Over the years, we have had a lot of posts on call centers. In some ways, call centers are a marvel of modern operations. They allow firms to serve a large volume of customers efficiently. But what’s it like to work in call center? As 20/20 reports, it not necessarily a walk in the park (Why Customer Service Representatives Might Be Deliberately Making Your Experience Worse, Mar 26).
So an immediate reaction to this is whether it is at all surprising. Call centers gain their efficiency through a mix of standardization and measurement. They can design routines for agents to execute, and they can easily monitor whether agents are sticking with those plans. Agents are consequently constrained in what they can do.
This is not bad per se for customers. This approach makes it possible to move customers through the system quickly. If what you want conforms to what the firm wants to offer, then things will be fine. You can reasonably expect to get what you need quickly.
On the other hand, if what you need is off the beaten path or does not align with the firm’s ideal, things are going to be tougher. The difficulty is that this nonstandard work has likely been an ever-growing part of the transactions in most customer-service call centers. Basic stuff — address changes or tweaks to account settings — can now largely be done online. If you are calling, it is because you cannot easily do this yourself. What’s more, things are complicated by a lack of options. A goal of call centers is reduce the footprint needed to serve customers. That is, firms opt for call center so they can have fewer locations and fewer workers in those locations. From the customer’s point of view, it means that getting some stranger in another state to see things your way is the only hope.
All this says that many call centers are going to be disappointing customers while setting workers up to fail. Agents may be able to power through the routine transactions but they are going to have a difficult time with many transactions — and these will often be the transactions that matter the most to customers.
That gets to the question of whether it has to be this way. As the report discusses, Zappos is just different and has both happy customers and workers. But this approach is not necessarily appropriate for every setting. Zappos, for example, is going to face a lot fewer regulatory constraints than a bank or an insurance company. A Zappos agent may also be dealing with less money than a worker in a bank’s call center. Yes, shoes can get expensive but are likely less than, say, someone’s checking account balance.
But that is not to say that one cannot have a decent call center job with some structure in place. Think about what it would take to have a meaningful job. It would require the support and the authority to make things better for most customers. That says workers need adequate system support and sufficient training to show discretion appropriately.
That last sentence gets to the real problem with call centers: They have an inherent feedback mechanism that greatly complicates management. If the firm makes an adequate investment in people and systems, service is good, customers are happy, and employs should be content to stay in a decent job. Workers are sticking around so it is easy to justify continuing with more and more investments in workers. On the other hand, if service is bad, customers are irate, agents are stressed, and employee turnover is high. But when turnover is high, it is hard to justify investing more in developing workers. Customer service call centers will consequently show a lot of inertia. If things are bad, they are likely to stay so for a long time.