Imagine a contact centre where customer satisfaction scores consistently hit the top end of the scale, where staff turnover is at an all-time low, where inbound call volumes have decreased and profits have increased.
Sound like a fantasy? It needn’t be. It’s all quite achievable, according to the proponents of agile team management.
For several years now agile has been the hot management trend for functional areas such as software development, project management and delivery. These functions have volatile processes with multiple inputs and high uncertainty, making them natural candidates for the agile method which encourages collaboration, responsiveness, and ownership.
But this has not been the case with managing customer care. Historically, customer service, particularly in contact centres, has been viewed as a function with plenty of repeated tasks and requests. It has been managed with rigid control using lean and Six Sigma to improve performance, with tools to guide agents to deliver standardised interactions.
However, things have changed. Customers now demand services tailored to their needs, using whatever channel they prefer, and want effective resolution without being transferred multiple times.
Although self-service is definitely a desired option, the option for personally tailored service from a human is even more so. This brings variability and unknowns, requiring businesses to be more customer centric and flexible. Elements from agile management are now being explored and tried in customer care environments.
The REA Group transformation
REA Group, publisher of realestate.com.au, had 30 staff handling 12,000 enquiries a month from real estate agents and website users, via phone, email and webchat. Within 18 months of implementing agile and lean management principles within their contact centre, they experienced an extraordinary transformation. Improvements included:
- a turn-around in customer satisfaction score from 1.8 to 8.3
- a 16% reduction in inbound calls year on year despite a 30% increase in revenue year on year
- an Employee Sustainable Engagement Score of 8.5 out of 10 and an average tenure on the team of above 2 years
CX Manager Eduardo Nofuentes defined agile and lean as “Agile allows you to set up a system of work that enables a rapid, adaptive and flexible response to change; and lean helps us see what we do, through the lenses of value to the customer.” He attributes the success achieved at REA Group to the following five changes.
- Changing the focus away from internal quantity-based metrics like AHT, to quality-based metrics. This involved working with team leaders to assess team members for the quality of customer experience delivered, and implementing one-on-one coaching to change scripted interactions into more individually delivered human experiences.
- Introducing a flat structure where specialists are removed and enquiries are answered by every team member regardless of experience and knowledge. The introduction of a continuous learning culture, where everyone is trained in all products and services, impacted team engagement and improved first call resolution.
- Understanding reasons for customer enquiries and working with internal teams to eliminate process issues, which reduced the volume of inbound calls.
- Removal of barriers and giving customers communication options saw an immediate jump in customer satisfaction. Initiatives such as removing unnecessary IVR questions, introducing live chat and creating a self-service portal were all managed and implemented by Contact Centre staff.
- Implementing agile tools and allowing team members to manage themselves. This meant replacing the traditional command and control management style with a more collaborative style where everyone participates, is empowered and engaged.
In Nofuentes’ words: “the transformation was formidable. The team practically self-manage. They create their own roster. They decide what needs to be done every day and who is going to do it.”
At REA Group, the role of the team leaders and managers has shifted away from telling people what to do, to removing any roadblocks that could hamper operations and achievement of goals.
Making the change to agile management in Contact Centres
As with implementing new technology, introducing a new way of working will not be a quick or simple process. Some will embrace it from the get go, others will resist change for a variety of reasons, as discussed in Help Your Contact Centre Teams Embrace Technology Change.
In an agile contact centre, the culture changes from the traditional executional operation to a more engaged environment, where everyone works together and supports each other. It requires a collaborative, problem-solving mindset. It can also mean taking on ownership of issue resolution when staff from areas outside of the contact centre need to be involved.
For example: A financial services provider faced the challenge of customer issues taking up to eight weeks to resolve. In effect some issues would be passed along into siloed functional areas for review, and each area was focused on tracking their own performance metrics, without regard to overall goals. There was no designated “owner” of the customer journey. To remedy this situation, the provider streamlined processes and created self-managing, end-to-end teams composed of customer-care agents serving as single points of contact who took ownership of issue resolution. The provider also aligned performance metrics with the end-to-end customer journey to better track the team’s ability to resolve issues.
Consultants McKinsey and Company recommend starting with a pilot implementation in one area of customer care; eg around a product line or specific region.
Management, team supervisors and agents all work together to think proactively and creatively about customer interactions, and map customer journeys from end to end. They need to identify bottlenecks and recurring issues, and evaluate engagement at every touchpoint to identify everything that contributes to the overall customer experience.
They are also encouraged to define measures of success, and to work towards total self-management. In some contact centres, teams are involved in rostering and staffing plans, training and partial or full profit-and-loss responsibility.
Agile principles that can be introduced to start creating a more agile, customer-centric environment, include things such as:
- Keep the team informed: Introduce daily 15-minute stand up huddles to keep everyone up to date with what they need to know, to track progress and to build teamwork, instead of sending emails.
- Keep everyone informed: Use integrated technology to provide customer care teams with instant access to all the customer and company data they need.
- Display project progress: Use a Kanban board to track progress of projects on the go, so all team members can feel involved, informed, and motivated.
- Rescue unhappy customers: Use alerts to initiate follow-up calls from team leaders to customers who indicate severe dissatisfaction with an agent and/or the organisation on a post-contact Customer Satisfaction survey.
- Display customer metrics: Use wallboards to display live customer centric metrics to keep teams motivated.
As McKinsey reported: “…by empowering agents through an agile approach, organizations can infuse customer ownership and creative problem solving in customer care. Early adopters have already achieved impressive results in their contact centers, increasing first-call resolution and efficiency while lowering operational costs.”