Continuous process improvement Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2007

No business would knowingly implement a process to produce mediocre results. Instead, everyone focuses on best practices and continuous improvement of the processes in place. The challenge with continuous process improvement is to make the best better.

Smart Business asked Chris Wagner, vice president of marketing at InfoCision Management Corporation, about the process of continually improving a company’s marketing efforts and building a quality assurance (QA) program. “Good is not good enough today,” Wagner says. He advocates a regular review of all processes and raising the bar each time an existing metric is met.

Isn’t it a challenge to recognize that yesterday’s ‘best’ is today’s so-so process?

It sounds a bit harsh, but the demands of today’s business world call for out-performing the competition and yourself. The only way to run a quality, nimble operation is to keep raising the bar. Our company does this quarterly by providing an employee incentive for each component. Remember that quality matters in terms of results.

How does process improvement work?

Any process can be described as a triangle with these three sides: QA, training and execution.

The bottom line on the triangle is execution, or operations. This represents your output. That’s the place to start. As a company, we spent many years and millions of dollars building this side of our triangle. The goal is to directly correlate performance and execution. In a lot of companies, quality is measured after the fact. In a call center, you may have agents with very high QA scores and slightly lower performance, or vice versa. You have to balance their skills out with performance evaluation and coaching.

Second, you have to build a statistically legitimate QA program. This is for trend analysis. The closer your P-score is to zero, the more your costs increase. We try for plus/minus 5 percent reliability. Our QA program has three tiers: the production floor, where employees and managers work together; a QA manager who works with employees; and a corporate, internal QA group that monitors and calibrates quality daily.

Lastly, be sure you have a clear path out of the QA department to the training side of the triangle. You should continuously improve programs. Use tools like video, web-enabled training and local universities that offer employees degrees either for general or job-related improvement.

Where do you look first to increase productivity?

In order to improve, you need better employees, so look at performance and education in two areas: new-hires and production. We have a 30-day training period, after which people are expected to meet certain goals.

It is important to monitor the ability of your workforce to accomplish goals. Examine the potential of the top 30 percent. In our company, we average the top and second third of performance levels every quarter, and that measurement becomes our new standard of excellence.

Reset goals as soon as you are able to consistently hit the previous benchmark. For us, that is about quarterly. As soon as you can hit a benchmark consistently, it is time to raise it.

Should the call center take the lead in maximizing ROI for its customers or the business using the call center?

If a call center understands its customer’s key metrics, it can take the lead based on those benchmarks. The customer has to give its outsourcing partner incentives. However, be certain that the incentives boost productivity and sales and tie into true ROI, or they will become goals in and of themselves.

When does process improvement fall into the danger of tweaking for the sake of tweaking?

I don’t think it ever does. Any business constantly hires new people, adds new products, sets new goals and finds new customers. Even if you maximize the potential in one sector, you need to keep your eyes open for improvement in others

Any sports coach will tell you that the hardest time to improve is when the team is winning. But it is also the most important time. It is easy to get attention when you are the underdog, but there is a real danger of getting complacent when you are on top.

Is a big announcement required for changes? Does a process change lose some impact if it is simply inserted into the routine?

It is really larger than that. No real change can be seen as ‘just another idea from management.’ A change has to tie into the company culture to be effective. The best way is to link the change to compensation. Reward the top performers of the company for achievement. The key is buy-in from upper management. Change needs to be passed through the organization and not be seen as ‘the flavor of the month.’

CHRIS WAGNER is vice president of marketing at InfoCision Management Corp. Reach Wagner at (330) 668-1400. In business for 25 years, InfoCision Management Corporation is the second largest privately held teleservices company and a leading provider of customer care services, commercial sales and marketing for a variety of Fortune 500 companies and smaller businesses. InfoCision is also a leader of inbound and outbound marketing for nonprofit, religious and political organizations. InfoCision operates 28 call centers at 12 locations throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. For more information, visit www.infocision.com.