Accountability of agents in the Contact Center
Illustration by Justin Putnam

“We want to make people more accountable.”

Well, amen to that. As a concept, accountability has enormous appeal. It is discussed in relation to government, education, non-profits and every corner of the business sector. Strategically, it has almost no downside. An increase in accountability, done properly, is welcomed by executives, management and engaged staff at all levels.

Tactically, it gets a little tricky. The whole idea of accountability rests on the foundation of an objective method of measurement, coupled with rewards and penalties associated with results. Unfortunately, this is where accountability often collides with ethics.

As organizations dial up accountability, employees in danger of facing sanctions will sometimes make horrible decisions. Cases outside of the contact center are numerous and often frightfully egregious, such as the educators in Atlanta who changed answers on students’ tests to improve results. Too often, these cases showcase the great divide between the promise of accountability and the risk.

Accountability Vs. Tradition

Of course, we’ve had metrics and standards in place in contact centers for a long time. For us, accountability has little to do with the numbers, but a whole lot to do with the administration. Holding staff accountable means having them completely understand and accept those obligations. That’s a marked difference from the traditional call center approach, as demonstrated for one performance standard in the table below.

 

Critics may call it harsh and unyielding. Proponents call it clear, simple and reasonable.

The Dark Side

If you think ethically questionable decisions are rare in the contact center, think again. Most of our performance measures can be gamed in any number of ways, and some of those whose ethics have been compromised by fear will take the plunge to avoid the penalty. The table below shows a few of the games used with just one of our more popular performance metrics—adherence.

As is often the case, the impact of these games is in direct contrast to the goal of accountability and the purpose of the metric. Adherence objectives are supposed to help contact centers meet service level in the most efficient manner, but the games described above have the exact opposite effect. And adherence is hardly the only victim—a similar table could be developed for every metric we have.

Rules of Engagement

It helps to think of accountability as a chess match—if I do this, what move could happen next? Sure, you could fire everyone who doesn’t handle 100 calls per day. Just don’t be surprised to learn that staff routinely releases some calls as soon as they arrive in order to bolster the number of calls “handled.” Some foresight into these and other potential consequences will make it pretty clear that an “X calls per day” metric will not get the job done. You want accountability to improve performance, but it needs to happen in a way that will minimize ethical dilemmas. Here are a few tips to get you on the right path:

  • First, make sure the language is correct. You are as unlikely to “make people accountable” as you are to “make people motivated.” What you can do is build the right environment. A better phrase to use is a “culture of accountability.”
  • Being accountable goes beyond taking responsibility for results. It also means making improvements, and for that to occur your staff must have access to data and resources that can help them continually improve. If your reps have no time to analyze performance and seek out improvement opportunities, any attempts to increase accountability will backfire.
  • The greater the rewards/penalties, the more likely it is that games will be played. You need to know all the games and have ways to measure them so these “countermoves” can be identified and addressed quickly. It is not about “catching” people, but about being fair to everyone.
  • Anyone accountable for a given metric needs to have full control over that metric. Tardiness is an excellent example of a metric that each and every one of us can own. A quality rate is another, assuming that contacts are randomly selected and staff doing the monitoring is calibrated. Many other metrics, though, have multiple dependencies and thus do not fit the concept of accountability. Service level, for example, is often viewed as a metric “owned” by the WFM manager. But if the executives will not staff up to the recommended levels, how can a WFM manager deliver desired results?

Getting accountability right requires an attention to detail. You will likely wind up with a small number of metrics, but it will be enough to produce powerful performance impacts while minimizing issues of ethics.

An Attractive Concept with Significant Potential

The term “accountability” is teetering on the edge of being a buzzword. That’s a shame, because the concept is attractive and the potential is significant. If your contact center has the expertise to define the right objectives, the frontline supervisory skills to administer it appropriately, and the high levels of engagement needed to buy into it, then you should give it a chance. The reward will be worth the effort.

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