Benchmarking Inbound Call Center Operations: How do you compare?

by Christine K. Kozlosky

As every call center manager knows, assembling the right mix of resources to ensure high-quality, cost-effective customer care is a constantly evolving challenge. Selecting, training, managing, and motivating a large pool of employees in a tight labor market requires creativity, enthusiasm and perseverance. While advancing technologies offer a constant lure of opportunities, keeping up requires more and more resources that often distract from the core business.

Determining the right combination of technology and personal touch is also a moving target as customer needs and expectations evolve. Many companies that have hit the mark have found it’s even more challenging to stay on target.

With this in mind, the Ascent Group conducted research at the end of 2007 to better understand how companies are managing inbound customer care. We asked companies to provide performance benchmarks (see sidebar) so we could identify “best performers,” companies providing the best service at the best cost. We also asked companies to share call center experiences to help us identify the practices that make or break a customer contact center. The results of this research are contained in our report, “Call Center Strategies 2007,” the Ascent Group’s second annual benchmarking study of inbound call centers.

When evaluating performance of any organization, it is important to look at performance from three perspectives: productivity, cost and service. By examining call center performance on these dimensions, companies can understand if service is being compromised by cost-cutting, or conversely, if a company is spending too much to attain a high service level.

During this study, we compared performance in key benchmark metrics to identify “best performers” for each industry, above average companies that deliver low cost, high productivity and high service. We calculated a “best performer” average for these high performing companies. We also calculated an industry average for each benchmark metric to demonstrate the performance of participants by industry.

Charts 1 and 2 present the Unit Cost and Abandonment Rate for our study group. More benchmark performance comparisons are contained in the published research report.

What did we learn?

“Best Performing” call centers are more likely to use behavioral-based screening to select candidates; empower employees to make decisions; actively reward and praise employees for superior performance; commit resources to consistently monitor call quality and provide feedback; offer periodic refresher training; and actively measure and monitor performance. The following collection of best practices is summarized from our benchmark research.

It’s all about people. Numerous studies and surveys repeatedly confirm what almost every employee already knows—recognition for a job well done is the top motivator of employee performance. As a manager, you positively reinforce, through rewards and recognition, the behavior you want repeated. Aubrey Daniels, a leading performance specialist, explains it best: “You reinforce behaviors and reward results.”

Informal incentives are often more effective in boosting morale. One of the most powerful employee motivators is personalized, instant recognition from a manager. Informal rewards are usually spontaneous, inexpensive and require minimal planning and effort.

Do your homework. Talk to employees at all levels, in all job categories, to understand expectations and drivers of performance. Identify meaningful rewards for each employee.

Companies with smaller call centers are often better at staying in touch with employees. The smaller center lends itself to a small town environment. In a small town, everyone knows everyone. Small centers can benefit from that small town feel; communication is usually easier and employees are less likely to feel lost in the machine. The bigger you are, the harder you are going to have to work to stay in touch with employees.

Hire the right people. Make sure you are hiring the right kind of employees. No sense investing weeks of training in an employee who doesn’t have the personality to fit in with your group. Use all means possible to screen candidates—test, interview and role-play—to make sure you understand the candidate’s experience, personality and expectations. Also be sure the candidate understands the type of environment in which he or she will work.

Ask your agents to interview and further screen candidates. Let candidates sit in on calls to get a feel for the type of work and the work environment. In short, learn as much as you can about candidates before you offer the job. The goal is to hire someone who has similar expectations. Your chances of retaining that employee will be that much greater.

Consistency in call monitoring is key. Call monitoring is inarguably one of the best methods of improving call quality and service delivery. While companies can measure customer satisfaction through customer focus groups, customer contact follow-up telephone surveys and written satisfaction surveys, the results are often not timely enough or detailed enough to help individual agents understand their impact or contribution. A call monitoring session on the other hand, if done correctly, can instantly deliver a wealth of customer satisfaction information, gauge individual agent performance and reveal a lot about your business processes and policies.

No single call monitoring technique will always meet the needs of your agents or your operation. Most companies rely on recorded sessions in combination with live monitoring sessions, whether side-by-side or remote. Many companies feel the need to conduct side-by-side sessions just to keep in touch with employees. Q/A groups tend to rely on remote monitoring using recorded voice and data while supervisors conduct the traditional live monitoring sessions, using silent and side-by-side techniques. Use a combination of techniques and let the technology assist you where it can.

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Commit the resources to adequately monitor, evaluation, and discuss results. Effective call monitoring is all about commitment of resources. If providing regular, fair and timely feedback is a challenge for your organization or if your supervisors are always pressed for time, consider setting up an in-house quality assurance group. There are also outsourcing options available, companies that specialize in agent behavior analysis. Contracted monitoring services can be provided on-site or remotely, based on your specifications and standards.

Calibration is essential to ensure consistency and build confidence in call monitoring results. The best way to gain consensus on a call is to design the proper review criteria and then test it over and over. These new systems facilitate this process by streamlining the selection, capture and presentation of calls and data. Group discussions comparing and discussing results help to focus and clarify the not-so-easy task of judging performance and they also build confidence and consistency.

The latest generation of automated monitoring solutions offers tremendous advantages over traditional live monitoring or analog recording. While prices are quite hefty for these systems, increased supervisor productivity, shortened talk times, better customer system usage, more targeted training, higher quality service and elimination of analog tapes and tape storage concerns are pretty strong payback arguments. Keep in mind that this is just another tool for your call center’s toolbox. As with any system, it has to be supported by sound management and effective work practices. It should be implemented as a tool and not as a weapon. The most wonderful monitoring system in the world will do no good without agent buy-in and supervisor coaching. If agents are involved in the selection, design and implementation of the system, the monitoring process will be much more successful and less stressful.

Do it right the first time. First call resolution is a critical determinant of customer satisfaction, whether your systems and policies make this possible or not. Customers expect to bring a problem or question to your attention and have it resolved in a timely manner. Not all inquiries can be resolved immediately or on the first contact, but advances in technology, increasing employee empowerment and scrutinizing evaluation will increase the number that can.

Try to view first call resolution from the customer perspective. Make sure you know what your customers expect and respond accordingly. Conduct focus groups, customer needs assessments and other surveys to gather the feedback necessary to understand expectations. Do not assume you know what your customers want.

You can’t improve if you don’t measure. Comparing your company’s call center performance with a representative peer group can provide tremendous benefits. Not only can you learn more about your peers’ approach to work tasks, you often learn more about your own organization simply by participating in the measurement process. You may confirm what management already knows as well as the belief that there really is a need to change. It may provide the “proof” that management has been struggling to uncover. When conducted properly, employees actively participate in the process and become part of the solution.

Keep an eye on what other companies in your industry and other industries are doing. Participating in a research effort is an excellent way to better understand your call center performance and to stay on top of the latest techniques.

Key Benchmark Metrics

  • Cost per call
  • Calls handled per FTE
  • Percent of calls resolved on first contact
  • Percent agent availability
  • Service level conformance
  • Percent abandoned calls
  • Average speed of answer


Christine K. Kozlosky is president of The Ascent Group Inc., a management consulting firm specializing in customer service operations and improvement. Ms. Kozlosky is publisher and managing editor of the “The Service Delivery Advantage.” Her areas of expertise include call centers, customer service operations, performance measurement and benchmarking, innovation and best practice discovery, business process re-engineering and information systems management.


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