Mass Customization and the Transformation of the Call Center Industry

By Dennis Adsit, PhD

Call centers have been around for almost four decades. Ever since the first center opened, trying to find a way to raise agent output metrics while keeping costs down has been the number one issue keeping call center leaders awake at night. For the most part, they have relied on coaching to get the job done. The only problem is that it’s not working.

Leaders have wanted to leverage continuous process improvement tools such as Lean/Six Sigma, but many don’t believe they can be applied to live-agent call handling. Why? Because they assume that there is no process that the agents can follow. Why? Because they assume that every call into a call center is unique.

Those who presume that each call is unique throw up their hands and believe that they can’t define a call handling process because callers phone for different reasons: they ask their questions in different orders, they require different levels of explanation, and they have different needs for handholding and small talk. They believe that the variation in agent outputs is due to the high input variation.

Speaking of unique, Henry Ford had a unique way of dealing with input variation to his manufacturing process. He said, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” In other words, he stamped out input variation to keep his costs down and his factories running smoothly.

Henry didn’t live in our world, and we don’t live in his.  To maximize revenue opportunities, we have to be responsive to as many of the unique needs and wants of our clients as possible. To do this means that we have to design our fulfillment operations to deliver the variation that our clients define as valuable at the lowest possible cost. In marketing, this capability is commonly referred to as mass customization.

Once car manufacturers realized they could not get away with just offering black cars, how did they respond? They noticed that customers didn’t want to vary everything. Customers care about features like the color, the stereo system, sunroofs, and performance wheels; they didn’t care about bolts and axles. When we compare one Toyota Corolla to another, many components of each car are exactly the same (mass), but certain aspects of each car are unique (customization). Also, the bolts and many sub-assemblies in a Lexus are the same ones used in a Corolla. In other words, many parts are also shared (mass) across models (customization).

The benefits of mass customization are obvious: you give your clients more of what they value so they keep coming back to you while simultaneously raising the quality and lowering the costs of fulfillment.

Revisioning the input variation in arriving calls as a mass customization opportunity opens up new solutions. Yes, there are many different types of calls, but for a given type of call, aren’t large swaths of each of those calls exactly the same? Can’t we standardize those parts and just vary what the caller wants and needs us to vary? As mentioned, car buyers care about color, not about bolts. Similarly, callers want a live agent to address something unique about their situation, or they want some human empathy. We should absolutely try to deliver what they value. Do they care how a required disclosure is provided to them? No, they don’t.

The reason it is so essential to start seeing the opportunities for mass customization is that to not see them leaves us where we are today: each incoming call is as unique as a snowflake, no process is defined for the agents to execute, and the call is riddled with suboptimizations:

  • Don’t automate the greeting to ensure that it is branded correctly every time; hope the agents aren’t so tired and bored that they mess it up.
  • Don’t prerecord the disclosures; hope the agents read it word-for-word without accent issues interfering with callers’ understanding.
  • Don’t use technology to ensure that the right cross-sell offer is made at the right time every time; hope your fancy variable comp plan counteracts the unyielding pressure put on agents to reduce their talk time.
  • Don’t error-proof the step reminding the caller to “remove any software before returning the unit” so that it can’t be skipped; we don’t need to care about that since the angry letters and calls from callers to our clients about their missing software aren’t sent to us.

Listen to a few calls. Try to stem the tide of agent process and output variation with occasional coaching. Wish agents the best when they leave in less than a year. Tell HR to crank up the recruiting engine. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

If you like living the myth of Sisyphus (who was cursed for all eternity to repeatedly roll a huge boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down), that’s fine, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Agent-assisted voice solutions give call centers the platform to be able to deliver mass customization: providing more of what callers value while reducing the overall cost of delivery.

Calls are broken down into call types. A process is: 1) defined for each call type, exactly what you want the agents to do in the system and say to callers; and 2) built using prerecorded audio files and preprogrammed system actions. The agent executes the process, varying it only as required because of something the caller says – as opposed to varying everything every time.

The results? Quality goes up because the agents are executing the process you gave them with no skipped steps, no accent issues, and the right cross-sells. If the caller needs something unique, the agent on the call delivers it. While service is improving, costs are going down because you are engineering the call and every agent is executing that engineered process. You are delivering mass customization and deriving the same benefits.

The exhortation to “think outside the box” lies somewhere between bromidic and boring, but there is truth in it; how we frame a problem drives how we try to solve it. Is every one of those millions of calls you are expecting to get this year unique? Is training your agents and hoping they get it right the best you can do? Or are you sitting on a massive, untapped opportunity for mass customization, allowing you to give your customers more of what they really want while increasing the quality and reducing the cost of that fulfillment?

It’s your call.

Dennis Adsit, PhD is the VP of business development at KomBea Corporation.  He may be reached at

[From Connection Magazine September 2009]

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