Benchmarking is the comparison of work methods and processes between the own organization and that of others. The comparison mostly entails one or several companies that serve as an example of average data from a field or sector. There are local and international studies that compare contact centres with each other – think about the reports of Dimension Data. What is the use of benchmark studies and what are the limitations? Is there an alternative?

Text: Erik Bouwer

A benchmark is a comparative study between the practises and performances between companies. Benchmarks can offer an insight on best practices, the right development direction or index numbers as financial variables. Concerning the latter there is often the suggestion that valid judgements can be made about the relationship between input and output – expanses and profits.
A benchmark can be useful when a contact centre organization takes the initiative to compare itself with good examples from its own industry. This can gain insight into the position of the organization compared to the competition. It is possible to look at operational things like cost levels (wage level of agents, investments in IT or trainings, ratio direct/indirect costs or costs per work place). Also operational choices like opening hours or choices concerning specific technologies can be looked at. Benchmarking is also possible based on general quality norms. An example is the European call centre norm that is being developed. This enables the benchmarker to get ideas about innovations for example, so that better results are possible over time.

It can also be useful to make a comparison with successful colleague companies by looking at specific policy issues. Benchmarking then has a more strategic character and can lead to inspiration and insight into global market developments, think about ‘how far is the market concerning the acceptation of cloud computing?’ A strategic benchmark with branche-strange companies can offer an insight about what makes another company to be best in class and which methods and techniques should be adopted because they belong to the category ‘proven technology’. Benchmarking can also lead to new ideas for better performances.

Disadvantage of benchmarks: important context is missing
Benchmarking once started as a method of ‘looking behind each other’s screens’. Benchmarks are more and more often not really based on good perception anymore, but on global and big comparative research by means of questionnaires. Because of this, an important part of the context is missing and it is no longer clear whether comparing is still possible. Benchmarking requires the possibility of a good interpretation of the results. To what extent are the researched companies comparable as far as history, development phase, size, specialities and market share are involved? The use of a benchmark requires that there is a clear understanding, beforehand, of the information one wants to attain. The benchmark study can be done by an external bureau, but – the need for information aside – the trustworthiness of the information also needs attention. Companies who carry out benchmarks will always be reticent about providing information: sensitive subjects are left out, information with moderate scores can be brushed up. Reports always need to be read with a grain of salt.

Another disadvantage of a benchmark is that it is clear which information is available, but that the major part of the information is not available. A weak spot is thus that it is not clear what influence the missing information has on the results. Benchmarking can swiftly turn into the comparing of performances without the real differences and their causes being clear. This is also the case for benchmarks that are made available by analysts or research companies.

Some numbers are not determined by the context, but are hard: think about ‘first contact resolution’ that has a binary value, but is not relevant for sales for instance. Other numbers, like the average waiting time, are almost always dependent on the situation. An organization that is under pressure because of a sudden commercial success – think about the introduction of a new product – will probably apologize for the decreased contactability, but the company will not ascribe too much value to a one stop service than when the customer service is not good thanks to mistakes in the own organization. Also a benchmark norm value for ‘service level’ differs per branch, per type of contact centre and per country. An SL of 80/20 is acceptable for a customer service department, but for an emergency line like 112 and ICT helpdesk this is too high and too expensive.

An alternative for using benchmark studies is looking for knowledge and information yourself, by joining social networks, communities and branch organizations. By means of discussions, site visits and cases during meetings one can learn a lot and only a dialogue can offer insight into the specific circumstances that another organization was able to book success. A call centre manager can ask about the repeated traffic in the service department of a competitor, but this information will be more valuable when it is clear whether or not the department has a high turnover, if there is something wrong with the knowledge management pr that the organization knows a strong customer growth. Or is there a free number? This way also enables one to take into account local differences and operational choices, cultural differences, circumstances relevant to branch and job market.