Why gamification doesn't play with customer service employees

 Gamification can focus employees on awards, not service.

Gamification can focus employees on awards, not service.

 

Gamification is big. It’s finding its way into everything from innovation, to customer experience, to software testing. A 2011 research report from Gartner predicted that 70 percent of organizations will have tried their hand at gamification by 2014. 

What exactly is gamification? Here a definition from Wikipedia: 

Gamification is the use of game thinking and game mechanics to engage users in solving problems.

The possibilities seem endless. Who doesn't love a good game? In the future, we’re likely to see gamification reach even farther into our lives, as suggested by a popular short film about a guy whose life is completely gamified. 

One arena where gamification doesn’t seem promising is customer service. A 2012 Wired article does a nice job of laying out the major pitfalls: 

  • Intrinsic rewards are replaced with extrinsic ones. Think of it as moving employees from “I want to help customers” to “I want to win the game.”
  • It ignores fundamental problems. Will awarding points and badges for attendance really make a bad workplace any less soul crushing?
  • Gamification is often really pointsification, meaning the object becomes the accumulation of points and awards rather than immersive fun.

It’s sometimes quite easy to spot employees operating in gamified environments. I recently placed a lunch order at a fast casual restaurant and was hit with, “Would you like to add a cookie to your meal so I can win a contest?” It was an annoying pitch. Helping this guy win the Cookie Monster badge had nothing to do with me.

Gamifying customer service tasks also fits the definition of bad goals. These are goals that can inadvertently lead to poor performance. Here are three characteristics to watch out for: 

  • Diverts attention away from the ultimate goal of outstanding service
  • Reward selfishness over teamwork
  • Focus on external rewards rather than intrinsic motivation

Customer service software company Freshdesk has this example from the website advertising their Freshdesk Arcade platform:

 Source:  Freshdesk

Source: Freshdesk

Let’s look at how the characteristics of bad goals might apply to this point system. 

  • Diverts attention. Notice that ending the call quickly can earn twice as many points as solving the problem on the first call. 

  • Rewards selfishness. Earning individual points takes precedence over helping co-workers succeed.

  • Extrinsic motivation. Getting the most points and whatever that entails can quickly replace the intrinsic motivation to provide great service.

In this scenario, your lowest scoring agents could conceivably provide the best customer service.

But wait, gamification principles do have real value!

Gartner researchers have identified four ways that gamification engages employees. Take away the scoreboards, badges, and goofy contests and you’re left with four aspects of really good management.

Let’s look at each element in Gartner's model:

1. Accelerated feedback cycles. Games work because you know exactly where you stand. Why shouldn't the same principle apply in customer service? Giving employees regular and consistent feedback on their performance will help them continuously improve.

2. Clear goals and rules of play. Customer service goals can be incredible motivators, so long as they follow the characteristics of good goals:

  • Focus attention on outstanding service
  • Promote teamwork
  • Rely on intrinsic motivation

The rules of play, in the form of policies and procedures, should always be absolutely clear. They should also be sufficiently flexible to allow employees to adapt to each situation. As I wrote in a recent post, unclear goals, roles, and policies can challenge our sense of belonging and commitment.

3. A compelling narrative. The best customer service companies do this by focusing on customers as individuals. They get to know customers by name and share customer stories. They set out each and every day to create legendary customer service stories. If you want a terrific example, check out the Communicate Better Blog run by Phone.com’s award-winning customer service team.

4. Tasks that are challenging but achievable. This last one fits customer service perfectly. It’s not always easy making every customer happy, but the very best employees are always trying their very best to make it happen.

Perhaps gamifying customer service is like most trends. There’s real value in the concept, which is why it’s trending. But there’s also the danger of taking it too far.

Where do you come out?