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Notre Dame researchers study behavioral inertia in customer service call centers

| Friday, September 3, 2021

An interaction with a customer service call center can be a tiresome affair for people in need of assistance. When customers are already stressed out over an issue, the inefficiency of routing systems can only pile on to the frustration. And from a business perspective, inefficiency at call centers costs money — and its customers’s trust.

New research from Notre Dame professors exploring a concept called “behavioral inertia” offers companies key insights to help improve their customer service and make service center operations more efficient.

“The idea of behavioral inertia is new to the literature on call routing and hasn’t been discovered before,” said Notre Dame researcher Kaitlin Wowak.

Courtesy of Kaitlin Wowak
Kaitlin Wowak is an Associate Professor at the Mendoza College of Business and worked as a co-author on a study on behavioral inertia.

Wowak is an associate professor of information technology, analytics and operations (ITAO) at the Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business and a co-author along with Notre Dame associate professor Nicholas Berente of “A behavioral perspective on service center routing: The role of inertia,” that was published in August in the Journal of Operations Management.

Berente notes the study’s lead author Aaron Schecter of the University of Georgia was finishing up his doctoral degree when he gained access to the call center of a large North American company.

“He came to me to discuss how to approach the study and we put together the team,” said Brenete.

The unique, confidential data set the team worked with was composed of about 70,000 calls, allowing the team to select and analyze data in an empirical way.

“We’re one of the first studies to do that,” said Wowak.

Originally, the research team was just looking for the presence of behavioral inertia.

“As a team, we talked through it and felt it was interesting in itself, but what really gets companies interested is the performance implications of behavioral inertia,” said Wowak. “In general, behavioral inertia does hinder service firm performance, but in certain situations, it actually helps firm performance.”

Wowak mentions that the first of these situations arise when an issue is particularly complex. This is because automation cannot adequately route a caller to the best possible agent when an issue isn’t easily codified into a “press one to receive a specific type of help,” automated category.

The routing agent’s behavioral inertia increases overall performance by knowing there is a specific agent with expertise who will perform much better than his or her peers. Codified, automated routing may not direct the caller to this specific agent.

An agent’s expertise and an issue’s complexity are not easy for companies to objectively measure.

“Humans, actually, are fairly good at this sort of thing,” Berente said. “Our minds work through associative pattern matching and we can readily get a feel for things like expertise and complexity, whereas computers have a difficult time with this because it is multidimensional and there is no clear outcome variables.”

“The implications for companies would be to give agents some discretion because they might have a better understanding of what agents know that can’t be codified in routing,” notes Wowak.

Behavioral inertia — overall — hinders performance. The study would allow companies to know when to give agents discretion in routing calls and when to be stricter with automation.

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