How a Personality Test Designed to Pick Astronauts is Taking the Pain Out of Customer Support

"Making a call to customer support" is probably second only to "getting a root canal" on most people’s lists of "fun things I’d really rather not do today." If you’ve seen NBC’s Outsourced, your opinion of call centers has likely plummeted still further. Despite the energy that companies invest in trying to improve call center operations, most seem to fail miserably at mastering this most basic human skill—communication.

Now eLoyalty, a company that builds tools and services for call centers, has created a system that compiles personality profiles of each individual caller and matches them with a customer service representative who works best with that personality type. The system is based on a methodology NASA used to weed out astronaut candidates and that Bill Clinton used to tailor his speeches. It’s already having a marked impact on reducing call frustration and improving customer satisfaction rates.

The methodology, called the Process Communication Model, was created in the 1970s by a clinical psychologist named Taibi Kahler. He divided people into six main personality types, each of which has a different communication style and each of which has different stress triggers. If you know the personality type of the person you’re speaking with, Kahler explained, you can modify your own communication style to work more effectively with them, prevent misunderstandings, and avoid inadvertently pushing the other person’s buttons.

For example, a "Workaholic" personality type is all about the facts. When they call support, they want to focus on the task at hand and blaze through the call as quickly as possible. For them, small talk is nothing but a time suck. A customer service rep who starts chitchatting in a well-meaning effort to establish rapport will only put the caller in a foul mood, which will poison the rest of the interaction. "Reactors," on the other hand, are all about relationships. A customer service rep who doesn’t acknowledge their feelings will make them feel cold and shut off.

The personality assessment and communication model has been used everywhere from professional coaching to psychotherapy. At NASA, Kahler worked with staff psychiatrists to help develop a model that could predict which astronaut candidates would be best capable of handling the tasks required on space missions. "Persister" types, who strive for perfection and encourage others to reach their peak performance, were identified as the best fit and have historically made up the majority of personality types in the program. The prognosis for "Dreamers," on the other hand, who tend to be sensitive, shy, and introverted, was dismal, and few if any ever made it into space. (See p. 2 of this document for a description of the six types and their use in the space program.)

In call centers, eLoyalty’s system uses the PCM framework to compile a personality profile of each caller from the moment they first contact the center. The system, which is automated, analyzes the caller’s language patterns and other behavioral cues to identify their personality type. (A team of 250 linguists, behavioral scientists, and statisticians have compiled a massive set of linguistic libraries and behavioral algorithms to parse callers' every word and mode of expression.)

Each time the customer calls back, the system uses the existing profile to steer them to a customer service representative who’s the best match for their personality type, and it continues to analyze their subsequent conversations to deepen and enrich their profile.

eLoyalty, which has clients in the banking, health care, and insurance industries, among others, is the only organization in the call center industry licensed to use PCM. Typical call center quality assurance programs train reps in specific issues and rely on supervisors listening in to a small percentage of calls, and providing coaching to individual reps. The automated eLoyalty system not only allows a larger proportion of calls to be analyzed, but it moves coaching out of the realm of intuition and grounds it in evidence about how to communicate effectively.

"We’re taking all of the subjective and manual components of that coaching and call scoring process and making them objective, transparent, automatic, and statistically significant," eLoyalty Vice President for Sales and Marketing Jason Wesbecher told Fast Company.

eLoyalty’s package, which includes a suite of analytic tools in addition to the personality assessment, seems to be working. A banking client saw the attrition rate among customers struggling with the most serious issues drop from 7% to 1%. Another client using the system saw their J.D. Power rating rise from the high single digits to the low single digits (in the J.D. Power system, one is best). And according to Wesbecher, call center operation costs drop as much as 15% in the first year to 18 months that clients use the eLoyalty system.

"The call center is often considered the red-headed stepchild of an organization," Wesbecher said. "But the reality is that what happens inside of those phone calls is a tremendously powerful extension of that organization’s brand. How well or poorly you handle those phone calls has a huge impact on what that customer thinks about you."

[Photo by Howie Le]

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  • John Pombrio

    For a much more detailed and enjoyable read about this innovative technology, read

    Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World. Great book.

  • Erica_JS

    Can there be a "Basic Tech Competence" personality type, so that they actually BELIEVE you when you say yes, you have already restarted your computer, relaunched the program, and turned the router on and off?  Please? 

  • John Pombrio

    Nope. Working with HP/Agilent, I have found folks with PhDs that were a lot smarter than me would find out that the reason their instrument did not turn on was that the power cable was not pushed in all the way. Start with the basics, make no assumptions, and most of the calls are fixed at the end.

  • Judge Mason

    As an Educational Consultant who works with 'troubled teens' and their families to help them find therapeutic settings where their children can thrive, I am faced on a daily basis with callers, mostly mothers, who are at a breaking point with one of their adolescent children. The child is acting out in various ways, and has been for some time: substance use, defiance, sneaking out, stealing, lying and so on. Though the parents have used various ways of trying to stop them - taking the cell phone, the car, the PC, grounding - nothing has worked. And so, exhausted, held hostage, ashamed and guilty, the mom finally makes the call.

    I ask her how things are going at home and then [I use a headset and type everything she says] LISTEN with occasional comments of support [You've done everything you can, you're trapped in your own home] to the story, however long it takes. Then I congratulate her, saying It must have been very difrficult for you to have made this call - it takes a lot of courage. More LISTENING.

    And then I ask What kinds of solutions have you thought about. She tells me about trying therapy, calling Juvie or the police, boarding school, therapeutic program. I ask How does your hubby feel about this; are you on the same page? More LISTENING to get a sense of how ready she and her spouse are ready to move ahead with my services, which involve boarding settings, or whether they still want to try to solve the problem at home.

    If they are ready to move ahead with a boarding solution, I talk about how I work and begin the process. If not, I then offer my availability to her, no charge, at any time, to call and talk about their situation and their child. Again, I am committed to LISTENING.

    Perhaps the categproes in this article are germaine to long-term relationships with my parent clients, but I believe that as long as I'm listening without a goal in mind for them or me, my careful LISTENING and recording their conversation will lead us all to a mutually agreeable situation. And since my offer to LISTEN at any time from the phone call on, whether they become my paying clients or not, gives them the support they desperately want, so that they can see more clearly what they need to do.

  • John Pombrio

    When you have 3,000 people in a phone queue, the skill of listening and sympathizing does not really cut it. Can you do all that you wrote about in under a 3 minute window? If not, this is the wrong approach for a busy call center.

  • Ryan

    @Chris Reich

    My definition of great customer service includes a polite person who I believe is doing everything they can to help me.

    The point of the article is that there are different definitions on what good customer service is and they can match people up with the CS rep that will be the best fit for them.

    In addition I don't think anyone is saying using this technology is a replacement for having quality CS reps that know what they're doing.

  • Jim MacNee

    That's an interesting approach - at their core personality assessments are best used not simply to understand an individual but how that individual interacts with a group.

    The proper use of assessments can tell you a lot about the future success of a potential employee - our retained search model integrates early in the candidate development process the use of assessments (ProfileXT) and all candidates are interviewed by and receive feedback on the assessment by an Organizational Development professional - This information on the final candidate is then used during coaching sessions that are part of the on-boarding process.

    Skill sets are easy - culture is hard!

  • ira bomber

    If the NASA personality tests are so good, does that mean I can expect customer service to drive 600 miles to my house wearing a diaper?

    This sort of pseudo-scientific marketing BS is no justification for providing decent customer support by people who are both knowledgeable and able to do something for the customer. Mostly they are outsourced, following scripts, with no power to act on customers' behalf.

  • Chris Reich

    This is precisely the kind of money-wasting, academic silliness I strongly oppose. Sure, it sounds great on paper. But the company completely misses the definition of customer service.

    I use this definition:

    Great customer service is solving the customer's issue with as little of the customer's time and resource involvement as possible.

    If I must call MicroSoft because PowerPoint crashes every time I try to edit a graph, that's obviously a software issue. I don't want to spend three hours on the phone while the "tech" tries to figure the problem out. I don't want to reinstall Windows (standard answer) no matter how nice the support actor is. It doesn't matter to me if they start by asking about my weather or racing to the line, "reinstall Windows", I won't be happy. I want the problem fixed. (This actually happened by the way) After three hours and four different "techs", I gave up. A deep web search uncovered, on MicroSoft's own site, a "patch" that fixed the graph problem on the "few computers on which this issue is a problem". The patch worked. I could have saved hours.

    No, please don't try to match personalities. Find people who are smart enough to solve problems. Get my number, hang up the phone, build a list of possible solutions and call me back. I don't want to be captive to the phone while Jimmy looks through his database for a possible 'canned' answer.


    Chris Reich

  • Don Ziolkowski

    Great customer service is solving the customer's issue with as little of
    the customer's time and resource involvement as possible.....

    unless of course your a customer who doesnt feel that way.

    how about

    Great customer service is acknowledging the customers issue and then explaining the solution and working with the customer to fix it.

    You wanted someone to pick up the phone and give you the web address for the graph fix. Others might want them to not just fix it, but to apologize for the issue, to explain why the problem occured and how it's being prevented from happening again.

    After all if the "canned" answer is,

    Powerpoint crashing on graph edit... download hotfix. you want the canned answer.

    But some people want more. For example some people want to go to walmart for a TV and all they want is the guy to get the TV from the back and put it in a cart, some want the salesperson to be knowledgable, some want him to inquire about there specific situation and make a recommendation, some want to make there own choice without his input and just have him toss it in the cart.

  • John Pombrio

    There is definitely a certain type of personality in Chris, that's for sure. Get in, get it fixed, get out.

  • David Molden

    Wow! I am really tempted to call each time with a very different personality type and temperament - just to see how the computer handles it!

    I wonder why they don't train their staff with NLP skills instead - gives employees more personal development, flexibility and range of interacting with different people. Imagine talking to people all day who are just like you! Wouldn't it make you one-dimensional after a time?

  • Don Ziolkowski

    train 20,000 employees in a job with an incredibly high turnover rate to perform a skill which requires a lot of training to be skillful at, or hook up a computer.

    Your right, no idea why they are using a computer to get an answer in 3 minutes when they could just put 20,000 people through hours of training so they could be meh at something, not bother to use it cause they dont care and then quit a week later.

    It must be that they want it actually be effective and not cost them all there profit margins.

  • John Pombrio

    Exactly a point made in the book:

    Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World

    The book describes the background and uses of this innovative new technology.