There’s Something Wrong if Your People Are Hitting Their Marks and Your Customers Are Hitting the Road


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Contact centers today talk a whole lot about empowering agents, investing in their skill development and reducing escalating attrition. Unfortunately, most companies are unable to track individual customer contacts and attach crisp, actionable performance measurement and management to them. Instead, they still overly rely upon “the old ways” involving hard technical metrics emphasizing speed and quantity to track and manage “average” agent performance.

It has become all too easy to judge those agents who have the highest contacts per hour, the lowest minutes per incident or the highest sales per hour as the “best” performers, just based on the average time they spend on the phone with customers: the average handle time.

He knew from experience how difficult and expensive it was to win back lost customers.

The problem is that those metrics can courage your agents to ignore your customers and their valid complaints—and leave your company without an ear to big-ticket issues.

One company transformed from “averages” to actual, individual contact-based measurement and changes. It’s a good lesson for others who want to get beyond the old measures and do something to satisfy customers and lower costs.

Because the company considers its technology acquisition and application to be one of its core competitive advantages, I’ll call it Ticco, for “tracks individual contacts company.”

Ticco started out just like the typical company, examining under a microscope monthly average handle time and exhorting its 600 customer service agents to reduce AHT month over month. For a while, Ticco achieved this objective, cutting AHT from slightly more than seven minutes to just above five minutes (or, using classic “over-precision,” 855 seconds to 607 seconds). Meanwhile, unbeknown to the senior management—but well understood in the company’s two captive contact centers—agent turnover was increasing, and the rate of customer complaints (as a percentage of total installed units) was on the rise. Clearly, something wasn’t working.

Win-back challenge

Armed with these alarming trends, the vice president Customer Support knocked on the CIO’s door and enlisted her to help him to pursue a better path, more real time with tight feedback loops. She wasn’t so sure (after all, the cost side seemed to be in decent shape, thanks to the steadily declining average handle time). But the CIO talked with the company’s new CFO. He knew from experience how difficult and expensive it was to win back lost customers. So the CIO decided to go for it.

The first challenge was to capture customer contact data each time Ticco’s support team took a call or handled an email messages (there were many more calls than emails back then). The CIO and Customer Support VP teamed to break down the statistics so that Customer Support’s quality and training director could receive steady feeds, with copies split out to each of the 30 team leaders.

The maker of the automatic call distributor helped by opening an API (a procedure) Ticco had not even known about, and the CIO decided to dedicate eight developers to work full time with the Customer Support’s process and systems director.

In the course of the project, Ticco discovered an interesting thing about its monthly average handle time. Like any other average, it represented a combination of handle times. And there was a wide variation in those times. Ticco plotted the variation against the existing quality monitoring, which sampled five contacts per month. The quality monitoring team had been using standard score sheets to assess call and email quality, but with only five contacts per month, it was largely hit or miss and didn’t necessarily reflect customer perceptions of the interaction.

The second, and bigger, challenge was to find a way ask customers their opinion of the contact. In parallel, the team wanted to increase the quality-monitoring sample rate, while adding a speech and text analytics package from one of the emerging players that had been knocking on the CIO’s door.

The CIO, CFO and Customer Support VP aimed to ask each customer after every single contact what he or she thought about that contact. They recognized that there might be a 5 percent to 10 percent response rate. With a new solution that used vXML to capture phone or email responses, the three executives were excited that more than 15 percent of the customers eagerly provided responses. (Well, in all honesty, the CFO wasn’t totally pleased because the SaaS-based pricing meant Ticco was paying more on the per-contact basis, but he knew that “more was better.”)

Increasing the QM rate meant adding more quality-monitoring team members to double the sample rate to 10 contacts per month, as well as enlisting each team leader to conduct 10 more QM sessions. That meant quadrupling to 20 contacts per month per agent, representing roughly 4 percent of the monthly contacts each agent handled.

Then, key to making this come together, the Customer Support VP worked with dedicated IT developers to create a Balanced Scorecard that pitted handle time against a blending of the quality-monitoring scores and the customer satisfaction scores, enabling each team leader and each agent to receive these after each contact. The handle-time metric moved up and down for each contact, of course, with the two scores changing two or three times per day. The quality and training director suggested two more enhancements that sealed the success of this transformation: documenting each agent’s original training manager so that the company could track their performance and inserting remedial training whenever either of the scores was below acceptable thresholds.

And what was the success? The agent attrition rate declined. The customer complaint rate declined by more than 75 percent. Those were big wins. But there was another win, too: The AHT also declined. How could this happen? Well, it’s actually incredibly simple: When you focus on what’s bothering your customers, and study root causes, you’ll wind up enjoying lower handle times.

In Ticco’s most recent all-hands meeting, the CEO presented the company’s highest award to the CIO, CFO, and the vice president of Customer Support—and challenged all of the other department leaders to find ways to track individual performance and create feedback loops to produce similar benefits.

Bill Price

Bill Price is the President of Driva Solutions (a customer service and customer experience consultancy), an Advisor to Antuit, co-founded the LimeBridge Global Alliance, chairs the Global Operations Council, teaches at the University of Washington and Stanford MBA programs, and is the lead author of The Best Service is No Service and Your Customer Rules! Bill served as's first Global VP of Customer Service and held senior positions at MCI, ACP, and McKinsey. Bill graduated from Dartmouth (BA) and Stanford (MBA).


  1. Good article Bill! Just to support this our work shows that a a focus on ACH invariably drives a poor experience. We have been involved in a number of cases where the removal off AHT results in call volumes declining. Why is this the case? If customers are forced/encourage off the phone (to ensure the agent hits their target), Customer simply call back! Thus adding costs to the business. I prime exampole of how improving the CE can save money.

    Colin Shaw
    International Author. Lastest book “The DNA of Customer Experience”


  2. I agree wholly with your article; taking care of and identifying root causes of customer issues can greatly reduce attrition and customer loss. Nothing can take the place of a live voice on the other end of the line or a prompt response to an email. I believe that Customer/Technical Support is a 4-way intersection with support agents standing in the middle of the intersection. Straight ahead is the customer, to the left, right and behind are the product designers, QA and Management; the support agent is the conduit for information between the four points of the intersection. A successful company will use the information given to it by the agents to drive the necessary actions to provide their next customers with products/services that have corrections to earlier issues. Thus the new customers do not have to call the contact center for solutions as the issue was already corrected before the new customer received the product/service. This drives down the number of contacts and ultimately costs. Focusing on driving down AHT doesn’t allow the agents to glean the necessary information that is vital to helping the current customer and, ultimately, correct the issues so that future customers don’t have to call.


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