The AA - Fat Tail

Improving customer service - was the tail wagging the dog in this call centre?

The AA is the UK's largest motoring organisation and and provider of roadside assistance services. As part of a wider business transformation we reviewed their West Midlands call centre. The aim was to optimise resources, improve productivity, and ensure this first point of contact for often distressed drivers could continue to handle calls efficiently and effectively.

Balancing service and cost

We designed a programme to improve the skills of Customer Advisors, helping them to take control of calls earlier, to pinpoint where vehicles had actually broken down and to reduce hold time.  Then we:

  • measured objectively how Advisors were performing and identified those that were underachieving
  • improved how performance was managed, and how feedback and coaching was provided
  • changed the structure of calls and empowered the front line staff to make more decisions.

Investigating 'The Fat Tail'

Careful analysis of call data showed that many inbound calls in the fourth quartile lasted over five minutes. This was a 'fat tail'. It was clear that solving the cause of these excessively long calls should lead to a step change in productivity. We helped team-leaders develop a process to find out what was happening during these longer calls. More than1,600 calls were captured over a six-week period, ready for review.

We asked top performers to listen to their calls. The critical factors - accounting for over 90% of effect - were found to be taking early control of the call, and getting accurate locations.  Analysis of the poorer performing Advisors found that 'hold time' was taken up asking for authority from team-leaders or struggling to understand online text instructions. The data highlighted that an 18% reduction in total handling time was achievable - a potential reduction in staffing equivalent to 40 full time employees (FTEs).

Realising the benefits

Gains in productivity and quality were achieved in three main ways:

  • moving the road safety message to the initial interactive voice response
  • giving Customer Advisors increased authority (where appropriate)
  • setting targeted actions to help poor performers improve.

The first two steps provided a saving of 13.5 FTEs.  Another 27.5 FTEs were phased in through the overall improvement plan, and more planned for later stages.

Cementing the gains and learning the lessons

As well as changes in process, and targeted coaching, we also helped to implement a new bonus regime, which created a competitive edge between teams and reinforced longer term progress.  The forensic examination of a large number of calls was crucial in providing an objective starting point for sustained improvements in results. But most importantly, the work we did with middle managers fostered much better and open engagement with staff. This helped to increase productivity and reduce costs, without compromising quality.