A Lean Approach to Improving Service Call Center Performance

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.

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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.

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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.”

Comments 16

  1. John Seddon

    This is completely bonkers. Focusing on peoples’ activity is, as Deming taught, working on the 5%. What a waste of effort. How demoralising and debilitating.

  2. Sarabjeet Singh Taluja

    Dear John Seddon, The authors are speaking , from the perspective, I Hope, from Countries Like India’s call centres, where we ‘Do’ have such long winded processes, just to show extra bit of courtesy….
    It may be different from what the general Lean Six Sigma principles state, however, There is a good chance that it will work to change ‘Cost Call Centres’ into ‘Profit Call Centres’.
    We are ofcourse, open to healthy discussion about it.

    Dear Authors,

    Good article and a different approach to the way things work and how we can go about reducing waste.
    Thanks for this.

  3. Prasoon Agarwal

    Thanks, Sarabjeet.

    John – we can discuss further if you would like to.

  4. Davinder

    Fresh approach to improve customer experience and reduce NVA’s.

  5. hoffarbe

    John: Peoples activity is not the focus. It is the prescribed process that is the focus. Peoples activity is simply the product of the process or the conduit to complete the process.
    Often times, in a call center environment, processes are changed in an effort to effect quality or timeliness; and then not revisited to evaluate impact on other metrics or the intended metric. Lean offers the ability to evaluate mandatory scripting, paperwork, tools, etc that are outdated or offer no value.

  6. Deepak

    Nice article it is really helpful for the beginners.

  7. Will Swinson

    Good article and informative…forget the critic… if it fits your needs go with it…

  8. Simon Brice

    Interesting article and some good stuff in here, although I’d like to add some caveats from experience and a lot of reading on the subject. Coming from a call centre environment as a supposed Lean Practitioner I’m always intrigued by this obsession with AHT as an efficiency measure (it isn’t a measure of productivity in my view), whether it’s the management or external consultants / contractors. In my experience, albeit in one company, I have found a hell of a lot of downtime when the conversation with the customer has ended, i.e. in call wrap time and following wrap, prior to the next call is handled. I like to call this inbound call cycle time. I’ve seen low AHTs with high Cycle Times and vice versa, proving that a low AHT doesn’t equate to good productivity, and even less so if the calls handled are of poor quality, often due to a lack of proper training before going live. Yet management continually obsess with AHT as if it’s the only KPI that matters, and forget customer outcomes, repeat calls, and end to end processes. A risk with only focusing on a single call AHT as a single unit or “widget” of production, is that you can end up generating more repeat calls of short AHT rather than a longer “one-stop-shop” call than avoids a customer having to call back again over the next few weeks. Another risk is neglecting to recognise whether the entire call itself was necessary in the first place, and whether by making the conversation with the customer shorter, or driving advisors to skimp on detail during the conversation or rush the after call work, we end up creating defects along with some of the 7 service wastes that aren’t mentioned in this article. Personally I’d rather have one call of 30mins than 4 calls of 10mins to solve the same number of queries (which may also involve an extra 5 mins of customer queue time at the front end of each inbound call). My last point would be to not micro-manage telephony advisors that do not need micro-managing, but instead only focus on those clearly playing the system and exploiting the loopholes, although these loopholes are also the fault of poor management. This is where statistical analysis comes in handy. Focus on closer managing of the teams and advisors in the upper quartiles on efficiency / productivity and lower quartile on quality and focus on reducing advisor to advisor and team to team variation. If I were to start again I’d concentrate on identifying the waste in-between calls and making the customer the bottleneck, as an initial approach, before trying to fine tune the call later. First Direct are masters of this stuff and don’t try to get me off the phone. My but of small talk to a human being working in the call centre might not be value add to the business but it is value add to me, and I’m the customer. Plus if it makes an advisor feel valued then I’m probably going to get a better service in future too. Apologies for the novel!

  9. Theresa Reynolds

    Hey really nice article very informational.

  10. Michelle

    I will use this due my team’s. Needing to lowerAht, ace.

  11. Mehdi Borji

    make sense..nice one!

  12. Chris Seider

    I would hope that demographics of “types of calls” would be critical. I’m assuming an update to a profile via the phone is a much easier/shorter AHT than the lack of points from a previous visit would entail.

    It’s all about capacity. If one can generate fewer “needed” calls, then fewer resources will be needed and the customer is still achieved.

    Remember that if an organization can understand what drives the “need” to call in, then the required capacity can be reduced if it’s a result of errors or poor process or poor choices available to a customer.

  13. Colin Langston

    All makes sense BUT numerous customer (dis)satisfaction surveys have found that a more relaxed, engaging conversation where the customer is actually listened to achieves better overall satisfaction and consequently customer retention.

    So practitioners need to balance the drive for pure efficiency with perceived quality of service. This is not always so easy to pick up in VOC capture and even more tricky to convert into CTQ metrics.

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