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Expert's Angle: Multitasking Can Lead to Multiple Failures

The expectation that call center agents multitask while doing their jobs is almost as ubiquitous as the requirement that they answer the phone. Unfortunately, people aren’t naturally very good at doing two things at once, which means that attempting to multitask can easily lead to service failures.

How We Multitask

The human brain can only process one conscious thought at a time. When we try to concentrate on two things at once, we end up rapidly switching our attention back and forth. David Meyer, a researcher at the University of Michigan Brain Cognition and Action Laboratory, refers to this process as split-tasking since we are really splitting our focus. Throughout this process, our thinking inevitably slows down and errors are made.

You can experience this for yourself with a simple activity. Try standing on your call center floor next to two agents who are both on the phone and see if you can listen to both of their conversations at the same time. You’ll notice that you either pick up bits and pieces of each conversation or your focus diverts to one agent in particular.

This article looks at two common ways that call center agents are expected to multitask, how that expectation can easily result in poor performance, and what you can do to overcome these challenges.

Challenge 1: Job Design

Consider of all the things call center agents are asked to do while handling a call. They must navigate the CRM system, recall product knowledge, and adhere to call quality guidelines. Over time, these tasks become second nature and require less conscious effort, allowing call center agents to focus more of their attention on their customer.

However, performing all of these tasks at once can be a tall order for new hires when they are still learning the various aspects of their job. We’ve probably all seen a new employee experience "vapor lock," where they get completely frozen on a call as they try to remember a critical procedure in your CRM while still managing to listen to an upset customer. While this doesn’t typically happen with more experienced agents, you may see them struggle when you expand their job responsibilities or implement a new product, policy, or procedure.

Solution: Simplifying your call center agents’ jobs can help overcome this challenge. The less you ask your agents to commit to memory, the more brain power they can focus on the customer. For example, I once worked with a client whose products were very complicated and were constantly being updated with new features. I helped them create a knowledge base where agents could instantly access the correct answer to product questions which meant they no longer had to remember so many product details. This approach helped cut new hire training time by 50%, eliminated the need for ongoing product update training, and allowed all agents to quickly access current product information without experiencing vapor lock.

Challenge 2: Non-phone Work

It’s often tempting to give call center agents additional work to perform between calls, such as data entry or responding to emails. Calls tend to come in waves, so giving reps some extra work to accomplish seems like a neat way to maximizing productivity. However, the distractions caused by switching between tasks may also lead to lowered output and higher error rates.

For example, a rep might be asked to chip away at the call center’s email queue between phone calls. Unfortunately, the next call will probably come in while the rep is in the middle of writing an email. This can cause a moment’s hesitation where they cheat a little and try to finish the sentence they were typing while simultaneously answering the phone.

Two things can go wrong. The most obvious problem is the rep fails to make a strong connection with the caller, and may even misunderstand for the customer’s initial request. The second problem is that the rush to complete emails between calls can easily lead to a lack of focus and attention given to each email message. This leads to poorly worded or inaccurate responses, which in turn generate additional emails and spawns customer dissatisfaction.

Solution: Supervisors should spot-audit emails, emphasizing both quantity and quality. Make sure emails are professionally written, fully address the customer’s needs, and anticipate any additional questions that the customer is likely to ask so that information can be provided too.

When I instituted a daily spot-audit in a call center that I managed, I was initially surprised at how many poorly written emails my reps were sending. Fortunately, my reps got better at writing emails as they received more feedback and learned to take the time to thoroughly respond to each message. Best of all, improving the quality of their email responses reduced the number of customers who sent a second email because their initial question wasn’t properly answered.

Solution: An easy fix is to focus reps on one assignment at a time. For example, a call center increased productivity and reduced errors by splitting their reps into one team that handled incoming calls, one team that data-entered orders received via fax, and one team that responded to emails. They rotated assignments to keep everyone sharp and could easily re-assign individual reps on the fly to work on a different assignment if customers began experiencing wait times, or the email or fax queue got too large.

It may seem counterintuitive to suggest simplifying call center reps’ jobs and allowing them to focus on one task at a time, given the “do more with less” ethos in today’s workplaces. However, this approach better matches our natural capabilities and usually results in improved service quality and productivity.