One Thing That Makes Multitasking Five Times More Dangerous

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Multitasking and customer service don’t mix.

New research suggests there’s one thing in particular that degrades our ability to juggle multiple tasks at once. It is helpful to cover a little background first, but here’s a short riddle that will give you a hint:

Add one hundred forty eight plus nine hundred twenty three. Remember the sum and you’ve found the key.

Got it? 

Remember your answer and keep reading. (Don’t cheat and write it down!)

Background

Multitasking causes a lot of service failures. 

It’s covered extensively in Chapter 7 of my book Service Failure. You can also read more in a blog post I wrote about why multitasking hurts customer service.

Here’s a summary of what we know:

  • We can only process one conscious thought at a time
  • Multitasking slows us down
  • We make more errors when we multitask

Even more ominous, chronic multitasking can lead to a condition called Directed Attention Fatigue or DAF. Psychologists have found that DAF symptoms are strikingly similar to people with ADD.

One Thing That Makes it Worse

Now, don’t go back and peek at the riddle. Do you remember the answer?

The real answer to the riddle is short-term memory. It turns out that engaging our short-term memory makes the negative impact of multitasking much worse. For example, reading this post for understanding and retention becomes more difficult if you simultaneously try to remember the answer to the math problem.

This new finding about short-term memory comes from a 2013 study on distracted driving commissioned by the AAA Foundation. The study produced a cognitive distraction scale that shows the level of distraction caused by various activities conducted while driving.

Drivers were five times more distracted when attempting to complete an OSPAN task. OSPAN refers to a series of tasks that required participants to solve math problems while remembering words. It’s difficult enough by itself, but things get really tough while driving.

Drivers were still three times more distracted when completing the speech-to-text task. This required them to listen to an email or text while driving and then dictate a response to the vehicle’s onboard infotainment system. This particular task might be analogous to talking on the phone with a customer while searching the web for an unrelated item.

The study found that any level of multitasking-induced distraction caused two dangerous problems for drivers:

  • Diminished reaction times
  • Less likely to recognize hazards

Customer Service Implications

We already know that multitasking hurts customer service. These new findings suggest that multitasking while engaging our short-term memory is a recipe for disaster.

Here’s a typical example:

A retail employee is juggling inbound phone calls while serving customers waiting in line. She takes a phone call from a customer whose issue requires one of her co-workers to do some research. Her co-worker is currently at lunch, so she promises the customer a call back later in the day.

The employee works hard to focus her attention on each individual customer as she handles multiple phone and in-person inquiries at once. By the time her co-worker returns from lunch, the message she intended to pass along has been forgotten.

How could this failure be prevented? 

The simplest fix is to put the message for her co-worker in writing so she doesn’t need to remember it. This works well if there’s already an established messaging system such as email, a CRM system, or even a physical inbox.

In busy customer service settings like this, it’s natural to give customers your divided attention, so you may miss something important. The employee could set a specific intention to each customer her undivided attention. Environments like this one that are full of distractions require extra effort to concentrate on just one customer at a time.

Finally, the employee might try to create an attention procedure for herself. This works by periodically altering her focus to look for any loose ends. For example, she might step away from the service counter, take a deep breath, and scan the area for any customer service needs that have been missed. Employees who do this are much more likely to remember issues that had previously forgotten.

Bonus Resources

Focusing on customers isn’t easy. Jenny Dempsey, Customer Success Manager at Phone.com, has been chronicling her attempt to focus more at work. Her blog posts are definitely worth a read. 

You may also be interested in seeing a short video on the AAA distracted driving study. One thing that stood out were the participants who all thought they were good drivers, including one person who had several traffic tickets and recent accident.

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