Chaos Theory in Call Centers

We are all familiar with Chaos theory otherwise known as the butterfly effect. The theory says that apparently unrelated events may in fact have subtle though direct impact on other apparently unrelated objects. The most familiar example is the butterfly effect, defined below by Wikipedia

“The Butterfly Effect is a phrase that encapsulates the more technical notion of sensitive dependence on initial conditions in chaos theory. The idea is that small variations in the initial conditions of a dynamical system produce large variations in the long term behaviour of the system.

Edward Lorenz first analyzed the effect in a 1963 paper for the New York Academy of Sciences. The idea is now often stated something to the effect of, .a butterfly flapping its wings in Tokyo could cause tornadoes in California.”

The practical consequence of the butterfly effect is that complex systems such as the weather are difficult to predict.”

While I certainly would grant that weather is a complex and dynamic system and judging by my local forecasts accuracy there must be many butterflies impacting on their predictions, so too are call centers dynamic and complex. In fact to many otherwise intelligent peoples call centers can appear to be some form of magic art. Call centers are in fact a collection of thousands of apparently disconnected parts, each appearing to work independently of others and yet connected at some invisible level. So the Call Center Butterfly theory goes that a butterfly flaps its’ wings in the Marketing department and your ASA is obliterated two weeks from now.

All activities and apparently disparate disciplines within a call center are connected and inter-related. To effectively improve the performance of your call center you must understand and appreciate the inter-connectedness of all things. Now before you fear that this discussion has embraced some sort of eastern philosophy (Zen: be one with everything or Ram Dass – “be here now”), let me take you through a brief examination of call center interconnectedness.

Senior management has tasked the call center to improve customer satisfaction while holding costs in line. The call center manager researches customer satisfaction examines benchmarking studies and best practices and concludes that the solution lies in implemented enhanced skills based routing. The business case cites improved customer satisfaction by directing calls to the most experienced staff, thereby producing a productive dialogue with shorter handle times and higher first call resolution. Brilliant idea one and all agree.

The program is implemented and the initial results appear to be a complete and unequivocal endorsement for the logic of the plan and the management teams starts congratulating itself on a job well done. But hold a second what is starting to happen, the overall handle time and overall customer satisfaction and first call resolution rates start to slip. Rather than ‘noise’ or some anomaly as initially suspected, the numbers keep falling. Everyone begins to ask themselves how is this so? If skills based routing is our butterfly and declining performance (Customer sat, FCR, AHT) is our result, how did we get there from here?

Well let’s consider the ecosystem in this and in many other call centers today to see if we can determine this.

• Skills based routing directs calls to the agents with the skill set best able to deal with the calls,
• The more experienced agents the more skills they possess,
• The more skills they possess the more calls they are enabled to handle, based upon the system ‘rules’,
• The more call they are enabled to handle the more calls that are offered to them,
• The more calls offered to them the more calls they take,
• The more calls they take the higher their occupancy,
• The higher their occupancy the greater likelihood they will .burned-out., resent agents who take fewer calls, resent management for devising this new form of torture and quit,
• Staff turnover increases, the good (multi skilled staff leaves)
• The weaker less skilled staff is thrown into the breach where they unable to help the customer, FCR declines, AHT increases and customer satisfaction reaches an all time low.

Of the above scenario wouldn’t stop there, as new staff under increased pressure and increased occupancy would become de-motivated, morale falls through the floor and staff leaves the center like rats off a sinking ship.

There are thousands of moving parts in your call center and a failure to understand the inter-relationship and interdependency is to risk being the next casualty of the Chaos theory.

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