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Contact Centres deal with a lot of challenges. Is it possible to create a contact centre where callers feel valued and employees enjoy going to work? And can this be done while moving the key metrics that matter to the business? Well, we took a few bold steps and tried a few unorthodox moves - but the journey was very rewarding and we’d like to share our story of how we transformed the call centre operations at REA.

Real Estate Agent’s (REA) Contact Centre is relatively small, with only 30 people. It deals with service queries from Real Estate Agents about their subscription plans, as well as queries from website users. The average monthly volume of enquiries is 12,000 across the three channels: phone, email and webchat.

So, how did REA go from a Customer Satisfaction Score of 4.8 to 8.3 in 18 months? How did they achieve an Employee Sustainable Engagement Score of 8.5 out of 10? How do they maintain an average tenure on the team of above 2 years when turnover is the main problem in most Contact Centres? And how did we reduce by 16% the number of calls coming to the Centre in 12 months?

1.    Focus on Quality, not on Quantity

Many “typical” call centres focus obsessively on statistics like call throughput by agent, Average Handling Time (AHT), occupancy level, availability of agents, number of emails responded per agent, and so on.

At REA, we decided not to focus on these metrics. Is it really important to know that an agent average talk time is 2’14” compared to another that has 3’25” without understanding why? Many organisations use AHT as a measure to try to process as many calls as possible: the shorter the call is, the more calls an agent can take.

We tried a different approach. Our main priority was to reduce the number of calls received by understanding the customer demands and working with the business to fix those issues. This way, with less calls coming in, we could provide better service to our customers.

Instead of focusing on these quantity metrics, we concentrated on quality. We didn’t give scripts to the team. We didn’t ask them to say their name twice in the first 30 seconds of the conversation.  Instead we coached them on what a “good customer experience” really means and let them bring their own touch and personality to each conversation.

We also encouraged one-on-one sessions that achieved something very important:  constant contact and feedback between team leaders and staff. This focus on quality coaching has been one of the keys to our success without a doubt.

Focus on quality, not on quantity

2.    Structure the team thinking about the customer

Many typical call centres have at least two levels of support, usually called “Front Line” and “Back Line”, and they usually put the most experienced people in the back line, leaving the less experienced people up at the front taking most of the enquiries. This is the source of the “I’ll just transfer you to someone who can help you with your problem” line you hear so often as you transfer into yet another queue.

We found that a flat structure where more and less experienced agents share the same type of calls and interactions delivers a better customer experience – it also promotes shared learning amongst the team and ultimately better culture.

After studying demand by listening to a lot of calls and reading many emails, we found that there was a surprising predictability in the type of queries received in the Contact Centre. We then created a structure with no specialist teams, and we trained everyone in all products and services. This constant learning improved engagement in the team. It also improved customer satisfaction, as the customer had a better chance to have their query resolved first time due to the broader knowledge of the entire team.

We also created two key roles, the Enablement Manager, who was the key interface to the business and our conduit into the heart of projects and go to market activities across the entire business.  The second role – Continuous Improvement Manager who looks at both the “system of work” and the “operating method” of the team.

Structure the team

3.    Understanding Customer Demand

We identified and agreed that the key to improving customer satisfaction was to reduce the number of calls we received in the Contact Centre (this may be different for a sales driven Call Centre). It wasn’t about asking our people to do more; it was about giving them the space and knowledge to do better.

We did that by working to understand why people were calling us.  Were we adding value to our customer interactions (value demand) (what the Contact Centre was created for), or were our customers calling because they couldn’t interact with our organisation as they needed (failure demand)?

We couldn’t come up with a better way to do this than actually sitting down every day for a few hours with a few agents and listening to a few calls while we wrote down in a piece of paper the reason for the calls. As tedious as this may sound, it is the best exercise that anyone with a management role in Call Centre Operations could do.

Once we collected a reasonable sample, we realised that we had a high percentage of calls we were receiving that we weren’t supposed to (i.e.: cold sales calls from suppliers to the business); but we also realised the main types of queries we were receiving that were appropriate for our Contact Centre. From there, we worked both internally in the team and with the business to a) eliminate as much as possible the number of “failure demand” calls received and b) fix the issues that were causing the higher number of calls.

In a business that has grown 30% in revenue year on year and continued to increase its number of users and customers, we have been able to reduce the number of calls received by 16% year on year.

Understanding customer demand

4.    Remove barriers and give options to your customers

It is very rare to find a Call Centre where the caller doesn’t have to deal with a machine asking them to press a few numbers to get to the right person, if in fact there is a real person at the end of the process.

In our view, if a customer has chosen the telephone to deal with us it is because they want to speak to a “human” and not face to face. So we try to make that option as easy as possible. We decided to remove that IVR and – surprise! Our customer satisfaction score went up immediately. Anecdotal feedback received from our customers thanked us profusely for doing that.

But not everyone wants to speak to a “human” and in 2014 customers want, are used to and demand options to communicate with your company. Some people prefer to solve their problems on their own; some prefer to use social media and some to use live chat. We saw a significant jump in customer satisfaction when we launched our live chat functionality and our self-service portal: it was about giving customer options, and making those options available and easy for them to access.

Remove barriers

5.    Implement Agile Tools and let the team manage themselves

There are several stories both here in Australia and overseas of Contact Centres that are run by “command and control” methods, where leaders closely monitor the time their agents are away from their desks, or similar metrics.

We adopted a very different approach and found that the fastest way to achieve success was through the engagement and motivation of the team. And that was always going to be directly linked to the trust and empowerment offered to everyone in the team.

We implemented several Agile techniques: daily stand ups, sprint planning sessions, retrospectives, several card walls started to pop up around the area and the team quickly embraced this new operating model. Not many companies fully embrace this approach to management and operational efficiency as REA does; and that helped to speed up the implementation of perhaps the first fully Agile Customer Contact Centre.The team practically self-manage. They create their own roster. They decide what needs to be done every day and who is going to do it.  Yes, we do have team leaders and managers, but our role is not to tell them what to do. It is to remove any roadblocks that may get in their way when trying to achieve the common goal.

In summary, by truly understanding our customers’ needs, focusing on the quality of work rather than focusing on the clock, and by putting our people in the drivers’ seat of the well-being of the contact centre we have achieved something that we are very proud of… happy customers and even happier employees.

This article was co-authored by Eduardo Nofuentes and was originally published here.