The politics of call centres, part one

What is it that makes call centres so uniquely awful as social institutions? This is something I’ve often touched on at Telco 2.0, and also something that’s been unusually salient in my life recently – I moved house, and therefore had to interact with getting on for a dozen of the things, several repeatedly. (Vodafone and Thames Water were the best, npower and Virgin Media the worst.) But this isn’t just going to be a consumer whine. In an economy that is over 70% services, the combination of service design, technology, and social relations that makes these things so awful is something we need to understand.

For example, why does E.ON (the electricity company, a branch of the German utility Rhein-Westfälische Elektrizitätswerke) want you to tell their IVR what class you are before they do anything else? This may sound paranoid, but when I called them, the first question I had to answer was whether I owned my home or was a tenant. What on earth did they want to know that for?

Call centres provide a horrible experience to the user. They are famously awful workplaces. And they are also hideously inefficient – some sites experience levels of failure demand, that is to say calls generated due to a prior failure to serve, over 50% of the total inbound calls. Manufacturing industry has long recognised that rework is the greatest enemy of productivity, taking up disproportionate amounts of time and resources and inevitably never quite fixing the problems.

So why are they so awful? Well, I’ll get to that in the next post. Before we can answer that, we need to think about how they are so awful. I’ve made a list of anti-patterns – common or standard practices that embody error – that make me angry.

Our first anti-pattern is queueing. Call centres essentially all work on the basis of oversubscription and queueing. On the assumption that some percentage of calls will go away, they save on staff by queueing calls. This is not the only way to deal with peaks in demand, though – for example, rather than holding calls, there is no good technical reason why you couldn’t instead have a call-back architecture, scheduling a call back sometime in the future.

Waiting on hold is interesting because it represents an imposition on the user – because telephony is a hot medium in McLuhan’s terminology, your attention is demanded while you sit pointlessly in the queue. In essence, you’re providing unpaid labour. Worse, companies are always tempted to impose on you while you wait – playing music on hold (does anybody actually like this?), or worse, nagging you about using the web site. We will see later on that this is especially pointless and stupid.

And the existence of the queue is important in the social relations of the workplace. If there are people queueing, it is obviously essential to get to them as soon as possible, which means there is a permanent pressure to speed up the line. Many centres use the queue as an operational KPI. It is also quality-destroying, in that both workers and managers’ attention is always focused on the next call and how to get off the current call in order to get after the queue.

A related issue is polling. That is to say, repeatedly checking on something, rather than being informed pro-actively when it changes. This is of course implicit in the queueing model. It represents a waste of time for everyone involved.

Repetition is one of the most annoying of the anti-patterns, and it is caused by statelessness. It is always assumed that this interaction has never happened before, will never happen again, and is purely atomised. They don’t know what happened in the last call, or even earlier in the call if it has been transferred. As a result, you have to provide your mother’s maiden name and your account number, again, and they have to retype it, again. The decontextualised nature of interaction with a call centre is one of the worst things about it.

Pretty much every phone system these days uses SIP internally, so there is no excuse for not setting a header with a unique identifier that could be used to look up data in all the systems involved, and indeed given out as a ticket number to the user in case they need to call again, or – why not – used to share the record of the call.

That point leads us to another very important one. Assymetric legibility characterises call centres, and it’s dreadful. Within, management tries to maintain a panopticon glare at the staff. Without, the user faces an unmapped territory, in which the paths are deliberately obscure, and the details the centre holds on you are kept secret. Call centres know a lot about you, but won’t say; their managers endlessly spy on the galley slaves; you’re not allowed to know how the system works.

So no wonder we get failure demand, in which people keep coming back because it was so awful last time. A few companies get this, and use first-call resolution (the percentage of cases that are closed first time) as a KPI rather than call rates, but you’d be surprised. Obviously, first-call resolution has a whole string of social implications – it requires re-skilling of the workforce and devolution of authority to them. No wonder it’s rare.

Now, while we were in the queue, the robot voice kept telling us to bugger off and try the Web site. But this is futile. Inappropriate automation and human/machine confusion bedevil call centres. If you could solve your problem by filling in a web form, you probably would have done. The fact you’re in the queue is evidence that your request is complicated, that something has gone wrong, or generally that human intervention is required.

However, exactly this flexibility and devolution of authority is what call centres try to design out of their processes and impose on their employees. The product is not valued, therefore it is awful. The job is not valued by the employer, and therefore, it is awful. And, I would add, it is not valued by society at large and therefore, nobody cares.

So, there’s the how. Now for the why.




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