What Is a Quality Call and How Do We Know When We Have One?

Quality is more than what happens within a phone call in today’s contact center, although certainly the call continues to be a major communication channel and a significant player in designing the customer experience. That said, we must continually ask ourselves, “What is a quality call and how do we know when you have one?”

According to the dictionary, quality refers to the “inherent or distinctive characteristics or properties of a person, object, process, or other thing.” Bruce Vinson, quality and process director at the Denver customer experience center of business-to-business conglomerate Corporate Express, defines a quality call as one that “conforms to internal and external customer requirements.” There are, I suppose, as many definitions of a quality call as there are contact centers, but there are some core themes that repeat across the industry.

An emerging theme relates to the visibility of today’s quality programs; all executives want to be kept abreast of the quality scores. Enormous amounts of time, energy, manpower, and money are spent on quality in today’s contact center, forcing us to continually evaluate and refine the program. (Sadly, however, there are some centers that simply continue to make paper copies of a form developed decades ago, administered by front-line management who have very limited training in coaching and developing staff, never mind in delivering a great return on the quality program investment.)

There are significant benefits associated with a quality experience being delivered to customers of any contact center and as many versions of quality programs. And the guidelines for how we know when we have a quality call are expanding. Expectations for quality are moving beyond the “roots” of the call, as Tena Perelli of home and garden marketer Gardener’s Supply Co. puts it, or “the nuts and bolts of the call: greeting, system navigation, accurate entry, use of tools, etc.”

Perelli goes on to say, “The bloom components of our evaluation program focus on the soft skills that really define our customer’s emotional impression of us.” (Interesting how Gardener’s Supply has managed to use a metaphor that reflects its business!)

If this type of connection to your customer is one of your desired outcomes (and who among us does not want the customer to actually feel good about the experience we provide?), it may be time to assess your quality observation evaluation criteria. Four key activities come to mind:

1) Develop very clear written guidelines for the program. Define purpose, outcomes, standing operating procedures (frequency of observations, conducted by whom, how information is shared, scoring, etc.), and incredibly clear definitions of expectations for each element of the assessment tool. And specify how performance within the assessment will be measured.

2) Confirm that your agents understand the desired outcome of your quality program. An anonymous survey of your agents may yield some very interesting information about what they think management is looking for.

3) Establish assessment criteria that are strictly behavior-driven. Assessing specific behaviors associated with your desired outcomes helps remove subjectivity. Instead of asking coaches to evaluate whether the agent used “active listening skills,” break down the skill to specific criteria: offered feedback, repeated and confirmed information, restated reason for call, etc.

4) Train agents in the art of combining interaction skills with the necessary transaction skills to generate a connection with the customer. If you wanted a robot you could automate these transactions; keep in mind that the essence of human contact is emotional in nature.

If we assume that we know what a quality call is, how can we assure that we have it? Do high scores on our quality assessments provide enough evidence that our program is effective? The answer is, not really; there are simply too many variables.

Quality cannot exist in isolation. Contact centers have enormous cross-functional dependencies that must be evaluated to provide a truly quality experience for the customer. Contact centers can have the nicest people in the world, but if they are authorized only to apologize because they are surrounded by process failures, the customer still can’t walk away saying his experience was truly a quality one. Quality programs need to fuel efficiency and effectiveness across the enterprise.

First-call resolution is gaining momentum as a quality measure. It is a major driver for quality programs that are moving well beyond assessing only the emotional connection and data entry accuracy. In the recent report “Call Center Strategies 2006,” published by Ascent, 55% of respondents said they used some form of first-call resolution as part of their quality assessment.

But we may be missing important criteria if we look only at individual agent performance for evidence of true quality. How we know we have quality calls/contacts will emerge from a number of other measures. In fact, quality programs need to hold up their results with other performance criteria: service level, error rates, average handle time, abandon rates, sales per call, cost per call, customer feedback (surveys, complaints, returns), and cross-functional process improvements, to name a few.

Recording software that captures both voice and data offers a means of expanding the quality program across the enterprise by providing information vital to business, process, systems, and training improvement initiatives. This is the ultimate form of knowing whether you have a quality contact. With a significant number of contact centers evaluating and purchasing voice and data recording capability, the opportunity to evaluate all elements of the contact – across all channels – is revolutionizing quality programs. Centers equipped with these tools make compelling cases for process and system improvements that yield important efficiency gains that no amount of work on the agent side alone can deliver. Many of these systems also include in-depth analytical capability. This allows disparate data streams to be organized to provide a richer view of the entire customer experience, in near-real-time dashboard presentations that enhance cross-functional activities not limited to the contact center.

In the end, there really is much agreement on the definition of a quality call. As a colleague wrote to me, “A quality call results in the customer having a positive and memorable experience with our company.” As we have seen here, a quality experience takes a much broader view and a bit more effort, but the results are well worth it.

Kathleen Peterson is chief vision officer for Bedford, NH-based contact center consultancy PowerHouse Consulting.

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