Your Call Center on Autopilot

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

I remember calling Visa with a query about my statement. The knowledgeable rep professionally answered my question. After an effective and otherwise satisfying call, he concluded by saying, “Thank you for calling American Express.”

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

I was taken aback, but opted to say nothing. Either he was oblivious to what he uttered or mortified that he had stated the wrong company. In either case, his mouth was on autopilot and his mind was disengaged. Seeking to avoid causing him embarrassment, I politely responded, “You’re welcome,” and ended the call.

In contemplating this, I wondered if he recently changed jobs, moving from American Express to Visa. More likely was that he worked for a credit card outsource call center, which handled calls for both Visa and American Express.

(An alternate explanation is that he was merely bored, seeing how people responded to his miscommunication—stranger things have happened.)

Call center work involves a great deal of repetition, which often occurs in quick succession. It is no wonder that agents easily switch on their autopilot and mindlessly cruise through their day.

Even the best of agents can occasionally succumb to this phenomenon, with uncaring reps subsisting in that mode. As such, we can expect a certain percentage of call center communication to subconsciously uttered. Is it any wonder that mistakes occur?

Matters are made worse when a metrics-motivated manager pushes agents to answer quicker, conclude calls faster, and process more transactions per hour. The result can be agents who are mentally on the next call before the current one is finished.

I’ve seen another amusing autopilot occurrence happen at the conclusion of a call. It’s when agents inquire, “Is there anything else I can help you with today?” Often this is an appropriate query, ensuring that all the caller’s reasons for contact have been fully addressed. Sometimes, however, it is nonsensical or even infuriating.

One such unwarranted situation is when terminating a service. I call to cancel my account. I tell the agent that I am not happy with their product, that it didn’t meet my expectations, and that nothing can be done to mitigate the situation.

I am trying to be polite, but I know that I am terse. After an apology and some subsequent typing, the agent announces that my account has been cancelled—then cheerfully asks, “Is there anything else I can help you with today?”

What else might there be? I don’t think I’ll open an account—I just closed one. I certainly won’t place an order; I’m not happy with the service and I am no longer a customer. There are no pending issues. So what might else might they help me with? Nothing—so why ask?

Another scenario occurs when calling with a question. After vainly trying to help, the rep apologizes for their failure, and then asks, “Is there anything else I can help you with today?” I want to scream, “You couldn’t help me with my first question, so how could there be anything else?”

The only thing that is accomplished by asking that question in the wrong situation is to waste my time and theirs. At this point some call center managers may be countering, “Our agents aren’t on autopilot; it’s our policy to say that on every call.”

To which I ask, “Why?”

Customer Service Success Tip: Employee autopilot can occur in any repetitive job, ranging from customer service to manufacturing to clerical. Seek ways to move staff from autopilot to intentional work. They’re apt to like their jobs more. And the positive outcomes of their work will soar.

Read more in Peter Lyle DeHaan’s Sticky Series books, including Sticky Customer Service and Sticky Sales and Marketing, featuring his compelling story-driven insights and tips.

Peter Lyle DeHaan is an entrepreneur and businessman who has managed, owned, and started multiple businesses over his career. Common themes at every turn have included customer service, sales and marketing, and leadership and management.

He shares his lifetime of business experience and personal insights through his books to encourage, inspire, and occasionally entertain.

By Peter Lyle DeHaan

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, publishes books about business, customer service, the call center industry, and business and writing.