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Empowering the Next Generation Call Agent

I’ve had a hectic & eventful last few weeks, studying call center processes & agents in different types of call centers. I wanted to share some conclusions with this CRM community and take some feedback (and also break a chain of Customer Experience posts from my side!). This post is going to be less about the processes and more about the agents…

‘Average talk time’ and ‘Service levels’ continue to be the most significant measures of an agent’s performance. I have to jump into an analogy immediately… these measures are akin to a sales rep diligently tracking ‘SG&A’ as a key metric. These are certainly important & quantifiable metrics but need to be higher up in the pyramid. Levers to achieve good service levels and low SG&As are way broader than what a call agent or a sales rep can significantly influence. For a sales rep, the single biggest measure has been and will always be ‘Top-Line’. This, very clearly, is their raison d'être. I don’t know if we will ever achieve unanimity on this but what is the call agent’s raison d'être?

According to me, the answer is ‘First Contact Resolution’ (FCR). FCR is by itself a very loosely used term – defined and measured in a variety of ways (driven not so much by the business definition but more so by the ability to measure). The call center industry sees a variety of ways by which FCR can be measured. Some of the common methods employed are

a)       Quality monitoring – usually, a percentage of the calls are recorded and played back for quality improvement. Assuming 10,000 calls a month (that would be a small center by the way!), 70% FCR and 50% calls recorded, that translates to 3,500 calls being potential FCRs available for analysis. The flip side? One call translating to 2 mins talk time (on average) would mean that for a diligent study of FCRs in one month, the center will need 100+ hrs of invested time. Though a much smaller sample can give a good measure of the effectiveness of FCRs, this method will still not help in the measurement of FCRs. I would recommend this strongly, but not for FCR measurement month after month.
b)       Customer’s voice – Surveys to the customer (telephone or email driven) to know if their question was answered effectively in the first attempt. Even at a 10% response rate (1,000 calls), a good measure of the FCR can be achieved. That’s 100 responses per agent approx in a 10 person center. Not bad!
c)       Agent’s voice – The agent determines if the customer’s issue was resolved by the end of the customer’s first call. This is acknowledged by the industry to be ineffective – this method is as absurd as a frontline sales person having a final say in his/her sales volume for the month. In addition, the agent may not even be aware of an earlier call from the customer on the same topic if the real-time systems aren’t shrewd enough and the customer hasn’t gone into length that an earlier call was made on the same topic.
d)       Analytics – Evaluate if the customer called back in a given interval on the same request (say, within 5 days in a B2C banking context). This is a tough measure but can be measured if the CRM processes are well defined and a robust front office system is available to support it. Watch outs need to include seasonality (e.g.: Nearing a tax filing deadline) and non-call methods (like a visit to the branch) to get the same issue resolved.

For these measures, I would like to add a word of caution. Don’t leave the definition of ‘FCR’ to your call center. The more ‘open loop’ your call center is, the higher will be its FCR. There is a fundamental difference between ‘answer’ and ‘resolution’. A customer’s request is not to be measured as resolved if the resolution lies with another group, say field service (which involves a visit, say 2 days down the line). FCR targets can be adjusted accordingly but how you define your FCR will have a reflection on your customer’s experience.

Now, why is FCR all that important? How is it superior to talk time and service levels? Here are some reasons (not in any particular order) shared by best-in-class call centers…
1)       Take the quality monitoring example above. With FCR at 70%, 3,000 calls per month could potentially have been avoided if the agent had answered right the first time. That converts to a) 6,000 additional minutes available (note what that can do to service levels directly!) or b) 6,000$ of cost saved or c) 3,000 opportunities for outbound calls/campaigns/cross&up sells (ask your sales guys what that means)
2)       FCR is directly proportional to customer satisfaction. I don’t have too much data on this but I believe the scale will be similar. That is, if FCR goes up to 80%, customer satisfaction will also be somewhere near that figure. Note, this is huge.
3)       FCR is directly proportional to employee satisfaction. To achieve an FCR culture, support processes and systems need to be perfect. If they are perfect, you have a satisfied agent. Less angry callers to deal with on a Monday morning.

Since FCR tremendously influences the customer, the company and the call agent, it really needs to be THE measure of choice for the call agent and their managers. So, does anyone think there is a more important measure?


Since I have worked as a sales manager, I would like to point out what I think is an incorrect parallel drawn out in this post. The objective seems to be to find an ideal performance metric for the call center agent and an FCR is suggested as one since it is wholly under the control of the agent. I am fine with this idea but I cannot agree with the comparison made with the topline targets that sales reps and managers work with. The reason being that sales ultimately is also a function of availability of goods which then ties back into accuracy of sales forecasts, supply logistics, production capacity and of course consumer demand which are driven by other functions in the organization. Hence the comparison is incorrect. A correct comparison would involve all SR's; even those which involve resolution by Field Service teams since the contact center agent should own the customer SR and make the extra effort in reaching out to other functions in the organization (just like a good sales manager would do, by the way) to achieve customer satisfaction.

Good Post , Badri !
We may also take into consideration the impact Knowledge Management modules, customer forums and FAQs on corporate websites have in improving the FCR. Also considering alternate channels like the self-service for most of the less critical / new customers may help reduce traffic as FCR inclusive of "Very Simple" problem resolution could be a skewed metric to go by .
In short, linking complexity of issue to the resolution time / FCR may denote a more precise picture of Call Agent productivity.

Anand - thanks for your very interesting perspective. Having started my career in the frontline, I understand where you are coming from. On my point though, compensation and commissioning in corporations worldwide are linked primarily to topline for the frontline (which I believe is correct).

Khanchana - thanks for your feedback. Yes, the potential of KM in FCR is underplayed.

Mr. Badri:

I am a business/process manager at a call center for Chrysler and I found your article both informative and interesting. Your claim that the first contact resolution should be the key metric to evaluate a call center's success is well taken. As you would agree, there are three elements which would make this possible to an agent: (1) A will and the skill on the part of the agent to take ownership of the issue; (2) the structure of the process which is centralized enough to enable the agent to aim for such an ownership (think of a call center whose process is spread around or linked to two or three other centers); and (3) the context of the call center itself within the organization which should enable the agent to resolve the issue (think of an issue with the quality of the product which the agent has no control over). The second and the third forces could be powerful enough to make FCR desirable but not feasible. But, as I mentioned earlier, your claim deserves to be pursued. Thanks again for the thoughtful piece.

Thiru - You have posed a couple of very interesting thoughts, especially for closed loop call centers. The need for a process to be open vs closed loop (quality example) and the complexity of the process should possibly tie back to the % target to be set on FCR for that specific call center scope. A thought well worth pursuing...

As of my knowledge is little bit lesser before i read this post my knowledge on FCR has boosted with your great information, as per your above key elements quite common affective ways for improving there growth.Most of the call centers might facing some difficulties from new and critical agents of there productivity.

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