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

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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