Contact Center Solutions Featured Article

Is It Time for Mass Customization of Call Centers?

June 12, 2009

Recently Dennis Adsit, VP of Business Development for KomBea Corporation, sat down to talk with TMC's David Sims on the sorry state of call centers today, and what might be done about it.

DS: Obviously, we have a lot of problems and issues in the call center industry. In your mind, what's at the core of them?

DA: Before I answer the question, I want to underline the beginning of your statement. The call center industry really does have a lot of problems and I don’t know how you see it, but I don’t feel we are collectively facing them.

Nearly every one you know can tell you a horror story about an interaction with a call center agent that happened within the last year. How many do you know who have a horror story about their car or dishwasher or TV? If CEOs held their call center leaders to the same standards they hold their manufacturing leaders to, I believe every call center leader would be summarily dismissed.

So now, to your question, the industry has a lot of problems, but there is a single issue that the others pale against: between-agent variation. 

DS: Can you unpack that a bit?

DA: Sure. We all know this because we have all experienced it. Some agents are empathetic, some can be downright surly. Some are very experienced, others are brand new and are not prepared. Some are hard to understand and some speak very clearly. Some are focused and listening while others are texting their friends during the call. Some are conscientious and try to do everything right and some are bored and frustrated and only do the required steps if they feel like it. 

These are not just anecdotal observations. There is research to back this up. A 2005 Harvard Business Review article titled "Manage Your Human Sigma" cited a study of 5,000 customer service agents, finding that the customer’s experience still depends almost entirely on the agent who takes the call. According to the study, based on post-contact interviews, the bottom ten percent of agents produced four negative encounters for every three positive ones -- that's almost a 60 percent defect rate. But perhaps even more disheartening, the top ten percent had a 14 percent defect rate. In other words, according to customers, one out of every seven encounters with the very best agents was negative.

DS: I've heard you say "We've been trying to fix this problem for four decades and we still haven’t solved it." What seems to be the sticking points? 

DA: I think there are two reasons we have not made more progress. The primary reason is that there is no sense of urgency about the relatively poor and always inconsistent levels of quality. A kind of learned helplessness hangs around call centers. No one would tolerate it if the quality of their car depended on the plant it was built in. Yet, consumers, call center leaders, and CEOs tolerate the fact that the quality of the experience the customer has is a function of the agent who happens to pick up the phone. It is like seeing the long line at the post office and shrugging your shoulders, we are inured to poor call center service.

I have a friend who is a Director of Human Resources at a well known, hi-tech company. I asked him if the performance of the call centers is discussed during the business reviews. He said, “Yes, for about four minutes. The only question the SVPs ask is whether the managers will be able to keep the service costs down.”

DS: First problem -- execs don't really care.

DA: The second reason call center quality is so variable is that a flawed mental model for how to increase service quality pervades the industry. Because the industry’s improvement model is wrong, the quality never systematically improves.

DS: Can you give an example?

DA: The mental model goes like this: The performance of my center on any output metric like Customer Satisfaction or Call Resolution or Compliance is the sum of the weighted averages of each agent. So, if I can improve the performance of each agent, my center-wide output measures will improve. Given this belief, most centers rely, some almost exclusively, on occasional monitoring and occasional coaching to try to improve the performance of each agent.

This dominant framework is true in theory, but not in practice. Coaching could help an individual agent improve. But given the high turnover that all centers face, center-wide metrics never improve and between-agent variation remains high because every day part of your process improvement investment is quitting and walking out the door.

DS: You like to use the illustration that the industry is living the myth of Sisyphus. I appreciate a man who knows his way around Greek mythology, why do you find this an apt metaphor?

DA: It’s right there in the turnover story. Dave, let's say you’re a call center leader. You realize you need to hire ten new agents, probably because you just had a bunch of agents quit. So you walk down the hall and tell HR to bring in ten more people. HR works hard to hire the best people they can find using expensive hiring screens designed by industrial psychologists. You invest thousands in training them. The agents get on the floor and they are still not performing at the right level. 
So you spend thousands more to record their phone calls and thousands more to have monitors listen to those calls and thousands more taking the agents off the phones to coach them. And they finally start to get up to the level of performance you expect -- not necessarily great performance, satisfactory performance. And then one day, after a few weeks or months, they tell you they're quitting because the job is too tough or they can get more money down the road. You walk down the hall to tell HR to hire a few more. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

If this isn’t the Myth of Sisyphus, what is? 

DS: It does sound like some sort of eternal punishment, yes.

DA: Honestly, I know call center leaders who wonder if there are any openings where Sisyphus works. 

DS: One quote I like is defines "insanity" as doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Why is the call center industry, in your view, insane?

DA: We have been trying to fix the between-agent variation problem for forty years. The industry has and continues to spend billions of dollars every year on this problem. Some try to build and maintain scripts. Some build knowledge bases and search tools for the agents to try to find answers. Some spend money on incentive plans, just trying to get agents to do what they are supposed to do. Some centers do all of these things, and of course everyone records, monitors and coaches.

We visited an offshore center the other day that tied smiley-faced balloons to the agents’ cubes, thinking that this would make them a little happier and that would make them nicer to customers. 

DS: You're making that up, of course.

DA: I'm not joking. What’s the next improvement technique, a lucky rabbit’s foot for everyone’s pocket? Can you imagine if they tried to improve quality at a jet engine manufacturing plant by tying yellow balloons to the tool benches? 

We've spent forty years and untold billions and our industry is still the brunt of late-night jokes on TV. Can call center leaders really look their CEOs, CFOs and CapEx committees in the eyes and with a straight face tell them that if they just spend a little more money on new recording equipment, or monitoring bells and whistles, or between call in-seat training, or improved knowledge-base search tools, or a Web-based incentive plan or some other fix-each-agent-one-at-a-time approach, then they'll see the promised improvements?

One-agent-at-a-time approaches haven’t worked for forty years. If they did, we wouldn’t have the quality and between-agent variation problems we have today. As you say, it would be the definition of insanity to think these methods are going to fix call center quality problems any time soon.

DS: You've said the industry is "sitting on a huge mass customization opportunity." How would you make a thirty-second business case for adoption of mass customization, and in broad strokes, what would that look like?

DA: The benefits of mass customization are obvious: you give your customers more of what they value so they keep coming back to you, that's the customization, while raising the quality and lowering the costs of fulfillment by finding things you can standardize -- that's the mass.

Apply this thinking to the call center industry. Conventional thinking says "Oh, every incoming call is unique, there's no opportunity for standardization." Okay, but for a given type of call, large swathes of each of those calls are exactly the same. Can’t we standardize those parts and just vary what the customer wants or needs us to vary? I mean, car buyers care about color, not about bolts, so car manufacturers use standardized bolts and other sub-assemblies across models.

Look, in call centers, customers want to talk to a live agent to get their unique situation addressed, to get empathy or a solution that eases their suffering. We should absolutely deliver that, fine. But do they care how a required disclosure is provided to them, or how the diagnostic questions to troubleshoot their problem get asked? Of course not.  

For more, be sure to check out Part II of the interview HERE.

David Sims is a contributing editor for ContactCenterSolutions. To read more of David’s articles, please visit his columnist page. He also blogs for ContactCenterSolutions here.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi