Call-Center Management with a Human Touch

By Kevin Fogarty  |  Posted 2008-04-10

Call-Center Management with a Human Touch

By Kevin Fogarty

As American corporations continue to move mundane IT functions offshore, they force IT managers to stretch their technology and management skills to keep those operations up to par.

Call-center operations make up only about 35 percent of the functions U.S. corporations outsource to foreign corporations, according to a January survey by tax and financial consulting firm BDO Seidman, LLP.

But call centers in general—and those in foreign countries or otherwise removed from the direct management of the companies they serve—are among the most challenging technical functions to manage and come with among the highest penalties for failure, both in direct revenue and in customer relationships, according to Donna Fluss, the founder and president of DMG Consulting LLC, customer-service consultancy in West Orange, N.J.

The hottest thing in customer service management right now, Fluss says, isn’t the call-routing, screen pops and other IT-based tools that make call-center operators more efficient—but that have become commonplace. Instead, it’s Call Center Performance Management (CCPM)—a sophisticated set of performance metrics that collects data on every aspect of every operator’s work and translates it into a balanced scorecard measuring the performance of operators, workgroups, entire call centers, shifts within the call centers or groups of call centers operated by an outsourcing partner.

“At this point, anyone who’s not using some form of CCPM is behind the curve. Most people think it’s just reporting, on steroids, but if that’s what you’re using it for, you’re wasting your money,” Fluss says. “It’s supposed to give you a dynamic picture of what’s going on—not a static picture like a report—so you can make sure the goals and performance of the call center are aligned with the company’s goals.”

But tracking the performance of operators shouldn’t include only what they do on the phone, according to Rex Dorricott, CEO of Exony, Ltd., a  CCPM developer based in London and Boston. An operator might be slow or unable to handle a particular call not because of a performance issue, but because training for a whole group of operators didn’t accomplish its goal or wasn’t completed on time, Dorricott says.

“Ten years ago if you were concerned with average handle time, it was in a small environment of agents,” Dorricott says. “Now you’re talking about facilities in different time zones around the world, looking at the training and the size of enterprise queues. You have to look at the background of the agent. You can’t depend on pure data; you have to run it through analytics based on business rules.”

Exony’s approach is to pull data out of human resources records, call center records, training databases and other places that show an employee’s performance and growth over time. It can then integrate that historical picture with live performance data and provide a range of tools to give managers at the enterprise, divisional and workgroup levels the ability to analyze the on-phone performance and off-phone preparation of their staffs. Exony refers to this approach—which treats multidivisional, often international, call center operations as a single organization—as virtual contact center management.

Exony’s Virtualized Interaction Manager is designed to provide real-time analytics and support for multinational, multi-time zone operations. Its biggest market is among contact center operations of 500 seats or more, and is provided as a hosted service, maintained by Exony for customers such as Microsoft, Prudential, Verizon and France Télécom.

The most difficult part of managing large contact center operations is an overall reliance on key performance indicators (KPI) that show so tiny a part of the performance picture that it’s hard to get a coherent idea of what’s going on, DMG’s Fluss says. Call-processing systems, interactive voice response, call-routing systems and each of the other automations in a call center track their own KPIs, identifying whether it takes a second or a nanosecond to analyze the source of a call and route it to the appropriate call center, for example.

DMG  polls call-center owners and managers on a range of topics and reports in detail on their operations and satisfaction levels with various systems. The 2008 survey shows that CCPM purchases increased 79 percent during 2007, and projects a further 50 percent increase during 2008.

CCPM systems round up all that data and present it—often in real time—to provide a complete, one-screen picture of how quickly calls are picked up, how quickly customer problems are solved, how often calls have to be elevated to supervisors or second-level specialists, and so on.

Exony is only one of a group of vendors that develop specialized CCPM products. Others include Aim Technology, Aspect Software, Enkata, Merced Systems and Verint Systems. Performance management. Fluss says, relies on specialized data-access and reporting tools from relatively mainstream vendors, such as Business Objects,
SPSS, Cognos and Hyperion.

While the market for CCPM accelerated during 2007, awareness and demand for the whole category of tools still lags behind business-intelligence and reporting tools that more obviously give contact center operators an advantage in dealing with customers, Fluss says.

Good data integration is critical to any contact center, but comes in two distinct flavors, according to Sami Akbay, vice president of product management and marketing at real-time data replication and integration vendor GoldenGate Software, which runs half a dozen contact centers in different parts of the world.

“First it’s important to have 24-hour continuous support, so the ability to pass information from one call center to another is critical,” he says. “Customers want support 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, but they also want to talk to the same person they talked to last time, who knows their systems and their problem. But if they can’t talk to Joe in one call center, you’d better make sure his twin brother Jim knows what Joe told the customer and how to address the problem.”

The other level of data integration is designed to allow contact center agents to upsell customers based on their past activity. Customers who call a cable company to buy pay-per-view access to a soccer game will be much more likely at that time to buy a subscription to all the games than they would be the next day, Akbay says.

“When I call [the company], I’m engaged and interested. If [company employees] have to wait 24 hours to find out that I might be interested in this other product and they call me, I’ll be doing something else and may not be interested at all,” he says.

“Of the companies we talked to, even those that really hated their vendor said they would never run a contact center again without a CCPM,” Fluss says. “It was a striking finding. It’s still hard to know which indicators to pay attention to; even with CCPM, you have to think through your KPIs. But CCPM makes it a lot easier.”

Respondents to DMG’s survey said the payback time for a CCPM system was generally between six months and 12 months, and that the quantifiable benefits would eventually equal two to three times the original investment.