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The bank's customer service rep was distracted.
He was responding to emails in between phone calls. The problem was he'd get halfway into an email and then the next call would come in. It took a second for him to shift his focus to the caller.
At the end of the call, he'd hurry back to the email. He'd skim the email as best as he could and then hurriedly type his response in hopes of finishing it before the next call came in.
One particular email was from a customer inquiring about his loan balance. The rep looked it up and saw the balance was $15,000. In his haste, he left off a zero.
His email informed the customer that the loan balance was just $1,500.
Distracted By Design
Customer service reps everywhere are chronically distracted.
They’re balancing multiple priorities. They often work in noisy office environments. The typical contact center rep must juggle five to seven different software programs on two or more computer monitors just to serve a customer. And they’re barraged by messages on email, chat, and even their personal devices in between.
To top it off, many contact center reps work like the bank employee in the story above. They are asked to respond to email or another written channel in between handling phone calls in an effort to eke out every last drop of productivity.
It's thought to be efficient, but it isn't. Customer service reps working in this setup are often less productive and are prone to costly mistakes. For example, the bank ultimately had to honor the erroneous loan balance and write off the $13,500 error.
Here's a demonstration that can help you experience what's happening to distracted employees. The image below contains a number of circles and squares. Try to count the number of each shape as quickly as possible.
Let's try this again with a twist.
Count the total number of circles and squares by alternating between counting each shape. In other words, count one circle and then count one square. Then count the next circle, count the next square, and so on.
How did it go?
Most people take longer to count the shapes and are more prone to making errors. Which is exactly what happens when you ask employees to switch back and forth between tasks all day.
The High Cost of Distraction
Distraction can cost a company far more than the few dollars saved by cramming in some extra work in between calls.
Another customer service leader told me about the cost of distraction at his company the same time I heard about the $13,500 bank error. This one was even worse.
A telecom customer had emailed to ask if he had won a promotional contest. He had not won, so the customer service rep started typing an email to politely tell the customer he didn't win.
But the customer service rep was answering emails in between calls. And the rep was distracted. So the rep's actual email read, "You did win."
There was a kerfuffle. The company tried to claim it was an honest mistake. The customer sued, and the company eventually agreed to a six figure settlement.
You might be tempted to maximize productivity by having your agents juggle multiple assignments all day. Before you do, think about the potential costs:
Expensive errors caused by distraction.
Decreased productivity caused by constantly shifting attention.
Decreased service quality caused by a lack of customer focus.
Take Action With This Experiment
In my book, Getting Service Right, I constantly search for counterintuitive solutions to vexing employee performance challenges. In Chapter Seven, the book explores reasons why employees often fail to pay attention.
Here's one example:
I once worked with a medical device manufacturer that had its customer service reps answer emails in between phone calls. The stakes were pretty high—the company's products were used in life-saving medical procedures.
We ran a simple experiment. Instead of having reps handle phones and email, we divided the reps into two teams. One team handled phones, the other handled email.
The number of reps on each team could easily be changed throughout the day. If phone volume was high, more reps could join the phone queue. When phone volume decreased, a few reps could be re-assigned to email.
This extra focus quickly had a big impact. Both phone and email quality increased because reps were able to give the customer in front of them their full attention.
But counterintuitively, productivity increased in both channels!
You can test this yourself by running the same experiment for a week. Involve your agents—let them know what you're testing. You can even run a test group and keep another group working the old way so you can compare the results.