There Are No Call Centers in Nirvana

I read a post a week or two ago that stuck with me because I found it so off-target. The author, consultant and lecturer argued against any kind of QA process as if it was akin to the inquisition (granted, I’ve met some QA coaches who would make great Inquisitors). In this person’s prescription for success, Businesses should forget accountability and do away with expectations. To paraphrase, their creed is "give your front-line employees the empowerment to ‘delight’ the customer and unleash them to do so". In their happy little world the front line will immediately smile and do all the right things to delight the customer.

I wonder if this person is an academic. They certainly have never managed a call center.

Yesterday I had a wonderful lunch with a veteran call center manager. She told me about a team she led that seemed never to do what was expected, until the company provided a financial incentive. Her story reminded me of a grumpy, negative, angry-at-life CSR whom I once coached. This person was belligerent and combative with both me and the customers. Then one month I began analyzing this persons calls and it was like they had changed over night. They were doing everything I had been pleading with them for years to do. I anxiously approached the next coaching session, curious about what had prompted the sudden change. The company had attached a sizable monetary bonus to the CSR’s annual quality scores. "I want the money" they said with a scowl.

While both of these stories appall me as a person, they illustrate why Quality Assessment is, indeed, necessary. Call Centers aren’t located in Nirvana, and most human beings aren’t naturally motivated or equipped to "delight" customers just because they are given the empowerment to do so.

Flickr photo courtesy of Blackett

  11 comments for “There Are No Call Centers in Nirvana

  1. January 19, 2007 at 3:53 pm

    They sound like brand vampires to me…all they want to do is drain the life out of customer, the employer and the brand.

  2. January 19, 2007 at 5:56 pm

    “give your front-line employees the empowerment to ‘delight’ the customer and unleash them to do so.”
    Wow, Tom.
    That is a hell of a quote…
    It has to be from an ivory tower academic or someone who rarely dons a sweaty headset. That quote comes from the same sort of mindset that says that real evil does not exist, its only a mis-understanding of our higher selves. The truth is that people tend toward ruin and mediocrity if they are never corrected.
    Assuming that call center workers have a core of goodness and light is misguided at best. People need QA, they need praise and they need correction.
    And, as you aptly pointed out, they really change their ways when money is involved.
    Good post Tom.

  3. January 19, 2007 at 6:50 pm

    Three Elements Critical To Motivating Customer Service Employees

    “A river without banks is a puddle.” That’s what I once heard a minister say when talking about the need to set limits for children. The same can be said for setting limits for your employees. (No, I am not…

  4. January 19, 2007 at 10:24 pm

    Thanks for the interesting post, Tom. Always a new challenge to consider! I am intrigued here by the notion of theory or insights that come from research, compared to the notion of rolling out a brilliant call center.
    It seems to me that call center excellence can use theoretic strengths and visa versa. What would it take for these two groups to work together on the best theory and practice that anchor call centers in ways that leads to dynamic improvements for a new era.
    I’d be interested in your ideas?

  5. January 23, 2007 at 11:33 am

    Sorry if my comment about “academic” was offensive, Ellen! You raise a good point. If the person of whom I wrote based their theory on any kind of data, experience or research it was not mentioned.
    My experience in call centers leads me to believe that the vast majority of people will not make behavioral changes without a motivation (positive or negative) to do so. I could also support this position with data from our numerous Service Quality Assessments. The person who wrote the post comes from the position that people will naturally and automatically behave to his expectations if given the opportunity to do so.
    I think the call centers can benefit from theoretic strengths – if the theory is, indeed, strong.

  6. January 24, 2007 at 9:18 pm

    Tom, I cannot imagine an offensive note on your page — it’s where we get our wisdom.
    In fact I love how you raise the hard stuff — because that one – for instance gets missed often! In fact – I am constantly looking for tactics to bring practice and theory to exciting new places together – as it often get stuck on both sides in firms I visit.
    We need deeper integration – and blogs like yours Tom, are the launching pad for the best of that to happen. My thought anyway!
    As for the grumps – hey – they too are on both sides – as I see it. You?

  7. January 25, 2007 at 6:34 am

    Definitely have met a grump or two on both sides of the road, Ellen. Thanks for your comments. One thing I’ve taken from this exchange is that I think some people approach practical problems from the perspective of their ideals.
    I have no problem with ideals. In fact, I’m sure many who know me would accuse me of having my head in the clouds (the air is really refreshing up there). I do, however, take issue with ideals that don’t translate into practical answers for real, everyday issues.
    By the way, my fellow Rotarian, that’s why I like “The Four Way Test”. It helps me put “ideal ideas” to a simple, practical test.

  8. January 25, 2007 at 6:49 pm

    Wow — you and I are so alike in these things! 🙂 Ok – now I know why I like stopping by, Tom – Thanks!
    Heading back over to Ireland in a few days and I just might look up Rotarians there this time if we can squeeze in time:-)

  9. January 25, 2007 at 10:08 pm

    Oh, I’m jealous! I can’t wait to get back to the Emerald Isle someday. Enjoy your time!

  10. February 1, 2007 at 9:11 pm

    Great piece, Tom.
    IMO the basic problem with customer service is that most companies don’t produce quality products or services, with the result that the need for calls to customer service is excessive, beyond what is practical to acequately fund and staff. You end up with underpaid, under-empowered people who hate their jobs and are cynical about dealing with the same issues day in and day out.
    It’s just like it is with software, where it’s MUCH better to PREVENT bugs than to FIX them — and the earlier they are prevented, the less it costs to remediate the problem.
    I recall when my wife’s employer decided to start billing health insurance premiums direct instead of via payroll deduction. We didn’t get a bill, so called about it. It turned out no one was getting bills … it was six months before this billing firm was able to crank out the first bill. Eventually they just put a recording on the line … and eventually I guess people got enormous bills for six months of back premiums. We never found out, because it turned out that we were switched to paper billing in error in the first place … and we were switched back to payroll deduction. Problem is, it took three or four calls to get the premium deductions caught up … anyway, you get the idea.

  11. February 1, 2007 at 10:44 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Bob. You make a very valid point and the experience with your wife’s company is all too common.
    I’ve seen many, many, many situations where lack of internal communication creates similar nightmares for customer service. Marketing decides to run with a new initiative without considering the implications or telling anyone else in the company about it. All of a sudden there’s a backlash of calls and customer service doesn’t have a clue what the customer is talking about.

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