no guarantee of better service.

It is also important to use metrics to teach first, rather than to penalize. Metrics should be introduced gradually, starting with, for example, first-pass yield, meaning what percentage of the work done is done correctly the first time and does not need revisiting. Attention should also be paid to the time frame and significant effort involved in data collection, and to ‘fitness for purpose’, for example whether these metrics are best used to gauge individual behavior or should be employed to gain a collective team view for the purpose of, say, outlier detection. Having too many metrics is confusing to all, and as bad as not having any. It may, in fact, be worse, because the illusion of having things under control and an excess of ‘executive dashboards’ lulls us into complacency.

Time is a valuable commodity, hence the reason why times are measured and pored over from many angles. These times, however, are often at odds with one another, and if management is not specific as to priorities, imposes conflicting priorities, or does not have a handle on what quality is, the call center staff may be left in a situation of involuntarily gaming the system to get better ‘scores.’  Management may also attempt to prematurely optimize a process, typically when standardization and consistency in execution have not been reached, thereby making any ‘insights’ arrived at virtually meaningless. These faulty insights are often used to drive change at a pace that is too fast and does not allow for settling down and the proper evaluation of its effects, further compounding the lack of understanding as to what may be going on.  The end result is usually customer service that does not reflect the right service values, as well as incurring unnecessary costs.

This has been a quick overview of a few of the call center issues that management needs to focus on if truly exceptional customer service with an eye on ROI are priorities.




Change management: marinade or fast food?

Change management and resistance to change are often written about.  A Harvard Business Review post recaps the typical top reasons why people resist change. These include perceived loss of control, fear of being able to keep up once change is in place, and rejecting the notion of ‘more work’ added to current duties. Preexisting damaged relationships that make adoption of anything suggested by certain folks not palatable to others may also be a factor. Where management is concerned, any of these potential issues raises the specter of another failed attempt at needed change.

I want to add my own $.02 here. In discussing change, seldom is an explicit distinction made as to problems that may arise from the attempted implementation of a series of changes. In my experience, it is unlikely that only one change will occur — in isolation, so to speak — and so the time aspect of when do several, possibly related changes come to pass and how far apart in time from one another they are is important.  As well, the consistency aspect between the goals of successive changes is something to think about.  These considerations are the main focus of this post.

First, resistance may increase due to the sheer pace at which upcoming changes are announced. Appetite for change diminishes if enough time is not allowed for things to settle down and for any benefits that have been promised by management to be validated and internalized by staff. It all starts sounding like a flavor ‘du jour’ and generates skepticism.

Push-back from the ranks may intensify when the leadership, under pressure to catch up to competitors, engages in complex transformation efforts which it then tries to shoehorn into compressed time-frames. This is a bit like wanting to go from couch potato to fitness wonder by doing one’s quota of yearly push-ups in one day, or, for those who do resistance training at the gym, increasing repetitions, adding weights, and reducing rest and recovery time between sets all at once. The likely result is injury and a mental block rejecting any further effort in this direction, certainly not the expected improvement. So, the takeaway here is that time is needed to grasp, internalize, and eventually adopt a change in a way that makes it positive and self-sustainable. One cannot force enthusiasm for something new, as it has to come from the inside. It is a process, not an event, and processes take time. Think marinade, not fast food.

A second reason for resistance is the consistency and ‘smoothness’ required between consecutive changes for their acceptance to increase. As mentioned, it is unlikely that change is communicated from management as a ‘one off’ directive. There will be one or more follow-ups. Indeed, change is usually framed within some strategic context — a journey, if you will — to bigger and better things.  If enough time is not allowed for matters to stabilize and for all stakeholders to reap benefits, management may be tempted to jump the gun and ‘try something else.’ This new attempt at a fix may not align with the previous change, and in fact its departure from the earlier effort may even be marketed as desirable, adding to uncertainty and the perception of mixed messaging.

As a side note, surveys are often circulated to gauge the receptivity to changes being implemented.  The truth is that, if changes are timed too closely together, there is simply no opportunity for stakeholders to form a valid opinion as to whether a desirable improvement has occurred.  They are too busy trying to incorporate new habits and let go of the old ones. Surveys also tend to be circulated too soon after an event, which does not help.

The third reason for resistance to change is managerial credibility. or rather the lack of it. This ties into the previous theme of reversals and mixed messaging. A track record is what people remember, and according to it they may decide to get on board or not. Once credibility is lost, through amateurish efforts that were not thought out sufficiently thoroughly and were rushed into, that somehow left employees feeling coerced, or that responded more to private agendas than to a true need for improvement, it is very hard to get it back. Resistance can range from passive stonewalling to something involving more activism, and may complicate matters beyond the scope of the planned changes.

As management reverses decisions more than once and shows increasing tentativeness, the rank and file easily spot the ongoing thrashing, and general confusion grows.  What’s worse, the skepticism of those who were either on-board to begin with or on the fence may well increase to the point where they join the naysayers. At this point, the opportunity for change is all but lost.

To avoid this situation, great care must be taken in trying not to hand down half-baked ideas and mandates, and to always assess what time frames are realistic, something where previous experience is important.    Management also should constantly solicit input from the people in the trenches and genuinely take it into consideration, so any redesign of the change is collaborative and stakeholders ease towards shared goals rather than fight each other every step of the way. This requires intellectual honesty, mutual respect, and a healthy dose of humility.  Take the time to do things right, and they will not have to be redone or filed under ‘fail.’


PPDM: people, process, data, mobility — a four-legged platform for change

In this post, I discuss why in my opinion process and data ‘go together’ as enablers for sustainable change. I leave the people and mobility parts for a later post.

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