Mendoza School of Business

Humans vs. automation: Service center agents can outperform technology, study shows

Published: August 17, 2021 / Author: Shannon Roddel

laptop with chat bot

In the digital age, service center operations, including call centers and help desks, are increasingly important as main channels for organizations to interact with their customers. Companies are looking for ways to manage service centers more efficiently — including routing calls to appropriate representatives — because service centers have a direct impact on customer satisfaction and firm performance.


Nicholas Berente

A behavioral perspective on service center routing: The role of inertia” is forthcoming in the Journal of Operations Management from Nicholas Berente, the Viola D. Hank Associate Professor, and Kaitlin Wowak, associate professor of information technology, analytics and operations at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. The research centers on the concept of behavioral inertia, which refers to a tendency to stick with the status quo. Because of their cognitive biases and social relationships, service center agents route calls the way they’ve always done in the past.

“In general, this inertia costs time and money compared with the optimization you can get with automation,” said Berente, a former entrepreneur who studies how digital innovation drives large-scale organizational change. “However, there are certain situations where inertia actually improves service center operations. When agents are experts, or when they are handling particularly complex, difficult calls, these inertial behaviors are beneficial in terms of efficiency and effectiveness.”

Ideally, organizations want to route calls to the right place without requiring excessive time, attention and money. This leads to widespread automation.

headshot of Kaitlin Wowak

Kaitlin Wowak

“Often the automation is awful, so you can never replace humans entirely,” Berente said. “Instead, we end up with combinations of humans and automation. It is critical to understand when one outperforms the other. This is particularly important now, since artificial intelligence technologies are increasingly being used in service centers. Services will inevitably involve humans working in conjunction with technologies, and it is critical to understand when the technology provides benefits and when the human does.”

Firms generally try to optimize routing in their call centers based on a couple of major assumptions. First, they work under the premise that call center agents will follow the guidance of systems they implement. Second, they generally assume that prescribed routing schemes will be optimal in terms of efficiency and effectiveness over human routing.

Originally posted at ND News.