Social Media


About this blog

Bringing you news, tips, and trends to help you deliver customer service at the next level.

Get the blog via email:


Next Level Customer Service Blog

News, tips, and trends to help you reach that next level of customer service.


Speed kills first contact resolution

Nobody likes having to contact customer service for help resolving a problem. It’s doubly aggravating to contact them a second time because the issue wasn’t fixed. I can’t even tell you how frustrating it is to contact customer service 16 times on one issue.

First Contact Resolution, or FCR, measures the percentage of customer problems that are resolved on the very first contact. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a high FCR rate is a good idea. Customers are happier and companies are able to work more efficiently.

Surprisingly the metric has been slow to catch on. One factor holding back its adoption is speed.

A recent poll conducted by the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) found that FCR ranked fifth among metrics shared with frontline call center employees. Two speed-based metrics and another efficiency-based metric ranked ahead of it.

Source: ICMI

The two most popular metrics for front line employees tell call center agents when to work faster. Many reps will speed up their interactions when there are a lot of calls in queue. This in turn allows them to improve service levels (the percentage of calls answered within a set amount of time).

Schedule adherence is an efficiency metric. It calculates the degree to which call center agents are working their assigned schedule. Agents may be less likely to spend time fixing a difficult problem if they feel pressured to immediately take the next incoming call.

The impulse to work faster can hurt FCR. Employees take short cuts, speed up their interactions, and try to multitask their way through an avalanche of work. All of this can make it harder to spot the important details that are the difference between First Contact Resolution and Endless Back-and-Forth. You can see an example of this in my breakdown of an email service failure.

I recently attended the Contact Center Conference & Expo where FCR was one of the hot topics. However, I was only talked to a few people who were actually measuring FCR in their contact center.

One of those people was Kathie Gerrard from MTS Allstream, a business communications provider in Canada. Gerrard told me that their FCR initiative really took off when they stopped emphasizing another speed-related metric, Average Handle Time (AHT).

 “A few years ago, we identified FCR as a key performance indicator and began to set improvement targets. Although we’ve seen improvements in our FCR results, we’ve found that monitoring average handle times contradicts FCR. AHT metrics encourage reps to shorten the length of the call instead of focusing on resolving the customer’s issues.”

MTS Allstream still tracked AHT behind the scenes even after they stopped emphasizing it with their reps. Gerrard told me that they haven’t seen a significant increase in AHT since shifting their focus to FCR. Her observations suggest that the extra time required to resolve a customers’ problem completely is often negligible. It’s the pressure to wrap things up quickly that actually causes the service failure.

Gerrard also told me MTS Allstream had widespread executive support for their FCR initiative. This isn't always the case. Another call center manager I spoke to at the Contact Center Conference & Expo told me his executives resisted moving to FCR because they had invested so much money in technology that measured speed and efficiency. They understood and felt comfortable with metrics like calls in queue and average handle time.

How do you get your executives on board? Show them the money. Here are a few ways that FCR can lead to financial results.

  • Reduce Waste: 23 percent of the average call center's budget goes to repeat calls. (Source: SQM Group
  • Increase Revenue: 66 percent of customers will spend more for excellent customer service. (Source: American Express)
  • Retain Customers: 19 percent of customers are at risk of leaving if their problem isn't resolved on the first call. (Source: SQM Group)

Slowing down to speed up is counter-intuitive, but the numbers don't lie. Speed can kill first contact resolution. 


Survey: Has your company defined outstanding service?



Extended Q&A for Hidden Causes of Poor Service Webinar

I recently got a chance to be a Zenmaster for a day when the folks at Zendesk asked me to facilitate a webinar called Three Hidden Reasons Why Good People Provide Bad Service.

It was a lively session with lots of great questions. In fact, we ran out of time before I could answer them all, so I'm responding here to ten additional questions from participants.

The interactive webinar is embedded in this post (click here if you don't see it) and the additional questions are answered below it. 

Question: I have heard that speed is the # 1 factor in great service. Are you recommending we slow down?

Yes. It doesn’t matter how fast you respond if you don’t resolve the problem. Customers won’t mind a slight delay if you take the time to get it right.

The counter-intuitive paradox is you will actually go faster by working slower. For example, look at the service failure I shared on the webinar where it took three emails to answer one question. Let’s say that each email took 30 seconds to write. That means they actually spent 90 seconds solving my problem. What if they took an extra 15 seconds to fully respond to my first email? That would mean they spent 45 seconds on the problem, or half the time. 

Question: I am in a unique position, I am the sole person answering emails and calls for my company. All customer service issues are on me. How would someone like me not multitask if I am the only person doing this?

This can be tough when you are a one-person show, but there are a few ways you can reduce multitasking.

  • Try to focus on non-phone tasks like email when phone volumes are lower.
  • Only open email when you’ve set aside time to focus on it. This will prevent the email notifications from constantly distracting you.
  • When the phone does ring while writing an email, resist the temptation to quickly finish the email. Set it aside and give it your full attention again once you’re off the phone.

Question: Where may we gather information to test Customer Effort Score?

Check out this Customer Effort Score primer to get started. One word of caution – no single metric will answer all your questions. It’s good to start by asking, “How can we improve?” and then finding the most appropriate set of indicators for your business.

Question: Great presentation, thank you. My question is about incentivizing our customer service agents. It's very easy to track calls answered or emails answered but much more difficult to get numbers for satisfaction. In my experience, customers don't always want to leave positive feedback, they are more likely to leave negative feedback.

Incentivizing survey scores can be a risky proposition that may actually lead to negative performance. You’ll get much better results if you set a team goal (without incentives) and use the survey as a continuous improvement tool. In this way, negative feedback can help you spot problems and improve. 

Question: What tools do you use to measure net promoter score?

It comes from a single survey question that asks how likely the customer is to recommend your company, product, or service (on a scale of 1 – 10). You can learn more from this overview.

Question: We have that issue (some people spending too much time on phones). What are some tips for keeping phone conversations under control?

In general, I’ve had success training my team to focus on clarifying the customer’s needs by asking good questions and actively listening. At the same time, I’ve encouraged everyone to try to fully serve the customer’s needs on the first call since a little extra talk time is much less expensive than a second call and a more irritated customer.

Question: Our company has some focus on metrics for customer service. Can a company be too focused on these metrics?

Yes! Getting too focused on metrics can take the focus away from the ultimate goal of providing outstanding customer service. The metrics should tell you if you’re on the right track, not whether or not you’ve arrived.

I recently wrote two blog posts on the danger of focusing too much on metrics:

Question: Do you have recommendations for metrics on resolving customer questions as a measurement? I can choose to send out a "survey" feedback request for every email, but that gets irritating for customers to fill out every time they contact us about every little thing. Currently, we do a LOT of individual email reviewing which is great, but do you have any other suggestions to get at this metric in particular?

Getting feedback directly from the customer is a good way to determine whether an issue is resolved, but you are right to want to avoid irritating customers with feedback requests.

Some of my clients have had good success putting the survey request in the email itself. That way, customers can choose to click on a link to the survey if they want to provide feedback. Your response rate will probably go down, but the survey will also be less annoying. If your response rate goes down too far, you can try sending a survey request to a sample of customers, but not to everyone.

Question: How important do you think it is to keep consistency in call center hours - is it harmful for someone to take initiative and take a call after hours?

Is your specific concern that you might train customers to call after hours if you take the occasional call? I don’t think it’s too big a deal if you have the resources available.

However, you may want to review your call volume by time of day. This way, you can adjust your call center hours as needed to best match your volume.

Question: Our sla is 1 business day, but we sometimes get customers that expect a 2-4 hours reply and it is impossible with the resources we have. Any advice to deal with this situation?

There are a couple of tactics you can use to manage customer expectations. First, post your standard response time wherever you display your email on your website. Second, create an auto response email that acknowledges each email received and tells the customer you will respond within one business day. Most customers are okay if you clarify up front how long it will take to respond, but can get anxious if you don’t do this.

Question: If a client is in the wrong and we notice, do you have advice on how to resolve the problem gently without pointing fingers?

The customer may not always be technically correct, but I like to try to make it easier for the customer to be right. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Focus on finding a solution rather than placing blame.
  • Make an exception to a policy when possible.
  • Learn from the situation. Is there a way to help other customers avoid similar misunderstandings?

Why customers don’t read signs

Anyone who has served customers face-to-face can attest to the fact that customers don’t read signs.

Take a look at this example from a deli. The sign above the bin clearly reads Recycle (in two languages!), yet many customers have ignored the sign and used it to throw away their trash.

So, why don’t customers read and follow simple signs like this one?

The root cause of this problem stems from employees and customers viewing the experience through different frames. As I noted in a recent post, customers often see things differently.

Going back to the deli, let’s start by looking at the employees’ perspective. The location of the recycling bin seems like a matter of common sense because their actions reinforce their knowledge of the bin's location:

  • They put out the recycling bin so they know where it is.
  • They put up the sign.
  • They put out the trash bin too (15 feet away, not pictured).
  • They empty the recycling bin and have to sort out the trash.
  • They direct customers to the recycling bin when asked.

Now, let’s look at the customers’ perspective. It only took a few minutes of observing customers to see what led people to put trash in the recycling bin.

I observed customers stand up, scoop up their trash, and quickly scan the area for a trash bin. The recycling bin was closest to the deli’s tables, so it was the first bin most customers saw.

The bin looked like a trash bin at first glance. It was gray and stood by itself, so customers naturally approached the bin thinking this was where trash goes. This thought was reinforced when they peered inside the bin and saw a mixture of trash and recycling.

Deli customers are in a slight hurry to leave once they finish their lunch. Being in a hurry can narrow our focus and lead to a phenomenon called inattentional blindness that causes normally obvious things to disappear from view. Hurried customers fixated on a solo gray bin filled with trash could easily overlook the recycling sign.

Customers can and will make mistakes like putting trash in the recycling bin. I even devoted the second chapter of Service Failure to the notion that the customer is not always technically correct. However, it’s our job as customer service professionals to make it easier for customers to be right.

Here’s what the deli could do to help their customers recycle:

  • Put the recycling bin and trash bin side-by-side so customers see both.
  • Use a blue bin for recycling to differentiate it from the trash bin.
  • Add the "chasing arrows" universal recycling symbol to the sign.

Customer service employees often find themselves getting annoyed, frustrated, or exasperated with customers who don’t read or follow signs. However, taking a step back to observe customer behavior can often reveal simple solutions that will yield better results.


Do surveys devalue real feedback?

What’s wrong with this picture?

Okay, besides being a little blurry? The problem is the sign that’s placed in front of the register. It’s asking customers to fill out an online customer service survey. The survey, which arrived via email a few days later, contained a whopping 36 questions. I’ve previously written about this ridiculous survey.

Why can’t I just give my feedback to the person standing behind the counter?

Survey inducements like this at the point of transaction are everywhere. They’re printed on the bottom of our receipts. We’re asked to hold the line for an automated survey after calling a toll-free number. I recently saw a sign in front of a register with a QR code that you could scan with your smart phone to complete the survey right then and there.

And then there was this sign was at the checkout stand in a grocery store. It led to a Seinfeld moment where I wondered whether or not I had insulted the checkout clerk by not ringing the bell.

All of these feedback requests seem to discourage us from providing our feedback directly to the person serving us. Missing out on this opportunity can be a costly mistake.

Here’s why:

Surveys can annoy customers

Customers are being inundated with surveys. What’s worse is the surveys are often too long, ask poorly-worded questions, and don’t result in meaningful changes. In some cases, the drive to get more responses leads to some bizarre behavior.

I was recently accosted by a store employee named Jacob asking me to fill out a survey about the service he provided. He even wrote his name on the piece of paper he handed me with the survey instructions. The problem with this scenario was my only interaction with Jacob was when he asked me to complete the survey. I had actually been served by someone else.

In a recent post on the CX Journey blog, guest poster Sarah Simon advised companies to “put the customer’s need for peace and quiet above your need to drive higher response rates.” The post outlined some excellent steps for ensuring a voice of the customer initiative was actually a good experience for the customer.

Surveys can delay problem resolution

Smart companies incorporate closed loop feedback into their survey process so they can reach out to unsatisfied customers and solve problems.

A colleague of mine recently used a survey to share her displeasure with being charged $20 to repair an $80 necklace she had purchased from a department store just five months earlier. The store manager followed-up via email to apologize and let my colleague know that the $20 repair charge had been refunded.

The survey helped the store recover from a service failure, but there were opportunities to fix the problem sooner. The store could have had a policy that made these types of repairs free. My colleague expressed her displeasure with the repair charge to the sales associate who rang up the repair, but that person didn’t take any action.

A survey should be a safety net, but not the primary means for identifying and resolving problems.

Surveys can increase the cost of resolution

Waiting to capture customer feedback via a survey can also increase the cost of resolving a problem.

Years ago, I experienced a service failure at the Sir Francis Drake hotel in San Francisco. A simple apology would have sufficed at the point of contact, but that didn’t happen. The ultimate cost of recovery after a few bungled attempts to make it right was a three night stay in the hotel.

Recovery costs rise because customers feel increasingly wronged the more time and effort they expend trying to get a problem resolved. Upset customers also provide negative word of mouth by sharing their story with others. Yes, a survey is a nice way to collect feedback, but it’s much better to have employees focused on spotting and solving problems immediately.

I’m a big fan of surveys and acknowledge their importance as a tool for continuosly improving customer service. And, as an excellent post on the Help Scout blog recently described, there are ways to do surveys right. I just happen to be an even bigger fan of the person serving me taking care of business right then and there.