Authors and Consultants | GP Strategies Corporation


Lessons from the Call Center—Part 1


Image by Ambro at

Image by Ambro at

Top performers often seem to have some special insight or secret sauce—that little trick that helps them outperform their peers.

One example of that secret sauce comes from a call center project. This particular call center handled inbound calls from customers asking questions about their insurance coverage. Like most call centers, the customer service representatives (CSRs) were measured on many performance elements, including call handle time (measured in seconds), time between calls (also measured in seconds), number of calls handled, average time to answer each call, and so forth. All these well-intentioned measures focused on the same goals: handling calls efficiently and leaving customers satisfied with the service they received.

Unfortunately, operating with great efficiency and providing exceptional customer service do not necessarily go together. Our goals were to help design and develop a learning program to improve the performance of all the CSRs, to improve customer satisfaction, and, ultimately, to improve customer retention in a highly competitive industry.

Our first step, as outlined in our book, The New Game Changers, was to identify the top performers. In this case, that meant finding the CSRs who were already providing excellent customer service as measured by surveys and who were meeting all the desired performance metrics. There weren’t many performing at that peak level, but there were a few.

Once we knew who they were, we undertook a structured series of interviews and observations to elicit what made these reps so good. The observations consisted of listening in to calls while watching over the shoulders of the CSRs to see how they navigated the complex computer systems to find the information needed to answer the questions they were asked. With one of the CSRs whom we’ll call Mark, we noticed something strange: he seemed to find the answer almost before the customer asked the question. As we watched more closely, we realized that he was in fact finding the answer before the question was asked. Or at least he was navigating to the screen where the answer was located before he heard the question. It turns out that Mark had developed an internal algorithm based on the information on the account summary screen. He was able to use certain bits of information to accurately predict the most likely question. Being able to predict the question freed up some precious time, allowing him to better locate the exact answer, mentally translate it from system-speak into language the customer could understand, and respond to any questions the customer might have. These factors were all critical to providing better customer service.

Mark indeed had a special insight, a secret sauce, that helped him provide better service to their customers.

In part 2, we’ll look at how to take that secret sauce and leverage it to improve the performance of the rest of the call center.

Question to ponder:

  • Look at the top performers in your organization’s critical roles: what secret sauce or special insight do they have that helps them perform at a higher level?

Focusing on Outcomes

Image by Stuart Miles at

Image by Stuart Miles at

One question we get asked often is “How many outcomes should each role have?”

And the answer, of course, is “It depends.” Next question.

Okay, let’s dig into that answer a little bit more. The rule of thumb we use is that each well-designed and well-understood role typically has about five to seven outcomes. While that’s certainly not a hard-and-fast, never-violate type of rule, it has proven true for dozens of roles across multiple industries. Here’s the logic behind the rule:

Tom Davenport coined the term attention economy. He rightly argues that people can pay attention to only a certain number of things before they get so distracted they lose focus on the ones that matter. So it is with the major outcomes of a role. An outcome is a big element, a significant part of the role. Accordingly, each outcome deserves a significant percentage of the “attention budget” of a top performer. So, having too many outcomes—typically more than about seven—means the performer’s attention is too divided for him or her to spend enough time and energy on each outcome.

On the other hand, having too few outcomes probably means that the role is not fully understood and some additional hidden outcomes exist or that the job is too small and not enough is being asked of the people in the role. That last point is borne out by the research and writing of Daniel Pink on what motivates people to excellence. In short, Pink asserts it is autonomy, mastery, and purpose. His arguments are compelling, and we agree—particularly with his third point: purpose. To give people a purpose, they should be in a role that is weighty enough to matter to them and to their organization.

But most commonly, having too few outcomes is an indicator the role isn’t fully understood by those documenting it. To really understand a role through the eyes of the top performers, you have to watch them, talk to them, learn from them, and appreciate their perspective enough that you begin to think like them. Then you can enumerate the outcomes they produce.

That’s a great question!

Image courtesy of Ambro at

Image courtesy of Ambro at

You probably don’t remember Pierre-Simon LaPlace. LaPlace was a French scholar in the 1700s whose work in mathematics, astronomy, and physics was foundational. But our focus isn’t really LaPlace, it’s his mother, Marie-Anne Sochon.

Often when a student comes home from school, the parent’s typical question is “What did you learn in school today?” But the story is told that each day when LaPlace came home from school, his mother asked a different question: “What good question did you ask in school today?”

That’s the essence of interviewing—asking good questions.

Good questions do not happen naturally. Like LaPlace, we must intentionally develop the skill over time.

Since interviewing is such a critical aspect of the TOPS approach to driving impact, this post will be the first in an occasional series on interviewing. Future posts will cover subjects such as techniques, sample questions, and tips.

Here’s the first topic: discovery interviews are not like hiring interviews.

In hiring interviews, the object is to judge the suitability of the person for the job. Is he the best person? How well will he handle stress? Does he have the needed experience? Can he avoid common traps and handle the tough questions?

But discovery interviews with top performers are very different. The performers in question already have the job. In fact, they are excelling at the job. The intent of the discussion in this case is to figure out what they’re doing that makes them so good. You’re not trying to catch them up; you’re trying to understand them. That means going into the interview with an open, inquisitive attitude. No judging, no gotcha questions, no canned situational tests. Instead, you have to go into the interview with the attitude that this person is the top performer in her role, she knows something you don’t, and your job is to learn from her. If you go into the interview with that attitude, then it will come across and the interviewee will be much more open to honestly answering your questions and volunteering the information you need.

A top performer interview is different and should be approached accordingly.

Question to consider:

  • What are some of your interview tips for discovering best practices?

How to Really Work Smarter, Not Harder

12We have all heard it at one time or another: the old adage “work smarter, not harder.” But what does that really mean?  What about all that “nose to the grindstone stuff?” Or that early bird that gets the worm? And why are workweeks getting longer and longer in the face of all that time-saving technology we keep buying?

It turns out the old adage was right, but not in the way it was usually meant. When people said it, they were usually saying you were doing things the wrong way. Or, more commonly, that you weren’t doing things the way they would do them. But what if you aren’t doing the right things at all? Then doing those wrong things in a smarter way certainly isn’t going to produce better results. Instead, you’ll just produce those same wrong things faster and more efficiently. And maybe even produce more of them!

They key is to look at work from a completely different perspective. If you will, a quarter turn in thinking.

People bring their own characteristics, experiences, skills and knowledge to bear in their work. They apply all those things to do the work set before them to the best of their ability. They work hard, they work smart and they try to do a good job. But all of that work, in reality, has no value in and of itself. Think about that for a minute: work has no value. Before you get too angry, let’s finish the thought. The results of work have value, but work doesn’t. Work is a cost. Hiring people with lots of skills, experience and the right characteristics is also a cost. It is only when people put those attributes to use in doing the right work the right way to produce results that matter is there any value in the equation.

So if what we really want are the results of the work, doesn’t it follow that working harder or smarter will naturally produce more valuable results? No. And that is where the quarter turn in thinking comes in.

Instead of starting at the work end or, even worse, the skills and knowledge end, of the equation, we should start at the valuable end: the results that people produce. We call those results outcomes. Outcomes are the tangible things that organizations value after the work is done. Outcomes could be physical things like cars that run right after repair work is finished, or smartphone apps that people can buy and use. Or they could be more cognitive things like a trusted advisor relationship with a client or a customer satisfied with a resolved issue. Whatever the case, the most important challenge is to uncover those few outcomes that really make a difference. Once those right outcomes are clearly understood for any job, then it’s possible to analyze them to figure out the right way to produce them. That’s when the adage kicks in and working smarter becomes important.

A quick example from the real world. Most organizations have a role called Project Manager. They are the people who balance cost, schedule and resources to produce something or manage some process. Virtually all project management courses spend a lot of time on communications: how often to provide status updates, how to document issues, etc. But with all that time spent on learning how to communicate to customers, why are customers still so frustrated at the end of projects? It turns out the best project managers don’t focus on communicating. Instead they focus on producing aligned and managed customer expectations. In that context of producing a thing called aligned and managed customer expectations, all of their communications tactics now serve a common purpose and can be channeled to best advantage. Communicating is a cost, but aligned customer expectations has value.

The bottom line: work smarter to produce the right things.



Photo credit:  Image courtesy of Steve Horder at


Detour on the Road to Knowledge-Based Learning

11While recently staying in central London, I asked the hotel concierge about calling a taxi for a 5:00 a.m. departure to the airport. The conversation was simple and short.

“Yes, sir, we can hail a taxi for you in the morning.”

“How much should I expect the taxi fare to be?”

“About 90 or 95 pounds. Or I can call you a car, and it will only cost you 55 pounds,” he added with just a hint of hesitation.

“If you can assure me that the car will be here at 5:00 a.m., I’ll take that option.”

“Yes, sir. He will be here. I’ll book it for you. What’s your room number?”

The following morning I was met by an enterprising young man who greeted me at the door with a warm hello and smile, took my bag to his car, and quickly launched us on our journey to Heathrow.

As we passed some streets that were new to me despite many previous trips to the airport, I glanced up at my driver, who had just touched the screen on the global positioning system (GPS) mounted in the corner of his windshield. A few moments later he changed course to follow the spoken and visual suggestion of the GPS system he was obviously following.

As the young driver continued to navigate the relatively quiet streets of early-morning London, my mind drifted back to my first trip to the city nearly ten years earlier. In the preparations for my visit I ran across a story about the grueling studies required of aspiring taxi drivers to qualify for one of the scarce taxi licenses available. The London taxi driver exam is legendary, in fact, according to a recent article by Jody Rosen:

“The examination to become a London cabby is possibly the most difficult test in the world — demanding years of study to memorize the labyrinthine city’s 25,000 streets and any business or landmark on them.”

The comparison was stark. Years of dedicated study and testing had been replaced by a three-by-five-inch electronic gadget mounted on the windshield. This change meant my driver was focused not on memorizing the challenging street grid of London, but rather on timely arrival at the hotel, a pleasant greeting, and safe driving following the electronic voice of his “taxi tutor.”

To put it bluntly, the very knowledge that had been the linchpin of a profession a few short years earlier was made obsolete by ubiquitous access to guided information through an inexpensive navigation gadget. This fact raises several important and highly relevant questions for those of us in the learning business.

Just how important are programs designed to impart raw knowledge, product knowledge, or procedural knowledge?

What technological aids are available to help bridge the knowledge gap?

And if pure memorization of knowledge is no longer as relevant in job performance, what is important?

What are the differentiators, the elements that really matter to create high levels of performance in jobs, particularly in customer-facing jobs, today?

How do we uncover what drives performance and business results in today’s dynamic work environment?



Photo Credit: Image courtesy of Richard Hedrick at


Internal Benchmarking

10External benchmarking continues to be a preferred strategy of organizations that are casting about for an answer—any answer—to the question of how to improve their own performance. The basic idea is simple: if we aren’t sure how to do something better, let’s study other organizations like ours and see how they have solved the same challenges. The approach is simple, but misguided.

While some external comparisons can be useful, a major flaw exists in relying solely on external benchmarking: there are no organizations just like yours. Every organization has its own unique context.

If we examine the issue more deeply, we will see some of the shortcomings of external benchmarking:

  • Context is unique—by definition, it has to be. If the context were identical, you would be studying yourself. Organizational context is affected by differences in culture, market segmentation, customer base, products, and sets of performers.
  • If you’re studying a similar competitor, they won’t share. They probably won’t even let you in the door. And if they do share, you should be suspect of anything they say.
  • Hockey great Wayne Gretzky used to say that a good hockey player skates to where the puck is, but a great hockey player skates to where the puck is going to be. The corollary for organizations could be that a good organization goes where the competition already is, but a great organization goes where the market will be. External benchmarking will necessarily lead you to where the competition already is.

Typically, the real benchmarking targets you should use to answer the core question of how to improve performance are roaming the halls of your organization. Here are some ways to leverage internal benchmarking:

  • Find the pockets of excellence that exist inside your own organization. Some small percentage of people in any given role are likely already performing with excellence: satisfying customers, producing great products, building brand loyalty, and driving business results.
  • Learn what these people do that sets them apart.
  • Gather from them their insight on where the market is going. They are probably already focused on leading indicators that will provide you with valuable insight about where your customers, your products, your market—in other words, your context—are heading.

Although there are times when technology or other innovations can turn an industry on its head and radical changes may be required, typical market challenges can be addressed by turning your focus inside the organization to identify a context-rich path forward to continuously change the game.


Questions to consider:

  • Have you ever conducted an internal benchmarking project?
  • Who are the individuals that you should consider benchmarking and what roles do they play in your organization?


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Who Are Your Top Performers?

9460463189_667905c98cWhen we work with organizations to help improve performance, one question we ask is, “Who are your top performers?” What we are seeking are examples of people who are currently doing excellent work and consistently delivering the results the organization desires.

Our question turns out to be much harder than it might seem.

Too often, we have to challenge leaders’ preconceptions to find the real top performers. To explain, let’s look at some of the usual answers we receive and examine the preconceptions behind them—and why they fall short.

Option A: Managers Who Used to Be Performers

Since managers who used to be performers were selected for advancement, they surely were the best, right? Perhaps. But the key word in that sentence is were. They were the best (perhaps).

But since these performers were promoted, two factors have changed. First, the job changed. To stay competitive, organizations have to evolve rapidly and continually. Roles must change to stay abreast of that evolution. So the role the manager filled as a past performer may not be the same role filled by current performers, making comparison problematic.

Second, the new managers have changed. They are now in a new role. Hopefully, they were selected for that role because of their potential for excellence in the new role, not just because of their performance in the old one. (That’s a subject for another day.) Since they’ve been in their new role, they’ve been acquiring new skills and mental models to replace the old ones they used as performers, which means they can no longer accurately represent the particulars of current top performers.

Option B: Those with the Longest Tenure

Those who have been there the longest must be the best, right? Not very often. Staying in a company a long time does not make an employee a top performer. Length of employment alone is not an accurate indicator of performance. Too often, people stay in jobs because they are comfortable, not because they are excelling.

Option C: Related Role

Quite often, organizations will identify a great performer, but the individual isn’t really in the role we are asking about. For example, if the role in question is that of financial advisor, then a credit counselor—who works with financial advisors and may be able to talk intelligently about that role—may be mentioned as a top performer. But it is not the same role, and all the hidden tricks, unconscious expertise, and mental models required are not the same either.

Option D: Top Performers Currently Excelling in the Role Being Studied

This is the right choice!

When we ask for top performers, what we really want are people who

  • Are currently in the role being studied
  • Are consistently excelling in that role
  • Represent the range of geographic and organizational groups that exist in the organization

A good trick to identify the top performers is to think of the performers you would call on when the job gets really difficult. Here are some examples from different industries:

Refinery Operations

  • Which operator would you prefer to be “running the board” in the event of a process flow problem?
  • Which operator would call in to work when a problem occurs?

Customer Service Call Center

  • Which person would you prefer to take calls from your highest value prospects?
  • Which person would you want handling irate callers?
  • Who is the best at converting inquiries to sales or upselling?


  • Which sales executive would you prefer to handle the client with the most potential to grow?
  • Who would you choose to solve a difficult client retention issue?


The bottom line is that when trying to understand what differentiates top performers from average performers, identifying and studying the top performers is essential. Only then can you accurately map how they do what they do and then build programs to help others excel in the same way.

By the way, yes—the top performers are often the busiest because you call on them all the time. But they are often the most willing to help. They want to succeed and they usually want others to succeed as well.

Who would you identify as your top performers?



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The Importance of Moving the Middle: Check Out the Numbers

11322953266_db29ce0659Many companies struggle with the question of whether to invest in the development of their people. When they do decide to invest, they often ask, “Whom do I invest in?” Many choose to invest in the development of their top performers. After all, these companies reason, if they are already the best, doesn’t that mean they have the most potential to do even more? While investing in the top performers as a reward or to keep them motivated can be worthwhile, does that really provide the largest return to the business?

To examine this question, let’s take an example sales role and look at a typical distribution curve among a 100-person sales force.


Category (%) Sales people in category Assumed average % of quota met Average sales per person ($) Total revenue contribution ($)
Top 20% 20 125% $2,500,000 $50,000,000
Middle 60% 60 85% $1,700,000 $102,000,000
Bottom 20% 20 50% $1,000,000 $20,000,000
Total sales revenue $172,000,000


For illustrative purposes, let’s assume that a company’s development initiative improves performance by 10 percent across the board. Though it is quite realistic to move the average performers by 10 percent, moving the already high-performing group by an incremental 10 percent can prove more challenging. Meanwhile the bottom 20 percent of the population may have fundamental fit issues that make the 10 percent goal an improbable stretch. Nonetheless, in our simple example we will assume all three categories of performers improve by an equal 10 percent to bring the new total sales revenue to $189 million (see table below). How this increase plays out among the three performance categories is interesting.


Category (%) Number of sales people in category % of quota met after improvement New average sales per person ($) Group change in revenue contribution ($) % added to the revenue line by group
Top 20% 20 138% $2,750,000 $5,000,000 2.91%
Middle 60% 60 94% $1,870,000 $10,200,00 5.93%
Bottom 20% 20 55% $1,100,000 $2,000,000 1.16%
Total change in sales revenue $17,200,000 10.00%
Total sales revenue $189,200,000


As the second table illustrates, the overall sales revenue grows from $172 million to $189 million with the same resource base. The somewhat surprising element in this simple example is that the revenue increase provided by the average performers is double that of the top performers. Given that boosting the output of the top performers can be more difficult, the implications are significant. Organizations must focus their improvement efforts on the middle of the distribution curve where the potential for improvement is often greater than 10 percent. As our example shows, the impact is substantial.

Closing the gap between the top and average performers delivers much better overall organization improvement than can be achieved by trying to squeeze more out of the top performers or spending enormous energy to improve the bottom.


Question to consider:

  • What insights does the distribution of your top twenty, average sixty, and bottom twenty provide you?

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Right Work; Work Right

4320245924_b8f945a7f8Which is more important: To perform the right work or to perform the work before us in the right way?

In one sense the question is almost silly. Of course it’s important to do both: to know the right work and to do it in the right way. But too often organizations focus entirely on people performing their work the right way without paying any attention to whether or not they are doing the right work. This can be seen in the myriad productivity improvement efforts encouraging people to do more, to work smarter, to be more efficient, and so on.

While those efforts are important, they must come second. First, organizations must ensure their people fully understand their roles and how each role contributes to organizational success.

According to a poll conducted by William Schiemann, only 14 percent of employees “have a good understanding of their company’s strategy and direction.” But if people don’t understand where the company is going, how can they be expected to contribute to the process of getting there?

Our consulting work has demonstrated to us over and over again that a significant gap exists between how top performers understand their role and how average performers understand their role. It turns out that average performers are often working just as hard as top performers. They are trying hard, they care, and they put in the long hours. But they just don’t seem to get the same results. Our experience is that these workers are effectively working at a wrong role. They are not doing the right work. So it doesn’t matter if they are doing the work right or not.


Questions to consider:

  • How do you ensure that each member of the team understands his or her role?
  • What methods do you use to communicate the strategy and direction of the company?



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Good People and Bad Systems

4690414066_4ed8878fd7We believe that people want to do a great job. That is, they work hard, they try to achieve the goals they feel they should, and they want their organization to succeed. The best anecdotal evidence for that belief comes from watching a new employee. He is prepared to take on the world. He’s excited. He’s enthusiastic. He is going to singlehandedly take on the competition and conquer the marketplace. Now if we can just point that enthusiasm in the right direction. If we can aim him at the right target, just think of what he can accomplish with all that energy.

But what happens over time? As author Geary Rummler said, “When you put a good person up against a bad system, the bad system wins almost every time” (Improving Performance, How to Manage the White Space on the Organization Chart, Rummler & Brache)  By system, Rummler meant all the work processes that make up a complex organization. The organization throws up one barrier after another and almost seems to want that new person to fail. Is it any wonder that disillusionment is a common feeling among frontline employees?

In the spirit of keeping this post focused on practical application, it’s important to clarify what—or, more specifically, whom—we are referring to when we say “organization.” It’s you—and every other person who has a leadership or supervisory role. As a leader, you are responsible for either erecting or eliminating barriers that stand between your frontline performers and success. The good news is that, with some focused effort, it’s easy to eliminate those barriers.

In future posts, we’ll examine some of the most common barriers we’ve seen erected in organizations and how to identify and eliminate them. Those common barriers can be grouped into categories:

  • Hiding the target
  • Lack of Relevance
  • Misalignment


Questions to consider

  • How do you think your organization is doing with regards to eliminating barriers that discourage people?
  • Are your work systems helping or hurting people over time?



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