Establishing the Right Goals and Metrics for Your Agents

The following is excerpted from the book, Leading the Customer Experience, by Brad Cleveland, due out May 26.

I remember visiting an organization and being given a list of team members ranked by their productivity. The person at the bottom of the list was helping fewer customers and more of her cases were still open, waiting for resolution. Her manager was concerned. But as I looked further, the facts emerged. She was one of the team's most capable troubleshooters. The toughest customer problems were sent to her by her teammates. Those were the cases that needed more time and research.

Be very careful when setting goals and interpreting metrics. Beyond rote assembly lines, one of the biggest challenges in many organizations is that the work arrives randomly from moment to moment. That's true in a restaurant, a retail store, a hospital emergency department, and, of course, contact centers. Those delivering services don't control customer arrival rate or the issues with which they need help. So, if you're measuring success based on a production metric like the number of customers helped in a set amount of time, you might not be seeing the real picture.

Of course, even the most enlightened organizations set expectations. Getting things done&mdash:right and on time—are not bygone ideas. You'll need to establish expectations that make sense and that employees buy into.

I once worked with a healthcare system that set up a resource center (a contact center) that patients could access 24/7 without having to go to a physical facility. They incorporated the latest thinking and tools in telemedicine and staffed the center with doctors, nurses, and physicians' assistants. It was all very cool and very advanced, other than the workflow and schedules, which were a mess. Few felt the need to adhere to what they saw as overly rigid schedules. The result was workload mismatches, missed appointments, and frustrated patients.

I was brought in with the unenviable task of making a case for better schedule adherence with the employees. I remember the first few minutes of the first workshop—looking out on a sea of faces, many with their arms folded. (Those are times, I've learned, when it's far better to listen than to talk.)

"Why are we here?" I asked. "What's going on?"

"So, you've seen our schedules, right?" one person asked. "They [referring to company leadership] seem to think we're some kind of assembly line. 'Start here, stop there. Take a break at 10:15.'"

It was a fair question, and I understood why he felt that way. "Let's kick that around a bit," I suggested. "What approach would make more sense?" We wrote a lot of comments and ideas on a white board. All the while, a central idea began to emerge—the importance of being available when needed.

The real turning point in the discussion came when a nurse near the back of the room stood up. She asked some questions of the group: How many have worked the emergency room? Every hand went up. How many know how to triage? Laughter with every hand up. "Look every day we're all making time-driven decisions in operating rooms and on hospital floors," she reasoned, "Not for our own comfort or convenience, but because that's when our patients and these situations need us and when we need each other."

I saw heads nodding. She was right, of course. Many of today's responsibilities are time-driven. It doesn't matter if someone has the most incredible knowledge and expertise if she's not there when customers or colleagues need help. Her point helped change the mindset. While schedules should not be overly rigid, they matter.

Today, that organization is exemplary in its focus on customers, including a strong respect for workflow and schedules. Does your team understand the importance of timing?

Being in the right place at the right times is just an enabler. The other part of the equation is doing the right things—quality. Sensible and well-defined quality standards should provide necessary guidance for every employee to know what to do. In that context, they can and must be empowered to make decisions and take action.

Conflicting objectives are a killer of motivation and engagement. Ask your employees if there's ever a time they feel they have to choose between acting in the best interest of a customer and hitting a performance target. If so, revisit and revise your objectives so that they complement each other.

Brad Cleveland is a customer experience consultant specializing in contact centers, support desks, and other customer-facing environments. He consults and speaks to a broad range of organizations and associations, and is author/editor of nine books including Contact Center Management on Fast Forward, recipient of an best-selling award ( Cleveland was founding partner of the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI), where he now serves as a senior advisor. His current research is focused on the future of customer experience; his blog can be followed at