Ockham’s Razor and the Long-Term Secretary

By Sam Carpenter

Ockham’s Razor is a principle, attributed to the 14th-century English philosopher William of Ockham. It states that entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity, or that one should choose the simplest explanation, the one requiring the fewest assumptions and principles.

What do telemessaging and call center owners and managers want from their telephone secretaries? The short list includes high quality performance and long-term service (needless to say, we would also do just about anything for cheerful and constructive attitudes). Employee turnover and training are the major topics in our get-togethers, both in general sessions at association meetings and in one-on-one discussions between owners. In our industry, it’s an accepted fact of life that secretaries come and go too rapidly.

It’s my personal perception that it’s not unqualified people or poor training that is the problem. Instead, it’s the owner/manager’s inability to address real problems and needs and then produce a system that works over the long haul. We need a philosophy and a system that naturally produces a long-term, high-quality staff. No more band-aids, please. According to Sir Ockham, the solution will be simple.

Okay, why is there such turnover? Among ourselves, why are we constantly trading tips and secrets in an attempt t o stem the tide of constant turnover and training? Why do we agonize over this issue? Why do we endlessly berate ourselves, and the telecom industry in general, for this predicament?

I know of a service in which the owner says “we always have someone in training.” This is a relatively small service. Another owner has indicated to me that staff turnover is not the largest problem in their service (although it is the number two problem). This owner says the largest problem is the mandated increase in the minimum wage! Another owner has a well thought-out, documented punishment procedure for giving people time off from work for non-performance or “bad attitude”. What’s wrong with this picture?

Here’s the classic industry excuse for offering meager pay scales (which certainly doesn’t help employee retention); “This is a cut-throat, hyper-competitive, low-service-rate industry and we just can’t pay a decent wage. TAS and telemessaging is a commodity and, although quality is important, in the end, success is a function of price.”

Yes, of course, service rates are a major influence. But could it also be true that many owner/managers handle things in an oblique and inefficient way, spending money and energy in the wrong places? For instance, is it possible that we could actually pay our people more and charge our customers less if the costs of doing business were spread out a little differently, if we were more efficient in attacking the real problems?

So, what are the real problems? Consider the double-loop method of problem analysis as described in Argyais and Schon’s book Organizational Learning. This process leads one toward identification of the true problem; the basic, no-frills, no-cover-up, no band-aid actual cause of the problem.

The solution invariably lives with Ockham’s law. The solution will be simple and, in it’s simplicity, will expose previous unsuccessful attempts at solutions for what they were: smoke screens offering some initial excitement but which couldn’t possibly offer a long term solution because they have nothing to do with the fundamental underlying problem.

Here’s what we’ve discovered as three basic reasons most services can’t keep employees long-term and they are disarming in their simplicity: First, employees aren’t getting what they want in terms of pay and benefits. Big surprise! Second, in many services secretaries are manipulated in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

This fosters a negative outlook. Third, employees don’t know what to expect. Requirements for performance change continuously while new ideas for perks and punishments flow sporadically from the minds of the owner/mangers.

From all this, it logically follows that employees would feel a degree of disdain for their employers and would not be committed to their positions.

It’s so simple it sounds ridiculous: develop a philosophy of employment that addresses the true needs of the employee. As such a formula is developed, it becomes painfully clear that any strategy that doesn’t address fundamental needs is doomed from the beginning and can dampen morale even further. It’s worse than a waste of time.

There is a large box in my garage full of employee files, past employee files. It weighs about thirty pounds and is about eighteen inches in depth. It’s a legacy to my avoidance of the real issues at hand regarding people. Before discovering the true reasons for employee turnover for myself, here are some of the cover-up solutions we tried at our office during this time of high turnover: rewarding secretaries on a point scale for:

  • not being tardy
  • having low answer-ring averages
  • having high call-per-hour averages
  • having low on-hold times.

Other band-aids we’ve used: employee of the month, sick day benefits and profit sharing bonuses. Here are some other motivators that I’ve heard about in other services: useless gifts as exemplified by sets of Mickey Mouse ears brought back to secretaries after the owner visited Disneyland; complicated formulas to award cash bonuses for perfect attendance; games and rewards for making it to staff meetings. Also, gift certificates for having a “good attitude” and movie theater tickets as prizes for making it through initial training.

What do all of these strategies have in common? For one, they have nothing to do with the real, long-term needs of people. They are of relatively low value and come along in an inconsistent way. Second, they are perceived by employees, deep down, as manipulative and childish-management’s attempt to hood-wink them into being good little boys and girls. This is what a gerontology professional would call “infantizing”. It is insulting in a low-key, almost imperceptible way. This is “carrot on a stick”, bugs bunny methodology and it breeds an underlying disrespect because it’s disrespectful.

Okay, let’s get to it. Here are some procedures and policies that are sometimes contrary to accepted notions but have worked nonetheless. I believe they work because they address the re all problems of staff stability. We simply have no turnover in either of our two offices. Yes, they’re small offices, but they’re 24-hour offices and we do handle a lot of calls.

Our average length of secretary employment is six years and the average is increasing. We almost never have a secretary call in sick. No secretary is ever late. Everyone makes it to staff meetings. Yes, our people have their own personal life problems, like everyone else, but on the job they are positive and solid. It’s not because of something we did to them.

It’s because that’s the way they are. It’s the way they were before they came to us and it’s the way they continue to be. It’s who they are naturally. Rather than having somehow cultivated the personal attitudes we sought, I believe we initially picked good people and then we didn’t alienate them. In addition to giving them what they need and treating them like adults, we’ve also worked hard to give them a bit of stability in a world that is unstable. It may be just a job, but when they come to work, it’s a place that is calm, collected and predictable.

So, what would William of Ockham do if he owned a call center, telephone answering service or telemessaging center? Here’s our best guess. None of these ideas are revolutionary. None of them are new and the list is not complete. Remember that the system is effective because it’s a synchronized combination that adheres to a simple philosophy that addresses the real situation.

  • You’ve already guessed the number one item: pay a generous wage scale. It’s why people come to work, for the pay! A livable pay rate makes them want to stay. Forget the convenient theory that “pay isn’t the most important part of a job, it’s the feeling of being valued,” etc. How sixty-ish. Don’t ask a business theorist; ask your people what’s most important to them! A high pay scale is a solid investment as there will be very little money spent on training, a tangible advantage. But more importantly, the intangible and non-measurable benefits of high quality performance more than make up for the seemingly extra cost. Just because a benefit can’t be directly measured in dollars and cents doesn’t mean it’s not there. Last, but certainly not least, what is the emotional impact of near zero turnover on the owner/manger, not to mention the staff itself?
  • I’ll get some argument on this. No part time people. All full-timers. Part-timers simply don’t have the same experience on the phones; they don’t get the same workout with the accounts and the technique. How can a 20-hour per week employee possibly attain the same degree of expertise as a 40-hour employee? Also, the definition of part time is just that, part time. For them, the job often ranks a low priority. We want career-minded, serious people who rank their jobs important enough that what we want, and what they get, really matters to them in the long term. We don’t take our business casually and neither will a full time employee.
  • No paid sick days. Why? It’s a reward for getting sick! Yes, give vacation days. Give generous vacation days.
  • Health insurance. Pay 100% for the employee and consider covering at least 50% of the additional cost for the rest of family. Also, contribute matching funds to an IRA.
  • No motivational or punishment gimmicks of any kind.
  • If an employee does a good job, say so. If an employee does a poor job, say so. Always do both in private.
  • Longer shifts, for those who want them. More time off between work days is a good thing.
  • An aggressive effort to convert accounts to operator-revert via voice mail. Give secretaries calls that take brain power. It’s silly for a human being to give out office hours when a machine can do the job. Let machines do machine work. Slow the traffic down. Make life at the console interesting and livable.
  • Put the job down on paper. Systemize with a clear and concise operations manual and an employee handbook. Does an employee have to be a mind reader to survive in the position? All instructions for performing the work to the last detail should be in black and white. Yes, it’s a lot of work to put this together.
  • A mind set-change regarding employees and the business system. Stop looking for the perfect employee and put together a documented, systematic business that addresses real problems and solutions simply and directly. Discover that developing a super staff is not a matter of finding extraordinary people, it’s a matter of providing regular people with an extraordinary system.

So, consider Ockham’s Razor. “choose the simplest explanation, the one requiring the fewest assumptions and principles.” And then, act.

Sam Carpenter is the president/CEO of Central Telemessaging in Bend, Oregon. He is past president of the regional telemessaging association and is presently executive director of IVMA, a voice mail user group. He can be reached at 541-383-8383.

[From Connection Magazine – May 1999]

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