We Can Do That

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

The Ford Model T automobile was produced in only one color. Supposedly, Henry Ford quipped, “You can have any color, as long as it’s black.” His assembly-line production method changed the way cars were made and introduced a predicable consistency, standardizing the manufacturing process. At that time, those traits were highly desirable and greatly applauded by the buying public.

Over the years, many companies followed that model of production-line efficiency, which produced nearly identical output at an unprecedented speed. One such notable entrepreneur was Ray Kroc, who expanded the McDonald brothers’ California drive-in to hundreds (and then thousands) of locations using the same philosophy. Again, it was quickly produced product provided in a predictable manner that captured the public’s attention, attracting their patronage and accessing their pocketbooks.

So it would continue into the seventies, with food production assembly lines churning out nearly identical products en masse for the masses. In 1973, McDonald’s competitor, Burger King, seeking an edge, introduced the concept of mass-produced specialization with its “have it your way” concept. If you were around to watch TV in the mid-seventies, you no doubt recall Burger King’s catchy jingle (feel free to sing along):

“Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce,
Special orders don’t upset us,
All we ask is that you let us serve it your way,
Have it your way; have it your way at Burger King!”

Soon after this highly successful promotion debuted, I recall someone trying to place a custom food order at McDonald’s, only to be curtly informed, “We don’t do that here.” At the time, there was speculation that if McDonald’s matched Burger King’s offer, the result would be service delays and cost increases, effectively nullifying the characteristics that caused their success. However, likely bowing to public pressure, their disinclination diminished, with McDonald’s employees soon complying with special orders, albeit with a sigh. Eventually they acquiesced to accommodate menu variations. Today, the assertion of not being able to special order a hamburger would be viewed as downright draconian.

Parallels to this are seen in call centers, where productivity and efficiency are the precise reasons for their creation. To best accomplish this, tasks must be able to be repeated with regular uniformity in a prescribed manner. Someone calling to order two left-handed widgets today should be treated the same as another person making an identical request of a different agent tonight – or next month.

Consistency – of both process and results – is the watchword. To accomplish this, call centers established their own SOP (Stand Operating Procedure), with agents being trained to reliably and regularly achieve this standard. All clients would have their calls answered in the same manner with a common phraseology, information would be verified according to an established protocol, and calls would be concluded with a specific technique.

With this protocol firmly established and integrated into the call center, clients could have any option they desired – as long as it was black. For some call centers, this meant that they would always use IVR – or never use IVR. The order might be recapped at the end, or each piece of information might be verified when it was given. Procedures were established for problem escalation, transferring calls to clients, and stating the call center’s relationship to the client.

This one-size-fits-all approach to providing call center services is the epitome of streamlined operations and cost-containment. These are great benefits to clients as well – providing that they can accept that call center’s SOP. When clients want to place a “special order,” such as not using automation when it is part of a call center’s SOP, the call center is faced with a dilemma. Do they keep things standard in order to retain their operational efficacy, or do they allow for variations in order to maintain the client relationship? If the scope of work done for the client is large enough to warrant dedicated agents, then accommodating the nonstandard request is not a significant issue (assuming that the requisite technology is in place), as those agents can be trained in an alternate protocol for that client.

However, if the client’s call volume is such that shared agents are used by the call center, then it may become problematic to train agents in an alternate procedure for one client, while expecting them to comply with their SOP for all others. This is when mistakes can – and do – occur. The result is increased customer service issues, coupled with increased costs. With many clients shopping for call center services based on price alone, the effort to accommodate variations in service has the side effect of reducing cost-effectiveness.

At one time, virtually all call centers followed the Model T approach to serving clients. Some still do – and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as the ramifications are understood and appropriately exploited. However, most call centers have opted to emulate the “have it your way” approach of Burger King. This, too, is a business decision that is viable, providing that the implications of offering options are understood and accommodated in the business plan.

For example, when every hamburger is made the same way, there is little chance of having it made incorrectly. However, when special orders are accepted, the potential for wrongly produced burgers jumps considerably. The same situation applies to call processing. In both cases, a procedure for dealing with errors must be established, as well as padding charges to cover the cost of rectifying these problems.

In this discussion of service offering variations, a key consideration for call centers is whether client preference is considered the exception or the norm. This may seem to be a matter of semantics, but it’s not. It hugely affects training. If specific client predilections are seen as the exception, then agents are trained on the SOP, and client requests to deviate from that standard are dealt with separately, either formally or informally.

However, if individual client preferences are the norm, then agents are trained to expect and accommodate variability. In essence, the SOP becomes mass customization. This slows down call processing, since the process for each step needs to be considered prior to taking action – even a fraction of a second delay, when compounded throughout the day, has huge implications.

Given that most call centers today offer their clients the “have it your way” level of service, there are still generally some nonnegotiable items. This may be a result of infrastructure limitations (not having a requested technology), philosophical paradigms (certain things the call center will or will not do), or practical limitations (excessive errors that occur when a particular exception is attempted).

In today’s business environment, clients expect to be accommodated, and they certainly have alternatives in provider selection. Therefore, it is wise to oblige them whenever and however possible. To exemplify a positive can-do attitude, I used to tell my staff that whatever the client request, the answer is, “Yes, we can do that; let me work up a quote.”

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.  Read more of his articles at PeterDeHaanPublishing.com.

[From Connection Magazine Jul/Aug 2008]

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