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Don't Be Chicken. Why Call Centers Must Go Free Range
by Tom Jenkins

Come on, who hasn’t had that horrible dream where you thrash about for a few hours in your sleep fervently wrapping your duvet around your wrist and neck only to wake with a jolt in a pool of sweat like you’ve been playing an ungodly game of dress up with Houdini and the Marquis de Sade? With heart racing, you let out a welcome sigh of relief when you remember that no, its not Sunday night, you haven’t had to do any homework for about 20 years and you don’t have a 1,000 word essay to finish by the morning. Unfortunately, when I have this dream the sigh is often more a shallow pant, as I’ve garrotted myself so hard with my Egyptian cotton, and is swiftly followed by an imploring whimper hoping one of my children will come and untangle me before I do a Michael Hutchinson or my hands turn gangrenous. However, I’m not an Australian high on blow so why the oneirological reference – I’m meant to be talking about call centers. Bear me with folks…

I love my job (most of the time). I work for a fun and progressive tech company and very simply put we proactively talk to people using computers. I’m not going to labour the proactive piece because what I’m really interested in exploring is the working conditions of the heroic folks who deal with the customers with whom our clever algorithms and machines cannot deal with (see we’re not that clever).  I’ve been lucky enough in this job to meet and spend time in many a call center with some of these call center folks who admirably triage (fancy call center term for help) customers. For example, if your dog has chewed through your router cable and electrocuted itself so you must make an emergency dash to the vets and cannot be around for the engineer’s visit, it’s probably best you chat to a human as that will flummox even the best AI.

I’ve always found that after a visit to a client’s call center I’m knackered, and the reason is two-fold; Firstly, they tend to be in rather out of the way places so are a geographical pain to get to. Secondly, and far more disturbingly, I also suffer for days afterwards with a recurring dream of a dystopian nature whereby I’m a heroic call center chap (and yes, they are heroes because you should hear the sh*t they have to suffer from customers through no fault of their own) who slowly, along with all his other colleagues, morph into giant featherless chickens. It’s somewhat reminiscence of the Fly in that my transformation is not immediate. It always starts with a flap of the arms,  then my teeth start to drop as my beak forms (or am I mixing my oneirological metaphors here?), my head starts to nod and every time I answer a call I’m only able to cluck down my headset. Before you jump to the natural conclusion that I should visit a shrink I think it’s worth exploring “what” about call centers could have left such an indelible mark on me.  

Sadly, by in large they’re located on dour industrial estates, far out of town and our heroes are often packed into cubicles and at the mercy of various ticking metrics displayed on garish clocks - the bomb squad wouldn’t know where to start. AHT (Average Handling Time) is a rather favoured metric in call center speak and it is rather ridiculously used to measure performance. Generally speaking, the longer the AHT, the poorer the agent is deemed to have performed. Now, I’m sure there are other metrics that are combined along with AHT to give a more nuanced view, but if you take AHT on its own you are massively missing the point. I was only last week speaking to a very senior telco marketeer, cigar smoking no less, and he was saying that their ambition around billing enquiries was 1 to none, i.e. the agent should be able to deal with each enquiry then and there. In reality, they often had to speak to 4 or 5 different colleagues in other departments before they could deal with a customer enquiry.

I believe call center agents should be free of all time constraints and be able to spend as long as he or she needs to deal with a customer query. Even better if they’re speaking to the 5% of folks who ContactEngine machines are unable to deal with (sorry, couldn’t resist a proactive plug) they’ll have a much better handle on what the issue is and how to resolve it swiftly because the machine has laid out a clear and concise audit trail. If you’re proactive in your approach (eek more proactive) to customer engagement then all engagements implicitly become much more meaningful and rewarding for both the customer and our hero, for example, they’re talking at a time convenient for them both, and on a subject they both want to engage in - that’s just plain good Customer Experience (CX). It is also cracking Employee Experience (EX) – our hero is speaking to someone who actually wants to speak to them at a time convenient to them and therefore hopefully supressing the volcanic crossness that usually precedes a call to a call center.

So I think I’ve established that if you give call center heroes the right tools and pass only conversations across to them that require a human then you’re onto a bit of a winner. CX goes up and EX goes up, but why not take it even further in the “new normal”? I read with a sinking heart a piece on the BBC this week that there was a Covid outbreak at a Track and Trace call center in Scotland, which was tasked with “tracking and tracing” people exposed to Covid - I mean talk about a farce being served up with a lashing of irony. However, why my heart sank was that we’ve already proven with some of our biggest clients both in the UK and the United States that our heroes don’t need to be confined to dour conditions where they are literally, in this case, putting their lives on the line. No – the tools exist for our heroes to work from home so why not utilise them?

In this Covid world it seems nonsensical to stuff our heroes into cubicles when they can do just as good a job - and probably a much better job - from the comfort of their homes. Think of the environmental impact such a move would have as the need for the daily commute is removed. Perhaps even more significant, the trust engendered into agents by allowing them to work from home would, I suspect, start to unravel the much maligned perception of this truly heroic profession.

So come on folks, let our heroes take flight. Or at the very least, open the door to the coup and give our chickens “wings” – (I thank you sir!)

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