Off Center
   Many contact center managers say, “Our senior 
  management just doesn’t get it.” You won’t hear such a
  complaint from any managers (or anyone else) at – not with someone like
Chief Operations Officer Steve Riddell in the boardroom. Few people are as passionate about and committed to the customer experience and a positive contact center culture as Steve is. And few people are as proud of what the team has been able to accomplish in terms of performance, customer loyalty and agent engagement.

I had the honor of interviewing Steve recently to learn more about what drives’s tremendous customer care success. Following are the questions I posed to him – and the insightful responses he provided.

Q: You’ve said that what sets’s contact center apart from much of the competition is its focus on “competence over compliance”. Can you please elaborate?

Most contact centers operate with a heavy focus on QA. What then happens is that success is defined by a score. But if you ask the average contact center, “Is it possible to get a great score and have it be a bad call?” most centers will say yes. And if you ask the converse, “Is it possible to get a bad score but be a great call?” they’ll say yes again.

So I ask, “Am I the only one in the room that thinks that’s wrong?” You’re not measuring the right thing. Score rarely measures skill – most folks in a contact center will exhibit aberrant behavior to change the score to increase their pay.

Scores rarely manifest great skill. Teach your team the skills that are important to you, the business, and you get greater compliance through improved skill. When you chase the right things, you start seeing double-digit performance improvement.

When skills get better, the customer experience gets better. That’s the value of competence over compliance.

Q: How do your center’s quality monitoring and performance management practices support your “competence over compliance” mantra?

After about a year of discovery, we were able to identify 10 skill sets that need to be exhibited during a customer interaction. By identifying such specific skills, our coaches can come in and help make agents and interactions better. We take QA and remove the ambiguity and judgment. A person can listen to a customer service call and say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on whether particular skills were demonstrated.

Actions speak louder than words.  We practice daily coaching to build skill and compensate our team based on the presence of those skills – even customer service!  Again, you need to chase the right things. 

Q: I’ve heard you speak of the three components of the “ Experience” for customers. Can you list them and elaborate a little on each? 

Certainly, but let me start off by pointing out it’s the definition of the customer experience that defines the role of an employee, not a job title or script. If you ask the average contact center employee, “What’s your job?” they’ll say something like, “To answer calls”, or “To help our customers”, or “To assist customers in making a good purchasing decision.” Those are all great things, but that’s not it. 

We at have spent a lot of time discerning what we want the customer experience to be, and have focused on that. When customers love the experience of doing business with you, they come back. People buy from people they like and trust.

Do customers really want their name said three times in a conversation? Wouldn’t they still buy from you if they truly liked you? Yes. Like me, trust me, buy from me. You must have the definition around that incredible customer experience that your employees can rally around.

Now, all that said, the three components of the customer experience are:

Customer solutions A customer service rep’s job is to deliver solutions for everyone that talks to them.  If they don’t, they haven’t done their job. Not only do you need to give a customer what they ask for, but also think ahead of what they might need next.  Buying a blind? You’ll need a way to clean it. There’s a big difference between a commodity provider and a customer solution provider.

Make it easy  – If it’s hard to work with you, customers won’t want to do business with you. Regardless of how challenging your job is or how hard your product is to sell, the customer simply doesn’t care what you have to go through. The easier you make it on them, the more they’ll want to return – and they’ll tell their friends.

Extraordinary service – When a person hangs up after a call with my team, their first reaction ought to be “WOW! That was great!” All businesses provide customer experiences, but I’d be hard pressed to say they are all good ones, or even average ones. We let employees know that providing extraordinary service is their job, and they know what really defines their job. All of our employee training revolves around how to deliver amazing experiences. Define your customer experience, make it easy to do business with you and you’ll see happier customers and happier contact center employees.

Q: What are some of the customer service and contact center related awards has received in recent years?

  • Contact Center of the Year Award (10th Annual Call Center Week)
  • Gold and Silver ‘Stevie Awards’ for Service, Innovation and Leadership
  • ‘50 Most Engaged Workplaces in America’ ranking
  • ‘Houston’s Best Place to Work’ (multiple years, presented by the Houston Business Journal)
  • ‘Houston Top Workplaces’ (multiple years, presented by the Houston Chronicle)
  • Internet Retailer Top 500 Companies
  • AMA Marketer of the Year
  • Houston’s Best and Brightest Company to Work for

It’s an interesting exercise to review what kinds of awards your business is winning – they tell a story about your brand. The awards we are most excited about are typically the ‘best workplaces’ awards – they are a testimony to how we pay attention to the internal workings of the company. When culture is thriving inside, it goes a long way toward great customer service.

Q: Great customer service and experiences don’t happen without great agents in place. What does look for when selecting new agents for the contact center?
Getting hired at is admittedly a lengthy process. We actually have a 7-stage interview process:
  • General skill tests – can you type and navigate through a website?
  • Screening phone call
  • Initial in-person interview
  • Sales/service manager interview
  • Group interview with three members of the agent team – employee approval is important to us!
  • Then you meet me – I’m looking for areas of trainability and how well you perform under pressure. This interview isn’t one of the fun ones.
  • And finally you meet our CEO, Jay Steinfeld – he’s looking primarily for cultural fit and values.  His questions are higher level and really insightful.

Culture is everything to us, and we are very protective of it. Just because an applicant is competent doesn’t mean they’ll be a good cultural fit. We take great pains to try to smoke out candidates that are not a good fit. We hire only about one out of every 50 applicants we meet.  

So yes, our hiring process is very long, but our retention rate is unheard of – less than a 4% turnover rate annually. Agents don’t get on floor if they don’t hit the metrics during training (we call it ‘Academy Bay’). We just don’t let the bad ones in, and we have a great and exciting structure in place to keep the good ones with us for years and years.

Q: What kinds of practices and programs are in place to keep agent performance, engagement and retention high?

We don’t spend a lot of time on contests, awards and tricks. (We do occasionally employ these, but very selectively and only if I want an added push or extra benefit.) The best motivators around are a fun and positive work environment, a focus on personal development, great paychecks and opportunities to grow your career. Our employees legitimately love coming to work every day. It’s a fantastic environment and our customers hear that in our voices.

Our team gets unusually high conversion rates (approaching 50%) and a great Average Order Value. People here aspire to do a good job – always better than the day before. We are creators of opportunity, and when you have a company that’s growing and has opportunity inside, it’s a huge motivating factor.

Q: Can you provide a quote from a couple of agents regarding what it’s like working at

“I feel more like an owner/operator of my own business than a design consultant in a call center here at As a team, we are an important part of deciding what goals the company should meet, and are expected to voice ways for us to reach those goals. It really is a privilege to call myself a member of the family!”  –Christian Quinn
“Working at is like being next to your best friends all day. We learn, get frustrated, find solutions, grow and celebrate together. The support to be the best person I can be is the greatest thing about working here!” –Rachel Bills – The Big Picture
Contact center location(s): Houston, Texas
Hours of operation: M-F 7am-9pm CST; Sat & Sun 9am-5pm CST
Number of agents employed: 140 agents (with 180+ employees total)
Channels handled: Phone, email, chat, web self-service, and social media
What’s so great about them: Their focus is on ‘competence over compliance’. Internal scores don’t drive the business – it’s all about agent development and the customer experience, NOT mindless metrics. A very positive culture!

There are companies that talk about being customer-focused, and then there are companies like Dealertrack Technologies that back such talk up with real action.

A few years ago, Dealertrack – a leading provider of web-based software solutions for the automotive industry – implemented a ‘Voice of the Customer’ (VoC) initiative featuring a comprehensive and dynamic customer satisfaction (C-Sat) survey process. The initiative has enabled the company to continuously drive performance improvement, elevate the customer experience and enhance the bottom line.

I recently caught up with Dealertrack’s Senior Manager of Technical Support, Dayna Giles, who was gracious enough to answer my barrage of questions about her center’s VoC and C-Sat success with much eloquence and insight.

When did you implement your current Customer Satisfaction survey process, and what was the main objective for doing so?

The Dealertrack Customer Satisfaction survey process has been in place since early 2009 and rolled out through the different solution groups and teams through October 2010. The main objective of this is to understand from our clients’ perspective what we are doing well, and what can improve on, as well as whether or not they would be willing to recommend our solution in the marketplace.

How soon after an interaction with an agent is the customer surveyed? How many questions does the survey feature, and what are the nature of those questions?

The survey is emailed to the client immediately after the case is resolved.

We have a total of six questions on our survey. The nature of most of those questions are specific to the agent and the interaction (empathy, follow-up, understanding and satisfaction with technical resolution), with the other question being whether or not the client would recommend our support team. There is additional space for clients to provide comments or feedback to help improve our product, our service, or future interactions.

Do you survey only callers, or also customers who interact with Dealertrack via email, IVR and web self-service?

Our surveys are tied to the client email address so we survey any form of client interaction based on our case-tracking system.

Who evaluates the survey data/feedback, and how often?

We have an internal team dedicated to the VoC process. We have monthly debrief meetings that involve key leadership team members where discussion occurs around all VoC metrics and initiatives to improve results.

Do you have a “customer recovery” process in place for customers who indicate notable dissatisfaction following an interaction? How soon after such customers complete a survey does your center contact them, and how do customers typically respond?

Our supervisors and managers call our clients back on all the dissatisfaction alerts or client requests we receive. Once such a client responds to a survey, they are contacted within one business day. Clients typically respond positively to being contacted by a supervisor or manager on a dissatisfaction survey.

Do you incorporate customers’ ratings and direct feedback into agents’ Quality scores and coaching?

Yes, we incorporate customer ratings and feedback into team member quality scores and coaching in a couple of ways. We have a team member scorecard – Team Member Performance Index (TMPI) – and a Service Experience Index (SEI) that includes both the Quality Performance Assessment (QPA) score and the Transactional Net Promoter Score (TNPS) to give the agent an overall grade or ranking for the month. During monthly agent review sessions team members receive feedback on the above.

How do agents feel about having the Voice of the Customer integrated with your Quality monitoring process?

When we initially rolled out this program, team members were not confident that they would be able to influence client satisfaction. Team members believed challenges with a product or other issues that were outside their control would overshadow the service they could provide. We very quickly learned this was not the case – how a team member delivers the message and manages the interaction is often the determining factor in whether a client is satisfied or not.

What other kinds of actions do you take on the customer data and feedback you receive?

We often use client feedback to improve our internal processes. For example, since supervisors or managers make the callback to our clients, they receive direct feedback they may not otherwise hear. They bring that feedback to daily meetings where we are able to discuss where we are as a team and look to make improvements. It could be a lack of training on the team member’s part, and in discussing this feedback we may find that similar training is needed across the team. We then work with our training team to provide this specific training to improve the team member’s knowledge and confidence.

I hear your center has seen vast improvements to its Net Promoter Score. Care to elaborate? To what do you attribute such an increase?

Over the course of 29 months we saw a great increase in our Transactional Net Promoter Score. From February 2011, with a score of 5%, to June 2013, with a score of 75% – that’s a 70% increase! The biggest increase occurred between February 2011 and March 2011, when we saw 15% improvement (from 5% to 20%). The second biggest increase occurred July 2012 to August 2012, when we saw a 14% improvement (from 46% to 60%).

We attribute such an improvement to team member focus on VoC. We ran a number of competitions to improve team member awareness that each client interaction could result in a customer survey. It became part of our daily language and part of our culture.

High customer satisfaction doesn’t happen without high agent satisfaction. What kinds of things does your center do to keep agents happy and engaged? 

Rewards & recognition
We have a couple of major awards that we give out on a monthly and quarterly basis, including Service Star of the Month, which is based on Transactional NPS scores and the number of positive customer comments the agent receives via surveys. We also have our quarterly Star Quarterback award, which is based on peer nominations regarding a team member’s demonstration of Dealertrack’s Vision, Mission and Values, as well as, internal and external client feedback and overall performance. 

In addition, Customer Service Week is one of our favorite weeks here. We do a number of fun free activities – bingo, funky sock day, favorite sports team day – and some pretty cost-effective activities. Cotton candy machines are around $30 to rent and the sugar is roughly $8. Minimal cost and effort but maximum results! The thing our team looks forward to the most each year is the breakfast we make – bacon, eggs, pancakes, hash browns, fruit, OJ… the works! The leadership team cooks the breakfast and serves our team members. For a couple hundred dollars we can feed over 200 people and physically serve and thank them for all they do.

We run multiple focus groups concurrently where our team members are assigned a topic and given an opportunity to provide their feedback and any potential improvements they see we could make. In order to be successful, our team members have to feel we are giving them the opportunity to do so and as leaders we don’t always have the answers. It’s great to get ideas flowing from the team and create a ground swell. The company/leadership recognizes that support team members ARE the advocates for our clients and the client experience with products and service.

Also, our Level 2 agents are encouraged and empowered to train our Level 1 agents. Each L1 agent has an aggressive goal to complete 120 hours of training per year.  L2s are encouraged to provide a vast number of those hours of training.

Advancement opportunities
Team members are often selected from the Technical Support department to move up to various roles in the company – from Quality Assurance to Installation to Product Management. We develop and encourage future growth for our team members. Many of our support teams have higher internal turnover (promotion/transfer) than external, which is rare in the contact center industry.

Work-at-home opportunities
We currently have a number of remote employees on our team. We like to give team members, based on their role, the opportunity to work from home.

Stress reduction tactics
When we have a system incident or outage, we often get the team lunch. Or if it’s a Friday, or if it’s hot, or if we simply feel like it, we’ll get ice cream or treats. It doesn’t have to be a great expense to the company to make someone smile.

Dealertrack Technologies – The Big Picture
Contact center locations: Dallas, Texas; South Jordan, Utah; Groton, Conn.
Hours of operation: Main Support Hours of operation are Mon-Fri 6am-6pm MT; Sat 7am-4pm MT; Sun on-call support.
Number of agents employed: 150+
Products/services supported/provided: Software for the automotive industry.
Channels handled: Phone, IVR, email, web self-service.
What so great about them: The ‘Voice of the Customer’ initiative they implemented in 2009 has led to huge increases in customer satisfaction and loyalty, not to mention a highly engaged frontline.

It’s one thing to have coaching and training in place for your contact center agents; it’s quite another to cultivate and sustain a strong culture of continuous learning. Asda, a large supermarket chain and online grocer based in the UK, has done a bang-up job of accomplishing the latter.

In 2010, Asda implemented its Customer Service Academy – a highly dynamic and progressive learning and development initiative that enables agents to transform themselves into customer care gurus. The Customer Service Academy provides agents with ample training autonomy and accountability, and embraces a wide array of learning methods and styles.

I recently caught up with Nathan Dring, Customer Service Academy Manager at Asda, who was kind enough to share his experiences and insight regarding the highly successful learning initiative.   

What is the difference between the Customer Service Academy and a traditional contact center training program? Do all agents “enroll” in the Academy, or is it optional?

Almost all of the learning is optional, though there are, inevitably, certain things that need to be trained out – for legal compliance or to support the HR agenda. As much as possible, outside of this, ‘training’ is not a term that is used that much here. ‘Training’ tends to create a state of passivity in the learner (conscious or otherwise) – usually coupled with images of a classroom and death-by-PowerPoint!

‘Learning’, on the other hand, can be done at any point in the day. Yes, in the classroom, and yes, using PowerPoint…but not exclusively. The program of learning in the contact center is under the title of ‘Step On’. As a learning function, we will avail all kinds of development opportunities to you, but you are not forced to take them. If you want to develop, then you take the proactive steps yourself. No one will march you to a classroom!

In doing this, a culture of learning is created, where different-style learners can benefit and peer-to-peer learning is promoted – with no stigma attached to the word ‘training’.

Through mid-year and year-end reviews, as well as a robust coaching program, colleague strengths and opportunities are highlighted – behavioral or technical – and then there is the opportunity to get some learning support…training, coaching, mentoring…on the job or in a classroom.

Please describe some of the modules/programs offered as part of the Customer Service Academy.

Among the programs and courses delivered by the Academy are:

  • Candidate assessment – a group of 12 or so candidates are invited to a two-hour evening session (always on evenings to make it easier for people who are in a different job to attend, as well as to check the commitment of those applying!). The assessment includes a group activity, a grammar & spelling test, a telephone role-play, and an interview. and observe candidates. A group of managers, coaches and trainers observe each candidate to see if they have the attitude and personality to fit – we can teach them the skills.
  • Induction – new-hire training/orientation.
  • The Asda Quality Framework – how we live and breathe quality in all our customer interactions.
  • Management assessment – this is run to see which of the existing colleagues have the aptitude and attitude to be future leaders. We use it to identify potential team managers or quality coaches. It features a series of interviews, role-plays, team activities, and some quality monitoring.
  • English writing course – this course was a runner-up in the National Training Awards.

All of these have elements of interaction, review, video, game and story. We firmly believe that we cannot write engaging training material/learning activities. Instead, we must design things that are attractive – so that colleagues choose to engage. Therefore, the different elements of training intentionally tap into the things that we know colleagues find attractive – the things they choose to do in their spare time – and then we link them to learning points and weave them through the fabric of what we do.

Have you actively involved your agents in the development of the Customer Service Academy?

Yes, we actively take feedback from colleagues on what they think of learning activities they have completed. In addition, we listen to what they do with their spare time, what things they choose to engage with outside of work, to see what principles we can include.

Who provides the actual training and instruction? What types of training are used?

The training in the classroom is facilitated by one of the Academy trainers, but as much as possible learners lead themselves. We encourage questions to come from the colleagues and where possible, answered by them too. During things such as inductions, we bring other managers and teams into the training environment, but our focus is always around who is the best communicator. Subject matter experts do not always communicate in a way that colleagues can engage with, and seniority does not necessarily mean that a manager can ‘present’. With anything trained in a classroom, powerful communication skills is foremost – subject knowledge can much more easily be learned by our communicators, rather than communication skills learned by our SMEs.

Story continues to be one of the most powerful ways of communicating a message – and a way that helps knowledge retention significantly. In some ways this is not a surprise…people engage in story almost every day of their lives through magazines, tabloids, soap operas, etc.

We do use role-play for some scenarios, but we never use that term as there are too many preconceived ideas about what it will involve and colleagues often disengage at that point. We use e-learning for a number of modules – particularly those that are compulsory/legal and need to be revisited and refreshed on an annual basis. More recently we have started to use apps on android devices – again, this uses a medium that colleagues regularly use in their downtime and therefore does not create a barrier between the training environment and the rest of what they do with their time.

Is there a testing or certification process involved to show that agents have successfully completed a module or program?

We have an electronic system to log colleague training and also have paper files to show what colleagues have attended…though attendance does not always equate to learning! As such there are a couple of different activities that we do. We rarely do a ‘test’ at the end of a module – this tends to simply check the short-term memory of the learners…little more. Instead, we ask colleagues to write pledges to say what they will do differently as a result of what they have learned and then these are given to their manager for review at a future one-to-one. There is also an element of performance – are the colleagues now putting into practice what they have learned?

What impact (if any) has the Customer Service Academy had on…

Agent performance and development? The only metric that we hold colleagues to account for is their quality. They are not given any other operational metrics to hit. To support this quality agenda, the Academy wrote and delivered the Asda Quality Framework – now used in all 32 sites across 24 partner companies. The result of this has been a marked improvement in quality scores. Whilst this is an internal measure, there have been benefits in terms of competition and external benchmarking, in which Asda’s Home Office Contact Center has for the last two years been the Best Contact Center in the Retail sector, Most Improved Contact Center in 2010 and 2011, and Top 10 for both voice and non-voice service – all part of the Top 50 Companies for Customer Service scheme.

Agent engagement and retention? As members of the Institute of Customer Service (ISC), in 2012 we took part in their ServCheck program, which surveys colleagues on their level of engagement with Asda and the how ‘happy’ they are to work here. (Again, this was done for the Home Office Contact Center in Leeds). The survey showed that we had the best score in the Retail sector, the highest score of any UK Contact Center, and the second highest score of any business that the ICS has surveyed in the UK.

What has been the biggest challenge in implementing and managing the Customer Service Academy? How have you overcome this challenge?

One of the biggest challenges that we face is offline time for colleagues. As long as there are operational issues or constraints, then dealing with the immediate can become the focus and therefore time set aside for learning can be one of the first things dropped. This was a challenge in 2012, as Asda operates ‘lean’ and so there was not capacity for a lot of offline time. Since the start of the year, with some team restructure and after lengthy discussion of benefits etc., offline time has become more readily available and there has been a significant increase in the amount of time invested in colleague development.

What do you feel are the biggest benefits of the Customer Service Academy?

Having the Academy signifies an intent to invest in colleagues. This shows colleagues that they matter and that they are more than a just a body. As a result, colleagues will invest back into the business – they will go above and beyond for their colleagues, managers and the customer…often with no further incentive or offer of reward.

Anything new or notable in store for the CSA you’d like to mention?

The launch of a 2014 graduate scheme is very exciting. Elements of this have been piloted in the first quarter of 2013 and a new recruitment drive will start in September.

Is there anything else you would like to add?    

One of the things that we are very proud of is that last year we achieved ‘Gold Investors In People’ status…and were invited to be champions. This put the site in the top 0.4% of IIP companies in the UK. We are the only UK retail contact center to have achieved this.

Asda – The Big Picture
Contact center locations: Leeds and Cape Town (plus 30 other sites around the UK working with 24 partner companies)
Hours of operation: 8am-8pm; Home shopping 7:30am – 10:30pm
Number of agents employed: 250 at Leeds center; approx. 6000 across all sites
Products/services supported/provided: Store support, general customer support, home shopping support, and direct sales and after sales.
Channels handled: Phone, IVR, Email

A couple of months ago while on LinkedIn perusing an active group discussion on “call center culture”, I read a post that piqued my interest. It was written by Richard Hall, Director of Revenue Operations for Shopify – a hot e-commerce company that provides everything its customers need to create an online store. Richard wrote about how different the culture in Shopify’s contact center is from most other organizations’ centers, and provided a few examples of how empowered and valued his frontline employees are.

Me being a big proponent of agent engagement and empowerment, I reached out to Richard to learn a little more and to see if he might be interested in having me feature Shopify in my "Contact Centerfold" column. As you no doubt have already figured out, Richard was indeed interested, and was kind enough to share his insights and the secrets of his center’s success with me – and now with you.

I’ve heard that Shopify has a very unique contact center culture. Please elaborate on what makes your center stand out.

For a contact center, Shopify really isn't like many others. What sets us apart is that the ‘Gurus’ [which is what we call our agents] are in a really interesting and advantageous hybrid role of support and education. And because of the immense amount of data at each Guru’s fingertips, they're able to be much more proactive in the support that they provide, as opposed to the reactive support that you'll find typical of the industry. E-commerce is a really complex industry, and bringing Shopify to the masses makes shop owner education a priority.

I understand your agents – sorry, ‘Gurus’ – are highly empowered to take initiative and to continually improve operations and the customer experience. How do they make their improvement ideas and recommendations known?

Being a Shopify Guru really comes to 'acting like an owner' – it's one of the pillars of Shopify in general. When a Guru comes across an issue or problem, it's expected that they're going to act on it. And to back that up, we've made all of the resources and support they need available to make that happen.

Shopify is a very data-driven organization. When we come across a customer pain-point or feature request, we want to know how many people have issue ‘A’, or feature request ‘B’. We have an internal issue-tracker, where we'll log those pain-points and feature requests, and when a Guru is invested in a particular one, we'll usually have a meeting amongst a portion of our team and brainstorm possible solutions and a course of action. We'll log those in our internal tracker, and meet with our developers, designers and product managers to hammer out the details. Shopify moves at a ridiculously fast pace, so there's no single correct way to get things done, but this is a good representation of the norm.

Take me through the empowerment process. How does a Guru get his/her idea or recommendation accepted, and, once it is accepted, what steps occur in getting the idea/recommendation implemented? What roles do Gurus play in bringing their ideas to fruition?

To have a recommendation accepted is all about painting a picture of need, while considering all of the effects of the change – both in terms of development and support. The brainstorming sessions where we think of potential solutions also serves as an opportunity to poke holes in the thesis – e.g., “Do the majority of our customers really need this?” or “Would this be better served as a workflow change?”

The empowerment itself really takes place in leading our newest Gurus to sources of information. For instance, helping them learn which developer knows the most about ‘X’, which designer is working on ‘Y’. When a recommendation is seen as a global benefit, the Guru really becomes a project manager of sorts, as their insight is regarded as valuable and developers and designers will look to them for feedback as the project progresses.

Can you please provide a couple of examples of notable programs or improvements that have come about as the result of a Guru’s idea or recommendation?

Gurus have been instrumental in improving Shopify's streamlined sign-up process by providing valuable data and insight, which allowed our team to cut down on the amount of duplicate or accidental stores created by 92%.

Another that we're currently working on is the workflow around domains. How an existing domain is added to a shop vs. the purchase of a new domain through Shopify. While we don't know the full effect yet, we've worked with our Marketing team to reduce the cost-to-customer of the domain from $25 to $9 in an effort to incite more purchases within Shopify. A win-win for everyone: reduced support cost; better customer experience; no frustration, confusion, time-wasted during set up – we do this all for them.

I’ve heard that Shopify supplies employees with food, games and even some alcohol. Do your Gurus ever overindulge?   

The folks at Shopify work extremely hard, and it's a labor of love, I think. If you like to pair your tacos with a fresh pour of beer, so be it. And while we know how to party, it tends to be after hours (whenever they happen to be). Otherwise, it's all about the customer experience.

Are there other notably innovative practices and tactics that help to define your contact center’s culture?

We really get all of the fixings at Shopify. The flexibility to work from home, from cafes, from a friend's house, wherever there's wifi. Mind you, with the allure of a breakfast bar and lunches and suppers [at our facility], it's tough to stay at home all day. Some of our Gurus will work from home for the first part of their shift and then migrate to the office to catch up on meetings, and to be in that energetic team environment. We also get a gym membership to an awesome facility in the Byward Market [here in Ottawa], and a yearly "Sportify Fund" of $250 to spend on anything that will benefit your health. That's not to mention a spending account for educational purposes, the in-house cleaning service, or ownership in the company via share options – among other nice benefits.

What are the main performance metrics Gurus are measured on?  

We have a general expectation of what we call interactions. To stay on top of things, everyone is expected to complete a defined number of daily interactions with customers, whether through phone, email or live chat. The other main metrics are focused on the quality of interactions. Going back to Shopify as a data-driven company, we have a ton of data that speaks to those interactions – e.g, the time it took to respond to an email, the length of a live chat, how long it took to pick up a call, wrap-up time, etc. These are all regarded as metrics that empower our Gurus, as they can identify time-sinks and work to improve them.

With that, we've built up a culture that doesn't require a singular focus on metrics. Another thing which is kind of a hybrid of culture and metrics is our internal reward system called Unicorn – it's a system of peer-based recognition, where employees can nominate fellow employees with a Unicorn post, and where others can dedicate votes and the receivers of the votes will actually get cold hard cash. So if a Guru works on a day off writing a killer support tutorial, we'll recognize his or her efforts in front of the team.  

What impact has the center’s highly employee-centric culture had on Guru engagement and retention?

Our CEO was quoted as saying we’ve lost only like two employees in the last couple of years. And this [high level of retention] is true for our support team. We're all really stoked to be working on amazing projects at Shopify, which has really helped with our rapid growth. We can recruit, hire and grow without having to worry about re-filling the brainpower. The amount of product knowledge and support intelligence that a Guru has after a year is immense and invaluable. For a position that's been around for a little over two years, only two colleagues have moved onto other opportunities.

Can you provide some quotes from a couple of Gurus on what it’s like working in the Shopify contact center?

Rather than cite a few quotes, here's a short video [less than 3 minutes] featuring several of our Gurus talking about their experience working at Shopify:

Is there anything else you would like to add?    

The first Shopify store was our own.  Now we help people all over the world sell online. Our Guru E-Commerce team is an industry leader in e-commerce customer consultation. They provide world class service and support to world-class customers.

Shopfiy – the Big Picture
Contact center location(s): Ottawa, Ontario (Canada)
Hours of operation:  24/7/365
Number of agents employed: Lots
Products/services supported/provided: Shopify Core product, Themes and Apps, General SEO, Marketing Techniques and Strategies – Full Customer Success Consultation.
Channels handled: Phone, IVR, email, chat, web self-service and social media.
What’s so great about them? Ask just about anybody who works in their contact center, and leave enough time to hear all the reasons.

Being such a big proponent of the home agent model, I love hearing about organizations that have kicked talented staff out of the contact center. I particularly love hearing about traditionally conventional organizations that have done so after seeing the light. So when I heard that the Employees Retirement System of Texas – a government entity – had a successful virtual program in place (and has for several years), I was eager to feature them here.

Following is my interview with ERS’s Assistant Director Scott Murphy about his contact center’s thriving work-at-home initiative.   

How long has ERS’ home agent program been in place? What were the main reasons your contact center decided to go virtual?

We started our home agent program about four years ago. Our initial goal was to create a disaster recovery option that would allow our call center to operate in the event that our building had to be evacuated, was damaged, or lost power for an extended period of time, etc. This was also at a time when gas costs were very high and we were looking at alternatives for our employees to save money by not having to commute to work.

Being a government institution, were there added obstacles in getting the green light for the home agent initiative? 

Luckily, ERS is very progressive when it comes to new ideas and different ways of thinking when it comes to solving problems, so the support of our senior leadership was there. That being said, we did have some very large obstacles to overcome. Since we deal with health insurance and financial related matters, we had to satisfy the requirements to protect our members’ private information. We collaborated across the agency and with other organizations to understand best-practices when it came to issues related to work-at-home programs that dealt with sensitive and private information. Through that process, some of the things we determined were to require our home agents to work in a room that can be closed off from the rest of the residence by a door. We require that our home agents not allow others, including other family members, etc., in the room while they are working. We use monitoring tools that allow us to ensure these practices are being followed, and the home agents are required to sign a contract outlining all of the requirements before they are deployed to work at home.

How many home agents did the ERS program start with? How many home agents are there currently? Do you expect to grow the program significantly?

We are a small contact center with about 35 total seats, which includes the work-at-home employees. We started slowly with two [home agents] to prove the concept. Once we realized it was working, we ramped up to 10 full-time home agents, which is what we still have today. We may explore other home agent options for some of our back office departments in the future, but have no set plans at this time.

What impact (if any), has the home agent initiative had on the following:

-Recruiting and retention?
I think it has a minimal impact on recruiting, but a much larger impact on retention. We currently only send our more tenured employees home so our new-hires may have to wait before they are eligible based on availability.  When employees are hired they know we have a home agent program, but they also know that they may have to wait before they are able to work at home so it is not really something that impacts the recruiting effort. However, retention is a key benefit. Our home agents are much more likely to stay in their positions for much longer periods of time. Our average tenure for our work-at-home agents is about four years compared to about a year for our in-house agents.

We did see an initial spike in productivity through higher availability when we first launched the program. However, over time, that gain has adjusted and is now just slightly higher than the in-house. We do see lower average handle times for our at home agents, which it is most likely due to their longer tenure in addition to fewer environmental distractions at home.

Performance quality is consistent with our in-house employees.

-Staffing flexibility?
Our hours of operation are 7:30 am to 5:30 pm Monday through Friday, which creates some unique challenges since our peaks occur in the morning and late afternoon. The home agents are much more likely to work split shifts that allow us to staff higher during the peak periods. We provide some of our home agents with a two-hour lunch, which allows them to take care of errands, go to the gym, etc. and allows us to schedule them to start their shift at 7:30 and end their shift at 5:30.

-Facility expenses?
Facility expenses really have not changed; however, we were able to maximize the space in a more productive way.

Do you ever hire agents to work from home immediately, or must they first work onsite for a set period of time?

Due to the complexity of the types of calls, we have found it difficult to move a newer employee to a home agent position. Our home agents are more tenured employees that have already been fully trained. 

How do you provide continuous training and coaching to home agents?

We have an online knowledge base that supports the ongoing general call handling information, and we bring them into the office once a month to handle any recurrent or required training. 

How do you keep home agents “in the loop” and feeling like a part of the “brick & mortar” team?

We did have a challenge with our home agents feeling like they were not part of the team, and we noticed we were experiencing some mild morale issues as a result of the isolation. We decided to incorporate cameras so that the supervisors could have video “face-to-face” conversations whenever they called their home agents. We also use video conferencing software that allows the supervisors to incorporate the home agents into team meetings. We also discovered, during one of our fire drills, that the home agents were not aware of the drill and were concerned about the sudden spike in the queue and not being able to reach anyone on site. We have since added a camera to our intranet site that displays the contact center and allows the home agents to see what is going on in the contact center in real time. Now when a fire drill occurs, our home agents can see that the contact center is empty.

What would you say is the biggest challenge of implementing and managing a home agent program?

I would say that the biggest challenge for us was figuring out how to protect the sensitive data that we handle and creating processes that minimize the risk. 

What quick advice do you have for contact center managers who are considering implementing a home agent initiative of their own?

Talk to other organizations that have implemented work-at-home programs because there are a lot of lessons that other organizations have learned that may be beneficial to your company. Search contact center industry message boards for information related to work-at-home programs.

ERS – The Big Picture
Contact center locations: Austin, Texas; Harlingen, Texas (outsourcer)
Hours of operation: 7:30 am to 5:30 pm, Monday-Friday
Number of agents employed: 35 plus outsourcer
Products/services supported/provided: Employee benefits to State of Texas employees and retirees
Channels handled: Phone, web self-service, Facebook, IVR, email, face-to-face
What’s so great about them: They are one of the few government organizations that have embraced the home agent model, resulting in several big benefits for the contact center – namely increased retention of talented agents and more flexible staffing.

For more on the blazing hot topic of home agents, be sure to check out the following OFF CENTER resources:

"The State of Home Agent Staffing" (research report) -
“10 Reasons Your Call Center Should Use Home Agents” -
“Making Home Agents Feel ‘At Work’” -
“Home Agents: A Call Center Game-Changer” -
“Contact Centerfold” article on VPI Pet Insurance -
“On the Phone at Home” (song parody) - (After clicking link, scroll to the third song sample on the page.)

In addition, my ebook – Full Contact contains ample info on home agent programs, as well as a comprehensive sample work-at-home agent agreement donated by a real contact center. So be sure to buy about 12 copies of the ebook.

After embarking on a robust voice-of-the-customer project, Philadelphia Insurance Companies is more agile in identifying and addressing problems, leading to higher customer satisfaction.

(NOTE: This article was originally published in 1to1Magazine in August by 1to1Media, who has granted Off Center permission to use it here. The article, originally titled “Philadelphia Insurance Companies Listens to Its Customers”, was written by 1to1Media’s Senior Writer Cynthia Clark.)

It's not always simple for businesses to sift through the mountains of information that customers are providing, understand what clients are saying, and then build strategies that address problems. Philadelphia Insurance Companies wanted to find an efficient solution to get actionable data based on what its customers were saying. Although the insurance carrier was collecting feedback through several channels – including annual, transaction, and web surveys, as well as mystery shopping – the organization wanted to find a one-stop-shop solution to analyze its customers' feedback.

According to Seth Hall, the company's vice president of operations, customers were filling out surveys, and the data which was being collected failed to effectively measure performance and identify areas of improvement. "The results were objectively captured,” says Hall, “but there wasn't a lot of information as to how customers perceived the company, whether they were pleased with the level of service, and whether they would recommend us to someone."

Additionally, while the company was receiving thousands of calls every month and hundreds of emails daily, these multiple sources of customer feedback made it difficult to develop a holistic and enterprise-wide analysis of what customers were saying. On the other hand, Philadelphia Insurance Companies was putting a lot of emphasis on internal scorecards to determine whether processes were going according to established standards – e.g., the length of time it took the company to respond to a claim. Since the company was doing well and scorecard results were good, it was challenging to decide what changes needed to be made.

Making the Most of Client Feedback

Soon after joining the company in 2009, Hall noticed that the results outlined by the scorecards were not always reflected in the organization's results. He quickly realized that Philadelphia Insurance Companies was missing out on important feedback because of the lack of a reliable VOC program that could provide data on which to base decisions and to determine the success of new projects. At the end of 2010, the organization implemented MarketTools' customer satisfaction program, allowing the insurance firm to capture key data from customer feedback, which is aggregated and visible in real time. This allows the company to notice trends quickly and to be agile in taking the necessary action. Hall says low scores trigger automatic emails to the responsible person, who can then contact the customer, get more information, and resolve the issue.

The new information allows Philadelphia Insurance Companies to know exactly how it's doing in the eyes of its customers rather than depend solely on the internal scorecards. "We match our internal scorecards with external feedback," says Hall. This new strategy has led to some discoveries of problems that might have cost the organization money. Scorecards, for example, indicated the need to add more customer reps since the average speed of answer had slipped. But upon reviewing its VOC data, the company realized that first-call resolution was a much more important indicator of customer satisfaction. "This data was instrumental in us changing the metrics/goals and thus not hiring the additional staff we thought we needed," Hall explains.

Another incident that reiterated the importance of having a VOC program took place October 2011 when the company started administering a collector car insurance product. In order to cut costs, the company revised its policy of sending auto ID cards with the renewal notice. According to Hall, VOC feedback was astounding, with about 10 percent of the 130,000 policy holders criticizing the decision. This real-time feedback allowed the organization to quickly reverse its decision and just seven weeks after launching the new policy start sending out auto ID cards. "Without a VOC program, it would have taken us much longer to react, losing customers and upsetting people," says Hall.

VOC feedback has also indicated that some customers feel it can be difficult to get information from the company and contact the right person. "To remedy this we are now putting together targeted and transactional surveys to find out what exactly we can be doing differently, and obviously better," Hall says.

Although Philadelphia Insurance Companies is retaining its internal scorecards, it no longer needs to base all its decisions on these results. In fact, the scorecards indicated no major billing issues while the VOC program found there to be more negative comments surrounding billing than anything else. This is the information the company needed to start working on a new billing system that is expected to launch next year.

The impact of listening to customers has been noticeable, and Philadelphia Insurance Companies has seen an increase in NPS scores – from the mid to upper 40s before implementing the VOC program to 51 at the end of last year.

A Client-Focused C-Suite

In a bid to solidify the trust that customers have in the company and improve the one-on-one relationship, C-suite executives have been at the forefront of reaching out to clients who leave less-than-stellar feedback. According to Hall, customers are surprised to be receiving a call from the company's hierarchy.

Such a policy makes it clear that the company is not afraid to apologize for its mistakes, says Hall. "Although we do a lot of things well, we aren't perfect, but we're going to call you, apologize, and fix the problem. And we'll do it very quickly."

(Reprinted with permission by 1to1Media.)

This month’s Contact Centerfold features an interview with renowned contact center expert Tim Montgomery, Managing Partner of the uniquely though aptly named contact center outsourcing firm Culture.Service.Growth (CSG). Tim shares what sets CSG apart from other customer care organizations, and why agents, customers and corporate clients keep smiling and sticking around.

(In the Q&A session below, “GL” is yours truly and “TM” is the one and only Tim Montgomery.)

GL: CSG prides itself on “managing people rather than efficiency”. Could you please briefly explain what that means and why it’s important?

TM: Prior to starting CSG, we worked with hundreds of contact centers to help them improve service and efficiency. In most of the companies we advised, the real opportunity was to refocus the leadership team from managing by the metrics to managing to agent behaviors.

This is a lot more difficult than it sounds, as the leaders have to spend time understanding the drivers behind metrics in order to have an effective behavior-based conversation with agents. At CSG, we train all of our leaders to focus on the person first and understand the "why' behind the metrics. 

The real difference is seen in the feedback we get back from our agents, who tell us how their experience in our contact center feels very different than their experience in other contact center environments they have been in.

GL: Could you please provide a few specific examples that clearly illustrate CSG’s progressive management style?

TM: Sure. Our philosophy is simple – treat every agent as an adult and assume everyone wants to do their best every day. We limit the amount of formal policies we have in place and focus more on the expected outcome. For example, we don't have a formal attendance policy other than we expect you to come to work on a regular basis.  Same with quality – it's not about a score on a form.  We focus on continuous improvement on every interaction. Our lack of formal policies expands to our dress code. We ask our reps to look in the mirror and if they'd go to dinner with their grandmother dressed like that, then they can come to work dressed like that. In two years, we've never had to send anyone home because of dress. We spend all our time focused on what agents do and no time on what they wear.

GL: How do agents feel about the contact center’s unique approach? What are engagement and retention levels like?

TM: We believe a strong indicator of employee engagement is the percent of new employees that come from internal referrals. About 60% of our current staff was hired as a result of another employee referring them to this ‘great place to work’, with many being family members and close friends of existing agents.   

GL: To succeed as an outsourcer and get clients to trust you with their customers, you obviously need to have a highly experienced management team. Can you talk a little about the collective experience of your leaders?    

TM: Quite simply, we know contact centers and world-class service better than anyone. Our owners and leaders have more than 100 years of experience running contact centers for USAA – the world's most celebrated contact center organization. Our core team members at CSG are experts in contact center leadership, operations and improvement. We are trusted advisors to some of the world's top brands. We've taken the lessons learned from decades of running and improving contact centers to create the core of what will become the new standard in contact center outsourcing relationships. 

GL: I’ve heard you mention – and seen you write about – something you call ‘Service 1st’. Please tell us what that is in a nutshell. 

TM: ‘Service 1st’ is based on a call reduction philosophy that generates improved customer experiences. Driving improvement from the frontline is the foundation of a world-class organization. This frontline-driven approach allows us to provide continuous feedback to our clients to adjust areas of their organization that may be generating unnecessary customer contacts. Such an approach not only saves money; it directly impacts the customer’s perception of the organization. One of our driving principles at CSG is to help clients continually reduce operational defects, and we do this one call at a time. 

GL: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

TM: Our value is based on the fact that we don't see a call as merely a transaction or a number. We see every contact as an opportunity to gather intelligence. From day one, our agents are taught to think of their role as ‘process engineers’ and to look for ways to help the company they're supporting get more out of every contact. By focusing on the total cost of ownership, clients incur lower support costs (fewer calls) and improved customer loyalty (fewer defects). 

CSG – the Big Picture

Contact center location(s): Two locations in San Antonio, Texas.
Hours of operation: 24/7
Number of agents employed: 250
Products/services supported/provided: Outsourced contact center support for a wide variety of industries and client types.
Channels handled: Phone, IVR, email, chat, web self-service and social media
What’s so great about them? They pride themselves on a unique contact center culture where efficiency never comes at the expense of quality, and where people are viewed as more important than metrics.     

(Reprinted with permission from 1to1Media.)

Organizations serious about making the best decisions for their customers are often challenged with ensuring that everybody within the company, from decision-makers to frontline employees, is fully aware of the needs of their customers. In order to do this, customer-centric organizations are trying to eliminate any disconnect between the C-Suite and their end customers.

Canadian telecommunications company Telus wanted to make sure its senior leaders were sensitive to customer needs. The organization was happy with the products and services it was providing, but recognized that delivering an outstanding customer experience was the main differentiator in the competitive telecom sector. Thus, it decided to embark on a journey to dramatically improve its customer experience. As Carol Borghesi, senior vice president of Telus' Customers First Culture, explains, the organization essentially turned its attention to putting customers at the heart of everything it does.

As part of its overall strategy of understanding the customer experience and putting the customer first, Telus embarked in 2010 on what Borghesi describes as a "lifestyle change." This company-wide initiative brought together decision-makers with frontline employees to map the customer journey and identify problems – small and large – which could be addressed to improve the ultimate experience.

The journey started by pairing the company's most senior executives with a frontline employee from a different department for an entire shift.. "We told them to clear their calendars so that they weren't disturbed and could sit shoulder-to-shoulder with the frontline employee," Borghesi explains.

This initiative was meant to give the organization's decision-makers a glimpse into the problems that frontline employees were facing on a daily basis as well as provide face-time with customers. "It was a truly eye-opening experience and meant that people who wouldn't normally know what's going on in the frontline had the opportunity to [do so]," Borghesi says.

But Telus didn't want this to be solely a data-gathering exercise. The organization wanted to take action on the insights it gathered. Borghesi says at the end of the day each two-person team agreed to present one specific issue that the frontline worker was facing and which was preventing him from providing the best experience to customers. These issues were then discussed during four senior leadership forums across Canada and the organization outlined a number of recommendations generated from those meetings that could help improve customer experience. Borghesi says within two years about 70% of the list has been addressed.

Although the initiative started with pairing about 350 senior managers with frontline workers, it was so successful that the organization decided to extend the program. Today about 4,000 people – a tenth of Telus' staff – have gone through the experience. "We've included everyone, including network technologists and architects," Borghesi says, adding that the initiative has "ignited renewed vigor and passion around doing what's best for customers."

Borghesi explains that the second part of Telus' Customers First strategy included gathering and making sense of customer intelligence from a variety of different touchpoints, including emails, chat sessions, calls to the contact center, and escalations.  Additionally, the organization wanted to determine its customers' likelihood to recommend Telus and wanted every employee to be privy to customer insights and "likelihood to recommend" results on its Intranet landing page. Further, Telus shares customer comments on the same page and encourages employees to read them.

Insights Lead to Results

Being closer to customers has helped Telus make remarkable improvements in its customers' likelihood to recommend the company. According to Borghesi, Telus has registered a 15% year-over-year improvement when compared to its competitors, something she described as a "huge result" when considering the effort needed to improve this key metric.

Borghesi also points toward an "enormous improvement" in employee engagement, specifically employees' likelihood to recommend the company. "We realized that [customer satisfaction and employee engagement] move together. As employee engagement improves, so does the customer experience. And as we work to improve customer experience, in turn we're improving employee engagement," Borghesi says.

Telus believes that it achieved these results because every employee is living and breathing the Customers First strategy. "We've turned up the volume in listening to customers and in doing so have focused on dissatisfaction, which is where customers were experiencing pain." For example, Telus was aware that the repair experience has been traditionally problematic for the wireless industry. "People are giving a lot of importance to their smartphones and if something goes wrong with their phones, they can barely live without them," Borghesi says. However, the organization didn't have a great track record in delivering a seamless repair experience. By drilling down into customer insights and recognizing the need to improve the repair experience, Telus has reduced overall dissatisfaction by 50% in less than two years. "We've taken listening to customers and paying attention to voice-of-the-customer to heart and are channeling our attention to what customers are telling us."

Prioritizing the Mobile Experience

The next step in Telus' Customers First strategy was to be mobile-savvy and integrate mobile service within the overall service strategy. Customers are increasingly interacting with companies over their smartphones and Telus knew that it needed to focus on giving its customers the ability to seamlessly interact via mobile. "If something goes awry when interacting with an account via smartphone, customers need a seamless way to access a contact center agent," says Borghesi.

The result of this goal was the Mobile First strategy, which focuses on facilitating customers' need to self-serve over their smartphones. According to Borghesi, Telus' mobile strategy has been a success. Not only has customer feedback been positive, but the organization has seen deflection in contact center calls. This win-win-win situation means that customers are happy because they're getting their issues resolved without having to contact Telus, the company is saving money, and employees are satisfied because they can focus on more complicated issues which require greater attention.

According to Borghesi this is the way forward for organizations which need to focus on making transactions simple so that customers can serve themselves. But first, business leaders need to put their ears to the ground and listen to what their customers are saying before taking action. Sometimes they will be surprised by what they learn.

This article was originally published in 1to1Magazine in July by 1to1Media, who has granted Off Center permission to use it here. The article, originally titled “Telus Focuses on Customer Experience”, was written by 1to1Media’s Senior Writer Cynthia Clark.

Salt River Project – one of Arizona’s largest utilities – has long engaged agents (and customers) with its positive and powerful culture of service. I recently had the honor of interviewing SRP’s Director of Residential Services, Yolanda France, who was gracious enough to share many of the practices and approaches that drive the contact center’s high employee satisfaction and performance.

(In the Q & A below, “GL” is me and “YF” is Yolanda France.)

GL: I hear that at SRP, rewarding & recognizing agents is a high priority. Please describe some of your rewards/recognition programs and practices, and the impact they have had on agent engagement.

YF: We value our representatives and know that they have a very challenging job – perhaps one of the most complex in our company! We want to let them know that being here and doing a good job assisting our customers is very important and that we really appreciate them. 

We have an award given monthly for the best call for a specific topic. An example of a specific type is a high bill call. The winning call is chosen by a committee of fellow phone reps who listen to the call and decide if their peer was able to help out the customer. Prizes include movie tickets, lunch with a supervisor, the rep’s preferred schedule for one week, and an extra-long lunch hour.

All of our reps can also qualify for the “Perfect Attendance” award. Being tardy or absent disqualifies a rep for that award, which is given out on a monthly basis – we randomly choose three winners among those who qualify each month. So, it pays to come to work, literally!

Here’s what a couple of our contact center supervisors have to say about our employee rewards and recognition practices:

Gene Gerhart, Supervisor: “We hear all the time that reps like to be recognized. The opportunities and rewards we provide them motivate them – and a happy employee stays.”

Frank Garshak, Supervisor: “We want to let our reps know that we appreciate their effort because without them we would not be able to have a world-class organization.” 

GL: How do you balance individual awards and team awards to ensure that not only the “stars” get recognized? Do you do any “recognition for recognition’s sake” types of things to keep center-wide morale up?

YF: We like to recognize people for their strengths. They don’t have to be the star, but we really concentrate on finding out what they do well and maximizing that talent. For example, if we have a person who is technically inclined, we may have them help with testing of new functionalities of our customer relationship management system. We also have a whole team devoted to doing fun events. They are called the “SWAT” (Spirit Work Activities Team). They plan events for various occasions throughout the year for holidays and Customer Service Week. The team also coordinates things like pot-lucks, games, parties and salsa challenges as well as holiday food drives, Adopt-A-Family volunteering, and many other activities that support SRP’s community involvement. You say you’re having a "lack-o-fun" emergency? Call in the SWAT!

GL: Do agents have a say in the types of incentives and awards that are provided? Do you seek their feedback to ensure that the various rewards & recognition programs are effective?

YF: Absolutely! In fact, many of our current awards programs come directly from feedback given by reps. Call Center management meets monthly with reps to update them on various projects throughout SRP. These meetings also serve as a forum for reps to provide feedback on what is and what isn’t working in the Call Center. We have sessions with the Senior Director of Customer Services, Renee Castillo, known as “Rappin’ with Renee.” And myself, the Director of Residential Customer Service, have meetings called “Yappin’ with Yolanda.” See a pattern here? 

GL: I understand that agents have ample opportunities for cross-training and other development initiatives to add diversity to their core job function. Please provide some examples.

YF: Reps are often selected by their supervisors for opportunities to cross-train in other functional work areas within Customer Services, such as Billing, Accounting, Research & Communications Services, and Field Services, just to name a few. Reps can also participate in a variety of special projects and teams. As I mentioned, they participate as user acceptance testers for new software releases and upgrades to our customer relationship management system. They are the primary users and know when things work and when they don’t. These activities do not come with pay raises but build a knowledge foundation and provide networking opportunities when our reps feel they are ready to become Lead Customer Service Reps or move on to other departments within SRP.

GL: Is there a clear career path in the contact center (i.e., various agent levels, team lead/supervisory opportunities, management training, etc.)?

YF: Many of our reps are promoted up the Call Center ladder, so to speak. The traditional progression is to start as a rep, then progress to a Lead Customer Service Rep, and then possibly to Call Center Supervisor or Call Center Analyst, and then to Manager. As an interesting tidbit, 14 of the 19 members of the Call Center management team (Supervisors, Managers and Director) were SRP reps at one point in their careers. 

GL: Your agents seem to stick around for a long time. Surely your hiring practices help set the stage for such high retention... can you share how you hire and select reps?

YF: Certainly. We have a pretty comprehensive hiring process. We ask candidates to take an assessment test. Those who pass the assessment are then invited to call for a quick phone interview. Those who pass the phone interview are invited to participate in a “speed interview.” Managers and supervisors throughout Customer Services along with members of our Training Development and Customer Interaction group interview the candidates. Each candidate gets two minutes to answer a question and then moves to another seat where another interviewer asks another question. We’ve found that candidates tend to be less nervous, and get to meet people with whom they would be working. In turn, managers, supervisors, and our Training group get to meet potential reps and, collectively, select the best of the best.

GL: Is there anything else you would like to add?

YF: I’d like to share some comments from a couple of members of my esteemed team. I think what they have to say pretty much sums up our contact center environment: 

Di Witt, Supervisor: “We really feel that having a balance of fun and professionalism is important so that employees come to work and know that we want them to be happy coming to work. If they are happy, our customers will be happy too.” 

Seth Bingham, Rep: “I’ve worked in customer services for over 10 years with five different companies. SRP is the best by far! The caliber of the people who work here is amazing. [Management] makes everyone feel welcome and like they are family. Work has never been so enjoyable until I started working here!”

SRP – the Big Picture
Contact center locations: Two (Arizona) locations: one in Tempe, and one in Queen Creek
Hours of operation: 24/7
Number of agents employed: 230
Products/services supported/provided: Electric utility service
Channels handled: Phone, IVR, email, web self-service and social media
What’s so great about them? The center prides itself on its excellent rewards & recognition practices, as well as its strong focus on agent development and empowerment.

In contact centers, AHT is an acronym for a common (some would say too common) productivity metric: Average Handle Time. At Israeli outsourcing agency Call Yachol, AHT could very well stand for Average Hug Time.

Agents openly embracing one another is a common occurrence in Call Yachol’s contact center, whose “culture of warmth and caring” drives the center’s success both internally and externally. Whether interacting with one another, with management or with customers, Call Yachol’s agents’ words and deeds are guided by a strong sense of kinship, compassion and mutual respect.

Such camaraderie among peers is all the more impressive when you consider the fact that the center’s frontline is comprised of two distinct factions who have historically had their differences.

“We have 220 religious Muslims and Jews working together in harmony,” says Dr. Gil Winch, Founder of Call Yachol and CEO of the consulting firm Tandem.  

While it’s nice to see everybody getting along, what’s even more notable about the people at Call Yachol is that the vast majority of them have some form of disability. That said, it’s hard to consider them “disabled” – they’re the very reason the organization is going so strong.

“Our call center representatives are all highly motivated, willing to work for many years, and exceptionally loyal to the task and the client,” says Dr. Winch. “Due to the higher than average level of job stability, we are able to reduce the costs of personnel turnover for the client and offer a high level of professionalism, thus contributing to providing excellent service.”

“Able to Do Anything”

After listening to Dr. Winch describe his staff – and seeing them in action – it becomes evident why he named the company Call Yachol. “Yachol” in Hebrew means “able to do anything”.

Few of the centers agents had been given the opportunity to show their abilities prior to being hired by Call Yachol. People with disabilities are often overlooked or outright discriminated against by hiring managers – not just in Israel but the world over. Dr Winch, however, fully understands how capable such individuals are and how valuable they can be.

“There is no reason for these employees' mental or physical limitations to keep them from excelling on the job. But most have suffered from being shunned by mainstream employers, and lack self-confidence in their potential.”

This is where the hugging comes in. To help qualified agents regain their confidence, Winch implemented a parent-based management model where employees are given affection and have scheduled time for team fun. The unusual approach has been very effective – and has garnered interest from organizations in several countries looking to replicate it.

Hugs aren’t the only thing Call Yachol does well. The company’s CEO, Amir Bar-Natan, has 12 years’ experience managing service and sales centers. He and his management team work closely with clients to select, develop and manage staff.

“We recruit employees according to our customer's needs, train them to meet the demands of the job, and take care of whatever administrative and technological needs they require – such as special software for the visually-impaired – so as to create an ideal work environment,” says Bar-Natan.

But you don’t have to take his or Dr. Winch’s word for it. Plenty of praise has come from the one-of-a-kind outsourcer’s corporate clients.

“Call Yachol meets all our needs and we receive numerous 'thank you' letters from satisfied customers,” says Danny Zur, V.P. of Human Resources for Israeli cellular phone provider Pelephone, which uses approximately 130 Call Yachol agents in various areas of telephone service and sales.  Zur points out that companies shouldn’t consider using Call Yachol merely because it makes sense from a social responsibility standpoint, but rather because it’s a smart business move. “From our point of view this is a pure business consideration – this is not a favor nor is it philanthropy.”

Nurit Kantor, VP of Service at telecom giant Bezeq International, will never regret exploring the untapped workforce that Call Yachol offers. “The representatives prove that nothing stands in the way of what you really want,” says Kantor. “They are optimistic, fiercely motivated, and have an excellent awareness of service. We are proud to have trained them to join our ranks.”

A Proud and Fearless Front Line

Glowing reviews from clients certainly speak volumes, but perhaps the best way to grasp the power of what Call Yachol has accomplished is to hear directly from its agents.

“After four years of unemployment, hundreds of résumés, and many interviews without result, I arrived at Call Yachol,” says agent Yossi Zeidovitz. “Much has already been said and written about the family atmosphere at Call Yachol, but for me, Call Yachol has provided many things beyond work. First and foremost, I can hold my head up high and have pride in my disability.”

Another agent, Limor Gotlib, credits Call Yachol with restoring her confidence and a sense of normalcy after she suffered an eye injury that severely impaired her vision and forced her to leave her previous job eight years ago. “The Call Yachol call center is a business in every respect – it does not give its employees any extra privileges because of their disabilities. This gives the feeling of being in a regular workplace, one that has given me the opportunity to realize my talents. I recommend other people, no matter what their disability, to join our family and not to be afraid of joining the workforce.”

There may soon be plenty more openings for such individuals. According to Dr. Winch, Call Yachol plans to open centers in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the near future.

“We are already the largest employer of people with disabilities in the open market in Israel. Our vision is to employ thousands of people with disabilities in a countrywide distribution of call centers, leading a much-needed and important revolution.”

Call Yachol – the Big Picture:
Location: Rishon LeZion, Israel
Hours of operation: 7:30 am-10 pm
Number of agents: Approximately 220
Products/services provided/supported: Outsourced contact center/customer care services for a variety of corporate clients.
What’s so great about them? A truly unique and successful customer care organization staffed with a culturally diverse team of agents – all of whom have some form of disability – working harmoniously in an open and caring environment.

For more information on Call Yachol, visit their website at: (click the “English” tab in the upper-left corner to convert the site from Hebrew to English.)

Also, be sure to check out this short video on Call Yachol’s unique operation: