Monday, January 21, 2008

Does lack of management experience cause most contact centre problems? The perspecitve of the "Puritan Gift"

The blog has tackled strategic questions before, from SOA to CRM and from process to performance, but a new book has got me thinking. The book is the 'Puritan Gift' by Kenneth & William Hopper (352 pages, published by I.B. Taurus & Co.). It's on the Financial Times list of best business books of 2007 and has been extremely well reviewed.

It's a very interesting book and one that is difficult to summarise without loosing at least some of the depth that makes it so well argued. The starting point for the book are the questions: "Where does the Protestant work ethic come from? And how did America achieve such dominance in management for so long?", deep and important questions for business I'm sure you'll agree but while they might not seem relevant to the contact centre, the conclusions are very illuminating.

The book argues (very persuasively) that the rise of management as a 'profession' (rather than as a set of behaviours or values) destroyed America's management culture. It makes a strong argument that what it terms 'domain knowledge' (i.e. experience of the area in which you work) is crucial for anyone working as a manager in a given industry and that management in it's own right is not a transferable 'horizontal' skill that can be generically applied across all industries. The book is particularly acid and well targeted in its criticisms of business schools and their fads around building this belief in the 'professional manager' who has no real knowledge of the area they work in. This 'professional' can engage in high-visibility tasks like financial engineering or succession planning but does not actually understand basic business operations or know what most workers at the business actually do.

Of necessity, I've only provided a very brief summary, but there is a much better overview in this review on the Manchester Business School blog of Prof. Peter Kawalek and also the BBC is making available a short (7 min) and a long (24 min) video interview with one of the authors which I highly recommend. The book also has a website.

I hope the relevance of the book is starting to become more obvious. Contact Centres were set up to help people and yet are widely disliked. I talked about this dislike in an October post ("For a Friday - why are contact centres so disliked?"), but I feel now that I was still commenting more on symptoms than root causes.

It is my strong suspicion that many contact centre problems come from senior management setting objectives with no knowledge of what a call centre does. There are of course extreme examples, like the contact centre described in "Reporting - Having your cake & eating it", which managed to achieve a 230% annual agent attrition rate through its management system, but I suspect there is a much more general problem of unrealistic objectives behind so much of the dissatisfaction with contact centres.

A former colleague of mine, now non-executive director of a very organisation with very large call centres, confirms this suspicion. He regularly sits for a day with agents taking calls and from that he gains a far greater understanding of the problem areas for his organisation than he does from management presentations. Management have often never worked in a customer facing role and so have great PowerPoint slides on 'the customer experience' (and other abstract concepts) but no practical experience of what the customers actually do feel and which problems regularly crop up. In my experience, having worked as a call centre agent is one of my great strengths when working today with call centres. There's a big difference between talking (abstractly) about soft tools for motivating agents to perform certain behaviours, as so many consultants do, and my experience of being on minimum wage unless you got bonus for meeting your call targets. It's not that a nice environment isn't important for agent performance (see past posts like "Sometimes it's not rocket science....") but pay really does matter. As an agent I would have liked to give every caller the desired customer experience (as was suggested in various HR goals for agents), but I was paid bonus to wrap up calls in under five minutes. No surprises which mattered more to agents...!

Yet the fundamental reason behind the mis-aligned metrics, the agents incented to do things against the organisations interests, the poor customer experiences and the broken processes is that senior management are have often not experienced their organisations customer service or worked in customer facing roles. Were they to promote more from the shop floor or insist that managers regularly went back to the floor to take calls many of these issues might be resolved.

Yet the cult of the manager is insidious. When I suggested to one organisation that it might be an idea for the graduate managers to spend a period taking calls so they understood the business better, I got the response back that "...if we did that they'd hate it so much we'd struggle to retain them." This left me slightly stunned. After all, if the call centre experience was that bad, did they think the agents liked it much? Unsurprisingly, their high agent attrition rate reflected what the call centre was like, but lack of management understanding meant the problem not dealt with and instead was treated as 'cost'. In this case, (as Richard Dworkins describes so well in his FT article on the Puritan Gift), management decided to outsource the contact centre to save money rather than fix it. Of course they saved no money in the final reckoning as they ended up spending far, far more on advertising and brand to counter the reputation they acquired for poor customer service, and the cost of managing the outsourcer was greater than anticipated.

The core point of the "Puritan Gift" is that managing something that has not been experienced or understood by managers is likely to fail. There is no real substitute for "domain knowledge" and contact centres that are looking to achieve excellence would do well to build that into their thinking.

No comments: