Efficiency Indicators – Financial Metrics

In the last three posts, we discussed various operating indicators. Those indicators were measuring and representing the efficiency of the operation. In this post, we step beyond the pure operation point of view and will look at some of the financial indicators and metrics that are a part of call and contact centre operations.

As more and more contact centres are treated as a separate business unit, it becomes necessary for contact centre management to deliver expected services while improving their bottom line financial results. Failing to provide services within a given budget or financial targets puts pressure on the management team to reduce services, offer lower quality service or both! Even without such financial pressure, providing services at a high cost creates opportunities for other centres (outsourcers) to offer better financial results (i.e. profit) to the organization and as a result, make the internal contact centre redundant. As contact centres evolve, it is the responsibility of the contact centre management to understand their financial results (cost of providing services) and continuously improve it.

While overall financial requirements and results are indicated and discussed as either Capital or Operating Expenditure, a set of more granular, detailed and specific indicators are required to understand and measure the improvement in the efficiency of the contact centre. The most common indicators are Cost per Call and Cost per Minute.

Cost per Call

This is an overall indicator representing an average cost for each call (this indicator can be expanded to Cost per Contact to include all types of contacts including emails and chat). This indicator can be calculated based on historical data or for the current year. What is included in the cost varies from centre to centre depending on what items have been included in the Operating Expenditures (We will talk more about Operating vs. Capital Expenditure later in this article). In the majority of cases, the costs include salaries (Agents, Supervisory, Management and support staff), technology (software licensing and maintenance) and telecommunications. Other organizations may include less evident costs such as benefits, Real Estate/rent and utilities to provide the total (and more complete) cost of delivering/receiving a contact.

Cost per Call provides a valuable piece of information as well as providing a reality check about the operation. As this indicator provides the average cost for each and every call, it brings the focus not only to how that money is spent and how to improve the service delivered (combination of AHT and service level), but also how many contacts are being made and if they can be reduced. Analyzing the numbers could also point to a less costly method or channel that can provide the same (or similar) level of service with the same customer satisfaction. As an example it is widely accepted that Self Serve contacts (automated) are less costly than a live contact and hence typical push to provide more and more automated services. (When doing such comparisons, one must consider the potential negative impact on customer satisfaction and eventually on customer loyalty).

Cost per Minute

As mentioned before, Cost per Call provides an average cost for each and every call or contact. This number can be broken down for different channels (if present) to provide a more accurate data, but what about different types of contacts within the same channel? For example one call might be a simple update of address while the next call has to do with obtaining a mortgage or car insurance! In these cases, calculating and presenting the average cost may not offer meaningful data as average handle time for each call will be greatly different. In these situations Cost per Minute would be a much better indicator as it provides a common base for comparison and operational improvement. By definition, Cost per Minute is not dependant on AHT and only provides data with regard to cost structure of the centre (people, technology and telecommunication) and the impact of the occupancy rate (the higher the rate, the lower the cost per minute).

Which one of these two indicators should be calculated, reported and used? The answer depends on the variety of the calls at the centre and the desired details and accuracy. If AHT is consistent across different call types (minimum variance), then Cost per Call can provide complete information while easier to calculate. On the other hand, for centres with a full range of call types (simple to complex) and call lengths (short to long) it is better to use Cost per Minute. (One can always calculate costs for each specific type of calls based on its AHT).

The issue of the Cost per Call vs. Cost per Minute becomes more important when dealing with outsourcers as it may become the main cost parameter in the contract. It has been said that Outsourcers typically prefer Cost per Call, as this framework allows them to concentrate their improvements on AHT, and as a result increase their profit margin. Cost per minute (along with an agreed Service Level) does not provide the same framework for outsourcers to improve on the profit margins by reducing the AHT. However a Cost per Minute model could encourage the unscrupulous outsourcers to increase Handle time to increase profit margins.

Operating vs. Capital Expenditures

Traditionally, in any organization, a business unit must handle two different set of expenses. The larger and infrequent items such as purchase of Real Estate, furniture, desktop computers and major software are treated differently both in terms of P&L (Profit and Loss) reporting and for taxation purposes. These expenses are considered and reported as Capital Expenditure. The ongoing and recurring expenses such as salary and benefits, utilities and smaller infrequent items are categorized and reported as Operating Expenses. What is the difference between the two? Well, the answer lies at how each of these is treated. By default, majority of the larger items are one time or perhaps infrequent expenses and are for physical items that have an expected life longer than a year (such as a desktop computer). In effect, even though an organization may have incurred the total cost at the beginning (incurring the cost should not be mistaken with payment options), the benefit from the item lasts much longer. For that reason, such costs are amortized or spread over the expected life of the item and only a certain portion of the cost (depreciation) is included in the Profit and Loss statement.

Operating Expenditures, on the other hand are those expenses that occur on a regular basis (on-going) for the services (and products) that are consumed regularly (such as agents’ salary). These types of expenses do not have an expected life and are directly related to the operation of the business unit.

In simple terms, Capital Expenditures, are the money that is invested in creating a business entity (be it a contact centre or a manufacturing unit), while Operating Expenditures are the costs of operating that entity day in and day out. The overall cost used in calculating the Cost per Call or Cost per Minute is usually based on the Operating Expenditures and does not include the Capital Expenditures, the exception to this treatment would be where outsourcing or a ‘carve out’ where assets would be purchased by the outsourcer.

In today’s call centre environment there is less clarity between Capital and Operating Expenses due to the rise of cloud computing, SaaS and hosted solutions. All of these developments allow companies and call centres to forgo capital expenditures to secure and employ a vendor’s solution and instead pay a fixed monthly rate per user. Heretofore these costs would have been Capital purchases, but today become Operating Expenses.

Full Time Equivalent (FTE)

One last operational indicator, although not specifically financial, is the Full Time Equivalent or FTE for short. As discussed in previous issues, many contact centres hire part-time employees to complement their full-time work force. Although having part-time employees provides flexibility in work force management, counting the number of agents directly as a head count does not provide an accurate picture (especially in terms of salary). For this reason, and for the purpose of planning and financial reporting, majority of centres use the working hours to convert the number of part-time staff into equivalent of a full-time employee (for example if two agents each work half the time, for the year, they would be considered as one Full Time Equivalent or FTE). In these cases, the operating budget is based on the total FTE for the year and the contact centre management can decide how and when to utilize the total budget. It should be noted that typically in a contact centre, staffing (salary, payroll expenses and benefits) can account for up to 75% of total operating expenses.

The Bottom Line

The overall operation of any business is dependent on its ability to successfully manage its limited financial resources. The above indicators are used to assist contact centre management to understand and improve the final financial results. It is important to understand the costs the centre incurs and what choices and options the centre and organization have in relation to reducing these costs. Poor service isn’t always less expensive than superior service. A best-in-class organization can provide excellent customer service while operating within reasonable and sustainable financial results.

This article was originally published in The Taylor Reach Group newsletter.