When Dysfunction Strikes the Contact Center

When it happens, you know it. We’re not talking about the garden variety slump, or the occasional, inexplicably poor decision. Even the greatest organizations deal with these hiccups from time to time. We’re talking about the ruthless assault on logic, the mind-numbing levels of stress, and the complete absence of hope that can only be produced by dysfunction. It is an experience where every moment of every workday is like that split second when the dentist’s drill hits your nerve.

It comes seemingly from nowhere. Yet in many organizations, dysfunction is sitting below the surface like a dormant virus. Yes, it is quiet most of the time. But if a certain grouping of circumstances comes together, it awakens in a most viral and menacing fashion. Appearing first in members of the leadership team, it surfaces through the havoc created by a barrage of ill-advised decisions. The hosts infect many others in a short time, even those that appeared immune from such madness for the bulk of a 20+ year career. Within weeks, an otherwise effective operation spirals out of control.

Dysfunction in a Contact Center

Dysfunction does not appear more (or less) in contact centers than anywhere else. It is, though, a far more debilitating condition for us than for staff or back-office functions. This is due to the simple fact that we are tasked with satisfying the customer, and dysfunction produces outcomes that will invariably affect the customer in a negative way. Drastic staff cuts, for example, brought about by a “gut feeling” that the center was overstaffed, change the average speed of answer from 20 seconds to 20 minutes overnight. The removal of a rep opt-out on a main menu, in an attempt to increase containment rates, leaves callers fuming when they finally find a “way out.”

Customers, unlike employees, have no reason to quietly accept these outcomes, and have no obstacles holding them back from communicating their displeasure. Their ire is directed at our frontline reps, who wind up taking the bullet for changes they knew were irrational.

And this leaves us in a very precarious situation. Do nothing, and the customers and team members that rely on your leadership will defect, making a bad situation worse. Do something, but not the right thing at the right time in the right way, and you may find yourself being involuntarily defected (commonly known as “fired”).


No one wants to be in this position. If/when you find yourself face-to-face with dysfunction, the “fight-or-flight” response will kick in. Flight is the easy way out, but in a contact center, there is reason to fight. Since the customers will be vocal, and the impact so immediate, the mandate for change will come around more swiftly. This means that recovery could come relatively quickly, but it also leaves you a small window to bring about the turnaround. Using the “staff cuts brought on by a gut feeling” event as an example, here are four key choices you will face along with the recommended course of action:

  • Choose solid data over raw emotion. Of course it is not fair that reps bear the brunt of long wait times caused by ill-advised staff cuts. It is not likely, though, that improving the work life of your reps will be a strong enough argument to initiate any positive change (and the fact that it should be is just not relevant in this case). Long wait times do, however, increase handle times, decrease sales and reduce customer satisfaction scores. The impact is measurable and directly correlates to higher expenses and lower revenue. Calculating these and related consequences is a far more effective way to build a case for change.
  • Choose focusing on the future over reliving the past. Rather than pointing out how an egregiously poor decision to cut staff has decreased revenue that you will never be able to recapture, address how much revenue you stand to gain by making changes that will improve answer times to a more acceptable level.
  • Choose “We can make some refinements” over “I told you so.” A staff reduction that was too drastic is refined by adding to current staff levels. You probably won’t get back to the former staff size, so you can continue to claim cost savings. And if the poorer performers were let go and the new staff is more productive, there are a host of other metrics that will go in the right direction. The bad decision is presented as being in the right direction, but it just went a little too far. That is far preferable to describing it as totally wrong.
  • Choose the assumptive close over a passive approach. This is where things can get risky. But presenting a solid case and then leaving it in someone else’s hands may not produce the desired outcome. You have a better chance of things improving by saying, “I know how important those revenue gains are to you, so I will meet with HR about the new-hire class and let you know when we can get started.”

Of course, every situation will be different. The critical events vary, and culture of an organization is unique. A customer-focused operation will respond better to potential improvements in customer satisfaction ratings, while the financially driven organization will react best to cost reductions. These factors will impact the details of the approach you take, but it will not change the choices. Stick to the data-future-refinements-assumptive path outlined above, and you will be more likely to get the response you want.

Limit the Damage

If you have lived through dysfunction, you know how draining it can be. You also know that in all but the most extreme circumstances, it will eventually retreat back to its dormant state. Your goal is to shorten the duration and limit the damage. If you can pull it off, any future obstacles in your path will seem quite a bit easier to remove.