Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Two Widely Held and Deeply Flawed Mental Models Perpetuating Call Center Mediocrity

It is no secret that call center industry performance is mediocre at best.  High error-rates are tolerated (see What is an Acceptable Contact Center Error Rate?).  Employees don’t like working in them as evidenced by the high turnover.  And finally when late-night comedians make jokes about the bad service and accents, everyone laughs because everyone has experienced it.

Now lots of industries have market challenges and technology challenges and competition.  And, of course, improving performance is tough everywhere.  Those challenges are expected.  But when it is your own way of thinking that is holding you back, it is time for a reboot.

Two broadly-held mental models and the actions that are taken as a result of those frameworks are at the root of the chronically poor performance that plagues the call center industry.  I’ll describe those limiting mental models and ways to break free.

Flawed Mental Model #1:  Over reliance on One-agent-at-a-Time approaches to Improvement.  The first limiting belief goes something like this: I have 50 or 500 or 5000 agents delivering performance.  Since the overall performance of my center is the weighted average performance of my agents, if I coach them and they improve, then my center-wide metrics will improve. 

This model is true mathematically, but not in practice.  There are actually multiple reasons why this approach won't work, but the simplest explanation it is not true in most call centers is turnover.  Turnover eats the gains that are produced by the coaching and training given to the agents.  (For more, including a link to a simulation, see the debate I had with a consultant and some employees from Nice, the Call Recording company:  Coaching Remains a Labor-in-Vain.)

I am not saying anything new here.  The late quality guru, Edward Deming, warned us about focusing on individuals vs. “the system” three decades ago in one of the greatest management books ever written, Out of the Crisis, a book, I am sadly guessing, few call center leaders have even heard about, let alone read.  

In Deming’s view, most coaching efforts are a form of tampering because they try to make improvements to individual components of what is largely common cause variation. He argued that the overall performance of a unit was much more a function of the quality of materials, process design (including automation and error-proofing), specs, tools, knowledge bases, rewards, operating mechanisms, selection systems, etc – in other words, the “system.” 

Don't believe me or Deming for that matter?  Just ask the purveyors of Quality Monitoring and Coaching programs to show you the ROI:  the value of continuously improving agent output metrics minus the cost of licenses, monitoring personnel, off-phone time.  They can't do it.  Agent metrics are not continuously improving in any call center I have ever been in or run.  So while there is a lot of I there is no R.

Fix #1:  Focus on ways to lift the performance of all the agents at once and leave the individual agents alone.  You read that right:  don’t coach.  Put the bulk of your improvement dollars into fixing the levers that raise the performance of the entire system…hire better, deliver more timely performance data to the agents' desktops so they know where they stand relative to others real-time, let the agents use automation to ensure the call is done correctly, etc.  The only exception to this rule is for agents that are statistically better or worse.  The ones that are statistically better need to be studied for best practices and the ones that are statistically worse need be fixed or terminated. 

Flawed Mental Model #2:  Thinking that every live agent call is unique and can't be, at least partially, standardized.  As detrimental and capital wasting as the over reliance on coaching is, this second belief is even more insidious.  Those who assume calls are unique throw up their hands and believe they can’t define a call handling process because customers call for different reasons….the order in which they ask their questions is different…they require different levels of explanation….they have different needs for hand-holding and small talk. Leaders holding this belief think that the variation in agent outputs is, in part, due to the high input variation.  This gives them comfort and they think it lets them off the hook.  It doesn't.

Henry Ford was afraid of input variation and he had a unique way of dealing with it.  He said, "Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black."  In other words, he stamped out input variation to keep his costs down and his factories running smoothly.  

We don’t live in Henry’s world anymore.  To maximize revenue opportunities, we have to be responsive to as many of the unique needs and wants of customers as possible.  To do this means that we have to design our fulfillment operations to deliver the variation that our clients define as valuable at the lowest possible cost. 

Once car manufacturers realized they could not get away with just offering black cars, how did they respond?  They noticed that customers didn't want to vary everything.  Car customers care about features like the color, the stereo system, sunroofs, and performance wheels; they don't seem to care much about bolts, gas caps, and axles.  When we compare one Toyota Corolla to another, while of course they are not alike, most of those two cars are exactly the same.  

Yes, each call is different, but for a given type of call, aren't large swaths of those calls exactly the same?  If you lose your CapitalOne credit card and I lose my Capitlal One credit card, the two calls will be differet but probably 60+% of what we want the agents to say to the customers and do in their systems is exactly the same.  Can't we standardize those parts and just vary what the caller wants and needs us to vary?  

Callers want a live agent to address something unique about their situation, or they want someone to listen and provide empathy.  We should absolutely deliver what they value.  Do they care how a required disclosure is provided to them?  After handling hundreds of millions of calls with agent-assisted automation I can tell you unequivocally that customers don't care how disclosures are provided to them.

Without a changing how we are looking at calls, we are never going to get out of where we are today, which is thinking that each incoming call is as unique as a snowflake, that no process can be defined for the agents to execute, and as a result, our calls are riddled with sub optimizations: 
  • Don't automate the greeting and the ending to ensure that it is branded correctly every time; hope the tired and bored agents don't mess it up. And if Marketing decides to change the messaging, really what does it matter if it takes us three months to get every agent doing it on every call?  That's pretty fast, isn't it?
  • Don't prerecord the disclosures; hope the agents read it word-for-word without accent issues interfering with callers' understanding.  We can just have yet another calibration meeting to define yet another standard that we will be lucky if the agents do 85% of the time.  And besides don't the agents really like reading the same information over and over again 50, 80, 100 times a day?  And for those that don't like it, aren't there more where they came from?
  • Don't use technology to ensure that the right cross-sell offer is made at the right time every time; hope your fancy variable comp plan counteracts the unyielding pressure put on agents to reduce their talk time.  And if they don't do the cross-sell every time, so what if we are leaving a little money on the table?
  • Don't pre-record the diagnostic questions and provide the logical sequencing of those questions with automation that the agents can't blow off or blow through.  Heck just have them return the unit...we don't need to care about that since those costs show up somewhere else in the company.
  • Don’t get the customers to enter their Credit Card numbers with their phone key pads so the agent can’t hear or see the number.  Make the customer read it to the agent and then just call the lawyers when the agents get caught stealing the numbers. (My agents don't steal credit card numbers!  Please see and ).  
  • Don't error-proof the step reminding the caller to "remove any software before returning the unit" so that message gets delivered to every customer returning a unit; we don't need to care about that since the angry letters and calls from customers about their missing software go to the CEO’s office. 
Fix #2:  The title of this blog is that it doesn’t have to be this way and it doesn't!  Stop thinking a call is either automated (handled by the IVR) or it is live.  Look for ways to standardize parts of the call that the customer doesn’t care about with automation the agent can drive.  This will make those parts of the call faster, easier to understand, 100% accurate and reliable and it will give your agents a chance to rest.  Error-proof parts of the call where mistakes have nasty consequences (PR problems, legal issues, fines, angry letters to the CEO).  And then let the agent focus on and deliver what the customer deeply cares about…having someone listen, provide empathy, and guide them through the correct resolution of their problem.

It is bad enough to shoot yourself in the foot.  It is really bad if you reload so it’s likely you’ll do it again.  The industry is hog-tying itself with it's own antiquated mental models.  Our agents, our customers and our shareholders can't stand this intolerably bad performance much longer.  Time for Ctrl + Alt + Delete.


  1. I agree that much of call center management 'improvement' is just tweaking and makes no real productively or cost improvement while increasing consult frustration. In addition to the points you have suggested I'm also a big fan on focussing on the bottom and top groupings.....the top to identify best practice and the bottom to standardise and move up, or out.

    1. Hi David, long as by top and bottom, you mean statistically different. Too often i feel call center leaders arbitrarily decide to reward the "top 10%" or up-or-out the bottom 25%. I would prefer to find those agents that statistically stand out. You can read more here:

      thanks for weighing in.