Game On!

By Peter DeHaan, Ph.D.

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStatMy first full-time job was repairing copy machines. The base pay wasn’t good, but they had an incentive program. If I met their expectations, I could double my compensation. Yet despite working hard, winning customer praise, and receiving high marks on my review, I earned little of my potential bonus.

Frustrated, I scrutinized their incentive program, reverse-engineering my workday to maximize my bonus. I prioritized the activities that received the best rewards. As they say, “What gets measured, gets done” – and what gets paid, gets done better. Though I still did the work, it wasn’t always in the customers’ best interest: I often pre-empted repairs to do some other rewarded activity. In three months I nearly doubled my paycheck. To play their game, the customer no longer came first – I did.

Years later, I had a call center agent who hung up on every third call. Her reason was simple: It helped her meet three statistical goals by answering more calls, answering them faster, and spending less time per call. Her plan worked brilliantly for a while, but eventually we traced the hang-ups back to her. Though I admired her ingenuity, we fired her and revised our incentive program.

That’s why when I first heard about gamification – using gaming concepts to motivate behavior among employees or customers – I was skeptical. I worried that having staff effectively play games at work would lower productivity, decrease revenue, and result in counterproductive behavior, just as it did for my former employee and me. On the consumer side, I suspected that applying gamification might result in a short-term increase in brand involvement or purchases, but I doubted it was sustainable.

Several years ago, I suspect that I was involved in a basic gamification initiative at Netflix. After posting my first movie review, I received a “reviewer rank.” With more reviews, my rank improved. Boosting my rank motivated me, almost like a game. Yes, I loved watching movies and enjoyed sharing my input with other customers, but validation came through seeing my rank advance. At one point my reviewer rank hovered in the low five thousands out of a couple million reviewers.

However, if it was a game, I didn’t know the rules; Netflix didn’t share the details. I assumed more reviews were good, more people reading my reviews would be rewarded, and more people flagging my reviews as “helpful” was beneficial. But I couldn’t verify this; everything I did was in relation to others. So if I did something to improve my reviewer rank, but others did even more to improve theirs, my rank could actually decrease, despite my desirable behavior. Communicating how they calculated rank would have helped.

It also would have been less discouraging had they rewarded levels of participation, as opposed to assigning a rank. This would have allowed me to compete against the system as opposed to fellow reviewers, whose ranks were always changing. Despite this, Netflix’s reviewer rank did motivate me to contribute user-generated content – seventy-one reviews altogether. But I stopped posting when it became a chore.

More recently, I’ve posted Amazon book reviews. My “Top Reviewer Ranking” is 441,587. Though I’m curious how to improve it, I won’t pursue it. I post when I want and never check my rank (except to tell you). If this is a gamification effort, it’s not working on me.

Given all this, gamification might have a legitimate place in the call center, albeit with safeguards to keep agents from engaging in counterproductive activities. My worry is the intangibles that can’t be measured, motivating agents to skip good actions not factored into the score, thus placing the game above customer service.

However, I think we can minimize the risks and use gamification to improve call center customer service. That’s when I’ll proclaim, “Game on!”

Peter DeHaan is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat magazine and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from

[From the June/July 2014 issue of AnswerStat magazine]