Monday, May 4, 2009

Mass Customization and the Transformation of the Call Center Industry

Call Centers have been around for almost four decades.  And since the first center opened, trying to find a way to raise agent output metrics while keeping costs down has been the #1 issue keeping call center leaders awake at night.  And for the most part, they have relied on coaching to get the job done.  They only problem is, it’s not working. (See The Futility of Call Center Coaching or Sorry, But Your Big Investment in Coaching and Monitoring Will Never Improve Your Output Measures.)

Leaders have wanted to leverage the Continuous Process Improvement tools such as Lean/Six Sigma, but many don’t believe they can be applied to live-agent call handling.  Why?  Because, they assume, there is no process that the agents can follow.  Why? Because, they assume, every call into a call center is unique.

Those who assume calls are unique throw up their hands and believe they can’t define a call handling process because customers call for different reasons….they ask their questions in different orders…they require different levels of explanation….they have different needs for hand-holding and small talk.  They believe that the variation in agent outputs is due to the high input variation.

Speaking of unique, Henry Ford had a unique way of dealing with input variation to his manufacturing process.  He said, “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.”  In other words, he stamped out input variation to keep his costs down and his factories running smoothly. 

Henry doesn’t live in our world anymore and we don’t live in his. To maximize revenue opportunities, we have to be responsive to as many of the unique needs/wants of our customers as possible.  To do so means we have to design our fulfillment operations to deliver the variation that our customers define as valuable at the lowest possible cost.  In Marketing, this capability is commonly referred to as Mass Customization.

Once car manufacturers realized they could not get away with just offering black cars, how did they respond?  They noticed that customers don’t want to vary everything.  Customers care about the color, the stereo system, sun roofs, and performance wheels.  They don’t care about bolts and axles.  When we compare one Toyota Corolla to another, much of each car is exactly the same (mass), but certain aspects of each car are unique (customization).  Also, the bolts and many sub-assemblies in a Lexus are the same ones used in a Corolla.  In other words, many parts are also shared (mass) across models (customization).

The benefits of mass customization are obvious:  you give your customers more of what they value so they keep coming back to you, while simultaneously raising the quality and lowering the costs of fulfillment.

Re-visioning the input variation in arriving calls as a mass customization opportunity opens up new solutions.  Yes there are many different types of calls, but for a given type of call, aren’t large swaths of those calls exactly the same?  Can’t we standardize those parts and just vary what the customer wants/needs us to vary?  As mentioned, car buyers care about color, not about bolts.  Similarly, customers want to talk to a live agent or get something unique about their situation addressed or they want some human empathy.  We should absolutely try to deliver that.  Do they care how a required disclosure is provided to them?  (Sotto voce:  They don’t.) 

The reason that it is so essential to start seeing the opportunities for mass customization is because to not see them, leaves us where we are today:  each incoming call is as unique as a snowflake, no process is defined for the agents to execute, and the call is riddled with sub-optimizations: 
  • Don’t automate the greeting to ensure it is branded correctly every time; hope the agents aren’t so tired and bored that they mess it up. 
  • Don’t prerecord the disclosures; hope the agents read it word-for-word without accent issues interfering with customers’ understanding. 
  • Don’t use technology to ensure the right cross-sell offer is made at the right time every time; hope your fancy variable comp plan counteracts the unyielding pressure we put on the agents to reduce their talk time. 
  • Don’t error-proof the step reminding the customer to “remove any software before returning the unit” so that it can’t be skipped; besides, the angry letters and calls from customers to the CEO about their missing software go to another department. 

Listen to a few calls a month.  Try to stem the agent variation tide with occasional coaching.  Wish the agents the best when they leave in less than a year, while you look for replacements.  Lather.  Rinse.  Repeat.

Agent-assisted voice solutions give call centers the platform to be able to deliver mass customization.  Calls are broken down into call types.  A process is 1) defined for each call type…exactly what you want the agents to do in their systems and say to customers, and 2) built using pre-recorded audio files and pre-programmed system actions.  The agent executes the process, varying it only as they need to because of something the customer says or needs, as opposed to varying everything, every time. 

The results?  Quality goes up because the agents are executing the process you gave them…no skipped steps, no accent issues, right cross-sells.  If the customer needs something unique, the agent on the call delivers it.  While service is improving, costs are going down because you are engineering the call and every agent is executing an engineered process.  In other words, you are delivering mass customization and deriving the same benefits.

The exhortation to “Think outside the box” lies somewhere between bromidic and boring, but there is real truth in it:  how we frame a problem does drive how we try to solve it.  Is every one of those millions of calls you are expecting to get this year unique? Is training the agents and hoping they get it right the best you can do?

Or are you sitting on a massive, untapped opportunity to mass customize…to give your customers more of what they really want while increasing the quality and reducing the cost of that fulfillment?

Your call.

No comments:

Post a Comment