People Management

What about speed?

Jay Minnucci
Jay Minnucci

Here’s my latest interaction with a contact center. I was calling an organization that provides a service that my business uses (and pays for). I needed to add an employee to my account. I won’t bore you with the details, except to say that, at the close of the call, we were successful. And it took 29 minutes and 46 seconds. That’s a half-hour of my life lost and gone forever, in order to complete a task that should take no more than five minutes.

Interestingly (and frustratingly), this call came on the heels of two encounters with face-to-face service organizations that were about as efficient. We all know that slower service is not only more expensive, but it also drives down customer satisfaction. So what’s going on here?

What Causes Slow Service?
We know some of the causes. Increased complexity makes all kinds of contacts—phone, chat, email, etc.—longer, as does the increase in regulations regarding customer authentication. There may still be some opportunities here to limit the time increase by improving the design of our IVR and knowledge management systems, yet we recognize that these are bound to lengthen contacts to some extent.

The problem, though, goes beyond these obvious causes. Concurrent with the external factors that reduce our ability to provide agile service, we are supporting internal initiatives that make the act of getting service a greater time investment on the part of our customers. That these additions can generate value is not disputed. What is in question is whether the value is greater than the pain. Here are three different internally generated initiatives that need further analysis:

  • Upsell/Cross-sell Offers
  • Self-Service Requirements
  • Channel Blocking

Yes, some of these changes may have been championed by other departments. Regardless, it is our jobs, as representatives of our customers, to make sure the final decisions on them are good ones. So let’s take a close look at each one.

Upsell/Cross-sell Offers
A well designed upsell or cross-sell offer made to the right customer at the right time is one of the most effective ways to generate greater customer satisfaction and loyalty. It also saves a customer time. If the product or service is something the customer really needs, handling it now is far quicker than waiting until later during a separate transaction. The idea is hard to argue with, but we all know that reality does not always match theory. Here are some of the all-to-common problems with the application of this idea in our contact centers:

  • Employing the “one size fits all” approach, rather than customizing offers based on the conversation and/or the customer’s unique situation.
  • Requiring at least one attempt on every call, instead of recognizing that, in some cases, no offer is a good fit.
  • Failing to track time per attempt (see “Time Per Upsell Attempt”).
  • Failing to analyze the value related to the effort.

When we continually toss generic offers at our customers, we make it clear that the motive is enhanced revenue, without regard to customer satisfaction. And without data to support the effort, there is little chance that these activities will ever stop. In fact, they will probably increase. At some point, the high failure rates not only drive customers away, but they cost the organization more than the additional revenue they produce. As leaders in the contact center, it is our job to quantify that cost and make sure that it is well understood throughout the enterprise (see “Is It Worth My Time?” for a way to do this). This information is critical in making sure that the right decisions are made regarding upsell and cross-sell efforts.

Self-Service Requirements
Properly designed self-service applications are one of those features we offer to customers that has the potential to improve speed. Therefore, increasing self-service utilization would seem like one way to help inject speed back into our service delivery mechanisms. And when it is done properly, through promotion and encouragement, this is exactly the case.

A disturbing trend, though, takes this to an extreme by requiring that self-service be used for certain transactions. This leaves the agent in the indefensible position of explaining that he or she cannot provide a requested service, and that the caller must hang up and complete via self-service. Making an organizational decision like this rests on the dangerous assumption that we know better than the customer how he or she should be served. Worse yet, it often does not generate savings, as irate customers demand to know why and request explicit instructions on how to proceed with the transaction online. Promoting self-service is a great idea, and so is encouraging it. Requiring it is dangerous, and often backfires.

Channel Blocking
The decision to offer a channel is one that should not be taken lightly, and every company can justify their own time table for adoption. What cannot be justified, though, is a decision to employ the channel on an outgoing basis, but block it from customer use in the following ways:

  • Email communication that comes from an unattended mailbox, thereby not allowing a reply and instructing customers instead to look online for answers.
  • Text chat offered to customers on sales screens, but unavailable on service portions of a website.
  • Automated outbound calls that offer no instructions at all on how to respond for those customers who have questions or who need to make changes based on the information provided.

In each of these cases, the most obvious option for the customer to respond is blocked, and so some other device has to be accessed. That requires time and effort from the customer, making an already bloated service process take even longer to navigate. It is also raises the issue of “fair play” in the customer’s mind: “If you can use it, why can’t I?”

Value Customers’ Time
Speed is the ultimate compliment that we can pay our customers. It shows that we value their time, and we recognize they have better ways to spend it than conducting business with us.

In a world where people are constantly on the go, agile service is an important first step in building customers for life. Yes, there are external factors at play that are increasing the length of service transactions, and we need to accept them. Yet many internal opportunities still exist, and we owe it to our customers to make them as “lean” as the rest of our organization.

Yes, you could probably track this automatically if you had speech analytics. But you don’t have speech analytics, and you won’t anytime soon. You do, however, record and monitor calls. So have your quality analysts track the time investment. Once they do this for 50-100 calls, you’ll have enough of a sample to estimate your costs.

We have to stop assuming that time spent upselling and cross-selling is worth the investment. Anything that adds time to a call increases staffing requirements, so it needs to be justified. How do you do that? You start by estimating the annual cost of one second of handle time, as outlined below:

Total annual operating expenses
AHT (annual average)

The result provides you with the average annual cost for one second of handle time. You can then estimate how long the upsell effort takes to make, on average, to come up with the annual cost.
I once did some work at a company that offered the same product to every caller, regardless of need. With a $14 million budget and a 360-second handle time, each second of AHT was costing them around $39,000 per year. The tab for their 20-second cross-sell attempt was about $780,000 per year and, in a good year, they made 1,000 sales. That’s $780 per sale—far more than the value of the product.

Jay Minnucci is Founder and President of the independent consulting firm Service Agility.

– Reprinted with permission from Contact Center Pipeline,

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