A Stitch in Time Saves Nine
Illustration by David Gladis

A stitch in time saves nine” is an idiom that first appeared in print in 1732… a long time ago. Its meaning is timeless and simple: DON’T DELAY! Take on tasks as they arrive rather than procrastinate. In its literal sense, “a stitch in time” may refer to mending a piece of clothing: If a tear is fixed when first discovered, it may take but “one” stitch to repair it, but if one waits, the tear may become larger and take “nine” to repair it. So how does this apply to leading your contact center to success?

Procrastination equals delay and potentially contributes to a problem that will grow while you wait to take corrective action. To procrastinate is to avoid, to put off, to “shelve,” to wait! It can also be characterized as indecision; far too many leaders and managers are paralyzed by indecision.

Let’s be clear on one thing right up front… procrastination is the enemy! I have never come across an innovative idea or problem resolution that was attributed to procrastination. On the other hand, I have seen many a situation for which procrastination has become the problem. The inability to make decisions and take action will negatively impact the contact center on so many levels it is almost scary.

So how can contact center leaders take “a stitch in time to save nine”? Well, follow this path and it may alleviate the fear factor that is the underbelly of procrastination. First and foremost, craft a compelling story of WHY your contact center exists—beyond the obvious which is to respond to calls, emails, etc. For example, the contact center exists to execute on the vision, deepen the brand, deliver on the customer experience, increase “share of wallet,” provide swift and immediate action on behalf of customers and prospects… you get the idea.

If you are rolling your eyes right now, it is caused by fear, which can be manifested as, “Why should I bother?” “What difference would that make?” or other non-empowering banter. These grant you permission to procrastinate, which is just another term for doing nothing! All this leaves your contact center at risk for stagnation; we all know what a stagnant pool breeds. It isn’t pretty!

As you document the “WHY,” ask for input, make it fun and bring your staff together. Ask folks to write down what they believe the WHY of your contact center to be. You will soon discover whether there is any clarity or understanding at all. Even if there isn’t, that is good information to have. Knowing that a step has been taken is invigorating!

The valuable information you yield can be vetted and supported by your “executive champion.” (If you don’t have one, take a stitch in time now and get one!) It is critical to align your contact center’s thinking to corporate strategic objectives (e.g., vision, purpose and mission). In fact, 80% of companies today have the customer experience at the center of their objectives. Strategic alignment positions the contact center as a valued asset rather than as a pure cost center.

Once all have an understanding of the “WHY” of your contact center and a handle on its current state, facilitate a session to align to a PURPOSE. Select your purpose, publish it and celebrate this accomplishment.

Next, review your approach to such key areas as performance measures, quality programs and operational processes. Does your work in these areas reflect and align with your purpose? For example, if part of your performance assessment demands that agents handle a specific amount of calls per hour/day how does that align with delivering on the customer experience? Most likely, not very well. The agent will focus on the lowest denominator… the metric. If they have to short shrift time with the caller or even hang up on a few people to meet that metric you can bet your life they will quickly dismiss customer experience criteria in favor of delivering the metric!

It is really chilling when managers in metric-driven operations celebrate the discovery of agents who hang up on callers. They get all “puffed up” about the discovery and subsequent dismissal of the offender without ever having the insight to recognize that the agent was, in essence, giving management exactly what they asked for! Now the cost of recruiting, hiring, training and retaining staff is impacted because of the poor use of metrics. There is also an effect on morale… and it isn’t good.

There are few areas in a contact center where procrastination is more visible than in metrics. Once a scorecard has been instituted, even suggesting a change may strike fear in the heart of those responsible for it. This may happen even when scorecard criteria is decade(s) old. It is impossible to say with any certainty that these old measures yield any improvements. A stitch in time… take a good long look at your metrics as part of spring cleaning—every year! What works? What supports your purpose? Where have you seen improvement? Do those being measured feel that it is fair? Do you need to make any changes?

A stitch in time… is service level going down? Begin immediately to assess the accuracy of your forecast. Has the load increased and if so, from where? Does the contact center get the information needed from other departments to properly plan? If not, set up a meeting immediately to connect with the “offending” group. I have been doing this work for 30 years, and I cannot fathom that I still hear contact center leaders complaining that “marketing doesn’t tell us.” Grrr! If you know that marketing has a pattern of not “telling you,” then set up a meeting and ASK for the information. Crossfunctional collaboration is, in fact, a massive stitch in time because it will save the contact center, the marketing campaign AND the customer experience. This is quite a trifecta!

What is so difficult about making decisions to act? In my experience, fear is the force behind procrastination. Some think it is laziness or incompetence; my experience says otherwise. Procrastination is a safe harbor in organizations where a lack of clarity on the vision, mission and purpose leads to an unhealthy amount of attention being spent on metrics that may no longer matter and in fact may be damaging.

Contact centers that are unclear on why they exist often let the operation age without benefit of ongoing assessments, upgrades to systems and process, enhancements to technology, and realistic measurements. When managers are unable to make a compelling case to senior management, morale suffers and attrition often increases.

Procrastination, or the lack of decision making, can only be overcome by first recognizing the situation and taking steps to “stitch” up a few loose ends. It is critical to craft an ongoing plan of assessment and to discover and tackle issues early… a stitch in time saves nine.

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FROMContact Center Pipeline April 2015
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Kathleen Peterson

Kathleen M. Peterson is the Founder and Chief Vision Officer of PowerHouse Consulting, Kathleen is an acclaimed Contact Center consultant and recognized industry visionary. She offers a refreshing and sometimes challenging philosophy to positioning the Contact Center as the true lifeline of the enterprise—believing that vision, brand, leadership and execution combine to deliver a powerful customer experience. Kathleen has emerged as one of the most sought-after experts and consulting partner in the field of customer experience working with the world’s top customer-focused companies, and is published widely in the most prestigious industry journals in the U.S. and abroad. As a featured speaker at conferences and Fortune 500 companies, she has shared her humor, knowledge, and experience across four continents, including Contact Center conference keynotes in the United States, London, Paris, Turkey, Dubai, and Hong Kong. Kathleen also served as Conference Chair for the North American Conference on Customer Service Management.