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Resoundingly Human

Nov 18, 2021

In an effort to address customer questions and concerns as thoroughly and quickly as possible, service centers such as call centers and back-office support organizations often employ frontline workers to handle some of the more common issues. These workers may end up addressing customer questions themselves, or transferring them to another employee with more expertise in that area. Since these workers provide a gateway to an expert, they are sometimes referred to as ‘gatekeepers.’

An important part of the gatekeeping process is knowing when to stop working on the customer problem and transfer. But, this presents the gatekeeper with some difficult tradeoffs. On the one hand, transferring too early can lead to expert employees in other departments tied up addressing customer issues that could have been handled without a transfer. On the other hand, transferring too late can frustrate customers who feel stuck with an employee who is unable to address their concerns as well as extend the waiting times of customers in the frontline queue.

For managers, an important part of their role is to design incentives that help these frontline employees manage this process to the benefit of the organization. These incentives can take the form of bonus compensation, shift assignments, and promotions. However, balancing these incentives can be challenging and if not managed correctly, can actually negatively influence the employees’ decision-making process. This is the topic of a recent study selected for publication in the INFORMS journal Operations Research from a team of researchers at the Carey Business School at Johns Hopkins University. It provides valuable insights on how to effectively incentivize frontline workers such as call center agents and customer service employees. Joining me is Brett Hathaway to discuss the team’s work titled: “The Gatekeeper’s Dilemma: ‘When Should I Transfer this Customer?’”