Off Center
I’ve always been the sensitive, nostalgic type. I’ve been known to get weepy while reminiscing about events that occurred only a few months or even weeks earlier. In fact, just last night I teared up at the thought of a delicious sandwich I had eaten the previous day. I’m not well – but I guess I don’t really have to tell you that if you’ve been reading my blog posts for any amount of time. 

With today’s post marking the one-year anniversary of my Off Center Blog, you can probably imagine the level of nostalgia I’m currently experiencing. Over the past 52 weeks, my blog and I have been through a lot of words together – a few of which have even linked together to make some sense and stir some action.

But what I’m feeling even more than nostalgia is appreciation – appreciation for all of you who have taken the time to peruse at least some of my odd ramblings and playfully irreverent advice over the past 12 months. I am especially appreciative of those among you who actually subscribe to Off Center – you daring individuals who willingly invite my words into your email inbox each week without fear of the consequences. Apparently, you aren’t all that well either.

I thought it would be fun to re-post my inaugural Off Center piece – the very words I shared with the online world almost exactly 365 days ago when I launched my blog and company. This way you can see if I’ve stayed true to what I originally promised to bring to the table.

And with that, I present to you the post that started this whole Off Center thing (along with a special offer at the end, so make sure you scroll all the way down!)...

I know what you do for a living. And I’m here to alleviate your pain.

I know that you work in or around a place that gets inundated by thousands of customers every day – each demanding friendly, professional and efficient service without mistakes. A place that, by its very nature, retains staff about as well as Detroit retains residents. A place that C-level managers understand and respect about as much as they do public golf courses or flying coach.

I’ve written about contact center management for over 16 years. In that time, I’ve conducted comprehensive research on just about every customer care topic under the sun. I’ve interviewed thousands of industry experts, and hundreds of so-called industry experts. I’ve coaxed dozens of managers, supervisors and agents off of tall bridges and window ledges during their center’s peak season. And I can’t even remember how many contact center conferences I’ve attended and spoken at. (I attribute such memory loss to the fact that I have access to the people who provide the drink tickets at conference receptions.)

Just as you probably never planned on managing, consulting or providing solutions to a contact center when you were young, I never planned on researching and writing about them. But here we are, so together let’s learn a little, shake things up and have some fun.

Every week until I run out of words, lose what remains of my mind, or get arrested, I will blog about key topics, trends and challenges in customer service and contact center management. Be warned: What you’ll get from me is not your typical clean, safe, clichéd corporate-speak. That’s just not “how I do”. I come from the school of “if you don’t have anything nice to say, write it down”.  Now, this is not to say that I will be attacking contact center vendors and other industry figures or constantly complaining about the state of the industry, but it’s not to say that I won’t be, either.

For those of you who used to read and actually liked my contact center humor column, In Your Ear – which was published by ICMI for years and years until the government intervened – Off Center will be like coming home again. I will employ much of the same satire and parody in poking fun at – while simultaneously paying tribute to – your mad and marvelous profession.

For those of you who never read In Your Ear or who have never even heard of me, I forgive you, and invite you to come along for what promises to be a rather irreverent and wild ride.

And for those of you who read but didn’t like In Your Ear or me, well, I never liked you either.

In upcoming installments of Off Center, I will actually start writing about hot topics/trends/challenges in customer service and contact center management rather than just write about how I’m going to write about them, as I did here. But hey, Off Center is the sort of thing you have to ease into to avoid causing any irreversible damage to your cerebral cortex or career.

See you next Friday!

SPECIAL ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY OFFER: From now until the end of July, take a gargantuan 50% off the regular price of my ebook, Full Contact: Contact Center Practices & Strategies that Make an Impact. (The official ebook of the U.S. Olympic Call Center Team.)  
To learn more about the Full Contact ebook and download it, go to: Be sure to enter the following discount code to get your 50% off: anniversary1

Thanks to all of you who have contributed to Off Center's rapid growth over the past year!

Warm regards,

Greg Levin
Founder & Principal

As Lindsay Lohan will attest, sometimes it’s simply more profitable to be bad. Such is the case with customer service – if you know how to be bad correctly.

Many of you have probably heard of a little something called “The Service Recovery Paradox.” (And not just because I’ve alluded to it in previous posts – that would assume you’ve read me before and still returned.) The Service Recovery Paradox basically states that an effective recovery process following a bad customer service experience often results in higher customer satisfaction ratings than if the bad experience had never occurred in the first place.

While many of you are familiar with this paradox, most of you aren’t taking full advantage of it. Your service is simply too solid and consistent to ever shake things up, to ever wake customers out of their comfortable service coma and take notice of your company. Sure, your agents occasionally mess up on a call and give your company the opportunity to put the powerful paradox into action; however, you have too many quality initiatives and incentives in place that keep agents from screwing up big enough to have any real and lasting impact on customer sentiment.

If you truly want to win customers over, you have to dare to almost lose them first. I’m not suggesting that you encourage agents to sabotage every customer call, email and chat they handle
just one out of every five.

Below are some tips on how to help your call center suck just enough to dazzle customers:  

Utilize screen pops featuring impolite phrases and insults. Most of your agents don’t care very much about their job and thus shouldn’t have trouble finding ways to alienate and offend customers on their own. Some of your better agents, however, may struggle with intentionally botching service. A great way to overcome their struggles is to send them screen pops featuring cold, non-empathetic phrases and insults that will help them push customers to the brink of defection.

The key is to use screen pops containing language that is just offensive enough to make the customer emotional but not so over-the-top that the customer orders a hit on your agent or, worse, refuses to ever again do business with your company even after the recovery team swoops in to bring delight.

Fail to keep promises made during calls. Insulting customers isn’t the only way to win their lasting loyalty. It’s important to also make sure that their needs aren’t met 100% of the time.

However, don’t merely have agents tell customers that their issue can’t be resolved during the call, as such a feeble attempt on the part of the agent is likely to result in an angry caller explosion from which your company cannot recover. To best set customers up for the type of powerful service recovery that will ensure lifetime loyalty, you need to make customers think that their issue has been resolved upon ending the call with the agent, and then wait for them to realize that it hasn't been.

For example, agents should promise to process every order and issue all appropriate credits, but then occasionally not follow through on such actions. This will invariably result in angry callbacks from customers that escalate to the Recovery Team, who can then apologize profusely, fix the problem immediately, and tell the customer that the company will love them till the end of time. It’s also a good idea to (falsely) promise the customer that the agent in question will be fired, beaten or, worse, demoted to outbound telemarketing.             

Fire any agent who doesn’t receive at least two or three serious customer complaints each month. Make “Serious Customer Complaints” a formal metric for which all your agents are fully accountable. If it doesn’t fit on your agent performance scorecard, abbreviate it as “SCC” and/or get rid of First-Call Resolution, which is impossible to measure anyway.

Provide rewards and recognition to agents who consistently maintain the center’s desired monthly SCC average. For agents who fall short, provide coaching to help them become a little ruder and more incompetent, or just take away their medication. If you have any agents who far exceed the average SCC rate, move them into the Billing department.

ATTENTION: This is a satire. This is only a satire. Had this been an actual insightful blog post, it would not have been written by Greg. Any positive result that comes from taking Greg’s advice is strictly coincidental.

Those of you who know me well are aware of my condition: I suffer from the occasional yet uncontrollable urge to write and record song parodies about call center life, to the tune of popular hits.

The doctors have yet to find a cause for this rarest of maladies, but several believe it has something to do with me being conceived at Woodstock.

In the unlikely event that you, too, are ill and actually want to hear a sample of any of these song parodies I speak of, you can do so by clicking on the following link:

I realize that most of you would never dare listen to one of my call center songs; however, you can’t stop me from posting the lyrics here. Below are the words to what is arguably my most popular song, and by most popular I mean my wife didn’t threaten divorce when she heard it.

“Sympathy for the Agent”
(Written to the tune of “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones)
Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a rep who’s lost his mind
I’ve been around for 10 long, long years
in this cubicle on my behind

I was around when CTI
Entered so hot upon the scene
CTI is the reason why 
I can see all your complaints up on my screen

Thanks for calling
Let me get your name
And if we disconnect
you can just call back again

I have handled three million calls
and some of them with quality
What I don’t get is why they set new reps
by my side and tell them all to follow me

I’ll press release if you mess with me
So don’t call in mad, it’s depressing, see

Thanks for calling
Let me get your name
And if we disconnect
you can just call back again

I watched us fail
when we added email
Then just had to laugh
after adding chat

I shouted out
“Who’s gonna handle these?”
When after all
it was you and me

Let me please introduce myself
I’m a rep who’s felt disgrace
I wanna burn when I’m monitored
This headset here has sealed my fate

Thanks for calling
Let me get your name
And if we disconnect
you can just call back again

Pretty soon I’ll blow a fuse for sure
Why is every caller hating me?
My supervisor – I call him Lucifer
He knows just where to stick my AHT

So if you call me, have some courtesy
have some sympathy for all my stress
I highly recommend you don’t lay into me
On my screen you know I have your home address

Just call me the Weird Al Yankovic of customer care.

I’m only 42, but I have the mind of an 80 year-old. It’s not that I easily forget things or enjoy shuffleboard or easily forget things; it’s that I’m cranky and crotchety well beyond my years. Where I used to be playfully irreverent and relatively good-natured, I now simply complain at the drop of a hat. In fact, I get really aggravated when somebody drops a hat.

In other words, I’m no fun to be around. But I am fun to read on occasion – especially if you are a call center or customer service professional who’s been forced to keep quiet about bothersome things in the industry and your job. Customer care folk are expected to be forever positive and optimistic and cheerful and accommodating. And many of you truly are, which is why we rarely hang out.

Call centers and customer service are evolving and improving in a lot of ways, but I didn’t come here to talk about that. I’d rather rant about some of the current bad ideas and troublesome trends in our field.

Personality-based call routing. This recent call center technology development is sort of like skills-based routing on steroids. And, as all of you who do not make your living as a football player, baseball player or professional cyclist know, steroids are bad.

The thinking behind personality-based routing is this: If a company can match each customer with an agent who shares similar traits and behaviors, positive experiences and increased loyalty (and sales) will result.  Sounds good in theory, but so did Windows Vista.

There are several inherent flaws with personality-based call routing:

1) Many customers, like myself, are obnoxious jerks, and when we call with a problem or complaint, we don’t want to speak to anybody even remotely like us. Give us a sweet and empathetic sap who will kiss our butts while we roar and rant -- not some fellow cranky smart-ass who’s going to try to steal our thunder.

2) Personality-based routing assumes that your agents all have a personality. I have called your company and happen to know for a fact that this isn’t the case. What this means is that, if you deploy personality-based routing, many of your employees will be sitting around doing nothing while the members of your staff who are even just the least bit interesting or annoying will be getting slammed with calls.

3) By matching up individuals who are highly compatible, you risk having your center’s Average Handle Time (AHT) go through the roof. Rather than efficiently handling strangers’ inquiries and issues, agents could very well fall in love with some of their callers – or vice versa – thus turning your ACD into a sort of call center apparatus that fosters intimate relationships rather than profitable ones. 

(For those of you who think I’m making personality-based routing up, you can read more about it here: -- but please return to my website or I’ll come looking for you)  

Video calls. I continue to hear talk about how video is going to take customer service by storm and greatly humanize the caller experience. Keep in mind most of that talk is coming from desperate vendors who over-invested in video-over-IP software back when they were hooked on illicit substances in the mid 1990s.  

There’s nothing wrong with the actual technology that drives video interactions; it’s been ready for prime time for years. The problem is that allowing callers to see the faces of employees whom you pay $8.50/hour and whom you cram into tiny cubicles is risky business. Your agents may be able to put a “smile in their voice”, but their attempts to force an actual smile onto a face that’s attached to a body that’s suffering from wrist, back and eye maladies can end up making them look like somebody punched them while they were sucking a lemon.       

Granted, there are a few call centers that have effectively implemented video calling, but most of them are located in Europe, where agents get four weeks of vacation and are encouraged to drink wine between calls. 

“Customer Effort” as a KPI. Is it important to gauge how easy it is for customers to do business with your organization and agents? Absolutely. But good luck precisely measuring that effort in any real quantifiable way. Fanatics of the latest metric craze – “Customer Effort” – would have you believe that you can accurately track not only whether each customer’s issue has been resolved or not, but also how many times each customer smashed their head against a wall or desk while awaiting such resolution.

I’m certainly not against the idea behind Customer Effort, but I can’t imagine how it could be a formal KPI in the call center. I suggest you forget trying to put a number to something so ambiguous and subjective. It’s best just to maintain a comprehensive quality monitoring program that incorporates C-Sat results into scores (“Voice of the Customer”), and then just assume if those scores are decent, you’re making things easy enough for most customers.

If, on the other hand, you discover that customers have started a Facebook hate-page dedicated to your organization and/or some of your agents, you need to either dramatically improve the service you provide or replace your existing customers with some who don’t mind putting in a little work to get what they need. Customers can be so lazy these days.

I look forward to your comments, as long as they are extremely positive and full of exaggerated praise. You’ve already seen what happens when I get cranky.  

If you are looking for a way to engage your agents and improve performance without having it interfere with your nap time, have I got the solution for you:

Peer mentoring.

It’s one of the most effective and affordable agent development tools around – one that empowers your best and most experienced agents while simultaneously keeping your newer agents from getting laughed at too much by the quality monitoring team.

Most contact centers that have implemented a peer mentoring initiative report shorter learning curves, increased performance, and lower turnover among new hires, as well as a strong sense of "I no longer hate my job" among experienced staff.   

 Agent-on-Agent Education

Peer mentoring typically involves pairing up a rookie rep (protégé or “mentee”) with a veteran one (mentor) for several weeks or months after the former completes their initial training. In some centers, the mentoring relationship begins during training, thus giving the protégé a dedicated shoulder to cry on even before getting screamed at by their first caller.

Protégés sit with their mentor and practice the tactics they have learned in training or on the show Outsourced and receive invaluable feedback and tips from their experienced colleague. In addition to gaining insight and skills from the most knowledgeable people in your contact center, new agents often form a strong bond with their mentor, which helps to cut down on early attrition and assaults on supervisors and schedulers.     

As already alluded to, it isn’t just the new agents (and the contact center) that benefit from mentoring; mentors themselves truly appreciate that management recognizes the value of their skills and knowledge. Mentors also enjoy the job diversity and time offline that mentoring provides, not to mention having somebody to fetch their coffee in the morning. 

The Mentoring Scheduling Conundrum

One of the biggest challenges involved in running a successful mentoring program is scheduling. Since mentors are typically among the center’s best agents (if you’re doing it right), it’s critical not to have too many of them working offline with their respective protégés, or to have any of them offline during peak volume periods.

This problem can often be solved by having a solid workforce management (forecasting/scheduling) process in place, and by instilling a “queue is king” mentality among mentors. Make sure they know to keep an eye on the queue whenever offline, and that it’s okay to knock over even elderly managers or visitors while sprinting back to their workstations whenever certain queue thresholds are reached.

Choosing the Right Mentors

When selecting who will serve as mentors, it’s important to note that the most talented and experienced agents don’t necessarily make the best teachers. For example, studies have shown that many of the highest caliber tech support reps carry knives and collect human teeth.

Contact centers with the most successful mentoring programs have a formal mentor selection process in place. These centers typically have candidates interview for the position, take behavioral tests, or even complete some form of certification program. Each candidate’s results are compared against an “ideal mentor” profile to ensure that those selected are skilled, dependable, personable, autonomous, and have never punched a colleague in the head.

I’d love to hear some of your experiences with peer mentoring, but only the positive ones that support my points. Otherwise, people will start to figure out that I really don’t know what I’m talking about.