But is it working? How to properly monitor utility call centers with calibration

By Marcia W. Hicks, Kowal Associates Inc.

Dec. 3, 2002 — You may ask, “What is calibration and why do I need it?” To properly answer the question, let’s talk first about your call monitoring program.

Where does your utility stand in your commitment to excellence in call quality? Do you have a paper and pencil system, an automated system or is it something on your list that constantly gets put on a back burner due to everyday pressures? Maybe your supervisors are too busy putting out fires, answering questions, writing reports, signing off on timesheets, handling escalated calls and solving customer service problems.

The first step is to recognize that you need a monitoring program.

Why do you need a monitoring program? You have your customer service representatives (CSRs) in place, but do they know everything they should? Are they acting in a professional manner? Are they providing your customers correct and sufficient information? Do they have proper speaking and listening skills?

Every utility call center needs to have a monitoring program to guarantee its success. There are several key steps to follow when designing such a program:

* Identify the key performance criteria that result in successful calls. Some examples could be: product knowledge, listening skills, etc.
* Select measurable attributes that support each of the performance criteria. For instance, “listening skills” could have attributes of: not interrupting the caller, not asking the caller to repeat information, etc.
* Determine the overall weight for each criterion in the total call score.
* Select the scoring method (1-to-5, yes/no, etc.) for each criterion.
* Define the monitoring process and performance benchmarks.
* Train all call center members-both monitors and telephone reps-about the performance criteria and benchmarks.
* And finally, conduct calibration sessions to work out any “bugs” before you begin live monitoring.

Each step in the process is critical to the success of the program. However, the calibration process is often overlooked. For a monitoring process to succeed, it is essential to integrate calibration into the planning, implementation and ongoing maintenance of your monitoring program.

What is calibration?
Defined formally, calibration is “…to standardize (as a measuring tool) by determining the deviation from standard, so as to ascertain the proper correction factors.”

In a call center, calibration is the process in which you remove variation in the way performance criteria are interpreted from person to person.

Calibration is the best preventative maintenance against allegations of inequity and favoritism. It eliminates perceived “bias” by ensuring consistent scoring. When calibration is achieved, it will not matter who did the monitoring and scoring; the outcome will be the same. Once CSRs understand this, the coaching process can focus on recognizing achievements and identifying opportunities for improvement, instead of whether a particular score is “accurate.”

Calibration is not a quick or easy process; it takes a considerable commitment. It may take many hours of discussion and practice before your team begins to score a call the same way. While it is difficult, the rewards will be worth it in the end.

How to conduct a calibration session
Anyone responsible for monitoring and scoring calls should first have an excellent working knowledge of the utility’s call center’s customer service programs. This includes quality assurance representatives (if you have them), supervisors and managers. It is also important to involve company executives, so they understand how the standards are administered. Then, people who will monitor should be given formal training about the performance criteria and definitions that have been established for the monitoring program. Once this training is complete, calibration sessions can begin.

When planning a calibration session, be sure to consider the following:

* Schedule at least one hour of uninterruptible time.
* Prepare five or six recorded calls to get the most from your calibration time. If recorded calls are not available, be sure to test the “dial in” access and have an up-to-date CSR list available so you can quickly find live calls.

Start the calibration process by choosing a facilitator. The role of the facilitator is to direct discussions, take notes and keep the team focused on the goal. The next step is to listen to a call. Have all participants use your evaluation form to score the call. Have one person verbally recap what they just heard. Recapping the call reinforces listening skills and attention to detail; take turns doing this so that everyone learns how. During the recap, the monitor will identify the areas in which he deducted points. Then, give a final score.

At this point, the facilitator should moderate a discussion to review the score. Be prepared. These debates can be passionate, and should be played out. It is not important to agree on a “final score.” The point is to come to an understanding and apply that understanding to evaluating calls in the future.

At the end of the session, the facilitator should review the notes, highlighting any changes or group decisions that have been made. These notes should then be distributed quickly to all people who actively monitor calls, since it is unlikely that everyone will be able to participate in each calibration session.

Some ground rules
In order for any calibration session to be a positive and productive experience, you should establish ground rules and communicate them to all participants in advance. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you get started.

* Create an environment in which everyone can feel comfortable sharing his or her opinion. It is human nature to be wary of taking risks. Voicing an opinion is taking a risk.
* Avoid being “confrontational,” and allow your team to finish explaining their thoughts before you begin to explain your position. It is important that everyone’s opinions are heard.
* Talk about the facts, not feelings. The performance criteria are (or should be) defined by measurable tasks, so keep the discussion focused on what can be taught, not thought.
* When making decisions, consider what would be best for the overall success of the program. Do not make a decision just because everyone has grown tired of discussing the issue.
* Enforce compliance. It is critical to your overall program to identify and warn any person who monitors using their own standards, and not the standards agreed upon during calibration.
* Do not give up or become frustrated when the process gets difficult and some people seem ready to quit. The calibration process is not a sprint; it is a marathon.

Determining your calibration success
How do you know that you have achieved a successful level of calibration? It is best to take a phased approach. When your team is just beginning the calibration process, set an attainable goal: strive for overall call scores to be within five points (or 10%) of each other. In the beginning, scores may vary greatly from person to person.

In order to achieve the first goal, it may take anywhere from 10 to 12 one-hour sessions (or more) of calibration for a “customer service” application, and 4 to 6 one-hour sessions (or more) for a “telemarketing” application.

Once the first goal has been achieved, raise the bar by lowering the scoring variation goal from five points to three points (or a comparable variation percentage). It takes between 2 to 4 hours a month to keep the team calibrated, depending on the complexity of the program.

Marcia Hicks, senior consultant, joined Kowal Associates in 1994 as a Senior Consultant. She spent over 20 years with AT&T and New England Telephone in Customer Service, Project Management and Data Center assignments. At Kowal Associates, Marcia has worked extensively with a Fortune 500 company to design and implement inbound customer service, consumer affairs and monitoring programs. She has performed numerous call center audits providing clients and providers with feedback on how to better manage both their outsourced and in-house call centers. She can be reached at mhicks@kowalassociates.com

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