Control Desk & First Impressions

After bringing down the Tax Shelter Center (Retirement Plan Services) from NY to the USCC in Oct 1993 & spending 15 months running Operations, I was asked by USCC President, John McEachern, to assume responsibility for the Control Desk.

Seems it was the out-of-Control Desk.

CitiPhone was continuously falling below standard on several SPIs/Service Performance Indicators…timeliness (% of calls answered within 20 seconds), abandoned calls, call forecast accuracy, occupancy, utilization, productivity (as measured by AHT/Average Handle Time), etc..

The Control Desk had many bright, dedicated individuals, but it wasn’t a smooth-running operation as communications was lacking amongst the various members as well as between the Control Desk & CitiPhone itself (the reps, Team Leaders, Area Directors, etc.).

We worked very hard to improve the working relationship between & amongst my people, concentrating on day-to-day communications & real-time adjustments.

If something’s not going well, ten why exactly?

What’s causing it…poorly-forecasted call volume? Inaccurate call arrival assumptions? Absenteeism? Adherence to schedules? Lack of immediate corrective actions? No contingency staffing plans? Poor call routing & skills assignment?


Why weren’t we prepared for the unexpected? What did we do? What could we have done?

It’s important to dissect the situation every time you fail to meet standard with any performance indicator.

Perform a post-mortem & find out why the patient died (or suffered a fracture, had an attack, whatever).

If not, you’re simply going to repeat some poor practices going forward & again, be disappointed with the results.

But don’t wait until the next day to try & recreate what happened & why…you have to do this regularly.



Constantly be monitoring the situation. Constantly be able to react accordingly & IMMEDIATELY.

A call center is so very different from every other organization which measures their results over a day’s time…or longer.

In CitiPhone, you measure stuff in seconds.

And if you blow up in the 9-10 AM hour, you don’t start anew at 10:00…you still have all that residual call volume waiting in queue.

You & your people & all the reps & managers could be working like dogs, going 100 MPH, yet every call you handle is a “failed call” as the caller waited >20 seconds before speaking with a service representative.

“Cleaning out the queues” is, BY FAR, the most important thing that a call center must do…or, at least, tied with “properly forecasting what’s gonna happen so you’re prepared with the proper staffing when it actually happens”.

And between “forecasting” & “happening”, there are dozens & dozens of things that can happen that’ll blow up your shop.

Unexpected volume due to something appearing on the news…bad weather affecting your customers’ travel time getting to work & as a result, messing up expected call arrival patterns…too much absenteeism…poor schedule adherence…slow system response time…system outages affecting your people &/or the customers…catastrophic events…issues in other departments/businesses that have a resultant impact on your shop…an unexpected major announcement…and so many other factors that often are impossible to accurately predict.

Yet, you need to be prepared with a bevy of emergency corrective actions, e.g., shortening lunch hours, canceling/rescheduling meetings & training, using contingency staffing from other units, rerouting calls &/or changing reps’ skill assignments (the types of calls they’re eligible to answer), increasing supervisory presence on the floor, etc. if you want to have any possibility of being successful…that hour, that day, that month.

If you aren’t watching everything like a hawk & taking immediate action to correct the situation, you’re dead in the water. It can take several hours of “excellent timeliness performance” to finally “clear the queues” & get back to steady state.

But by that time, you’ve probably “lost the day”.

And with fairly-high service standards (like 80% of calls answered in 20 seconds), it’s difficult at best to “make hay”!

You can only do 20 pp better than 80%…you can’t exceed 100%!

But you can fail the same standard by 80 pp when you do a 0%.

For example, if you do 1 hour @ a 20% Service Level (when the standard is 80%), it will take 6 hours (!!!) of a 90% Service Level (assuming equal hourly volumes) just to average 80% overall!

And if you happen to blow up during your “busy hours”, let’s say, 9-10, 10-11 or 11-noon, and then see volume decreasing the rest of the day, it’ll take you much longer to dig out of the hole. Or it may be impossible to “make the day”.

And the same philosophy applies when you’re tracking performance over a particular month.

You blow a heavy-volume Monday big-time & you’ll need at least a week of superlative performances to offset that one terrible day.

You can’t work mandatory overtime to “catch up” on your inventory! Either you handled the calls in a timely manner whenever they arrived…or you didn’t! Yeah, of course, you can have certain individuals work OT to help boost staffing during later hours, but it’s not like they’re working on clearing out some inventory that’s been building up.

Running, or working in, a call center is a very, very unique animal.

Trust me.

After running CitiPhone in NY for 5 years, I took a new position as One Bank Practices manager back in Brooklyn.

I specifically remember sitting at my desk at about 10:00 that very first Monday morning in May of 1988 as if it were yesterday.


Because I wasn’t going nuts & pulling out my hair! I wasn’t trying to land 12 planes simultaneously while giving a baby elephant a bath.

I was a human being. I actually got up & poured myself a cup of coffee…without trying to break the world’s land speed record, attempting to return to the action as quickly as humanly possibly!

Ya know, if you currently don’t work in a call center, go & hug someone who does! Today. Buy ‘em lunch. Offer to wash their car.

OK, let’s flash back to 1995 when I assumed responsibility for the CitiPhone Control Desk at the USCC in San Antonio.

(Note: By this time, I fully expect you to know exactly what “USCC” stands for!

Which reminds me of a quick story…

We had a summer intern at the U.S. Citibanking Center (duh!) who we had helping us prepare for a Senior Mgmt presentation we were giving the next day.

We put her in charge of finalizing & making the overhead slides for use on the projector in the Board Room.

Early the next day, I decided to ask her to show me the slides – – just to make sure that everything was fine. I mean, you only have one opportunity to make a good first impression, right?

As I’m going through the slides, I almost had a heart attack…figuratively, thank God, not literally.

It’s apparent that she must have spelled-checked everything first on her PC instead of simply printing it out & making the overhead slides (as I had instructed her to do).

You can try this yourself, if you’d like.

When you spell-check “USCC” & accept the suggested “corrected format”, it comes out as “SUCK”!

We had SUCK on just about every page of the presentation!

That’s what happens when you simply hit “Enter” instead of closely looking at the recommended change on Spell Check.

Oh, that would’ve made a wonderful first impression, right?)


It’s January 1995 & I’m in my Control Desk office (FYI, the “Control Desk” is NOT a desk, but an organization, like a Help Desk). I keep hearing this solitary beep, once every few minutes, coming from my PC. I’m wondering what the hell is wrong with this computer as I just moved into this office a week or so ago.

It’s driving me wild as it’s been going on almost since I arrived.

Every few minutes.


I turn the monitor off, reboot the PC, go through the control panel, everything I could think of to fix it.

No such luck! The damned beeping just continues. I’m at a complete loss.

Out of desperation, I ask the very bright staffing specialist, Frank Rohm, to please come in & take a look at my computer. I explain the beeping situation. BTW, Frank & Nancy Guajardo ran the Forecasting & Scheduling part of the Control Desk.

Two minutes later, Frank walks out of my office & says, “Everything’s fixed”…

…and hands me my pager!

“Uh, Mike, this was sitting on the hard drive, right under the monitor. You must have a page that you never responded to.”

Like I said about making a good first impression…


Thank you so much for listening!

P.S. Unlike that pretty-embarrassing knucklehead moment of mine, our team came together rather quickly!

For the next 7 months, we passed every single performance indicator for each & every month…without fail!

I starting authoring the “BM Daily Update”…Branch Manager, not bowel movement…a 1-pager to all line managers that recapped the previous day, including how we performed & why; a summary of our month-to-date results and what we need to do (or change) in order to effectively meet our business goals; and some helpful information to assist them in better understanding how this call center business actually operates & how their individual actions/decisions affect the bigger picture.

This BM Update slowly evolved into “Stuff” over time, an 8-12 page, single-spaced document (issued every 3-4 weeks when I was a CitiPhone Director) where I took the liberty of trying to teach the entire USCC populace about banking, how to handle specific situations/issues, what happened behind the scenes at Citi (so they could better understand “what actually happened & why” vs. “just reciting rules & procedures to our customers”), the “real meaning” of customer service, what our goals (as a business & as individuals) really are, etc..

I’d often use normal situations in everyday life to help illustrate the difference…THE HUGE DIFFERENCE…between “handing customer inquiries & fulfilling requests” and “truly providing LEGITIMATE & LEGENDARY customer service”!

I believe I talk about Stuff in some other stories here.

And I’m offering a sizable $ reward if anyone out there has any copies of this limited edition…

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