Differentiator Series, Part 4: Nailing Priorities


Contact Center Priorities
Illustration By Alejandro Capellan

We have reached the fourth installment of our five-part series on how the best contact centers differentiate themselves. (Be sure to read the previous posts in this series: Part 1, Balancing the Contact Center Brain, Part 2, Valuing the Agent and Part 3: Optimizing the Exceptions.) Our focus for this article is on setting priorities. Those of you with unlimited funds, patient customers and forgiving executives won’t find this topic very relevant, since you can do whatever you feel like in whatever order you want without having to justify it or measure the impact. For the other 99.999% of those running contact centers, it is a skill you simply cannot do without.

The Price We Pay

Getting anything done takes some combination of time and money. You only have so much of both, and once spent you cannot get either back. So it is your job to make sure that you get the most out of these investments. There are plenty of contact centers that burn time and money at an impressive level, yet have very little real progress to show for it—unless you count burnt-out employees, manual workarounds and underperforming systems as progress.

Often, this “hamster on a wheel” environment is the result of priorities that were improperly set. One of the most common errors is to succumb to the familiarity bias—in other words, focusing too heavily on the thing we believe worked so well before: “When I was at such-and-such company, we completed an initiative that really improved yadda-yadda, and that was a great catalyst for us.” OK, maybe you really did improve yadda-yadda at such-and-such four years ago. The number of differences between such-and-such back then and new company right now is staggering. A positive experience from the past, or one shared by a colleague at another organization, can help inform your prioritization process, but it cannot be the driver.

A Strong Foundation

The prioritization process can be viewed as a complex set of forecasts: what will we need most in the future, how much will this improve if we add that, will this technology stand the test of time, etc. Forecasting the future is a notoriously difficult task, and is downright impossible if the right foundation is not in place. For those of us in contact centers, that means our organization must possess the following three traits:

  1. An exceptionally strong understanding of enterprise objectives and the culture in which these goals are achieved
  2. Detailed information on what makes our customers tick, specifically as it relates to customer satisfaction and loyalty
  3. Broad and deep expertise across all contact center disciplines and up-to-date information on industry best practices and trends

No single person can provide all of this information, so leaders must be able to put resources together that provide this well-rounded background. Think of it as a system of checks and balances. As an example, an executive may have a deep understanding of a company’s financial position and know that support costs per customer need to go down. Market research teams may be able to show that customers value the expertise of the rep highly. Together, that could lead to a decision to create more of a specialist environment in the contact center, with cost savings coming from reductions in training time. That may prove to be the right move, but someone with WFM expertise needs to weigh in to point out that staffing requirements increase when moving from pooled to specialized teams—potentially negating cost savings from training time reductions.

The Order Matters

With a strong foundation firmly in place, an organization is able to objectively evaluate options and place some form of net benefit on them. Often, this will be a dollar value, or payback period, or something similar that falls under the Return on Investment (ROI) category. That still leaves you with the question of how these potential initiatives should be prioritized. The typical approach says to take the one with the highest payback. There is no question this should be a key ingredient in the prioritization process—but it should not be the only one.

It is at this point where the best contact centers separate themselves from the ordinary. The difference is seen in their ability to apply two critical pieces to the prioritization step:

  1. Intangible benefits, and the ability to seamlessly integrate these with the analytical outcomes
  2. Enabling factors that impact the value of other initiatives

Yes, intangible benefits are highly subjective, and this carries risk. But even W. Edwards Deming, a pioneer in using analytics to enhance business operations, understood the limitations of data. This recognition is seen in this quote from one of his mentors (Lloyd S. Nelson) that he often repeated: “The most important figures that one needs for management are unknown or unknowable.” The best contact centers recognize that intangibles like the impact on culture, the effect on employee satisfaction/engagement, and other critical outcomes cannot be ignored in the prioritization process.

In addition, the best centers have the technical aptitude to recognize which initiatives will help enable other improvement efforts. Sending supervisors to training sessions where they learn how to be better leaders and coaches is often one of the smartest things that a contact center can do (and let’s face it, most of us fall short in this activity). But if you are chronically understaffed, they will never get the time needed to make use of those great new coaching skills, because reps will never any off-phone time. An initiative to improve long term planning so that staffing levels consistently meet need throughout the year might not be the most popular initiative on paper—but it is needed to enable the improved coaching initiative. The order of things makes a huge difference in the impact on the floor.

The Right Sequence Is Key

Most contact center leaders have to learn to make the most of what is provided, and what is provided is typically less than ideal. Completing initiatives in the right sequence is critical to optimizing benefits, and it is one way that the best contact centers shine.

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