Many processes and supporting functions operate in call centers…planning, staff scheduling, call routing, after-call processing and reporting. However, the single most important process in a call center – the one repeated thousands of times a day and the one most in need of improvement – is an agent handling an inbound or outbound call.

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More information on call center improvement can be found in a related article, “The Futility of Call Center Coaching” by Dennis Adsit.

It is perfectly appropriate to apply Lean Six Sigma process improvement techniques to ancillary call center processes. However, a key Six Sigma principle is to apply improvement resources to the high-leverage opportunities. There is no bigger improvement opportunity in a call center than the agent call handling process.

New commercial or in-house software can provide the potential for major changes in the call handling process and enable the application of Lean principles to call handling that can produce breakthrough results for employees, customers and shareholders.

The Challenge: Improving Call Handling

Improving the agent call handling process is hard work. The fundamental challenge is that even for a single call type, there is not one process to improve. In call centers, the agents are the process and therefore a company must have at least as many processes to improve as it has agents, and probably more.

For example, if a company has 50 agents handling a particular kind of call, it not only has variation across the 50 agents (each agent does it differently), there also is variability within the agents themselves (they handle the same call type differently each time). Thus a company does not have one process to improve, it has hundreds or thousands, just for one simple call type.

Though tools like customer relationship management (CRM) software, scripts and quality monitoring can help reduce the variation, the variation in process and output in even the best call centers in the world is operating at levels that would be completely unacceptable in a manufacturing facility built around Lean manufacturing principles.

Understanding That ‘the Agent Is the Process’

Reducing this agent variation requires three things:

  1. Agents have to have a process to follow (process standardization).
  2. They have to want to follow that exact process because it allows them to deliver quality service and because it makes their work life easier.
  3. Management has to have complete visibility into agent-by-agent and call-by-call performance so it can be continuously improved.

Moreover to keep costs down, these three things need to be accomplished without using expensive call recording or having quality monitors listen in on every call. An improvement strategy built around inspecting quality (call recording/call monitoring) is too expensive. Further, it is not nearly as effective and sustainable as the techniques that have proved so successful in manufacturing – process standardization, error proofing and complete transparency into performance.

Software solutions can address all these challenges. Call flows can be built for the agents to follow in a tool on their desktop. Prerecorded audio files can be attached to this call flow that the agent can control/play during the call with the keyboard. Additionally, such software can be integrated with CRM software to pass relevant information back and forth as needed.

This type of call center system is not a fully automated solution like an interactive voice response (IVR) system. The agent remains on the call with the customer the entire time. It is an ideal combination of the consistency and accuracy of a computer blended with the intelligence, sensitivity and flexibility of a human.

If something occurs during the call that is outside the normal process, the agent simply interjects with his/her live voice. And though these voice recordings are in a voice other than the agents, customers have been completely accepting of the system because they are getting the exact information they need in a clear and efficient fashion.

Essential First Step: Standardize the Process

A key Lean principle is to build standardized processes. Sadly, this is often the first challenge – no standardized process for a given call type has ever been defined. Though there may be a process that the training department recommends, it is likely not the process the best agents or even the majority of the agents are currently following.

It probably goes without saying, but if a call center wants to improve call handling, it has to define and standardize the processes it wants to improve. Until that is done, the whole call handling operation is, de facto, sub-optimized.

Figure 1 shows an actual audio file for the first process a call center built to handle a cell phone activation call, which is a relatively straight-forward call type, but one that would be to hard to handle entirely with automation such as an IVR system. The process was built, an agent speaking the required statements was prerecorded and then the audio file was played at the appropriate times during the call.

The dark lines indicate when the audio files were being played, while the yellow shaded areas represent hold/dead air time. These hold/dead air times were times when the agent was doing something else for the call or they were simply unnecessary pauses that had been recorded.

Figure 1: Version 1 of Audio File
Figure 1: Version 1 of Audio File

Just having a standardized process was a huge step forward. Dozens of agents were using this pre-built process to handle the cell phone activation calls, which drastically reduced the between and within agent variation for how this call type was handled. 

Optimizing the Process: Eliminating Waste

However, standardizing a process does not mean the process is optimized. Processes have several kinds of waste associated with them, including waste from having the product or people waiting around, waste from excessive steps or movement, waste from rework, etc. With the right software platform, a call center can apply a Kaizen or continuous improvement approach to eliminate waste. 

Eliminating Wait Times: Lean manufacturing emphasizes continuous flow. When work in process is waiting, there is no value being added and it represents expensive excess inventory. It is the same with a phone call. Anytime there is silence during the call, no value is being added and resources (telecom and people) are tied up. 

Taking a look at the initial process/recording for the cell phone activation call (Figure 1), it is easy to see where pauses and dead air could be eliminated by re-recording them and tightening up starts, stops and pauses. 

Eliminating Unnecessary Steps: A Kaizen approach to process improvement involves applying a critical eye to every step in the process and asking such questions as: Is the step important to the customer? Is it absolutely necessary?

For example, during the phone cell activation call, customers were asked for their email addresses. Most customers (98 percent) when asked did not have one or did not want to give it out. The step was not important to the customer and so the call center administration decided to eliminate it.

Improving the Efficiency of Necessary Steps: On the steps that were necessary, each statement was closely examined with an eye toward finding a way to convey the information more efficiently. The call center team looked for sentences, phrases and even words that could be eliminated while still clearly communicating the message. For example, in the first version of the process based on the documented call handling procedures, one question was: 

“Have you ever had a Brand X phone before or will this be your first?”

That was changed to: 

“Is this your first Brand X phone?”

This example represents a 50 percent reduction in word count. Repeated changes like this took the original word count from 856 to 618, an overall improvement of 27 percent. 

Figure 2 shows the audio file for the final process deployed after applying all the various waste elimination techniques. This audio file does the same job as Figure 1, but much more efficiently. Word count was reduced by 27 percent. Dead air was reduced by 84 percent. And overall talk time was reduced by 45 percent, from 550 seconds to 305 seconds. 

Figure 2: Version 4 of Audio File
Figure 2: Version 4 of Audio File

Mistake Proofing: Another key Lean manufacturing principle is to mistake proof the process. An automotive example of this is being unable to shift a car out of “park” unless the driver’s foot is depressing the brake. 

For many different types of phone calls, there are certain disclosures that often must be read to the customer. Many of these are required by law while others are best practices that management wants their agents to follow. By building the ideal call flow, management can ensure that all required disclosures/best practices are included exactly where they want them. Quality is built in. While the agents can technically avoid playing the required recordings, they would have to work hard to bypass the process and it would be readily apparent that they had done so. 

Stopping the Line: Another component of Lean, or Japanese manufacturing principles, that can be leveraged is what is known as “stopping the line” when a problem is detected. Stopping the line allows teams to immediately correct the problem condition and investigate the root cause so that a countermeasure can be built to prevent the problem in the future. 

The “line” in a call center is the thousands of agents handling calls. Modern call centers have not had the ability to stop the line – that is, to stop an agent that produces poor quality on a call – because they do not have visibility into the quality of every call as it is occurring. 

These new software solutions can give call center management visibility into the quality of every call as it occurs. When agents use a keyboard to play the recordings, their keystrokes are easy to track and report on, which allows call center management to see exactly what every agent did on every call, right after the call occurs. 

One or two people can monitor a dashboard of call-by-call performance for hundreds of agents. When an error is detected they can immediately review the file of the call or have a manager or team leader check-in with the agent to understand if there was a problem and what can be done to prevent it.

Results: Lean principles encourage systemic, big picture thinking. This means that the results must be examined broadly in terms of their implications for customers, employees and shareholders. Something that is good for the shareholders, but is not a good experience for customers and employees is, long-term, likely to create more problems than it solves. 

Improved Employee and Customer Satisfaction

Some doubt that this solution will work because they think the agents and customers will hate it. The evidence born of experience is just the opposite.

The agents want to use this system because it allows them to get the process exactly right. This is especially important for new agents. It also reduces the amount of time agents have to talk during the day. The agents report being less tired and stressed at the end of their shifts. Adoption rates are immediate and 100 percent. 

From a customer perspective, the customer is told that the agent is using software to improve communication with them but that the agent is on the phone with them the entire time. The customers do not complain. They like getting the information they need clearly and quickly. 

In fact, multiple measures of customer satisfaction (follow-up surveys, in-call escalations to a supervisor, etc) all triangulate to the same conclusion – the agent-controlled audio files improve customer satisfaction. 

Metrics from a Call Center Implementation

In Figure 3, the top graph represents talk time, the bottom graph shows after-call work (ACW), or the time the agent is completing work on a previous call before they can take another call. The horizontal lines on the chart represent the targets the call center needed to achieve. 

The period from October through November is the baseline data from experienced agents taking cell phone activation calls. The December period was part testing, part training and part implementation with new agents. The January through February period is full deployment to all new agents. Brand new agents handled 95 percent of the activation calls from Jan. 1 on. 

Figure 3: Talk Time and After-call Work
Figure 3: Talk Time and After-call Work

The December launch and testing period was done just like a lean manufacturing process improvement effort using a pilot cell of agents. Through this focused implementation, it was learned what worked and what did not. When the new call center process was launched with 45 brand new agents for the peak of activation calls, talk time and ACW were better than the target and better than experienced agents had ever been. 

There also was a reduction in variation in both talk time and ACW. For many centers, variability in these two measures results in having to staff more agents (increase costs) to handle the variability and still meet service levels. In this way, excess agents serve a similar purpose as excess inventory does in a manufacturing operation – a buffer against process variation. 

The Payoff for Call Centers and Their Customers

Lean Six Sigma has been introduced and successfully applied in thousands of call centers. But the efforts to date have been off-center, focused on ancillary processes, as opposed to being focused dead-center, on the call handling process. 

Agent variation in output and quality has had to be tolerated by management. W. Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran, who inspired the creation and refinement of many of the Japanese manufacturing techniques discussed here, noted that variability on critical performance metrics is a threat to the vitality of an enterprise because it is evidence that the business is not being managed effectively.

Companies can now address this and allow call center leaders to build a standardized process the agents want to follow and to which the most powerful process improvement techniques that have ever been developed can be applied. The ability to apply these process improvement techniques can revolutionize how call centers function and the results they produce – happier, more productive employees will be able to deliver a vastly improved customer experience, and management will be able to implement productivity improvements and cost reductions for shareholders.

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