How to Avoid Confusion Between KPIs and Goals

Imagine going on a road trip.

Your destination is 100 miles away and your GPS system says it will take about two hours to get there. A quick calculation shows your average speed needs to be 50 miles per hour.

Average speed is a key performance indicator, or KPI, in this context. You risk taking longer than two hours if you average less than 50 mph.

Going 50 mph isn't the goal. Imagine you tried to maintain 50 mph for the entire trip. That wouldn't win you any friends while driving on a highway with a speed limit of 65 mph. It would be flat out reckless to maintain a speed of 50 mph in a 25 mph school zone.

Yet, this is the very sort of confusion that customer service leaders encounter on a daily basis. The goal is to reach the destination in two hours, but the focus wanders to maintaining 50 mph.

Here's what to do about it.

The Danger of Confusing KPIs for Goals

Wells Fargo recently made headlines when it was announced the company had fired 5,300 employees since 2011 for creating more than 2 million phony bank and credit card accounts.

The primary culprit was a culture that pressured employees to focus on KPIs instead of goals. The KPI was the number of Wells Fargo products a customer has, which was intended to help achieve a goal of increased fee revenue. In 2015, the company made more than 10 percent of its revenue from service charges on deposit accounts and credit card fees.

Here's a statement from a 2006 Wells Fargo strategy document which described this up-selling focus:

The more you sell them, the higher the profit because the added cost of selling another product to an existing customer is often only about ten percent of the cost of selling that same product to a new customer.

The confusion between KPIs and goals is rampant in contact centers. 

For example, a recent Contact Center Pipeline report discovered that 94 percent of contact centers list call quality as a KPI that's tracked. Yet, only 59 percent felt call quality mapped to organizational goals.

That means that roughly 35 percent of contact centers are tracking a KPI that's not really indicating good performance. It's just a metric with no clear bearing on what the contact center is trying to achieve.

Another metric in the report was even worse:

  • 88 percent track the length of calls
  • 35 percent felt it mapped very well to business goals

What about the other 53 percent?!

Here's just one more example. Many companies are confusing survey score (a KPI) with a goal of providing outstanding customer service. This confusion often leads to employees engaging in survey begging, where they plead with customers to give them a good survey.

This extreme example came from the now-bankrupt sporting goods retailer, Sports Authority, where employees stamped the expected result on the survey invitation:

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Putting KPIs in Their Place

You can put KPIs in their appropriate place if you set goals first. A good goal should follow the SMART model. (You can use this SMART goal worksheet.)

  • S = Specific
  • M = Measurable
  • A = Attainable
  • R = Relevant (to the business, your vision, etc.)
  • T = Time-bound

You may also want to check your goal against the good goal, bad goal criteria to ensure it will likely drive the right behavior. Good goals:

  • Focus attention on the desired results.
  • Promote teamwork.
  • Rely on intrinsic, or internal, motivation.

Once you've set your goals, you can identify KPIs that support achieving these goals. So, an average customer service survey score might be a good KPI for a customer retention goal.

The final step in this process is critical. You must view KPIs in the context of achieving your goal.

Let's go back to the road trip example from the start of this post. Your average speed is a KPI on a trip where you have to go 100 miles in 2 hours. But, you know you'll have to slow down sometimes (like that 25 mph school zone). Other times, you can go faster. 

You can also make other decisions that affect your goal, such as taking a toll road that cuts off five miles from the original route or filling up your tank with gas before the trip so you don't have to stop. You might even leave a few minutes early to ensure you arrive on time.

Apply that same logic to your business KPIs. A KPI should always be viewed in context.

That means if you're trying to achieve a customer loyalty goal, then survey scores can help you identify factors that will make customers less loyal. But, the score by itself is not a good loyalty predictor. You'll need to consider other KPIs along with each customer's needs to understand whether someone will be loyal.

5 Simple Changes That Will Boost Your Customer Service

Distractions are the bane any customer service employee.

They slow you down, break your concentration, and ultimately lead to service failures. In one silly email exchange, a customer service rep took three emails to answer a simple question that could have been answered in one, simply because she was too distracted to concentrate for just a moment.

Worst case scenario?

The cumulative impact of all that distraction leads to something called Directed Attention Fatigue that has symptoms similar to Attention Deficit Disorder. This can eventually lead to the dreaded burnout.

Let's face it. You're probably distracted right now. Am I right?

The good news is you can do something about it. Here are five simple changes to your normal routine that can help.

Spend Time Outdoors

My wife, Sally, and I spent a lot of time outdoors while vacationing in Ireland last month.

We hiked, biked, and even took a couple of boat rides. Here's an example from a hiking and boating trip we took through the Gap of Dunloe.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Over the course of the week we felt increasingly relaxed and clear headed. The "Black Belt" Sudoku puzzles that sometimes take me two hours to complete suddenly started taking less than 15 minutes.

Regular, outdoor exercise is good for the head that way. It's calming, reduces stress, and restores your ability to concentrate. The challenge, as Sally and I discovered when we returned from vacation, is spending regular time outdoors while you're juggling your busy schedule.


Hide Your Cell Phone

It's increasingly common to see customer service employees handling their personal cell phones.

They linger on desks at workstations. They're toted in pockets as retail associates serve customers and restaurant servers assist their guests. 

The problem is your cell phone causes distraction that leads to errors. One study found that just having your cell phone present increased errors by more than three times!

Try putting your cell phone away when you're serving customers. As in, out of sight. You'll be more focused. And, as a special bonus, your phone will be much more interesting when you haven't been checking it every five minutes.


Turn Email Off Between Uses

Email is a multitasking nightmare. 

The typical person has email up on their computer all the time. Incoming message notifications constantly distract them from other work, or else the waiting program tempts them to check messages every five minutes.

Unfortunately, this leads to less effective communication. People respond less carefully. They miss subtle cues about the sender's real intentions. Their lack of attention inevitably leads to unnecessary back and forth.

A recent study concluded that the average employee wastes 24 percent of their day on useless email.

The way to reduce this problem is to focus on email and then not focus on email. Give messages your full attention and then shut down your email program entirely. Set regular intervals when you'll open up email and check it and then resist the urge to check email outside of these times.


Turn On Your Red Light

Open offices are an open invitation for multitasking.

You're constantly distracted by your neighbors. Colleagues drop by your workstation to chat, ask a question, or just make faces at you. (I apologize to everyone I've done that to.) There's even some speculation that open offices pose a health risk.

A client of mine has a good solution to reduce distractions in their open office.

Each workstation has two small lights above it, one red and one green. A red light means "Please don't interrupt me - I'm busy." A green light means it's okay to disturb that person.

In many ways, the light system is similar to an open or closed office door.

You don't need a light system to create a busy signal in your open office. I've seen other workplaces use simple signs. The key is to send a clear, but polite signal to co-workers that you're immersed in something and don't wished to be disturbed.


Try the Pomodoro Technique

I discovered this simple technique a few years ago, and it works wonders for projects that require a little concentration.

You can watch the short video on the Pomodoro Technique website, but here's a quick summary:

  1. Pick a task that needs your focus.
  2. Set a timer. I use 13 minutes (my lucky number), but the Pomodoro Technique suggests 25.
  3. Block out all distractions that aren't related to that task. This includes hiding your cell phone, shutting down email, and turning on your red light.
  4. Focus on the task without distraction until the timer goes off.
  5. Re-evaluate.

Using this technique, I've often found myself so absorbed in a task that I instantly re-set the timer when it goes off. The end result is the task is completed faster and at a higher quality than if you did it in bits and pieces between other distractions.


Are Your Alert or Distracted?

The theme of all these suggestions is concentration. 

It seems so simple, but concentration is a rarity among today's customer service professionals. There's just too many distractions that get in the way. 

A true customer service master understands these distractions and takes steps to block or eliminate them so each customer receives full attention.

Culture, Not Rogue Employees to Blame at Wells Fargo

Employees at Wells Fargo have done a bad thing. Now, the question is who's to blame?

Last week, Wells Fargo made national headlines when it was revealed that employees have opened more than two million phony bank and credit card accounts since 2011. These accounts were opened in the names of actual customers without their consent in an effort by employees to achieve aggressive sales goals. Roughly 5,300 employees have been fired as a result. 

John Stumpf, Wells Fargo's Chairman and CEO, wants to make it clear that this was the work of rogue employees. He's wrong. The fault lies squarely with Stumpf, his executive team, and the culture they've created.

More on that in a moment. For now, let's look at Stump's take that Wells Fargo had, and continues to have, a customer-focused culture. Here's a quote from the Wells Fargo website:

Stumpf sent a message to all Wells Fargo employees on September 8, the day news of the widespread fraud was breaking. He referenced the company's culture no less than four times, including this:

"Our entire culture is centered on doing what is right for our customers."

On September 13, Stumpf defended the culture in an interview with the Wall Street Journal and blamed employees for the massive fraud. "There was no incentive to do bad things." 

That same day, the company's CFO, John Shrewsberry, told an audience at the Barclays 2016 Global Financial Services Conference, "It was really more at the lower end of the performance scale where people apparently were making bad choices to hang on to their job."

All of this follows a disturbing trend of corporate executives trying to blame their employees for widespread service failures.

The truth is that this epic fraud didn't occur despite the culture at Wells Fargo. It happened because of it. Here are just a few things to consider:

First, the numbers are staggering. I'm sure this type of activity happens at a low level in nearly every bank. But, 2 million phony accounts and 5,300 employees fired is an epic scale. Culture isn't defined by a slogan or what the CEO claims in an interview. It's defined by what people actually do. And, for the past five years, thousands of employees have been behaving badly.

Second, the timing looks bad. Here's a timeline that puts it into perspective:

  • June 30: The company set aside $190 million for fines and customer remediation. 
  • July 12: Carrie Tolstedt, head of retail banking, announces her retirement.
  • September 8: Wells Fargo reveals the settlement agreement.
  • September 13: The company announced it will eliminate sales goals for retail employees, effective January 1, 2017.

It should be noted that Tolstedt supervised the 5,300 rogue employees. The 2 million phony accounts happened on her watch.

Publicly, Stumpf is backing Tolstedt. In a statement announcing her retirement, Stumpf gave her nothing but praise. “A trusted colleague and dear friend, Carrie Tolstedt has been one of our most valuable Wells Fargo leaders, a standard-bearer of our culture, a champion for our customers, and a role model for responsible, principled and inclusive leadership.”

Notice Stumpf mentioned culture. A culture where 2 million phony accounts are created without customers' consent. A culture where 5,300 employees are fired over a period of five years for this fraud.

Finally, there are the many comments from Wells Fargo employees describing an intense culture that pressured employees to cross the line. Here are just a few:

Julie Miller, a former Wells Fargo banker, told the Charlotte Observer, "It became a living nightmare. They almost doubled our goals and decreased our incentive pay. It drove me to drink."

Sabrina Bertrand, a former Wells Fargo banker, told CNNMoney, "I had managers in my face yelling at me. They wanted you to open up dual checking accounts for people that couldn't even manage their original checking account."

Back in 2013, former branch manager Rita Murillo described the retail banking culture to the Los Angeles Times. "We were constantly told we would end up working for McDonald's. If we did not make the sales quotas … we had to stay for what felt like after-school detention, or report to a call session on Saturdays." Murillo said she had to provide her bosses with hourly updates on her branch's progress towards sales quotas for opening accounts.

So, why would Stumpf defend his company's culture despite all this evidence to the contrary? 

Just like their employees, Stumpf and other Wells Fargo executives have their own financial incentives to consider. Stumpf was paid $19.3 million last year. Shrewsberry, the CFO, was paid just over $9 million in 2015.

Fortune reported that Tolstedt is leaving the company with $124.6 million in stock, options, and restricted shares. Tolstedt would have had to give back at least $45 million if she had been fired instead of retiring.

That's lottery money. As in, buy your own island and a yacht to sail around it money. 

In a world where people physically assault each other for free t-shirts at sporting events, it's easy to imagine what a corporate executive would do when crazy lottery money is on the line.

Study: Lack of Customer Focus Linked to Burnout Risk

A whopping 74 percent of contact center agents are at risk of burnout. 

The biggest cause? A company's lack of customer focus. Take a look at the difference between agents who are at risk of burnout versus those who are not.


These results confirm that customer service is a far more satisfying job when your company has a strong customer service culture. Contact center agents believe they can make a difference when a company is customer-focused. Unfortunately, many agents quickly become demotivated when they perceive their company is making it difficult for them to do their jobs.

These results come from a contact center agent burnout study I conducted earlier this year. The study was organized into two parts:

  • Part 1: Burnout self-assessment test
  • Part 2: 15 item questionnaire

The burnout self-assessment is provided by MindTools. It asks participants a number of questions and then provides an overall burnout risk score. You can try the assessment out yourself to check your risk level.

The questionnaire consisted of 15 items that research shows might be related to burnout risk. These relationships were tested by comparing the at risk agents to the agents who were not at risk of burnout.

Here's a summary of the results:

  • 8 items were related to burnout risk (including customer-focused culture)
  • 2 items were inconclusive
  • 5 items were not related to burnout risk

I'll be revealing the top five burnout risk factors in my session at ICMI's Contact Center Demo & Conference on Wednesday, October 26. 

The full report is also available for purchase.

How Regular Reminders Can Reinforce Outstanding Service

I've decided to take a two week vacation from blogging, social media, and writing. You may not be taking a break at the same time, so I'm running a few best-of posts while I'm away. Look for a brand new post from me on September 13 when I return to my normal writing schedule.

A lot of customer service training gets lost in the land of good intentions.

The employee might think, "I learned some great skills. I'll set aside some time on Friday when it's slow to go over everything."

Friday comes along and it's not slow. In fact, it requires a whirlwind of activity just to keep up. The employee thinks, "I'll catch up today and then work on those new skills next week."

Ooops! Next week comes around and it's crazy! The week starts insanely busy (just like every other week). So, the employee thinks, "I'll just grind through the next couple of weeks and then I'll work on those new skills."

You can guess what happens. Nothing.

That's why I created the Customer Service Tip of the Week email. Each weekly email contains one simple tip that reminds employees to practice a specific skill.

Here are a few guides that explain why reminders are important and how to use them:

You can sign-up to receive the Customer Service Tip of the Week or visit this resource page for even more info.