Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Unstructured Data and the Hunt for the Elusive Customer Service KPI / Looking for Work

The culture of data and analytics is starting to take foot among the general population. Books like "Competing on Analytics" and "Supercrunchers" herald a new era of business whereby every little decision is vetted through intense fact-based scrutiny.

Well, it would seem to be that way. The truth is, most processes within most businesses (even the businesses discussed in the aforementioned books) are managed using crude or imprecise measures. The classic example for me is the new IT project. Such projects routinely introduce new business processes, data elements, and business rules. The success or failure of such projects is typically measured based on whether or not the project delivered on time and on budget. The operational ramifications are rarely considered. However, interestingly post-implementation costs [which account for at least 80% of the overall project's costs] are rarely measured. Most people would say that the main reason for this is that it would require periodic follow-up assessments (i.e. "busywork"), and that the original project team has long disbanded. I partially agree with this, but I would argue that there is a bigger issue here.

People (especially those in senior positions) are loathe to be measured. Ask a VP, director, or manager if she likes the idea of measuring her team's performance and she would say "yes!". Ask the same person if she would like to be measured, and you'll get a long winded answer as to why her performance can't be gauged using numeric measures, and should be based on a "360 review" with all manner of testimony and exhibits. Indeed, today's performance reviews are are more like going on trial, rather than a quantifiable measure of performance. It's okay to subject others to KPIs - just not me!

None of this should come as any surprise. But what is interesting is that the new generation of knowledge workers wants to be measured by KPIs, and they want better KPIs to be measured against. How do I know this? I know this because I routinely talk to people who are on the front line of customer service, and I ask them as many questions as I possibly can. Here is what I've learned folks: The generation that grew up with the Internet (usually under the age of 28), and has been asked to work with a computer and a telephone quickly realizes that their job is being measured by a few simple KPIs, and those KPIs can be quickly gamed. This is a generation that looks for inefficiencies on eBay, that has developed methods for finding free music and videos, that can quickly fact check for discrepancies when BS is suspected. These people are playing massive multi-player on-line games, are on every major social network, and are relentlessly logical and efficient when working with rules-based systems (i.e. companies).

It should come as no surprise that the new generation of customer services reps, and other front-line knowledge workers are quick to find the path of least resistance when approaching their job. This is their comfort zone.

The bad news is that the current KPIs that measure these people, are crude and blunt instruments. Taking customer service as an example. There are two basic KPIs which gets used: The first, "Average Handle Time", or the time it takes to get the customer off the phone. The second, "Number of Call-backs", or the degree to which the customer had his issue "resolved". That's basically it. Of course, most companies perform random audits to keep reps on their toes. While this "boogeyman" style of management keeps the train on its rails, it hardly provides any goals to aspire for. Even a callback can made be for any reason under the sun, and it may even be a satisfied customer calling back to spend more money (this contradiction between reality and metrics is often referred to a the "99 foot man paradox"). As for "Average Handle Time"? Well, I once heard a story about a bunch of call centre reps who had a nice scam going where they would simply hang-up on every incoming call (effectively deflecting the caller to other CSRs). Until they were caught, they were being held up as model CSRs for their lightening efficiency.

So how does one actually measure customer service so that someone "gaming" the KPI is forced to provide competent customer service at a reasonable cost? The answer depends a great deal on the company's missions. However, with today's technology there are a lot of options available, especially given that it's now standard to record each and every inbound call. Furthermore, the latest voice recognition software does an impressive job of recognizing the majority of words and phrases. Focusing on this data set alone, we can start pulling out some interesting KPIs. We would first need to convert these unstructured data to structured data sets. This is probably our most difficult task (on a that note, Bill Inmon's "Tapping into Unstructured Data" is one of the better books on this subject). Once we have a handle on our CSR/customer conversation data, we can start mining for certain terms that would indicate satisfaction or dissatisfaction. I'm aware that it's even possible to capture a customer's mood and emotion through vocal tone analysis. In theory, you should even be able to separate out the CSR's tone and words from the customer's tone and words, for even more fine grained analyses.

I am not saying that it would be easy to establish a KPI to objectively measure customer satisfaction. Rather, I am saying that it's not hard to improve upon our current KPIs.

But what's the point? First off, customer service is generally pretty bad these days. This may even have something to do with CSRs gaming the existing KPIs, especially "Average Handle Time". It also has to do with the complexity of services being offered these days, and the natural frustration that goes along with an excess of business rules that we can't possibly comprehended (there is a greater problem here, that I don't have time to get into in this post). My point in all of this is to say that we are headed towards a culture of analytics whether we like it or not, and if our KPIs have flaws in them, then they will be manipulated against us by our customers and employees. The world we live in is complex and nuanced, and one of our best tools at managing this is through simplification through the use of comprehensive indexes. We just need to get better at designing our KPIs, and ensure they provide us with maximum goal congruence.


On a completely unrelated note, I have just rolled off a big project, and am looking for new work. My area of expertise is in data management and enterprise architecture, but I'm also very nuts-and-bolts, and enjoy doing everything from: application support; software development; data modeling; requirements gathering; system sourcing and selection; process architecture; change management; external data procurement and aligntment; data warehousing & BI; metadata management; data governance policy; IT strategy; marketing analytics; and pretty much anything else technology or information related you can think of.

I'm based out of Toronto, but am willing to travel and work anywhere in the world where there's interesting work. I am incorporated, and prefer contract work, but would also consider full time work if there's a good fit.

If you know of anything that you think I might be interested in, feel free to contact me at: neil@hepburndata.com

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


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