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The small BIG – why conventional wisdom about call center gamification is wrong

December 5, 2014 • gal

the small bigI’ve been reading “the small BIG – small changes that spark big influence”. Its authors, Steve Martin, Noah Goldstein and Robert Cialdini are basing its central premise – small changes can have BIG effects – on research insights from neuroscience, cognitive psychology, social psychology and behavioral economics.
The book’s theme is to focus on the small insights that have a BIG effect – the smallest changes in how you use “persuasion science” that have the BIG effect.

Persuasion science, when you think of it, is not that different from research based deep thinking about that elusive quality: employee motivation. And no one argues that remaining motivated in a customer support or customer service setting is not simple. Customers yell at you, you are constantly tracked and measured, and the work requires patience and perseverance in the face of repetition. In a call center scenario you may be simply ignored or yelled at. One of the book’s most telling examples is about a call center.

Before we go into what works to motivate call center employees, let’s examine conventional wisdom about customer service or call center gamification. A quick google search yields many recommendations – all of which are contrary to what science says. For instance, many gamification vendors recommend contests with vacations or monetary rewards. But that doesn’t work – and fiscal-based motivation sometimes even raises the bar, setting an expectation for constant rewards and reducing productivity in the medium and long term. Financial incentives run the risk of setting a new and higher reference point for the future. Other suggest a competition between call center employees, forgetting that it takes time to become a good caller and risking discouragement and an increase in the already high turnover rates in this industry.

Conventional wisdom about customer service and call center gamification forgets people’s inner work life, a term coined by professors Amabile and Kramer from Harvard Business School: “People experience a constant stream of emotions, perceptions, and motivations as they react to and make sense of the events of the workday”. Inner work life is the real stuff behind a sense of motivation and a sense of disengagement.

The small Big book descibes an experiment by Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School of Business. He set out to show what happens when employees are reminded of the higher order stuff: the significance and meaning of their work. His premise was that if people can see why their job was important, they would be more motivated and more productive.

Grant selected a university office that was tasked with contacting alumni and asking them to donate to the institution’s scholarship funds – a call center of sorts. Employees received “stories”. Some stories were about what they gain from the job – salaries, hours worked, bonuses (“personal benefit” stories). Another set of stories was about how students are enjoying the scholarships and what that enabled them to achieve (“task significance” stories). There was also a third control group that received no stories.

Employees in the “task significance” group managed to get more than twice the number of weekly pledges, doubling the amount raised for scholarships. That’s a small BIG thing: exposing employees to stories that make them twice as productive. I love this story. I also think there is a lesson here: it runs against a lot of today’s conventional thinking in enterprise gamification. And it should not. Take care to integrate “task significant messages – such as customer kudos and satisfaction  – into the gamification communications you are using with employees. It will make a difference.

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