Systems Thinking

CEO Underperforms in Call Center on Reality Show "Undercover Boss"

Tripp Babbitt
Contributor: Tripp Babbitt
Posted: 04/05/2010


Whenever I walk into a call center and start to hear blame placed on the call center representative, I become skeptical. I was recently watching the show Undercover Boss with Michael Rubin, CEO of GSI Commerce, a leading provider of e-Commerce and interactive marketing services for the brands and retailers. Michael Rubin sits with "Danielle" an employee of his company in the escalations arm of the customer service department to discover (undercover) how his organization performs.

Danielle in handling customer service escalations has to field calls from customers that are presenting failure demand (demand caused by a failure to do something or do something right for a customer). And the fact there is a customer service escalations department is evidence that they have plenty of failure demand. Dissatisfied customers phoning the call center in after failure occurs from any number of points in the system that produce failure.

Like most service organizations, failure demand exists at GSI because of the design and management of the call center work. The system that hired, trained and caused the failure demand was designed by the call center management. Danielle may or may not be the right person for customer service escalations, but the system in place is not her fault.



Prevent Customer Service Escalations Through Improved Call Center Work Design

In fact, Michael Rubin is more to blame than Danielle as call center management is responsible for the system in place. The sad part is that the company is losing millions of dollars in potential revenue and costs as errors are addressed through customer service escalation departments and not systemically. Could you imagine if the design and management of the call center work was better and there wasn’t a need to pacify customers?

Other questions arise; why couldn’t the person that took the call handle it? Why do we need more waste in the system to have another hand-off to another group? Waste begets waste in systems that are poorly designed and with flawed thinking such as GSI.

I am yet to see a call center with less than 25 percent failure demand and some have as much as more than 90 percent. This offers us our greatest opportunity to improve customer service in systems that include the call center. Reduce the amount of customer service failure demand (a systemic issue caused by all areas and not just the call center) and profit gets better.

Undercover Boss Brings an Important Reminder

Danielle recently responded to my original blog post and claims she was not feeling like a victim, but felt she wasn’t given the proper tools to do her customer service job. But to me she is a victim of command and control thinking like so many call center workers. I have heard call center executives accuse call center representatives of all types of unflattering names. The truth is they are actually calling themselves out when they don’t know how to design call center work or manage.

Michael Rubin may not know a better way to design or manage the call center work, but let’s not blame the call center representative. Mr. Rubin needs to understand that performance is 95 percent attributable to the system and not the individual. Sad to say he is representative of the thinking of too many CEOs, executives and managers.

Move From the Tower to the Call Center

Undercover Boss has become a double-edge sword. We see call center leaders fail to do the "easy" tasks time and again. The important work is not in the executive tower with new schemes and customer service reports not attached to reality. The real work and perspective needed are at these points of transaction where customers and call center representatives live.

Practical advice for executives is to spend time locked-out of the office and in the customer service work gaining this perspective. Better decisions result and they gain context to what reports can’t tell them. Being an Undercover Boss should not be done undercover as people shouldn’t be afraid or not know who runs the company. More importantly, they learn call center representatives and front-line workers are the company.


Tripp Babbitt
Contributor: Tripp Babbitt
Posted: 04/05/2010

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