Ask any leader: “What is the one thing you would change about your people?” And invariably, “Greater Ownership” is a popular answer. There is an in-built design flaw in service centres…

The In-Built Design Flaw in Service Centres

Ask any leader: “What is the one thing you would change about your people?” And invariably, “Greater Ownership” is a popular answer. There is an in-built design flaw in service centres that undermines the sense of ownership. What is it? How do you overcome it?

The cause of design flaw is Psychological Distance1. Customers are psychologically distant if either they or their needs appear abstract as opposed to concrete to service centre people.

Psychological distance is the enemy of Empathy. If your service centre people can’t empathise with customers, they’re likely to care less and take less responsibility for the welfare of customers.

Psychological distance is created when bank leaders centralize operations, reorganize how work is carried out, leverage technology, remove case file ownership, put in place service level agreements and standard operating procedures.

On the whole, these strategies are a boon for customers – they improve speed and accessibility, and significantly lower cost and risk of failure. However it comes at a cost, they collectively create:

  • Physical distance
  • Intermediaries between customers and the people doing the work
  • Social distance
  • Misalignment in objectives (e.g. focus on SLAs and what is the right process as opposed to what needs to be done to help the customer?)

Fixing the Design Flaw

Strategies to close the psychological gap can be organised as (1) Preparing Mindsets Before Moments-of-Truth and (2) Staying True Within Moments-of-Truth:

1. Preparing Mindsets Before the Moment-of-Truth

Here is a summary:

If you are interested in more details about what leaders can do to prepare mindsets, you can find them in our article “Fixing The Design Flaw in Service“.

2. Staying True In The Moment-of-Truth

Problems in customer service occur in the heat of the moment. For example:

  • In a recent appraisal, Sue is told she needs to be more detail-oriented, so she adheres to technical rules at the expense of customer outcomes.
  • John’s team lost the grand final last night and he arrives to work grumpy. When confronted by an irate customer, he is defensive: “It’s not my fault, why are you yelling at me?” – and failing to be empathetic: “why is this customer upset?”

When people are fatigued, distracted or under pressure, they lose empathy.

Presentation Layer

It is common for service staff to be required to access data from up to five different bank systems in order to service a single transaction. And within each system, there are codes to remember, non-intuitive interfaces, and numerous screens to navigate through.

Banks leaders can:

  • Put in place a presentation layer that synthesizes data and “services” from multiple applications
  • Enable one-click access to the most frequently used transactions covering 80% of the volume.
  • Use desktop automation software to automate highly frequent actions

Bank leaders can make this a reality by leveraging existing capability from technology providers such as Backbase and Pega.

Augmented intelligence

Imagine this:

  • John, a mortgage officer, takes a call from a customer who wants to check on the status of a loan application. An intelligent computer named Gertrude listens and transcribes voice into text.
  • Customer can’t find the loan number. Gertrude hears this and calls up the “search-by-name” screen. This frees John up from needing to do manual data entry.
  • As the customer tells John the details, Gertrude turns voice into text and conducts the search. Meanwhile, Gertrude has also called up the loan status screen in a different system, and entered the customer number to produce the information John needs.
  • John tells the customer that the application is still pending. The customer sounds anxious and asks if things can be expedited. John is about to say “it’s not in my control”, when the computer prompts two questions for John to choose from. John picks the second one: “May I ask when is your settlement date?”
  • Based on the tone of the customer’s voice, the computer senses the conversation isn’t going well and offers words that John might use: “I see that things haven’t gone smoothly so far, and getting more certainty from us is what you need…”. John uses these words and this has the effect of making the customer feel more assured.

Whilst the scenario might sound far fetched to some bank leaders, AI companies like Gridspace are already making it a reality2.

Nudges To Humanise Interactions

When you book a stay using AirBnB, you are asked to write a brief note to the owner. The tactic is about humanising what would otherwise be an anonymous transaction.

This has the effect of bringing out the empathy on both sides – the host is more likely to make the stay a pleasant one, and the renters are more likely to treat the property with respect.

Bank leaders can employ similar behavioural nudges. Here are three examples:

  1. Similar to AirBnB, share minor personal details between the customer and team member. By making a team member’s profile more public, they are more likely to take ownership of the customer’s affairs. Our article “The Bystander Effect” explains this further).
  2. Get service staff to maintain a tick sheet that prompts them to visualise the customer in every transaction: Who are they? How are they feeling?
  3. Use catchy slogans to trigger a desired behaviour. Kit Kat subconsciously prompt people to “Have a Kit-Kat” when it’s time to “Have a Break”3. Using similar behavioural science, Xempli created a series of postcards to help a bank client embed new mindsets across 850 service staff – here is an example:

In a future article, we will present a broad set of “nudges” – strategies leaders can use to influence behavior.

Xempli is a tool leaders use to amplify teams. Harness the power of behavioural science and technology. Find out more:


We’d like to thank David Beavis for reviewing this article. His mix of strategy expertise and extensive line management experience is invaluable. We’d also like to thank Cameron Meindl, one of the smartest people we know in technology, for acting as a sounding board. Note that the views in this article are not representative of David, Cameron, nor of their employers.

1Psychological distance affects our everyday behaviour:

  • People are likely to spend 56% more on impulse purchases when paying with credit cards instead of cash (Harrison, Paul. 2014. The psychology of making purchases with cash and credit. This is because credit cards are one step removed away from cash (Ariely, Dan. 2008. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decision. Chapter 14, pp.295-308.).
  • When a patient’s photo is attached to CAT scans, radiologists said they worked more meticulously because they felt more empathy towards the patient. In an experiment by Turner and Hadas-Halpern, radiologists failed to report 80% of incidental findings when a photo is omitted (Turner, Yehonatan and Hadas-Halpern, Irith. 2008. The Effects of Including a Patient’s Photograph to the Radiographic Examination. Quoted in Pink, Dan. 2012. To Sell Is Human. P.208.).
  • Behavioural scientist, Dan Ariely, says that it’s much easier to be dishonest and rationalise poor behaviour when the victim is faceless (Ariely, Dan. 2012. The Honest Truth About Dishonesty. Harper Collins.). People are more likely to make false or exaggerated claims on their tax return, or in making an insurance claim, than they would in a face-to-face situation.

2Some leaders may have experienced a bit of the technology first hand without realising it. Try this: grab your iPhone (no need to unlock it). Say, “Hey Siri”. Siri on your iPhone will “wake up”. Ask Siri, “Can you read me my emails?” and Siri will read the subject lines of the most recent emails. It’s easy to fall victim to expecting too much from artificial intelligence. Despite claims by AI companies, voice recognition accuracy rates aren’t yet high enough, and it takes a long time to train a machine to understand whole sentences. A senior tech executive at a bank said: “in the short term, bank leaders should rely on trigger words rather than assume an intelligent machine can understand whole sentences.”

3Jonah Berger, 2016. “Contagion: Why Things Catch On”.

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