When Games Supersede Work

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineLast September in my column, “Let’s Play,” I discussed gamification and questioned if it was mostly hype or offered merit. I wondered then – and still do – if gamification has any application in the contact center. Those who talk about gamification mostly do so from a theoretical perspective, lacking tangible real-world examples. In my article, I shared my experience with gamification from a customer perspective: It motivated a change in my behavior but left me frustrated, so I gave up.

Now I’ll share my gamification experience from an employee perspective. My story goes back a few decades, long before the word came into being.

My first full-time job was repairing copy machines. I didn’t necessarily like the work, but I liked having work. I viewed my employment as temporary, something to pay the bills until I could move into my preferred career. Not only did I grab the first job offered, I also failed to verify the compensation, assuming that what my school’s placement department told me was correct. It was not – the company paid about half of what I expected.

Nevertheless, I poured myself into my new job, striving to do my best at fixing copy machines. I soon became quite good at it. Imagine my dismay, then, when I saw the first ranking of technicians: I was near the bottom. Something was wrong.

I asked the dispatcher, who calculated the results for our boss, what criteria she tracked. She told me, and I listened carefully. To my surprise, the metrics had little to do with repairing machines quickly or cost-effectively. Most measurements addressed other factors – such as how much time was spent driving, the number of hours worked, or how many leads I passed to the sales department. I was doing everything wrong.

Taking this information and working backwards, I established a new way of doing my job – not focused on serving customers or saving money but on maximizing my rating. My incentive pay was tied to the results, and I desperately needed to earn a sizable bonus to offset my lower-than-expected base salary.

With my newfound focus, the next ranking came out with me near the top for the month; my year-to-date number had now moved to the upper half of the list. My paycheck, however, was my real reward.

For the third month, I was number one; year-to-date, I was in the top quarter. Six months later both my monthly and annual results were number one; my bonus almost equaled my base pay. By playing their game, I’d nearly doubled my compensation.

Though I was still a good copy machine repairman (yes, we were all guys), I no longer put the customer first; I put me first. I didn’t prioritize customers based on the urgency of their need, I scheduled them in the order designed to minimize my drive time, since part of the bonus was for spending 10 percent or less of my time behind the wheel. I’d also start and end the day with a stop close to home because driving to my first call and driving home didn’t count in the calculation. I also drove faster, but that’s another story.

Also, I no longer tried to save the company money but focused on increasing my rating instead. For example, if protocol called for cleaning a filter or retrofitting a part, I’d replace it. Though this cost the company more, it all but eliminated me being called back to redo a job – and be penalized in the process. If one of two parts would fix the problem but only time would tell which one, instead of replacing the cheaper part first and then waiting, I’d replace both and be done with it.

No one ever realized what I was doing. My rating was stellar, so my superiors were pleased and the customers never knew the difference.

After nine months, I quit. A better job beckoned. It still wasn’t my dream job, but it was much closer. The base pay for my new job exceeded the salary and bonuses of my old job. And with my new employer, there were no games to play. All I had to do was focus on the work.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of  Connections Magazine. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.

[From Connection Magazine April 2013]