Why call centre quality assurance programmes are inhumane - and what to do about itby
The tolerance level of traditional quality assurance practices amongst contact centre employees has run its course.
American sociologist and academic, Arlie Hochschild created the term 'emotional labour' in 1983 to describe the things that service workers do that go beyond physical or mental duties.
Showing a genuine concern for customers' needs, positive tone, and active listening are all critical to a customer's perception of contact centre service quality. These types of activities, when they're essential to worker performance, are emotional labour.
Contact centres are where you conduct emotional labour practices. Agents and supervisors are your emotional labour workforce.
When your contact centre employees face angry customers, non-customers, or internal staff who are generally unpleasant, emotional labour can be particularly challenging. A large part of that challenge comes from the need to hide your real emotions and continue to 'grin and bear it,' even when receiving negative or critical feedback.
Agents and supervisors intuitively understand the impact that emotional labour has on their performance. However, it's essential that contact centres build a strategy around this requirement, so they can find ways to provide support and develop their staff.
Contact centre employees need to perform emotionally in a certain manner if they're going to provide high quality service. This is usually defined by management, then strictly regulated and monitored though internal Quality Monitoring (iQM).
A successful brand is now determined by the customers’ experience and relationship. Consumers now exploit the opportunity to use information to their advantage. A study by Carpenter found that 70% of consumers read online reviews before purchase and 41% compare prices and products.
Consumers have more choice than ever before and one bad experience is enough to lower their perception for a lifetime and also be used to influence the decisions of others. Organisations must create performance management and employee development programmes that use customer relationship metrics to drive their service delivery.
In the early years
The processes being used by most contact centres to manage their service delivery fall into the realm of the Quality Assurance (QA) programme. And ‘quality’ is as old as the telephone.
While thought of primarily as a female profession, the first telephone operators who worked for the Bell Telephone Company (later known as American Telephone and Telegraph Company or AT&T) in the 1870s were young men.
Unfortunately, the boys frequently proved rude and unruly. So, being concerned about the quality of operator customer service delivery, women were hired instead.
The first female telephone operator was Emma McNutt, who was hired in New York City by a manager who happened to be a neighbour and who thought Emma was a “nice girl.” Emma established women as operators and the work became an exclusively female job until the 1960’s.
What you’ve been doing
The QA practices used today were built for a different time, much like replacing an entire gender was back in the late 1800’s. But the QA practices conducted today are weighted very heavily on internal criteria of quality. And these internal criteria are assumed to be correlated to the customer’s criteria of quality.
The QA practices most widely used today are best suited for efficiency and compliance which have been the focus that has ruled the contact centre industry for the past several decades. They were built when customer retention and referrals were not seen as top-of-mind issues and when cost containment drove decisions.
And, the labour force did not consist of millennials that have a need to be part of a great purpose and who expect to be developed.
Get a constructive process
In addition to QA, we know that performance measurement and employee development are somewhat similar to the practices used several decades ago. While technology may have helped to automate these practices, the constructs are relatively the same. And it sets agents up to fail in a customer-centric world.
The evidence is overwhelming that people want to contribute, are willing to work hard, and feel better when they achieve agreed-upon goals. W. Edwards Deming, the father of the quality movement in the U.S. and Japan, believed that 80 percent of nonperformance was most likely due to system failures.
What to do now
Now, contact centres must implement a constructive process that focuses primarily on knowledge gained from customers, not from internal criteria assumed to create customer-centricity. The knowledge gained from customers must be the primary driver for your performance measurement and the employee development actions that take place.
Maintaining the practices of old and expecting your contact centre staff to perform to customer expectations of today goes beyond ineffective, it’s inhumane.
1. Putting humanity in contact centres – quality assurance
To get humans to connect better with humans, you need to primarily focus on the human to help them build their human-centric skills. You need to feed their emotional labour skill needs.
If customer relationships are your desired outcome, then you need to have a QA programme that enables it. That probably means that your typical QA programme needs to be disrupted and you need to manage performance differently.
Greater human impact in QA
For the last few years, Customer Relationship Metrics has been helping clients implement a modern QA model called Impact Quality Assurance (iQA). The iQA model (Get the iQA tools) is for organisations that go beyond ‘talking’ about the customer experience. They understand that it’s the people which create value, not the organisations. They understand that people need to be invested in to experience long-term success. It is a human-centric model that develops maximum agent performance (Case Study Report).
The iQA model consists of Four Pillars that help you to take action on Four Vital Questions that you must be able to answer. Its natural by-product is lower costs because you’re focusing on what delivers results and eliminating the waste that does not. The iQA model involves a paradigm shift from the traditional contact centre QA approach.
The contact centre industry is currently at a tipping point with their quality assurance programmes. The tolerance level of these traditional QA practices amongst contact centre employees and customers has run its course. Without a change, we’ll see a mass exodus of skilled talent from contact centres while companies lose to their competition.
Customers are the judge, jury, and executioner. They have the upper hand with quality assessments. So, your choice is to make a positive impact with iQA in your contact centre or wait until customers make the choice for you.
Bring the customer into QA
You need to bring the customer into your QA programme and think about the customer grading the call (chat, email, etc). For this to happen your mindset must change.
Just like you grade the call internally, your customer should grade the call externally. Think about it as external Quality Monitoring (eQM). Think about the evaluation, the calibration, and the coaching. Incorporate the results into your training and development plans.
Since the customer is your primary focus, make their evaluation the most important. Anything less knocks the customer out of focus.
2. Putting humanity in contact centres – Voice of the Customer (eQM)
Do you focus on cost or return on investment? If you put price before people, you’ll fail.
Too many contact centres have poorly or wrongly invested in their customer feedback, voice of the customer, customer satisfaction, or whatever you call it.
The gross negligence in most survey programmes in contact centres is because of inadequacies in helping call centre agents to focus on their emotional labour success factors for improvement. They are merely used as another way to catch agents in the act of performing poorly.
Most programmes are inhumane and prohibit fair ownership and skill development. Many of the things we see that causes agents to fail are:
- Surveys that are too short.
- Surveys that “only” ask you to rate agent performance.
- Surveys that do not uncover repeat contact problems.
- Surveys that are too removed from the interaction.
- Surveys that only collect ratings (no customer comments).
- Surveys that only measure “Likely to recommend”.
There are several more, but these are the most common culprits. (Get the Launch Kit)
Trust and fairness
When you think about being humane, trust and fairness come to mind. Trust and fairness in a survey programme allows contact centre agents and all internal stakeholders to feel confident in ownership and actions taken based on the information generated.
But customers are human.
Think about this. A customer calls in and speaks to an agent that they perceive to be a little gruff who isn’t able to help them and transfers the customer to a second agent that is able to resolve their issue.
At the end of the call, the second agent transfers the customer to the post-call IVR survey. The customer gives low ratings of 1’s and 2’s and leaves a comment that Suzie (the second agent) was a tremendous help but Johnny who she spoke with at first was less than helpful and did nothing more than waste her time.
Clearly those low scores were meant for Johnny and not Suzie to whom they are currently assigned. During the Survey Calibration process, those survey results would be moved from Suzie to Johnny where they should be based on the customer’s comments. Without that, Suzie would be penalized for Johnny’s poor customer interaction.
Simply said, Survey Calibration is a process within any survey programme where the data is sanitized to ensure accuracy. Don’t think data scrubbing; think data integrity. By conducting Survey Calibration you are ensuring that the survey is linked to the correct agent and that the comments validate the scores that the customer gave.
With Survey Calibration you can legally and confidently coach, promote, or terminate (let’s hope not) contact centre agents based on the scores received because they are the ones who earned/deserves them.
This is humane.
3. Putting Humanity in Contact Centres - iQM
If your internal Quality Monitoring (iQM) process is like most, you have to conclude that most customers are extremely satisfied by the service they receive.
Scores naturally migrate to the upper part of the iQM scoring scale. If you have 100 points available, the majority of your scores are probably 92 or higher, or even 95 and higher – essentially you use the top 10 points on the scale.
Stop. It’s time to rethink iQM. The process used today was designed by many to be used as a tool to assess the customer experience. The criteria on an iQM form are graded by someone else, not the customer.
You versus the customer
Customer Relationship Metrics conducted a research project that revealed that iQM scores do not equal the callers’ evaluation of the service experience (eQM).
The iQM form tested included 17 items. Seven of which could be directly compared to the caller evaluations. Over a five-month period, iQM and eQM scores we’re compared.
As presented in the table above, there was virtually no relationship at all between the caller evaluation of the experience (eQM) and the iQM scores. The only statistically significant relationship was related to perceived interest in helping and tone, and this was not a strong relationship.
Decades of wasted money
The proof from the customers’ perspective reveals that what was measured on the iQM form did not help to answer, “Did the customer have a good experience? Was the good of the brand served?”
And the reality is that measuring these criteria internally has been going on for decades. Millions, if not Billions of dollars have been wasted in the contact centre industry conducting a process that is grossly ineffective.
Show me the money
The original iQM process included measuring 17 items scored per call, 5 per month were conducted for 2000 agents. This equated to 170,000 scores given per month, with 4 completed per hour, taking 2,500 hours (not including the feedback time). To complete 2,500 hours of scoring, 17 FTE were used at $45,000 per year for a grand total of $765,000 (again, without feedback and coaching time).
With the results of this research, the iQM form was revamped to remove items the customer should be measuring. This cut the items measured down to eight items. This allowed six to be completed per hour, requiring 12 FTEs at $45,000 per year for a net personnel cost of $540,000
So, in just personnel alone the contact centre saved $225,000. That will definitely pay for a more effective customer satisfaction programme.
And agents were now not being measured by people internally for criteria that should be measured by the customer. This is more humane.
4. Putting humanity in contact centres – Metrics
The metrics you place on agent scorecards, and the number of metrics, should help them focus on what needs to be done to reach the desired outcome.
Too many contact centres stick to standard metrics. In more than twenty years of research into call centre performance management, I’ve witnessed what Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) companies use to monitor and assess the performance of their agents.
The truth is that contact centres pretty much stick to standard metrics, such as number of calls, average call length, total average call handling time, holds, and transfers.
Think like your customer
But to improve the customer experience, you must think in terms of the customer. Did the customer perceive the agent was efficient, competent, and treated them as valued? Without the customers’ feeling, it’s difficult to interpret any switch generated metric.
Contact centres are not just about efficiency of operations, they are about people – agents and customers. But as we know, relying on your iQM processes to allocate agents a quality score and to identify what coaching and training they require is not customer-centric, it’s company-centric. And most agent scorecards have the same problem.
By conducting root-cause analysis you can better understand why calls are occurring and why the outcomes are what they are. This will enable you to address these root causes, which is likely to have a far more dramatic impact on number of calls handled and average handling times than placing those KPIs on agents’ scorecards.
That is more humane.
Putting humanity in contact centres - Empathy
Is your contact centre in the business of building and enhancing relationships with customers? If you have customers, it most certainly is.
Your contact centre agents are relationship ambassadors and must be good stewards of your brand. A connection with the customer, i.e., trust in your agents, is paramount to achieving your goal for customer retention and growth. And Empathy makes that happen.
It’s really important to reveal that Empathy is one of the 54 Emotional Intelligence (EQ) competencies, but it is one of the most popular. Especially in contact centres.
Because of this, contact centres must spend more effort and invest in ways to increase agent Empathy skills. Most have never considered investing in building employee empathy skills before. Now, they have no choice. They must do it because customer experience is now the main point of competitive differentiation. And Empathy is a core component in creating exceptional customer experiences.
But agents will have difficulty using their Empathy skills if they have to worry about adhering to strict Average Handling Time (AHT) targets when dealing with an emotional caller. And you can’t script Empathy and have it felt as genuine. Instead, the conversation should be led by the customer and with the knowing that it needs to “take as long as it takes”.
The customer has to be in control of assessing agent Empathy, because a connection with customers is a subjective trait and entirely dependent on your customers’ assessment. Not yours.
Putting humanity in contact centres - four vital questions
In order to focus the four pillars of the iQA model in a customer-centric way, you incorporate the Four Vital Questions of Contact Centre Quality developed by Dr. Cliff Hurst of Westminster College.
The four questions help you to focus and assign the proper resources and prescriptive actions for improvement. The Four Vital Questions that must be answered by any effective contact centre quality assurance programme are:
- How are we, as an organisation, doing at representing our company to customers?
- What can we, as an organisation, do to get better at representing our company to customers?
- How is this particular agent doing at representing our organisation to customers?
- What can we, as managers, do to help this agent get better at representing our organisation to customers?
Common contact centre industry quality practices result in a nearly exclusive focus on Question #3: How is this agent doing? The insights used to answer this question most often are sourced exclusively from the iQM practices.
By properly applying the Four pillars of the iQA model you are able to better answer all four of the vital questions and generate an action plan that will accelerate your path to being more customer-centric.
Employee engagement is ultimately one of the most important aspects of any quality assurance programme. When employees have positive feelings, and trust the quality assurance programme, the road to being more customer-centric is accelerated. The Four Vital Questions help agents to feel supported and part of a greater purpose.
Studies suggest that as much as 80% of contact centre agents are very dissatisfied or dissatisfied with quality assurance programmes in contact centres. Because it’s inhumane.
The iQA model (Get the iQA tools) disrupts the traditional contact centre quality assurance approach found in the vast majority of contact centres today. The contact centre industry is currently at a tipping point with their quality assurance programmes.
The tolerance level of these traditional quality assurance practices amongst contact centre employees has run its course. Customers are finally in control as judge, jury, and executioner and have the upper hand. If your quality assurance programme is not putting these people first, your fate is all but certain.
Your choice is to make a positive impact with quality assurance in your contact centre or wait until customers make the choice for you.
This article adapted from an original article posted on Jim's blog
Jim Rembach is a twenty-five year contact center veteran, Host of the Fast Leader Show, and President of Call Center Coach. Jim is a Certified Emotional Intelligence Practitioner, Certified Contact...
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I can truly understand the point about emotional labor. Having worked in several roles in contact centers for many years, I have faced all kinds of situations that can be emotionally draining. Call centers, in general, can be extremely high energy and volatile environments and need to be managed very carefully. That is why most travel companies are outsourcing their customer service because their in-house staff cannot handle the emotional challenges that come with handling customers that are angry about having their flights canceled.
Thanks for sharing your perspective. It would not be as difficult if it weren't for the way we manage performance and quality. It compounds the problem and amplifies the customer conflicts.
I couldn't agree more! Organisations need to stop measuring things like, "how many times was the customer's name used" and silly questions that bog down staff and don't truly correlate to the voice of the customer. I've always thought that traditional approaches to QA were stale and your use of the word inhumane drives home the point that people need a fresh approach. Thank you.