Contact Center Solutions Featured Article

Is It Time for Mass Customization of Call Centers? (Part II)

June 16, 2009

Recently Dennis Adsit, vice president of business development for KomBea Corporation, sat down to talk with TMC's David Sims on the sorry state of call centers today, and what might be done about it. This is Part 2 of the interview (for Part 1 click here):

DA: The reason it is so essential to start seeing the opportunities for mass customization is because to not see them, leaves us where we are today: each incoming call unique as a snowflake, no process defined for the agents to execute and the call replete with sub-optimizations: 

The mentality currently is "Let's not automate the greeting and customer identification steps to ensure it is branded correctly every time, let’s monitor and coach them and then hope, that’s right, hope the agents remember what we told them to do and hope they decide to do it, and hope they do it right. Don’t prerecord the disclosures, hope the agents read it word-for-word without accent issues interfering with your customers’ understanding. Don’t use technology to ensure the right cross-sell offer is made at the right time, every time; hope your fancy variable comp plan counteracts the unyielding pressure we put on the agents to reduce their talk time. Oh and certainly don’t error-proof the step reminding the customer to “remove any software before returning the unit” so that it can’t be skipped, we don’t need to care about that since the angry letters to the CEO get handled by another department. 

DS: I see. This reminds me that coaching does not come off well in a lot of your observations. You characterize it as overly relied upon, particularly by people who don't have any idea what else to do. 

DA: Let me first be clear. It is not that coaching can’t help an individual agent improve. If a particular agent wants to do a good job and you tell them how, there is a good chance they are going to try to use that information to perform better. My point is that coaching alone is not going to get us to a high level of quality. First, we have been doing it for forty years and we still have incredibly inconsistent quality. As I said, this is in part due to the typically high turnover that plagues the industry. But it is also because coaching is a weak method of process improvement because it is based on hope. You hope the agents remember what to do and do it. 

DS: Maybe if we had an example of how what you're advocating works?

DA: Sure. Toyota is the absolute paragon of continuously improving quality. If you went into one of their plants and ask them how they achieve their stunning levels of quality, do you think they would tell you that the secret is that we videotape workers and coach them one-at-a-time a couple times a month? The very thought of this is laughable. If the masters of year-over-year quality improvement and cost reduction don’t rely on one-worker-at-a-time approaches to quality, you have to wonder why call center leaders have it as their go-to strategy. 

DS: So what do you say to someone to break them of their addiction to the coaching paradigm? 

DA: Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine you were not allowed to coach your agents at all, but you still had a gun to your head to improve your output measures. You have to do something. What would you do? 

You would have to do what they, particularly the Japanese, have done in manufacturing. You would be forced to move from an agent-centric approach to a process-centric approach. You would have no choice but to define a correct process for all the agents to use, make it easy for them to execute the defined process and continuously improve the process so that all the agents are better, as opposed to trying to fix them one at a time. 

DS: What is it about the Japanese approach, in particular Toyota, as you say, that impresses you for call centers? 

DA: An easier question to answer would be, “what doesn’t impress you about Toyota’s approach?” From one small California dealership in the late 1950s, they are now the number one car manufacturer globally. Not only is this a stunning increase in market share, but also Toyota's operating margins are three times the industry average. Until the recent market carnage, Toyota's stock was up over 200 percent since the early 1990s. GM is now bankrupt.

Toyota builds great cars. How do they build great cars? They have a systematic approach for building high quality cars. They codified it in something known as the Toyota Production System. And although we have answered untold billions of phone calls in the last 40 years, there is no systematic, documented approach for how to improve call quality. This is what the call center industry needs to take away from what Toyota has done. We have to develop a repeatable, systematic approach for improving call handling and we have to teach it to everyone in our centers. 

DS: Okay, let's talk about process. What about scripting -- is it good, bad, done poorly but could be done better? 

DA: Scripts can be a good start because they force leaders to define how the calls should go. There can be no process improvement until you have defined a process to improve. In many centers we work with, we ask them how a call of a certain type is supposed to go and a food fight breaks out. Training, Quality Monitoring, the top agents, and supervisors disagree about the correct way to handle the call. It is no wonder customers complain about the quality. 

But the problem with scripts is that agents frequently don’t use them. First, the agents are under a lot of pressure to perform quickly and it can be hard to read a script and do what they are supposed to do in their systems at the same time. Also, after handling a given call type hundreds of times, the agents often try to memorize what to do so the call sounds more natural. And processes change so frequently the scripts are often wrong or outdated and so the agents, correctly, ignore them. 

The end result is that the script and any follow on changes that were built to improve the call are often never used by the agent. If the scripts aren’t being used, then you are not getting the improvements the scripts were designed to produce. 

One thing you could do to instantly make scripts more effective is to pre-record sections of the call that you want the agents to get exactly right and allow them to play the recordings during the call. This helps in multiple ways. First, the customer gets a clear voice with less accent issues. Second, you know what the customer is hearing is exactly correct, as opposed to hoping the agents get it right. Third, because it is easier to track key strokes than to listen to thousands of calls to check on process adherence, you know whether the agents are playing the required recordings on the required calls. 

This is scripts on steroids and for the life of me, I can not figure out why it is not used more often. 

DS: What strikes me about the idea of using prerecorded content in addition to a live agent on a call is the customer hearing two voices during the call. To your knowledge is this tried anywhere now, and what has customer reaction been? 

DA: Our agent-assisted voice product, ProtoCall, uses prerecorded audio and we have used it on millions of phone calls in domestic, near-shore and far-shore centers. It is the foundational technology that allows centers to move from an agent-centric to a process-centric approach.

DS: Basically, how does it work?

DA: We start by breaking down incoming call volume into call types. Then we assume the call is going to go in a straight line and we exactly define, just as they do in the Toyota Production System, what we want the agents to do in their systems and say to customers. We then make it easy for the agent to execute the defined process by pre-programming system actions and pre-recording audio. The result is an agent live on the call listening to the customer and navigating the call using the paths we built. If the call goes in a straight line, the agents may never have to break-in with their live voices. But if the customer asks a question that is not part of the call flow or if the customer wants to make small talk or needs a little extra hand-holding, the agent can take over the call. 

Why is this, by definition, better? All the agents are following a single process. They vary it only as they need to as opposed to varying everything every time. Resources are focused on studying and improving the process first and the agents second. We can error-proof steps so that it is almost impossible for the agent to skip them. If the agents quit the performance doesn’t suffer because the expertise is baked into the pre-built process. If the process needs to change, we update it and all the agents are instantly using the new, improved or correct process. And this is accomplished without team meetings, laminated cards, monitoring sessions and off-phone coaching. 

As for the question about the customers hearing multiple voices, we have handled millions of phone calls and most customers don’t notice or at least never comment about it. If they do notice or ask, the agent just says “I am using software to make sure the information I communicate is 100 percent accurate and easy to understand. Is that OK?” No customer has ever complained. 

But we are not solving for customers “not complaining.” We're about making the call wildly better for all the stakeholders, and we think we have been able to do just that. Agents love it. Why? Because we have made their jobs less stressful. They don’t have to talk as much and they know they are getting the process right. They are more relaxed and less fatigued at the end of the day.

Customer Satisfaction has been increased because accents no longer ruin the interaction. Process adherence and compliance have both been increased to the 99.999 percent level because, just like they do in manufacturing, we are building the correct process and making it easy for the agent to execute it. So customers are getting the right process in a voice that is easy to understand. Costs have been reduced because by engineering the call, we have been able to systematically reduce talk time and after call work. As an example, we reduced the average talk time on a cell phone activation call from over ten minutes to just over four…a sixty percent reduction in AHT. After call work went from over 90 seconds to 10-15 seconds. No center operating today could accomplish this even if they assigned a quality monitor to every agent.

DS: Doesn't following your recommendations to break the paradigm by continuously improving the process simply result in a tweaked paradigm?

DA: Toyota continuously improves the process they use to make a car. Would you say they have a tweaked paradigm? Or would you say their cars just keep getting better and better? I have a free Chevy Volt or a Toyota Prius for you, which do you want?

When we take a cell phone activation call from ten-plus minutes to four minutes, when we don’t miss any customer-protecting compliance steps, when we make it so the customer has no trouble understanding it even when the agent is offshore, when we don’t miss any of the cross-sell offers and when we do all this without any call recording or quality monitoring, would you say that is a tweaked paradigm or would you say that is a dramatically better for everyone?

DS: Now the $64 question -- if your recommendations are, in fact, the better mousetrap, when is the world going to beat a path to your door?

DA: Our ProtoCall product is new -- no one is doing what we are doing and many don’t even think what we are doing is possible. It will take time. Think about ATMs, self-service kiosks at airports, and IVRs. These were also looked at warily at first but are now quotidian.

We may be starry-eyed entrepreneurs, but we feel the widespread adoption of our approach is all but assured. First, our proof-points are mounting. We already have a Telco proof-point and two financial services proof-points. Agents using our solution were dramatically superior to agents who handled the calls without our software. In addition, one of the largest technology companies in the world is piloting ProtoCall. Though we have just begun, their management is stunned at how much more effective our approach is on tough tech support phone calls.

But we were confident before these recent proof points came in. When your product is cutting the Gordian Knot on a forty year problem, when it delights agents and results in less frustrated and more satisfied customers, when it drives dramatically better financial results while not limiting the flexibility of nuanced responses to customers, you know down to the bottom of your socks that at some point even the most risk averse, change-resistant leaders are going to have a hard time sticking with their we’ve-always-done-it-this-way approach.

DS: Best of luck to you, and thank you very much for your time.

David Sims is a contributing editor for ContactCenterSolutions. To read more of David’s articles, please visit his columnist page. He also blogs for ContactCenterSolutions here.

Edited by Patrick Barnard