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Archives: March 2016

Getting Less by Expecting More: “Multitasking” Behaviors Are Stifling Call Center Agents

Multitasking has been under scientific scrutiny since the 1960’s. Diverse and web-centric channels for work and play have questioned the brain’s ability to do more than one thing at a time. MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller explains that, “When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”

There is no better proof that multitasking – or, rather, the attempt to multitask – is alive and well than the contact center industry. If you spend any time peering over the cubicles of call center agents, moving between two or more computer screens, jotting down notes, and plugging digits into their calculator, you have to wonder, what’s all the fuss about? They seem to be multitasking whizzes! (Side note: In one Rapid Ethnographic study of a call center, SBR found that agents migrated between an average of two computer screens and seven different windows during a single call!)

When production value is prized above salesmanship or consumer engagement, the most effective call center agents have to become adept at managing multiple activities in quick succession. The problem is that most companies want call center agents to engage with consumers. The skills required to do so are inherently at odds with mechanical dexterity. You can easily determine whether agents are more focused on the computer than the consumer by the amount of “dead air” during a call. Such is the dilemma for the modern call center.

One big issue is that when people try to multitask, they make more mistakes. Worse yet, when agents switch between different activities, they could be losing the very skills needed to sell and/or support consumers. Researchers at the UK’s University of Sussex found that frequent multitaskers had less brain density in the areas that control cognition and emotional resilience. Sure, an agent might do okay for the first few minutes of their day, but they will soon get burned-out and bummed-out, lose focus, interest and overall job satisfaction. What to do?

  • Experience the agent environment firsthand. Automation can help, but should be built with and for the agent. Too often call center tools are created in a vacuum, often by technical geniuses that know little about or invest no time in appreciating the day-to-day work of a call center agent. An intimate understanding of the job starts with an immersive assessment (our method of choice is Rapid Ethnography) to get an inside look into the agent’s environment. At this point it’s possible to design technological solutions that can do more of the heavy lifting, so agents can focus on the caller.
  • Measure the impact of multitasking on performance. The attempt to multitask is a big time-waster. If you gauge the average amount of time wasted in searching around for information while on the phone you can quickly track the cost associated with multitasking, not to mention the impact it has on the consumer experience.
  • Give agents a chance to recharge. Psychology says that there is a limit to optimal performance and we all have a set point at which all goes south. The best breathers engage the creative part of our brains. If you have or manage a call center, consider a break station that includes games such as pool tables, adult coloring books (all the rage) and other “toys” that help agents switch gears. Even if you can’t set aside a large dedicated space, give agents portable care packages that they can take to the cafeteria.

The modern call center is a motley environment where human-centered communication, technological agility, and product knowledge converge to form the “ideal” agent. But humans are limited and for long-term agent retention and satisfaction, consider how you can create an ecosystem where performance is based on realistic factors. Folks on the receiving end of the call will thank you and so will your bottom line.

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Write Your Marketing Communications for Kids (Not Grownups)

Anyone who has spent time around kids knows that the incessant “Why” query is applied to just about everything. But asking “Why” isn’t just a way to annoy adults. It’s their natural inclination to better understand the world around them using storytelling, a form of communication hardwired in our brains.

Sanden Totten is co-creator of a new podcast, “Brains On!”, which has kids asking their most burning questions about culture, science, art and the like. Totten came upon the idea that kids can be the perfect journalistic tool by observing the way adults responded to them.

On WNYC’s “The Takeaway”, Totten mentioned that scientists spoke differently when talking to adults vs. kids. For example, when explaining El Niño to an adult, scientists might say,“Part of the ocean that we call ‘Niño 3.4’ heats up two degrees above average…”

But when kids asked the scientists the very same question, they turned up their storytelling mojo: “El Niño is basically a weather phenomenon that happens when part of the ocean gets really hot and it messes with all of the wind patterns and sends storms to places they normally wouldn’t be.” Bingo! By giving the microphone to kids, the great questions about the world were not only put within their storytelling context, adult comprehension was boosted as well.

For over a decade now, SBR has helped complex product organizations (like health insurance and financial services) create marketing communications that better reach their consumer audiences. During this time we have tested numerous communications against standard industry barometers like health literacy, which measures a person’s ability to read and understand health-related information. But simply writing communications at a certain grade level doesn’t mean that they are compelling.

When you’re selling something as banal as light fixtures or as complex as health insurance, creativity is often replaced with a product description. Instead of product dumping or feature selling (listing product features one by one), use stories to add both an emotive component to common products and help consumers understand how a product could support them. For example, instead of listing the features of a health insurance plan (deductibles, copays, premiums) create a story about how the consumer will use the product: “When you go to your local pharmacy, you’ll show your membership card to the pharmacist, pay the prescription copay of $10, and then you’ll be on your way.”

You can also use kids to test the relative persuasiveness of your marketing speak. If they can understand it and are maybe even intrigued by it, chances are your adult consumers will as well.

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