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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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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