Off Center
Many progressive contact centers are starting to break free from the confines and rigidity of traditional call routing. Rather than blindly sending callers to the next available agent – regardless of who’s calling or why – these centers are exploring routing methods that are so unconventional they have been banned in certain Midwestern U.S. cities.

Here are a few prime examples of customer care organizations doing call routing on the edge.

HMOno Health Insurance
HMOno uses priority queuing like no other contact center on earth or in New Mexico. The center’s New Policy division gives high priority to healthy callers because they cost less to insure and whine less to agents. 

Every call is front-ended by an IVR system designed to determine if new callers have any serious health risks. A voice prompt asks callers a series of risk assessment questions, such as “Do you smoke?” “Do you drink?” and “Do you work at a public high school?” Callers who answer “no” to all risk assessment questions are quickly routed to a live agent anxious to sell them a policy. Callers who answer “yes” to one or two assessment questions are knocked back a few places in the queue. Those who answer “yes” to three or four questions are placed at the end of the queue. And those who answer “yes” to five or more questions are immediately routed to a company competitor or a hospital.

The IVR system also has been programmed to listen for any sneezing, coughing or wheezing sounds to help determine a caller’s health. If any such sounds are detected, a voice prompt says “Gesundheit!” or “Please cover your mouth” before the caller is bumped back in the queue or routed externally.

MegaMerchandise, which sells everything from saucepans to sporting goods, knows customers appreciate the personal touch. That’s why their contact center – staffed with an eclectic group of employees – uses a truly unique routing process that matches each caller with an agent who has similar interests, personality traits, and SAT scores.

All calls are initially answered by an automated “matchmaker” programmed to quickly assess which agent the caller is most likely to bond with. For instance, if a man from Brooklyn calls interested in purchasing a baseball bat or a thick gold chain, the matchmaker will route that call to an agent like Joey “No-Neck” Gambini. Joey can then have a friendly informal chat with the caller about benchpressing and broken kneecaps to help build rapport before closing the near-certain sale.

Big Spur Bank & Mistrust
Handling irate customers is never fun, but routing them to convicted murderers can be. Big Spur Bank & Mistrust – based in Sweetwater, Texas – has been doing it for about a year, with impressive results.

The bank’s contact center uses cutting-edge technology to identify angry callers, who are then seamlessly routed to death row inmates trained to help the callers realize the pettiness of their complaints.

Here’s how it works: The center’s automated attendant is able to measure the heart rate of each caller. Whenever the rate exceeds 200 beats per minute, the attendant knows that the caller is either furious or has just run a 10K race. To determine which is the case, the caller is told to “Press 1 if you are fighting mad” or to “Press 2 if you need some Gatorade.” Callers who press 1 are routed to the first available killer in one of the many fine high-security prisons in Texas. To help callers put things in perspective, Inmate agents use phrases like, “How dare you complain to me about a $3 ATM fee – I sleep on a metal slab and eat gruel every day,” or “You think being rejected for a loan is bad? Try having your stay of execution request denied 10 times.”

In most cases, callers calm down and apologize for their selfishness, at which point the inmate agent can take advantage of the caller’s guilt and begin cross-selling/up-selling premium bank products.

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.