Many organizations use waiting time and processing speed as key measures of service quality. This is fine – as long as they don’t become the only metrics that matter. An obsession with such ‘numbers’ can make you lose sight of what is really important: how your customers experience what you are doing for them rather than how efficient your systems and processes are.

A telecommunications provider wanted to ensure customer queries were handled quickly. As a consequence, it introduced a metric in its contact center where the performance of customer service agents was evaluated on ‘call time’ – how long agents took to ‘close’ a call from a customer. The result: whenever a call appeared to be about an issue that would take time to resolve, agents looked to either escalate the case or re-direct the query. Anything they could do to get the customer off the phone as quickly as they can.

This is similar to another metric commonly used in call centers: “average handling time”, and to many other metrics that organizations use, where the focus is on ‘how fast we can respond’. Such metrics are rooted in productivity, inward-looking and based on the assumption that all customers value ‘speed’ above everything else.

As these metrics become entrenched in an organization, they usually drive everyone’s focus inwards. Attention zooms in on eliminating waste, reducing defects and increasing productivity – in processes and systems. One well-known software company even has a jargon for getting customers off the phone – they call it “slamming calls”. Think about the customer experience on the other end of that call. Now that is real waste!

In a world where products are commoditized faster than ever before, and processes are easily copied, service is the domain where an organization can achieve sustainable competitive advantage.

Organizations should stop obsessing about what works for processes and systems in the domain of improving ‘service’. What is more urgent is the need to build a culture that emphasizes an outside-in perspective. ‘How we can improve what we do’ is only valuable when it is guided by ‘are we doing what our customers truly value?” Some customers do value time above all else, but others want patience, education, to feel appreciated, encouraged or understood. Some value flexibility and options, others want their problems solved with just one call … no matter how long it takes.

Where speed truly matters is how quickly you build a culture where everyone is focused on creating more service value. Not how fast you process the next customer.

9 replies
  1. Maren Perry
    Maren Perry says:

    Good point, Charles.
    Usually people are well-intentioned when establishing metrics — creating something they can measure, so that they can measure their improvement. When we start operating only to improve the metric, instead of improving overall and having it *reflected* in the metric, we run into a “teach to the test” kind of mentality in which no one wins. That’s why addressing the service *culture* is so important — so that we get to the root of the issue rather than the just the metric.
    Thanks for your insights!

  2. Preethi Nair
    Preethi Nair says:

    Very true, but its hard to have this to be understood by the people who needs to understand the most in the company hirarachy.

  3. Allan H Jensen
    Allan H Jensen says:

    I believe dropped call and waiting times are important parameters to measure whereas I am opposed to targets for call handling times (efficiency). However even the aforementioned two basic parameters can lead to the wrong behavior if you have the wrong attitudes on staff or the manager is beating up staff for not answering phones timely – which can lead to slammed calls. So hiring for attitude, especially with managers, as well as having more qualitative assessments in place are crucial. Dropped calls and waiting times are not to monitor individual staff but rather to assess staffing requirements (or better still, process improvement progress) in order to satisfy the most basic of customer requirements; getting through to someone who can (hopefully) satisfy your inquiry. I’ve seen call centers where getting to near zero dropped calls created immense pride and it was not at the expense of how customers were treated; introducing the metrics were a powerful enabler.

  4. Anirban Sinha Ray
    Anirban Sinha Ray says:

    Charles, it is really so very practical.I agree with Maren on this too.
    I have encountered one such system, where metric was rampantly – I would prefer say so – exploited to earn employee and departmental credit points. The entire value system and ethical part was missing, resulting in depleted top line, frustration running through the vein of the client community – internal and external.

  5. rakesh
    rakesh says:

    I fully agree with this. For this the service has to understand the value matrix of the respective product and what are the value drivers for the customers. This needs that customer satisfaction matrix is prepared for each segment of the market the company is serving.

  6. Charles Tang
    Charles Tang says:

    @Maren – you’re right, metrics should never be an end unto themselves. The intentions are usually good, but the impact can be warped. Thanks for dropping by!

  7. Charles Tang
    Charles Tang says:

    @Allan – you’ve emphasized an important point. Metrics can be a powerful enabler, focusing employees to produce valuable results. We just have to be mindful of whether they are aligned to what customers value, as well as how these metrics are perceived and understood by the people who are measured by them.

  8. John Marketis
    John Marketis says:

    You’d think this would be obvious to all managers, wouldn’t you? Assuming that customers value ‘speed’ above all else – in fact, assuming ANYTHING about your customers – is a dangerous practise.

    I worked at a telecommunications ‘inbound’ call centre for 6 years and I have to disagree with one point: Average Handling Times (AHT) in contact centres allow the staffing levels to be kept to a minimum, providing a cost benefit to the Company. Consultants are urged to keep one eye on the clock so the Company can staff accordingly and keep consultants ‘under the pump’ regarding response times. The two metrics cannot co-exist under these circumstances!

    I urge all managers of customer-facing teams: Don’t assume – ASK your customers what they want! You might just be surprised! My guess, however, is that they already know the answers – they just don’t want to HEAR them.

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