With increasing competition, expanding globalization and demanding customers, the playing field in the service Lean call center (SCC) industry has changed rapidly, as phone banks have evolved into multichannel contact centers. Many organizations have realized that the key for survival is efficiency and effectiveness, with a focus on productivity and customer experience.

Lean techniques, which focus on waste elimination, have provided large-scale benefits to manufacturing industries. However, the Lean approach also can help SCCs map their value streams, standardize operational processes and drive continuous improvement on the floor. By using Lean tools, SCCs can transform themselves from a cost center into a profit center, as well as increase market share and enhance the customer experience in a competitive global economy.

Average Handling Time

The productivity of a voice-based SCC is measured in terms of average handling time (AHT), which is the average time it takes for a service representative to resolve a customer query, request or complaint, measured in minutes or seconds. Typically AHT begins the moment the customer initiates the call and includes talk time, hold time and related tasks that follow the transaction.

AHT is calculated as:

(Total talk time + Total hold time + Total after-call wrap time)
Total number of calls handled

The presence of non-value-added (NVA) activities on service calls increases the actual talk time, which can provide more opportunities for fatal errors that can impact the customer’s experience. Some examples of these fatal errors include giving the wrong information to the customer, denial of service, rudeness, call disconnection, call avoidance or an incorrect service request creation.

The following table lists the different forms of wastes identified in several Lean studies that were conducted in voice-based SCCs operating for domestic as well as international clients.

NVA types Definition Lean Waste Impact on Productivity Impact on CE
Long Call Scripts Long opening, empathy, paraphrasing, closing scripts Over processing / NVA X
Unstructured Scripts Useless scripts used increasing customer interruption/ argument Defects, over processing / NVA X X
Irrelevant Probing Questions not pertaining to the issue Defects, over processing/ NVA, motion X X
Repeated Customer Interaction/ Interruption Customer interrupts when all the required info not given at a single instance Defects, over processing/ NVA X X
Repetition of Associate Queries Same questions repeatedly asked by the associates and the customer Defects, motion, over processing/ NVA X X
Dead Air Situation when both customer and associate not conversing to each other Waiting, defects, over processing/ NVA X X
Hold Time Placing the call on hold Waiting, defects, over processing/ NVA X X
Transfer Time Transfer time to another queue Waiting, defects, over processing/ NVA X X
Unnecessary Customer Validation Customer validation done even when not required Over processing/ NVA, defects, motion X X
Lack of Multitasking Multitasking in terms of usage of tools on computer and talking to the customer at the same time Waiting, NVA X
Search Time On Portals/Systems/Applications Navigation time on the systems finding difficult to search the information Waiting, inventory, motion X X

Applying Lean in 5 Steps

The Lean approach focuses on continuous identification and elimination of waste and NVA activities, which can help improve operational efficiency in a voice-based SCC. Lean plays a major role to help reduce any waste or NVA in an inbound or outbound call, thus reducing the transaction time. The shorter calls also improve the customer satisfaction and reduce the number of repeat calls by providing only valuable information to the Customers.

To launch a successful Lean program in typical voice-based SCC environment, be sure to follow these five steps:

1. Capture the voice of customer (VOC) – Obtaining feedback helps practitioners understand the pain areas of internal and external customers, and also for setting expectations. VOC can also be used for identifying the stakeholders affected by the problem.

2. Define the problem statement – This process provides a map for baseline processes and metrics associated with the problem. Defining the problem also helps process improvement teams calculate the expected cost savings from the Lean improvement project.

3. Map the value stream – This exercise takes into account all the touch points of the process that add value to the processes and systems, starting from the suppliers and ending at the customer.

Value stream mapping (VSM) is a strategic improvement and planning tool that can help identify and measure waste in an inbound or outbound call. The purpose of VSM is to look at the flow of conversation, the systems in use and the time required at each stage from the start of the call until the customer hangs up.

To understand how a particular SCC process works, practitioners can create a current-state VSM (CSVSM), which shows the “as-is” call flow with the NVAs and other wastes shown at each stage of the call. The time accounting to these NVAs increases the AHT. CSVSM can be used as the basis for identifying the improvement opportunities with a view of reducing the wastes over time. A future-state VSM (FSVSM) can then be designed for the call flow minus the NVAs and wastes. Moving from CSVSM to FSVSM improves the process cycle efficiency, which helps in reducing the wastes and thus the AHT.

4. Identify waste – By pointing out the instances of muda (the Japanese word for “waste”) and other NVA activities in the entire value chain, practitioners can identify and target major areas of improvement.

One method that is instrumental in identifying opportunities for improved efficiency is the time and motion study. This scientific technique can be deployed in an SCC to capture the elements in CSVSM and establish the correct split in value-added and NVA activities, based on a sample size with a 95 percent confidence level and standard deviation of the population.

Time and motion studies focus on standard workers and a concept of rating for capturing the standard time to do a job. Similarly, to minimize measurement errors, it is important to implement measurement system analysis in the study, such as gage R&R, a statistical approach that can help measure the amount of variation in the measurement system.

5. Eliminate waste – This can be accomplished by implementing an improvement action plan. Adding a control plan as a final step will ensure that benefits are sustainable.

Based on the findings of the time and motion study, brainstorming sessions can be conducted by the Lean project team to uncover NVAs and wates. Subsequently, multi-voting can be used to prioritize the top NVAs that contribute to 80 percent of the problem. This practice of identifying and eliminating wastes in voice-based transactions can form a part of the Control plan. Quality auditors can set up an NVA measurement system, with regular audits focusing on NVAs, feeding it back to operations and training for necessary preventive and corrective actions.

The Way Forward

Lean has played a pivotal role in shaping the future of manufacturing organizations. The approach has streamlined workflow, reduced defects, eliminated waste and resulted in improving the overall customer experience. In the call center environment, SCCs need to replicate the Lean manufacturing processes in their routine schedule.

With an ever-increasing focus on cost and efficiency improvement, Lean provides a perfect opportunity to achieve more output with fewer resources. The principles of VSM, poka yoke, 5S and and the Toyota Production System can be applied in SCC environment to improve operational efficiency and customer experience.

When recruiting qualified employees, hiring managers at call centers need to consider the feedback from the operations and training departments with regard to background and experience. This will ensure that defects in processes are not passed downstream. Similarly, the quality assurance team should provide regular feedback to operations on the NVAs observed in the process. This not only helps to drive continuous improvement on the floor but also assists the training team in assessing the requirements for both fresh and experienced SCC workers.

Service call centers can become Lean by first developing the awareness and intolerance of waste within all the operating functions. The waste consciousness should pervade the entire organization in such a way that people begin seeking improvements and challenges proactively, even in the least structured activities, to ensure that they align to customer value and business goals.

Note: This article was excerpted and adapted from the authors’ Tech Mahindra white paper, titled “A Lean Approach in Improving the Performance of a Service Call Center.”

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