Call Center Productivity Issues?  It’s About the Hands!

Over the last ten years or so I find my most meaningful work efforts seem to fall right smack in the middle of the chaotic environment of call centers. There seems to be no fighting the trend, and after drinking the Performance Paradigm Kool-Aid, I’ve come to the conclusion I’m right where I need to be. What follows is one story that has me totally convinced that the Point-of-Work…a.k.a….the Point-of-“The Call” is ground zero for a number of reasons.

Having completed several Performance Assessments in just the last two years, a number of common challenges surface, and despite numerous client attempts to “fix” these challenges, the performance needle barely moved…and if it did improve, the results were not sustainable. Here are a few of the challenges faced:

  • New hire agents were overwhelmed with critical information they needed to remember and apply during their calls.
  • Onboarding took several weeks…three to six, based on complexity of the center’s call work.
  • Several separate systems and databases were used in the course of a single call.
  • In several cases the nature of the call was unknown until the caller shared their request.
  • Depending on the request, as many as 60-steps were required to resolve the issue.
  • Attrition was incredibly high…over 100% on an annual basis.
  • An average of 33% of new hires left before onboarding was complete.
  • After 120 days only a third of those Agents hired remained.
  • Agent frustration for a number of reasons was the primary reason for leaving.

So…if you have a call center operation, do any of these issues sound familiar? I’ve only shared a few challenges of what was found during the assessment, and after spending four days interviewing multiple job functions ranging from:

    • Call Center Manager
    • Operations Manager
    • Training Manager
    • Trainers – interviewed separately from their manager
    • IT Manager
    • Help Desk manger
    • Help Desk staff- interviewed separately from their manager
    • Line Supervisors
    • Transition Leadsthose providing close guidance prior to floor work for a period
    • Floor Walkers – those roaming the splits to provide real-time assistance
    • Agents – broken down by specialty and by a combo of focus groups and 1-on-1s

The snap shot of findings revealed an accurate view of Current State, yielding perspectives of what worked…and what did not…and surprisingly what was known intimately by each group. The only problem was the diversity of what was known…was not owned jointly across the groups. Supervisors blamed Training. Training blamed forgetful Agents and ineffective Supervisors. Everybody blamed Recruiting. Truth is the blame was plenty enough to go around.

That’s not to say that issues among the groups were not real, but that the interdependencies were not linked to a common objective…effectively addressing the needs of the most critical group…the Call Center Agent…at the most critical moment…during the most critical workflow…the Point-of-“The Call”.

What was most astounding in the assessment was the most obvious visible indicator of disconnect highlighted by the Agent’s readiness to perform, and it manifested on the floor with HANDS IN THE AIR. While the blame was owned at multiple levels and functions, those assigning blame were not focused on the right place, and I just wanted to jump up and shout, “Dude, it’s about the hands!”

As an Agent, if you became stuck during a call and needed information to answer a question…and could not remember or find it…you put the caller on hold…and raised your hand…and waited…while an already unhappy customer simmered on the phone listening to music. You waited for either a Floorwalker or a Supervisor to walk over and help.

What typically happened when help arrived was the Agent being handed a “fish”…instead of being shown “how to fish”. The problem was not a lack of desire to help by Floorwalkers and Supervisors….or their knowledge to do so…it was a function of time and volume…volume of HANDS IN THE AIR. There was no time to teach to fish because so many hands were waving, and it was easier to just give the answer/fish than coach how to find it. In other words, Point-of-“The Call” support for the Agents was ineffective and not sustainable.

Digging through assessment findings, I discovered that many transactions were not covered during training because there was not enough time. Trainers told the new hires, “You’ll get this when you get to the floor.” Training was 100% instructor-led and…in the eyes of the Trainers and Manager…was experiential because they ran simulations. Five weeks of firehose rendered lecture and continuous simulations would be enough to run me off too when the complexity was 60+ steps long. Training was well-intended by some very knowledgeable trainers, but knowledge retention loss prevented sustainability on the floor.

I could go on, but here’s the moral to the story. If Point-of-“The Call” is where performance must be sustained, then a learning AND performance solution should be designed for that purpose, and …at a minimum…look, taste, and feel like Point-of-“The Call”. The learning experience should be hands-on and mirror what will happen post training. Scenarios should match, Performance support assets should match. The technology used to train should match what will be used on the floor. An Agent cannot be expected to retain the contents of a firehose delivery method long enough to apply it. And if support assets do not exist and the systems environment for support is brand new on the floor, it’s easy to see why bailing out of the job is a way too popular choice by a frustrated Agent.

Since knowledge retention is the known enemy, why continue to fight it? Instead teach when, where, and how to find and apply the information needed to quickly satisfy a customer call. This requires 3-click or less access to  intentionally designed performance support assets to be used as follows:

  • In actual role-based, transaction-level scenarios during training
  • Use on the actual performance support technology that will be used on the floor
  • Test the Agents using the same performance technology
  • Embed the actual post-training performance support assets directly into the learning scenarios
  • Leverage single-source authoring to reduce development time by over 50%
  • And the list goes on…

Closing Thoughts

Having worked closely with several of the top Performance Support Technology vendors, and the findings I’ve shared here are not uncommon revelations to any of them. They will also be the first to admit that every organization where system technology is used at the Point-of-Work is different…and yet, there are common threads proven over and over that confirm that workforce performance sustainability is either gained or lost at the Point-of-Work.

In a recent post, I talked about turning up the pain when the Training Paradigm falls short. Quite frankly, I’m baffled as to why it is so difficult to convince organizations to pursue the adoption of a Performance Paradigm. In the Call Center scenario I shared…as in the other centers…pain was present…and known…but a majority of the hurt was localized within the scope of the various job functions feeling it. The blame game was alive and well, and the Agent role…where success is won…or lost seemed to get lost in the shuffle. You will find a very clear source of the pain when you investigate the root causes behind the Hands.

Do you have a “Hands” issue? These issues are not exclusive to Call Centers, heck, any enterprise business system application will yield “hands in the air”; it‘s just that the hand raisers are not seated in the same area waving for help.

My advice is simple…find out why the hands are waving. Bag the Training Needs Assessment as first choice response and consider a Performance Assessment from an experienced performance support consultant and see if a solution of “3-clicks or less” makes sense. Get to root cause(s); rarely is it only one root cause at play. Why not consider the pain that’s pushing hands in the air and minimize it by adopting an approach that will also enable these benefits:

  • Reduced training time
  • Reduced training development time
  • Reduced job frustration at several levels, especially Agents
  • Reduced attrition
  • Reduced customer dissatisfaction
  • Reduced call durations
  • Reduced escalations
  • Reduced hold times
  • Reduced after-work-time
  • Reduced data entry errors and the ensuing  error isolation drill
  • Reduced redundant work effort
  • And the list goes on…

Every one of these “Reductions of…” are tied to Performance…either by equipping the workforce to DO the work…or sustaining them while they DO the work. Is Performance Support Technology in your future? Chances are good that it could be. Only an assessment can confirm that. Can you afford it? Maybe the answer to that question is another question, “Can you afford to keep feeling the pain of attrition…or any of the other pain points…that combine to define living with status quo?”

Given the list of benefits above…most of them tied to hard dollars…not the least of which is the cost to continue hiring to keep pace with the attrition rate…should be reason enough to consider a shift in paradigm. After all, it’s all connected…and it’s all about the hands!

Did I mention that already?

Gary G. Wise
Workforce Performance Advocate, Coach, Speaker 
(317) 437-2555
Web: Living In Learning