Contact Center Leadership: Assembly Line or Team of Concierges?

What if you were forced to conduct contact center leadership for a week without any metrics other than the external feedback from your customers?

It, fortunately, happened on the weekend. The “motherboard” of the contact center totally fried, leaving the center without its all-important scoreboard. All those time-based metrics were now unavailable.

There was no handle time, time in queue, speed of answer, or service level. The center had no way to determine abandonment rate, call transfer rate, first call resolution, or percent of inbound calls getting a busy signal.

Early on Monday morning, the contact center manager called a meeting of all the call center agents. “We are going to be operating a bit in the blind until technical support can fix our computer. I ask you to give your best, work as efficiently as you can, but pretend you are a concierge with a single goal: leaving a happy customer at the end of the call.”

It was a call to action, and the agents rose to the occasion. Even customers who had to wait in queue received such a pleasant experience, they forgot about their wait, much like a theme park that cleverly manages the wait experience.

At the end of the week, the customer feedback was overwhelmingly positive. And, the morale of the contact center was sky-high. The experience shook the paradigm from which the manager had been operating.

He wondered if he had been applying a factory assembly line mentality to the work of his memory making ambassadors. Was he so preoccupied with the scoreboard he was missing the real game? Was he trying to drive a nail with a B flat?

Hold that last thought.

Object Making versus Memory Making

Let’s take a quick look at how making stuff and making memories are substantively different!

When you buy a product, you receive an object; when you buy a service, you get an outcome and an experience surrounding that outcome. Unlike products, a service cannot be inventoried but is created brand new each time—therefore, no economies of scale for mass production and no stockpiling for a quick response to unexpected demand. The manufacturer controls the quality of product-making and the processes that yield efficiency, not the buyer.

Customers don’t show up at the factory to help. The reverse is true for service—the buyer judges the quality of memory-making.

Since the product-buyer is not a participant in product making, the manufacturer’s focus is mainly on internal processes’ efficiency. Quality control metrics guide decision making. With service, however, the buyer participates in creating the service experience with the service provider—consequently, the focus shifts to the quality of the relationship with the co-creator—the customer.

And, in the end, the receiver of a service owns nothing tangible—thus, the value of the service depends solely on a satisfactory outcome plus a positively memorable experience.

However, there is an even deeper dimension to the product-service difference. The core property of a product is form; the core property of a service is feeling or emotion. Just as uniformity is a virtue of product making, so uniqueness is a virtue of service delivery. Six sigma black belts taught the world to eliminate variance in processes so manufacturing could yield greater productivity and, therefore higher revenue.

The service paradigm, while honoring efficiency and frugalness, recognizes the criticality of the human dimension and thus focuses on empowered employees able to adjust, adapt, and custom-fit service experiences to match the unique requirements of customers.

Trying to Drive a Nail with a B Flat

So, what happens when you apply production thinking and variance, eliminating the delivery of service experiences? You get leaders trying to drive a nail with a B flat, so to speak. There is nothing wrong with B flats. Mozart used them all the time. However, when he was interested in doing a bit of carpentry, a hammer was much more useful for nail driving.

The most apparent examples of production thinking are phone scripts. Remember, “Thank you for shopping at J-Mart, next?” or “Would you like fries with that?” Rather than rely on a consistent pattern—always warmly greet, put a smile in your voice, sincerely thank the customer—some organizations require a precise script.

However, unless the contact center operator is a world-class thespian, the customer will likely experience robotics instead of authenticity. The memory made as plain vanilla is essentially no memory at all.

Application of affinity programs is another way the management of processes now trumps the leadership of frontline ambassadors. There was a time the front desk clerk or gate attendant made decisions on the room or seat upgrades. Now, the computer, with its programmed rule-based fairness, makes that upgrade decision.

In fact, in the airport, frequent flyers watch the monitor to determine if they received an upgrade—there is no connection with a real person. It’s all logical, no longer emotional.

Modern-day Customer Expectation and Contact Center Leadership

Today’s customers expect experiences to be sparkly and glittery with a cherry on top. They want niche, craft, small-batch, specialized, and personalized. Big box retailers are learning what happens when merchandise drives marketing decisions instead of customer experiences. Store closings are less about changing buyer demographics and e-tailing and more about specialty competitors. Sensory outplays functional; engaging bests efficient.

Meeting the challenge of rising expectations requires rethinking the role of employees who are face-to-face, ear-to-ear, and click-to-click with customers. When you ask service people to pleasantly surprise more customers, they feel less like worker bees and more like fireflies.

It means leaders trusting frontline employees to create, not just execute. The more they are resourced and freed to be generous and ingenious, the more they bring their high esteem to the service provider-customer co-creation resulting in customers who feel enchanted and eager to tell others.

Metrics matter in Contact Center Leadership

Call handle time and average time in queue drive staffing levels. First call resolution surfaces hiccups that make proactive problem prevention remove the need for reactive problem resolution.  Metrics have their place but should not always be in first place.

As Berkshire Hathaway founder Warren Buffett wrote, “Games are won by players who focus on the playing field –-, not by those whose eyes are glued to the scoreboard.” Are you leading your contact center like a factory assembly line or like a team of customer-centric concierges that can Ignite CX Celebration all year?


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