Norfolk Southern Boosts Contact Center Efficiency and Productivity with VPI Recording, Intelligent Quality Monitoring & Speech Analytics

Customer: Norfolk Southern Corporation

Industry: Transportation

State: GA


Business Profile

Norfolk Southern operates 20,000 route miles in 22 states and D.C., supports international trade with service to every major Eastern seaport, 10 river ports, and nine lake ports, and operates the most extensive intermodal network in the East. Its heritage spans over two centuries.

The company’s vision is to "be the safest, most customer-focused, and successful transportation company in the world."

Norfolk Southern is committed to providing an injury- free work environment, delivering customers’ products efficiently and reliably, and being a good corporate citizen.


Contact Center Managers at Norfolk Southern have always been driven by quality improvement goals. Quality Evaluations were conducted on calls that had to be recorded for compliance purposes. Evaluators used a system of QA ratings that leveraged Access Database. While each evaluator had a prescribed number of calls to evaluate each month, they would often resent this work and put it off until the end of the month, when it could be no longer postponed. It was not unusual to see upwards of 100 of calls still awaiting evaluation at the end of each month.

Evaluators used the “hunt-and-peck” method for finding calls to evaluate. When they came upon a call that was not handled very well by a crew member, they would drop that call from their evaluation process and look for another one that sounded better. This was to avoid confrontation with agents and with labor unions. Long calls were avoided too, because evaluator time is very expensive. But so is the agent’s time, especially on long calls! These challenges were among the major reasons for evaluators disliking their jobs. And – management knew that their insights from quality evaluations were rather skewed.


Norfolk Southern set out to restructure their contact center processes and technologies for better efficiency and objectivity. VPI EMPOWER Suite of software solutions was selected, and initially implemented for recording of crew member communications – both internal and external. At VPI User Conference in 2013, managers from Norfolk Southern saw a light ahead for their contact centers. “When we first came to VPI’s User Conference, we were so overwhelmed with how much can the VPI system do for us, we were writing down all this new information and wondering – where do we start?” said Jack Fuller, Norfolk Southern’s Crew Manager. “We have set out to try the QA automation process using the business rules. This was to increase the efficiency for the evaluators, especially since their job description includes many other responsibilities as well. “

Due to the laborious nature of QA evaluation prior to the VPI automation, evaluators tended to delay evaluations until the end of their day, or even the next day (or the day after that). Norfolk Southern managers learned that setting up the business rules that automatically select recorded calls for QA evaluations was a very easy process. “It took us literally only about 30 minutes, once we’ve established our criteria up front,” said Fuller. “And, once you’ve set up one rule, you can do others even faster. As soon as you set up your criteria, the rules begin to run. What I found is that when our evaluators come to work in the morning and log in, they see that their calls have been already selected for them, they are already queued up. So, instead of waiting until the end of the month, they just get the evaluations done right away. After all, it only takes a few minutes per call, and it is as easy as 1-2-3 to get the evaluations done.”

Contact centers at Norfolk Southern receive about 500,000 inbound calls per month – those are the calls most likely to involve customer-agent communications. They started the new quality monitoring process with inbound calls only; those that had their duration at three minutes or less. “It is a truly random process now,” stressed Fuller. “This was explained to all employees up front. Agents can no longer accuse evaluators of choosing bad calls, picking on some people more than others, or showing preferences for specific agents. Now we can better understand the areas where agents may need to improve and can offer the right coaching support. Our evaluators no longer dislike their jobs!”


Calls are automatically selected, scheduled, and presented to each evaluator in their personalized to-do interface – they only see calls by the agents who are assigned to them They also see their deadline and a link directly to the call playback and QA form.

 The Value of Positive Reinforcement

Norfolk Southern implemented a concept called behavior-based leadership. Instead of scheduling meetings with crew members to criticize them for their bad calls, they look for ways to encourage and affirm them in what they do well. When they sit down to listen to their own phone calls, it is never about responding to being berated. Managers just ask them: “You listen to your call and tell me what you think and what opportunities for improvements you see.” Agents are usually a bit tougher on themselves than their managers are on them. “We give them positive reinforcement and follow up with them to help them with their needs,” said Fuller. “The bottom line is that now that we implemented the automated QA process, everyone feels more positive about QA.” Fuller truly appreciates the value of the new evaluation process. “All of our 12 evaluators clearly like this new system much better than the old method, as they save at least

50% of their QA time by eliminating manual call searches and no longer feel pressured to back out of a QA evaluation if it’s a bad call. They lean on objectivity of automated selection. If our agents want to complain about the calls that were selected for QA, they can complain to the computer that made the selection.”

Calibration and Coaching 

Now that the problematic calls are no longer avoided or hidden until the end of a month, weekly agent coaching and learning is more continuous and is more readily perceived as teamwork.

“Our coaching is positive whenever possible,” explained Fuller. “And when it cannot be positive, then it’s constructive. Response to the process has been overwhelmingly positive. Agents no longer feel like a big brother is spying on them.”

Managers at Norfolk Southern now calibrate their evaluation forms in staff meetings to reduce variations among evaluators and to improve consistency. They use VPI’s QA Calibration interface which is a built-in feature of the QA software. It automatically tabulates each evaluator’s ratings, calculates deviations, and presents the findings in graphical, interactive reports.

“When we playback calls for calibration, we remove the agent ID data and disguise the voice to protect an agent’s dignity,” said Fuller. “As a result of our calibrations, we’ve benchmarked our evaluators and narrowed the scope of options available for answers under each QA question. Now we have clear standards for everybody.”

Transparency with Real Time Data

“One thing we’ve learned about at VPI User Conference is real-time tickers,” said Fuller. “These were very useful to help us avoid end-of-month complaints about employee QA grades and other statistics. Our crew dispatch members would say “what do you want me to do about it NOW?” Today, we have our tickers configured for presenting data that is automatically collected from our CRM system.”

Agents at Norfolk Southern can now see the number of their inbound and outbound calls and other statistics in a personalized ticker displayed right above their CRM application. This allows them to monitor their performance at any time during their workday. Fuller adds: “Tickers remind them to be more efficient, especially if queues become long. This gives our crew members some actionable intelligence and encourages desirable behaviors. We can also give them timely recognition for positive results – within the same day. And we also see who needs help and can promptly intervene. We use the messaging feature as well, to send alerts and reminders to our employees and require acknowledgment. We see this as yet another element of positive reinforcement – give people as much information as they need to succeed.


Dispatch Crew members can monitor their personal and team metrics in a ticker right above their CRM application interface.

There are two ACDs in use at Norfolk Southern – one for hotline calls and the other is dedicated to processing normal calls. The tickers are customized to show data from both. “In my opinion, the most important thing is not to just display data, but provide meaningful information to your employees, as it pertains to each of them,” explained Fuller.

 Speech Analytics

The next step for Norfolk Southern was the deployment of speech analytics to complement the intelligence provided by other modules of VPI EMPOWER. The implementation process started with defining the context and categories for automated organization of call recordings into groups based on topics of phone conversations. “Speech analytics gives us not just a phrase or a word, but what do the statements made in a conversation really mean,” explained Fuller. “For example, in our center, we are always looking for conversations that concern hours of service, because extended hours pose liability. Employees are not to operate trains after 12 hours of work, at which point they are required to rest.”

Considering this liability, Norfolk Southern selected a speech category to automatically track those calls that may reveal non-compliance. “This is very exciting for us, a high priority at this time, especially since we can now catch the calls that deal with regulatory requirements and operational incidents and procedures,” said Fuller.

Expert services from MainTrax were engaged to help with the definition of category keywords and key phrases. Content of each category was thoroughly documented. “I would advise any contact center that deploys speech analytics to really think through their categories for organizing recordings into. This is important so you can find the right calls and trends and measure insights, so you can find surprises before they find you. We can also define separate categories that are interesting to different managers,” added Fuller.

By combining insights from speech analytics and business data tagged to calls, Norfolk Southern managers have different perspectives on information, which helps tem refine what they are looking for.

“In general, speech analytics by itself can be at best about 75% accurate no matter what software we’d use, and so the addition of business data in analysis brings the value of insights much higher,” added Fuller. “There are about 5-6 key pieces of business data that we attach to each call, in addition to the call subject category from speech analytics. We can then report on calls based on both, business data and speech categories. The more data we have, the easier it is for us to find what we need.”

Management at Norfolk Southern is now able to extract business insights from speech analytics based on keywords and phrases, as well as category and content searches, combined with the business intelligence from CRM data. New, unexpected insights were gained in the process as well, such as support for revenue collections and documentation issues in conversations where technical issues were expected to occur.





Significant Benefits

Norfolk Southern managers plan to further leverage the information being collected to enhance automated processes such as adding rules to QA call selection per call type and content and enhanced reporting.

“It is working really well now. All of us are receiving the information we need. We reduced employee complaining, and have become more productive. We will expand the scope of metrics in tickers, wallboards and reports as the benefit of our interaction analytics project.” concluded Fuller.