Call Centers, Ford & Toyota; What do these 3 have in common? More than you would think!

Henry Ford is widely considered to be one of the fathers of mass production and standardization.

At the beginning of the 20th century, faced with the challenge of producing a large quantity of cars at an affordable price, he (along with Frederick w. Taylor) invented production lines and with that he forever changed the landscape of factories.

It would take several decades before anyone would re question the approach. It wasn’t until Toyota arrived in the market with their approach to customer satisfaction and their objective of delivering a high quality product that anyone would challenge those standard methods of production.

The first call centers were created on Ford’s model: Customer service for the masses.

How long will it take for call centers, the modern call centers of today, to undo this model and answer to the needs of their clients and their employees?

To build the future, it is often useful to learn from the past.

The industrial revolution of Ford and Taylor

In 1908 Henry Ford began to evaluate how to bring his cars to the masses. The challenge was that to that point it had been strictly reserved for those who could afford the custom nature of the product. How can he find a way to reduce costs and build cars quickly so that everyone could be able to own a Ford car?  

This is where the production line was born. By splitting up the work into incremental pieces, standardizing the pieces and the product Ford is now able to hire less qualified and therefore cheaper labor and turn out cars faster than anything he ever knew before. The era of mass production.

Ford model T

 « People can have a model T from Ford in any color, as long as it’s black. »  Henry Ford

Frederick W. Taylor for his part, developed the scientific organization of work: The tasks were all divided, standardized according to strict norms that they must be executed at a specific rhythm and speed. Thanks to him, anyone can do the work. All that was now important is the manual repetition of the simplified tasks.

The results they saw were immediate: Productivity increased, and costs decreased.  

In 1914, Ford decides to double the salary of his employees (from 2,50$ to 5$) and introduces a bonus system. Outside, workers line up to work in his factory; inside the employees adopt the skill on the line that they are assigned: the turnover rate and absenteeism go down. Production increases.  

It was deemed a huge success.

THE TOYOTA REVOLUTION

After world war two the Japanese were looking for ways to rebuild the auto industry.

After looking around they came to the realization of the perverse effects of what the mass production model was doing.

  • Customers were not satisfied by:
    • The lack of flexibility in their different needs
    • Quality issues
    • Longer delays receiving the products
  • Increased costs to store the unsold products
  • Employees who were disengaged

It was in this same period that the American engineer W. Edwards Deming begin discussing new ways of doing things. His ideas were not very popular with his fellow Americans, but the Japanese were listening, and they decided to invite him to help them revolutionize the way they were working.  He would go on to become a national hero!

To get different results, you must take different actions

From that collaboration, the Toyota model would be born. From there would begin a fundamental shift into how factories and production lines would be organized.

  • Production of products based on the clients’ needs,
  • Reduce the quantity of overstock,
  • Employees have the right to stop production if they feel a need,
  • Employees were involved in continues process and product improvement,
  • Work began to be organized by small specialized teams,
  • Diversifying tasks and roles to favor collaboration

It is a revolutionary model that takes a completely different approach then Ford’s initial plan:

  1. It becomes a customer centric approach. Here the seek to satisfy a customer who no longer wants to accept the standard and who is looking for products that are more customized and fit their actual needs.
  2. They adopt a systemic view. They seek the productivity of the entire system, not just the productivity of the workforce.
  3. A human approach. They value the employees, not just for their physical contribution, but for their knowledge and ability to resolve problems and innovate.

From the onset in the 80’s, factories all over the world were amazed by the success that their Japanese competitors were having. Sonner or later they all began the transformation of their own models, with varying degrees of success and difficulty.

This revolution opened the door to the systems we see today in most of our factories.

Call center

The first call centers were built on the factory model

What does all this have to do with call centers?

The first call centers were created with the objective of serving many clients for the smallest cost possible. Call centers have long been known to be classified as « Cost centers »  after all.

The objective was very similar to that of Ford except this time it was industrializing services.

It was completely natural then that call centers would adopt the same methods to their context:

  • Standardization of scripts,
  • Limiting autonomy for employees,
  • Counting and controlling every second,
  • Motivating results with bonuses

Same cause, same effects!

Costs go down, productivity increases, and the birth of bigger and bigger call centers begins to maximize their results.

The same perverse impacts from the factory model were quickly spotted:

  • Customers were not satisfied by:
    • The wait times,
    • The quality of the interactions,
    • Calls being transferred
  • Costs of the service increases
  • Costs to acquire new clients increases
  • Disengaged employees

The evolution of call centers

The Toyota revolution has already been present in call centers for several years.

New principles have appeared to adapt to the evolution of the client’s expectations:

  1. We want to be Customer Centric. We strive to create experiences that will develop customer loyalty and retention.
  2. We adopt a systemic view. We can see how the call center is being considered and integrated into customer journey’s and across multiple channels.
  3. We create a more human approach. Employee autonomy and latitudes are being increased and more and more they are being involved in process improvement

New models of call centers have developed in which we see how they can contribute to the reputation of the brand, the customer experience, to the increase of revenues and the global profitability of the organization.

The agents in these call centers play a different role.

Here we are asking them to go beyond the scripts to:

  • Understand the clients needs,
  • Offer them the product or services that are adapted to those needs,
  • Solve their problems/issues,
  • Be proactive to avoid having the client need to call back,

It results in better business results and also better work environments where employees are engaged and actually enjoy their work.  

Martin Luther King Speech

Call centers can be different

The modern call center is very different then what most people imagine.

Or rather: Call centers have the potential to be very different then what most people imagine them to be.

Today still, too many are organized like the factories from the days of Ford and the model T.

The technology has improved over time, the workspaces are modern and bright, the work conditions and incentives have been reviewed, but the control and the standardization are often still omnipresent.

This change is not as easy as it can seem. It was not easy in the factories back when it was successfully accomplished either. It is possible though. The benefits are overwhelmingly positive and impact the entire business.  

It is 2020, now over 70 years since Henry Ford has passed on. It is time for call centers to finally undo that image of factory work that seems to stick to them.

It all starts with a vision.

It all starts with you.

Do you believe?

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