How to break group habits with the interrupt-command technique

by Limbic on May 16, 2006

“The most basic way to get someone’s attention is this: Break a pattern.” – “Made to Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath (p.64)

“In all my techniques, almost all, there is a confusion.” Milton H. Erickson, Master hypnotist and originator of the Pattern Interrupt.

“The quantity of information conveyed by a particular message as inversely proportional to the predictability of that message”. “Information Theory and Music” by David Huron

Summary: Use surprise or shock to embbed new behaviour, make a strong point or make information sticky (i.e. easy to remember)

One of my clients has a problem with Sales personnel bursting into their Call Centre to lobby technical support agents for priority attention to their favoured clients, friends or family.

People would storm in with mobile phones in hand shouting “We’ll get this sorted right now” as they rushed over to their favourite agent and begged for help.

Not only did this lobbying aggravate the existing atmosphere of chaos and disorder in the Call Centre but it pulled agents away from the agreed prioritisation methodology (in essence allowing Support triage to be done by lobbyists).

Agents were distracted from their core duties, sometime putting customers on hold to attend to their Sales colleagues.

The open house atmosphere also was violating the Support Department’s sense of territorial integrity which polls revealed was making some agents feel that were the dumping ground for the company’s problems. One agent complained that the Call Centre was “like the penalty box before a corner”.

The problem was complicated by several hidden factors. The lobbying activity provided subtle but powerful benefits to all parties involved in the interaction. These benefits reinforced the unwanted behaviour and were directly linked to core motivators stimulating both the support agents and the Sales staff.

For those outside the Support department, the benefits were obvious.

Lobbying got their problems solved much more quickly than following formal processes.

Lobbyists earned kudos with clients and affiliates by demonstrating their power to get priority assistance.

Additionally, this sort power and privilege is understood by most as being a tacit benefits of being on the staff. We did not want to discourage that.

Our mission was to discoverer:-

  • Why the Support Agents were complaining about the lobbying, yet doing nothing to help discourage it.
  • How we could convince the staff lobbyists to change how they lobbied (i.e. stop visiting in person).
  • How we could keep the benefits from staff lobbying but lessen the disruption, chaos and disorder.

According to Harvard Management Update, there are “three sets of goals that the great majority of workers seek from their work”. These are:

  • Equity – To be respected and to be treated fairly in areas such as pay, benefits, and job security.
  • Achievement – To be proud of one’s job, accomplishments, and employer.
  • Camaraderie – To have good, productive relationships with fellow employees.

Inadvertently, informal lobbyists were strongly satisfying all of these motivations in Support staff even though their interruptions were denounced as irritating and unacceptable.

Let us look at these three key motivators and see how they applied to this problem of staff interrupting the Call Centre agents to lobby.


There is glory in rescue and Support agents thrive on it.

Support agents enjoy, no, love helping their colleagues. Their knowledge and know-how earn them respect and admiration. Their heroics make them feel popular and useful.

Their busy and chaotic environment is seen (by them) as evidence of their hard work and a demonstration their importance in keeping the operation going.


As previously mentioned, agents feel powerful and useful when helping colleagues. This is partly because of the immediate positive reinforcement of praise from delighted and relieved peers. This sort of praise is very rare in a troubled operation.
In the marketplace of affect, the smile and pat on the back from a colleague has much more value than a sterile metric and or even praise that has to be shared by the whole team.

Recognition of the agents achievement is immediate and the social capital they earn belongs entirely to them.

The intoxication of immediate positive feedback completely trumps the rewards of dealing with customers.

Supporting colleagues is emotionally very satisfying. To agents it is exactly what they feel support should be all about: Excitement, collaborative problem solving, praise, being useful, having purpose and success.


Informal favour trading has an undeniable positive impact on inter-departmental camaraderie. It can help cement informal inter-departmental relationship and friendships.Then again, so can smoking.

The problem is that lobbying fosters exactly the wrong sort of camaraderie. It fosters links between individuals at the expense of team unity.

People form alliances with perceived competent individuals leading to the dreaded “personality support”.

You know you have a problem with personality support when you hear comments like “Ask for X, she is the only one with a brain down there” or customers insist on dealing with favoured agents or mails come in “For the attention of X”.

In our situation the Support agents were individually very popular even though the team was routinely criticized for service failures and blamed for the company’s poor reputation.

Lack of collective pride and poor leadership led to a situation where agents gave up on being team players and accepted whatever personal glory they could accrue.

The Failed Solution

The Support Manager sent a company wide e-mail asking politely that staff keep visits to the Call Centre to an absolute minimum.

She explained that agents were having trouble hearing customers because of ambient noise.

She also noted that action requests were tightly controlled in the Support process and that lobbying disrupted this process by forcing “top priority by virtue of presence”.

The e-mail went on to explain at length the reasons why it was better for staff to e-mail support or even call the support line rather than attend in person.

It was ignored.

A poster was put on the Call Centre door requesting that people please e-mail or call unless absolutely neccesary.

It was ignored.

It was time for some Combat Consultancy.

The Solution that seems to be working

We were contending with deeply ingrained habits. Lobbyists were persuing a perfectly rational strategy that had high yield for no cost.

Support agents were also reinforcing the behaviour because even though the interruptions had high operational costs to the performance of the team, it was often highly rewarding for individuals.

Where teamwork and intra-team camaraderie breaks down, praise and recognition from co-workers can became a powerful, if hidden, motivator.

We had to disrupt learned responses, reinforced over year and compounded by lack of mindfulness all imbeded in a culture of resistance to all change.

We needed to start with an interrupt. Something that would break the cycle and force attention – the lobbyists attention – onto our instruction message for them.

Of course you have guessed our interrupt: We locked the door.

We installed a swipe card system on the Support Centre door that was linked to the company’s main entry control system. Support staff , coffee ladies, cleaners and senior managers have access. Anyone cannot get in unless they are escorted. The entire Call Centre operations room was redesignated a secure area (like server rooms and equipment stores.) unauthorised access was strictly forbidden. Problem solved…or was it?

This simple interrupt was extremely effective.

Once we disrupted the automatic behaviours, we could introduce introduce the message:

This is restricted area
Agents are conducting live telephone diagnostic interviews with customers.
If you have a query, please call the Priority Support Line on XXXXXX
Or e-mail priority_support@[domain]

We had blocked the Support Centre, but what was the cost to both the agents sense of equity, camaraderie and achievement?

To compensate the lobbyists and encourage their compliance as well as maintain the morale of Support Agents we:

  1. Created a special queue for staff requests with a 10 minute response SLA.
  2. Set up a priority Support number for staff to call for phone support.
  3. We installed a Jabber server to enable secure instant messaging as well as company chat rooms and conferences on for collaborative problem solving.
  4. We set up a staff equity program where staff who are highly active (raising many tickets) are rewarded for their services to customers (interceding on their behalf, lobbying for them, ensuring their needs are met). This is the attitude we want all staff to have to all customers.

The effects of these changes have been strikingly positive:

  1. The Call Centre is quieter and calmer
  2. Most action requests are all coming through measured channels (phone, ticketing system)
  3. There has been an improvement in all areas (e.g. response times, resolution times, customer satisfaction)
  4. Informal request now come in via Instant Message, which allows the agents to greater control (ignore, set status as unavailable etc.)
  5. Staff now socialise much more in common areas (canteen) and there has been an increase in extra-professional socialising.
  6. Constructive criticism is now being submitted in a usable to form to managers who can address the criticisms.
  7. Agents now believe that their status and importance has finally been respected which has boosted their morale significantly.
  8. Sales agents report significantly improved satisfaction with the Support department as a whole.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jason Bates May 22, 2006 at 1:55 pm

Great post Jonathan,

and a demonstration of real leadership in the face of hostile fire (to borrow your combat consulting metaphor). I’m not sure how many executives I know would have had the courage to lock the call centre door!!

You knew what you wanted to achieve, you had the vision, but you also knew enough to give the lobbyists a way out.

“You locked one door, and opened another for them”

…reducing backlash, while producing the result you wanted. Sounds more like non-combat consulting to me ;o)

Great work from a great consultant!

Jason Bates
Change Director


Relja Dereta November 19, 2008 at 9:32 am

Very cool!

This post reminded me of that big guerrilla marketing guy (Jay Conrad Levinson) who’s coming to Belgrade to conduct a presentation or something. As for the promotion of the event, all I’ve seen so far are traditional billboards with his picture and basic info (guerrilla marketing guru coming to Belgrade, basically).

Is it just me, or isn’t it very ironic that a guerrilla marketing guru is using the most standard form of advertising for a seminar in guerrilla marketing? Maybe it’s happening somewhere where I’m not, or he has a guerrilla campaign that hasn’t started yet, but so far I haven’t seen nor heard anything about it.


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