I blogged on this subject recently, but thought it worth revisiting as new material keeps coming up. I spoke to a twenty-something the other day, who worked in a call centre of one of our large communications companies. I was shocked to hear of what went on in those concrete cages around which ambulances hovered daily, anxious to take the fallen away and hide the evidence of gladiators hurt in combat.
It’s all about numbers: average handling time AHT (low), number of retained customers (high), amount of customer revenue earned (high), number of new products cross-sold (high), number of customers up-sold (high). Wait a second! There are some conflicting ratios here. Take the pissed-off long term customer who is calling to cancel her account because the company is gauging her with those ever increasing “fees.” If our hapless agent salvages the client, by first listening patiently to her vent, and then by giving her a rebate for the next 6 months, he has failed on all but his customer retention score: his AHT will be higher, his customer revenue is lower, and he dared not have up-sold or cross-sold anything more to this irate customer on that call. But he saved the company its greatest embarrassment: the customer badmouthing her experience to 20 other people, as is taught to us in all the text books that no one reads these days as everyone is so busy texting and twittering.
It gets worse. Bonus plans are introduced without considering long term implications. In the beginning, these plans promise great earnings potential; then targets get raised to the point that bonuses look like mirages in the desert, and then they are yanked away completely. Talk of motivation!
What about leadership? There are increasing occurrences of the leader who runs to his or her manager to get a decision and has to wait for that manager to run to his or her manager for the same thing, and so up the chain, until everyone is in the President’s office. And what started this frantic migration? Oh, the poor bloke at the bottom of the chain needed a day off! “Sychophant” should be a ubiquitous word in the corporate lexicon today, along with the usual buzzwords of “synergy,” “take-charge” and “pro-active.”
I tried to understand this shift. When I arrived in Canada in the late ‘80’s, we were told that employees needed to be kept motivated because there was nothing to stop them from walking across to the competition. We were told that employees left bad bosses, not bad jobs. It was an environment of employers chasing good employees. I felt so relieved at the time, because I had left the Third World where employees were treated like commodities and bosses had little or no leadership skills because they had often been appointed through nepotistic connections.
Now, thanks to globalization, automation, and a financial crash, the situation has reversed and the Third World working environment has made landfall in North America. And it’s been going on for five long years, so the change is more structural this time. The big losers will be the corporate leaders of tomorrow, the ones cutting their teeth in this new environment today, who are of the opinion that employees are disposable and leadership lies only with the Big Boss. It almost begs comparison with the concentration camps of WWII when the mantra was, “oh let ‘em work or die, there is another trainload coming in next week.” And the ambulances will be doing heavier duty outside. Even Dilbert will become more popular as one wonders whether it is a cartoon strip anymore or harsh reality portrayed in a digestible form.
So for all you pointy-haired bosses out there, pay heed, the world goes around in circles, gravitational and economic. Those former concentration camps were eventually razed, the slaves were freed, the perpetrators were punished and the world went into a cycle of unprecedented growth that we only lost five years ago. And that can happen again. What goes around, comes around, they say – so gird up your loins, dust off those management books of yore and be prepared to show some respect again, especially when mass retirements start in a decade from now and employers start chasing employees again.