posted 8 Feb 2006 in Volume 9 Issue 6
Call Centre KM
By Deborah Lawley
Mobile phone network operator
In 1990, people only used their phones – mobile or otherwise – to talk. Today, with 3G, they use their mobile phones to send text messages, to retrieve voice mail, to browse e-mails and calendars, and even to look up information on the internet. The degree of complexity involved in supporting the
The knowledge management (KM) challenge in this environment has been, and continues to be, tremendous. In customer services alone it involves everything from product knowledge and innovation, through to professional knowledge and information about how to support the
The KM team needed to help
The call centre provides a great example of how the key facets of learning, knowledge sharing and knowledge building work in practice. Call centres are fascinating places. Every change that happens in a company like
Every technical change to the devices we offer, every marketing campaign we launch, every change to the tariffs we charge is reflected at the call centre and how the interaction with the customer is handled is key to the success or failure of a marketing campaign, or a technical or policy change.
This presents us with a true knowledge challenge. It is the ability of the call centre representatives to have the right knowledge and to convey it in the right way to the customer that matters so much in establishing customer satisfaction – a critical benchmark of KM success.
So, in January 2003, the UK head of call centres decided to change the company’s approach to learning, adopting a ‘community style’ approach. Previously each front-line team of eleven staff had their own coach, whose job was to ensure that the frontline staff remained well trained and well informed. This led to two problems. First, the coaches became very much a second in command to the team leader – forgetting that the coach is really there to improve customer satisfaction through improved dissemination of knowledge.
Second, because they were isolated, coaches did not talk to each other. They were stationary to their line and so knowledge sharing was inhibited to the team in question. By creating a community centred upon the coaching role, the knowledge gap was bridged. This was also combined with a need for an overall reduction in staff at Orange. The coaches were therefore pulled out of the teams and grouped together.
Their remit was to improve the performance of the call centres by improving the learning, knowledge and understanding of front-line staff. The target for their success or failure was, quite simply, linked to improved customer satisfaction. And they had to achieve this by working with those who had the best, most intimate knowledge of the customer – the call centre representatives themselves, especially the experienced ones – plus staff who assess customer feedback and who handle customer survey data. In addition, the communities also included those responsible for developing formal training courses at the call centres.
What happened next?
The community supervisors or facilitators were newly created roles. They quickly realised that their traditional management style of line management would not work. The success of the new arrangement depended on giving the coaching community the opportunity to use their imagination to create the very best means to accelerate learning across the call centre.
Traditional call-centre line management tends to do the opposite and rely on strict adherence to set procedures. By reviewing the feedback from each of the lines by the coaches, by reviewing the customer survey information and feedback, these supervisors were able to assess the knowledge gaps in the call centre.
One area where improvement was very much needed was in the field of empathy. How can a customer still feel that a representative is on their side when the representative may not be able to give the customer exactly what they would like? The coaches, working with the trainers, created a short training session on empathy and rapidly rolled it out across all the lines. The impact on customer satisfaction was immediate.
Other product-based short training sessions were also introduced, along with sessions on listening skills. There was a move from formal training courses to shorter, more focused needs-based knowledge ‘nuggets’. The more traditional, formal training courses declined in number over time.
The new style of working was supported by a training programme for the people who were now appointed as community facilitators. Typically, these were people with line management responsibility and the new style of working required a change in approach. They needed training to bring them up to speed on the new concepts.
A series of workshops for the community facilitators were set-up to train them in a number of key concepts around community working, with each section using exercises to reinforce learning by applying the techniques explored to produce materials for their community:
Communities: definition and case studies
In order to help delegates understand how a learning community differs from other organisational designs; how and why they are used and the success factors for communities in Orange;
Communicating community purpose to sponsors and participants
A clear purpose related to the needs and challenges of the particular business area/professional discipline is vital to secure the buy-in needed for a successful community. During the early stages of the course, the delegates were asked to work together to create a ‘statement of purpose’ for their community, from both the participants’ and sponsors’ point of view;
Exploring types of communities
After providing delegates with a definition and examples of the four main community types (helping, best practice, knowledge stewarding and innovation), they were encouraged to reflect on their community and to explore which elements of these community types were relevant for theirs;
Exploring the various roles needed to sustain community activity helps delegates to understand with whom they need to engage to secure sponsorship, develop a core active membership, identify subject-matter experts and, over time, how to sustain activity and engage less active participants. This also includes understanding their role as the community facilitator;
Community facilitation skills
Understanding the difference between facilitation and other modes of working, in particular leadership or direct management, helps to explore the key competencies and skills needed to be a successful community facilitator. This includes giving practical examples of the type of activities a community facilitator will be involved in on a day-to-day basis;
As a large, complex organisation, a key driver for communities is to make available its dispersed knowledge and experience for anyone who could benefit. It is therefore necessary to provide supporting technology to enable these exchanges to take place regularly, to be easily captured and then shared. In addition, understanding the technological enablers also enables communities to make the most of face-to-face events by encouraging relationship building, direction setting and discussion rather than report or document sharing;
Benefits analysis: exploring benefits of communities over time
Orange is a complex, task-focused organisation and as such, communities need to be closely aligned to the needs of the business. A ‘benefits analysis’ exercise gives delegates the opportunity to explore how their community will provide benefit to their four key stakeholders: members, sponsors, the line managers of the members and their customers/clients. We also explore how these benefits will change over time because this helps facilitators articulate the journey of the community from research, through to creation and nurturing, and then onto action and commercial benefits – gaining vital support from sponsors through this process;
Community action planning
Having explored their community in depth over the course of the workshop, delegates are then encouraged to devise a three-month action plan detailing the steps they will need to take to launch their community, including key events, communications planning and ongoing day to day activity.
The workshop has to be highly practical and time must be spent in the workshop on developing ideas and materials that can be used in the delegate’s own community – not just on hypothetical exercises. The objective was that they should come out of the workshops having already completed the first steps to launching their own learning community.
Communities and the call centre
Communities are different to traditional line-management organisations – knowledge is put at the centre of the community and they are flexible, but focused, in how they maximise the benefit of this knowledge for both their participants and the organisation.
Our community involved the coaches themselves, the experienced call centre representatives, the staff who assess customer feedback and satisfaction, the trainers plus the customers themselves indirectly via survey data. Together they were able to establish what mattered to the customer and what actions were likely to improve the customer’s experience.
The typical features that characterised this community were a strong common purpose, trust and openness, minimal hierarchy and intense knowledge sharing. In this community, some people had a specified role (the coaches) while others participated actively (the customer-satisfaction staff and experienced representatives). Meanwhile, others contributed equally valuably, but in a more passive manner.
KM practitioners are often criticised for running initiatives that cannot easily be assessed in traditional business terms, such as return on investment. However, in this case the results were almost immediate and quantifiable.
The KM team could point to a steady increase in the customer satisfaction figures in the months after the community system was put in place, increasing from 69 per cent to 76 per cent. This was a remarkable achievement in such a short space of time and primarily attributed, in the company, to the change in coaching style.
Other internal figures also improved including first-time fix rates, speed to answer and queue size.
However, we did not simply stop there. An interview technique was deployed based on a method documented by KM consultants Skyrme1 to capture the relationship between the improved knowledge flow and how it had influenced corporate key performance indicators (KPIs).
The results are mapped out in the benefits tree illustration. The community style approach helped coaches to properly understand their role; they understand what the customers need to know. They are sharing ideas with each other, transferring their improved understanding across the call centre and validating to ensure that change has the desired impact. This is helping staff to reach their potential more quickly, speeding up problem solving and these proven approaches are also being shared across the company much more easily than before.
The organisation has also benefited from a concomitant reduction in staff turnover, which is a major challenge in call centres the world over. The initiative has improved morale because staff feel better able to serve the customers, and single contact resolution rates – the number of calls dealt with successfully first time – have increased. The customers are receiving better service, they feel that they are getting a more responsive and empathetic response from the representatives and they feel more satisfied with Orange as a result.
There are still some sticking points, however, such as how to address the need for immediate help for the call centre representative with a customer on the line. There is also the challenge of addressing the now-higher aspirations of better trained staff over career progression.
As a result, Orange has shifted to a hybrid model where coaching communities are used ‘in anger’ where the knowledge needs are highest. Approaches like this, using communities in a call centre, certainly provide an interesting insight into how improvement can be made by focusing attention on the key target at a level much closer to the customer interface.
Communities can be an incredibly useful tool for understanding how to engage people together towards a common goal.
In a call centre, they can help in gaining insight from different functional areas, enabling the organisation to use that knowledge to make broader changes that can help it to achieve particular business goals – especially improved customer satisfaction.
Part of the issue in a call centre is the difficulty of overcoming the very constraints the organisation puts in place, such as keeping staff at their desks taking calls instead of allowing them time to reflect on experience and to work together to find ways to improve outcomes. In addition, insight tends to be dispersed into different functions with separate groups holding information about survey information, for example, while others have product knowledge and another group could offer an insight into the issues customers are facing right now.
The community aspect is a useful technique for bringing these disparate groups together. Reviewing knowledge needs in terms of a flow of knowledge that many different people contribute to can be even more effective. Orange’s Belgian operation created a system in which the trainers, the product managers, the coaches and the representatives all understood their roles in the learning cycle. A process was put in place to include reflection on symptoms of knowledge gaps and all the appropriate roles played their part in closing the gap, all under the umbrella of a community.
The increasing use of e-learning techniques compliments the way needs-based skills training and awareness are becoming significant. Home-grown knowledge ‘nuggets’ are created depending on the feedback received from many different sources, linked together and understood within the community.
Communities are especially useful in the way they focus upon the key target that the teams are striving for. The benefits tree helps to put in perspective the way in which the ‘efficiency targets’ also improved as a by-product of the initiative, but not as the key driver. Often, these are the very targets that are seen as the end goal and the knowledge goal is lost along the way.
The other key attribute of knowledge in a call centre and, in fact, knowledge in many parts of an organisation, is that it is ‘emergent’. The launch of a new product to a company’s customers is just the start in understanding that product. The performance of that product in the field starts a whole new process of understanding about that product and its features and how customers choose to use it. The explicit mechanisms we normally use assume a more static nature to that knowledge. Use of collaborative software, such as wikis, to capture emergent knowledge about products in action, are an interesting new development opportunity and one that will probably be much more reflective of how we work and learn, especially in a call centre environment.
Deborah Lawley is a knowledge management and learning specialist responsible for implementing the KM strategy at Orange in the last four years. Now an independent consultant, she can be contacted at: email@example.com
1 For more information about the Skyrme benefits tree approach see: www.skyrme.com
The Belgian call centre
Orange’s Belgian operation provides another good example of learning communities in action. The role of the coach is regarded as crucial to the effectiveness of call centres throughout Orange, but can only achieve so much if regarded as an isolated role. Trainers are responsible for the knowledge base, which holds explicit information that call centre staff refer to. Again, a crucial role, but it is of limited effectiveness if it is only an isolated role.
The training manager in Belgium analyses knowledge gaps by looking into wrongly assigned calls. By setting up a learning community made up of coaches in the call centres, trainers and product managers, it was possible for them to assess the real cause of the knowledge gaps and to jointly design and implement interventions.
By working as a community, the knowledge of the call centre staff is reviewed from different perspectives and can be enhanced through the most appropriate means. This includes ‘knowledge islands’, where the coaches work with two representatives and also coach each other. The coaches take it in turns to listen with one of the representatives to the other taking the call. Then they swap around. At the end of the coaching session they share their feedback and ideas on what went well plus how to handle the calls even better. In this way knowledge is shared and grown.
By introducing communities, the knowledge base – both explicit and tacit – is constantly renewed by using a mix of techniques and perspectives to assess problems, implement solutions, validate and review the outcome. It is a true learning cycle.