Salesforce goes Kanban in the call center

Profile picture for user denis_pombriant By Denis Pombriant August 3, 2017
Salesforce is offering a Kanban approach to the call center.

Salesforce kanban
Salesforce Kanban card layouts

For those unfamiliar with the term, Kanban refers to a methodology pioneered at Toyota that influenced the development of just-in-time inventory management and the approach to continuous improvement.

Today, those two ideas dominate the world of manufacturing and spreading out to eh technology development. Kanban is a method of managing work and workflow through visual input rather than words and it has been highly successful in helping production managers get a sense of work in queue and that in process.

Earlier this year, Salesforce added Kanban to the Sales Cloud and now it’s part of Service Cloud.

According to Leankit, a company dedicated to helping customers implement it to improve company performance, there are four principles of Lanban based on the idea that we process pictures a lot faster than we process text. In fact, where reading can seem like work, understanding information conveyed by pictures is subliminal. Leankit’s suggestion is:

  • Visualize Work. By creating a visual model of your work and workflow, you can observe the flow of work moving through your Kanban system. Making the work visible—along with blockers, bottlenecks and queues—instantly leads to increased communication and collaboration.
  • Limit Work in Process. By limiting how much unfinished work is in process, you can reduce the time it takes an item to travel through the Kanban system. You can also avoid problems caused by task switching and reduce the need to constantly reprioritize items.
  • Focus on Flow. By using work-in-process (WIP) limits and developing team-driven policies, you can optimize your Kanban system to improve the smooth flow of work, collect metrics to analyze flow, and even get leading indicators of future problems by analyzing the flow of work.
  • Continuous Improvement. Once your Kanban system is in place, it becomes the cornerstone for a culture of continuous improvement. Teams measure their effectiveness by tracking flow, quality, throughput, lead times and more. Experiments and analysis can change the system to improve the team’s effectiveness.

In a Kanban based support process, cases would be color-coded and move from buckets labeled pending, in process and complete. The colors might represent a type of service issue and rather than having a system send work instances to agents, they might pick them based on expertise. So for instance, a rep whose specialty is yellow incidents might preferentially take cases represented in yellow. When no yellow cases are available that rep could fall back to a secondary specialization.

This sounds deceptively simple but it works to put the best asset on a specific case and assets and needs are brought together they ought to improve job and customer satisfaction. It might make metrics and analytics look better as well.

This sounds like a natural fit for the call center and it appears that Salesforce is perhaps surreptitiously inserting, or at least making available, this improved method for managing workflow in the call center.

Kanban seems to work well with another idea that surfaced earlier this year. You might recall a story I wrote in February that discussed the personality types of call center agents and that old school empathizers were beginning to be replaced by people who can quickly get to the root of a problem and solve it. This group’s laser focus earned it the title of Controllers in the Harvard Business Review article quoted.

It’s not the personality types that are precisely important, it’s more the customer needs, which stem from the need for efficiency and rapid results. But customer service has labored under various clouds from other eras that have often prevented speed, efficiency and rapid results. Detailed, scripted responses, multiple unconnected systems each containing some kernel of useful information, and strict adherence to outmoded metrics like average handle time have made service a challenge for customers as well as agents.

If Kanban is really beginning to penetrate the service center and its workflow, it might be the leading edge of a revolution. There’s no denying that most CRM technology approaches to customer service are oriented to deflecting costly calls to more cost effective channels like social, email, FAQs, and automated systems. But while this has worked, at least for the easier issues, the call center today is increasingly barraged by calls that have no automated solutions forcing a need for enhanced approaches, something for which Kanban may be ideally suited.

Kanban’s first three principles of visualizing flow, limiting work in process, and focusing on the flow of work in process are things that controllers can grasp and implement as they streamline their service processes. Just the facts ma’am might be the result. All of this leads to improvements in service levels without significant rip and replace strategies that may have scared off many call center managers in the past.

My take

Perhaps Salesforce is signaling a new direction in service with the casual insertion of Kanban into the latest release. If so, it is in line with the company’s prior efforts.

Salesforce has been careful over the years not to take sides in methodology debates. It has not embraced any single method in any part of CRM over others and it has striven to provide tools that most organizations can adapt to their idiosyncratic processes.

Kanban appears to be like this; it’s available and useful but far from mandatory. It is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. There will be early adopters and they will likely reap significant benefits as their call centers flow better and continuous improvement accelerates.