The Power of One in Contact Centers

You might have heard the same story that I first did as a child. As it goes, a man was walking along a beach throwing starfish, abandoned by the receding tide, back into the ocean. A passerby asked why he was making this effort; after all, thousands of starfish were stranded on miles of beach, so how much difference could one person make? "It sure makes a difference for this one," he replied, smiling as he hurled a starfish back into the sea.

Years later, as I was beginning my career, the story would occasionally provide consolation when I felt overwhelmed by customers needing help. The problem is, the parallel to customer service scenarios is deeply flawed. Each person makes a huge, positive difference that goes far beyond the individuals she helps directly.

The "power of one" is among the most important principles to introduce to new hires and reinforce with experienced agents. No one ever explained it to me when I was getting started, and it would have been so helpful!

(The phrase "power of one" has long been used across the business world, as well as in charitable fund raising. It was also popularized by Australian author Bryce Courtenay, who used it as the title of his 1989 book.)

Contact centers come in all sizes—from a few people in a small team to thousands who are part of agent groups spanning multiple locations. If your contact center is on the small side, it's easy to see how one person significantly impacts service to customers. But when it reaches a few dozen agents or more, you might think that one person couldn't make much of a difference. Au contraire.

Every person has a significant impact on customers and the other employees.

To illustrate, consider an example: Say, a group of agents handling inbound customer service issues. Here, I ran a table based on the widely used Erlang C formula using a program called QueueView from ICMI, but any Erlang C calculator will do.

I plugged in 250 customer interactions (these could be telephone calls, video calls, walk-in customers, or other conversations). Let's assume each interaction takes an average 3.5 minutes to handle. Your numbers could be anything—this is just an example.

Take a look at the impact of different staffing levels!

As you can see, 30 agents will provide a service level of 24 percent answer in 20 seconds. (Service level is a common objective for accessibility. It measures how quickly customers can get through.) Here, only 24 percent of customers reach an agent within 20 seconds.

Average speed of answer (ASA) is another way to measure accessibility. Here, ASA is over 200 seconds. And look at occupancy—that's the percent of time agents are handling contacts versus waiting for them to arrive. When occupancy gets too far into the 90 percent range over much of a day, agents begin to burn out. And (whoa!) it's 97 percent.

With 31 agents, things improve dramatically. Service level jumps to 45 percent (still not great, but almost double). Average speed of answer drops to 75 seconds, and occupancy goes down to 94 percent.

Yes, one person makes that much difference on customers and the rest of the team! Adding one more person yields another big improvement: As you can see, if you let your eyes follow the rows down the table, there's a point at which adding agents doesn't help much, because service is already good. You get into what's called the law of diminishing returns.

Just remember, when queues back up, everybody makes a big difference. Each person has a significant positive impact on customer wait times—a ripple effect far beyond the customers they serve directly. Knowing about these dynamics helps employees understand why schedules are a big deal and why schedule adherence matters.

Experienced customer service employees will correctly point out that the power of one also has a qualitative aspect. Just consider the ripple effect of customer reviews or publicity (good or bad) that can come from any interaction.

An American Express study found that consumers tell 21 friends on average about a bad service experience. And we've all seen videos of bad experiences that went viral.

At the same time, positive word of mouth builds powerful brands. When you give a good customer service experience, you're creating a powerful marketing force for your company.

The power of one principle is as important as ever, given proliferating contact channels and heightened customer expectations for quick and easy service. My encouragement is to keep it front and center with your team!

Here are some of the steps organizations are taking to reinforce the power of one. Think through how you could approach them with your team.

  • Educate each person on how much impact she has on the queue, and incorporate these or similar scenarios into training.
  • Develop reasonable expectations for adherence to schedules. Customer service is as much when employees are available to help as it is the time they are available during a shift.
  • Educate everyone on the core steps involved in forecasting and resource planning, so that they know how schedules are produced and where they come from.
  • Develop appropriate priorities for the full range of tasks that your customer service employees handle and guidelines for how to respond to evolving conditions.

Brad Cleveland is a customer service consultant, specializing in contact centers, support desks, and other customer-facing environments. One of the two original partners in the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI), Brad acquired ICMI outright in 1996 and served as its president and CEO from 1996 to 2008. Today, Brad consults and speaks to a broad range of organizations and associations and serves as a senior advisor to ICMI. He is author/editor of eight books, including Call Center Management on Fast Forward. His current research is focused on the future of customer access management and the impact of social media; his blog can be followed at