5 Lessons Learned While Attempting to Boost Contact Center Productivity


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I’ve come to the realization recently after seeing several demos of various CCaaS (Contact Center as a Service) platforms that there’s a flaw in the whole selling process. And I don’t think it’s the fault of the fine sales folks or even the software vendors they represent. During the course of the demo, they show you all of the bells and whistles of the platform before eventually landing on the reporting capabilities.

It’s at this point in the meeting that they reveal the millions of metrics available to any contact center leader who adopts the platform. As someone who loves my metrics, I get giddy as I start considering just how many I can fit onto a single dashboard. But are more metrics really better? After buying one piece of software, I proceeded to cram as many metrics as I could onto my contact center wallboard in hopes that my team would readily and willingly perform at a higher level.

I’d love to tell you that my team increased their productivity so much that it eliminated the need to hire more people. But to be honest, other than the few, hyper-competitive individuals in our contact center who are motivated by such things, visibility into ALL of the metrics made almost no difference.

Since that time, and especially over the past year, I’ve been on a mission to understand the true measure of productivity in my contact center. And once that was established, exploring the most effective means of motivating each team member to improve and sustain a high level of performance. In the following article, I’ll share the five critical lessons I’ve learned in this process, concluding with some of the results we’ve seen.

Lesson 1 – Define productivity for your contact center

Without a clear definition of productivity and how to measure it, you’ll be hard-pressed to improve. In a traditional call center where agents primarily interact with customers over the phone, one might look at a metric like occupancy to understand the percentage of time agents are occupied versus idle. In this case, supporting metrics like average handle time and schedule adherence are managed to optimize the time spent with customers.

In my role at NumberBarn, we primarily interact with customers by email — and while we’ve played with a couple of different time-tracking apps for ticketing systems to track occupancy, we’ve found these measures to be unreliable at best.

In search of alternative metrics that are best for email support teams, we landed on emails sent. Our ticketing system, Zendesk calls these “public comments” but I think “emails sent” is a more universally understood name. This is the best pure measure of the amount of work our team members produce in the time that they are working.

Lesson 2 – Always compare apples to apples

In the past, I would have simply shared the number of emails sent per day with my team, encouraging each of them to increase that number. I may have even posted a leaderboard publicly in hopes of driving improvement.

But, given that we have a mixture of part-time and full-time employees, the tallies of emails sent would be uneven. Seeking an apples-to-apples comparison across the entire team, this meant that we needed to adjust the metric to instead be emails sent per hour. In other words, we look at the average amount of work produced per hour worked.

To arrive at emails sent per hour, we take the total number of emails sent and divide that by the total number of hours worked from employee time cards. This allowed us to then find an average across the entire team for an even comparison regardless of the number of hours worked.

Lesson 3 – Only share metrics team members can meaningfully impact

It was at this point that we were confident that we could communicate an expectation and goal with each team member, celebrating those who are excelling at their role and coaching those who need to improve. We built a dashboard or scorecard that allowed us to show each team member their emails sent per hour metric in comparison with both a team average and an overall team goal. Once aware of where they stand, team members have an opportunity to make improvements.

Also on this scorecard, we share a few other metrics that are at least partially impacted by productivity. Here are the key ones:

  • Service Level – Our service level goal is the percentage of tickets we respond to in a certain amount of time. While proper staffing and the stability of our ticket volume has a large impact on this metric, optimal productivity from each team member is absolutely essential. This is presented as a team metric that we work together to achieve.
  • Customer Satisfaction – All of our customers are presented with a satisfaction survey after a ticket is solved. We present these results as a team metric to each team member as well. Both their contribution toward our service level goal and the quality of the support they provide directly impacts the satisfaction of our customers. I’ll come back to quality in just a bit.
  • Tickets solved per hour – I’ve worked with teams in the past that held their agents accountable for this metric, but given the fact that it can take anywhere from 1 to 100 emails to solve a ticket and the fact that we have a wide range of complexity in our tickets, that didn’t seem fair. This does, however, help us understand who’s voluntarily handling more complex tickets and also helps us ensure that team members are sending complete, high-quality emails on the first attempt, minimizing unnecessary back and forth. So this metric team members have some control over.

Notice that we’ve made the most important metric emails sent per hour, a metric each individual has significant control over, but we’re also showing them how their performance impacts our greater teamwide metrics.

Lesson 4 – Be consistent

It’s one thing to present these metrics to team members once in a blue moon in hopes that they will improve. We tried that for a bit and found that the metrics didn’t move at all. Shocking.

Our scorecard is currently built out in a spreadsheet with various formulas and queries. And part of the reason we’re in spreadsheets is that we’re pulling in ticketing data from our ticketing system and hours worked from our HR platform. While it’s fairly easy to update, it still takes time and thus we’ve elected to update the scorecard every couple of weeks, allowing us to review metrics with each team member along the same cadence.

But our team members want to see their data more regularly than that. To solve this, we created a daily dashboard in our ticketing system that’s delivered to them by email. They can see the number of emails sent from the previous day, and knowing how many hours they worked, they do some quick math to figure out their emails sent per hour.

This whole process is still more manual than we’d like but we’re looking at a couple of workforce management tools that show promise and the time savings may prove worth it. That’s a topic for another post. The point is that we’re regularly looking at these metrics and presenting them to our team so they have the opportunity to improve.

Lesson 5 – Always balance quality and training

Productivity absolutely and always must be married to and balanced with quality in your contact center. Quality is the other thing our team members have a ton of control over.

Too much focus on productivity and not enough on quality can spell disaster. Simply pushing agents to send more emails could very well result in the sending of subpar emails or other games that could adversely impact your customer experience. It’s for that reason that quality performance is displayed right next to productivity on the scorecard I mentioned earlier.

As we’re looking at balancing efficiency with quality, we also need to look for ways to train and empower our agents. Here are some of our favorite questions to ask in this vein:

  • How can we better document solutions to common issues in our internal knowledge base and train team members to find those issues?
  • How can we create macros or templates that make it easier to send important information to customers without sounding like stuffy, impersonal canned responses?
  • What best practices can our top performers share with our lower performers?
  • How can we better integrate our systems to minimize the number of mouse clicks and open windows required to solve a customer’s issue?
  • What tools and buttons can we add to our control panel to empower agents to solve more issues without having to escalate?

Ask these questions often and discuss them with your agents. Also, as part of your coaching process, spend time observing your agents, looking for efficiency gains that don’t simply require them to work faster. Sometimes it’s about working smarter!

Concluding thoughts

I have a confession to make. Kind of like the neat freak who secretly has a closet crammed full of crap, I still have a dashboard emailed to me each morning with TONS of metrics on it — many of which I may never do anything about. And as a leader, it does help me keep my finger on the pulse of our operation. I’ve made peace with this.

But for our team, a focus on emails sent per hour in balance with customer satisfaction, service level, and quality has absolutely made a difference. In just one year, our team members have increased their emails sent per hour by 1.7 emails, a 45% increase, and our customer satisfaction has improved by somewhere in the realm of 6-8% over that same time period.

Measuring and optimizing our productivity has also helped immensely in workforce planning as we determine how many folks we need to handle our current ticket volume. I’m definitely finding it to be a more effective appeal to my boss than the traditional, “Hey, we’re super busy. Please let us hire more people.”

Finally, my hope in sharing this process and lessons learned is that you’ll be able zero in on the one or two productivity metrics that matter in your contact center, regardless of the channel or blend of channels you support. Looking back, it’s awesome to see how our effort to improve productivity has also improved our overall customer experience and I hope this has that same impact on your contact center.

Jeremy Watkin
Jeremy Watkin is the Director of Customer Support and CX at NumberBarn. He has more than 20 years of experience as a contact center professional leading highly engaged customer service teams. Jeremy is frequently recognized as a thought leader for his writing and speaking on a variety of topics including quality management, outsourcing, customer experience, contact center technology, and more. When not working he's spending quality time with his wife Alicia and their three boys, running with his dog, or dreaming of native trout rising for a size 16 elk hair caddis.


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