Differentiator Series Part 1: Balancing the Contact Center Brain

Differentiator Series Part 1: Balancing the Contact Center Brain

/ Strategy, Planning
Differentiator Series Part 1: Balancing the Contact Center Brain

Like people, contact centers deal with two sides of a brain that will often lead to conflicting conclusions.

Welcome to the first of five installments of our Differentiator series. In this group of articles, it is our goal to go beyond the concept of best practices, and dig deeper into the big “Why”: Why is it that some enterprises continue to shine year after year while most others never get there? The answer lies not in a few practices that can lead to success, but in the culture that enables them. We want to examine the DNA of these contact centers to understand the differentiation.

We should be clear that there are more than five traits that separate the winners from the also-rans. But we are going to take some of the more generic ones as “givens.” Things like the desire for excellence, the necessary funding, strong leadership and talented management are requirements for any successful enterprise. We are moving one layer below this, to those items that are specific to contact center success.

For today’s article, our focus is the “brain” of our contact centers—that set of people, tools and values that allow us to evaluate a given situation and decide on a course of action. Those decisions are sometimes high level and strategic, like the definition of group and individual performance objectives.

Other times, they are very immediate and tactical, like whether we should pull a team off the phone to have a training session. Our specific interest lies in the balance that exists between the two sides of our brain when we make these decisions.

*Evidence of Imbalance*

How do you know when decisions are out of balance? Each scenario is different, but the following are examples of two classically imbalanced approaches to a budget squeeze.

Right Brain Over-Reliance

People can do amazing things—to a point. The classic right-brain approach to a budget squeeze is a hiring freeze. “You won’t know how productive the staff can be until the pressure is on” is a common right-brain mantra. That might work in some places, but in a contact center, where demand is real-time and can’t be put away for handling on overtime, the results can be disastrous. In the end, staffing requirements are the results of a mathematical calculation, and you can’t beat the math.

Left Brain Over-Reliance

Give the left brain too much power, and common sense regarding the ability to execute will come under fire. The WFM team will start denying pretty much every request for off-phone time in an effort to produce a plan that maximizes productive time. Agents, frustrated by the inabilit y to get needed time off, will start calling in sick or quitting, making a bad situation far worse. In the end, you can’t fulfill those planned staffing requirements if the people are not there.

Right and Left Brains

Like people, contact centers deal with two sides of a brain that will often lead to conflicting conclusions. The right brain is the creative, people-oriented side. This is the more emotional side, placing value first and foremost on the people side of the equation. Faced with a problem like high abandoned rates, the right side of the brain will lean on a solution that “fires up the troops,” encouraging them to work harder and more efficiently in order to answer more calls.

The left side of the contact center brain is the analytical engine, craving data, analysis and process as the answers to our many difficult questions. When faced with high abandoned rates, this side starts looking at the numbers, checking to make sure that forecasted volumes are in line with actual, handle times are at expected levels, and the IVR is functioning properly. This side assumes that the answer can always be found in some process or analysis that was not optimized.

Contact centers may not sit around talking about these different sides of the brain, but each has a unique approach to management that favors one over the other. Where an organization routinely lands on the left/right scale is some complex blend of leadership approaches, company core values, industry norms and countless other variables (see the sidebar for an example). Sometimes, this common landing point is exactly the approach the situation calls for, but often it is not.

Design and Execution

In practice, no one thinks in terms of balancing a brain. The best contact centers, though, achieve the same result by thinking in terms of design and execution. Design is what the left side of the brain does well, while execution is delivered by the right side. This “design, then execute” approach is so woven into the DNA of top-tier centers that every move follows this pattern. They rarely, if ever, get hung up in the “analysis paralysis” that afflicts left side dominant companies, nor do they deal with the “ready, shoot, aim” casualties brought on by a domineering right side.

The best answer to our abandonment problem from above, of course, is somewhere between the “one side only” extremes. Of course you should do some quick analysis first to discover what may be happening. Then you need to define how to respond and execute on the plan. Spend too much time planning, and the bad situation may become unrecoverable. Jump to action before analyzing, and you run the risk of solving the wrong problem… making the bad situation unrecoverable.

The abandonment example shows why this balancing skill is so critical in call centers. Unlike other organizations, many of our decisions are greatly influenced by time. The right response at 10:05 in the morning becomes “stale” by 10:14. This makes the speed of design a critical differentiator, and the best have built exceptional flexibility into this step. Real-time responses are analyzed quickly and accurately by a very small group of experts, while strategic issues such as the selection of a technology platform follow a more comprehensive and inclusive process. In either case, the design step is optimized to fit the available time and the realities of execution.


Balance should not be confused with competence. Our five-part series assumes that the basics are covered and we have assembled a competent team. What balance does is allow us to adjust our responses to meet the needs of the given situation and make the most of what we have. This skill, along with the traits to be discussed in the next four articles, form the key differentiators that define the top tier contact centers.

Jay Minnucci

Jay Minnucci

Jay Minnucci is Founder and President of the independent consulting firm Service Agility

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