Go Beyond Average Handle Time

Shorter calls aren’t necessarily better. Discover the integral experience score, a new metric for contact center success.

Move Over, AHT, Here Comes the Integral Experience Score

We’re so used to keeping calls short in the contact center, we often forget there may be value in longer calls that foster deeper connections between customers and brands. In a world where customer experience (CX) has become a key business differentiator, how can contact centers be sure their metrics are still measuring the right things?

Imagine a customer contacting their favorite performing arts company to learn more about an upcoming opera. A real aficionado enjoys having an engaging 30-minute conversation with a knowledgeable customer service agent who provides insider details on the performers, director, set designer, and more. In an interaction like that, it wouldn’t make sense for the agent to rush the customer off the phone just to hit a daily time-to-resolution KPI.

According to one well-known performing arts organization, long calls are the norm. It’s not unusual for their customers to donate $10,000 after having a great experience speaking with a service rep. These customers go on to become regular financial sponsors, and reward the organization with lifelong loyalty and personal referrals. How do you effectively measure a service interaction like that? Are traditional approaches to service metrics even up to the task?

The Internal and External Views

Let’s step back and consider modern service metrics. There are basically two ways to look at contact center performance: with an internal or an external focus — and those two views are often at odds.

Using the internal approach to service metrics, an organization strives to find the right balance between efficiency and overall profitability in its operations, essentially viewing the contact center as a factory. Service managers focused on the internal approach prefer to see short, quick, and fully resolved interactions involving as few employees and channels as necessary.

The internal focus relies on average handle time (AHT) as the main metric. This represents the total amount of time an agent spends resolving a customer’s issue. In theory, decreasing the amount of time your agents spend on any one part of the AHT equation should result in shorter interactions, thereby lowering costs. However, these metrics are interdependent with other occurrences in the contact center. For example, if your AHT starts looking really good, but then your call-back rate spikes and first contact resolution (FCR) rates decline, you may be generating unhappy customers who actually create more time-intensive interactions in the long run. In other words, quick resolutions aren’t necessarily good.

If you consider the case of the opera aficionado mentioned earlier, that type of customer doesn’t want a quick interaction; they want to deepen their relationship with the company. The old internal efficiency metrics don’t apply. With an external focus on contact center performance, the emphasis shifts to tracking customer experience (CX) and the relationship customers have with an organization overall, rather than AHT.

That’s where more qualitative KPIs come into play, such as the net promoter score (NPS), which is probably the most widely used metric across contact centers and industries. It essentially asks customers how likely they are to recommend the business to a friend on a scale of 1 to 10. Companies can learn more about their customer experience by not only asking a qualitative question like “On a scale of 0 to 10, how likely are you to recommend our business to a friend or colleague?” but also  by asking practical quantitative questions like “Why or why not, would you recommend our business? What really stood out from the experience, and what is missing?”

Customer satisfaction (CSAT) is another common metric, which simply asks customers how happy they are. Whereas NPS aims to measure the big picture of customer loyalty, CSAT is narrowly targeted to a specific service or product. This is an important difference because CSAT can often function as a leading indicator for NPS: Unhappiness with a specific product or service can lead people away from other parts of the business, too. As more service leaders embrace the shift to CX, the use of these qualitative, customer-centric metrics is rapidly on the rise.

The Age of the Customer

According to a survey of 2,600 service agents and managers worldwide conducted by Salesforce Research, 66% of customer service teams have started using more customer-oriented KPIs. “These focus not on transactional matters such as the length of a call or number of customers served,” the report notes, “but rather on qualities that once seemed intangible, such as agent engagement and empathy.” For example, across diverse industries:

  • 70% of service teams say they are more focused on creating deeper customer relationships

  • 68% are more focused on providing a consistent experience across channels

  • 65% are focusing more on personalizing service interactions

It’s only a matter of time before more companies start evaluating their relationships with customers through these more qualitative metrics. The report states that “benchmarks like empathy, attrition, and customer effort score (CES) are projected to proliferate as service teams recognize how essential they are to satisfying the customer need for a more complete experience.” Across industries, new metrics on are on the rise:

  • Social promoter score (SPS) is expected to grow by 111%

  • Customer effort score (CES) is expected to grow by 81%

Overall, the results of the survey suggest a seismic shift is underway — one that changes the focus from an internal, time-is-money approach to an external view that puts the customer’s experience and perspective first. This shift in focus comes partly as a response to the Age of the Customer, an era in which newly empowered, tech-savvy customers hold much more sway than in the past.

Businesses today know their customers have gained a powerful new voice through the public nature of social media, and they’re realizing they need to respect — and listen to — the voice of the customer in completely new ways. With 65% of companies embracing personalized service, it means a strong majority of organizations have finally realized the benefits of treating their customers as the distinct individuals they are, including their unique purchase histories, interests, and stages on their journey with a brand.

The Challenge of CX

In an ideal world, service leaders want to see high first-contact resolution numbers, short handle times, and outstanding CSAT and NPS scores — all of it, together, all at once. But even if your contact center scores low in some areas, by combining such internal and external metrics into a balanced, synthesized view, you may already be taking one step closer to the actual goal: delivering an internally profitable and externally seamless customer service experience.

Like any other business goal worth shooting for, accomplishing this level of service is easier said than done. Consider, again, the case of the anecdotal opera lover. While that 30-minute call won’t win any points for a low AHT score, that customer would undoubtedly rate the interaction highly in terms of NPS. But what about the deeper, ongoing consequences of that singularly amazing CX interaction? Let’s say that after that call the customer made a sizable donation, bought tickets to the opera for their friends, and proceeded to become a lifelong patron and material benefactor for years to come. Those implications extend beyond the contact center alone, affecting sales, marketing, and fundraising departments, along with their own KPIs. In the end, the customer lifetime value increased, leading to higher revenue, profits, and margins.

To adequately gauge the metrics across all those departments, you need a CRM solution that gives you a 360-degree overview of that customer’s history and relationship. But even with that overview at your fingertips, how would a service leader crunch the numbers to see if, on the whole, encouraging agents to engage in meandering half-hour conversations with customers is a viable long-term strategy? It’s important to know whether that call was a  relatively rare, isolated interaction. What if that customer only booked tickets and made a $10,000 donation two weeks after the call? Do you have a way of correlating that result with the initial call itself? And what if five other potential customers hung up after being placed on hold for too long during that 30-minute call in an understaffed department?      

This is where a third type of metric may be needed: a highly customizable KPI, varying from one business to another in its details, which could synthesize data from multiple service channels — and even siloed business lines — to determine the real long-term value of a customer. It would strike the right balance between internal operational efficiency and externally facing customer care, while putting an even stronger emphasis on the importance of CX metrics.

The Integral Experience Score

We might call such a quantitative synthesis the “integral experience score,” or IXS for short — not as a specifically defined metric, necessarily, but more as an aspirational ideal. The IXS is an ever-evolving, iterative attempt to synthesize an array of disparate KPIs with an eye toward understanding how they’re interrelated and working together to feed into your overall CX service strategy.

Picture the IXS as a meta-metric that cuts across all channels and lines of business, the capstone of your KPI pyramid. Your own specific approach to an IXS would depend entirely on your type of business, how your customers contact you, and the amount of investment you are willing to make to meet their needs. It would be different for every company, depending on the metrics the company currently uses and its CX strategy and goals. Depending on the business, it could be an incredibly simple metric, perhaps involving just two of the company’s most valuable KPIs.

For example, with our opera customer, the performing arts organization might simply decide to compare the average lifetime value of their customers after they’ve had a lengthy CX interaction versus those who have never had any such interaction. Which group provides the bulk of the donations? Which group purchases the most tickets? Do donations from benefactors outweigh ticket sales when it comes to the bottom line?  And if the bulk of income does turn out to come from customers who received that extra care and attention, then perhaps the service rep was justified in devoting 30 minutes to one committed customer while putting five potential ticket-purchasers on hold. By finding creative ways to discover the actual long-term value of investing in customer relationships, service managers will gain the data they need to effectively strategize, delegate agents, and prioritize the numbers that matter most.

But again, it’s easier said than done. While any service manager can make sure their daily first-contact resolution numbers are low, it takes a visionary service leader to make the big shift to focusing on high-quality customer experiences. Those longer-term investments in customer care — the kind of investments that strengthen relationships and cultivate loyalty that pays dividends over months or years of a customer journey — well, that’s simply harder to track and quantify. Yet if the report mentioned earlier is any guide, some numbers are very clear: The shift to CX is already happening, and businesses that don’t use the right KPIs could be the ones customers put on hold.




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