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Killing Taylor’s Ghost: Why Call Centers Should Drop Scientific Management

taylors ghost (2)

In dealing with the fallout of the financial crisis, banks have struggled to overcome an erosion of customer loyalty and trust. Improving transparency in fees, attractive rates and enhanced digital capabilities are certainly part of the solution. In addition, many organizations have placed a renewed focus on getting the customer experience right.

While there have been rapid gains in digital and self-service capabilities (e.g. web, mobile, etc.), the call center remains an important channel that should not be overlooked. A pivot towards the call center will pay dividends for many organizations, however the typical approach to call center management will continue to alienate and frustrate customers.

Companies have a love-hate relationship with customers. Customers are great when they need to buy, but they are a nuisance when they ask for help. Sales is what generates revenue. Service is what generates headaches. Call centers have been referred to cynically as “cost centers,” reflecting the attitude that customer service is a costly drain on resources. The goal has typically been to provide the smallest amount of service required to ensure customer retention. With this end in mind, call centers have been managed with a healthy dose of Taylorism.

Frederick Taylor, often referred to as the father of scientific management, was a 19th century “efficiency guru” who pioneered time and motion studies. Through observation of pig iron workers, he found that efficiency could be gained through strict management of tasks, carrot/stick incentives and standardization of processes. Sound familiar? Although later discovered to have falsified many of his “ground-breaking” studies, Taylor’s impact still plagues organizations today. Motivating people is a matter of simple Boolean operations. If more carrot, receive more work. If less stick, receive less work. Few places in the corporate world have stubbornly held onto the legacy of Taylorism as tightly as the call center.

One of the most commonly used metaphors by call center professionals is the call center as a machine. The fallacy of Taylorism gives credibility to this harmful metaphor. The key performance indicators (KPIs) of the typical call center are steeped in the language of time and motion studies. As the volume and duration of calls (average handling time, or AHT) defines the work for the center, and customer service has largely been viewed as a cost, the goal is to minimize both the number (call avoidance) and duration (AHT) of calls. Under the call center as a machine model, the inputs and factors of the call center can be pulled like levers to achieve optimal outputs.

The problem with this Taylorist utopia is that a machine is a poor approximation for a call center. The inputs (calls) are highly volatile. A machine with an inconsistent power supply becomes ineffective. The factors of production (human agents) are non-uniform, are inclined towards gaming the system, and respond differently to incentives. Imagine pulling the lever of a machine only to have the machine go forward sometimes, backward other times or simply quit working altogether. The outputs (customers) contain just as many issues. The call center as a machine model is flawed to say the least.

Recognizing this challenge, most organizations have tried to address the issue by simply trying to force the call center to operate more like a machine. Square peg, meet round hole. Massive efforts to predict call arrival patterns attempt to match call supply with agent demand in order to approximate a smooth flow of inputs. Human diversity is dealt with through call scripting and other schemes to kill agent autonomy. Well-intentioned executives “improve efficiency” by simply cutting the AHT target for calls. As anyone familiar with call centers will attest, agents can be very creative in hitting targets. They will dump calls, transfer complex cases, cut back on referencing job aids and generally frustrate customers. The paper gains in efficiency will be more than offset by the hit to customer experience.

Bringing back trust to banking starts with winning the battle for customer experience. The myth of simple carrot/stick motivation, homo economicus, and the intellectual fraud of Taylor have plagued organizations long enough. Embracing autonomy and mastery benefits employees, companies and customers alike (see Zappos.com). Scrapping the call center as a machine model and the customer as widget mentality will allow organizations to make real progress in the battle for customer experience.

Note: a version of this post was originally published in American Banker on April 2, 2014.

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