Call center blues, parts I and II

Call center blues (April 8 and 15, 2008)

By Ben Teehankee

Managing For Society column, The Manila Times

The call center is a fact of modern life. More and more of us are destined to interact with a call center regularly to get assistance on various services: banking, Internet, computers, cell phones, credit cards, appliance repair, etc. Advances in information technology have made distance largely irrelevant in giving knowledge-based service to customers. The center staff, often called an agent, could be in town, out-of-town, out of the country, in an office, at home, wherever. Because of business process outsourcing (BPO) arrangements, even the question of who exactly is giving the service over the phone has become irrelevant. The agent could be employed, contracted or working for another company.

New BPO buildings are popping up in major cities around the country, prompted by optimistic projections about the growth of IT-enabled services in the country fuelled by demand from North America and Europe. Government and academic institutions alike are rolling out programs to support this exciting sunrise industry which plays into Philippine strengths: English fluency and service friendliness.

I’m as encouraged as everyone else that IT-enabled services is a terrific opportunity for the country. But my experiences in dealing with call centers have not been entirely satisfactory. I strongly suspect that my experience is not unique and, more importantly, I fear that the problem can be traced to unsound management practices that have become endemic in the call center industry. Essentially, I suspect that despite claims that call centers represent knowledge-age work, the management practices are a throwback to the dawn of the industrial revolution.

My fears were reinforced by my last major call center encounter. I was finishing an important research report when my Internet access at home died on me. I called the call center immediately to report the problem. I ran the usual gauntlet of automated responses telling me to press particular numbers and finally to enter my phone number. The agent gave her name (which I wrote down) and after asking a few questions on my situation, asked me to give my phone number. I gave my number, privately irritated since I already punched in my number when I called the center. After a series of obviously scripted questions, she eventually told me that the problem was due to a technical glitch in the company’s network. I was assured that the problem was being addressed by the technical team and they were trying their best to resolve it at the soonest time.

I called again two days later since the service had not been restored. I was greeted by an automated message apologizing for the service problems and giving the assurance that they were working on the problem. My calls everyday thereafter was met with the same automated response. I would occasionally go past the automated message to talk to an agent about my problem but always ended up being told, in the same mechanical way, of the “technical problem” and the promise of eventual service restoration.

After a week of not getting my work done, my frustration was at its peak, and I went past the automated message to speak to an agent again (my seventh). In the middle of the scripted diagnosis of my problem, I interrupted him and said: “You know, I’ve been hearing scripted explanations to my problem for more than a week. Could you give me a supervisor who can help me solve the problem?” After my continued insistence, he eventually gave me the name of his supervisor but refused to put her on the line, explaining that it was not their procedure. The agent put me on hold once, ostensibly to consult the supervisor, but came back to tell me that she was on another line. I asked for a return call from the supervisor.

Call center blues - II

I never got the return call I requested from the supervisor so I called again. I bypassed the tiresome automated service problem apology. Expectedly, the agent gave me the technical explanation I had been given for more than a week. I couldn’t get any assurance about when the problem was going to be solved. Although I was checking my temper, the situation had become simply intolerable and I was prepared not to put the phone down until I could speak to a supervisor. I knew that the agent was not allowed to hang up on me so I stood my ground.

Since the agent wasn’t willing to put the supervisor on the line, saying that the latter was handling a call herself, I insisted to speak to someone from the technical group. I was finally patched through to a technical specialist who asked me specifics about my problem. After only a few questions, the techie talked me through a procedure that restored my Internet service. I was elated, of course, but it also dawned on me that, for more than a week, I was being told about a technical problem that did not even apply to my problem at all! After having to make more than a dozen calls and enduring almost two weeks without Internet service, I couldn’t help but feel cheated and made a fool of.

I went through this long frustrating story to highlight a simple fact: whatever it is that such call centers are trying to do, it is not quality service. If our call centers persist in these practices, the Philippines will not distinguish itself as a provider of quality call centers. I recommend that call center managers pursue basic principles in service management to improve the situation.

Firstly, managers should train agents to listen and thoroughly understand a customer problem with the main goal of fully and satisfactorily resolving the problem. Agents shouldn’t jump to conclusions based on a pro-forma process conducted under time pressure. A time-monitored approach leads to misdiagnosis of problems and customer dissatisfaction. Agents learn to go through the motion of giving service without actually getting into the spirit of the service itself.

Secondly, managers should empower agents to use their best judgment and not unduly limit them to poorly designed scripts. Knowledge workers thrive when they are allowed to use their analytic and coordinating abilities to resolve a customer’s problem. This has the added advantage of keeping agents intellectually stimulated by their work which is an important source of commitment and growth that minimizes agent turnover.

Finally, managers should support agents by talking to irate customers when necessary and by providing agents the back-end assistance of other functions, such as technical groups, in a proactive and timely manner. Agents can feel trapped and powerless in problem situations which they, after all, have no control over. In fact, management and the technical groups should listen to feedback from agents on how to improve the core service itself. Agents usually bear the brunt of complaints and should be intimately familiar with what needs to be improved about the core service.

Through more than a week of interrupted Internet service and irritatingly ineffectual responses from various agents, I never once took it out on the agents. I knew that they were doing the best they could in a very bad system. It is management’s responsibility to fix the system and I wish they would do their job. We are wasting some of our youngest and brightest people in badly managed call centers.