Saturday, December 7, 2013

TruCallCenters: World-Class but Still an Error Machine

TruCallCenters.  It is my tongue-in-cheek version of TruTV.

My first installment was about how Call Centers use yellow smiley balloons and laminated cards as Quality Improvement strategies:

The second was about a call center in Florida with 350% annualized turnover and suggested that we had better plan for the reality of high turnover (OK, maybe not 350% everywhere...but north of 50% is not uncommon at all) and figure out how to drive continuous improvement even with new agents:

This installment is about how you can be a world-class call center and still be an error-producing machine.  I ran the call centers for a Fortune 500 company a few years ago.  We had a great reputation in the industry.  But as good as we were, honestly, we still sucked.  Every single day we made hundreds of errors…wrong email addresses entered, wrong diagnostic steps, missed consumer disclosures, in appropriate/incorrect transfers, incorrect call documentation, inaccurate After Call Work documentation, accent escalations from customers, poor warranty compliance, failure to cross-sell when we were supposed.  I literally could go on and on with the list of errors we made, day in and day out.  And we had centers that were genuinely looked up to with good CSAT and Loyalty scores!

As an aside, this idea that even a great call center can be an error producing machine is related to a previous post I did called What is an Acceptable Contact Center Error Rate?  In that post, I present example after example of ridiculously bad contact center performance that is rather matter-of-fact.

Two insights have come into graphic relief for me is since I was running centers of my own.  The first is that the root cause of all the inefficiencies, errors, and customer satisfaction issues is between-agent variation in processes and therefore outcomes.  You get astonishingly different experiences from call to call, from agent to agent...even from the same agent between the beginning of her shift and the end of it...because, for a dozen different reasons, the agents don't consistently follow the correct process. 

The second blindingly clear insight is that the ability to control/reduce between-agent variation in process and outputs with monitoring and coaching is severely limited.  You can read a much deeper discussion here Call Center Coaching Remains a Labor-in-Vain)

Someday, in the not too distant future, call center leaders are going to wake up and say, "I'm tired of this.  I am tired of living the Myth of Sisyphus.  I am tired of the turnover.  I am tired of calibration meetings.  I am tired of agreeing to standards and having agents fail to comply 20% of the time.  I am tired of agent output metrics charts that never improve but just continue to tread water.  I am tired of the best call centers in the world still producing thousands of errors a day.  What we are doing is not working and I have to find a better way."

There of course is a better way and it is no more complex than baking automation into the process the agents are using to virtually guarantee that the agents do and say what they are supposed to, when and how they are supposed to do it.

When call center leaders get tired of beating their heads against the wall and implement agent-assisted automation, you will see a step function change in call center outcomes that will create a better work environment, better results for customers, and profitability improvements that will surprise the skeptics. 

Latest Installment of truCallCenters: 350% Annualized Turnover in a 500+ Seat Call Center in Florida where the Unemployment Rate is almost 8%

There is truTV.  I should start a channel called truCallCenters.  I shared this post about call centers using yellow smiley balloons and laminated cards as their quality improvement strategy: (

In the latest installment of truCallCenters, I just talked to a guy running a 600 seat center in Florida who is trying to drive performance in an inbound, primarily sales focused call center in the face of 350% annualized turnover.  To make the math easy, that means on average every seat in his center turns over in less than four months.  Can you imagine trying to run a business where you went out and invested in a new machine and just when you got the machine tuned and running pretty well, it unbolted itself from the floor and walked out the door?  I would also be interested in someone explaining how are we getting a return on the monitors, the recording licenses, and the off-phone coaching time when agents quit before their four-month anniversary.

Now if you just want to reduce turnover, then you have to read this

But the larger issue for the industry is to face the fact that these call center jobs suck, the turnover is always going to be high, and therefore how are going to get better results in spite of this stratospheric turnover. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Intelligent Cold-Calling

In a hurry?  Here is a summary of this blog post:  1) Cold-calling is necessary, few businesses, let alone fund-raising businesses, can live without it, 2) it is really hard and it can eat your staff alive,  3) it can be done dramatically more intelligently than the way most do it, which means much more efficiently, more effectively, and in a way that makes the task much less stressful on your team.  Sorry, but you have to read on if you want the How's.

There was a discussion recently on a LinkedIn group I am a member of about whether cold calling was still a viable marketing strategy and whether it was needed. What was particularly curious about this post was that it was posted on a fund raising forum.

There aren't that many B2B businesses out there that can grow without cold-calling in all its various forms.  In the fund-raising space, the only way for you to grow without cold-calling is to reduce the attrition of existing donors and/or to increase the contribution from donors.  These are both important considerations, especially the idea of framing your relationship with donors as a long-term one.  According to the Fundraising article on Wikipedia, "the sector generally loses 50–60% of its newly acquired donors between their first and second donations and one in three, year on year thereafter. The economics of regular or sustained giving are rather different, but even then organizations routinely lose 30% of their donors from one year to the next."

Still, to not have cold-calling in the mix seems 1) risky and 2) likely that you are leaving money on the table as there are bound to be people who are not aware of your organization and what you are doing and/or just need to be asked.

Point #1:  In my view, I don't know how you get by without outbound solicitation.

It may not need to be said...I didn't think that first point needed to be said, but someone found it discussion worthy...but cold calling is really, really emotionally challenging and very fatiguing work.  I don't care if you have the skin of a rhinoceros, people hanging-up on you, yelling at you to leave them alone, and just saying No to you and the cause you believe in all day long is draining.  You can sit in a Tony Robbins Sales Training class for four days out of five and it would still be hard to not "take it personally" after a day of "No's" and hang ups.  A generous compensation package can certainly help your people power through, but it is a slog that forces you to marshal a lot of inner resources to keep pounding the rock. That is draining and it leads to turnover.

To illustrate, I spoke to the leader of a call center recently.  He was running a 500 seat center that was mostly inbound sales.  Not cold-calling, but similar as they were selling something the caller didn't really want.  His turnover was 350% annually.  That means, on average, an agent only lasted about four months.  That is business spending a lot of money on hiring, training and coaching only to watch the investment walk out the door probably before it ever hits its stride and certainly before it pays for itself.

So the job is hard, so what?  Lots of jobs are hard.  Your job is hard. But I think we too often lose sight of this fact.  I wrote this piece Why your Turnover Reduction Efforts are Not Working describing how leaders seem to forget that call center jobs are ridiculously hard and believe their window dressing efforts to improve the environment will reduce turnover.  It won't.

Point #2:  If you are tired of your Myth of Sisyphus efforts...hire, train, coach, exit...with your outbound sales team, you might start by looking for ways to make the job easier and less emotionally taxing.

So what's a leader to do?  You certainly care about your people, but you also have a job to do...grow revenue/donations...and a business to run...which, in part, means continuously looking for ways to cost effectively increase productivity.  Isn't it impossible to do all three?  Not at all.

The first step of any process improvement effort is do identify value- and non value-added work and to eliminate as much of the non value-added work as possible and streamline the NVA work you can't eliminate.  Obviously, value-added work is talking to a real prospect.  You won't always convert them, but the more time your agents spend doing that, the better.

But outbound agents have to spend a lot of time on tasks other than talking to a qualified prospect.  For example, as good as outbound dialing technology has become a lot of "wrong calls" still come through....calls still get made to "Joe's Pizza" or you get the nanny's number by mistake.  When this happens the agent has to spend valuable seconds dispensing with that call.

Another example of NVA work is reaching an answering machine, waiting for the message to play, and leaving  a message.  While there can be real value in leaving a message, most just hang up as it is not as potentially valuable as moving on to the next call.

The use of agent-assisted automation, pre-recorded audio and pre-programmed system actions will allow the agent to politely end the call with a wrong number, leave a targeted message on a machine, update their system and signal to the dialer they are ready.  Shaving 15 to 30 and more seconds on every call like this adds up to more time spent on value-added immediate productivity lift.

Anyone involved in cold-calling, especially in the fund-raising arena, knows that "wrong" numbers and answering machines are actually the bulk of what the agents do.  If you make it easy for them to handle these non value-added aspects of the job, you realize the agent can actually handle more than one call at a time.  I know that does not sound possible, but it is.  As soon as an answering machine is hit, the agent presses a few buttons, and...while that call is being politely completed a new call is coming in on a second line.

Believe it or not, most fund-raising agents we work with can handle three lines at once and some can even do four.  If you have three fishing poles in the water you are going to catch more fish than if you only have one.  It is that simple.

So we did Process Improvement 101 (eliminating and streamlining non value-added work) and just made your outbound group at least 3x more productive.  We are far from done.

While you needn't, you also might decide to transfer legitimate prospects to a closer team.  If you do so, that front end team turns into a real prospector group.  This enables a completely different hiring profile.  You dont need prospectors with the gift of gab and mellifluous voices, you need someone who can push buttons and execute rules.  You could hire prospectors with a speech impediment for that matter.  This will lower the total cost of your outbound team (productivity increase plus skill mix changes, enabling you to hire those with lower salaries to grind through getting an interested prospect on the phone). 

We talked about the debilitating effects of turnover on agent productivity, not to mention all the HR, training and monitoring staff that is needed to on-board, coach, and exit agents.  As I discussed, a big contributor to that turnover is how hard it was to hear No's all day, and worse get cussed at and hung-up on.

Agents using pre-recorded audio for the initial set-up and offer don't report any bad feelings when the hang-ups and curses come.  It doesn't feel personal to them.  The way they describe the feeling, the customer is not saying No to them, he/she is saying No to the software.  The audio adds a kind of protective suit that increases agent satisfaction and decreases fatigue and burnout.  (You can read more here:  Almost Human:  The Surreal, Cyborg Future of Telemarketing).

Also, your higher-priced closers are hearing much fewer No's and virtually no cussing because they are only being handed calls where the potential donor has shown some interest.  You have also virtually eliminated non value-added activities for this important group.  They are selling on every call and their conversion rates go up (and their pay goes up too if you use variable compensation).  Turnover goes down in this group as well.

Finally, it is possible to build intelligence into the pre-recorded audio that is used.  Calling to a zip code with higher home prices?  You can increase the amount of the initial donation you request and similarly lower it, if calling into an area with lower net worth.

A second example of building in intelligence is through the use of multiple pre-recorded voices.  You can record multiple voices with different accents (you can record different languages for that matter, but the agent listening in has to be able to recognize the language enough to follow the appropriate branches.)  The value of the multiple accents is that when you are calling a zip code in the South, you can use a Southern accent and when you are calling into the Bronx, the agent can sound like he/she is from the Bronx.

Or you can experiment with different pre-recorded voices and just go with the one that converts the best.  Adding the ability to perform real designed experiments is an additional way this approach helps you ratchet up conversion rates.

Point #3:  Cold-calling is a noisome, but necessary task.  But being smart about it can completely change the effort needed and the outcomes.

Let's see...lower costs, higher conversions, and a more pleasant working environment for your employees.  Though the Audubon Society may call, not to raise money, but to yell at me about my metaphors, I'll take three birds with one stone any day.