Call centers and help desks serve as primary channels for customer communication. Good customer support is the bedrock of any healthy company — but it can also be expensive and tricky to get right. Also, companies are constantly seeking ways to enhance their efficiency.
Given this state of affairs, the advent of powerful and robust generative AI systems like ChatGPT has caused a lot of anxiety in the workplace.
Suddenly, people who thought their jobs were out of the reach of automation now felt threatened. And out of all the industries, customer support has one of the highest disruption potentials. After all, how can you compete with a machine that knows every answer to a technical problem a customer might have, is available 24/7, and has infinite patience and resilience when faced with abusive customers?
Things are indeed looking bad for service center operations — but not all are doomed.
Recent research conducted by Nicholas Berente and Kaitlin Wowak from the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business sheds light on the role of behavioral inertia in service center routing and its implications for human-agent interaction. Their findings suggest that there are situations in which humans and machines can work together to enhance customer outcomes.
Balancing Humans and Automation: Finding the Optimal Solution
Behavioral inertia refers to the tendency to stick with established routines and decisions. It’s all about following the status quo. Service center agents, influenced by cognitive biases and social relationships, often route calls in a way that reflects past practices rather than optimal efficiency. People are just more likely in general to follow a set of behavioral patterns they’ve formed over previous weeks, months, or even years.
“In general, this inertia costs time and money compared with the optimization you can get with automation,” said Berente, a former entrepreneur who studies how digital innovation drives large-scale organizational change.
“However, there are certain situations where inertia actually improves service center operations. When agents are experts, or when they are handling particularly complex, difficult calls, these inertial behaviors are beneficial in terms of efficiency and effectiveness.”
Ideally, organizations aim to route calls efficiently without consuming excessive time, attention, or resources. Automation sounds like a no-brainer. However, the complete replacement of humans with technology is often unfeasible.
Berente emphasizes that the combination of humans and automation is the most realistic approach in service center operations. He underscores the need to understand the circumstances under which one outperforms the other, especially in light of the increasing utilization of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies in service centers.
“Frequently, the automation itself falls short, preventing complete replacement of humans,” says Berente. “Therefore, we find ourselves in a situation where humans and automation work together. It is crucial to determine when technology provides advantages and when human intervention is more effective.”
Challenging Assumptions: Human Routing vs. Prescribed Schemes
To optimize routing in a cloud contact center, companies typically operate under two key assumptions. First, they expect call center agents to adhere to the guidance provided by implemented systems. Second, they assume that prescribed routing schemes are inherently efficient and effective, surpassing the performance of human routing. But both of these assumptions typically crumble under real-life working conditions — and this isn’t always bad, as long as the call center agents are well trained.
“We discovered that humans do not always follow the guidance as expected due to their behavioral inertia,” reveals Berente. “This inertia can be beneficial when agents possess expertise or when they confront particularly challenging issues.”
For instance, despite the routing protocol suggesting that Agent A should route an issue to Agent B based on various factors, Agent A might rely on cognitive biases and social embeddedness and route the issue to Agent C. While such routing discretion can hinder overall service center performance, the study found that it proves beneficial when dealing with difficult problems and highly skilled agents.
The research team analyzed data from 79,994 calls received by a service center of a prominent North American technology company. The center employs over 180 agents, providing substantial insights into actual service center operations. The study combined call data analysis with interviews and an on-site visit to gather comprehensive information.
Based on their findings, the team suggests that service center supervisors can implement policies to maximize the benefits of inertia while minimizing its overall impact. Achieving this balance requires a careful approach, combining highly directive automated routing systems with some degree of agent discretion.
“The key takeaway for companies is that human discretion is valuable in specific situations, but not universally applicable,” advises Wowak. “Companies should establish routing protocols that grant agents a certain amount of discretion while making routing decisions, avoiding excessive discretion, which can be suboptimal.”
To leverage the benefits of inertia and mitigate its negative consequences, the research team recommends increased training for service center agents on the concept of inertia in the routing process. Agents should gain a deeper understanding of the causes and consequences of inertia to make more informed decisions. Moreover, fostering interaction among agents can help counteract socially embedded causes of inertia and further optimize service center operations.
The findings appeared in the Journal of Operations Management.
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