The transformation of a Customer Contact Centre using Agile and Lean

This post was written in partnership with Sue Visic and first published on the REA Techblog on the 11th August 2014

How REA challenged Call Centre preconceptions

There is a lot of bad press about Customer Contact Centres; callers usually dislike having to deal with one, and people working in them are rarely proud or engaged with their jobs.

But is it possible to create a Contact Centre where callers are left happy and valued, and the people working within them feel empowered and enjoy going to work?

And is it possible to achieve all that while moving the key metrics that matter to the business?

Yes, yes and definitely Yes! But you will have to be bold. You’re going to have to try a few unorthodox moves when it comes to Call Centre Operations.

REA Group is the publisher of realestate.com.au, amongst other property related portals. When I took the role of Customer Experience Manager in 2012, I did not have any experience managing Contact Centre Operations; but like all of us I had used many, and I knew exactly what I didn’t want.  After nine years in this country and coming from a non-english speaking background, a thick Spanish accent is still one of my most distinctive traits – well, try to deal with an IVR (Interactive Voice Respond) asking you “…in a few words, tell us what your call is about” with that accent. You can imagine the frustration.

REA’s Contact Centre is relatively small : 30 people,  – and it deals with service queries from Real Estate Agents about their subscription plans with us, as well as queries from website users. The average monthly volume of enquires is 12,000 across the three channels our customers use to communicate with us: phone, email and webchat.

So, how did we go from a Customer Satisfaction Score of 4.8 to 8.3 in 18 months? How did we achieve an Employee Sustainable Engagement Score of 8.5 out of 10? How do we 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?

Well, here are the main 5 reasons why we achieved that success:

1.       Focus on Quality, not on Quantity.

Many “typical” Call Centres focus obsessively on statistics like Call throughput by agent, Average Handling Time, Occupancy Level, Availability of agents, number of emails responded per agent, and so on.

In our team we decided not to focus on these metrics.  We felt that these were internally focused and not a true measure of what mattered to a customer. 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? Are the types of queries they handle different? Is the customer satisfaction score of the second agent higher than the first? Many organisations use AHT (Average Handling Time) 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 in the call centre by understanding the customer demands and working with the business to fix those issues (more on this in point #3). 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. The best way we found to do this was through the team leaders sitting with the agents every week and assessing a number of calls and emails with customers and giving each interaction a score based on the overall customer experience. This may seem a very subjective way of assessing our staff; but after a few calibration sessions, we realized that all team leaders were on the same page when assessing a “good” and a “poor” customer interaction.

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.

These one-on-one sessions also 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.

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 – which is the team which deals with all incoming calls and emails. 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. 

Guess what happens with the customer satisfaction score when you have your least experienced people dealing with all the enquiries?

Another mistake in our view is trying to build a call centre organisation with specialist teams which only handle a specific type of query and direct the customer to these teams through IVR’s (more on IVR’s on point #4).

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 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.

Two key roles in this structure have been the “Enablement Manager” and “Continuous Improvement Manager”. The first one is the link between the team and the rest of the company. She is the person that attends all project and go-to-market meetings across the organization representing the customer’s interests and bringing the information back to the team. She also frees the team leaders to do what they are supposed to do: coach their teams.

The second role – Continuous Improvement Manager – looks at both the “system of work” and the “operating method” of the team. In our case, we were extremely lucky to have a very experienced Agile coach performing this role.

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.

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. When I started, I discovered that we too had an IVR and all options offered to customers ended up in the same queue and the only reason we had it was so we could report on the number of call types we received. So in reality, we put customers through the excruciating pain of having to listen to six different options – half of which didn’t make sense – just for internal reasons that had no benefit or serve a purpose. 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. Today we just have a short, legally required message, and it is the agent who records the call type in our CRM system. It’s the same outcome, but less pain for the customer.

It is not that we are totally against I.V.R. systems; it is that we believe that they probably work better for simple transactions like ordering a cab or making a credit card payment.

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 with answers to common questions – both projects managed and delivered by team members of the call centre.  It was never about forcing customers to use one channel or another or reducing customer interactions: it was about giving customer options, and making those options available and easy for them to access.

When applying a multichannel customer experience strategy like this, it’s important to understand the expected response time for each channel, and the fact that a conversation with a customer can change channels at any given time. This is where your flat structure designed with the customer in mind is going to help you improve customer satisfaction.

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 understood the purpose of all these Agile tools. They believed in both the company and team’s purpose. They understood and embraced the transparency and empowerment we offered them and they accepted the accountability that came with it as well. The transformation was formidable. 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.

The management’s role is to fix the system the team works in, and make sure that the work flows well end to end. Through this management mindset, we have achieved very high levels of employee engagement and tenure; and reduced recruitment, induction and on boarding costs.

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.