Deming Not DiMaggio

Call Center quality is abysmal.  And it has been for the entire forty years the call center industry has been in existence.  We can make cars with near perfect quality, but after 40 years, call center leaders are high-fiving each other up and down the hallway if call agents do what they are supposed to do 80% of the time.

If this is news to you, you have not had to call for tech support recently.  If you need some fresh perspectives, read the comments to this article published in the NYTimes November 26, 2011.

There are a stack of reasons why call center quality is so bad.  Pick the top call driver, ask what the Required Call Components (RCCs) are…what the agents need to do in their systems and what they need to say to the customers…and ask what % of time the RCCs are met just on that one top call driver.  (RCCs are as essential to call center quality as specs are to manufacturing quality.)

Here is what you are likely to get back.  The RCCs will not have been clearly defined or not agreed on by SMEs, training, monitoring, agents and most important, customers. On the outside chance that the RCCs are defined, you are more likely to find flying pigs than a center tracking RCC performance by call type.  As for seeing the data on run or control charts, they won’t even know what those terms mean, let alone have them.

Even if a center had all that data, and you produced a Pareto chart on the reasons why agents do not properly execute the RCCs, would find the same reasons you find behind all human errors:  1) the agents weren’t completely clear on the requirements, 2) they were distracted by something else and/or just forgot, or 3) they didn’t want to (e.g., collectors often skip the required mini-Miranda warnings because they have learned they are more likely to collect if they don’t scare the debtor off at the top of the call…sad, I know).

Now at this point, with RCCs being missed right and left on call after call, a center is likely to spend a lot of time and money on a host of countermeasures, in a kind of “spray and pray” approach.  Typical shotgun strategies include posting signs reminding the agents what to do, putting an incentive plan in place, pulling the agents off the phone for training or coaching.  You also might find them trying to make the work place more enjoyable by hanging yellow smiley balloons or getting the supervisors to cook hot dogs for the agents (I am not kidding about either of these approaches.  And the centers that did these things honestly felt like this was an effective way to improve quality).

On the other hand, call center leaders could do what Manufacturing leaders do:  look for automation opportunities that can error-proof the process so it’s easy for the agents to do what they are supposed to and impossible to blow it even if they tried.  (Click here to read more about types of agent-assisted automation and results.)

Error-proofing or spray and pray, which do you think would be a better strategy?  Sadly, the number one call center quality improvement strategy is hope. They send an email and they hope the agents read it and remember to do it. They train and they hope. They coach and they hope. They come up with a fancy incentive comp system and they hope.  They cook hot dogs and they hope.  By choosing hope over error-proofing, is it any wonder call center experiences are a favorite whipping boy for late-night comedians?

Some of you are probably howling that I don’t know what I am talking about.  “Call centers don’t rely on hope!  They use scripts to make sure the call is right.”

Fair enough.  Scripts are better than a sharp stick in the eye, but this isn’t the stuff of Six Sigma quality.  There are dozens of failure paths that lead to the script not being executed as designed:

  1. the agents have trouble reading legalese, especially in a second language, so don’t read it correctly or skip it
  2. the agents memorize the script and then don’t even notice when things change.
  3. the agents are texting or surfing, and skip it
  4. the agents feel reading the script hurts their performance (think sales or collections where disclosures can result in the customer backing out)
  5. the agents blast through the disclosures to reduce their handle time…if they are speaking in a second language, the accent and speed can make the disclosures almost unintelligible.

You could, of course, just fire the bottom x% of agents that weren’t doing what you wanted them to. But there are at least two problems with this. First, how do you find the agents you want to fire? You have to hire a bunch of monitors (read as, inspectors…didn’t manufacturing get rid of the “end of the line” inspectors?) and they have to monitor lots of calls to get a large enough sample for each agent.

Second, focusing on and/or firing the bottom 20% is rather un-Deming-like, no? Ed Deming’s approach to quality is what transformed Japanese manufacturing from a backwater to the juggernaut that it is today.  Central to his approach was the notion that the system is the problem, not the individual workers operating in that system.  The bottom 20%, at any given time, are part of the normal variation of that system’s performance.  (As an aside, a consultant could make a lot of money taking call center leaders through Deming’s Red Bead experiment, showing how counterproductive, demoralizing, and futile it is to focus on the bottom x%.)

Speaking of Deming, I don’t know if there is a required reading list for call center leaders, but if there is one, I do know that Deming’s Out of the Crisis is not on that list.  What he wrote three decades ago in that book about the Quality crisis in American manufacturing and the way out of the wilderness is as true of and applicable to Call Centers today as it was to the automotive industry in the early 80s.  Specs.  Performance tracked over time against those specs.  Make changes to the “System” (error-proofing with automation).  Lather.  Rinse.  Repeat.  This is Quality 101.

In 1968, Simon and Garfunkel wrote Mrs. Robinson, where they captured the longing for guidance of a nation in the throes of a controversial war and social unrest with he lyrics, “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

The call center industry is in the throes of a crisis too, one they have been in for decades that is showing no signs of appreciable improvement and one largely of their own making.  The call center nation does not need to look towards a towering role model of kindness, grace, and dignity like Joe DiMaggio. They need to turn their eyes to the writings of Ed Deming, a results-oriented pragmatist.  Joe DiMaggio entertained the world.  Ed Deming changed it.

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