Friday, November 11, 2011

Service metrics: Pushing the genie back in the bottle

Just got back from the Voice of the Customer conference in Boston this week. VOC is a retreat for customer service executives run by my good friend Phil Verghis and his colleagues Fred Van Bennekom and Jeffrey Tarter, better known jointly as The First Wednesday Group. It is always a great meeting, but this time it was more like a religious experience.

You see, for the first time in recorded history, a major company got on stage and announced something that I always predicted would never happen: they *stopped* measuring the performance of their customer support teams.

For decades, one of the biggest trends in customer service has been the ability to measure anything and everything. We can now easily know things like how many keystrokes per hour you type, how many questions you answer per day, how much you sell, how long you are in your seat … even how long you spend in the bathroom. Nowadays these “metrics” are part of the daily reality of nearly everyone who serves the public.

Metrics have become the darling of business thought leaders over the last decade. We now talk effortlessly about things like balanced scorecards, accountability, and maximizing customer value. Many people see our ability to measure everything as part of a revolution in productivity.

But in my view – and that of a small but growing fraternity of others in customer support – there is a dark side to metrics:

-People are often measured on so many different criteria that many constantly fail at something. And the stakes are often very high for failing – in his heyday, for example, people like GE’s Jack Welch used to recommend firing the “bottom 10%” every year, and the fall of Enron was a case study of a culture where people had to “make their numbers” or else.

-Even when people meet their metrics goals, they often feel constantly pushed in the back, in an environment where managers treat grown employees like children. Except that if real parents constantly measured how long their kids took to brush their teeth, eat their breakfast, or put on their pajamas, we would probably be calling social services.

-Worst of all, these metrics often destroy the very things they were designed to measure. Have you ever called for help and spoken with someone who pushed you off the phone with a bad answer, or refused to let you speak to someone more knowledgeable? They undoubtedly put their “first call resolution” numbers ahead of fixing your problem. Because you can’t fire them, but the bean-counters can and will.

To be fair, as an engineer by training, I am also a big numbers guy. Good metrics have at times helped me make positive changes in how I managed customer support teams. So with apologies to Caesar, I have always taken an approach of both praising and trying to bury metrics. In past writings, I often proposed a compromise: continue to measure things, but don't hold these numbers over people unless they vary far from your norms. To me, this reflected cold reality: how could you tell your management to stop measuring productivity, without them looking back at you like you had three heads?

So along comes my friend Phil Verghis, who consulted with this major company and took things a big step further: he told them that their metrics had to go, period. Don’t even measure them at all, because people will still find out about them. Instead, focus on the really important things – customer satisfaction, retention, costs, and sales – and get everyone behind them.

They bit. The metrics are gone. So are some of the “old guard” of micromanagers who wouldn’t change. The result? A substantial increase in productivity. (I don't have the exact number, which was shared verbally, but I believe it was on the order of 20-25%.) And more important, teams of employees who now feel they are part of something bigger than themselves.

So, are you feeling really brave? Stop measuring people. Today. And then watch what happens.


Anonymous said...

To be fair - this isn't about NOT measuring, it is about measuring the RIGHT things?

Rich Gallagher said...

Good point. I kinda sorta agree. The key thing I'm seeing is that they no longer measure individuals, or put them at risk of favoring their "numbers" over the good of the organization. Thanks for posting!