What Are Your Call Metrics Really Telling You?

By Vasudha K. Deming

One of the great things about the call center as a workplace is the ready availability and near-instant access to metrics, that is, measures of quality and productivity. Unfortunately, this easy access often results in a shortsighted assessment of what the numbers really mean. The following is an examination of what might be lurking behind four of the key metrics used to assess medical call center agents.

1. Average Handle Time (AHT)

This is one of the most commonly used metrics and a favorite with call center management. This makes perfect sense; if calls can be handled quickly and efficiently, everyone wins, right? The problem is that quick does not always mean efficient.

When agents are told (and in some cases incentivized) to keep AHT low, they tend to focus primarily on call length and will take all reasonable shortcuts to keep it short. There are a number of possible pitfalls:

The agent may be missing or skipping opportunities to provide the patient with valuable education/information; in some cases, they may be missing cross-sell opportunities.

The agent may do away with small but crucial courtesies, such as thanking a caller for holding, executing a warm transfer, or building rapport, all of which factor into customer satisfaction.

The agent might omit the step of updating a patient’s account data or otherwise capturing valuable information that can only be obtained during a live contact.

The key to success is to maintain a strategic equilibrium between AHT numbers and other metrics, such as customer satisfaction, first-contact resolution, and revenue per call (if applicable).

2. After Call Work (ACW), also known as Wrap Time

It’s easy to understand why this metric is so commonly used in centers; a key factor of workforce management is making sure agents are moving briskly from one call to the next. Unfortunately, I’ve repeatedly seen the hazards of overemphasizing this metric.

For example, getting that extra few moments between calls can make all the difference to an agent’s ability to handle the next call with a positive, professional attitude. This is particularly true in cases where the agent is dealing with an ill, injured, or distraught caller.

If ACW is a metric that is stressed in your call center, make sure you put other measures in place to guard against agent fatigue, low morale, high turnover rate, and a poor relationship between agents and management. One tip that might prove helpful is to hold agents to a stringent ACW standard during periods of high volume but then ease up on it once or twice per shift, as call volume relaxes.

3. Staff Shrinkage

The amount of time that employees are on the clock but not available to handle calls is often referred to as shrinkage. Granted, call handling is an agent’s primary job role, but if the expectation related to shrinkage – and the related measure of “utilization” – is too severe, it’s likely to create issues of low morale and high turnover.

When call center agents are given sufficient time for training and career path projects not only are they more knowledgeable and productive, but they also tend to feel like well-rounded employees. This, in turn, can lead to higher performance, increased employee engagement and satisfaction, and lower turnover.

4. First-Contact Resolution (FCR)

It’s difficult to come up with any cautions against using first-contact resolution as a key metric in your call center. This tends to be an essential measure relevant to profitability, efficiency, and patient satisfaction – and it’s one that I consistently espouse for call center performance optimization. So, if you’re not yet measuring this one, start now.

That being said, there is one pitfall that I’ve occasionally seen in technical support environments. It’s the danger that agents, striving for FCR, will stay on the phone too long when, in fact, the patient would be better served by a callback after the agent has done additional research or consulted with the appropriate peers.

In summary, think of metrics as more a scale than a yardstick. The data yield weights and counterweights that help you to achieve that all-important balance between quality, productivity, customer service, and employee satisfaction.

Vasudha K. Deming is an author, customer service consultant, and principal with Impact Learning Systems, a communication skills training company.

[From the December 2010/January 2011 issue of AnswerStat magazine]