How To Smartly Manage Call-Center Performance

It sounds daunting, but performance management is not as complicated as you think - provided you have the right tools in place. We highlight three companies that have made performance management a central part of their call centers.
How do you manage performance in your call center? Whether or not you know it, you're probably already doing it to some extent.

The goal of performance management is to be able to glean the most valuable information from different sources within your call center and use it to increase agents' performance. And while many managers have used forms of performance management in their centers, for the most part it's been a labor-intensive process that requires a lot of manual work on behalf of IT administrators.

For example, consider all the different tools within your call center that deliver valuable performance data: Your ACD system delivers stats on agents' average speed of answer, abandonment rates and average handle time (AHT); your workforce management system gives you information about agents' schedule adherence; and your quality assurance system contains agents' scored call evaluations.

The problem lies in how you determine which metrics are most important for measuring agents' performances; how you present the information in a useable and actionable format; and how you use the information to motivate agents, identify specific problems and improve their performances.

However, emerging in today's market are full-bodied performance management tools that automate the process of consolidating data, analyzing key metrics and relating the results to the people who need to know most, such as trainers, schedulers, team leaders and managers.

The call centers we profile in this article are all using performance management tools to help them manage the call center's and agents' performance. And while they all measure standard service level metrics like AHT, they realize that when it comes to managing performance, the main goal is the quality of service.

They have each used the software to develop effective performance strategies that work best for them, whether it's improving and focusing agent training programs or using performance results to develop effective hiring profiles.

The following examples should motivate you to determine how performance management can help you meet the objectives of your organization.

Measuring Quality

For the California State Automobile Association (CSAA), a part of the AAA federation, performance management means providing call center employees with the information they need to be successful.

"Everyone wants to excel at what they do," says Shane Butler, CSAA's workforce planning manager. "And we believe that the more information agents have about their performance and their goals, the better they will perform."

CSAA serves more than 4.1 million club members who are located in Northern California, Utah and Nevada. The organization employs about 950 agents across its four call centers, which are located in Elk Grove, CA; Livermore, CA; Drapery, UT; and Las Vegas, NV.

To keep track of performance metrics that CSAA deemed important, they originally developed an in-house tool that automated the consolidation of key statistics. According to Butler, the tool had a significant impact on their business but was not robust enough to meet the company's growing demands. So in October 2003, CSAA purchased AIM technology's (Menlo Park, CA) AIMCall version 5 to consolidate information from multiple systems throughout the center and present it on agents' desktops.

AIMCall has made a huge impact on agents' performance. In the past, agents had to wait for their supervisors to take the time to review their performance results. But by having performance information readily available, agents can see how their performing at all times.

"The big pay off is allowing each individual contributor to see exactly what they're contributing and how they're performing against their individual goals," says Butler. "And we're able to clearly demonstrate how each agent influences members and transactions."

However, the most interesting thing about CSAA's performance metrics is not how they measure performance but what they measure.

"We've changed our focus from holding agents accountable for statistics, such as average handle time and number of calls answered per hour, to instead focus on the quality of the transaction," says Butler. "We look at things like agents' knowledge levels, how they interact with members, and how well they navigate and use our systems."

CSAA still monitors basic service level metrics but instead of addressing failures at the agent level, they address them from management's perspective. For example, does the agent need more training, do they need assistance, or is there a particular tool that's slowing them down? "By having an analytics package tied into the performance management tool, we are able to drill into root-cause analysis and identify trends and patterns," he says.

The company is constantly tweaking key performance drivers. A newly formed Customer Satisfaction Group works with a third-party company to conduct customer surveys and recently began linking them back to individual agents, teams and management to spot trends, pinpoint training issues, and identify ways to increase member satisfaction.

The company also ties in data from Nice Systems' (Rutherford NJ) NiceUniverse 8.8 quality assurance software and IEX's (Richardson, TX) TotalView workforce management system. They also gather performance metrics from sales systems; membership systems and transactional systems.

CSAA uses incentives to motivate agents to reach beyond their performance goals. The company offers on-the-spot awards and conducts regular incentive contests that can run anywhere from one month to one year. Butler even initiated a partnership between 1 800 GIFT CERTIFICATE (New York, NY), a gift certificate solutions company, and AIM to enable agents to monitor what incentives they qualify for.

Butler acknowledges that CSAA has yet to close the loop with training but they are working to develop better ways of tracking how particular training programs effect agents' performance. They are also considering collecting statistics from new-hires to track the effectiveness of individual trainers. Butler says trainers are interested in this because they currently have no way to gauge their training programs.

CSAA also plans to introduce the tool to other departments outside of the call center including branch offices.

Butler is confident that CSAA is on the right track with performance management. "Since we started compiling and consolidating data in 2001, we have noticed an upward trend in our quality performance," he says. "On average, we have seen a 2% to 3% increase per year. And we think we will continue to make 4% to 5% increases per year."

The Impact of Training

For Kaiser Permamente, an Oakland, CA-based non-profit health care company, keeping agents up-to-date with training is one of the biggest challenges facing performance.

The company serves 8.2 million members in nine states and Washington DC but the bulk of the company's members, approximately 6 million, are in California. To serve these customers, Kaiser Permanente has two call centers located in Corona, CA, and Stockton, CA.

To address their performance challenges, more than 700 agents rely on Knowlagent's (Alpharetta, GA) Knowlagent Agent Performance Solution software, formerly known as Knowdev. Kaiser Permanente has authored more than 70 15-20 minute courses within the software.

A full-time employee, known as the Knowlagent Coordinator, works with the quality assurance and training teams to ensure that agents have the appropriate training. Part of this includes scheduling knowledge breaks within the workforce management system. Each agent has two knowledge breaks per month and they can take additional courses whenever they have free time. The software also lets managers measure how well an agent has understood a particular training topic.

"We have a seven-week training program for new hires but even with this comprehensive training, agents can't be expected to know everything 100% of the time," says Robert Munsen, Kaiser Permanente's vice president of member services. "For whatever call-type that comes into the center, we have a training module to help the agent through it. Some of the courses are policy-related on topics like ergonomics and schedule adherence and other courses are more content-rich and address specific knowledge gaps."

One of the main performance metrics the company measures is first-call resolution. "When a member does not get correct information on the first call and they have to call back a second or third time, not only is it frustrating for the member but it ends up costing the company a lot of money," says Munsen. "Getting it right the first time is extremely important to us."

Munsen also puts a lot of weight into quality assurance. The quality assurance team reviews five calls per agent per month. Software from Nice Systems records phone calls but the company developed their own internal evaluation system. Once a call is reviewed, it's forwarded directly to the agent. Agents can view their scores on-line and even listen to recordings themselves. Supervisors provide feedback and one-on-one coaching on a daily basis.

The company also looks at metrics that include average call handle times; customer satisfaction scores based on customer surveys; service levels; abandonment rates; and schedule adherence. And since the company has approximately 2.5 million dollars at risk in service guarantees, they have to be sure to meet all of their contracted service levels.

The company also has several incentive programs in place to motivate agents. For example, agents can earn up to 10% of their pay if they exceed quality assurance goals. To combat problems like tardiness, which can have a huge impact on the call centers' performance, agents have the opportunity to earn $100 per month for having perfect attendance and for returning from breaks on time. The company also offers non-cash incentives, such as tickets to Disneyland.

"I really try to balance performance management with the overall culture I want to create within the call center," says Munsen. "We're in a unionized environment and people assume it's a negative environment when in fact, the two California call centers have the highest employee satisfaction of any department within the company. And I truly believe the training we provide to agents plays a huge part in this.

"In any call center situation, you have to make sure that you're focused on the quality of the call and you have to make sure new reps are effective and constantly work on making them better."

The Customer's Perspective

"Our performance metrics are driven by what we consider quality from our customers' perspective," says Jack Schumaker, Electric Insurance Company's vice president of call center operations.

Electric Insurance provides home and automotive insurance. The company was originally established 1966 to serve the needs of General Electric employees but now offers insurance to the general public nationwide.

The company has one call center located in Beverly, MA where about 150 agents work in three departments: customer service, sales and claims reporting. Electric Insurance's customer service and sales reps are licensed insurance agents.

With the help of customer focus groups, the company has established key performance metrics that they use to manage performance and service level, often referred to within the company has "critical to quality" (CTQ). Some of these CTQs include speed to answer, first-call resolution, helpfulness and callbacks within a promised timeframe.

Quality assurance is also considered a CTQ. Electric Insurance uses Nice Systems' NiceUniverse quality monitoring software to evaluate agents' soft skills (e.g., how they greet the customer and whether they display appropriate empathy) and how they execute transactions. Both team leaders and a dedicated quality assurance evaluator monitor agents' calls. On a weekly basis, the team leader and quality assurance evaluator have calibration sessions where they listen to monitored calls to coordinate scoring standards.

To provide agents with customized views of their performance metrics, Electric Insurance uses Merced Systems' (Redwood City, CA) Merced Performance Suite. The software integrates systems across the call center to provide a consolidated view of performance metrics at the agent, management and executive level. The main sources of data currently include NiceUniverse; an Avaya ACD; and IEX's TotalView workforce management software.

"We create dashboards for each rep so they can view a personalized dashboard that displays their productivity, handle time, talk time, after-call work time, schedule adherence and quality scores," says Schumaker. "We also use graphs to benchmark agents against the rest of the department."

Team leaders view stats on their entire team and can drill down to view data about specific individuals. At the executive level, Schumaker views stats for each of the departments that make up the call center.

Another benefit of the software is its ability to send alerts to individuals and management when something deviates from the norm. For example, if a rep's handle time exceeds service levels for a prolonged period, the software will alert the rep of the problem. If the problem continues, the team leader receives an alert.

According to Schumaker, this feature helps the company identify areas where they need to improve and the specific individuals that might need more training and coaching. But the majority of the time, agents resolve the issue that triggered the alert on their own before it even gets to a team leader.

Electric Insurance was also able to capitalize on the software's ability to capture agents' demographic information and analyze it to identify common attributes that the most successful agents share. Some of this demographic information includes education background and prior work experience. The software provides scorecards that rank the agents based on their productivity, quality, and schedule adherence. The human resources department uses all this information to create hiring profiles.

Schumaker says that the company has seen a 60% decrease in new-hire attrition since using the new hiring profiles. And according the company's data, in October 2001, only 40% of new-hires passed their insurance license exams but in October 2003, this number increased to 90%.

"We wanted the software to fill in the gaps of our knowledge and the biggest gap was our understanding of what makes an agent successful," he says. "And we found that it's not critical for a candidate to have insurance or even call center experience. What is important are people who are able to learn and who work well on a team."

Manage Your Performance

Here are some companies that you can contact for help on managing your call center's performance.