Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Benchmark Error Rates for Contact Centers

A question was recently posted to a Linked-in User group about standards and benchmarks for call center error rates. I penned a response along these lines.


First, the direct answer to the question is there is no goal, standard, or target for acceptable error rates in call centers.  Acceptable error rates in call centers seem to be a function of what the agents are doing and what the consequences of an error are.   (For more on this, see Does the Call Center Industry Need Malpractice Insurance?)

Let's consider a situation in which we change the price for a service and we decide to check the agents' accuracy in giving the new price.  On the day after the price was changed, there is no way the agents will quote the right price 100% of the time.  What would be the acceptable error rate?  75%? 80% Would 45% be OK?  What would be acceptable two months after the price change?  90%? 95%? If the agents get this wrong it is unfortunate, but not the end of the world and most call center leaders seem willing to tolerate mediocre performance around process changes. (For more on the sloppy process changes in call centers, see Inside Jokes)

On the other hand, what would be an acceptable error rate for a disclosure on an insurance sale that is required by law or a disclosure on a credit card transaction that is also required by law where in both cases there could be federal monitors listening to calls and fining your company?  Would 95% be OK? Or would nothing short of 99.999% be acceptable?  If the latter is the case, the company would be forced to “muscle” this with lots of monitors listening to recorded calls and/or some kind of speech analytics software to check for the appropriate disclosures on every call. Five-9's quality is achievable in call centers but it comes at a steep price.

Net-net, the acceptable error rate in a contact center is what the company is willing to tolerate given the cost of errors and the cost of monitors/training/incentives to eliminate those errors.

Tracking Error Rates

The question about an acceptable error rate for call centers begs another issue:  tracking error rates.  Again, consider the example above, how many call centers would even monitor the error rates around a pricing change say a day, a week, or a month after the process change was made?  If you record every call, you can use speech analytics software to "listen" to the calls and calculate an error rate.  This is an expensive solution and not widely deployed. 

For most centers, the only way to do it is to dedicate someone to listen to 50 calls and estimate the center-wide quality rate from the sample.  Few do this.  Processes are changing all the time in call centers.  You would have to have a monitoring team almost the size of your agent population to monitor agents and track the error rates on all the process changes.  

So no one is really Tracking Error rates except on the most egregious, costly errors.   Because no one is tracking error rates, call centers commit a lot of them.

Driving Improvements

Once you determine your error rate, driving improvements is not easy.  Call monitoring is the same as inspecting in quality in manufacturing, a practice manufacturing abandoned a long time ago:  What the Call Center Industry Can Learn from Manufacturing:  Part II  The only way monitoring can drive increased compliance is if you monitor almost every call, publicly track error rates, and dismiss agents below 95%.  This is a lot of work in and of itself and it would result in a lot of expensive turnover.

A better approach is to use error-proofing and the call center equivalent of Andon lights to make it harder for agents to avoid key steps and to track quality and correct problems real time.  Desk-top consolidation and agent-assisted voice solutions are the best practices here and with these approaches, 99.999% quality is easy to achieve.  Six Sigma/Lean in Contact Centers and Agent-assisted Voice Solutions.

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