Problems in Your Contact Center? Agent Training Won't Fix It

Tripp Babbitt

Human resource and technology consulting firms sell services to improve agent performance. Tech consultants look for ways to monitor an agent, while HR experts offer ways to motivate agents through performance appraisal, rewards and incentives. All these efforts to maximize performance and get the most out of an agent are woefully misguided.

When presenting the concept of systems thinking to some executives, the most controversial concepts are typically why targets drive the wrong behavior (a future column) and what I call the "95/5 Rule."

The 95/5 Rule was introduced by W. Edwards Deming. It is more of a concept than a rule, but saying "rule" gets people’s attention. What it says is that 95 percent of the performance of any organization is attributable to the system and only five percent to the individual. Is there empirical evidence? No. But Dr. Deming surmised his rule from years of working with companies.

I get pushback on this concept a lot. Naturally, this is because managers spend so much time working on the agent and not the system. That means managers would have to admit to being wrong about where they have focused their efforts for all these decades. It’s too bad, though, because they are missing big – no, HUGE – opportunities to improve performance by focusing on the system.

So, what is a system? It is all elements needed to deliver service to a customer in an outside-in fashion. Customers see things differently; they don’t see front offices and back offices. In fact, they find the separation of work a hindrance to getting what they want. They see one system that either delivers good service or does not. So, the structure as a whole – work design, management thinking, technology, rules, procedures, contracts and just about everything else – dictates performance.

The agent is inextricably tied to the system they work in. They can not be separated. Frederick Herzberg said, "If you want people to do a good job, give them a good job to do." Our systems are broken, not our people.

Contact centers have become production lines with managers focused on coercing better performance through efforts focused on agents and not the broken work design and the management thinking that made the system the way it is.

You may have a hard time believing that the system is responsible for 95 percent of the performance of an organization. However, if you believe that the number is over 50 percent and your efforts are elsewhere, you are probably missing out on ways to improve profit through systemic improvement. For the rest who believe the number is under 50 percent, I would suggest you take a look at all the elements of an agent’s job and decide whether that is really down to the individual or the system. You may be surprised by what you find.