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!

Kevin Carly
11/6/2013 10:59:35 pm

"Again, you need to chase the right things."

The end.

It sounds like Steve has figured out what eludes so many senior executives. As I read this article, there was not one single financial metric mentioned. Neither was there mention of handle times, answer times, abandon rate, nor even the Holy Grail of resolution rates.

It was, quite simply, the customer experience.

I'm sure they measure other traditional factors, as they should, but elevating the customer experience and empowering the team member it what really delivers solutions and satisfaction.

Now that I think about it, it's time to purchase some new blinds. I'm going to take my business there.

11/6/2013 11:07:41 pm

Great comment, Kevin! Evidently Steve (the COO of isn't the ONLY one who knows a thing or two about what drives contact center success. Your input was dead on.

If you do end up buying those blinds, I'm going to find out from Steve if I get a commission.

Thanks for reading, and for your insight!



Kevin Carly
11/13/2013 07:47:25 am

Well I ordered $300 worth of blinds. I hope you pull a good spiff off of that one! Really pleased with the service they offer and I didn't even have to talk with a team member. Perhaps the best service is the one we never have to use...


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