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Information Technology: The Alcatraz of the Customer Experience

Tripp Babbitt

Built during the Civil War, Alcatraz, or "The Rock" as it has been nicknamed, was a place that no one was known to escape from while incarcerated there. Alcatraz sits on an island with more than a mile to a shoreline in chilly waters. My experience in working with call center technology is that in many cases you sense you are trapped on Alcatraz . . . with no escape.

1. Information Technology inhibits the absorption of the variety of customer demand in the call center.

  • Ever call an interactive voice response system in a call center as a customer? I rarely find myself able to route myself to the right call center representative through the maze of options on the interactive voice response system. This isn’t just a matter of doing this right, it is a matter of customers see their problems in different ways that can not be absorbed by an interactive voice response system.
  • What about the multiple scripts in a call center? Customers may present a problem that has script # 55, #162 and possibly a little #99 in it. What is a call center representative supposed to do? And how dumb do they look to the customer when the call center representative tries to answer a question?
  • What about the "best practices" and standardization that technology vendors sell to call center customers? This makes for easy coding and cookie cutter solutions, but does not allow for the variety customers bring to companies. "I’m sorry but our computer system doesn’t allow you to substitute celery for fries."

2. Information Technology assumes that the functional separation of work and automation in the call center is a good thing.

  • Front-Office, Back-Office allows for the incoming work to be sorted, scanned, routed, copied and archived. No one seems to ask whether this is a good work design especially for the call center.
  • We all read or hear about how manual or antiquated some processing is because it has paper. So, IT vendors assume that automating these processes will make it better with BPM and other workflow software. This is hardly the case and unfortunately they scrap the old system to "re-engineer" something completely automated in the call center. Without an understanding of the work and armed with best practices, standardized processes, scripts, etc. IT winds up increasing costs and worsening service.

3. The method in which Information Technology is bought and sold leads to problems.

  • The outbound sales process in the call center is driven by commission driven sales people that are trying to hit targets and incentives that their managers and executives have given them. Why? Because the managers and executives have incentives and targets to hit. The IT buyers best interest is typically not represented.
  • The buyers of IT are typically comprised of executives and managers that make decisions about an IT "solution" without ever understanding the work or the problem that IT is affecting in the call center. This is why IT companies sell change management programs so they can tell the call center management how good the change is going to be for them, even though the call center representative understands their job just got harder and more complicated.

I have a better solution for Information Technology. Instead of pushing IT into an organization’s call center let’s pull IT into an organization. John Seddon in his book Freedom from Command and Control outlined three steps to approach the use of IT:

  1. Understand. This is to perform "check" on the system understanding the "what and why" of current call center performance. This means ignoring IT altogether and not making the assumption we have an IT problem or need an IT solution.
  2. Improve. Still ignoring IT, improve call center performance by improving the work.
  3. Ask. Now that there is an understanding of the work to be done and improved the design and management of work, an organization’s call center can then see if IT will improve the system. This is pulling IT into the work, instead of pushing it into the work.

4. Measure Call Center Improvement. Armed with measures from the customer perspective, did the IT enhance the operational performance of the work within the call center? This is different then the typical "Did we hit the date?" or " Did we meet budget?" as these do nothing to tell us about whether IT improved anything in the call center.

Business analysts and managers need understanding or knowledge of the work in the call center before making changes. This leads to expensive call center change programs where things and people have to be forced to accept change. The (above) outlined approach leads to acceptance by call center representatives where normally we see resistance to change.

Understanding what Information Technology can and cannot do is important to the profitability and the competitiveness of any service company. By using IT as something to enable rather than inhibit call center performance we can have better systems and less spending that serve our call center’s customers and the bottom-line.