“A call center may boast high productivity and low costs per call, but that’s irrelevant if most of its activity is mopping up customer complaints about poor service.” – Simon Caulkin

With apologies to Peter Drucker, the famous phrase “What gets measured, gets managed” encourages managers to foolishly disregard subjective measures of performance. The proliferation of call center technology has made it easy to gather any number of performance metrics and leads to a tendency to reduce all concerns to a series of numbers. Many of those metrics are not only misleading, but may perversely undermine the customer experience.


Embrace Subjectivity in your Behavior Definitions.

Consumers have the final say on what constitutes a successful experience. Shorter wait times and first call resolution may make call center managers look good to their superiors, but if the customer goes away displeased the enterprise suffers. Quality Assurance (QA) programs typically measure the details of the call, but not the essence of the customer-rep interaction. That’s because it is a subjective criterion and requires careful listening.

Adapting to subjective measures is the most difficult leap for some organizations to make. Focusing on the behaviors that matter is at the heart of Strategic Quality Assurance (sQA). To effectively implement sQA, you have to start by disobeying the conventional wisdom and retrain your brain to think differently about how quality has been defined for the past 20 years.


The Problem: Conventional Wisdom 

The conventional wisdom – built upon years of good intentions – says that QA should measure clear, objective, black-and-white behaviors. The thinking is that if we want to drive standardization in call performance, then those standards must be clear, substantive, specific. If we want to consistently calibrate on behaviors, then those behaviors must be easy to calibrate to. And if we want to measure reps on their quality performance (and put it on their scorecard), then those measures must be clear and objective.

That all makes sense, right? Except these behaviors run counter to the organization’s overall purpose … to serve customers.

Rigid behaviors create rigid reps. Conventional quality programs create a checklist of tasks that a rep must execute on every call, lest they incur the wrath of the QA staff. Reps live in fear of going outside the lines that QA has drawn, forcing them into robotic conversations with the customers. These reps want to do the right thing, but their conventional quality program has created an over-regimented environment that makes that impossible.

Here’s an example:

One Quality Program examined included a behavior called “Effective Communication.” The rules for getting high marks on this behavior included:

  • Avoid use of technical jargon
  • Use the customer’s name
  • Pause after each customer comment
  • Speak in an even, friendly tone

These rules might all be valuable, noble techniques for a rep to practice on some calls. But, when mandated, they turn reps into robots. Here’s why:

  • Each customer interaction is different: What if the customer is technically savvy? Should the rep still avoid technical jargon? What if the customer is trying to connect with the rep in a conversation; should the rep still insert stilted pauses?
  • Reps will focus on the checklist, not the customer: When you create a checklist of tasks for the rep to accomplish, he or she will be too focused on those tasks and their listening will suffer. In fact, the rep will quickly learn that he can get a “perfect score” on a call by following the checklist exactly, without ever having to listen empathetically to the customer. That rep will follow the “letter of the law,” without ever really exhibiting the “spirit of the law.”


The Solution: Disobey Conventional Wisdom and Embrace Subjectivity

Don’t let what is easy-to-measure drive out what’s more difficult – and more valuable. The goal should be to measure the essence of the customer interaction, not the details. To accomplish this, you must encourage a rep to follow the “spirit of the law” rather than the “letter of the law.” Instead of defining a behavior with a set of tasks for the rep to accomplish, define it with the intended customer experience in mind. Change the scorecard and remove the disincentives.


So let’s revisit our “Effective Communication” behavior:
Conventional Behavior Revolutionized sQA Behavior that Embraces Subjectivity
Communicate Effectively

◦    Avoid use of technical jargon

◦    Use the customer’s name

◦    Pause after each customer comment

◦    Speak in an even, friendly tone


Communicate with the customer in a way that relates to the customer, so that the customer feels appreciated as a person


Notice that the focus is now on the customer’s perception. This probably feels vague and subjective. It puts more burden on the QA staff to capture the essence of that interaction.

But, it’s worth it. We are trying to empower the rep to listen to the customer, to connect, and to be human. The rep might choose to use a pause technique, or avoid technical jargon … or not. The rep senses the flow of the interaction and chooses the best path to appreciate the customer. The QA staff has to evaluate whether or not they believe the customer felt appreciated (in other words, whether or not the intent was met).

In sQA, the rep is evaluated on whether he or she achieves the desired outcome. You must first define the ideal customer experience, and then empower the rep to figure out the best way to deliver it. What really matters is the essence of this moment: how the customer responded to the probing, not how well the rep can follow a checklist.

Embracing subjectivity works because it more effectively mirrors the customer interaction. Your reps’ interactions with customers are inherently human, and can only be measured by striving to measure the essence, rather than the details, of those interactions. What’s more, our experience has shown that subjectively defined behaviors correlate to KPIs 4-5 times better than check-listed behaviors. Simply stated, subjective behaviors matter, and they accurately predict results.