The dangers of being dazzled by dashboards


Conversation scientist Andrew Moorhouse provides a cautionary tale for customer service leaders about the many flaws of relying on out-of-the-box analytics tool to improve CX scores.

11th Feb 2021

Four years ago, one of the UK’s largest retailers rolled out a new way of measuring performance for its 1,400 contact centre agents. A speech analytics system, like a giant corporate version of Alexa, would listen to all of the call centre conversations with the customers. It measured what was said and presented this in a shiny dashboard for all managers and staff to see.

“Your calls may be monitored for training and monitoring purposes…”

Speech analytics 1

Modified from the original. Dave Spud, to our knowledge, is not a FTSE100 employee.

Dashboard design

Pretty impressive, right? It looks damn good and there was buy-in right from the top. Perhaps understandably, as the investment on licences stood at well over £1.5m. The vendor also made very compelling claims to justify the expenditure too: Customer experience (CX) scores were projected to “vastly increase”, all quality assurance (QA) call listening functions could be automated (with a 5-year £2.5m OpEx saving); and ‘morale’ would improve too as performance was clearly benchmarked and understood.

The outcome? Three years after implementation the system was deactivated.

So what happened? Well, performance actually got worse. More customers kept calling back, with 14% of all customers calling back within the hour. As the retailer now offered a whole host of contact options, one director suggested this figure could be as high as 20% repeat contact across all channels (Twitter, Facebook messenger, in-app messages etc). When you have 8-million phone calls per year, and 20% of your customers contact you again, within the hour, you know you have a problem to fix.

So what went wrong?

As a conversation scientist, I’m unapologetically going to go deep here; and dive into the minutiae. There are some “geek-out” sections that you can skip over if needed. The intent here, and for the article itself, is to give some hints and tips and explain why the out-of-the-box analytics isn’t always sufficient to deliver results.

Let’s start with looking at what was being measured. There are three ‘human’ speech categories set up as defaults.

Speech analytics 2

Speech category 1. “I use positive language”

In itself, a speech category of ‘positive language’ seems like common sense. Perhaps it’s a little too reminiscent of the 1990s “smile when you dial” mantra. But what actually is being measured?

Speech analytics 3

Geek out section — no need to read this in detail!

The system is monitoring the frequency of the terms such as, “I can do that / I’ll do that / Not a problem,” or the customer service classic, “Absolutely!”

Not necessarily the anticipated archaic “delight your customer” concepts, but having personally analysed thousands of hours of contact centre conversations for companies like Thames Water, Vodafone, BT, William Hill, Anglian Water, these are not phrases that correlate with customer satisfaction (CSAT or NPS, depending what’s being used).

Acknowledging the customer issue, demonstrating ownership and accountability, taking responsibility and offering reassurance are the behaviours that drive high CX scores and, so far, these are not being measured by the analytics tool. To improve the coding above, I would strongly recommend that measurement and addition of phrases like:

• I totally understand your frustration
• I acknowledge your concern
• I will ensure…
• I will make sure…
• I will own this (for you)
• What I’m going to do is…
• What I will do is…
• Don’t worry
• I’m on this
• I’ll sort this
• What is going to happen is…
• Somebody is going to call you (within 10 minutes)

Speech category 2. “I’m confident in what I say”

Being confident in what you say appears to be a ‘no-brainer’ for delivering great customer service. However, this isn’t what the tool measures at all. You see, it’s very hard to measure ‘confidence’ per se, so the tool uses an inverse measure and lists a whole bunch of words that you must not use, otherwise you will be penalised and your shiny dashboard will show up red.

Speech analytics 4

Geek-out section two

To be clear, if you use these phrases, you will be penalised… “Nothing I can do” / “Nothing we can do.”

These are cries of a disengaged, call-centre customer service generation. How many times have you heard, “Sorry, but there’s nothing we can do.”?

It’s infuriating, right? It’s something we term, ‘Agent Intransigence’. And from our work with big-corporates, this is highly correlated with low C-Sat scores from the customer. In fact, we did some deep-dive conversation intelligence work with one financial services firm, and the presence of agent intransigence is the single biggest predictor of escalated complaint calls. And this particular firm suffered from 30,000 FCA listed complaints per year.

However, other words being assessed to measure a lack of ‘agent confidence’ are merely, colloquial- or idiosyncratic-verbal tics. Something learnt by the environment you grew up in. “To be fair” and, “To be clear” are found frequently in conversations from Glasgow and Liverpool contact centres“To be honest”, is found all over the UK, but disproportionally high in the North-East, especially Sunderland and Darlington.

Now, remember what I mentioned earlier, about this being an inverse measure. So, if you use these words; words that you grew up using, you will be penalised. Given I hail from the North East of England, I’d like to be fair, clear and honest and state it’s a terrible measure, to give agents a negative score if these words are present. If these are currently built into your speech analytics installation, you are doing your employees a terrible disservice. And worse still, there’s some inherent provincial-xenophobia built in that penalises Glaswegians and Liverpudlians agents over other UK areas.

Amusingly, not used at this retailer, but more sophisticated systems can measure tone, pitch and emotion of the agent conversation; and inadvertently penalise any agent from Belfast as “ALWAYS SHOUTING”!!!

What needs tweaking and changing? The one behaviour observed from all of our conversation intelligence work that correlates with extreme customer dissatisfaction is ‘agent vagueness’. A lack of specificity on timescales from agents in both the UK’s biggest utility company and the UK’s largest Telco, is statistically, the single biggest predictor of customer dissatisfaction. When agents are vague with their responses, customers do not feel confident. So to improve the coding above, I would strongly recommend the (inverse) measurement of phrases like:

• It should…(arrive)
• It might …(arrive)
• Somebody will contact you soon
• Somebody should be in touch
• this should
• well maybe
• hopefully
• sometime
• sometime later
• sometime today
• probably
• possibly,
• any minute now

Again, this is an inverse measure so we are not advocating the use of these phrases. We are saying, if you truly want to measure a lack of confidence by the agents, the ‘absence’ of these phrases will help you to correctly codify confident customer conversations.

Bonus geek out section…

Now, for those of you who are true data scientists and thinking, “Coding, coding? We don’t even code em’ queries at all..” Don’t worry, I will come on to the use of machine learning and predictive speech analytics in another article. But right now, I’m focused on coding the right queries to ensure that your speech intelligence is built on the right conversational foundations, and not spurious 1990s L&D jargon, or xenophobic content that penalises certain agents.

Even though 80% of large organisations don’t have a speech analytics system in place, the big “on-premise” installations from companies like Verint rely on hand-written queries for the behaviour tracking and from what I’ve seen, none of them are measuring the right behaviours yet.

Speech category 3. “I close my calls appropriately”

Oh boy. This is the category where the coding is utterly broken and has zero correlation with customer satisfaction. For years and years, agents have been trained to ask, “Is there anything else I can help with?” at the end of their calls.

Speech analytics 5

Geek-out section three

Do you know the correlation of asking this with the Customer Satisfaction score? Absolutely zero.

Trite in — trite out

I’m steadfastly unapologetic here. Just because you can measure something, it doesn’t mean you should. Speech analytics coding is designed to look for the presence of these words and give agents a positive score if they ask, “Anything else I can help with?” It’s a trite behaviour that bears no meaning on the conversation.

I discussed this with a professor of conversation science who explained:

“It’s a token question designed to get a no… and questions with an “any” in them always get a no.”

 She then explained: 

“‘Is there something else’ is a much better question to ask.”

When we see that lack of giving timescales has a significant correlation with extreme customer dissatisfaction, what’s needed here is a positive score for agents that clarify and give time-bound specifics on when things will happen. To improve the source coding above, I would strongly recommend that measurement and addition of phrases like:

• The next steps are…
• What will now happen is…
• What is going to happen is…
• So to summarise…
• In summary…
• To summarise…
• The next thing will be…

When we see that lack of giving timescales has a significant correlation with extreme customer dissatisfaction, what’s needed here is a positive score for agents that clarify and give time-bound specifics on when things will happen.

A civil war

We took 33,000 agent conversation scores (0 to 3, from the speech analytics system) and correlated this, with the relevant customer satisfaction score (C-Sat 1 to 5). You don’t need to be a statistician to glean that there is zero correlation with what’s being measured and the customer satisfaction score.

Speech analytics 6

Analysis based on 33,000 voice calls, correlated with CSAT data.

If you are on board with the thinking so far, what we have here, is a failure to communicate. Actually, what we have here, is a failure to correlate what is being measured with customer satisfaction, let alone the conversations that prevent repeat contact (remember that 20% of all customers get back in touch within the hour).

What’s even worse, is the leading FTSE100retailer then started creating league tables amongst the 34 line manages, to determine which agents were demonstrating the badly coded behaviours. In perhaps the most ridiculously redacted slide ever, you can just about see that there is a league table created, for the team that most consistently closed their calls with the trite statement, “Anything else I can help you with?”

Speech analytics 7

34 team leaders are ranked on how well their agents state “is there anything I can help you with?” at the end of calls

Making AI human

Today, tech boffins and not conversation scientists appear to be setting up most speech analytics installations.

Despite the claims from many leading providers of call centre analytics tools, their products very rarely work out of the box. Having often signed a huge licence fee (£500k is not uncommon), the end client is loath to tack on a vendor's 'managed service offering'. Worse still, the client can misguidedly believe the in-house training content provides the answers for successful CX behaviours, and use this to write the queries (please, I implore you, never do this).

When the implementation is an IT, and not an Operational transformation initiative, the problem is further compounded, as IT teams often don't understand the behaviours that drive performance in the contact centre. The fundamental reason for failure is not linking insights from the voice data to a specific business outcome. Namely, not measuring the behaviours that drive CSAT, NPS or Sales Conversation. Recall that asking sorry, or 'anything else I can help with?' has zero correlation with driving CX. Brainstorm sessions rarely provide the right answers, and asking top performers what they do differently is akin to asking LeBron James why he's good at shooting hoops.

To truly get a guaranteed return on the investment, you need somebody that knows the business operation and has the patience for detailed conversation analytics. With the right support, we've seen Quality Assurance analysts be re-skilled to do this task, but they need guidance too.

Andrew Moorhouse is CEO and found of Alitical, which helps provide conversation science insights and has partnered with Davis Group (formerly Ember Group) Consulting, to deliver successful speech analytics implementations that are linked to delivering better business outcomes.

This post was originally published here

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