Beginning an inquiry regarding measurement

I work as a call center consultant, trying to help companies provide better customer service.  A cursory look at this part of industry may make you think that my compatriots in the call center consulting world and I have been spectacularly unsuccessful, but, in fact, there are a few companies who do provide good customer service through their contact centers (calls, emails, chats, etc.), and some of them, I, or others who I have worked with, have advised.  I’m sure, though, that anyone who has tried to call companies that they have done business with has a horror story or two about bad telephone customer service, IVR jail, voicemail hell, outrageous behavior or non-responsiveness to match or surpass the many of my own unpleasant experiences as a customer.  I can only say that, as an excuse, I have not worked for all centers or with all companies.  Yet.  My work is unfinished…

Managing a call center is a complex task.  There is a rule of thumb that I heard so long ago that I no longer know where it came from or who originally stated it: what can’t be measured, can’t be managed.  I’ve not only learned the tools available to customer contact centers, to my clients and to myself, to measure their performance, but have developed and extended a number of them.  The tools all have some limits, and I would like to discuss those tools and their limits as part of a longer meditation on measurement.

To do this I will have to ask you to set aside the emotions of any negative customer experiences you have had, so that you can look more objectively at the job that contact centers are asked to perform and understand how their performance is measured and managed.  This is not a plea to be more understanding of the person at the other end of your phone call who is obtuse for no apparent reason.  If anything, I would always wish to have an effect in the other direction: hoping that some of my clients and their agents might read this, and provide better customer service to you as a result.  I am, however, prepared for disappointment.

I have been involved with measuring call center performance a number of different ways.  Among other jobs I have performed as a consultant, I have:

  • Developed a set of 50 customized reports for major market research company using data generated by their sales force using customer relationship management (CRM) software.
  • Developed standardized metrics for customer support organizations after a corporate merger, implemented automated reporting, and used report results to develop standardized processes across multiple corporate cultures.
  • Worked with workforce management (WFM) software, scheduling software, developed a tool for accurately sizing consolidations, new implementations, and taught numerous people how to use WFM software.

While working in call and contact centers, I have thought about the effect of the management tools on the people measured by them, and have discovered within myself,  some deeply felt but opposing feelings about the effects.  To try to come to terms with these opposing understandings of the effects of measurement, I’ve initiated a project for myself to look at how measurement is used in a variety of disciplines, how measurement developed and why.

To try to state my thesis as clearly as possible, measuring is one of the most common activities that we humans participate in.  We measure, and are measured, continually as we proceed through our days’ tasks and events.  We measure objects, processes, and each other for fun, for knowledge and to control our environment, whether that environment is perceived as our surroundings, indoors or outdoors, or our relationships with family, friends, peers, workmates, bosses and/or subordinates.  The tools we have developed in order to perform all this measurement and capture it for immediate or future use have become and continue to become ever more sophisticated.

I am not sure that all of the effects of measurement are positive.  In fact, I’m convinced that a good part of human performance measurement within business is not as much about measuring performance as it is about maintaining control.  Much of measurement within business has become the equivalent of whipping the slaves, though, of course, employees are not slaves, and there is no physical damage done to the recalcitrant.

So, the direction that I would like to go with this tract, treatise, set of articles, however they are completed, is to develop an understanding of appropriate and inappropriate uses of measurement. In the course of this, I hope to provide some insight into measurement as a fundamental facet of modern life and some perspective on how measurement is used and misused.

The Questions To Be Addressed

Measurement is not a small topic!  As soon as one becomes aware of measurement as a subject for inquiry and discussion, one is quickly overwhelmed by the kinds of, the ways of, and the number of measurement applications.  Under the heading of measurement tools is everything from a ruler or tape measure to an MRI, from the speedometer in a car to a customer satisfaction survey, from the Hubble Space Telescope to a cheap wristwatch, from a plumb line and level to tests to measure whether any children have been left behind, from electric timing apparatus for various types of sports competitions to ultrasound pictures of fetuses to stock and bond ratings.  All are designed to measure specific aspects of our lives or our world so that we can understand better and perhaps affect the future of our lives and world: make it better?

To proceed with this topic, some direction and some boundaries need to be established.  I have listed the questions that have occurred to me, and then, what I believe are the attributes of measurement, as a kind of definition.

1. What is measurement?

2. How is it done?

3. How did it develop, when and why?

4  Why is it so important: what is the function of measuring?

5. Is it being used appropriately?

To even begin a topic such as this, it would be nice to have a usable definition so that the discussion is grounded in an understanding that is accessible to anyone wanting to think seriously about such a topic.  So I have consulted a number of dictionaries and encyclopedias, but even with their help, I have been unable to derive a definition that I would like to work with.  I have established what I believe are some elements that are necessary to understand measurement, however:

  • Measurement is a social activity, in that measurement is not usually for one person only
  • Measurement is done to something (object, process, performance) in order to capture some characteristic of that something, for comparison, communication or replication
  • There must be sufficient language to communicate the measurement of that something’s characteristic(s), not just the words but the concepts behind the words
  • A way to record or capture the measurement of that something beyond language, such as writing, symbolic marks, numerical system, etc.
  • Scales against which to compare the measurement, either previous measurements done in a similar fashion or perhaps, some standards

Against all of these, there are some caveats and qualifications, but I think that in general they represent necessary elements of measurement.

As an example of the caveats and qualifications, one of the sources1 I have been using contains a very smart description of the different mathematical needs of hunter/gatherer societies as compared with sedentary agricultural societies, with the general assumption that the hunter/gatherers are where humans started and only later did some of the hunter/gatherer societies evolve into sedentary agricultural societies.  The writer of the article describes the mathematical needs of the hunter/gatherers as minimal, since each individual can do everything for himself (herselfs are largely ignored).  Therefore, they don’t need to measure anything, because they don’t need to communicate measurements to anyone else.  Then, though, he begins to describe how a hunter/gatherer might build a canoe, using body parts to provide the measurements: how many hand-spans of bark needed to cover the frame, or how many forearms length of wood needed to construct the frame.

So, while he seems to feel that measurement is social, and hunter/gatherers don’t need that aspect, they do use measurements based on very localized (the builder’s own body) standards.  That seems to be a specific situation that does not appear to be a significant caveat for the first element, since at some point, the hunter/gatherer will probably have to show a child or pupil how to build a canoe, and will use his body part measurement method to teach the proportions that will be appropriate to the person he is teaching this method to.

I bring this up only to demonstrate my methodology in this inquiry: I will make positive statements, then discuss what experts might have said about it: whether they agree or disagree, I will report on it.  My aim is less to set myself up as the reigning expert about measurement and make pronouncements that others must accept, than it is to expose as much of the thinking about measurement as possible, provide my own perspectives as possible places to start one’s thinking, but to encourage readers (and myself) to go beyond simple answers to a deeper understanding of how humans measure, why they measure, and what the effects of their measuring are.

Credentials

As I will inject myself periodically into the flow of the text, my sense of fairness demands that I give you a more complete portrait of who I am, so that you are better able to judge the value what I have to say.

The characteristics about me that are relevant to this inquiry are related to work that I have performed over the last 40 or so years.  One stretch of work was ten years of owning a custom leather goods business with my wife.  She has an MFA, a Masters in Fine Arts, and whatever she could conceive of as a possible design for a project, I was able to develop a pattern for.  It is an engineering design skill that I discovered I had, rather than having to study to learn, but with practice, of course my skill increased.  Other skills I discovered at that time are the ability to deal effectively with customer relationships, and the ability to work very hard for long, concentrated periods of time.

Other skills appeared when I worked as a course developer, and then manager of course development for a high tech telephone switch manufacturer.  I learned telephone switch configuration and also learned about computers: control; monitoring; and feedback.  When I discovered call centers were a logical outgrowth of computerized telephony, computer applications, and management, with the goal of providing customer service, I felt like sitting at the hub of these different disciplines would give me a place to use all of my skills as a consultant.  For a period of time, I continued with the switch manufacturer, developing their call center marketing organization, and then left to be a full time call center consultant.

Consulting was perfect for me, since I am willing to speak the truth as I understand it without being particularly politically adept.  This makes me a lousy employee – I know enough of marketing to know when I’m being presented with information that has been spun and am intolerant of both the message and the messengers.  I have also used, as a customer, a considerable number of call centers, and have thus brought my sensitivity to good and bad customer service to my clients, to advise them.

As a consultant, there are very few functions within a call center that I have not performed, from answering customer calls to cost-justifying the building of a new facility.  I’ve designed centers from gathering the definition of requirements to the initial implementation.  I’ve opened new facilities and refined old ones: changing technologies, improving the customer relationship software, redesigning processes, establishing measurement standards, and implementing the reporting of those standards.  It is from these last two items that I have developed this ongoing inquiry into measurement.

A word of warning: I have a sense of humor.  If one wants to speak positively of it, it is off-beat.  If one is not pleased with it, it will be viewed as, at best, inappropriate or ill-advised.  As we proceed, you may find sardonic comments, which, if you tolerate them, are merely attempts at humor, and if they strike the wrong note for you, are more of that ill-advised weird humor that I confess to being guilty of.

Underlying the sense of humor, though, is sense of serious purpose.  I use the humor to lighten moods, but often, as well, to provide an opening into other ways of seeing a problem or a solution.  I suppose that I’m asking for some tolerance of style, but of course, you will determine whether there is sufficient value to yourself in what I say by continuing to read, by responding with praise or scornful comments, or deciding to never visit here again.


1 Denny, J. Peter, “Cultural Ecology of Mathematics: Ojibway and Inuit Hunters” in Closs, Michael P., ed., Native American Mathematics, University of Texas Press, Austin, TX 1986, 1997 pp.129-180.

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