agent empowerment

Six Lessons body-building can teach you about customer experiences

The weekend before Thanksgiving, I competed in my very first body-building competition.  Between stage appearances, eating hourly meals and making sure my Oompa Loompa-like tan was intact, the customer-service lessons were hard to miss.

1.  Forget agent to supervisor ratios. You need expediters. If you’ve never been backstage at a body-building competition, imagine a large room filled with free-weights,  (tan) spraying tents, and fans leading to numerous dressing rooms—all connected by a fine mist of spray tan, Pam oil, hairspray and spray glue, amidst the chaos of dozens of competitors pumping up in preparation for their time on stage. Part of the chaos was likely due to the fact that this was my first show. Some competitors had the process down to a science. I think I even caught one competitor on a yoga mat catching a few moments of Zen. But the clear breaks in the chaos were the expediters, like bright beacons of knowledge and organization. The sole purpose of the expediters was to keep the competitors on track with the flow of the competition, make sure they were in the staging area when needed, and on stage when scheduled. And while there were only three of them (compared to over 90 competitors, plus coaches, trainers and helpers backstage), they seemed to be everywhere and have the answers to every question. If you can’t describe your call center supervisors the same way, you need to re-examine your supervisor selection and training process.

2.  It’s all about relationships. When you think about any competition that involves any degree of primping, you probably think you need to keep your finger on the record button of your flipcam so you don’t miss the impending cat fight. Instead, what you would have found were male competitors spotting each other in the pump-up room, women helping each other with make-up and glue, and competitors joking with the MC while on stage. If, as a manager, you can’t recall the last time you genuinely laughed with an agent or left working thinking, “We accomplished a lot today, but we had fun doing it!” your call center is at severe risk for agent burn-out.  Continue reading

Rev Up Your FCR Rate

This guest blog post is written by Greg Levin, author of Full Contact.  He has been researching, reporting on and satirizing contact centers and customer care since 1994.

First-contact resolution has been a hot call center metric for years now. There are white papers and articles galore on the topic, and entire conferences and online forums dedicated to it. Most telling is that numerous managers have gotten “FCR Forever” and/or “One and Done” tattooed on their necks.

The majority of conversations about FCR center around two things: 1) the huge potential impact of FCR (on operational costs, customer satisfaction and agent satisfaction/retention); and 2) how the hell to measure this mega-metric accurately (no simple task, as you’ll see in my upcoming ebook, Full Contact).

What often gets lost amidst the FCR hype and the confusion surrounding its proper measurement is something even more critical: What processes, practices and tools a contact center can put in place to help improve FCR. Customers don’t care if you know how to measure FCR, they simply want you to achieve it. Following is a list of tactics to help you do just that:

Excellent agent training and tools. If your agents lack skills, knowledge and/or immediate access to key information on calls, your FCR rate is going to be lower than the average winter temperature in Greenland or the average morale level in a billing contact center. Top centers provide comprehensive new-hiring training to rookies and frequent ongoing training to veteran agents, forever keeping staff abreast of new products/services, information and approaches to help them provide the most efficient and effective service. In addition, these centers equip agents with user-friendly, fast and frequently updated desktop tools and knowledge bases that enable staff to find crucial customer data and product/service info a flash, thus reducing the number of times customers must be placed on hold, transferred, called back, or physically restrained.

World-class workforce management processes. Even the best-trained and equipped agents on the planet will die without oxygen, thus it’s critical to schedule enough staff to enable each agent to take at least two breaths between calls. Agents can’t resolve calls if they are having a stroke, or if the customer – who has been caged in the queue for 15 minutes – is screaming at them for taking so long to answer the phone. Thus, accurate forecasting and sound scheduling based on those forecasts is critical, as is mastering skills-based routing so that callers get sent to the right agent with the skill-set to handle the customer’s specific issue, and not to Bob – the quiet guy in the corner cubicle who makes paperclip sculptures of his mother.

No conflicting performance objectives. Many contact centers tell agents to focus on FCR, but then pressure them to achieve strict productivity objectives that interfere with agents’ ability to truly focus on the customer. Conflicting performance objectives are the number-one cause of agent-on-manager violence in America. Making FCR a KPI in your center but then punishing agents for not handling a certain number of calls per hour/shift or for going a little over the desired AHT average will not only hinder your center’s chances of achieving FCR success and customer satisfaction, it may result in you being killed or worse by furious frontline staff.

Incentives around FCR goal achievement. It’s always a wise practice to align agent incentives with the contact center’s and the enterprise’s performance goals. And since FCR success should be a top priority for nearly all customer care organizations, nearly all customer care organizations should reward and recognize agents when they consistently meet or exceed individual, team and center-wide FCR goals. Top contact centers do more than just order pizzas or pat staff on the back to celebrate current and propagate future FCR success; rather agents in these centers receive cash prizes, meaningful gifts/gift certificates, as well as public recognition at interdepartmental meetings and via internal newsletters/the corporate intranet. In addition to incentivizing and rewarding agents for FCR success, some centers de-incentivize and punish agents for FCR failure. This typically includes taking cash and gifts away from agents, publically humiliating them at meetings and via newsletters/the intranet, and forcing them to spend an hour alone in a room with somebody from IT.

Agents empowered to improve FCR-related processes.  Your agents know customers and customer care better than anyone, assuming your center’s hiring and training programs don’t blow. Smart contact center managers actively solicit suggestions and insight from agents regarding how they may be able to enhance FCR performance. Given the opportunity, agents will tell you what tools, training and workflows are lacking, and what processes and metrics are interfering with their ability to effectively resolve customer issues. They will also tell you what color they would like the contact center to be painted and why they need a new headset that doesn’t shock their ears, so be sure to cut them off before they stray too far from the topic of FCR.

I’d love to hear some of your ideas on FCR improvement, and/or about any tattoos you have gotten to show your dedication to this key metric.

Read more:

Greg can also be reached via twitter @greg_levin

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Hey CFO, where will you outsource to now?

One of my most-memorable offshore customer-service experiences involves a Fortune 100 direct-to-consumer computer company.  My power cord had stopped delivering power to my laptop, making it a fairly large (and expensive) paperweight.  I called the toll free number, ordered a new power cord, validated my shipping address and willingly paid for express delivery.

A few days later, still without a power cord, I called the customer service number and was swiftly routed to an agent in the Philippines.  Apparently the power cord had been delivered to my previous mailing address, 1,200 hundred miles away.  I explained the urgency of this matter and after a period of absolute and deafening silence, the agent wondered if I could pick it up at my old address.  Really?  How far do you think 1,200 miles is?  Eventually he recovered to cite the company policy for returns and exchanges (not really applicable to the situation at hand) and then swiftly transferred me to a supervisor.

CTA-frost-and-sullivan-application-of-the-yearWhen the concept of ‘Empowerment’ is foreign to a culture, it will be useless to your employees

Such experiences are unfortunately not that unusual from customers who have been served offshore.  Some of you might find it surprising that my experience was with an organization who gave their offshore call center agents significant decision-making power in resolving customer problems.  So why did I not benefit from the impact of agent empowerment?  Because empowerment of entry-level employees is so counter to the culture in the Philippines and other popular offshore locations (namely India) that the initiative fails to address the core customer dissatisfier – that customers are talking to people who more than anything want to please, but are too subjugated to take any definitive action to meet those ends.  This is the fundamental reason of why off-shoring of service to these countries has largely failed from a customer experience perspective. 

Cultural gaps negatively affect customer experiences

Despite the abundance of both quantitative and anecdotal data about the negative aspects of offshore customer service, with foreign labor costs of 1/5 to 1/10 of U.S. costs, off-shoring continues to be a popular initiative.  A.T. Kearney’s Global Services Location IndexTM (GSLI)analyzes and ranks the top 50 countries worldwide as the best destinations for providing outsourcing activities, including IT services and support, contact centers and back-office support.  The 2009 GSLI report revealed a few key findings:

  • India still ranks as the number 1 choice for outsourcing, with the Philippines following in second place.
  • Emerging “hot destinations” include the Middle East and Africa (Egypt ranked # 6 in the world; Jordan ranked #9; Ghana ranked #15 and Tunisia ranked # 17)
  • Countries in areas capitalizing on (close) proximity to the United States include South America and the Caribbean (Chile ranked # 8 in the world; Cost Rica ranked # 23).

The GSLI Index applies a weighting of 40% to financial attractiveness, and 30% to both People Skills and Availability and to Business Environment.  The Business environment category includes an assessment of Cultural exposure [1].  From a Customer Experience perspective, it is this cultural exposure or gap that represents the largest risk to the Customer Experience.

The importance of cultural exposure and fit with the customer base served cannot be underestimated.  I am reminded of a story someone told me about the company they worked for.  They had an offshore call center handling their customer support.  A customer called in regarding a malfunction in her dishwasher.  The agents involved were unable to understand why this was such an urgent problem and were unable to provide her a solution.  When this situation was brought to the attention of the management team, the agents were called in for a meeting.  They defended their response by raising their hands and saying, “If the dishwasher is broken, why not use these?  What is the problem?”  They just didn’t get it.

HofStede’s five cultural dimensions provide insight into the key ways in which cultures differ.  Perhaps the best known of these cultural dimensions is the Power Distance Index (PDI) [2].  The PDI describes the degree to which the less powerful members of a culture expect and accept that power is unevenly distributed.  This index essentially speaks to how much a culture values and respects authority.  In the workplace, an employee from a culture with a high PDI would expect detailed instructions from supervisors, would never question authority and would actively avoid decision-making.  In contrast, an employee from a culture with a low PDI would feel more comfortable challenging or critiquing those in power.

The world average PDI is 55.  The United States has a PDI of 40, a relatively low Index.  This low PDI indicates that while there is a fair degree of power inequality in our culture, we apply less deference to title, class and status than many other countries in the world.  In comparison India and the Philippines have PDIs of 77 and 94, respectively.  This explains the high degree of frustration American consumers experience when they seek out-of-the-box problem-solving skills from call center agents in the Philippines or India.

Understanding that cultural differences are the source of offshore customer experience discontent, let us examine what a service experience with an agent in the “hot and upcoming” Middle East and Africa or near-shore options of South America and the Caribbean might look like.

South American and Caribbean countries in the top 25 list (GSLI-ranked) include Jamaica (#24), Costa Rica (#23), Brazil (#12), Mexico (#11) and Chile (#8).  With the exception of Jamaica and Costa Rica, the remaining countries all posses Power Distance Indices more than 20 points different than that of the United States, representing a significant difference in culture.  While Jamaica and Costa Rica may represent the best options for the United States’ future off-shoring needs (Global Services Location Index within top 25; PDI distance from the US of only 5 units / points), the effects of significant differences between these countries’ and the United States’ Individualism and Uncertainty Avoidance Indices must be considered.

Within the top 25-ranked countries (GSLI-ranked), only one African country (Ghana) made the list.  Ghana’s PDI of 77 (distance of 37 units from that of the United States) makes it a cultural mis-fit.

So you are probably asking yourself, just as I did, why have so many chosen to outsource call centers to India and the Philippines?  One may assume it’s related to numerous reasons from economic incentives to communications infrastructure to the number of English speaking residents to the large percentage of college graduates.  It does seem largely evident that the GSLI was not part of the consideration.


1.  The Shifting Geography of Offshoring – The 2009 A.T. Kearney Blobal Services Location IndexTM


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