I was having a discussion with a colleague of mine who was frustrated. He is the manager of a client support team responsible for the care and feeding of over 3000 customers. They depend on him and his team to provide prompt, efficient, knowledgeable and courteous technical support services. On a daily basis he feels the pressure of trying to make the company’s workforce as productive as possible. If his customers are not able to use their technology, access critical business systems and effectively navigate the rich functionality of these systems to reach their desired intent, it is on his shoulders.
His frustrations stemmed from the lack-luster service performance of the team. He would get performance reports on a monthly basis. He shared with me that the day before the reports were scheduled to be printed he would get knots in his stomach. Upon receiving the reports, he would let them lay on his desk, face down, for hours before getting up the courage to review them. And of course he was unfortunately not surprised when he saw the results. More of the same: Abysmal first call resolution rates, agonizing average speed of answer, atrocious abandoned rates and embarrassing customer satisfaction ratings. In addition, he mentioned that his management believed that his cost to resolve problems was extremely high. In a great understatement, kind of tongue-in-cheek, he said to me “I’m in a bit of a pickle”.
In attempting to be as sensitive as possible to his plight I suggested that he was not just “in a pickle” but that he had perhaps fallen into the pickle barrel (sometimes I suppose I should keep my thoughts to myself). Regardless, he had set the stage for me to inquire as to how he got into such a mess.
“Well”, he said, “I sort of inherited the function.” He had taken on the new role a couple of years earlier and was given this assignment to be a change agent. He told me that his initial mission was to transform this struggling team into a well-oiled customer support engine. I asked him what steps he had taken over the last couple of years to improve things. He said that he had first tried to focus on the team dynamics. He instituted daily meetings where they would discuss such things as the open call list, problems in communication across team members, and tips on how best to handle irate customers. He instituted the “idea bank” where team members could submit their thoughts on how to do things better. This however had basically turned into the old “complaint box” and was usually filled with gripes that the team members’ cubes were too small or they would like more flex time or the ability to work from home. He sent a few of the more senior folks to training classes to get them up to speed with “more modern techniques” of how to effectively provide support. To his chagrin, none of this had any lasting effect.
He then tried replacing some of the less productive members of the team with “fresh blood” as he stated. He thought the introduction of some new talent would bootstrap the teams’ performance. Again, it did not work.
He went on like this for a few more minutes and then I just had to politely stop him and ask the question: “What do you think the real problem is?”
His response was insightful. “I think that the people are fairly technical yet they do not get the big picture of what our mission is all about. They march to their own drummer in that they do not adhere to any procedures or controls that I attempt to establish. They have no real sense of urgency and they see the customer as a source of problems rather than a source of opportunity and they treat the customers accordingly.”
After considering this a moment, I suggested to him that the road to transformation is a 3 stage process: Visibility, Control and Optimization.
Visibility starts when we begin to shed light on the organization and its performance. There was a study done many years ago in a plant in Hawthorne New York. The experimenters were trying to understand the key elements that make one plant highly productive and why other plants were extremely poor performers. In the experiment, the researchers decided to manipulate some key variables. In one trial the researchers informed the employees of the plant that they were conducting a study on performance and that they would be increasing the lighting on the plant floor. As a result, performance increased. Then they decided to turn the lights down lower. I asked my colleague what he thought happened next. “Performance declined?” he said. I said “no”. Performance went up again. Perplexed he stated that he did not understand. “How could that be?” I told him that the findings of the study (now known as the Hawthorne Effect) showed that the sheer act of making people believe that they are being observed increases their performance. Making the performance of the team visible to all members is vital to getting them to understand the big picture. I suggested the following key visibility programs that might make a difference:
- Establish base line measures (metrics) of performance and begin sharing them, in a public forum, with the entire organization.
- Assess the skill levels of your people and rate them according to their performance. Make your own assessment of each person and also let them rate themselves. This will give you an understanding as to whether each individual has a realistic perception of their own performance.
- Review your staff utilization models to ensure that you have proper coverage based on call volumes. If your strongest people are all working the day shift for instance, you will most likely have a performance problem in the off shift. This is a chance to make sure that people are being leveraged based on the needs of the customers and not because of special staffing arrangements that may have evolved over time.
- Assess your knowledge. Do you have a knowledge base? Is it maintained? Is it accessible to all? It is critical to shed some light on the extent of the shared knowledge that exists and build a plan for improving your knowledge management programs.
Control has to do with the development of standardized processes, establishment of service levels, root cause analysis, and the centralization and access to knowledge, systems and data. In any operation the development of standard processes are critical for a number of reasons:
- First, they help to provide a common language that all parties can effectively communicate and collaborate within.
- They provide repeatability of activities that are consistent, reliable and predictable.
- They provide a foundation for the collection and analysis of meaningful metrics.
- They promote an increase in the efficient and effective utilization of tools.
Establishing service levels is a critical step in the transformation process. Service levels should be created initially to reflect the current level of capability of your team. The base service levels should reflect reality and make it possible to attain them. Trying to set unrealistic service levels in the beginning will only result in improper expectations and lead to low morale and perhaps even worse performance. Then, after building your standard processes, show a pathway for success. Where do you expect to be in 6 months, 12 months and 18 months from now (see figure 1). Establish these goals and make them public. Get your team to rally around them, embrace them and make them a reality. Again, paint the vision for the team so that they are an integral part of the team’s success.
Begin a program of root cause analysis. My suggestion is that a dedicated amount of time per week, per analyst is devoted to taking a recurring problem or set of problems apart to understand what is causing the reoccurrence. Have your team uncover the problems and then make recommendations as to how the problem can be eliminated for good. By getting your folks to participate in the resolution of problems, they will feel that their contribution is significant and that they have control in reshaping the organization.
And of course, without a comprehensive strategy for collecting and disseminating knowledge, you cannot begin to achieve repeatability and high quality levels in the support that you provide. Coach your team on the value of shared knowledge. Invest in a tool and build standard processes that support the acquisition, access and dissemination of shared knowledge. Reward your team each month for their adherence to knowledge acquisition processes and utilization of the knowledge base in resolving issues.
Optimization seeks to move the organization to a preventative state. It also seeks efficiency at every turn and drives out unnecessary costs. Here are some key questions that should be asked on an ongoing basis that will drive proactive behavior of your team members:
- Are we resolving a greater percentage of calls at the first level of support?
- Are we providing tools for the customers to use so that they have an opportunity to resolve issues on their own? (Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) Web Page, Access to the Knowledge Base, Self Service password resets, etc.)
- Is time being spent each month to review standard processes and measure their effectiveness?
- Are overall support costs declining with a corresponding increase in performance levels?
- Is there an active training program that seeks to improve the team members’ skills before the introduction of new technology?
- Are you reestablishing your service level agreements to reflect the new level of service you are capable of delivering?
- Do you have an ongoing continuous process improvement program that rewards your team members for being creative and innovative in making substantive improvements?
- Is there an integrated communication program that allows all levels of support to collaborate on making systemic changes that will improve service at every level?
Obviously, optimization should be the goal with everyone on the team focused on it. I told my colleague that it was his job to set that vision and to motivate his team to embrace it. It will not happen overnight, but with a consistent and persistent focus on the transformation pathway, visibility and control will lead to optimization.
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