Evidence suggests that public sector contact centres are leading the way in process improvements. So what can we learn about the way they are re-engineering processes to improve efficiency?
By Dave Vernon, Professional Planning Forum
Recent research by the Professional Planning Forum indicates that in many ways public sector contact centres are now leading the way in process improvement and call avoidance and are becoming a driving force for change. Whilst the private sector are beginning to look at cause of contact and re-engineering processes to improve efficiency and even the cause of contact itself, this has become business as usual for the public sector.
Driven by the need to make services more accessible, service improvement is the key driver behind contact centres. The research for instance shows how while the private sector uses metrics and targets to plan, the public sector use them to improve the service, manage performance and to identify bottlenecks.
The introduction of contact centres in the public sector has provided a vehicle for making changes to long-established processes. Improving the delivery of key services and adding real value to each contact. The private sector contact centre with its wealth of experience and management information is perhaps part of the blockage for process improvement. Only now are they trying to understand the back office processes and how these can be measured and improved.
However, the down side is when it comes to the traditional basics of running an efficient operation that meets customer demand. This is where the public sector still lag behind, with only 48% of centres having a dedicated planning function compared to 85% in the industry as a whole. As a result key planning assumptions are not being measured or planned for, areas such as attrition rates, off phone time and adherence are being overlooked. This dramatically affects the contact centres' ability to plan ahead, understand recruitment needs, training requirements and the amount of flexibility required to give customers the ease of contact they desire.
One factor is that the journey has been very different for the public sector when compared to the private sector. While contact centres in the private sector have evolved and matured steadily over recent years, those in the public have had to react rapidly post-Varney. In other words, the Varney report set goals and targets almost before the public sector contact centre had evolved, whilst in the private sector the goals and targets changed and evolved in line with the contact centre itself.
A downside of this has typically been too great a focus on achieving these prescribed goals and targets, rather than having the flexibility to focus on issues that would deliver the greatest efficiencies. When it comes to putting planning fundamentals into place, the public sector still has plenty of scope for improvement. The following four key areas should always be considered.
Schedule fit and adherence
The right skill, in the right place, at the right time, doesn't sound that difficult. The schedules worked by employees must match as closely as possible the demand from customers, whilst still providing the employee with the flexibility they need to have a true work life balance.
Offering a variety of schedules that cater for the different demands of modern living, can provide all the necessary pieces of the scheduling jigsaw. Once the schedules are in place it is then important that employees follow them. To try to avoid a 'big brother' approach to schedule adherence, it is vital that each employee understands the role they play in delivering a service to the customer. Whether you have a real-time team watching screens, or simply a reporting system that allows employees to be assessed on their performance but encourages a self management approach, depends on the culture of your centre. Simply not managing adherence to schedule is a very risky approach. In simple terms what gets measured, gets managed.
Dave Vernon, Professional Planning Forum
Cross-skilling or multi-skilling has long been seen as a way to drive efficiency. Establishing which skills logically go together, both from a knowledge retention and customer experience point of view is an important first step. Understanding how employees will retain the skills is important, with many centres adopting a knowledge system to support the employee in delivering good service.
The economies of scale that can be achieved through multi-skilling help to reduce the amount of available time required to achieve service levels, therefore reducing the amount of employees needed to answer the calls. It is important not to push this too far, as employees will become 'burnt out' if they are worked too hard, resulting in high sickness and then attrition. The key to successful multi-skilling is to understand how employees will move through the skills as part of their progression and ensuring that the customer experience is not negatively impacted in the desire to be more efficient.
Assumption tracking and aligned KPIs
As mentioned earlier, 'what gets measured gets managed', and it is key to ensure that assumptions/targets in the top level plan for budgets is replicated down the line at each level. This means the key components of the top level plan must have KPIs aligned through each part of the contact centre along with clear accountabilities so everyone understands what they need to deliver and why. If this does not happen, conflict occurs as everyone is trying to achieve different things without knowing who is responsible for what, leading to everyone pulling in different directions. Take time to communicate the plan at all levels, ensure you have aligned KPIs driving correct behaviours and be honest in what you are trying to achieve.
Many small- to medium-size public sector organisations haven't yet adopted the private sector ethos to the importance of the planning role within their contact centre environment. Often this role is a 'bolt–on' to another role, either at supervisor or management level. This means the focus and understanding does not grow in the function but is always seen as just an additional task. If public sector organisations want to replicate the private sector in driving efficiencies in the contact centres then investment in the planning area is key. It is completing the planning fundamentals properly that will deliver these efficiencies.
The drive for efficiency is often seen as at the expense of the customer or the employee. However, the areas for improvement considered here are aimed both at providing a cost saving and at improving the level of customer service and agent satisfaction. If we can reduce the need for the customer to call in the first place, this is going to drive both efficiencies and improved customer service and satisfaction. However, when customers do have to call, speaking to a knowledgeable employee who has been with the company for some time and has the ability to deal with multiple queries on one call, will offer the customer a one-stop shop approach to their query. If the employee has been scheduled at the right time and is adhering to that schedule then the customers call should be answered quickly giving a truly good end to end customer service.
Dave Vernon is senior contact manager planning specialist at The Professional Planning Forum, an independent industry body for effective resourcing and planning in the contact centre industry. The Planning Forum runs the Contact Centre Innovation Awards and Contact Centre Planning conference, to be held in London on 27-28 April 2009.