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When you call some firm’s customer service number, do you really care whom you talk to? I mean, beyond basic competence in addressing your request or walking through how to solve a problem, do you really care? Would it matter if there were some way of matching you with a better agent? “Better” here is not about skill level, per se, but rather about someone who matches your personality type. That is, you and I may call with the exact same issue but have different agents recommend as best for each of us based on just how we behave on the phone.

This is the kind of service offered by a Chicago-based firm called Mattersight, which has been featured in recent articles in both Crain’s Chicago Business (Why you might not hate calling customer service next time, Feb 12) and InformationWeek (Big Data: Matching Personalities In The Call Center, Feb 17). Here is how Crain’s describes what they do:

Your call is automatically routed to a like-minded agent who’s been matched to you according to factors such as communication style and personality type. It sounds a little like science fiction, but it works. Clients such as pharmacist CVS Health and online insurers Progressive and Esurance (an Allstate subsidiary) say Mattersight’s software speeds up calls, boosts sales or raises customer satisfaction by 10 percent or more. …

Mattersight’s product, based on more than 10 million algorithms developed by an in-house team of behavioral scientists, is overseen by David Gustafson, Mattersight’s product chief and executive vice president. The algorithms are if-then statements that analyze callers according to speech patterns and cadence in order to gauge their personality type and mood and route them toward a simpatico customer-service rep.

People’s speech patterns constitute “an emotional syntax,” says Gustafson, 37, one that can quickly demonstrate whether a caller “is someone who values order and logic, or if they’re fun, spontaneous and creative.” The best customer service reps are adept at working with all personality groups but still do better with one type or another; Mattersight’s tech aims to play to that strong suit as often as possible.

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Check out these number from the Wall Street Journal (How to Make Surgery Safer, Feb 16).

IV-AA691B_SAFET_16U_20150213123306

A little disconcerting, eh? Now there are obviously a lot of surgeries taking place every day in the US, so on a percentage basis having just 20 procedure in which the surgeon operates on the wrong site is very low. Still, that is not very helpful t the person who has a stitches on the wrong side of their body.

So what can be done to make surgery safer and more reliable? Continue Reading »

What?! No Dessert?

I have a sweet tooth. I am rarely too full to pass on dessert. However, an article in Washingtonian magazine suggests that restaurants (at least those in metro DC) may inadvertently be saving people like me from ourselves by offering less attractive options for dessert or even foregoing offering dessert all together (Why DC Restaurants No Longer Care About Desserts, Feb 4). The interesting part of this is that the retreat from dessert is largely driven by economic and operational concerns.

In the post-crash economy, pastry chefs are no longer seen as essential employees but as pricey appendages.

“It’s not just saving the salary,” one restaurant owner told me. “It’s saving the space, too. To have a good pastry program, you need a designated area of the kitchen, you need a place to store the ingredients. The 10,000-square-foot restaurant has become the 7,000-square-foot restaurant. Everything’s smaller now. There isn’t the space.”

More and more, the task falls to chefs and line cooks who, lacking any background in baking, have contrived to fill their menus with simple, quick-fix solutions. Puddings, custards, panna cotta (an Italian term for what is essentially Jell-O made with cream) don’t require a lot of effort or expense; all can be made in the morning and stashed in the walk-in refrigerator.

Some restaurants have given up entirely. “More restaurants than you would think” are outsourcing their sweets to independent bakers, says Mark Bucher, who owns Medium Rare, with locations in Cleveland Park and Barracks Row. Bucher’s is among them. “You give them your recipes and they’ll make them for you. That way you can still say that they’re your desserts.”

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Sustaining manufacturing in the US (or any high wage location) has been one of the recurring themes in this blog. Manufacturing has long meant well-paying jobs for those without advanced education. The loss of manufacturing jobs consequently causes much hand wringing as policy makers and workers about how a large number of people will achieve a modicum of middle-class financial security. Consequently, firms that are finding away to compete with US-based manufacturing are interesting.

That brings us to Zuzii, an LA-based firm producing made-to-order shoes that retail for $90. Here is a video from Marketplace about the company (A visit to LA-based shoe company Zuzii, Feb 16).

Here is the accompanying radio report that has some additional information.

So what is it about Zuzii that lets them succeed?  Continue Reading »

As you may have heard, West Coast ports are having some labor issues. The Pacific Maritime Association (which represents the shipping lines and terminal operators) and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union have been going at it, affecting about 20,000 workers at 29 West Coast ports. (Can’t name 29 Wet Coast ports? See here.) The LA Times has a nice summary of what is in play. In a nutshell, management claims that the union is engaging in a slow down (effectively striking while getting paid, see here) while the union claims that they are responding to safety concerns (at LA and Long Beach) and that management is misrepresenting their position. In any event, what has resulted is lots of delays and a  slew of ships waiting off the coast for their chance to unload. (Never seen a slew of ships? Check out these images.)

OK, that’s all well and good, but how is this affecting supply chains? The sheer scale of the problem is rather mind-blowing. If it were just a question of losing one port, things wouldn’t be too bad. Ships bound for LA, could be sent to Oakland or Seattle. But it’s the entire West Coast. If the goods need to be offload to an US port, that means going all the way to the Gulf Coast or the East Coast. It’s not clear that is an easy solution. Part of why LA and Long Beach are such busy ports is that they have an entire infrastructure to support them. Even if a ship could get to, say, Charleston, it’s not clear that it would do a lot of good for some of the customers whose stuff is on the ship. If a company’s whole logistics system is based on breaking bulk in the Central Valley, having a bunch of containers in South Carolina is, at best, an inconvenience. Continue Reading »

It’s Valentine’s Day and that means roses and big business for flower shops. But how do flower shops get their roses? NPR’s All Things Considered answers that question if, say, you are a shop in the market for 25,000 roses (For Florists, Roses A Nerve-Racking Business Around Valentines Day, Feb 13). Enjoy!

Whenever there are stories about Uber or TaskRabbit or any other “sharing economy” platform, the benefit of scheduling flexibility is inevitably mentioned. These firms may not offer their workers (more accurately, contractors) benefits or guarantees of employment, but they allow workers to craft a schedule that fits their own needs. Does granting such flexibility work in a more conventional setting?

Zappos, it seems, is out to answer that question with its call center workers (Zappos is bringing Uber-like surge pay to the workplace, Jan 28). Zappos’ incumbent system had call center agents signing up for their preferred shifts on paper once a quarter based on seniority. That obviously limits flexibility. Further, Zappos (not surprisingly) faces some predictable patterns in its call volume that are challenging to meet. For example, there is a spike on weekday mornings as people call from the East Coast — which is way early at Zappos’ Las Vegas call center. The solution? A bit of Uber-like surge pricing.

[CEO Tony] Hsieh was not available for an interview for this article, but as Goldstein recalls, he asked the Labs team, “‘How do you feel about looking at something like Uber for the call center?’ It was definitely not something we’d actively been thinking about,” Goldstein says.

That conversation sparked the development of what is now known as Open Market—referred to as “Om” internally—an online scheduling platform that allows workers to set discretionary hours and compensates them based on an Uber-esque surge-pricing payment model: hourly shifts with greater caller demand pay higher wages. The goal of Open Market was to create a “free-market system,” Goldstein says, and strike a balance between the rigidness of customer service center scheduling and what the company says is its dedication to giving employees time to pursue other opportunities at Zappos, like extra training. “We wanted the [customer service center employees] to work more flexible hours, eventually 100% flexible, and reward them based on how much or how little customers need them to work,” he says. …

Zappos limited the Open Market pilot to the 213 employees who work the customer service center’s phones. Everyone received at least 10% flexible time, so during a 40-hour week, employees would have four hours to play with. They could choose to not work during those hours or they could fulfill them whenever they liked by tacking them onto the start or end of a workday or by coming into the office on a scheduled day off.

Employees decided when to work with the help of Open Market’s real-time customer service center metrics algorithm and historical data that showed customer demand, as measured by the wait time of the longest-holding customer, and the accompanying compensation rates. The longer the hold time, the higher the customer demand, the more the employees working that shift would get paid.

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