Easy customer accessibility to an organization always becomes an issue when the organization grows up in complexity, in terms of geographic spread, organization structure, products and processes. Call centres have been successful in providing easy accessibility amidst the complexities of an organization. (Often with single, easy to remember contact number to contact the organization) Today numerous call centres have been set up to transact, provide transaction updates, act as help lines, answer product related queries, and even handle grievances.
So, organizations have solved one of the greatest problems faced by their customers. Their job seems to be over. Is it?
Customers have always been a demanding and greedy lot; their needs never seem to be satiated. When their existing needs are met, they move to the next hierarchy of needs and the journey never seems to end. If we do a survey of these evolved customers (exposed to call centres) they would waste no time in bitching and moaning. The list would read as follows:
- I have to wait too long. Nobody seems to pick up the phone fast enough… They put me on-hold for long durations
- Call moves from one agent to another and so on and at every stop I have to repeat my story.
- At times, when I want to talk to someone, all I get to hear is an automated message
Call agent does not address my problems satisfactorily, he/she tends to just register my call, rather than redress my problem.
On the other hand, call centre operations seem to have their own list of issues and problems, which would read like:
- High turnover of call agents. Most call agents complain about the boring, repetitive nature of work
- Complaints of burnout and emotional stress by agents.
- Ever increasing queue of calls waiting, thus requiring more call agents.
- High pressure to maximize productivity and efficiency
- How to motivate call agents
- The agent requirement seems to be ever increasing
Although most of the call centres were established with the objective of improving customer’s experience with the organization, the primary focus of most call centre managers has been cost efficiency and productivity. Controlling the number of agents (i.e. maximizing agents efficiency) is the top priority for call centres because it is the single biggest operating cost item. (Direct salary cost, the cost of infrastructure (workstation, connectivity, PC, facilities etc. are directly related to the number of call agents) On the other hand, to improve customer satisfaction, the call centres should ensure that a customer doesn’t wait long before his or her call gets answered and that the agents are able to understand and meet customer expectations satisfactorily. This would require deploying more call agents so that the overall call queue length is shorter and the customer gets adequate response to his call.
All call centre operations seem to constantly battle with the inherent dilemma associated with the above issue. It is a conflict between controlling operating costs and focusing on customer satisfaction, both are equally important to manage the call center effectively.
Operating costs can be minimised by hiring a minimum number of call agents but to provide better service, more number of call agents are required. Call centre managers are often confronted with this no win situation.
In the following illustration, the Theory of constraints core conflict diagram has been used to represent the root cause of the ills in call centre operations.
(The diagram has to be read from left to right. It should be read, as “In order to manage call centre effectively one has to focus on controlling operating cost by minimizing the number of call agents. At the same time, in order to manage the operations effectively, one also has to provide high levels of customer satisfaction and in order to provide high level of customer satisfaction, one has to focus on enhancing customer experience of answered calls and that means neglect of efficiency indicators. The conflict is now between the last two boxes).
Most of the call centre managers go through, what appears as an irresolute conflict.
World over, call centres face this conflict. When people are exposed to such chronic conflicts for years, they tend to believe that the only way to deal with a conflict is to compromise and when they compromise, they neglect one aspect of the conflict. There are interesting instances of how people compromise, when it comes to handling call centres.
One of our clients had a call centre (supporting utility services) under a regulatory environment. Regulators impose heavy fines, when the performance targets are not adhered to.
Our client was also facing this generic call centre conflict. The conflict aggravated on days when the weather deteriorated due to failure of utility services. The call centre faced a deluge of calls, and used to have a terrible time balancing between maintaining efficiency targets and satisfactorily answering the calls of their customers.
Being ingrained in the conflict for years, our client also felt that the problem couldn’t be solved. The client strongly felt that the Regulator was being unjust by imposing fines for low performance on the bad weather days. The client wanted to put it across to the Regulator that it was impossible to meet performance targets on bad weather days.
Many other call centres try to resolve this conflict by either grudgingly going in for the costlier option of hiring more call agents or by just neglecting the service aspect in favor of controlling costs. Many call centre managers seem to have accepted that the conflict cannot be resolved. The important question now is whether –the conflict can be solved? Can we come up with a win-win solution to meet both the efficiency and customer needs of a call centre?
Principles of TOC suggest that a breakthrough solution can be developed if one looks into the logical links of the conflict diagram and questions the hidden assumptions. If some of the assumptions are proved invalid, then the conflict will be resolved. Now let us examine the assumptions behind the conflict diagram:
The questionable assumption is;
Customers always want to talk to an agent to solve their problems. Or in other words all calls are similar and hence have to be managed through the same process – call agents answering the calls.
Questioning this assumption forces us to look into the categories of calls coming into a call centre.
The calls in a typical inbound call centre can be categorized into the following;
Query or information calls Transaction calls (simple & complex) Complaints (Complaint Lodging & Solution calls)
Query calls are simple, well-defined calls, where a customer usually calls for a transaction update (status query, account balance, reservation status etc). Once the query is answered, the call ends. The call duration for such calls is very short.
Transaction calls are where the customer does a simple transaction (like request for cheque book, Demand Draft etc.). The call duration is very short. Once the transaction is recorded, the call ends. Transaction calls involving complex transactions are typically of a longer duration because there is back and forth conversation. The call duration is higher for such calls.
When a customer calls to lodge complaints, the agent has to first understand the nature of complaint; this usually takes a lot of time especially when the complaint is not of a standard nature. If the complain requires immediate resolution, it means even more talk time. It is the customer who determines the talk time and its complexity in these situations. How soon the problem is solved depends on the skill of the agent. These calls which consume a lot of time and consequently keep the other calls waiting. The above categorization helps us in devising different strategies for different call categories.
In most call centres the bulk of the call volumes require less complex call handling. This is shown in the graph.
Since the high volume calls are more standard in nature than the other complex calls, there is an opportunity to manage these calls with automation support.
Transaction (simple), query calls and lodging simple complaints can be automated through IVRs or other automated support tools. This helps in controlling the call volumes reaching the agents. By automating these calls, substantial capacity, in terms of the number of call agents, will be available to take complex calls. Queue lengths will go down, as bulk of the calls will be routed to automation support tools. (These tools are much more efficient in managing high volume standard calls than call agents).
An analysis of calls received by our utility client showed that a significant volume of the calls (about 40%) were query calls where the customer just wanted to cross check the awareness of the client company about the utility problem. The caller was satisfied knowing that the utility company is aware about the problem and is on the job of rectifying it. Call agent intervention for such calls was not very critical.
Call agents played important roles in other call situations where the customer was in a distress situation due to a lack in the utility service.
The above categorization helps a call centre in delegating the low level transaction calls to technology and focus on more value adding calls (like complaint resolution and solution based calls).
How does this affect the job of a Call Agent?
Most of the call agents are recruited based on their attitude towards high service orientation. They like to help customers and solve their problems. They derive job-satisfaction, when they resolve complex nonstandard problems for their customers. What they hate doing is managing the repetitive standard calls.
The diversion of voluminous, standard and repetitive calls away from them helps them focus more on the complex calls – thus creating a challenging work environment in call centers.
The categorization and corresponding mapping of customer expectations is the first step in designing effective call centre processes. This helps in aligning the call centre processes, technology and the organization with customer expectations.
Every time, there is a need for a quantum jump in call centre service levels, call categorization and mapping customer expectations to those categories can provide an important insight.
Due to the high cost of Call agent resources, many call centers would like to keep them as the strategic constraint in the call flow process and continuously devise ways to exploit this resource to the maximum. The following steps provide a framework to free-up capacity of this constraining resource;
- Analyze customer expectations to various types of calls
- Segment the call categories based on similarity of customer expectations
- Analyze the entire transaction (or call) of these categories
- Standardize the transaction, to the extent possible without affecting service quality
- Develop supporting technology plan
- Go back to step 1