Improving Call Center Effectiveness

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Featured Image_Oct_2013

By Dr. Maneesh Kumar

The concept of improving service efficiency and effectiveness is a goal shared by many service and operations managers in organizations affected by global recession and economic meltdown. Nonetheless, most organizations’ focus still remains primarily on productivity metrics, i.e. efficiency as opposed to effectiveness metrics such as quality. An illustration of the difference lies in whether the number of calls completed per hour (efficiency) in a call center environment is the primary focus, compared to whether those calls were resolved correctly at first instance (effectiveness). An organization can only thrive if it focuses both on efficiency and effectiveness metrics.

It is imperative to put the customer at the forefront, focusing on effectiveness, when thinking of improving a service. This aligns with the philosophy of business improvement initiatives such as Lean, Six Sigma, and Lean Six Sigma – understanding the voice of the customer. Fortune 500 companies and many more have applied Lean and Six Sigma methodologies with greater success, as evidenced from significant improvement in the bottom-lines of these companies through reduction of wastes and variations from their business processes.

However, there are several evidences where these process improvement systems have led to sub-optimal improvement. This is often due to the increasing focus on improving efficiency, meeting targets, and financial savings, rather than meeting the needs of the end consumer — patients in healthcare, citizens in public sector organizations, customers in call center operations, for example. The sub-optimal improvement observed in the business process can be traced back to the results of a lack of integration with strategic goals and priorities of the business, and a lack of communication or information exchange between different departments in an organization. In this article, I present my experience and viewpoints of implementing Lean Six Sigma in the UK call center industry operating within the financial services sector.

Call centers are increasingly becoming an important part of many organizations. Call centers are the first, and in some cases the only, point of contact with customers. Better service quality in a call center will undoubtedly provide a competitive advantage to any business. Unfortunately, research and my own experience suggest that call centers are still applying the principles of mass production — cost reduction through economies of scale and use of ICT, leading to lower service quality to the point of poor at best and terrible and worst. Among a range of factors contributing to this problem are failure demand and wastes within the system.

To tackle the issues of “muda” (wastes) in the organization, it is imperative to understand the link between 3Ms- muda, mura (variability), and muri (job stress and burden). If the call center industry experiences huge variability in demand, it may be lead to longer “invisible” queues and longer lead times to get connected to a customer service representative. This creates “muri,” or an excessive burden on people and machines. So, if the company tries to tackle the issue of “muda” by applying Lean or Six Sigma tools without understanding its link to “mura” or “muri,” it may lead to sub-optimal improvement of the process or perhaps even not drawing out its full potential.

The integrated approach of Lean Six Sigma and Systems Thinking may help address the aforementioned issues by meeting both the objectives of operational efficiency and effectiveness in the call center environment. System Thinking allows the holistic view of the system. This prevents fixing one problem, while in turn causing another to emerge in other areas or departments. System Thinking views all customer demands as inputs, and all functions group as the processor at the point of transactions. This allows one to see the interconnection between factors within the system. Understanding the nature of a call, i.e. value demand or failure demand, may help to better design your systems and processes to improve the first call resolution, reducing the “invisible” queuing time, reducing the abandoned call rate, and thereby improving the employees’ morale and their motivation to come back to work the next day.  The Lean Six Sigma tool-box should be used in conjunction with the Systems Thinking approach to understand the end-to-end value stream. The system and process should always be first understood before the tools and techniques of Lean Six Sigma are implemented.

However, this is not the case in the majority of the call centers in the United Kingdom and globally. The result of classical top-down thinking goes against providing value service to customers, which creates failure demand. From a managerial perspective, the needs to achieve high productivity often overwhelm the needs to maintain service quality. By focusing on making numbers of calls, the company failed to realize that they were creating more calls than ever. Sometimes, the company may not even be aware that calls made by failure demand account for up to half of the total numbers of calls, which means that call centers spend most of their time dealing with chase-up calls or failure demand that result from failing to do the right thing, the first time.

The performance measurement and management system used to monitor the performance of a customer service representative (CSR) is driving wrong behaviors in many call centers, i.e. to meet their own targets, calls are abandoned or transferred without resolving the customer’s query. The metrics or KPIs existing in the company should only be used to add value to the system, rather than to control it. Measuring system capability and variation can help add values through analysis and improvement. Metrics should act on the system, not on the people within that system. The misconception of many employees is in only trying to follow the procedures. They never consider if the procedures are the ones at fault, creating even more problems.

Call handlers in a leaner working environment have a higher work load, often as result of less control over timing and method of the work, less clarity in what their role requires of them, performing less varied tasks, less opportunity to exercise their skills, and having less authority to make decisions. Other problems identified in call centers are service quality (with most of them caused by human error), inefficient cross-department communication, under-utilization and narrow use of data, poor web-portal design, and the lack of a bottom-up approach. In addition, some call centers may have identified this problem within their operations and tried to solve it on an ad-hoc basis, without taking a system perspective. Thus, they ended up solving one problem and unknowingly creating another. All these characteristics exhibited in the top-down management system of the call center industry are against the true Lean Six Sigma and Systems Thinking mind-set required for sustaining the benefits from continuous improvement in the long run.

Adhering to the original concept of the Toyota Production System — respect for people and employee empowerment — may help call centers to improve employee morale and create an environment that promotes innovative thinking. Employee empowerment makes people feel that they own the process and are responsible for their own failures. They can also find joy in their power and ability to influence the system for the better.

It is important not to pursue Lean Six Sigma implementation blindly without integration with Systems Thinking to make operational improvements or bring cultural changes within the company. To improve the system systematically, one must analyze the current stage before selecting tools and concepts used. To make sure that efforts will not be in vain, Systems Thinking should be a foundation and integrated with any problem-solving methodologies such as Lean Six Sigma.


Additional Reading

Improving Call Center Effectiveness

The Demise of the Customer Support Experience


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