Can Call Centres be Salvaged?

Call centres are notoriously known for their long waiting times with some studies finding major institutions such as Centrelink (ironically the Department of Human Services of the Australian Government) having an average waiting time of 1 hour 5 minutes when they claim to have an average which is over four times lower. Apart from this call centres are also famous for their bad customer experience with a BBC study showing 97% of people found at least one aspect of using a call centre annoying. 

Looking to completely revolutionise this perception is Cogito Inc. which was co-founded in 2007 by Pentland with Feast, a consultant and software developer who attended MIT’s business school. The startup was originally financed by the US government and primarily focused on voice analysis software designed to diagnose mental illness in veterans returning from combat. However Petland saw other commercial uses and so have recently been expanding Cogito Inc. into the call centre industry,

Cogito Inc. has been incorporated in over three dozen call centres across the US over the past year with crucial clients such as healthcare giants Humana and MetLife. The founders of Cogito Inc. have raised over $70 million from venture capitalists such as Goldman Sachs and Salesforce Ventures.

Cogito’s objective is to innovate the customer service experience by helping call centre workers to communicate more clearly, empathise with frustrated callers, and improve their overall performance. It achieves this by analysing tone, pitch, word frequency and hundreds of other factors in customer service conversations. When it detects any problems such as an irritated customer, a call centre agent who sounds bored, tired, irritated, rushed or even an agent taking too long to respond - it displays a notification on the agent’s computer telling them to respond accordingly. For example, this may be to slow down, speed up, stop talking, start talking or try to sound more sympathetic.

 
Cogito In Action, Source: Petland’s Website

Cogito In Action, Source: Petland’s Website

 

In terms of success so far, at MetLife Cogito has been introduced to 10 US call centres over the past year with first call resolution metrics improving by 3.5% and improvements in customer satisfaction by 13%. Further to being able to improve customer satisfaction, many employees have commented on being able to cut their average call time in half which is crucial to improving efficiency and reducing wait times especially since some call centre agents take an average of 700 calls a week.

“We were 45 people a year ago and now we have 150 employees. We’re growing really fast.”
— Cogito CEO Josh Feast

Looking further at the employee end, it may appear that Cogito is essentially a digital version of a pushy call centre manager who pedantically records their progress but most customer service agents in a study by the TIME commented that they viewed it as a really helpful tool diagnosing their weaknesses and helping them improve. Furthermore, the developers of Cogito pushed that the aim of Cogito is not to punish centre workers but rather help firms diagnose problems and improve quickly.

Looking at the managerial end Cogito providers them with vastly expanded insight info and far more subtle control over their employees. Cogito can gather far more statistical data on the performance of each of their employees and their strengths and weaknesses. This is especially important in the call centre industry which is focused on meeting performance goals partially as a study by the TIME found that call centre agents weren’t concerned about their own performance targets.


A possible concern of Cogito is that it is catalysing the displacement of low skilled labour but Ashley Moore a 27-year-old MetLife total absence management case specialist, directly challenges this by arguing that Cogito helps those real people have more empathic conversations with customers. Which makes it harder for them to be displaced as “People will always want to speak to that real person”.

However, a crucial concern is that Cogito will heavily influence the call centre agents’ behavioural patterns as it makes them correct themselves for 8 hours a day. This possibility was highlighted when Chris Dancy a health tech executive turned professional speaker used hundreds of sensors in 2010 to monitor his lifestyle and send him streams of notifications coaching him to be healthier, happier, and more productive. This would include for example notifications to strike up a conversation with a cashier when he went to buy groceries. Within five years Dancy’s life changed as he lost over a hundred pounds, quit smoking and was making half a million dollars a year. After years of intense, technologically enforced change, he began to lose track of his identity. This has many parallels to Cogito which sends notifications to call centre agents to modify their behaviour which could, in the long run, could also make them lose track of their identity. 

 
Highlighting the Vast Range of Sensors Dancy has Incorporated Into His Lifestyle, Source: Chris Dancy’s Website

Highlighting the Vast Range of Sensors Dancy has Incorporated Into His Lifestyle, Source: Chris Dancy’s Website

 

Therefore to conclude the call centre industry is growing at a strong rate as more and more firms focus on providing customer-centric services with call centres being a crucial interaction point for customers. However, there are some key structural issues such as long waiting times and poor customer services which can be solved by the introduction of AI such as Cogito but there are some crucial ethical problems which must be factored such as influencing call centre agent’s behaviours.