What do you need to do to get your call centre operation working that bit more efficiently and therefore keep your staff smiling? Nick Drake-Knight offers up advice on three key methods that might help turn your business process problems around.
When it comes to process efficiency, call centre managers can learn a lot from manufacturing. Production managers in manufacturing companies are the masters of optimised process management and have a sixth sense for unnecessary or low value-adding activity.
It has been the nature of manufacturing since the early production line days of Henry Ford that continuous improvement is the way to achieve competitiveness and market advantage.
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Interestingly, the same principles can be applied to call centres, and really smart operators are already embracing efficiency ‘patterns that connect’ with the best ideas in modern manufacturing. But it’s also true that a surprising number of household name brands still operate call centre functions that are stuck in a service sector time warp.
The reality is that there are enormous benefits to be had from adopting a more eclectic approach to call centre operational management, embracing ideas from outside the sector. With that in mind, let’s review some of the approaches used in manufacturing that can also be used to secure optimum process efficiencies in call centres.
1) Ask the people
This is the classic approach of most continuous improvement strategies and one that still delivers positive results. The truth is that most of your people have far better ideas on process improvements than the managers and team leaders who think it’s their job to ‘organise’.
Way back in the 60s, Robert Townsend of Avis cars coined a phrase that still makes good sense. He said: “Ask the people – they know where the wheels are squeaking”.
Since Townsend’s time, good quality organisations have heeded his advice and engaged their operational people in continuous improvement meetings or quality circles to tease out ideas from the people who actually do the job.
2) ‘5S’ lean principles
This is a really simple method for helping everyone involved in your processes to achieve quick wins in streamlining operations. The five S’s comes from the concept of ‘lean manufacturing’, now increasingly applied as ‘lean processing’.
The name 5S relates to the five simple strategies of:
This means sorting through the call centre environment for anything that isn’t essential to the operation of the business. If in doubt, throw it away; it’s an unnecessary distraction interfering with core business.
This means getting the workflow in a logical sequence. A good way to do this is to follow the information trail. What is the starting point for your call centre operation? Where does the workflow travel? By using a simple logic diagram, it’s often possible to limit the distance and the time travelled between each operational function.
5S requires the workplace to be clean and tidy. The key requirement is to make cleaning and tidying a daily activity – not just something that is done when an important client is visiting, or when the mess has become unbearable.
Sometimes known as ‘systemise’, this step suggests that operations should be, so far as is practicable, standardised, consistent and made explicit. When people know exactly what is expected of them, variances from the norm are readily spotted and can be put right quickly.
Keeping the new methodology alive is critical, especially over time. Groups of workers have ‘a habit of creating habit’. The new way of operating must become the cultural norm if it is to be sustainable. Team leaders and managers have a job to do here in ensuring that the people involved in the development of the new way of working remain committed to the methods they designed. 5S is a waste of everyone’s energy and time if the changes implemented slip back in to the old ways.
Following the 5S process, efficiencies arrive as if by magic. The activity of conducting 5S itself causes us to adopt a ‘spring clean’ mind set, asking questions like: “Why do we actually do this?”, “Is it really necessary?”, and “Would the sky fall in if we didn’t do it?” These are healthy ‘Lean’ questions that can result in slimmed-down activity, and easier-to-manage operations that incur less cost.
Having said that, just like Townsend’s approach, it’s essential that ‘the people’ conduct the 5S activity themselves. That way, they will feel part of the process improvement activity rather than having 5S ‘done’ to them.
3) Value stream mapping
An extension to ‘lean’ is the practice of mapping the ‘value stream’ of your operation.
In value stream mapping (VSM) we start from the premise that customers are prepared to pay for activities that add value, but nothing else. In fact, any activity that doesn’t add direct value to the customer is a cost.
When mapping the operations of a call centre, the activities of that centre are described in what is called a ‘current state map’ – that is, the map of operations as it is today. The map is usually drawn onto paper and stuck to a wall. Indeed, it’s quite common for a VSM map to cover several walls as it sets out visually the activities and processes undertaken in an operations centre.
Good value stream maps use symbols to describe certain activities and processes. There’s a whole library of ‘accepted’ mapping symbols. For example, a truck image can describe movement of documentation from one place to another.
But the beauty of value stream mapping is that you can create your own symbols to represent whatever process activity is appropriate for your business. Most call centres have a very specific set of processes that can be represented by a unique set of icons. All of these symbols combine to create the current state map, and it’s this iconic representation that provides a visual image of the processes at work (or not at work!) within your call centre operation. The current state map gives us a marker to work with.
Usually, it’s during the compilation of the current state map that the VSM team begin to notice anomalies and opportunities to remove non value-adding activities. The temptation is to make changes to the operations of the call centre immediately. However, it’s important to wait until the current state mapping process is completed. By making a note in one of the ‘idea clouds’ and posting it on the current state map, ‘Eureka!’ moments can be saved for later referral.
Once the current state map is complete we can start to think about where the non-value-adding activities exist. Remember, if it doesn’t directly add value to your end user customer, it is almost certainly a cost. Costs inevitably get passed on to customers as an increased price.
Your team will have plenty of ideas about how to ‘lean’ the processes in your call centre and create a more efficient workflow. Remember: “Ask the people – they know where the wheels are squeaking”.
Nick Drake-Knight is an author and freelance writer. He is director of customer service at mystery shopping consultancy Performance in People
Tel: +44 1983 568 080