• 11/26/2013
    8:06 AM
    Ken Faw
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Call Center Lessons Learned

Successful call center operations can make or break your business. Getting your processes and integration standards right are critical to keeping it all running smoothly.

After 10 years of managing an internal call center, our organization hired a consultant to outsource the department. Unfortunately, the consultant neglected to engage our IT department in the process beyond setting up the feeds to send contact information to the vendor's dialer. We quickly learned that including IT in a change like this was essential, and were left with some additional takeaways that can help us in any similar initiative.

Importance of process integration
The first key component in any integration strategy is to understand your business process. Then you can design your feeds and services to eliminate processing gaps and data leakage.

Integration isn't as simple as saying, "We'll ship you the inputs, and you ship us the outputs," though that can be a perspective adopted in some organizations. It is easy to take the simple metaphor of an ETL tool (extract, transform, and load), set up a few feeds, and call it a day.

When you integrate a call center, you send out leads, make sales, and book appointments. But you also update contact information, get back call dispositions, update Do Not Call registries, and you may also gather many other metrics, artifacts and insights.

Treating your call center as a black box and doing only a superficial job of integration can produce significant risk and lost opportunity for your business.

Align call center metrics
Gregory Mankiw's first Principle of Economics is "People respond to incentives." As somewhat cynical corollary is "Tell me how I'm measured, and I'll tell you what I'm going to do."

The principle is fundamental, whether your call center is in-house or outsourced. However, if you manage your own team, you may have more direct control over the departments, as well as a better understanding of any given performance metric.

Say, for example, a call center gets leads from various sources. A call center metric based on the overall number of calls can be inflated by staffers calling a lot of low quality leads and avoiding meaningful conversations. Or agents may flood a lead channel that produces a lot of volume while restricting attention to other channels.

Call center metrics are likely to be far more involved than calls per day. It is important to make sure you develop metrics that align incentives to your business objectives.

Alerts and notifications
Finally, losing call center productivity can significantly damage sales in a very short time period. When your call center is in-house, call center managers can walk over to IT whenever there is an issue.

When the call center is externally sourced, the protocol for communicating in the event of a problem or failure must be clearly outlined. This process should be defined well enough to avoid disruptions, to recover from them quickly, and to conduct an appropriate level of postmortem if and when issues arise.

Call center management and your own managers need to be identified by name and role and have direct lines of communication. They also need the authority to take effective action quickly, directly, and with resolve.

You can't anticipate everything that can go wrong. But it is prudent to set up channels for communication before a crisis hits.

You may have noticed that the last couple categories I've described could be combined into the first one -- if you have a good sense for the business process, you can't afford to do half the job of integration. And creating a comprehensive integration plan that supports your business processes will cover most of your bases. Spending the time, energy and money (where needed) to get the process integration right from the start will save lost opportunity and promise a more seamless and effective outcome for your business.


Call center planning

Ken, thanks for this great advice. Call centers are interesting to me because they so clearly blend business goals into an IT-based system. Who would you recommend be included on the team that defines the process integration?

Re: Call center planning

Nothing more valuable than real-life lessons learned, thanks for candidly sharing. As we all do more data analysis, this advice to beware what we measure and reward rings very true.  

Re: Call center planning

Thanks Chris... you should have seen the really weird angles I was taking on this post originally. It's good to have a good editor to kick things back at you.


Re: Call center planning

Thanks, Susan. Call centers are also interesting because of the various purposes they can serve - processes for customer service are different than processes for sales, help desk, polling or information sharing.

It is easy for someone to say at an abstract level that everybody sells something and it's all just sales of one form or another, but the purposes for your call center determine the definition of what is "effective" for your situation.

That, then, leads to what process you are fulfilling with the call center, including its upstream, downstream an parallel flows, reporting and decision support needs. And those concerns determine the stakeholders... if you really want to exploit the capability and make it strategically coherent, there's a lot more operational involvement than just call center management and IT.

call centers

Call Centers have come along way in the past few years because of new automation technologies and algorithms. The key will always be the people though, and incentives, training, and retention will be the driving success factor of all contact centers.

Re: call centers

I agree, Chuck. In many ways, a really good integration strategy is invisible. Our work in IT is so important that it should disappear when everything is flowing smoothly.

That makes it possible for operators to focus on incentives, training and retention as you suggest.

I had a business coach who said we don't notice fire alarms or sprinklers until we first notice the fire. Nobody notices good integration. But without it, it can be hard to focus on or improve operations.

Re: call centers

Chuck, you are absolutely right that good people are what makes a call center effective. But I also believe that giving those people great technology can make improve their productivity dramatically. Sometimes clunky and cumbersome tools get in the way of people doing their as well as they could. 

Errors and Omissions

I realized as I reviewed my post that I referred to "People respond to incentives" as Greg Mankiw's first fundamental economic principle. It is actually his fourth in the list.

Another lesson learned. I'll be more careful next time.


Re: Errors and Omissions

Hmmmm, apparently the "good editor" was not good enough to catch that error, even though she looked up Mankiw's principles and linked to them. Luckily we are good sports around here :)

Re: Errors and Omissions

Thanks Sue. I need to make the links for myself next time... my editor is awesome!

There is much to say about every one of those principles, so it wouldn't hurt to remember "people face tradeoffs" as well as "people respond to incentives". Sometimes the simplest principles carry much more meaning, but they seem so obvious to us that we overlook them.


Re: Errors and Omissions

Ken, you are so right (and not about your editor being awesome, although I am not going to argue the point ;)). Many of the decisions businesses make about technology are really about people and human nature, and we sometimes forget that. Even though these are "economic" principles, they are really about how people think and act, and that needs to be factored in whenever anything new is introduced in the workplace.

Re: Errors and Omissions

They are fundamental, so they apply at all times and in all circumstances. Because they are so fundamental, people sometimes overlook them or take them for granted.

Much like professional sports teams drill the fundamentals, it is important for business professionals not to overlook them, and to discuss them vigorously without blowing them off as philosophical... How we think shapes how we act and how we collaborate with others.


"You can't anticipate everything that can go wrong. But it is prudent to set up channels for communication before a crisis hits." This is true. Disasters can happen anytime and it is important that you are prepared when that happens. A minute of unproductivity is a big deal in a call center, that is why we should always be on alert.

Re: Preparedness

Thanks JaydenC953.

It's so important for IT leaders to keep the simple and fundamental business concerns present in mind. As you said, "A minute of unproductivity is a big deal in a call center" - That's worth its own post, I think. It brings up many questions that can help leaders plan and design for better business outcomes, even before we get asked to address them.

What are all the ways our technology gets rid of that one minute of UNproductivity in the call center, and what are the ways our own service level agreements are insufficient to prevent unproductivity? How are we prepared to get things running again as quickly as possible? Have we considered the costs of poor execution on the technology side of a single minute of UNproductivity in terms of lost revenues, wasted payroll for idle agents or the negative effects on customer service?