Do Your Call Center Agents Play Games at Work?

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

In my column “Game On,” I discussed gamification: motivating behavior by applying gaming theory. I questioned if it was mostly hype or offered merit, sharing my experiences with gamification from a customer perspective. Now I’ll share my gamification experience from an employee perspective. My story goes back a few decades, long before the word existed.

My first full-time job was repairing copy machines. I didn’t necessarily like the work, but I liked having a job. Not only had I grabbed the first offer, I also failed to verify the compensation, assuming what my school’s placement department told me was correct. It was not; the company paid about half of what I expected. So I considered this position as temporary, something to pay the bills until I could find work that paid better.

Nevertheless I poured myself into my new job, striving to excel at fixing copy machines. I applied myself and became good: I repaired the machines fast, kept expenses down, and earned praise from customers.

Imagine my dismay when I saw the first technician ranking. I was near the bottom of the list. Something was wrong. Our dispatcher calculated the results for our boss, so I asked her what she tracked. I listened carefully. To my surprise, the measurements had nothing to do with repairing machines quickly or saving money. Most metrics addressed other factors such as the ratio of drive time to service time, the number of hours logged, and how many leads I passed to the sales department. I was doing everything wrong.

Taking this knowledge I developed a new approach to my job. I stopped focusing on serving customers. I began striving to maximize my rating because my incentive pay was tied to the results. I desperately needed to earn a nice bonus to offset my lower-than-expected salary.

When the next ranking came out, I was near the top for the month, and my year-to-date placement had moved to the upper half of the list. However, my paycheck was my real reward. For the third month, I was number one, and year-to-date I was in the top quarter. After six months both my monthly and annual rankings were number one. My bonuses now approached my base pay. By playing their game, I’d nearly doubled my compensation.

Though I was still a good copy machine technician, the customer was not number one; my paycheck was. I didn’t prioritize repairs based on urgency; I scheduled them to minimize my drive time, since part of the bonus was for spending less than 10 percent of my time behind the wheel. I’d start and end the day with a stop close to home because driving to my first call and returning home didn’t count in the calculations. I also drove faster, but that’s another story.

I no longer tried to save the company money but instead focused on what was best for my rating. For example, if protocol called for cleaning a filter or retrofitting a part, I’d replace it. Though this cost the company more, it all but eliminated the possibility of me being called back for the same problem – and being penalized for it. If one of two parts would fix the problem but only time would tell which one, instead of replacing the cheaper part first and then waiting, I’d replace both and be done with it.

No one realized what I was doing. My rating was stellar, my superiors were pleased, and customers couldn’t tell the difference.

After nine months, a better job came along. The base pay for my new position exceeded the salary and bonuses of my old one. There were no games to play with my new employer. All I had to do was focus on the work.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.

[From AnswerStat August/September 2015]