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Improving Customer Contact Quality

Call quality monitoring is one of the most effective methods for improving the level of service you provide to your customers. Call quality monitoring refers to the process of listening to or observing an agent's phone conversations or other multi-media contacts with customers. While companies can measure customer satisfaction through customer focus groups, customer contact follow-up telephone surveys, and written satisfaction surveys, the results are often not timely enough or detailed enough to help individual agents understand their impact or contribution. A call monitoring session on the other hand, if done correctly, can instantly deliver a wealth of customer information, gauge individual agent performance and reveal a lot about your business processes and policies. Not only can it improve the customer experience, it can also improve overall call center performance, reduce callbacks, focus training efforts, identify process improvement opportunities, and facilitate employee development.

The industry has witnessed a proliferation of call-monitoring technology, as companies search for ways to make the call monitoring process more efficient. Industry consolidation has reconfigured vendor offerings and combined technologies to provide more robust solutions. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is also opening new doors. Recent incarnations include technologies that mine call data for keywords and others that interpret speech patterns and evaluate calls without human intervention. More features are being incorporated into technology solutions for call monitoring, making these systems more attractive to call center management and more challenging to implement.

Many companies have created specialized Quality Assurance groups to monitoring agent performance, in an effort to supplement supervisory effort or offload some of the burden. There are advantages and disadvantages that must be understood.

New technology and dedicated QA groups have made it possible to conduct more monitoring sessions per month per employee than were possible in the past. Has this led to higher customer satisfaction, improved call center performance, or more effective agents? Our survey reveals that there are no guarantees. Some companies have experienced great success while others are struggling. As most have found, call quality assurance is a highly complex process -- from both a people and technology standpoint.

Quality Monitoring programs can be challenged by many factors, including:

  • Difficulty in designing evaluation criteria
  • Lack of buy-in or credibility
  • Insufficient resources or time
  • Lack of automation or poor system reliability or support
  • Inadequate training for coaches and supervisors
  • Inconsistent evaluation results
  • Lack of support from management

Study Findings & Observations

With all this in mind, the Ascent Group's conducted research during mid-2009 to better understand how companies are monitoring the quality of customer calls and other customer transactions. We asked companies to share their call monitoring experiences to help us identify the practices that make or break a quality monitoring process. We also asked them to provide their plans moving forward as well as lessons learned along the way. The Ascent Group received 102 valid survey responses from a diverse group of companies representing 14 industries and 19 countries.

Companies who have implemented call quality programs have realized significant improvement in call quality, customer satisfaction, employee performance, and overall call center performance. Companies report specific improvement in call quality ranging from 2 to 6 percent. Attributed gains in customer satisfaction ranged from 5 to 12 percent. Some report significant reduction in failure rates, handle time, and callbacks. Other improvements mentioned included: higher first call resolution, fewer customer complaints, fewer errors, improved overall call quality, improved service level, reduced turnover, and higher employee morale.

Emphasize the Customer Experience

Call quality monitoring must be reflective of customer value and expectations -- it must truly measure the customer experience. Measuring the customer experience is the primary purpose of a call quality monitoring process. Do you know what your customers' expect? If you don't then find out though customer research -- interviews, focus groups, expectations surveys, or even calibration sessions -- take the time and spend the money to understand how customers want to be served. Keep in mind that expectations vary from segment to segment and that expectations change over time. Calibrating your call quality program with customer expectations is an ongoing effort.

Call quality monitoring is a performance measurement tool. Like any measurement tool, you have to be careful about what you are measuring. While the measurement process in and of itself produces change, you'll also want to make sure you're measuring the right behaviors.

What are the Right Behaviors?

If call quality is intended to measure the customer experience, make sure your evaluation measures represent your customers' expectations, not what you think is important to your customers. This is one of the biggest mistakes made. Measuring call quality through call monitoring is a labor-intensive process; it's also high risk, in terms of human factors. Call monitoring is a key determinant of stress in call centers -- especially if it's perceived as being inaccurate, untimely, too frequent, or too intense. So in other words, if you're not truly measuring what customers' value then you might just be wasting your time (and money) and placing your agents under undue stress.

Don't just guess. Find out what your customers' expect through customer research -- interviews, focus groups, expectations surveys, or even calibration sessions -- take the time and spend the money to understand how customers want to be served. Keep in mind that expectations vary from segment to segment and that expectations change over time.

Take this a step further to make sure your evaluation form is consistent with your routine customer satisfaction research. If possible monitor the same calls that are surveyed by your customer satisfaction surveys. While this may be cost prohibitive to gain enough sample points to measure to the agent level, it's possible to survey and monitor enough calls to measure the consistency of your center.

Consider tracking first call resolution through your call quality evaluations as well as your customer satisfaction surveys. First call resolution may be one of the best predictors of customer satisfaction. First call resolution is most simply what the customer wants -- to have the problem or question resolved satisfactorily on the first try, if possible. Achieving high first call resolution is a wonderful scenario -- customers are happier, employees are happier, and management is happier. Why? Repeat calls are down, rework is minimized, employees are talking to happy customers, and operating costs are lower. Find out if your customers think their issues and questions are being resolved on the first contact by asking them on your customer satisfaction surveys and at the end of your phone conversations.

When first call resolution is measured through customer survey and call quality forms you can get a better understanding of your service delivery performance -- from the customer's viewpoint. It's a way to take your call quality program to the next level.

Calibrating your call quality program with customer expectations is an ongoing effort. In a perfect world, CRM (Customer Relationship Management) and mass customization techniques should keep close tabs on customer service quality expectations.

How Many Calls?

Most companies have no basis for the number of calls monitored per agent, rather relying on a set number of calls to monitor, per employee, as determined by management or past history. Other companies determine the sample size based on the number of available call monitoring resources -- i.e., number of calls that can be monitored based on existing call monitoring personnel. Fifteen percent of participants have selected sample size based on industry or "best practice" research. While another 15 percent determine sample size from traditional statistical tables, such that the results are statistically significant and within a set confidence level. How frequently should call quality be measured? The answer depends upon a lot of factors:

  • How well is the employee prepared to do the job?
  • How well do your agents understand the process and the measurements?
  • How calibrated are your evaluators? Measuring consistently? Fairly? Capturing performance?
  • How good is your feedback? Can employees relate and have faith in the scoring? See how they can change their behavior to improve?
  • Does regulation or a bargaining unit agreement restrict your organization? Make sure you comply with your labor contract or local legislation.
  • How many can you do? Do you have a system to help record calls? Track performance?
  • How close are employees to standard? How far does their behavior have to change to meet expectations?

Call quality monitoring is all about changing behavior. Studies have shown there is little correlation between employee tenure and quality scores. Behavior varies based on employee skill level, experiences, and motivation. The goal is to help employees achieve a level of "unconscious competence" in their customer interactions through training, measurement, feedback, and rewards.

Study participants vary widely on the number of calls monitored per month per representative. As a group, participants average 6.3 monitoring sessions per month per agent. Respondents with dedicated Quality Assurance (QA) resources monitor two to three more calls per month per agent than companies that do not. Participants that rely on call monitoring software, on average, monitor about two more calls per month than those without such systems, indicating an advantage to both QA groups and specialized software, in terms of increasing the volume of calls monitored per month.

No single call monitoring technique will always meet the needs of your agents or your operation. Participants in our research reported using a combination of side-by-side monitoring and silent or remote monitoring through live or recorded calls. Several stressed the need to keep in touch with employees through side-by-side sessions. QA groups tend to rely on remote monitoring using recorded voice and data while supervisors conduct more traditional live monitoring sessions -- using silent and side-by-side techniques.

Use a combination of techniques and let the technology assist you where it can. Technology isn't the solution to these challenges -- it's only an enabler. Your call quality process must be sound with or without the technology.

All in all, the opportunities presented through effective call monitoring make it an essential management technique for today's call center organizations. Make sure you do it right. If you don't, the impact could be much worse than if you hadn't attempted it in the first place.

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