What is an Acceptable Error Rate in Contact Centers?

There are two diametrically opposed answers to the question posed in the title. Here is the first one: a jaw-dropping number of calls completely riddled with errors is totally acceptable in call centers today. Preposterous, you say. Please keep reading.

First, the big picture.  In contact centers no one talks about Six Sigma or Five-9s, or Taguchi’s “on target with minimum variation.” Those ideas are constantly being discussed in manufacturing, but are laughable notions in call centers. No one talks about it.  No one aspires to it.  No one even thinks anything remotely close is even possible.  Further, no one does any benchmarking to see what “world class” companies do so that “stretch goals” can be established around even a “tolerable” level of agent errors.

OK, fine you say, so contact centers don’t set their sites very high.  What if we just went from center to center and determined the error rate and called the average across those centers “acceptable?” You wouldn’t even be able to do that.  In manufacturing, specs are sine qua non and performance against those specs is constantly measured. But for some reason, contact centers rarely even define, by call type, specs or Required Call Components…exactly what the agent is supposed to do in their systems and exactly what information needs to be provided to the customer, let alone measure performance against them.

Consider a quotidian price change for a service where we decide to check the agents’ accuracy in giving the new price. Hate to break it to you, but on the day after the price was changed, there is no way the agents will quote the right price 100% of the time. So then what would be the acceptable error rate? 75%? 80%? Would 45% be OK? What would be acceptable two months after the price change?

We know of one consumer electronics company that listened to 10 out of 10 of their outsourcer’s agents give the old price for a service. The outsourcer didn’t even know their agents were making so many mistakes. The client, of course, was none-to-happy, but the outsourcer didn’t get fired. De facto, the outsourcer’s performance was acceptable. (For more on the sloppy process changes in call centers, see Inside Jokes)

I know what you are thinking. A price change? Come on! What’s the big deal? If the agents get this wrong it is unfortunate, but not the end of the world. OK, then, what would be an acceptable error rate on debt collection calls which are regulated by the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act?

According to the FDCPA, debt collectors are required to disclose to the debtor 1) they are calling from a debt collections agency and 2) their mini-Miranda rights (“…anything you say can be used to help collect this debt.”) Failure to disclose could result in lost collections and stiff fines against the agency.  Here we might need to be a little better…how about 90%? Would 85% be OK?  What level of performance would make you jump for joy?  What level of performance would get you hoppin’ mad?  What range of performance would result in you changing nothing about your current approach?

We work with multiple collections agencies and their performance on just these two disclosures (prior to deploying our software of course!) is highly variable and all are less than 90%, despite the fact that it is a law!

Assuming you had already established specs or RCCs and you wanted to track error rates, what would you do?  If you record every call, you can use speech analytics software to “listen” to the calls and calculate an error rate. This is a workable solution but an expensive one that is not widely deployed and is thus an option for only a subset of centers.

For most centers, the only way to determine the error rate just for a point in time is to dedicate a group to listen to 50 calls with clearly defined Required Call Components and estimate the center-wide quality rate from the sample. To track this over time, you would have to repeat the process every day or every week. Fat chance. Processes are changing all the time in call centers.  If you tried to track either the error rates on process changes or on RCCs that weren’t changing, you would end up with a monitoring team larger than the size of your agent population.


Lowering the Error-Rate Once You Know It

Should you decide to wade into this murky water and try to determine the error rate for some call types, the number you come out with will likely not be too flattering. You may find yourself motivated to try to lower that error rate in which case you would have a couple options.

Call monitoring is the same as trying to “inspect in” quality in manufacturing, a practice manufacturing abandoned a long time ago (see What the Call Center Industry Can Learn from Manufacturing: Part II). Honestly, how is occasional  monitoring and occasional coaching supposed to improve error rates on the hundreds of call types some agents have to handle?  The only way monitoring can drive increased compliance is if you monitor almost every call, publicly track error rates, and dismiss agents below the 95th percentile of agent performance. This is a lot of work in and of itself, it would result in a lot of expensive turnover.  It would also create a tense work environment.

Instead of paying for a bunch of monitors to act like cops with radar guns trying to catch people doing it wrong, why not just make it easy for the agents to do it correctly?  Stealing a page from manufacturing’s playbook, centers can use error-proofing and the call center equivalent of Andon lights to make it impossible for agents to skip key steps, to track quality, and to correct any problems that do arise real time.  A range of agent-assisted automation solutions are the best practices here and with these approaches, 99.999% quality is achievable. (For more information see: Is it Time for Mass Customization of Call Centers?)  Error-free, call center quality is absolutely a reality.

Some days it seems as if there are an overwhelming number of problems in this world. But you know what? Polio isn’t one of them. It used to be a huge problem.  Then they invented a vaccine. Arguing and worrying about what level of contact center agent errors we should tolerate is a watt-less discussion because there is a way to deliver error-free performance every time.

Finally, in case it isn’t now obvious, the second answer to the question posed in the title? Zero.

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1 thought on “What is an Acceptable Error Rate in Contact Centers?”

  1. You are correct in pointing out that the discipline practiced in the manufacturing world is absent in contact centers (and, sadly in hospitals, banks, hardware stores, auto repair shops, etc.). The specific problem you highlight (agent non-compliance with legally mandated procedures) is important enough to require a zero-defects goal. Your proposed solution of automation sounds like the way to go. As a veteran of the manufacturing world I can attest that that’s the way it’s done. Near-zero error rates from unaided humans has always been an unrealistic goal. It’s just the nature of the beast.

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