The Horse/Cart Problem in Call Centers

There are horses and there are carts and getting them ordered properly makes all the difference.

Unfortunately, when it comes to improving center-wide outputs, call centers often have the cart in front of the horse and the impact is predictable.

That explains something important about call center results.  If you ask call center leaders to put up their one or two most important customer measures and their one or two most important shareholder measures and you ask them to graph them over time, you will likely observe two outcomes:  1) performance is mediocre (for example 85% compliance with required call components is often considered quite good in many centers), and 2) those mediocre measures are treading water…there is rarely any evidence of continuous improvement in the most critical center metrics.

Moreover, Call Center performance has been this way for decades.  The problems have existed for so long and management has become so inured that they have just unplugged the smoke alarms.  Why it is not viewed as a crisis is astonishing.

Though there is rarely evidence of continuous improvement in call center output measures, there is no lack of improvement projects throughout call centers. Every single call center on Earth has projects underway to increase performance.  They could be technology upgrades.  They could be the never ending calibration meetings that will be used to evaluate agents.  They could even be fairly sophisticated Black Belt-lead DMAIC improvement projects.

Nothing wrong with any of these efforts. All might be needed.  All might even deliver value.  But make no mistake, they are all versions of  “the cart.”

Dr. W. Edwards Deming, the late godfather of quality and operations improvement, the one who is credited with resurrecting Japanese manufacturing, talked very little about “carts.”  Sure, he was a huge advocate of Plan-Do-Study-Act…his version of DMAIC…and a big proponent of control charts to understand variation at the worker and system levels. These were definitely cart-like elements he often discussed.

But the bulk of his recommendations focused on Leadership, their values, and the organizational “system” they created to deliver results.  For Deming, those elements were “the horse.”   If you really wanted to deliver value for customers and improve quality, productivity and shareholder returns, Deming was unrelenting in insisting that leadership get the System “horse” in front of the “cart” of improvement projects.

Deming’s two big horses were 1) “Constancy of Purpose” and 2) his “System of Profound Knowledge.”  Is the call center’s purpose clear?  Is it articulated top to bottom?  Is there a constancy of effort towards achieving that purpose?    Is there any evidence it is being achieved?

Once you have a Constancy of Purpose, whatever it is, he argued his System of Profound Knowledge was the best way to achieve it.  According to Deming, the four elements of Profound Knowledge were: Understanding (Inputs-Process-Outputs) Systems, Understanding Variation, the Psychology of Change, and the Theory of Knowledge.

Deming laid responsibility for quality and performance measures at the feet of management because management designed the System that generates those outputs.  Yes, a call center’s outputs are the weighted average of each agent’s individual performance, but it is Management that decides whom to hire, how much to pay them, how much to train and coach them, how well the agents’ systems work together, the tools and resources the agents have at their disposal, and on and on.

Completely contrary to Deming’s exhortations, call center management does just the opposite.  They have the agents under a microscope.  Everything they say and do is monitored.  They are rewarded, but also sometimes threatened under the flawed and destructive mental model that by trying to improve the performance of each agent, the overall performance of the center will improve (I have written extensively about this.  For more information, please do a search for articles and online discussions on The Futility of Call Center Coaching).

Deming would ask, instead of the agents, why aren’t the designers of the system being constantly monitored  to see if their decisions are actually improving call center outputs?

We  have a Call Center Capability/Maturity model assessment that we walk through with call center leadership teams that are ready to look in the mirror.  It is built around the same principles Dr. Deming used to revitalize this nation’s moribund manufacturing industry.  The model places the emphasis on evaluating the system designed by management that produces, good or bad, the outputs of the call center.

It would be impossible to go through the details of the model here.  The full capability/maturity  model has 16 dimensions and standards for Good-Better-Best that have been tested and verified in call centers.  Here are a few themes with links back to Deming’s framework:

1) Accountable Leadership:  Once constancy of purpose has been defined, does leadership have the willingness to a) define the metrics that indicate progress on that purpose, b) display those metrics on longitudinal charts (preferably control charts), and c) publicly state whether they are getting better, getting worse or treading water? (Constancy of Purpose, Understanding of Variation, Theory of Change)

2) Causality at the System Level.  Since Y = f(X) (i.e., Y is a function of X), once the Big Y output metrics have been defined and plotted, what is the management team’s theory of the Xs that drive those Ys?  Is it written down?  Is it testable?  If you are able to drive systematic improvements in X’s, do you see any change in the key employee, customer, and shareholder Ys?  If not, does your “theory of the system” need updating? (Understanding Systems, Theory of Knowledge)

3) Agent Management:  Since you think agents are so critical to your success that your are constantly monitoring them, timing their bathroom breaks, and making sure they are exactly where they are supposed to be at every moment, how much effort actually goes into ensuring you are hiring the best agents and making it so the best agents don’t want to get off the phones as soon as they can? Is there any effort to look for real statistical differences in agent performance vs. the typical (and destructive) top/bottom 20% view that every single system produces? (Psychology of Change)

4) Process…Designing Quality In:  Have the Required Call Components (RCCs) been defined by call type?  Do the agents know, by call type, exactly what they are supposed to do in their system and say to customers?  Do you just hope the agents do what they are supposed to or have you done any error-proofing to bake quality into the process thus ensuring that at least some of the RCCs are done exactly right on every call? (Understanding Systems, Psychology of Change)

There are many more dimensions, but I hope this gives you a flavor for why Deming was so focused on the System and its design and so much less concerned with the individual workers in that system.

It is this kind of thinking that helped Japanese manufacturing rise from the rubble of WWII into a global juggernaut.  Once the US woke up, these exact same principles also rebuilt American manufacturing after it got its lunch eaten by the Japanese in the 70s and 80s.

Deming’s framework, tailored to call centers, can easily do the same for any leadership team that is tired of seeing their barely mediocre output measures continue to tread water.

Need convincing?  Look no further than the title of Deming’s seminal publication on his approach:  Out of the Crisis.

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Why the Call Center Nation Needs to Turn its Lonely Eyes to Ed Deming

Call Center quality is abysmal…you could do what Manufacturing does and error-proof the process so it was easy for the agents to do what they are supposed to and impossible to blow it even if they want to.

Call Center quality is abysmal.  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 today, 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 (specs) 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 top call driver.

You are likely to find that the RCCs have not been clearly defined or are not agreed on by SMEs, training, monitoring, agents and most important, customers. On the outside chance that they are defined, you are more likely to find flying pigs than a center tracking RCCs by call type on run or control charts.

But if you did muscle your way to that point on even one call driver, your Pareto would find that the agents either didn’t know what they were supposed to do or they just forgot or in some cases didn’t want to (collectors often skip the 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 that point a center could spend a lot of time on countermeasures such as posting signs or putting an incentive plan in place or pulling the agents of the phone for training or coaching and, after one or all three of these interventions, hoping the agents perform correctly.

OR, you could do what Manufacturing does and error-proof the process so it was easy for the agents to do what they are supposed to and impossible to blow it even if they want to.

Which option do you think call centers most choose 99+% of the time? That’s right; the number one call center quality strategy is hope. They send an email and they hope. They train and they hope. They coach and they hope. They come up with a fancy incentive comp system 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 his/her performance (think sales or collections where disclosures can result in the customer backing
  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 can read more here.

You could, of course, just fire the 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, firing all the workers is rather un-Deming-like, no? He said the system is the problem and there may be no better example than call centers for a system design that fails employees, customers and shareholders.

On this last point, I don’t know what the required reading list is for call center leaders, but I do know that Deming’s Out of the Crisis is not on that list. Call Centers, more than any other complex operation I have worked with, focus on the EE more than the system.

There are multiple proof points for this. The over reliance on monitoring and coaching (do factories videotape workers and give them feedback once or twice a month as the primary quality improvement strategy?) and the excessive focus on the bottom x% are two glaring examples.  As an aside, someone really needs to take call center leaders through Deming’s Red Bead experiment to show them how counterproductive, demoralizing, and futile it is to focus on the bottom x%.

But it goes even deeper, down to the very mental model call center leaders have about their operation. It goes something like “since my center wide metrics are a function of the weighted average performance of each of the agents, if I can improve each agent, I can improve my overall metrics.” This is true in theory, but not in practice. I am sure the readers of this blog need no proof, but if you are a propeller head (and I am), this can be easily (if you are Tom Pyzdek’s son!) shown mathematically  here.

The call center nation does not need to turn their lonely eyes to Joe DiMaggio. They need to turn their eyes to Ed Deming’s writing.  It is the only way out of the crisis they have been living in for forty years.

 

 

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Not So Young Frankenstein

Let’s say you were a modern day Dr. Frankenstein and you decided you wanted to bring an organizational creature to life.  Let’s further say you were a nefarious Dr. Frankenstein and the organizational creature you wanted to bring to life was one that continuously produced errors…lots of them…day in and day out.  What would go into the design of an error-producing organizational machine?

First, you would have hundreds of detailed processes that the people in the organization would be expected to perform.  Forcing people to execute lots of different process with lots of details increases the probability of errors.

Second, you would not define a standard of what constituted the correct way to do each of those processes.  Some processes would be defined. Others would not.  Some processes would ostensibly be defined, but people in the organization would disagree about what really was the correct disposition.  When “correct” is not clear, errors can bloom.

Third, you would have those processes change frequently.  Big changes and little changes…just constant process changes.  This keeps the workers off-balance and increases the chance of errors.

Fourth, you would have poor change control mechanisms.  Processes would change but the changes would not always be effectively communicated.  There would be no master register of changes and no way to effectively determine if all of the updated processes were being correctly followed.  The lack of effective process performance feedback is great for error making.

Finally, on the process side, you would minimize the amount of  automation available to help workers get the details correct.  If something had to be drilled they would have to do it by hand.  No machine to help employees get the exact size hole in the exact spot.  If there were a lot of details to remember, people would just have to suck it up and remember them.  Further, the job aides you did give them would not work well together.  Having old legacy systems that require a lot of cutting and pasting increases the chances for errors.

Let’s move onto the people in this error-producing organization.  A seventh characteristic of a well-designed error making organization would be a low hiring standard.  No college degree required, no employment tests to assess baseline competency.  The lower end of the labor pool is best for higher errors.

After hiring low quality workers, give them poor training.  The training around the processes would be incomplete and the acceptable performance standard for completing the training would be low.  An adequate demonstration of basic competence (70% passing score…which of course is 30% errors) would be enough.  Having poorly trained and mediocre workers makes for really high errors.

Next signal to them that they are low quality by keeping them on a tight leash…make it known that you know when they are a minute late coming back from breaks and lunches…ask them what is wrong if they are in the bathroom too much.  Further send this “you’re completely replaceable” message by telling them that there is a large pool of applicants waiting for their job.

It also helps if you can make the work itself super boring and repetitive.  There is nothing that drives errors better than a boring repetitive job as it leads to steps getting skipped.  Oh and make the environment randomly stressful by, say, workers getting yelled at by customers. High fatigue and stress are great for errors.

Finally, don’t pay the workers that well.  Low wages and no variable compensation for higher performance.  When everyone gets the same no matter how they do and pay is based on tenure, which is another way of saying how long they last, it really helps people not care which feeds the error machine.

And speaking of tenure…since the jobs are boring and stressful, and the workers don’t feel valued, they quit…frequently.  We don’t care about them quitting, because as we told them, “there is more where you came from.”  We want high turnover because it means lots of inexperienced employees which is like oil for the error-machine.

What do you think of our design?  How could an organization designed like this not be a world class error-machine?

This is not a dystopian vision of some “Breaking Bad” science fiction future.  No, this error-making organization exists today.  In fact there are lots of them and they have been around for years.  It’s known as a call center.

I am not trying to be Debbie Downer here.  I am trying to shed light on the fact that the 40-year old paradigm for the design and management of call centers almost guarantees a high error rate.  A call center leader who doesn’t believe her/his organization is an error machine is just plain struthious.

It, of course, doesn’t have to be this way.  The fixes are right in front of us…just do the opposite of what you would do in the design of the error-machine.

The problem is all of those activities drive up short-term costs and many of today’s call center leaders can’t see past that.  It is analogous to when American managers visited Japanese plants in the 80’s where they couldn’t believe that employees had the power and were encouraged to “stop the line” to fix quality problems.  They couldn’t see that the long term cost reductions due to the increase in quality far outweighed the short-term cost increase of interrupting the production run.

One fix with immediate ROI is allowing the agents to use automation.  I go into detail in this post Can a Focus on Getting Calls Right Have the Far-reaching Benefits Just-in-Time Had? listing all the sources of financial return that come with defining “correct” and using automation to ensure the agents handle each call correctly.

There is a lot of talk these days about creating amazing customer service experiences and getting the front-line agents to turn customers into zealots à la Zappos.  I think for many companies and call types, this is the right direction.  But before we ask our agents to love our customers to death, isn’t it important that our agents know how to correctly resolve the customers’ concerns…the correct diagnostic questions, the correct resolution steps, the correct prices, the correct return address, entering the correct information, providing the correct disclosures…not some of the time, but every time?   Can you really fall in love with a car brand that delivers a great service experience if your car is constantly breaking down?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lean Six Sigma for Improving the Contact Center

Contact centers are a natural match for Lean Six Sigma (LSS) as reflected by academic studies

Customer service, as typified by contact centers in which trained company personnel resolve requests from the public, are not always necessarily thought of as having to be well-oiled machines, but that characterization is inaccurate. There is actually a great deal of investment in software, algorithms, analytics, and integration of multiple channels in order to best match a call with staff members that are most equipped to resolve it.

Contact centers are a natural match for Lean Six Sigma (LSS) as reflected by academic studies. Lean Six Sigma in a Call Center: A Case Study, published by business academics in the UK, explores the applicability of LSS in the call-based service industry. One assumption that the study works against is that LSS is not quite that applicable to service sectors as they do not have the precision and replicability of manufacturing processes. However, it is important to note that customer service is prone to slow processes which are inherently subject to the Pareto principle – the “80-20” rule. Removing the crucial 20 percent of inefficient processes should lead to an 80 percent speedup.

Furthermore, lost calls are a significant detriment to productivity, and an inbound quantity of calls that outstrips the service ability of the call center is also a threat to efficiency. The LSS practice of root-cause analysis is naturally suited for reducing the incidence of lost calls and establishing why spikes in call volume occur in the first place. We must also keep in mind that the call center environment is very hectic – often running on a 24/7 basis. The fact that there is little downtime and bandwidth for planned maintenance can make it difficult to apply LSS in the sector, but if LSS principles can be successfully installed this can lead to streamlining of operations and a decrease in employee turnover, two factors that can improve both work morale and efficiency.Contact the Pyzdek Institute if you are interested in learning more about LSS.

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What is an Acceptable Error Rate in Contact Centers?

There are two diametrically opposed answers to the question posed in the title. Here is the first one: a jaw-dropping number of calls completely riddled with errors is totally acceptable in call centers today. Preposterous, you say. Please keep reading.

First, the big picture.  In contact centers no one talks about Six Sigma or Five-9s, or Taguchi’s “on target with minimum variation.” Those ideas are constantly being discussed in manufacturing, but are laughable notions in call centers. No one talks about it.  No one aspires to it.  No one even thinks anything remotely close is even possible.  Further, no one does any benchmarking to see what “world class” companies do so that “stretch goals” can be established around even a “tolerable” level of agent errors.

OK, fine you say, so contact centers don’t set their sites very high.  What if we just went from center to center and determined the error rate and called the average across those centers “acceptable?” You wouldn’t even be able to do that.  In manufacturing, specs are sine qua non and performance against those specs is constantly measured. But for some reason, contact centers rarely even define, by call type, specs or Required Call Components…exactly what the agent is supposed to do in their systems and exactly what information needs to be provided to the customer, let alone measure performance against them.

Consider a quotidian price change for a service where we decide to check the agents’ accuracy in giving the new price. Hate to break it to you, but on the day after the price was changed, there is no way the agents will quote the right price 100% of the time. So then what would be the acceptable error rate? 75%? 80%? Would 45% be OK? What would be acceptable two months after the price change?

We know of one consumer electronics company that listened to 10 out of 10 of their outsourcer’s agents give the old price for a service. The outsourcer didn’t even know their agents were making so many mistakes. The client, of course, was none-to-happy, but the outsourcer didn’t get fired. De facto, the outsourcer’s performance was acceptable. (For more on the sloppy process changes in call centers, see Inside Jokes)

I know what you are thinking. A price change? Come on! What’s the big deal? If the agents get this wrong it is unfortunate, but not the end of the world. OK, then, what would be an acceptable error rate on debt collection calls which are regulated by the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act?

According to the FDCPA, debt collectors are required to disclose to the debtor 1) they are calling from a debt collections agency and 2) their mini-Miranda rights (“…anything you say can be used to help collect this debt.”) Failure to disclose could result in lost collections and stiff fines against the agency.  Here we might need to be a little better…how about 90%? Would 85% be OK?  What level of performance would make you jump for joy?  What level of performance would get you hoppin’ mad?  What range of performance would result in you changing nothing about your current approach?

We work with multiple collections agencies and their performance on just these two disclosures (prior to deploying our software of course!) is highly variable and all are less than 90%, despite the fact that it is a law!

Assuming you had already established specs or RCCs and you wanted to track error rates, what would you do?  If you record every call, you can use speech analytics software to “listen” to the calls and calculate an error rate. This is a workable solution but an expensive one that is not widely deployed and is thus an option for only a subset of centers.

For most centers, the only way to determine the error rate just for a point in time is to dedicate a group to listen to 50 calls with clearly defined Required Call Components and estimate the center-wide quality rate from the sample. To track this over time, you would have to repeat the process every day or every week. Fat chance. Processes are changing all the time in call centers.  If you tried to track either the error rates on process changes or on RCCs that weren’t changing, you would end up with a monitoring team larger than the size of your agent population.

 

Lowering the Error-Rate Once You Know It

Should you decide to wade into this murky water and try to determine the error rate for some call types, the number you come out with will likely not be too flattering. You may find yourself motivated to try to lower that error rate in which case you would have a couple options.

Call monitoring is the same as trying to “inspect in” quality in manufacturing, a practice manufacturing abandoned a long time ago (see What the Call Center Industry Can Learn from Manufacturing: Part II). Honestly, how is occasional  monitoring and occasional coaching supposed to improve error rates on the hundreds of call types some agents have to handle?  The only way monitoring can drive increased compliance is if you monitor almost every call, publicly track error rates, and dismiss agents below the 95th percentile of agent performance. This is a lot of work in and of itself, it would result in a lot of expensive turnover.  It would also create a tense work environment.

Instead of paying for a bunch of monitors to act like cops with radar guns trying to catch people doing it wrong, why not just make it easy for the agents to do it correctly?  Stealing a page from manufacturing’s playbook, centers can use error-proofing and the call center equivalent of Andon lights to make it impossible for agents to skip key steps, to track quality, and to correct any problems that do arise real time.  A range of agent-assisted automation solutions are the best practices here and with these approaches, 99.999% quality is achievable. (For more information see: Is it Time for Mass Customization of Call Centers?)  Error-free, call center quality is absolutely a reality.

Some days it seems as if there are an overwhelming number of problems in this world. But you know what? Polio isn’t one of them. It used to be a huge problem.  Then they invented a vaccine. Arguing and worrying about what level of contact center agent errors we should tolerate is a watt-less discussion because there is a way to deliver error-free performance every time.

Finally, in case it isn’t now obvious, the second answer to the question posed in the title? Zero.


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New White Paper: Call Centers…the Deep and Still Largely Untapped Vein of Operational Profit

KomBea_CallCenters_Untapped Profit Vein

In the quest for revenue and profits, most companies feel like they have left no stone unturned.  But, believe it or not, a company’s call center operations, whether handled internally or outsourced, are a deep profit pool that sits unnoticed right under noses of everyone scrambling to pump up revenue and squeeze out cost.

Interestingly, the very reason it is overlooked is also the exact reason why there is so much value remaining to be tapped:  people think the biggest opportunities have already been wrung out.  Big swings have been taken at call center costs in the last decade…self-service options were developed which cut down on calls and outsourcing was done to “shave volume peaks” and lower labor rates.

There is no question these efforts extracted value, but little work was ever done to study and improve the actual work of the agents…what they do in their systems and what they say to customers after they pick up the phone and say, “How may I help you?”

When you do put the activity of the agents under a microscope, what you discover is a jaw-dropping amount of revenue leaks, errors, and efficiencies and a mountain of completely unnecessary costs associated with those agent performance issues.  What is even more incredulous about this is that in many industries…Telcos, Financial Services, Consumer Technology, Media…the in-house and outsourced call center operations are absolutely huge.  This means the day-to-day work of tens of thousands of employees is not improving…not exactly “no stone unturned.”

This white paper takes a Finance and LSS perspective on contact centers.  It lists the big buckets of call center costs and takes you through the specific sub-drivers of those costs.  It details how automation directed by the agent and error-proofing can be used to attack each of the sub-drivers of cost and inefficiency.  Finally, it shares specific results across a broad range of applications and industries.

If you are a Black Belt looking for projects or if you are a Process Excellence Leader looking for ways to broaden the value of your LSS effort, this white paper lays out an enticing array of service industry possibilities.

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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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