Friday, May 15, 2009

Wag the Dog: Why are we Letting Agent Traits Control Call Center Outputs?

I stumbled on a piece of research about how agent traits affect output measures of performance (When Conscientiousness Isn’t Enough: Emotional Exhaustion and Performance Among Call Center Customer Service Representatives).

Here is my high-level summary of the results of the study…if you use measures of conscientiousness to screen/hire, it will, in general, improve your center-wide quality scores.  However, when the agents start to get burned-out, (because of the fact that you hired agents that were more conscientious) your productivity will be even more sharply reduced. 

There are however broader implications from this study.  The paper highlights how agent conscientiousness and agent burnout affect performance.  Well, raw intelligence affects performance and degree of domain specific content knowledge affects performance and distractibility affects performance and personality affects performance and "thickness of accent" affects performance and mood affects performance and motivation affects performance and on and on and on. 

Now of course there is nothing wrong with studying employee traits to find out the ones that have the biggest effect on performance and then using that information to design selection tests to try to raise the level of performance in your centers by raising the presence of that trait.  This approach has an unassailable track record of success (see Take the Guesswork Out of Hiring) and this approach has been the bread and butter of Industrial Psychology consulting firms large (see Personnel Decisions) and small (see All About Performance) for decades.

But the bigger question is this: why are call center leaders leaving their outputs at the mercy of so many variables they can’t control?  And the industry’s attempt to deal with the challenge…to attack the endless drivers of agent variation (motivation, knowledge, conscientiousness, mood, intelligence, etc) with one-off efforts...a new selection test here, a rah-rah team meeting there, free pizza and doughnuts, occasional coaching a fool’s errand at best. 

Agent output metrics in the call center industry will be permanently hog-tied at an embarrassingly low level until we can figure out a cost effective way to reduce the effects of between-agent variation. Selection tests help reduce this variation, but they are not enough.  Standardizing large swaths of our agents’ process using agent-assisted automation is not only the most effective and cost-efficient approach, it is the only sane solution I have seen to date.

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