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Individual Performance Targets - Call centres’ big Mistake?

By John Carver

Originally appeared on

Congratulations, you have been selected to manage an inbound call centre. On the first day, in a meeting with your employees, you learn:

· There are 150 service agents and 8 team leaders on your team.
There were 10 team leaders but your predecessor reduced the number to eight when his budget was cut last year. The team leaders who survived are not ecstatic about taking on extra staff and the requirement to prepare and discuss three or four more performance reviews.

· You are responsible for a training and monitoring group with five other people.
You also learn that it takes about six months for new agents to become sufficiently knowledgeable about products and processes, and be capable of handling any situation to a team leader’s satisfaction. At that point, they will be considered part of the main group with the same job description and responsibilities as more seasoned staff members. Your skills based routing software no longer identifies these newer agents as less experienced, so the agent who has been available for the longest period of time will take the next call.

· Your annual negative turnover rate is 30 percent. “What? That can’t be,” you say to this startling information. When you ask for clarification, it only gets worse. Exit interviews are conducted by the human resources department and many of those who left reported reasons that your team leaders can’t accept, such as: “my team leader has favourites,” “good performance isn’t recognized here,” my salary increase wasn’t fair compared to other agents.”

· The service level target of 80 percent in 20 seconds has rarely been achieved.
Following a detailed explanation of the difference between “service level” and “average speed of answer,” you hear the target was recommended by the marketing department and approved by your executive against everyone’s better judgement.

· Quality scores and productivity results are worse than last year, below target and falling. There are more targets, but at least this time you hear that management supports them as being achievable. If that’s the case, then why are the results not where they should be?

Your learning continues. Several years ago, on the advice of a consultant and with the blessing of your human resources department your predecessor decided to drive the business targets down to the agent level. It started with productivity - 15 calls per hour, or 240 seconds of handle time for fully experienced agents (those with 24 months experience), 13 calls per hour for those between a year and two years on the job, and 11 calls per hour for those with 6 months to a year of experience.
A year later the centre introduced something similar for the quality measure - a target of 90 out of 100 would be the acceptable target for experienced agents and 80 out of 100 would be the standard for those with fewer than 18 months. Over time, as processes improved and agents were able to handle customers more quickly, management raised the bar and targets were increased. Now you are about to introduce sales into your contact centre and your managers are suggesting new targets need to be established.

Why wouldn’t you do so? Establishing targets and assessing performance against these targets has become part of your contact centre’s culture. Furthermore, almost every other part of your organization has established targets against which individual performance is measured.

So what’s the problem? Many of the issues you’ve heard about in your first day on the job may have a common cause. Contact centres are different from other areas of your organization. They have hundreds, or thousands, of people paid to do the same work. This characteristic is a terrific advantage to you. It provides an opportunity to identify relative agent performance that both quantifies contribution and motivates in one sweep, without personal targets. Personal targets are not only undesirable, but when established at varying levels, inherently unfair and discriminatory.

How would you like to be a two year plus veteran in the contact centre mentioned above, handling 15 calls per hour? Your team leader congratulates you for meeting your productivity target and recognizes your performance with a “quality” rating on your annual performance assessment. Meanwhile, she gives an “exceptional” rating to an agent who has averaged 14.3 calls per hour, a whopping 10 percent above target, because she has been on the job for only 22 months. All things being equal, there is no question you’ve contributed more to the organization. You are being penalized for your ability to do more and for your loyalty to the organization.

You may be thinking, “OK, from now on, I’ll make sure that everyone with the same job description and the same opportunity (call distribution) has the same target. That will fix the problem.” Not so. Targets can be counter-productive. If you set low targets that can be met easily, what motivation is there for your agents to improve? Many would be perfectly happy to meet or just exceed the target. That’s just human nature. If you set the targets too high and even your best agents are struggling what have you accomplished besides failing to motivate the staff?

Now you’re probably wondering what the alternative is to targets. That alternative, when you’re thinking of a large group of people who do exactly the same work, is to implement relative performance assessments. If one agent has averaged 90 and another 85 in their quality scores and the floor average is 86.7, congratulate the first for contributing 3.8 percent above average. Also congratulate the second - 2% below average is a good result. The greatest benefit of measuring performance on a relative basis is that you no longer have to raise the bar on any performance criteria. The agents will do it for you. Everyone in the centre strives to improve his or her performance relative to the group average. That too, is human nature.

There are other benefits to making a switch to relative performance assessment. Your team leaders will thank you, since their performance discussions with agents will have been simplified. They will no longer hear complaints of favouritism or bias. Another benefit of assessing performance on a relative basis is that habitual poor performers sometimes depart on their own. No one likes to hear repeatedly that his or her performance is below average.

In closing, targets such as service level, productivity, sales results and quality scores are important and necessary at the Call Centre level. You and your team need to know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there. However, targets need not, and should not, be assigned to the agent level for performance assessment purposes.

Relative performance assessment is a superior alternative. If there is someone in your centre who performs other duties because of special skills or training, leave that person out of the equation and continue to assess that individual’s performance against a personal target, if that is your preference. But for the majority - throw your targets away and measure an agent’s contribution relative to his or her peers.