Have It Your Way

By Peter DeHaan, Ph.D.

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStatThe Ford Model T was available in only one color. Henry Ford reportedly quipped, “You can have any color, as long as it’s black.” His assembly-line production method changed the way cars were made and introduced a predicable consistency, standardizing the manufacturing process. It was a trait that was highly desired and enthusiastically applauded by the buying public.

Over the years, others have followed this model of production-line efficiency, producing nearly identical output with unprecedented speed. Notably was entrepreneur Ray Kroc, who expanded the McDonald brothers’ California drive-in to thousands of locations worldwide using this same philosophy of mass-production. Again, it was quickly produced product provided in a predictable and pocketbook-friendly manner that captured the public’s attention and garnered their patronage.

So it would continue with fast food assembly lines churning out nearly identical products en masse for the masses. In 1973, McDonald’s competitor, Burger King, seeking an edge, introduced the concept of mass-produced specialization with its “have it your way” concept. If you were around to watch TV in the mid-seventies, you no doubt recall Burger King’s catchy jingle:

“Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce,
Special orders don’t upset us,
All we ask is that you let us serve it your way,
Have it your way; have it your way at Burger King!”

Soon after this highly successful promotion debuted, I witnessed someone trying to place a custom food order at McDonald’s, only to be curtly informed, “We don’t do that here.”  The speculation was that if McDonald’s matched Burger King’s “have it your way” philosophy, it would result in service delays and price increases. However, bowing to changing expectations, McDonald’s acquiesced to accommodate menu variations. Today, the suggestion of not being able to special order a hamburger would be outrageous.

Parallels to this are seen in call centers, where productivity and efficiency are the precise reasons for their creation. To best accomplish this, tasks must be able to be repeated with regular uniformity in a specifically prescribed manner. Someone calling with a request or concern today should be treated identically as another person on a different day with a different agent.

Consistency of process is imperative. All callers should have their calls answered in the same manner with a common phraseology, information would be verified according to an established protocol, and calls would be concluded with a specific technique. To achieve this, each call center established its own SOP (stand operating procedure), with agents being trained to reliably and consistently achieve this standard. For some call centers, this meant that they would always use IVR – or never use IVR. An appointment might be recapped at the end, or each piece of information might be verified when it was given. Procedures were established for when to provide medical advice, the proper way to transfer calls, and when to refer patients to ER.

With this call center protocol firmly established, “clients” – be it internal or external, paying or non-paying – could have any option they desired – “as long as it was black.”  This one-size-fits-all approach to providing call center services is the epitome of streamlined operations and cost-containment. These are great benefits to all – assuming that the call center’s SOP can be accepted.

However, when a client wants to place a “special order” – such as not using automation when it is part of a call center’s SOP – the call center is faced with a dilemma. Does the center insist on keeping things standard, thereby retaining operational efficiency, or do they allow for variations in order to be accommodating? If the scope of work is large enough to warrant dedicated agents, then consenting to the non-standard request is not difficult (assuming that the requisite technology is in place), as those agents can be trained in an alternate protocol for that client.

However, when call center agents handle multiple clients, campaigns, or departments, it becomes problematic to train agents in a non-standard procedure in one instance while, at the same time, expecting them to comply with the SOP in all other cases. This is when mistakes occur. The result is increased customer service issues, coupled with increased costs. The effort of accommodating these types of service variations has the side-effect of reducing overall cost-effectiveness.

At one time, virtually all call centers followed the Model T approach. Some still do. There’s nothing wrong with that – as long as the ramifications are understood and appropriately optimized. However, call centers have increasingly opted to emulate the “have it your way” approach. This, too, is a business decision that is viable – providing that the implications of offering options are understood and accommodated in the operations plan.

For example, when every hamburger is made the same way, there is little chance of having it made incorrectly. However, when special orders are accepted, the potential for wrongly produced burgers jumps considerably. The same situation applies to call processing. In either case, a procedure for dealing with errors must be established, as well as a means to cover the cost of rectifying these problems.

A key consideration when offering service variations is whether the request is considered the exception or the norm. This is not semantics; it hugely affects training. If “special orders” are seen as the exception, then agents are trained on the SOP, and deviations are dealt with separately.

However, when “special orders” become the norm, agents are trained to expect and accommodate variability. In essence, the SOP becomes mass customization. Although this slows down overall call processing and diminishes efficacy, it increases customer satisfaction and retention.

Given that most call centers today offer their clients the “have it your way” approach, there are still generally some non-negotiable items. This may be a result of infrastructure limitations (not having a requested technology), philosophical paradigms (certain things the call center will or won’t do), or practical limitations (excessive errors that occur when a particular exception is attempted). Even so, in today’s environment, since accommodating special services requests is expected, the best response is to smile and simply say, “We can do that!”

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 peterdehaan.com.

[From the August/September 2010 issue of AnswerStat magazine]