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Call centres, requisite variety and poor training

Published by in Reflections ·
A few days ago my wife decided she needed to change her mobile phone provider (XXX for the purposes of this story). The main reason for this was the poor signal that we got where we live: Sheffield, like Rome, is built on seven hills, and this seems to make mobile phone and television signal reception quite problematic, so receiving calls on this network in our house has always been chancy.

So as she entered the last four weeks of her contract she rang the provider and said she wanted her PAC code. The person in the call centre checked her records and said that there would be a penalty, as her contract did not end until 27th May. "Oh no it doesn't!", said my wife, "I have the contract here, and it says 27th February."

This unfortunately did not impress the call handler, who said that their system definitely said 27th May and there was nothing that could be done about it. So my wife asked to speak to a manager, which seemed to be a surprising request to the call handler, who said there were none available, but that he would find one and ask them to ring her back immediately. Nobody rang.

The next day my wife called again, and spoke to another call handler, who seemed equally unable to understand that a data inputting error might possibly have led to a handwritten '2' becoming a '5' on the indisputably and unassailably correct computer system. However, she did suggest that my wife could go to a local XXX shop, show them the contract and see what they could do about it. Fortunately, there was such a shop about five minutes walk away, so she went off, spoke to a human being in person, who made a note on a computer system and told her to call XXX customer services again.

So she did as she was told, and now everything was okay and she was given her PAC code.

As I listened to this story unfold, I started to think about what it said from a systemic perspective. Back in 1956 Ross Ashby put forward his Law of Requisite Variety: that for a system to be viable with respect to its environment, it needed to be able to display at least the same amount of control variety as the variety present in the environment.

What does this mean here? The call centre handlers at XXX are undoubtedly trained, and probably work off some sort of system which guides them through how to respond to customer issues. This provides them with a certain amount of control variety. However, my wife presented them with unexpected variety, a contradiction between the written contract and the information on the system, and clearly the call handlers were unable to deal with this new environmental variety. Fortunately, one person panicked and suggested a solution which actually worked, but which, nevertheless, showed that they themselves were unable to deal with this particular form of variety.

To my mind that displays a weakness in the training that XXX's call handlers receive, they are unable to deal with all of the environmental variety that they receive, and do not have enough autonomy or confidence to be able to make decisions about how to deal with new problems on their own. Instead, they pass the buck and hope that somebody else picks it up. This time it worked, but it's really not a great strategy, and we will certainly not be recommending XXX as a mobile phone provider to any of our friends.



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