Get Back! Stay Back!

pitchforkThis post is little more than the illegitimate mutant offspring of two of my other posts – Great Expectations and Epic Fail. Nevertheless, I find it cathartic to grumble about the systems-orientated screw-ups that continually aggravate me. Today’s musings surround the bizarre barriers that some organisations put in place in an apparent attempt to keep customers or service users as far away as possible from anyone who can help. They may as well just randomly jab at you with a pitchfork – at least that would be better than the methods of slow torture currently employed.

Regular readers of my blog will be aware that last November I had an unfortunate prang in my car. Now I appreciate that insurance claims are not usually a five minute job to resolve, but perhaps if my insurance company were to approach the challenge somewhat differently, customers like me wouldn’t be routinely left in the dark. You see, having not had an update on the progress of my claim since well before Christmas, curiosity got the better of me and I decided to contact the insurance company (i.e. failure demand) to try and find out what was happening. What a mistake that was.

After negotiating the usual labyrinthine phone menu (I love that phrase – I did tell you I’d recycled some of my previous ramblings), I selected the one-size-fits-all option that didn’t fit my query least well, then waited on hold for a while. This time I was prepared for Bruno Mars to be inflicted upon my ears, so drowned him out with a bit of New Order whilst I waited.

Eventually, I got through to a chap in the inevitable call centre, who did his best to help, but could only tell me that there had been no update on their system since 10th December. He explained that someone on a different team was dealing with my case (who wasn’t on duty), meaning he had no personal knowledge of the matter that he could impart. I completely understood his predicament, so asked if he could pass me that person’s contact details, thereby enabling me to speak directly to them when next on duty.

Then their system kicked in…

The poor chap told me that he was not allowed to give customers the email addresses of the case workers who actually deal with the claims, and that if he did so, he would breach company policy and would be in trouble with his team leader. He seemed to understand that it made sense to cut out the middleman, but was limited to taking and passing on messages within a system design that keeps customers away from the people who can help. Not his fault of course – he’s only responsible for that 6% of system performance that Deming talked about.

To really understand how this costly and dysfunctional system design actually works against the aims it was apparently created to achieve, let’s break it down point-by-point and consider some solutions…

Get back stay back chart

You might notice a recurrent theme. In fact, if they got Point 1 right, it would prevent the other stuff from happening at all.

barrier Why do organisations do this to us / themselves? To me, it seems to be based on the flawed assumption that to break the work up into chunks and allocate different bits to different people, it’s cheaper. You automate stuff (e.g. phone menus, voice recognition systems, mazes that lead you up dead-ends into recorded messages before cutting you off), perhaps even discourage customers from bothering you at all by insisting on a preference for web-based interaction, or through cunningly hiding contact details in some darkened corner of your website.

If this fails and someone breaks through, attempting to speak to a human being who might be able to help, then the next line of defence is the ubiquitous call centre. It’s staffed full of people who usually want to help, but who are constrained by more menus, prompt cards, Customer Relationship Management systems (CRM), rigid policies and so on. These guys may be cheaper to employ, but the poor souls are often reduced to acting as little more than a message-passing stage in the process. Suddenly, this option is not so cheap.

This type of system design introduces unnecessary handovers and leads to a fragmented and inefficient operating model, loss of information, delays, bottlenecks, higher costs and a worse service to the customer or service user. Pah!

And don’t even get me started on the public sector equivalent of this abomination. Colleagues from around the country have described to me the angst associated with operating models that rely on a single ‘gateway’ into departments such as Human resources, IT, or Occupational Health. Whereas previously they would just speak directly with the relevant person, now they endure what are essentially ‘message-passing hubs’, which are excellent at generating reference numbers, before leaving callers to wait for a response at some point in the future from the person they really wanted to speak to. And of course the people who work there aren’t bad people, either. Just like the insurance company chap, they want to help, but are unable to do so. It’s the system again, keeping you away from the expert.

For those who argue that such ‘hubs’ reduce costs, consider this – if the operator can’t assist the caller then the query has to be passed to the expert anyway. That’s two people you have to pay. The expert is still required – why introduce this additional layer of operators and cost?

Oh, and these are internal processes that must be followed when you want to talk to someone within your own organisation! What chance have the public got?

About InspGuilfoyle

I am a serving Police Inspector and systems thinker. I am passionate about doing the right thing in policing. I dislike numerical targets and unnecessary bureaucracy.
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3 Responses to Get Back! Stay Back!

  1. Ben says:


    I read your blog with interest and normally agree with what you write but I am interested in your opinion on this take on the matter.

    Lets say the expert costs 4 times the cost of the call taker. The expert is most productive (and hence making the company money) when he is doing his primary purpose (e.g. investigating).

    If every customer was able to contact the expert directly, it could reduce his available time to do the investigating significantly which would slow the whole process down.

    The call centre cuts out the interruptions to the expert. The call centre worker should have been better trained, perhaps to say ‘there have been no updated on your case, you will be contacted when there are’ – i.e. he is there to reduce the interruptions to the expert, hence allowing the expert to be more productive.

    • Thanks for your comments Ben. The concept of putting experts at the front end is one of the most counterintuitive propositions in systems thinking, especially when concerns over costs are thrown into the mix. In this case, (and even putting the argument for front end esperts to one side for a moment) if the company avoided failure demand by getting the job right in the first place and keeping the customer informed, this would negate a huge volume of incoming calls, meaning that there would be less need to employ as many call centre staff, hence generating cashable savings.

      Talking it to the next level, if the call centre was completely taken out of the equation, this would generate huge savings, meaning that more experts can be employed if necessary to deal with predictable demand. Overall, even though this might mean employing more experts at higher individual cost, the overall cost is reduced as the larger number of less-skilled and lower-paid staff is no longer required.

      Now, being flippant for illustrative purposes, of course you wouldn’t put NASA scientists on the end of a phone line to process damage claims, but as you identified, you DO need staff who are capable of handling the type and frequency of predictable demand that they face (in essence they become ‘experts’ at that level, and can deal with the matter rather than simply pass it on). If call centre staff are trained well enough to handle the majority of predictable-type demand that comes in, are operating within system conditions that allow them to help customers and they are given the latitude to do so, then in the event that something comes in that requires the next level of specific expertise, they can ‘pull’ that from specialist colleagues elsewhere within the organisation.

      Hope this makes sense. In a nutshell…

      1. Avoid failure demand in the first place.
      2. Ensure whoever picks up the phone is capable of dealing with predictable demand.
      3. Ensure that specialists are available for the less predictable demand when it does occur.

      This saves money and is better for the customer.

  2. Personally, I don’t like the ‘counter-intuitive’ label – it’s usually only considered counter-intuitive because we have been drilled to think in conventional management ways. When you speak to staff and customers, they just see it as plain-old common-sense. Why employ someone to answer a phone if they can’t actually do anything other than pass on the message that you have called? How does that save money? Worse, the message often gets passed with errors, adding further to the cost.

    We need to understand the logic leading to managers deciding that employing cheaper message takers rather than expensive experts offers better value.

    Often it’s done to reduce costs. If you can get cheaper staff to take some of the work off the expensive experts, you should be able do more work at overall less cost. But as Simon describes above, this cost saving approach usually just generates more work, frustration and cost.

    Another logic is often described as ‘triage’. If there is too much work coming in, you employ someone to sort, filter or prioritise it. This is just about managing the queue. It doesn’t make the queue go away, it just makes the queue longer. Some customers walk away in frustration, but often they have no alternative other than to keep coming back until someone sorts their problem. So this approach also ends up generating more work, frustration and cost.

    Another logic is to divert the customer to ‘cheaper’ processes, whilst putting a human voice/face at the front of house. Many companies now try to push you into using self-service and on-line processes. This is just another form of flawed triage or cost reduction, which puts another barrier between you and the person who will actually deal with your problem. Yet more cost and frustration.

    If your expert is the one who generates value for your company, do you want to employ more experts, or more people who are not experts? How many non-experts do you need in order to protect your experts from being pestered by unhappy customers? How much business do you lose as a result of fobbing customers off with poor service and long delays? (Note to self, maybe I won’t be renewing with LV this year). How much extra business will you lose by employing even more non-experts rather than experts? Are there other improvements that you could make in the way the experts are working which might increase their efficiency and effectiveness?

    It feels scary to put experts in direct contact with customers, but all the evidence shows this is better, and overall cheaper.

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