Monitoring Quality on Fast Forward

By Kathryn E. Jackson Ph.D. and Deborah Royer

When the call center industry began 30 years ago, we didn’t measure much of anything – we just tried to stay afloat. With the implementation of new technology solutions and more refined call center practices, the pendulum swung – we began to measure everything. During this phase, many devised (and continue to use) a form of monitoring that includes every possible quality an agent might exhibit during a customer interaction.

This form was accompanied by an ultimate definition (or nuance) list that rivaled the thesaurus. Companies invested hours, even days, in calibrating every quality monitor to the same definition of excellence.

As we discovered, this approach is expensive. Not only does it require you to invest heavily in development, but also to spend hours monitoring individual agents – day after day, contact after contact. However, companies did this work gladly because they were convinced it was having a positive effect on customer loyalty and on organizational goals.

Client Perspective: At about the same time, companies started outsourcing their customer contacts. While they outsourced for many reasons, they all were essentially looking for the same benefits. They wanted a partner that would provide a quality service at a reasonable fee. It was evident from the start that outsourcers would have to invest in quality monitoring.

But how does an outsourcer justify this expensive process? With growing business and client demands, outsourcers are required to do more with less. Clients are demanding that outsourcers pursue productivity while improving quality and that they do everything at warp speed – while not raising fees.

As an outsourcer, have you been able to improve your quality monitoring process without adding extra costs? In most cases, the answer is no. This article will help you slay the quality-monitoring dragon and replace it with a nice puppy dog you can train to serve you.

Outsourcer Perspective: From our experience in working with outsourcing companies, four distinct approaches to call monitoring have evolved based on four distinct client types. They are:

1. The down-and-dirty client. This client’s call flow and call processing requirements are narrow in scope. The client assures you that there are only a few boxes to check when it comes to quality assessment and they hand you their call monitoring form with these items already spelled out for you.

2. The “you’re the expert” client. This client wants to use your standard form (the one used by most of your clients). This client believed you when you said you were an expert. They listened intently when you said your standard quality monitoring process is the benchmark for other companies, and your demonstration of your expertise was compelling. This client trusts that you will keep your process updated based on your understanding of world-class performance.

3. The “I’m unique” client. This client is convinced that there are no other companies like theirs. They think there are no callers quite as demanding and precise as theirs. This client requires a customized form that incorporates its pre-defined, complex definition of call quality.

4. The “not now” client. There may be several reasons for clients to take this approach. This client may be implementing a trial program and going for the bare essentials contract. Or perhaps this client has not defined a quality requirement and doesn’t want to pay for quality measurement until they are sure how it is defined.

Over the years, you’ve probably encountered most, if not all, of these client types. However, if the majority of your clients are “you’re the expert” or “I’m unique” clients, then you are probably examining your quality processes and considering how to streamline your approach, as well as reduce costs.

Fast-Forward Quality: Fast-Forward Quality is the perfect solution for these types of clients. It conserves quality-monitoring resources without jeopardizing the future. Costs are cut, revenues are protected, callers are satisfied, and employees have much more fun (since management doesn’t need to nitpick about minor aspects of their performance).

What does it mean to implement Fast-Forward Quality techniques? When you implement Fast-Forward Quality, you look to your client’s customers, your client’s goals, and your overall contractual and partnership goals to define what to monitor. You don’t produce a laundry list of all possible qualities that might affect the success of your partnership–you focus on a limited list of qualities that will help you move fast while moving forward.

Caller Perspective: Callers can tell you what is important. Just ask them. The problem these days is that few organizations actually do call-center-focused customer surveys. Most clients do corporate customer surveys that contain a few call-center-related questions but not a survey dedicated solely to the customers’ experience with the call center.

Fast-Forward Quality requires you to design a survey that asks callers to rate your performance on specific qualities. You can gather your list of qualities from your client or through focus groups. For your first attempt, you could simply take your best guess.

Once you ask callers to rate your performance on each quality, ask them some loyalty questions (“Will you use us again?” “Would you recommend us to friends?”)  Compare how each caller rates you on specific qualities with how he or she answers the loyalty questions. As your callers’ perceptions of your performance on certain qualities improve, do their ratings on the loyalty questions also improve? With this analysis in hand, you’ll no longer have to guess which qualities contribute most to callers’ loyalty.

As a first step to quickly doing the right things right, determine the top two to three qualities that callers rank as the most important. Use these qualities to construct a new caller survey. This survey will be used after a customer contact to ask callers how they rate the agent on these qualities. Once you have gathered a certain number of surveys, you will produce a score for each agent’s “quality performance indicator.” This score will be part of the balanced scorecard you use to reward agents for good performance.

This score will help you diagnose what is contributing to each agent’s weaknesses. You will listen to several calls in order to pinpoint the exact skills contributing to those weaknesses. Ideally, you could listen to the same calls that produced the individual score – but this is not required.

For example, let’s say that callers consistently rate a given agent as weak in listening and courtesy (after you’ve already determined that these qualities are prime indicators of customer loyalty). In your survey, listening has a higher correlation to loyalty than does courtesy. You would monitor several of that agent’s interactions to determine what specific listening skills to focus on in coaching (does the agent interrupt callers, does he talk over callers, does he paraphrase what the caller has said, etc.)  Once you know what to focus coaching on, you can stop this portion of the monitoring and get straight to the coaching. This is another fast-forward principle – don’t keep monitoring after you are clear about what you need to do.

The result is that your team can develop a limited monitoring sheet based on caller input. Since the quality scores reported for each individual are based on callers’ perceptions, the team doesn’t have the arguments that are typical when supervisors monitor contacts and report scores. You are also monitoring a limited number of behaviors for each individual based on caller comments. All these benefits put together comprise the first step to Fast-Forward Quality.

In subsequent surveys, you’ll see the effect of your efforts on caller loyalty – but don’t rest on your laurels. Expect internal and external conditions to change constantly. Caller expectations will evolve and your client’s competitors may raise the bar or change the rules. Once you have a list of the most important qualities, you can’t simply keep monitoring the same items forever. Revisit the list often, and stay alert for qualities that your team may have failed to identify at all.

For the actual implementation of the survey you will need to work with your client. Often the client will not have a survey process in place to yield the needed information. So, you will need to develop and administer the survey. Obviously you will need to determine how this effort will be funded, but even if your organization must pay all the expenses, in the long run if this helps streamline the quality monitoring process, relieve stress on the agents, provide a high level of caller satisfaction, the return on investment will be there.

Client and Organizational Goals: Other qualities are important for agents to master – qualities that you would not expect a caller to identify. These qualities may be related to your client’s goals or to the goals of your organization.

For example, most callers wouldn’t think upselling skills contribute to their satisfaction. They would not know what to say if you asked them, “Did we comply with all legal requirements?” or “Did we accurately document your account?” However, these qualities are vital to the success the organization and to meeting the client’s goals. From an organization perspective, some of these qualities are a high priority, especially if they are contractual considerations for non-performance, such as a penalty for not complying with federal regulations. You must measure each agent’s skill in these areas.

Productivity Indicators: Your first priority is to look at your client’s goals. Most call centers contribute to these goals by reducing costs, increasing revenue, or enhancing caller satisfaction. These are the first measures that any call center management team should examine before starting on its quality-monitoring quest.

How does your team measure agent performance in these areas? By calls per hour? By sales per hour? Whatever it is, look at this measure periodically. If an agent is not meeting a productivity target then you may need to start a second type of monitoring. In this monitoring, you will be trying to diagnose why an agent cannot seem to reach a productivity standard.

Let’s say that you measure calls per hour. Your team would brainstorm the actions that contribute to an optimum number of calls per hour. Your list might include things such as talk time, after-call work time, hold time (when the agent puts the caller on hold during a call) etc. Next, your team would equate behaviors to actions. What behaviors contribute to talk time, after-call work time, etc.? Some of the behaviors you list can be monitored, but others can’t. Your team may determine that product knowledge is a quality that contributes to talk time, after-call work time and hold time. You can either monitor or test for product knowledge – and your team would decide which form of assessment would be more efficient.

Your team may discuss the skills relating to defusing anger and how a skilled agent may have a lower talk time (and increased productivity). It may decide that monitoring (rather than testing) is the most effective way to assess anger management skills.

Using Fast-Forward Quality, your team can determine how to move forward quickly when an agent’s performance is sub-par. If an agent’s calls-per-hour rate is low and his talk time is high, the supervisor tests for product knowledge and monitors for defusing anger skills. The supervisor narrows the testing and the monitoring to the most probable skills. Making a laundry list at this stage is inappropriate. Because the team monitors selectively, it can diagnose quickly and coaching is commenced quickly.

No agent quality score is documented from this productivity analysis and intervention. The goal of the productivity monitoring is to enhance the agent’s performance on productivity measures only. The agent is held to the productivity standards, not the results of the productivity monitoring.

The result is that your team develops a limited monitoring sheet based on productivity indicators. Since these quality monitor results are not reported and do not affect an individual’s performance appraisal, possible agent perceptions of inconsistent monitoring are not an issue. The team is also monitoring a very limited number of behaviors for each individual with regard to the sub-par performance in the productivity indicators. This is the next step to Fast-Forward Quality.

Organizational Non-Productivity Measures: Other contractual requirements may not be related to either customer satisfaction or productivity. Examples of these include compliance with legal requirements and accuracy of documentation. Your team will need to decide if monitoring is the most efficient way of determining skill level. If monitoring is required, a quality score must be documented for each agent since, unlike with the productivity requirement, there is no umbrella measure being reported.

The result is that your team develops a limited monitoring sheet for this “other” category. Since this is the only category of monitoring that directly contributes to the overall performance indicator of the agent, it is the only quality monitoring that requires more in-depth definition and calibration (to ensure consistency in the definition of excellence). This is the last step to Fast-Forward Quality.

Conclusion: In today’s fast-paced, low-cost, high-quality environment, you can no longer afford the old approach to quality monitoring. Take a leap into the 21st century by doing the right quality monitoring, quickly and at lower cost. When you invest in Fast-Forward Quality not only might you have happier clients but you might also have happier executives.

Dr. Kathryn Jackson and Deborah Royer are associates at Response Design Corporation. The Response Design team works with organizations to assess relationships, including employees, customers, stakeholders, and the community. You can reach Dr Jackson at 609-398-3230 or 800-366-4732 or

[From Connection MagazineJune 2003]

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