How Gamification Can Accelerate Service Agent Training: Inside Scoop with PAKRA CEO Rini Das

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CustomerThink Founder/CEO Bob Thompson interviews PAKRA founder/CEO Rini Das about gamification applications, speeding up service training and whether the term “gamification” will help or hinder adoption.

Interview recorded February 26, 2013. Transcript edited for length and clarity.

Bob Thompson:
Hello, this is Bob Thompson of CustomerThink, and welcome to another episode of my Inside Scoop interview series. This time, my guest is Rini Das, founder and CEO of PAKRA, which provides solutions to help employees learn faster and become more engaged in their work. Rini has led PAKRA since its launch in 2008, and has more than 20 years of experience in a number of different areas that are important to our community, including customer experience, organization change, and Lean and Six Sigma. All of those topics can be applied in customer-centric businesses.

Today we’re going to be talking about a very interesting term called “gamification.” It’s got the tech world buzzing, and there’s been some controversy about just what it is, what it’s good for and maybe what it’s not intended for. We’re going to try to understand all that, what PAKRA’s doing, and how this idea can be applied to business applications. Rini, welcome to Inside Scoop, it’s great to have you.

Rini Das:
Thank you, it’s quite an honor.



What is Gamification?

Bob Thompson:
All right, I want to get right into this topic. I’ve been doing some reading, and I interviewed Michael Wu of Lithium at least a year ago about gamification, so I’m not a total neophyte about the subject. But, I’m still learning, and I’m sure many in our community are learning, as well. Let’s start off, Rini, and if you wouldn’t mind, give a quick definition of gamification.

Rini Das:
Absolutely. Gamification is an approach that uses a typical set of game-designed components in trying to solve a business problem, answer some kind of a research question that people have, and to change user behaviors. These game design components, there are several and all of those have to be there to call it a gamification, at least in my mind. There needs to be an immersive story environment, there needs to be conflicts because reality is based on conflicts. There needs to be goals. Players need to have roles that they have some constraints.

Obviously, game mechanics is what is talked about most, but I think also game metaphors need to be introduced. On the incentive side, I think there needs to be some conscious rewards and conscious penalties—so that is like the best behaviors and the worst behaviors. In addition to that, there are some incentives throughout the whole design, and there needs to be a fast fail learning feedback, if you will, with complex decision trees to make it engaging.

Bob Thompson:
Right. Before you go any further on that, you’ve listed a few different things here. When I look at other literature I’ve seen—and some of this comes from other software companies selling so-called gamification solutions—I see things like points, levels, challenges, virtual goods, leaderboards and so on. I noticed you mentioned goals and incentives, but you seem to be approaching at a little bit different angle than these artifacts of games.

Rini Das:
The artifacts are there and that’s the language that they are using to explain some of the things that I have just mentioned. Leaderboards and those kinds of things, they’re sort of incentives, if you will, but it’s not the only thing. There is nothing new about this. Using games to teach a concept or using game concepts to solve a business problem has been there forever. It used to be done in a non-scalable way with paper and pencil. These days, a lot of the tech companies are giving you a way to scale that whole environment.

Potential Applications

Bob Thompson:
If I look at your website and some others, it would seem that you could apply gamification to everything. What in your mind is the low-hanging fruit, in terms of big applications in companies that they should be looking at?

Rini Das:
I come from the process world and so it’s in a “change of behavior” world. And so what we have seen—and that was the reason why we went and formed this company—is that when you look at any kind of new product launch, you look at new technology implementations, these huge ERP systems that were being launched during the 1990’s, or CRM systems, if you look at new business process that was created because of a Lean Six Sigma project, in all of those situations, what you want to do is actually change behavior. So you have to train people so that they adhere to the new process or product.

Bob Thompson:
Without adoption, you don’t get any value.

Rini Das:
What we found was that if you create scenarios where people learn the consequences of their action, then that is probably the best learning they can have right at the point of implementation. And then they change their behaviors faster.

Bob Thompson:
This is one application I certainly buy into, the idea of learning and adopting new systems, new processes and so on. But if I could just argue the opposite point for a second… When I think about companies that are massively successful like Apple, it seems to me that gamification is kind of a fix for an application that’s not particularly well designed to begin with. Why do you need gamification if the application is intuitive, if it’s interesting, fun and so forth to help people learn software? Isn’t the core problem the software?

Rini Das:
My immediate gut reaction and answer actually, this is core to my heart, you’re absolutely correct. I think a lot of the software is designed by developers without keeping the users in mind. You mentioned Apple. Apple worked very closely with Idea Labs. Also, there’s a lot of discussion about creative design. It is a philosophy. I always tell my developers, “If my user has to click more than three times to do a task, that is not part of our design.” I think design makes a huge difference as far as user adoption goes.

So, from a physical product or technology standpoint, I think a lot of those problems, you don’t need a game to design that. When it comes to adoption of a process and there are a lot of complexities and there are a lot of internal departments involved with it and a lot of handoffs, that’s where I think game mechanics and gamification comes from.

Simulator for Service Training

Bob Thompson:
OK, not as simple as one piece of software that needs to be designed. Can you illustrate what your company does in this gamification field to help employees learn faster and be more engaged?

Rini Das:
Absolutely. Especially for your audience, I’ll try to focus more on the customer service side of it. One of our biggest application and interest is from business process outsourcers and also in-source call centers. When you look at their predicament these days, cost leverage is not the only thing that they bring to the table. They’re looking at these processes by which customers are coming in from various channels— be it chat, voice, email, social media—they’re coming from various channels, asking a question to solve some of their problems. These systems and these processes have become extremely complex, and everybody is sitting in their silos. In addition to that, they usually have an extremely high personnel turnover rate, and they have a huge learning curve issue. And by that I mean from a time zero, which is the time they get hired or at the time they’re implementing a new system, to the time they’re actually reaching peak performance.

Bob Thompson:
Let’s break that down just slightly if you don’t mind. What are we talking about, a few weeks, a few months, without improvement through gamification?

Rini Das:
You are looking at on average for a customer service rep in a call center kind of an environment close to 240 days from the time they get hired.

Bob Thompson:
That’s a long time.



Rini Das:
Where they reach peak performance, which means this is the best they can get.

Bob Thompson:
And with support through gamification, your solutions, what have you seen as an improvement?

Rini Das:
We have reduced it to half. If they have a very well defined process of training and on boarding, which is usually three months, again, the ratio has always been half. And the reason is most of these training designs and on boarding designs are not targeted. Everybody goes through the same process, and they do have sort of a minimum levels of skills. Then they throw them to the floor, and the floor manager has to deal with that. This problem emerged probably in the early 2000s, and everybody kept on asking us, “How do we reduce this because they’re losing money?” If they’re not at a peak performance, they’re losing money.

Bob Thompson:
And they’re providing poor service.

Rini Das:
Right, and most of this on the job training, they call it OJT, most of them are practicing it on live customers.

Bob Thompson:
How do you accelerate this learning curve quickly? I think everybody would agree that faster on boarding, faster learning is a good thing. How does gamification help do that?

Rini Das:
What we have introduced are three things: One is we brought in the whole concept of serious games or game-space learning. In that, what we do is we simulate a real customer interaction where obviously, the learners and the game players get a chance to do over. You don’t get a chance to do over with a live customer.

Bob Thompson:
So, it’s like a flight simulator that you’re talking about. You give the agent a chance to actually play their role of serving customers and dealing with these complex systems so that they can learn without learning on the job.

Rini Das:
Absolutely, it’s a very simple concept. Obviously, pilots have been using it for a long time. Medical simulators have been in medical training for a long time. A long time ago, decades ago, a big client was a defense contractor involved in designing these military games, and the situations were fairly elaborate—battlefields with 2,000 multi-players involved with it. The question was: why can’t we do it for our customer service agents, the same thing?

Bob Thompson:
You talked about gamification attributes like an immersive story and goals and so on. The simulation I get, but how is it gamified? How do you give feedback, whether it’s points or some other positive feedback, to help them improve and do it more quickly?

Rini Das:
Absolutely. It is a kind of a known sort of a truism, if you will, which is the more time you spend with a customer, the better luck you’re going to have with your metrics. Like First Call Resolution resolution, if you’re looking at CSAT and those kinds of things. On the other hand, the more time you spend, you’re not taking other calls. So, there’s a sense of escalation and de-escalation that somebody has to actually think and learn outside their scripted code. What we do is within the game, there are all these different manifests that are there that are kind of giving them some instant feedback especially for bad behavior. But then that’s the next part that we did, which was we took the entire scoring and the rewards and the penalties to be based on their quality scorecard, which then linked to their KPIs. So now, it becomes an assessment tool also. More of us are practicing on it, the assessments are coming out. We do things like how well do they do keyword search.

We take all that information and we instantly throw it to their trainers and their managers or whoever is coaching them, so that they can then intervene and they can address those issues through our sort of human capital management system that we have. It is like any other, Taleo or others, to give much more targeted interventions. If somebody is really good at building a rapport with the customer, but they totally suck at giving good information, then probably they need a little more on the product or service training.

Bob Thompson:
I think the thing that you’ve said that really resonates with me, and I think with anybody that’s into this fuzzy idea of customer-centricity, is that in this case, you’re saying the feedback and the score, if you will, is really about something that’s aligned with serving the customer in a quality situation. So first call resolution or other sorts of measurements. When I sort out what I like about the gamification idea is that I know from my research that incentives are important. But having them aligned with the right things is the tricky part. How do you make sure that if you’re rewarding people, whether it’s paying or pats on the back or whatever, are the things that will actually matter in the end that will help the customer be happier and help the business perform better. Companies that do that really well perform better, and those that kind of wander around, don’t tend to perform very well. You seem to be saying, “Let’s apply gamification to help people, to kind of train them in a way to help do the things that will align with customer satisfaction, as well as employee productivity.”

Rini Das:
Absolutely, and I think the conflict is always between those two levels. They need to know what the optimal time spend is also.

Is “Gamification” the Right Term?

Bob Thompson:
I’d like to wrap up and just ask you one simple question. Do you think the term, “gamification” is part of the problem? Some of the flack that it’s received is just because the term is kind of weird in a business setting?

Rini Das:
I don’t know what demographics of people and who are these execs who would dislike the word. I haven’t met them.

Bob Thompson:
I’m just asking your opinion. Have you found when you use the term, “gamification,” that some executives say, “I don’t want any part of that,” without even understanding what the concept is?

Rini Das:
First let us talk about what a gamifying business would mean. If it is used in problem-solving, if it is used in changing behaviors, in that context, I think gamification matters. Executives who are talking about not liking it because of the word, one of the things that I have recently taken to is NeuroLeadership Institute has a model called SCARF, which stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. So, one can analyze which factor of their lives is getting busted by just evoking that image of gamification. You know Anneke Seley, right?

Bob Thompson:
Yes.

Rini Das:
OK, so Anneke is a friend of mine and also a strategic adviser. One of the things that she says is that people who are happy with what they’re doing right now and getting results out of it and do not want to question the status quo are not the people that you need to talk to. I think those executives who are questioning the status quo, for them and for many, results is perhaps the most seductive idea in front of them. If they see results, I think the semantics of the word will kind of go away.



Bob Thompson:
I agree with that. I just have to say that I’ve been in quite a few meetings over the last year where the term has come up, and almost inevitably, there is a discussion about the term, itself. It just seems that there are some people that just get a little bit of a queasy reaction to it. I wonder if it was really a good choice of the term as a way to sort of bring people in to the ideas, which are very provocative and very interesting, in my opinion. You’re right, the people that don’t want to try something new, you shouldn’t be talking to them.

Rini Das:
Absolutely. Even some of the people who actually are big proponents of this, for example, Jane McGonigal who has written a couple of books and done the TED Show. Then you have Ian Bogost, who wrote a book called “Persuasive Games” quite some time back. They actually are trying to stay away from the term. As far as those people are concerned, it’s like they don’t want to be labeled. They’re rock stars. And no rock star ever wants to get labeled. To me, it’s an approach. I think people had the same reactions to Sales 2.0 when it started coming into the lingo.

Bob Thompson:
Yeah, there are reactions to all buzz words. This one has been a little bit more pronounced, in my experience. Nevertheless, one of the reasons I wanted to talk with you today is that there are some great applications. Gamification is a good idea if it’s applied correctly. I think your examples have helped shed some light on what’s behind the term, and why we should not get hung up on the name. I do appreciate your time today, Rini, in helping bring some clarity to this important topic.

Rini Das:
Anything we can do to help your audience to get those results, I’m always there.

Bob Thompson:
Thank you very much for joining me on Inside Scoop.

Rini Das:
Thanks so much, Bob.

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