Off Center
Nobody could have foreseen the on-the-job meltdown of Tim Thomas, a veteran customer service agent for Alabama Light & Electric (ALE), during a tropical storm last summer. Tim had endured numerous call deluges during regional power outages in the past without so much as a whimper or a whine. His fellow agents had always revered his skill, dedication and resolve – particularly his use of adult diapers during peak periods to cut down on his time offline.

To them, Tim was invincible – until the afternoon of Thursday July 14, 2011. While handling calls during the three-day long storm that left nearly half of ALE’s customers without power, Tim suddenly snapped. In the middle of a call, he punched his computer screen and threw his “Employee of the Year” plaque at the contact center’s readerboard before attempting to eat his headset. His colleagues and supervisors were shocked – never before had they heard Tim forget to use the proper call closing with a customer.

Tim’s manager recently discovered the personal journal Tim had been keeping right up until he freaked out. The journal entries from the days during the storm provide a fascinating and vivid account of the unfortunate unraveling of ALE’s star agent, who has since moved on to work for the U.S. Postal Service as a mail carrier.  

Below are several of the aforementioned journal entries:

Monday, July 11 - 4:30 pm: High winds and heavy rain have left many of our customers in the dark. I’m handling about 50 calls an hour – just wish I could do more. All those nice people trying to get through to us for information and consolation. I love each of them like family. My manager just offered me some pizza, but I told him I couldn’t possibly take time to eat while our customers are suffering so. I think I’ll volunteer to work through the night.

Tuesday, July 12 - 11:15 am: The wind and rain are unrelenting.Things sure are crazy around here – call after call after call from frantic customers. But that’s why I became a rep. I live for helping others. Granted, it would have been easier if these people didn’t yell at me whenever I answer the phone. Don’t they know I didn’t cause this tropical storm? Don’t they understand I’m on their side? Probably not – most of them don’t even know their own zip code. Oops, that was mean and uncalled for. Shouldn’t lash out like that. Must stay focused. I wonder if there’s any leftover pizza from yesterday.

Tuesday, July 12 - 5:20 pm: I’ve handled 120 calls in the past hour and a half. Can’t get my eyelid to stop twitching. I’m starting to regret not going to work on my uncle’s farm. No phones there. No confining workstations. Just fresh air and plenty of nice goats.

Wednesday, July 13 - 9:45 am: My supervisor just hung a banner in the middle of the contact center that reads, “Don’t Give Up.” How encouraging. I should hang him in the middle of the contact center by his stupid tie. Oh, but then who would monitor my every word and action? As I write this, an annoying caller is babbling into my ear – something about a down power line in her backyard. I just thanked her for completely ignoring our IVR, which is designed to handle such types of calls and save me from wanting to cut myself. I told her a technician would be there as soon as possible, and recommended she go out and mow her lawn in the meantime. She hung up. But what’s this? Surprise! Another call is coming in. Probably just Satan.

Thursday, July 14 - I have no freaking idea what time it is: The rain and wind will never stop. The calls will never stop. My eyelid twitch will never stop. All the customers are out to get me.They’re each plotting ways to have their calls routed directly to me. They want to see me crack, but I refuse to let them destroy me. They have no idea whom they are dealing with, the powers I possess, how easy it is for me to press the “release” button. They may have taken away my lunch break, but they’ll never defeat me. Never. Never! Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha!

That was Tim’s final journal entry before his complete meltdown. Three supervisors tried to restrain him when he became violent, but they were no match for his surprising strength. The struggle didn’t stop until the contact center manager shot Tim with one of the tranquilizer darts usually reserved for neutralizing agents on payday. 

I’ve long been friends with Susan Hash and Linda Harden of Contact Center Pipeline (a most excellent publication), so when they came to me asking if there was anything they could do to help promote my e-book and Off Center in general, I just had to say yes. I’m selfless like that.

The below Q&A set was taken from an interview I did with Susan Hash last year. The article first appeared in Contact Center Pipeline.

Tell us about your e-book, Full Contact: Contact Center Practices and Strategies that Make an Impact. How does it differ from other books on the market by call center consultants and industry experts?

Basically, I set out to create a highly compelling, actionable and entertaining composite of the best practices and strategies I have uncovered during my nearly two decades as a journalist and researcher in the contact center industry. But then I got frustrated with all the verbs and adjectives, so I decided to have my ghostwriter do it. I’m kidding of course; Full Contact is all me, for better or for worse. 

What I feel distinguishes my book from others is that it isn’t filled with mere theory or pie-in-the-sky advice—rather it’s overflowing with proven tactics and useful resources that managers can utilize immediately in their own contact centers. In addition, I tried to inject a healthy dose of humor and levity into every chapter of Full Contact. It’s the only way I could get my wife and mother to read it. My intention wasn’t to have the humor outweigh the key points, but to accentuate them and make them go down more smoothly.

What are the top two or three things that managers can take away from Full Contact as action items they can implement immediately in their centers?

#1: How to attract top frontline talent and keep them fully engaged and committed by implementing such things as a home-agent initiative, special project task forces, and a compelling yet affordable rewards and recognition program. All the details are in Chapter 4.

#2: How to meld your quality monitoring practices and your customer satisfaction measurement practices into a unified process. Too many centers fail to take the customer’s perspective into consideration when rating agent performance and overall quality. Chapter 6 talks all about this, and provides specific steps on how to add the customer to the quality equation. This isn’t a QA trend—it’s QA evolution.

#3: How to cut through all the hype surrounding social media and create a simplified yet effective contact center strategy for managing this emerging monster. For this, go to Chapter 7—then Tweet all about it.   

Your book is peppered with best practices from leading contact center organizations. What is the most unique best practice that you’ve come across?

While there are many noteworthy best practices covered in Full Contact, I’d say the most unique best practice is one that I learned about after publishing the book. I recently learned how, at Zappos, every single new person hired—be they an agent, an accountant or a C-level officer—must complete a four-week customer care and culture training program prior to starting their job. The training is considered paramount to delivering positive and consistent customer experiences across the organization.

I guess, technically, it isn’t a “best practice,” since Zappos is the only company that’s doing it (that I know of); however, it’s one of the best practices I’ve ever seen—one that every customer care organization should be copying.

What inspired you to write your song parody, “Sympathy for the Agent”?

A couple cans of Red Bull and a secret desire to be a rock star in the call center community.

I’ve always enjoyed writing song spoofs, silly poems and even manic raps about call center life. My thinking is that anybody who works in such a frenetic and stressful environment needs comic relief to survive. Even if my lyrics don’t make them laugh, my singing voice will.

Sympathy for the Agent” came about one day while I was listening to the Rolling Stones’ classic hit “Sympathy for the Devil.” I thought, “Oh yeah, I could definitely do something with that.”

The rest is call center rock ‘n’ roll history. 

You’ve had a long career researching and writing about call centers. What projects are you focusing on now?

I’m starting to do a little more speaking and a little less writing. This is a great thing because my metabolism has slowed down with age, thus I’ve really needed to get off my butt and get out of the office more. In addition to keeping me in better shape, leaving home to speak in public has enabled me to learn how to put on pants and tie a tie.

I am also currently working on a genetic research experiment that, if successful, will enable call center managers to clone their best agents before the Marketing department steals them.

After you buy my e-book, be sure to visit the Contact Center Pipeline site and subscribe to the best trade pub in the industry: