1 McKinsey on Operations An in-depth look at the challenges facing senior managers Published by The McKinsey Quarterly April 2005 Lloyd Miller Used properly, they can be strategic assets. Article at a glance: Call centers are an essential part of the marketing and customer care strategy of many companies, but too many executives consider these operations a necessary expense rather than a way to generate new business. Indiscriminately moving customer traffic to a company s Web site or outsourcing call centers haphazardly can make them less rather than more effective. The take-away: A good customer service strategy should balance costs, quality, and revenues. Companies that restructure call centers in this way can often cut their costs by up to 25 percent and boost the revenue they generate by as much as 35 percent, thereby transforming them into strategic assets that provide a competitive advantage.
2 2 Keith A. Gilson and Deepak K. Khandelwal Call centers have become essential to the marketing and customer care strategies of many businesses over the past 30 years. But our experience shows that most of these facilities don t maximize their usefulness. No one can argue with the need to keep a firm grip on costs, but indiscriminately moving customer traffic to a company s Web site or haphazardly outsourcing call centers can make them less rather than more effective. The key is to develop a customer service strategy that successfully balances costs, revenues generated, and quality. Only then can companies transform their call centers into strategic assets that provide a competitive advantage and promote growth. Companies that get the most from their call centers act on three imperatives. They define a customer service strategy that goes beyond merely providing good service at low cost. To deliver their strategy, they put in place an infrastructure that uses outsourcing and technology in a judicious way. And they ensure the best possible execution by their agents in all interactions with customers by investing time and money in coaching and in performance-management systems. These companies can reap big benefits: increasing revenue from call centers by 20 to 35 percent, cutting costs by 15 to 25 percent, and improving the quality of service. Defining a customer service strategy Call centers were born of a basic need: to answer customers questions. In 1972 Continental Airlines asked the Rockwell Collins division of Rockwell International (now Rockwell Automation) to develop the first automated call distributor, thus launching the call-center industry. Initially, little thought was given to the use of call centers to acquire and retain business they were there just to deal with inquiries. The change came in the 1990s, with the advent of software-based routing and customer-relationship-management applications, which increased the marketing possibilities of call centers. Today all Fortune 500 companies have at least one call center. They employ an average of 4,500 agents across their sites. More than $300 billion is spent annually on call centers around the world. 1 This growth will almost certainly continue, despite the controversies that outsourcing and offshoring have generated in recent years. Although the number of call-center jobs in North America 2.9 million agents employed at 55,000 facilities is expected to remain stable, the number of agents in the rest of the world is predicted to increase by 10 percent a year from its current level of 3 million. By 2007, domestic and foreign outsourcers are expected to employ about 12 percent of all call-center agents serving North America, and offshoring to foreign markets will account for 7 percent of the total number of positions. But many companies fail to gain maximum value from the call centers they use. To do so, they must first develop a customer service strategy. Don t overmanage costs Running call centers is costly. But while creating a lean operation by raising their efficiency is vital, given the size of the cost base that call centers represent for many companies, an undue focus on curbing expenses and improving efficiency could have unintended secondary effects. Conversely, a number of companies, particularly in the financial, telecommunications, cable TV, and Internet industries, have shown that call centers can be a highly effective revenue-generating channel without requiring excessive increases in average handle time that is, the time employees spend on the telephone with customers. Average handle time essentially a measure of the agents productivity is closely monitored by executives. Yet one North American telecom company found that squeezing it diminished returns and hurt the agents ability to sell products and services: agents focused on limiting the time they spent on each call and, if they feared exceeding their target, would choose not to sell at all. In addition, even though many agents had similar average handle times, revenue per call varied widely. This company responded by using targeted sales training and coaching to raise the overall performance of its agents to the levels of revenue per call and average handle times that its top people achieved. It found that improved revenues per call created two and a half times more 1 The annual operating budget of a 200-agent center is more than $10 million.
3 3 value than the same level of improvement in average support resources, such as billing and the processing of handle times, so that a 10 percent increase in the former payments, so that agents can answer questions could justify a 25 percent increase in the latter. quickly and know how to solve periodic billing glitches that might affect large numbers of customers. Integrate call centers with the organization Poor integration between call centers and the rest of the Segment customers organization can mean countless missed opportunities A sales call from a new customer is clearly more valuable to drive sales and productivity. One travel-related than a routine billing inquiry. Successful companies company had more than 100 different promotions aimed therefore segment inbound calls and direct each to an at a variety of customer segments, including members appropriate agent. Sometimes this approach involves of auto clubs and frequent-flier programs. Call-center setting up a matrix measuring, on one axis, the value agents, however, were not adequately briefed on the of a customer segment (from low to high, through components of each promotion or trained to sell them. demographics or revenue generated) and, on the other, Callers asking about the Disneyland special would find the value of each type of call. The result could be themselves put on hold for several minutes while the specialized queues for different customer segments or agent found out that they were referring to the Disneyland types of calls (sales, billing, service) or both (Exhibit 1). vacation package offered through one of the company s Companies using this and other tools at their disposal club associations. (including benchmarking their service performance against that of competitors and of service leaders in other The best companies avoid such confusion by integrating industries) determine the right level of service for each their call centers with important departments. Banks, segment and type of call. for example, link centers closely with product lines such as credit cards and mortgages, thereby keeping agents In the telecom industry, this approach works particularly fully informed on the latest offers and using immediate well with customers who move to new homes and feedback to refine them. Banks also link call centers with call to set up services there. Such customers generally
4 4 are open to new offerings high-speed Internet access, for example. Indeed, our experience shows that during this first call, they order products and services accounting for 50 to 70 percent of their lifetime value to the company. A North American telecom company, which understood such things, set up a special calling queue with agents who handle nothing but movingrelated calls. That decision alone increased revenue from the call-center channel by 10 to 15 percent. Choosing the right infrastructure A strategy is only as good as the infrastructure that delivers it. Winning companies put in place an optimal network of call centers, outsourcing when appropriate and using technology wisely. Pause before outsourcing To achieve this optimal network, a company must put its call centers in the right geographic locations; offer consistent service, whatever the day or time, with minimal disruptions from political, labor, or other factors; and maintain a scale sufficient to maximize the quality of service and to keep costs in line with revenues. In setting out to accomplish all of these goals, some companies think about outsourcing or offshoring a hot topic among call-center executives and a contentious political issue in Europe and North America. Before companies make such a move, however, they should answer some specific questions about their current operations and their aims in outsourcing. First, they should look at their current call-center network and determine its best possible cost and revenue position. This analysis involves working out what the network would cost to run and how much revenue it would generate if it were operating at best practice. Such benchmarking helps in two ways: it can tell companies whether staying in house and improving the operation would make more sense than outsourcing, and if outsourcing seems preferable it ensures that they understand their goals and don t leave money on the table when they negotiate an outsourcing contract. Before making the final decision, companies should ask themselves several more questions about the value and complexity of their call-center interactions, their current capabilities, and how quickly they could implement an outsourcing arrangement. The relevance of these questions and the answers to them will vary according to the type of business (Exhibit 2). Once a company decides to outsource its call centers, selecting the right partner and structuring a contract that achieves all of its objectives become crucial. A North American telecom company, hoping to cut its costs, entered into a multiyear contract to outsource its call
5 5 centers, but the cost reductions came at the expense of opportunities to generate revenue. The long-term contract didn t properly balance the company s cost, revenue, and quality objectives to be sure, a difficult feat at the best of times. As a result of these misaligned objectives, the vendor looked after its own best interest rather than the company s. Considerable management attention was needed to address the problem, and eventually the partnership ended. Ensuring execution Beyond having a clear strategy and a strong infrastructure, companies should see to it that their call centers execute consistently. To do so, it will be necessary to make the right investments in people by ensuring, for example, that agents receive effective coaching when they need it and by instituting performance-management systems embodying metrics and financial incentives that can encourage all employees to pull in the same direction. Use technology with care Companies striving to improve their call-center operations should be skeptical of hardware and software vendors promising big returns from expensive new technologies and should concentrate instead on getting the basic technologies right. These include the channel platform (automated voice systems and call routing to agents), the agent desktops (the screens that agents view), operational-system linkages (for entering orders and scheduling installations), and workforce-management software. The efficiency that the last of these systems can bring to the coordination of work schedules, vacations, breaks, and related matters in call centers with upward of 150 employees more than justifies the investment. Even smaller operations can now afford such software. After the basic tools come technology investments targeted to specific needs, such as data feeds and the improvement of agent desktops. Companies should consider only cost-effective tools and determine which situations call for enhanced human intervention. Develop effective coaches Of all the people necessary to extract value from a call center, the frontline supervisor has the most important role: coaching agents. It isn t easy to be a good coach given the administrative burdens that go with the job and the fact that coaching tends to receive less emphasis than it should. Companies commonly fail to give supervisors enough time on the floor to coach, for example, and supervisors often are responsible for too many agents. Ideally, supervisors should spend 70 percent of their time coaching, and the number of agents they monitor should reflect the team s role, so that, say, a generalservice queue would be supported by a 1:18 coach-toagent ratio, while a vital sales or support queue that needed more coaching would enjoy a 1:14 ratio. Coaches should combine side-by-side training with remote listening (in which the agent is unaware of being monitored) and should provide immediate feedback in both cases. The coach is also responsible for sharing best practices with agents. But no matter how good the software is, many companies fail to exploit it fully. Often the problem lies not with the software but rather with the corporate rules that guide its use. A leading financial institution couldn t raise its agents utilization of software tools to best-in-class levels until it discovered that inflexible staffing was the root of the difficulty. The company then employed more part-time workers and changed its human-resources policies on work schedules by adding new ones, including workweeks with four ten-hour shifts, split shifts, and staggered start times. Moves of this sort helped to increase the tools utilization by 10 percent and saved the company $25 million a year. In the experience of a North American telecom company, the more time supervisors spend on training, the more revenue per call their teams generate. The company therefore cut the number of compulsory meetings during peak hours and asked supervisors to carry out administrative tasks, including voice mail and , at the beginning and end of the day. Of course, the quality of training is as crucial as the quantity. Supervisors must go beyond priming agents in elementary matters such as products (which they should already understand) and the use of systems and instead teach new skills: how to increase the efficiency
6 6 of a call, to probe for the customer s needs, and Balancing metrics and incentives can be tricky. A North to close a sale. Successful companies make coaching American telecom company thought it had balanced its skills a criterion for promotion to supervisor and agent-incentive system by including metrics on costs, invest in the brightest stars. Rather than offering only a quality, and revenues. But the targets for each metric short orientation session on how to coach, these were independent of one another, so if agents companies put supervisors through role-playing exceeded their target in one, the targets for the rest exercises and show what an employee-development remained unaffected. As a result, when agents hit their plan looks like and how to devise one. revenue target for the month, they would stop selling, in an effort to bring down their monthly average handle Manage performance time. To curb this tendency, the company created a Sometimes, performance-management programs can trade-off between conversion rates and handle times. As encourage the wrong kind of behavior. Using total an agent s conversion rate went up, so did the averagehandle-time target (Exhibit 4). revenue per month as a measure of sales performance, for example, can lead to call churning, with the result that agents fail to extract full value from all customers Agents found the new scorecard to be fairer. Just (Exhibit 3). as important, it had a negligible impact on overall handletime costs and removed a barrier to the company s The best policy is to strive for an integrated performance- goal of raising sales through the service channel by at management system that tracks the correct metrics least 50 percent. emphasizing costs, revenues, or quality, depending on corporate goals. A company can use these metrics Reduce employee turnover to hold its agents accountable on a daily basis, balance In most call centers, the turnover of agents is high. its metrics to account for the fact that they sometimes Often it is considered simply a cost of doing business. influence one another, ensure that they are simple and But with average attrition levels of 33 percent a easy to understand, and link them to financial year, and with the cost of hiring and training a new person incentives that encourage consistent behavior all the averaging $15,000, attrition at even a small center of 200 way from senior management to the front line. agents could cost $1 million a year. Some turnover
7 Getting more from call centers 7 is to be expected given the often challenging nature of the job and the demographics of the workforce. Yet managing attrition actively will yield not only direct cost savings but also higher productivity from an increasingly experienced staff. The highest rates of attrition come during the first year, often in the first few months. Executives tend to blame poor pay for high turnover usually with reason. But as well as addressing pay, they need to motivate agents to stay by recognizing effort and offering good work conditions and career opportunities. There is no quick way to create these conditions. Many things have to be done well across seven dimensions recruitment, training and development, compensation incentives, career advancement, operations design, site selection, and culture. Certain steps can help a company to ensure, quickly, that it hires the right candidates: requiring senior coaches to conduct interviews, using predictive models to develop agent profiles, recruiting through referrals (which have a lower attrition rate), and hiring only with the site director s approval. As a result of attitudes stemming from the days when call centers were considered little more than a cost to be minimized, they are among the most underused of all corporate assets. High-performing companies, though, understand the strategic value of a call center. They define a customer service strategy that balances cost cutting with revenue generation, integrates the centers with the rest of the organization, and offers segmented service based on the value of each call. To realize this strategy, they use outsourcing and technology in appropriate ways to create a diversified infrastructure. And they ensure that agents perform well by giving them careful coaching and integrating the relevant performance metrics and incentives. Companies that have acted on these imperatives are already generating higher revenues and providing better service at a lower cost. Q Keith Gilson is an associate principal and Deepak Khandelwal is a principal in McKinsey s Toronto office. Copyright 2005 McKinsey & Company. All rights reserved.
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