Off Center
In trying to keep agents motivated, many call center managers rely a little too heavily on helium, sugar and saturated fats. “We truly appreciate you and the big impact you have on the customer experience and our business – here are some cookies and colorful balloons to prove it.”

Often, I can’t tell if I’m visiting a call center or attending an eight-year old’s birthday party – until I notice that nobody is smiling. I understand that most call centers face daunting budget constraints and thus can’t afford to send top-performing agents to Hawaii or pay them a four-figure quarterly bonus. The good news is that they don’t have to. Effective agent rewards and recognition programs aren’t about money or material items; they are about demonstrating authentic respect for the freaks on the phones and the critical role they play as customer advocates.

The best call center professionals realize this, and thus strive to perpetuate lasting engagement and retention
– and customer loyalty – by providing deserving staff with the following things:

Public recognition that packs a punch. While “Thank You” notes and “You Rock” stickers are all well and good, they are typically dropped off at agents' workstations rather than handed out in front of all their peers, thus giving recipients little to no chance of making others feel inferior. If you truly want to inspire continuous high performance, you need to give staff a chance to rub their notable accomplishments in everybody’s face.

To help with this, many leading call centers have implemented a “Wall of Fame” that features the photo of agents who have recently achieved excellence in key areas like call quality, C-Sat, sales and attendance, or who have decided against suing the company for repetitive stress injuries. To ensure the highest visibility, be sure to place the Wall of Fame in an area of the call center that gets a lot of traffic, such as inside the room where exit interviews are held.

To add more oomph to the Wall of Fame approach, consider hanging actual agents rather than their photo on the wall. They will truly appreciate the hard-earned extra time off the phones, and will surely enjoy gloating about their achievements to all passersby.   

Another effective way to publicly reward and recognize agents is to hand out awards during a department party or happy hour. Doing so provides top-performers with the high-profile praise and attention they deserve while allowing all the losers to ease their pain with the free white zinfandel wine that’s on hand.

Nominations for external industry awards recognizing outstanding customer service/support. Many call centers hand out internal awards like “Agent of the Month” or, in centers struggling with rampant turnover, “Agent of the Minute.”  Such accolades are nice, but why not “go bigger” and nominate your top reps and teams for industry-wide customer service awards?

Examples include ICMI’s “Spirit of Service” awards, and Customer Relationship Metrics’ “Elite Customer Experience Awards” (the latter has an “Agent of the Year” and “Team of the Year” category). Another notable though lesser-known award is the “Agent Least Likely to Get Punched by a Customer” prize handed out by Big Bob’s Contact Center Consulting & Taxidermy Shop out of Tuscaloosa.   

The great thing about these big-time front-line awards is that your agents don’t even need to win to become inspired and engaged. Just knowing that the company thinks they have a shot in hell of being named the best of the best is enough to make most agents postpone their decision to join the rodeo or circus.  

Recognition for recognition’s sake. To ensure that all the agents in your call center feel appreciated – not just the agents who deserve it – it’s important to occasionally recognize and honor everybody who shows up most of the time and has a pulse. Let’s face it, handling demanding customers day after day is no easy task, thus staff who manage to do it without harming themselves or others should get a little love.      

While recognition for recognition’s sake can occur whenever,  a great time to do it (if you are a U.S. operation) is during National Customer Service Week (first week of October each year.) This is a time to celebrate agents’ ability to continue breathing on the job, as well as their service successes – both real and imagined. It’s also an ideal time to get rid of the year-old candy from the previous Halloween. 

But don’t just wait until October to celebrate customer service and agent servitude. Host your own employee-appreciation days to show staff that you cherish them even though no outside organization looking to sell balloons and banners is telling you to.     

Opportunities to humiliate superiors. Few things motivate agents more than having a chance to make an executive suffer. I’ve seen entire teams of bottom-rung reps suddenly transform into customer service superstars after being told they’d get to shave a VP’s head if they met an ambitious quality objective for the quarter. I’ve seen similar boosts in performance and engagement in centers where agents were told that, if successful, they'd get an opportunity to throw baseballs at a dunk-tank containing a senior manager.

If your center decides to try the latter approach, just keep in mind that dunk-tank rentals can be expensive. To save money without sacrificing the powerful motivational effect, get rid of the dunk-tank and simply let agents chuck baseballs directly at executives. Many agents actually say they prefer this method. It’s a ton of fun for everybody involved – except for the executives, who will finally experience a pain similar to that of an agent working a Monday morning shift in an under-budgeted call center.

Don’t let ME do all the talking. Let’s hear about some of the affordable rewards & recognition tactics that YOU'VE seen work well in the call center. Those and other comments welcomed below.

Melissa Kovacevic
5/26/2011 10:24:39 pm

I agree...Humiliation is very popular. When I was a Supervisor (in the call center Dark Ages) I had to tap dance on a plastic chair mat when my team reached their goal. This is why I now consult instead of run a center.

Another fun & true post, Greg!

5/26/2011 10:38:12 pm

I bet you miss your old dancing days, Melissa. Though these days, tap dancing probably wouldn't cut it -- you'd need to add an element of break dancing to truly inspire Gen Y agents.

Thanks for taking time to share your experiences! (But let us not speak of the tapping for your team again.)


5/27/2011 12:58:41 am

I always look forward to your Friday blogs and this one certainly did not disappoint. Thanks for keeping it relevant and hilarious!

A call center I managed used to pass around the "Golden Aspirin" award (a trophy of a huge gilded Aspirin) to the agent who handled the most difficult customer with the most grace.

And thanks for the "shout out" to Customer Relationship Metrics :-)


5/27/2011 01:13:39 am

Thanks, Carmit - your kind words are truly appreciated. I'll be sure to pass them on to my ghostwriter, Biff.

I like the "Golden Aspirin" tactic you mentioned. Do they work on hangovers, too?

Have a great weekend, and see you on Twitter soon!


6/1/2011 11:13:24 pm

Great stuff Greg. I love the "Wall of Fame" idea. Employee photos are great recognition. Of course nothing beats the easy, often overlooked, "you're doing a great job and I appreciate it" from boss to associate.

6/1/2011 11:22:41 pm

I agree, Lee -- simple face-to-face verbal appreciation is important, but managers can't rely solely on such tactics if they hope to truly improve agent retention and engagement. They need to get creative while maintaining authentic sentiment. It needn't cost much, but it does require some effort -- and meaningful rewards.

Thanks for your comments!

7/22/2011 12:48:12 am

Hey Greg! Love the incentives! At a call center I use to work at, if the team made the month goal, our VP had to dress up as Elvis (the extravagant one) and sing to us! It was a riot...and as you can tell, we made our goal and then some!

Too bad vlogging wasn't popular then because he would have so made a great viral video!

As always, thanks for the great posts...

7/22/2011 12:56:18 am

The Elvis impersonations must not have been THAT effective -- you left that call center. ;)

Sounds like a great VP! Thanks for your comment, Karyn.




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