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Business Journal
What Supervisors Don't Know
Business Journal

What Supervisors Don't Know

by Glenn Phelps

Ever wonder why the service you receive over the telephone differs so widely from call to call, even when you're phoning the same call center? I do. There are times when I want to scream in frustration. But at other times, I feel so good that I really want to give a marketer my business.

What makes the difference? The performance of the person on the other end of the phone. But why is there a difference? Don't these firms train their reps, monitor their quality, or supervise their work?

Unfortunately, the answer is yes. In fact, most of the training, quality control, and supervision that happen in a call center just make the service worse.

Like other institutions, call centers use the tools at their disposal to shape the performance provided by their customer service reps (CSRs). Training and quality monitoring are two of the main tools used, but let's focus on the real culprit: the supervisor. Indeed, when customers phone a call center and talk with a CSR, whether customers know it or not, the supervisor's presence is there, lurking behind everything the CSR says or does.

This isn't to demean supervisors; too often the system sets them up to fail. Most call center supervisors are expected to manage the company's most poorly paid employees (CSRs) -- who handle the company's most valuable assets (customers) -- from the lowest management position in the organization (frontline supervisor). This is a formula for disaster. Most businesses would not purposely adopt such a business model, but over time, most call centers end up in exactly this situation.

To make matters worse, supervisors must rely on ineffective tools to support their employee management efforts. Most call centers can provide supervisors with reams of efficiency numbers, but those numbers don't relate to or measure how CSRs treat customers. That leads to the crux of the problem: Supervisors don't have any measurement that reflects how an individual CSR performs with his or her customers.

But what about the quality evaluation process most centers have in place? Don't quality ratings cover customer reactions to the call?

No, and here's why: these evaluations measure quality from the center's perspective and not the customer's. Even if the quality evaluation includes items that seem to cover customer treatment, such as "Used appropriate tone," quality evaluations don't really assess customer reaction. Only one person can rate the appropriateness of the tone taken on the call, and that is the customer. No supervisor or quality assessor can provide this rating on the customer's behalf.

Let's look at some hard numbers to illustrate this point.


In this case, 42 CSRs in a banking call center were given a performance rating by their supervisors and customers. Gallup Organization researchers then reviewed the results, first plotting the ratings on a graph, with the job performance ratings across the horizontal axis and the customer ratings across the vertical axis. The dark gridlines dividing the quadrants represent the means, the average ratings given by customers and supervisors, while the light gridlines represent one standard deviation away from the mean, or average, scores.

The data fell into four quadrants. The "Bad" quadrant displays the scores of the CSRs who received low ratings from both their customers and their supervisor. Those in the "Good" quadrant received positive ratings on both scores.

More interesting are the ratings that appear in the "Fooled you" and "Can't see it" quadrants, and they demonstrate just how deceptive internal evaluations can be. Case number one is the CSR in the "Fooled you" area, whose score is indicated by an arrow. Although this rep received above-average ratings from his supervisor, his customer ratings were well below average. In fact, according to the center's customers, 99% of the CSRs in this center do better with customers than this rep, yet his supervisor can't tell and rate him accordingly. This rep is competent in some areas, but they probably don't add value to the organization.

The second group, "Can't see it," is even more interesting. Three reps who received the highest customer ratings (indicated by arrows) all received ratings that were well below average from their supervisors. In fact, the single best CSR in the center received a supervisor rating that was more than a standard deviation below average supervisor rating for reps in this center. What's more, her rating is almost two standard deviations below the rating for the CSR in the "Fooled you" quadrant, who can please a supervisor but not customers. This rep clearly is making customers happy, and is probably making money for the company in the process, yet her supervisor doesn't realize her value.

What does the research indicate? That supervisor ratings and customer ratings are unrelated. Supervisors, in fact, may not be able to tell if CSRs are doing a good job with customers and generating value for the company.

How does this all relate to inconsistent customer service? The story goes something like this: Supervisors don't have the tools to evaluate how effectively CSRs perform with their customers. Furthermore, the management tools that are supposed to help measure a CSR's impact with customers, performance and quality measures, may actually lead supervisors in the wrong direction.

Bad supervisors can take these numbers and distort the performance of their CSRs by trying to "manage" their behavior into something that will improve the numbers, often twisting the CSR's ability to provide excellent customer service in the process. And what happens as a result? Poor customer service, that nevertheless appears to be good customer service on the center's measurement system.

The end result is that great call center customer service is more a matter of chance than management choice. Most often, it results when a talented CSR with a natural flair for delivering stellar service is left alone to do his or her job. Unfortunately, this situation can change whenever a new supervisor takes over his team and decides to actively manage the CSRs. Most companies should strive to avoid such randomness.

So call centers have a clear choice: They can institute measurements that reflect and reward excellent CSR performance, not just from the supervisor's point of view, but from the customer's. Or they can continue rewarding CSRs who can please their supervisors but not their customers. Unless the center can change, its customers may just do what I do when I encounter a poor customer service rep: hang up, and call back, until they get someone who can do their job, in spite of the system. Or maybe callers will just hang up, and they won't call back at all.


Glenn Phelps, Ph.D., is a Senior Consultant with Gallup.

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