In 2006, when Vertex Data Science — a US$724 million private company based near Liverpool, England, and one of the world’s largest providers of call center outsourcing — wanted to improve the performance of its telephone sales operators, the managers went looking for an unusual kind of self-understanding. They enlisted the aid of Alex Pentland and his colleagues from the Human Dynamics Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, the elite research institute for digital technology founded by technology pioneers Nicholas Negroponte and Jerome Wiesner. The researchers at the Human Dynamics Group were best known for their experiments in human–machine interplay and wearable computing: using portable devices built into eyeglasses and clothing to track movement and other human activity. They traveled to Vertex’s operations offices in Inverness, Scotland, to set up electronic devices that analyzed the speech patterns of the operators on the call center floor. The devices captured neither the specific words that the operators used nor the logic of their conversations, but only the physical voice signal: the measured variations in tone and pitch. Even so, Pentland and his researchers predicted accurately, after only a few seconds of listening, the ultimate success or failure of almost every call.
Successful operators, it turned out, speak little and listen much. When they do speak, their voices fluctuate strongly in amplitude and pitch, suggesting interest and responsiveness to the customer’s needs. Operators who speak with little variation come across as too determined and authoritative, but by speaking invitingly, being responsive but not pushy, a skilled operator can let callers find their own way to a sale. “Like a mother speaking singsong to a baby,” says Pentland, “variation sounds perky and inviting. If operators do it right, they’re almost certain to be successful.” Armed with this understanding, a company like Vertex can train its operators to converse more effectively, and can seek new hires who exhibit these speech patterns. If a call starts going badly, a supervisor can detect the signs quickly enough to switch it to another operator. Early experiments have suggested that these insights can improve a company’s telephone sales performance by 20 percent or more. And the same is true of other forms of corporate communication. “In pitching business plans, for instance,” Pentland points out, “consistency of tone and pace is key to getting your plan rated highly.”
This story is a straightforward tale of managerial intervention and success. But it also throws down a profound challenge to the prevailing views of organizational effectiveness. Most explanations of human behavior in the business world presume that people — be they employees, consumers, or executives — are influenced most by meaning and reasoning. It’s what gets said that matters, not how it is said. But the performance of these telephone operators and a growing volume of other evidence suggest that this view is seriously flawed.
In a wide variety of facets of everyday business, the keys to sustained success may actually lie in understanding the kinds of signals that are ordinarily overlooked: tone of voice, body language, the ways people congregate (or don’t), the time spent on tasks, the rhythms of workplace activity, and the patterns of social networks. Those on Pentland’s team — and their counterparts at other research institutions, such as Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and Intel Research in Seattle — are designing new ways to track and make sense of such indicators. The resulting new science of subtle signals may lead not just to more profitable sales pitches, but also to a richer, deeper understanding of the practice of management and the way organizations work.