Why Multitasking Hurts Customer Service

The ability to multitask is often viewed as a critical customer service skill. For example, there are currently over 1,000 customer service jobs posted on Monster.com that list multitasking as part of the job description. The problem here is that multitasking, or the ability to consciously focus on two tasks at the same time, isn’t possible.

According to David Meyer, a researcher at the Brain Cognition and Action Laboratory, when we attempt to multitask our brains are actually rapidly switching our focus between tasks. This rapid switching leads to decreases in productivity and increases in errors as we constantly try to refocus our attention.

A famous example of this phenomenon is called the Stroop Effect, named after an experiment conducted by John Ridley Stroop. In the experiment, subjects were shown a series of squares and asked to identify the color of each one as quickly as possible. Next, subjects were shown a list of words that were each the name of various colors. The words were all printed in colored ink and subjects were asked to identify the color each word was printed in as quickly as possible.

The catch was that the name of the word and the color the word was printed in didn’t match, so “red” may have been printed in blue ink while “orange” might be printed in green. On average, subjects took 74% longer to correctly name all the colors in this second list.

Try a Stroop test yourself and see how you do!

What does all this mean to customer service?

It means that customer service reps can’t finish up an email while answering the phone at the same time. The grocery store cashier can’t talk to her supervisor about her break schedule and make sure I found everything I needed at the same time. The account manager at the bank can’t respond to a co-worker’s instant message while simultaneously explaining the benefits of a certificate of deposit to a customer.

Employees who multitask risk making errors. They risk making their customers feel ignored, neglected, or misunderstood. Multitasking tends to slow things down despite a whirlwind of activity that makes us feel like we’ve actually sped things up.

You can try this little experiment to see things through a customer’s eyes. The next time you receive customer service, pay attention to how much the other person is paying attention to you. Are they fully focused? Or, do they seem to be slightly distracted by other thoughts or activities? See if you notice a difference in the service you receive from fully focused employees and distracted ones.

I bet you can guess how this is going to go, but I encourage you to leave your comments describing your experiences.


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  • I struggle with this a lot—I try to multi-task often and then I make little mistakes. And, I don’t catch these mistakes until later, of course. Focus on one customer at a time is important. This test was fun too!

  • Don’t worry, Jenny. We all struggle to a certain exten with the natural desire to multitask. Something new and novel comes up and ZAP we need to see it. Our modern work environments actually encourage multitasking: multiple windows open on our computer, multiple monitors, multiple devices, and multiple sounds to let us know about something else.

    Here are a few things you can try to reduce it:
    1) Try closing software programs like email until you’re ready to give it your full attention.
    2) Try timed attention. I do it by setting a timer for 13 minutes and focus on only one thing during that time. When the timer goes off, I move on to something else.

    I know you have a copy of Service Failure, so check out Chapter 7 for more examples of how our attention naturally gets pulled in many directions.

  • Great article Jeff! This is really enlightening to me in a call center environment. So we ask our agents to do chat support which is billed as a support medium where one person can handle 3-4 chats at one time. The nature of chat is such that there are longer gaps while the other party is typing but I think the potential for mistakes definitely increases. Have you dealt with chat support specifically at all? Should I limit agents to 1 or 2 and staff based on that?

    • Jeremy – here are a few things you can try.

      1) Look @ the chat transcripts when an agent is handling 3 – 4 at once and compare it to slower times when an agent is handling just 1 or 2. What’s the lag time between responses? Are they less helpful or just as helpful when they’re only handling 1 or 2?

      2) Have your agents try the Stroop test. Then discuss ways to overcome the challenge. For example, a very simple technique for chat is agents can say to themselves before responding, “This person needs ____” as a way to consciously focus their attention on the person in front of them.

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