Defining Performance Standards for Monitoring and Coaching

By Penny Reynolds

Performance management is an ongoing, two-way communication process between you and each member of your team. It is a means of preventing poor performance, recognizing stellar performance, and working together to improve existing performance. Performance management involves talking, listening, learning, and improving. It isn’t about filling out a performance review form once a year – rather it’s about daily interaction and shaping of your employees’ performance. 

By investing the time to carefully define performance expectations and provide feedback about performance on an ongoing basis, you’ll be making a worthwhile investment in your employees’ growth and development, and saving yourself much stress and conflict in the long run.

Performance management begins with defining performance goals and expectations. There are many quantitative performance expectations such as schedule adherence percentage, average handle time, call transfer rate, sales per hour, and so on. Others expectations will be defined around qualitative goals such as portrayal of positive company image, display of active listening skills, or use of proper pacing and voice quality. Many of these need to be defined down to a behavioral level in order for employees to fully understand what is expected, and in order for you to measure their performance fairly and objectively. 

Once these goals and expectations have been set, the next step is to gather information about actual performance versus desired performance to identify performance gaps and problems. There are many sources of quantitative information from which to draw, while qualitative information will likely come from observation and monitoring to ensure adherence to the proper behaviors and actions.  

This article will discuss the overall performance management process and focus on how performance expectations are defined.

The Steps of Performance Management

By definition, performance management is the application of scientific behavior analysis to the workplace. It is not a one-time management solution to a single problem with one of your employees. Done correctly, performance management provides a precise way of defining the work to be done, analyzing results, and implementing solutions that will not only deal with inadequate performance, but will provide practical ways to maximize performance of every individual on your team.

The best way to explain how the performance management process works is to use a metaphor to present the concept. The metaphor for this concept is a visit to the doctor and an attempt to diagnose a medical problem. There are many similarities between the performance management process and the medical diagnostic process, including:

Step 1: Define healthy performance. Symptoms alert someone to the possibility of a problem. Vital signs are checked against standards to see what’s working as it should and what is outside the “normal” range. 

Step 2: Measure and test. A process is used to analyze symptoms and determine the cause of the problem. The diagnostic procedure begins with small tests and builds to more complex (and expensive) ones depending upon the severity of the problem.

Step 3: Diagnose the problem.  When behaviors or symptoms are outside the norm, then the root cause of the problem is diagnosed. 

Step 4: Apply treatment.  Figure out what will remedy the situation and apply the steps of treatment. 

Step 5: Follow up and check progress.  Check in regularly to make sure the prescribed treatment is working.   Make corrections or adjustments as needed.

Defining Healthy Performance

The first step in the diagnostic procedure is to define what is “healthy.”  The “norms” are determined by scientific research and in the medical world might include normal ranges for body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol levels, and so on. Individual doctors have the same basic definitions about what constitutes “good health” versus a medical variation or abnormality. 

The link to the call center is similar. Within the call center, “healthy” is determined by management strategy and goals and not opinions of individual supervisors or team leaders. Your management team has likely determined performance standards and your job as a supervisor is to translate the information from management into workable behavioral standards for your agents. 

Knowing what the “healthy” or ideal performance looks like enables you to identify when an agent’s performance is “unhealthy” and in need of some type of intervention to facilitate improvement. 

Defining these performance standards is a group activity. These performance standards will need to be consistent across the center and probably not unique to your team. You probably won’t define these by yourself, but will work with other members of the management team to define standards for the entire center.

It’s dangerous to define expectations and performance goals based on your own personal management style. It would be difficult for your call center or your company to survive if all the managers and supervisors had their own individual styles of management and performance expectations. The overall performance management process and defined standards in place must support the company’s mission and goals. Different management policies and performance standards will only serve to confuse the staff and cause inefficiencies in the workplace.

As Aubrey Daniels points out in the book Bringing Out the Best in People, imagine a doctor saying “I’ve developed my own operational style. I’m going to operate on your brain a little differently than other surgeons would. I’ve had a few real successes with this technique, so don’t worry.”  Or suppose you’re on a plane and pilot announces that he’s going to land a little differently than FAA procedures require based on his flying preferences.  Performing surgery or flying a plane requires precision and the use of established processes. Managing people’s behaviors is just as important to your business and therefore should not be made up of a wide collection of subjective approaches based on each manager’s or supervisor’s own personal style. 

Performance standards should be defined that explain what is expected of every person in the call center. Agents on one team that take the same kinds of calls as another team should have their performance judged in the same way, even though they work for two different supervisors. The standards should define what is expected in terms of desired behaviors and each supervisor should measure actual performance against those same standards. Every supervisor should follow the same steps of diagnosis and treatment. Employees must see in practice, not just in theory, that the same performance is expected of everyone. They should know that their performance will be evaluated in the same way, and that rewards and consequences will be applied consistently.

Performance management is a science that works well for management, as well as for the employees. It helps shape desired performance to achieve business results, and it guarantees fair and consistent treatment for  Quantitative and Qualitative Standards

The performance management process involves establishing clear expectations about the essential job functions the employee is expected to perform and then breaking down those job functions into clearly defined behavioral expectations and standards.

Quantitative Standards

The easiest expectations to define are the quantitative standards of performance for your organization. It’s fairly easy to define a range of numbers in which you expect a person to fall within various categories.  A list of quantitative measures and a sample range for each is listed in the table below. (Note: The numbers listed in the table are not meant to indicate “industry averages” or suggested standards. They only indicate a number.)

The categories listed in the table represent the common categories of performance upon which an agent might be measured. These expectations of performance should be defined for each unique position in the center, with careful thought given to what an unacceptable number would be, what constitutes satisfactory performance, and what level of performance would be considered exceptional performance.  

Most call center measures tend to focus on quantitative performance measures, not because they’re more important, but simply because they’re easy to obtain. It’s also more of a black and white definition of whether an employee met an expectation or not. However, much of what defines success in the mind of the customer has to do with how well the call was handled, and that expectation points to qualitative measures of performance.

Qualitative Standards

It is a much more difficult task to define qualitative standards of performance since definitions of quality tend to be more subjective in nature.  For example, everyone would agree that agents should exhibit good telephone etiquette on a call, but two different people may have two different definitions about what constitutes good telephone manners.

Below are a few samples of competencies associated with providing quality service over the telephone:

  • Adapt the call to the customer’s tone and pace.
  • Project a positive and professional corporate image.
  • Demonstrate a supportive approach when dealing with customers.
  • Maintain control of the conversation to balance service with efficiency.

Everyone would agree that these are certainly reasonable and desirable expectations. However, each of the above expectations needs to be defined in more detail in order to be a clear performance standard. 

For example, you probably need to define in more specific terms what is meant by adapting the call to the customer’s tone and pace. A full definition of that expectation should be provided, along with sample behaviors of what to do and what not to do, as illustrated below:

Another example might be the expectation of displaying a positive, professional corporate image. That phrase alone leaves much room for interpretation about what is meant by “professional” or what contributes to corporate image. Defining this expectation with a full definition and examples of positive and negative behaviors will make the expectation clearer, and therefore more likely to happen.

Defining the standards down to this behavioral level will accomplish two things. First, it will make it much clearer to your employees what to do and what not to do on a call. One of the reasons that employees don’t live up to performance expectations is that sometimes they really don’t understand what the expectations are. Too much is left up to the employee to figure out what would be appropriate or not.  The more ambiguity you can remove, the clearer they will be on what to do, and be more likely to meet the performance expectation. Be as precise as possible with your definition and give both positive and negative examples.

The other benefit of having performance standards defined all the way down to the behavioral level is that it will make performance evaluation much easier for you and other supervisors. Scoring a call becomes a matter of checking yes or no for the display of the behaviors you want to see, with little room for interpretation about whether an employee met the expectation or not. It’s a much easier process for you and a much fairer process for the employees.

Defining performance expectations to this level takes time, but it is well worth the effort. It helps each employee better understand what to do, and ensures fairness and consistency in the evaluation process. Having these definitions in place reduces the possibility that you can judge two employees differently based on personal feelings about those individuals. The evaluation process becomes a matter of judging a set of behaviors and not an individual.

Once the performance standards are set, it’s time to observe actual behaviors on the job and compare back to these standards to identify performance gaps as well as instances where the employee is performing well to be reinforced.

Penny Reynolds was Co-Founder of The Call Center School and is a popular speaker and writer in the area of call center operations. Recently retired, she serves as an Educational Advisor to SWPP and QATC, continuing to provide thought leadership and training to the call center community. She can be reached at or at 615-812-8410.