by:  Kathryn E. Jackson, ResponseLearning Corporation


The forces compelling us to improve are everywhere.  Our customers are more demanding.  Our competitors have voracious appetites.  "Lean and mean" has become the battle cry for all successful companies.


Sometimes, we just don't know where to start.  We may not know the "big picture" of what is possible.  We might set our improvement targets internally, basing them on past performance.  Often our plans seem inadequate when compared to the rate of improvement necessary to be profitable.


Benchmarking is the tool that helps us break free of these self-imposed limits on improvement.  It helps to: 

  1. determine where to focus improvement efforts by identifying the gap between my performance and world class organization
  2. identify methods and practices that other companies similar to mine have applied to achieve excellent performance
  3. build management consensus that seemingly outlandish performance improvements are indeed achievable

How to Benchmark


Over 2500 years ago, Sun Tzu wrote about benchmarking.  Granted, the Art of War  is about strategic warfare but isn't that similar to what we face with global competition?  And any call center manager can describe their daily battle against formidable odds.  By focusing on benchmarking we can position ourselves so, in Mr. Tzu's words, we never have to "fear the result of a hundred battles."  Sun Tzu's secrets to continual success are: 

  •     know yourself
  •     know your enemy and
  •     practice mobility


Know Yourself


No, this isn't going to be a lesson in holistic call center therapy.  In today's language "know yourself" describes the internal focus of benchmarking. 


There are three steps to knowing yourself:


1.      Assess your weaknesses

2.      Admit you don't know everything

3.      Define any internal barriers to change


Many have said the hardest part of benchmarking is admitting you aren't perfect and don't know everything.  I see managers struggle with this all the time.  Customers often call on RDC to benchmark their call quality.  The first thing we do is monitor calls.  Typically our scores are 30 to 50 points lower than the customers' internal quality score.  The difference is in how RDC defines "the best."  We have been fortunate to hear some of the best telephone specialists and we base our standard of excellence on a collage of hundreds of calls.  We've never met "the perfect telephone representative" or heard "the perfect call" but we can "cut and paste" all our expert experiences together to define a spectacular composite expert.  We compare everything we hear to that broad standard.  Many managers have not heard as many experts as we have.  Therefore, their definition of "what's possible" is more narrow causing their quality scores to be higher.


It can be a humbling experience to discover your weaknesses and have to admit you don't know what's "best."  But until you do that, you don't have much of a basis for benchmarking.


When defining internal barriers ask yourself:  Do we have the commitment it takes to be world class?  Are we willing to pay the "costs" of change?  Is the "not invented here" syndrome firmly entrenched in our organization?  Are we truly dedicated to world class or are we subtly content with the status quo?  


Knowing yourself is critical preparation for the difficult journey ahead.  Benchmarking is not for the half- hearted.


Know Your Enemy


"Enemy" may sound extreme,  however, "know your enemy" refers to benchmarking's external focus.   By looking outside I can elevate my awareness of what's possible.  I can expand my definition of what is best and in doing so challenge my capabilities.  If "the best" enemy exceeds my skill then I have a choice.  I can either improve my performance or risk defeat.  Also, by looking at the best I can examine how they got to be the best.  I can evaluate which of their practices might work for me.


Practice Mobility


Mobility is nothing more than the ability to move.  Today we talk about flexibility, innovation and change.  Successful companies are all practicing "mobility."  They're constantly responding to the ever-changing requirements of their customers, competitors, and employees.  The faster they move, the more successful they are. 

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