CC Image courtesy of herval on Flickr

Here’s a worst case call center scenario. You’re the team leader, supervisor, or call center manager for a once respectable call center operation that has suddenly – for lack of a better term – completely gone to hell. Beer cans and clothing are strewn across the call center floor. People are “sleeping” in the training rooms. Absenteeism and turnover are up, while adherence and productivity are down. Way down. Employees are showing up drunk, when they even show up at all. And most recently, you’ve noticed a dramatic uptick in the number of eggs on your car windows and key scratches on your doors.

Anthony Leaper, Senior Vice President and General Manager at SAP, recently wrote a hard-hitting expose, “How to Fail your Call Centers”, that take a unblinking look at what happens when otherwise well-trained and passionate call center reps are hamstrung by restrictive policies that leave them helpless to resolve customer issues. In case you haven’t read his article, basically what happens is that 1) customers get really pissed off,  and 2) call center agents start showing up to work unshaven, disheveled, reeking of Bourbon. Chances are, neither of those two things are performance indicators that you want to mention in your annual report.

How you might ask, does something like this happen? Well, let’s take a scenario that we’re all quite familiar with. You’re enjoying a cold six pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon while watching Dancing with the Stars on your new, super cool iPhone 7 (the top-end deluxe model with 1000 GB storage and built-in retinal scanning). Suddenly the professional wrestler/action movie star you were cheering for gets voted off the island. You scream, “WTF? He nailed that enchufla! This is complete bullshit!,” throwing your hands up in disgust. Instantly you realize your mistake as you look down at the short-circuiting, beer-soaked iPhone in the lap of your skinny jeans.  Crap! You sheepishly dig out your old iPhone 5 (the one with only 999 GB storage and old-fashioned finger-print scanning) and dial up customer service.

The cheerful call center rep immediately sympathizes with your predicament. “Yes sir, he nailed the hell out of that enchufla. Yes sir, the judges robbed him blind. Yes sir, it was complete bullshit.”. But the rep then goes on to apologetically explain that  as per corporate policy you are not eligible to receive a free new phone until next week when you’re two-year contract comes up for renewal. Regrettably if you want a new phone this week, it will cost  you five thousand dollars.

Obviously you can’t go around in public using your old, now embarrassingly out of fashion iPhone 5, for a whole week. So you grudgingly pay the $5000 for a shiny new replacement iPhone 7. You end the phone call by telling the call center rep that they suck money balls and that if you ever see them walking out of the Abercrombie and Fitch store in the mall parking lot, you’ll run them over with your hipster fixed gear (fixie) bicycle. “It’s on mother****r” you scream as you furiously bang on the phone’s hang-up button with your finger.

So, where did it all go wrong? Clearly organizations can’t just do away with all corporate policies and procedures, right? I mean, we need rules. We need structure. We need rigid, completely inflexible iron-clad corporate policies that frustrate employees and infuriate customers! Right?

Well, maybe not. Clearly, corporate policies and procedures are created for good reason (e.g., to prevent fraud, to avoid giving away non-entitled service, to ensure all customers receive a consistent customer experience, etc.). But call center reps also need the authority and flexibility to deviate from the script and take action to satisfactorily resolve customer issues when appropriate. In the above example, where the customer’s two-year contact is coming up for renewal in just a week, the agent should be empowered to move up the contract renewal date by a mere week in order to retain the customer and garner goodwill and brand loyalty.

Seems like common sense, doesn’t it? Sensible, yes. But common? Unfortunately still not so much. Many organizations haven’t yet embraced a balanced approach to enforcing corporate policies and procedures, while giving call center reps the ability to “go rouge” when it’s in the best interest of the organization. Perhaps when companies start losing more customers (and employees) they will wake up and smell the… what the heck is that smell, and how are you going to get it out of the carpet?