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Best Practices -- An Overview
Business Journal

Best Practices -- An Overview

by Glenn Phelps

Call centers are a considerable management challenge, a difficult job in a dynamic environment. The difficulties are not likely to go away nor get any easier. The demand for call centers is growing. By some estimates, one in 20 jobs in the United States is in a call center now, and that figure may go up to one in seven by the year 2005.

Call centers are handling ever more complex tasks, such as interacting with customers over the Internet and telephone simultaneously. At the same time, the technology at the heart of a call center continues its march forward, pressing management to keep up or be obsolete. And of course, there is always financial pressure on any business as competitive as a call center.

Given this complex world, it is interesting to hear call center managers describe their greatest challenges in their own words. In the fall of 1999, The Gallup Organization completed a survey of 285 call center managers and senior executives. Participants were asked to name their top three management issues.

Issue Responses
Personnel (labor shortage, employee retention, recruiting/providing skilled staff, morale, training) 42%
Customer satisfaction 29%
Technology 20%
Financial 9%

People are the key

The survey data reveal that managers view people issues as their most pressing concern. And that leads to another question: Customer service representatives (CSRs) and customers may be the source of most management headaches, but are those headaches masking a real business opportunity? In other words, does improving the way CSR and customer concerns are handled make any difference in the financial success of a call center? Furthermore, is it reasonable to think there is anything that call center managers can do to impact the situation in a cost-effective way?

It seems unreasonable to require call center managers to be responsible for anything more than a minimal level of performance from CSRs. There are tremendous forces that limit a manager's impact on CSRs (low wages and labor shortages, to name just two). It's just as reasonable to assume that some customers are born unhappy, and nothing will turn them around. There are, it seems, powerful limits on call-center performance as it pertains to CSRs and customers. These issues are important, and the basic premise -- that resources shouldn't be wasted on futile efforts -- is sound.

However, when we look at the performance of managers in call centers across the country, an amazing fact emerges: There are managers whose CSRs are more productive, and whose customers are much happier, than the industry standard. Does this increased performance lead to a more valuable call center? If it does, how do these managers find a way to positively influence CSRs and customers in this tough environment?

The financial impact of people

It is easy to assume that top-performing CSRs have a positive impact on a call center's financial performance -- and they do. Every time Gallup looks at the data, the CSR's financial impact is immediately apparent. Those superior financial results are not realized just through productivity gains, however -- the best CSRs are also less likely to change jobs, are safer, take less sick time, require less training, file fewer disability claims, produce less customer attrition and are more successful at selling.

The key to increasing CSR performance

Given the evidence that CSR performance makes a difference in the value of a call center, why can't more managers tap CSR potential? It's not as if managers haven't been trying. If asked, most managers would say everything they do, in some way, is related to improving the performance of their CSRs (although some even dispute the fact of untapped potential for improvement). So, if all managers are trying to do their best, what distinguishes brilliant managers, those whose call centers and CSRs perform at the highest levels, from other managers?

Despite a diversity of backgrounds and business environments, managers of top-performing CSR teams do have some things in common. The best CSR performances come from teams in which managers:

  • measure performance correctly

  • get the right people to be CSRs

  • get the right people to manage them

  • pay CSRs and team managers for the value they create

  • create a work environment where CSRs thrive

  • study top performers for best practices and selection profiles

In part two, we will explore how the best call centers use measurement to increase CSR engagement and customer loyalty.

To read part 2 of this article, see "Measuring the Right Stuff" in the "See Also" area on this page.


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

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