There’s a horror story I’ve heard that has always stayed with me. There was a company where customer support was so slow it had become a selling point for competitors. At the beginning of their sales pitches, competitors would call the other company’s customer support line and deliver their entire pitch while still on hold.
No matter how good the product, people don’t want to work with a company that doesn’t back it up with responsive service. The customer support experience is a make-or-break factor when it comes to brand loyalty.
As a customer support leader at Intuit, DIRECTV, and now Vertafore, I’ve tested different ways to measure what matters in customer support. In many organizations, customer support is viewed as a cost center, and agents are measured on how many calls they take in an hour because managers are obsessed with cost metrics. Businesspeople like to say, “What gets measured gets managed.” But I think, rather, that “What gets measured gets manipulated.” A pure measurement obsession can incentivize otherwise thoughtful agents to optimize metrics at the customer’s expense because their job security might depend on quickly shooing customers off the phone.
At Vertafore, we achieved tremendous success in our customer support team by lowering the average hold time from over five minutes to less than one minute and helped raise the company’s net promoter score (NPS) by 11% over three years. Notably, we’ve achieved these results by spurning the status quo. There are more human-centric and less cost-obsessed approaches that are highly effective at the goal of support: happy customers who get what they need.
The Cost-Support Contradiction
First, let’s review how cost metrics hijacked support. For a decade or more, customer support leaders have been asked to pursue two contradictory goals: lower costs and higher customer satisfaction. Cost won out because it’s easier to measure than experiences and feelings.
To lower costs, U.S. companies initially offshored support to lower-wage markets. The customer experience plummeted enough that many companies re-localized their contact centers. Next, they tried to lower costs by providing more self-service options, which are often a euphemism for “read this article and figure it out yourself.”
For tech-savvy Millennials and Gen-Zers who loathe using a phone to call people, self-service was welcome. For many Gen X and Boomers, however, self-service felt like an abandonment of responsibility.
Support leaders had to recalibrate. Many tried to reintroduce human contact but keep costs low by incentivizing agents to minimize time spent on each chat, message, and email. Unsurprisingly, when agents rush phone conversations or rapid-fire emails without fully understanding the customer’s needs, the experience is poor. Artificial intelligence chatbots are the newest attempt to lower human labor costs.
Cost won the metrics competition, but that can change. Once competitors start playing your call center hold music to win deals, it’s beyond time to rethink the true value of cost metrics.
The Two Metrics that Matter
If you pressure agents to optimize metrics related to cost, no one, least of all your customers, will like the outcome. A better alternative is to focus on just two metrics:
A. ASA (average speed to answer), which is measured by any modern customer support platform.
B. Customer satisfaction scores, which are gathered through quick, post-contact surveys.
Hold times are a barometer for convenience, accessibility, and how much frustration your customers feel before getting on the phone. Long hold times make customer satisfaction unlikely.
Customer satisfaction scores (along with free-form comments) indicate whether the customer’s needs were met. Popular metrics like first-touch resolution and call duration don’t; both of those metrics are easily manipulated.
Hey, Someone’s Mom is on the Phone
If your support team sets a goal of minimizing hold times and maximizing satisfaction scores, 80% of your support problems will be solved. But the remaining 20% might be the difference between a decent experience and one that makes people rave about your brand. To win that last 20%, I give support reps this advice: treat every customer like they’re a loved one calling.
If it were my mom on the phone, I’d want the support center to:
- Answer promptly or give her the option to receive a call back.
- Walk through each step of the solution with patience and empathy, even if that means talking her through a self-service link or knowledge base article that seems error-proof to a tech-savvy Gen-Zer.
- Give her all the time she needs, even if that takes the call past an arbitrary call duration target.
To give “mom” the experience she deserves, call centers need to be professionalized. Training in soft skills and products must be thorough and regard agents like they are building careers—and that leads me to the most important measurement in customer support.
How Many Agents Do You Lose to Other Departments?
At Vertafore, I have an unusual challenge: in the last year, I’ve lost nearly 60 top-performing agents to other parts of our organization, including sales, quality assurance, and product development. Most contact centers have a churn-and-burn problem; but we put agents through a six-week boot camp before they begin, and after months serving customers, they know our platform as well as or better than anyone at Vertafore.
Internal attrition, to me, is the most telling metric of success. Our department is not even viewed as a cost center anymore. Rather, it’s our farm team—a pipeline for developing talented people who will build long-term careers at Vertafore.
I believe we have created this farm team culture by making hold times and customer satisfaction the only metrics agents maximize, and by asking agents to treat callers like a loved one. As a result, agents forge skills and habits that are valued throughout our business.
In a perfect world, customer support would eliminate itself by automating solutions to every problem and making products bullet-proof and confusion-proof. Thankfully, for my job security, we don’t live in that world.
Rather, we work in a business culture where customer support, success, and experience increasingly determine which companies rise and fall. For the sake of agents and the remarkable companies they work for, I hope to see cost metrics loosen their influence on this profession. There are more humane and effective ways to measure customer support, and they are universally available to companies who want to reject the metrics-obsessed status quo and rather focus on making customers successful and building true emotional connections with every interaction.