Customer service calls: To transfer or not to transfer? ‘When’ is the question

This episode is sponsored by Fordham University’s Ph.D. in computer science.

In an effort to address customer questions and concerns as thoroughly and quickly as possible, service centers such as call centers and back-office support organizations often employ frontline workers to handle some of the more common issues. These workers may end up addressing customer questions themselves, or transferring them to another employee with more expertise in that area. Since these workers provide a gateway to an expert, they are sometimes referred to as ‘gatekeepers.’

An important part of the gatekeeping process is knowing when to stop working on the customer problem and transfer. But, this presents the gatekeeper with some difficult tradeoffs. On the one hand, transferring too early can lead to expert employees in other departments tied up addressing customer issues that could have been handled without a transfer. On the other hand, transferring too late can frustrate customers who feel stuck with an employee who is unable to address their concerns as well as extend the waiting times of customers in the frontline queue.

For managers, an important part of their role is to design incentives that help these frontline employees manage this process to the benefit of the organization. These incentives can take the form of bonus compensation, shift assignments, and promotions. However, balancing these incentives can be challenging and if not managed correctly, can actually negatively influence the employees’ decision-making process. This is the topic of a recent study selected for publication in the INFORMS journal Operations Research from a team of researchers at the Carey Business School at Johns Hopkins University. It provides valuable insights on how to effectively incentivize frontline workers such as call center agents and customer service employees. Joining me is Brett Hathaway to discuss the team’s work titled: “The Gatekeeper’s Dilemma: ‘When Should I Transfer this Customer?’”

First, we wanted to get a sense for how real-world gatekeepers operating in a service center think about the transfer problem and how they respond to incentives built around transfer behavior. Second, using that real-world problem as a backdrop, we wanted to understand fundamentally how gatekeepers should make their transfer decisions under an incentive system. And then third, we wanted to remove all the noise and nuance of a messy, real-world system, and we wanted see how well humans acting, behaving as incentivized gatekeepers in a controlled lab setting would make actual decisions and how those actual decisions would differ from what they should do, and that would allow us to uncover any hidden psychological biases that they have towards particular systems.

Interviewed this episode:

Brett Hathaway

The Johns Hopkins University

Prior to entering academia, Brett spent nine years managing the operations of customer service call centers and IT support. His experience in industry inspired him to enter academia to rigorously research operational issues in service systems. Currently, Brett works with industry partners to obtain unique datasets, and uses a variety of approaches (econometric and analytical modeling, behavioral experiments, and simulation) to study customer behavior under various customer service innovations, and server behavior under differing incentive systems. His studies provide insights regarding the customer and server decision-making process, describe how the performance of the system depends on their behavior, and demonstrate how companies can improve the performance measures of their service systems under various policies.