Reducing Costs in the Contact Center


As this year comes to a close, many of our clients are turning their thoughts to how they can save money — both in their contact centers and throughout their operations — as well as starting to prepare for next year's holiday season. One of the best ways to plan for future success is to conduct a postseason analysis. In this first of a two-part series, I’ll explain how to perform a postseason analysis of your center as a baseline for customer service, process improvement and cost reduction.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to the postseason analysis.

1. Form a postseason review team. Because your efforts are directed at customer service, process improvement and potential cost reduction, form a team that can bring different disciplines to the process. While much of the work will fall to contact center management (managers and supervisors), broaden the group to involve a few good reps. Also include general training and quality training, human resources, center scheduling, telecom traffic, IT, marketing, and returns and replacement if all of these areas are within your responsibilities.

Clearly, contact center management drives the process. But this effort should draw on the opinions and input of all. Challenge them to assess how things could be done differently, and make them answer the question, “How can costs be reduced without lowering customer service?” These meetings should occur sometime between mid-January and mid-February, giving you enough time to plan and achieve early results.

2. Review your metrics. Begin by reviewing your key performance indicators and how performance measures up against your standards and plans. The major metrics include contacts per hour; service level; abandon rate; attrition/turnover rate; call-handle time; talk time; after-call work time; contact-to-order ratio; transaction volumes for Internet, phone and mail; non-phone volumes and others. How accurate were marketing’s projections and your projections for calls?

Labor is 50 percent to 70 percent of the contact center’s costs. So it’s important to see how well you performed in terms of staffing-level accuracy, schedule adherence and occupancy percentage.

3. Review hiring and training practices. Labor’s cost, quality and availability is becoming an issue for many call centers, particularly in seasonal businesses where the selling curve is more compressed. Review your advertising media costs and results, and exchange information with other human resource departments. Review your prehiring testing, employee selection criteria and practices. What improvements and cost reductions are possible? Is there a place for temporary agencies rather than relying completely on in-house hiring? Should more calls be shunted off to outsourced call centers?

From a training perspective, how well did you train the CSRs to take orders and provide customer service? In our experience, there’s a considerable cost ($3,000 to $10,000 per new hire) and loss of time by senior associates to hire and train new CSRs before they’re productive. How can this be improved (number of classes and trainers; develop better training approaches such as e-learning, post-training surveys, length of training)?

4. Evaluate revenue generation. As part of their mission, many contact centers are charged with becoming revenue centers in addition to taking orders and providing customer service. What do your reports show about your success with cross-selling, upselling, outbound selling and increasing the company’s average order?

5. Consider process improvements. What does your quality and call monitoring show about your operation? As you walk through your system and operation, where are the bottlenecks? How can systems be streamlined? What functions and types of information can your system do more easily online? If you’re still processing batches of mail orders, can scanning reduce costs? How can live chat and e-mail management systems improve your operation? Do you need to move to the next level of call-scheduling software?

Major Cost Saving Practices

Once you have decided on a post-season review, you will need to assemble a team from across the organization. This team should have fulfillment, merchandising, HR and the contact center represented. Include as many areas of the contact center as possible, from the director, managers, supervisors, traffic/scheduling, training and quality to a few agents who would be open and willing to participate. But remember that any number of participants greater than 12-15 is usually too difficult to manage.

  • Self-evaluation of the contact center management team is a great starting point. This will work to bring the entire team together and develop trust with the rest of the team members. The team should consider:
    • Did you have the right amount of leadership/support staff for the season? 
    • Was the leadership staff able to assist with most of the issues that developed or arose throughout the season? 
    • Was the organization’s leadership able to support the needs of the contact center for the season?

If the answers to any of these items raise further questions or concerns, you need to evaluate the concern and then work to develop the proper training and support system to be successful in the coming year.

  • Agent adherence and scheduling is an area that can be a point of contention for the entire organization; how it impacts your service level throughout the seasons is very important to understand. With agent labor being your single greatest expense—anywhere from 60-70% of all contact center expenses—this is mission critical. A simple review of Erlang C and the importance of everybody in their seat at the right time is an ideal starting point. It is also a good idea to review the service levels that have been committed to or assigned to the contact center. If staffing is an issue or if the labor expense is out of line, you might want to rethink your service level. Utilizing a benchmarking service is vital to the success of your metrics. Incorporate comparisons with others to develop greater understanding and see if you are measuring the appropriate standards and are achieving a best-in-breed service. Also try to identify an organization that can provide the needed support when benchmarking. For areas that prove too difficult to handle on your own—and these are inevitable—allowing for a third party to work with you will help to ensure success.
  • Attrition: It is vital to understand when, where and why your staff is leaving. Challenge HR to help get a handle on this issue. Using pre-hire screening and testing is a great alternative to just taking the first soul with a pulse for the position. It can only benefit the entire organization to have a well-staffed and well-trained workforce.
  • Training program: Can you make it more beneficial to the agents? Is there waste that needs to be eliminated? It is vital that your training classes are actually training! On the job training is not an efficient or cost effective process to get agents up to speed on your programs. Utilizing an e-Learning program for the basics could be very useful. It will allow you to train consistently, efficiently and, more importantly, it will allow for more focus on role-playing and product knowledge training. Most systems training can be automated. You should engage either a consultant or an instructional designer to assist with training content development. Content is one of the most overlooked and undervalued parts of the process in a contact center, but ultimately, it has the most impact on agents’ learning and, as a consequence, their tenure. Spend the time and attention needed to make this successful; it will only benefit the organization in the long run.
  • Outsourcing: After taking a long, hard look at the results of your post-season review, you may find what you see so discouraging and challenging that you realize it is necessary to outsource the peak business. Don’t be ashamed of this! In fact, you should be commended for realizing that there is a place and niche for outsourcing relationships. Now, the challenge is to find the right fit for your organization. It is not as easy as opening the phone book and finding a pizza delivery company. You will need to solicit RFP’s from potential outsourcers, make site visits and work through a transition. None of this is for the weak at detail; you will need help. It is a great benefit to have assistance from a consultant to shepherd you through the process. Allow someone else to do the research and present their findings for your review and approval.
  • Voice of the Customer: The most important questions are, was the customer taken care of and will they return? Implementing a Voice of the Customer program is a great way to assure future success. There are several sources you can use for developing a solid platform on which to work with your customers throughout the year. A third party can do it for you, or you might want to bring in a consultant to assist in the formulation of a VOC program. This is a benchmark that you will want to both develop and keep an eye on throughout the year.