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.

Most organizations strive to implement viable web self-service applications so that only customers with highly complex issues or who are extremely lonely require live agent assistance. Unfortunately, many companies get so excited about the potential cost savings offered by self-service that they forget about a very critical factor: the customer experience. In these companies, economics alone drive the self-service strategy and, consequently, the self-service strategy drives customers to more expensive channels – or into the arms of the competition.

The terms “customer-centric” and “automation” are not mutually exclusive – you can have one with the other. In fact, to succeed in today’s competitive customer care environment, you must. Many customers – particularly those who suffer panic attacks when interacting with people, or who simply despise humanity, or who are electrical engineers – actually prefer to self-serve rather than wait in a queue for a live person to help them.

To ensure that their call center is as cost-effective AND as customer-centric as possible, leading organizations fully embrace – or at least hold hands with – the following web self-service practices:

Keep FAQs fresh and diverse – and actively promote them. You should never hear your agents mutter, “If I had a dime for every time a caller asked me [fill in monotonous, routine question here].” If you do, it means that the FAQ section of your web site either blows, is non-existent, or is under-promoted.

Top call centers invest in dynamic applications that continuously scan the vast universe of customer contacts – previous calls, email/chat transactions, knowledgebase searches – and track common customer inquiries and issues. This invaluable data is then used to develop rich and relevant FAQs (and responses) that can be posted on the web site, thus saving the center thousands of live customer contacts… and agents millions of live brain cells.

To optimize use of their online FAQ feature, smart call centers go out of their way to promote its existence and strongly encourage customers to take advantage of this valuable resource. Such promotion is typically done via automated messages in the center’s IVR system while callers are in queue (e.g., “You can find answers to a wide variety of questions on our website at, or by having agents provide links to the FAQ portal during email and chat interactions with customers. On calls, agents can simply remind customers about the FAQ feature and, to truly inspire action, tell the caller that every time they access the FAQs, an angel gets its wings.    

Implement powerful search tools featuring natural language capabilities. Today’s search engines and knowledgebase solutions enable customers who visit your website to easily find exactly what they are looking for (assuming your knowledgebase is filled with expansive content) without having to type in broken English like Tarzan or a UFC fighter. Instead, thanks to natural language technology, customers can enter complete phrases or sentences in the “search” box, and receive relevant content instantly.

Some centers aim to spice-up self-service via the use of avatars that can “converse” with online customers via basic text chat. These animated figures are able to analyze the words the customer types into the search or chat box and provide answers in natural sentence form. It’s important, however, not to get too “cute’ with your company's self-service avatar. When programmed to tell jokes or be overly chatty, avatars can annoy and alienate rather than engage and captivate the people with whom they interact – kind of like me after one too many vodka Red Bulls at a party or for breakfast.

Create CRM-powered customer accounts/portals.  Even customers who hate people and aim to avoid them like the plague or Adam Sandler movies still want their self-service experience to be humanized and personal.

The best customer care organizations satisfy such universal human desires by creating customized, CRM-powered portals for each existing/returning customer. These portals are, in essence, personalized web pages where customers can access their detailed account information (e.g., balances, past transactions; pending orders, etc.) as well as receive subliminal messages that compel them to buy additional products and services they don’t need.

Make it easy to reach a live agent. Giving online customers easy access to your call center agents isn’t the ultimate objective of your web self-service strategy, but it still must be a part of it. Not every customer who begins a self-service search or transaction is going to find exactly what they are looking for, either because their issue is complex or because they are not very bright. Also, some customers simply don’t feel comfortable completing purchases online. Hiding your email web form, chat/web call-back box, or phone number from online visitors – or, worse, not providing such contact options at all – is no way to foster customer loyalty, and could result in a lot of lost revenue.

Just keep in mind that there will always be those customers who don’t ever want to let go of your call center’s hand – even for the most routine transactions that could be done online. If you have a lot of customers like this, consider implementing a “Leave the Nest” strategy, where such callers are routed to a special pool of agents trained to provide abysmal service. Once these customers endure a few calls with an agent who incessantly stutters and lisps while babbling on about their love of model trains and kite building, the customers are likely to give web self-service another shot.

I often hear call center managers boast about how extensive their new-hire and continuous training is, but then when I ask them how they formally measure the effectiveness of each method and module delivered, they look at me like I’m drunk or crazy. Often I am both, but that doesn’t make my question any less appropriate or important.   

Developing and delivering training is only half the battle. Call centers need to regularly track training’s impact and success. Doing so not only ensures continuous performance improvement and maximizes the organization’s training investment, it gives call center managers tangible training data they can present at industry events and in publications to make their industry peers feel vastly inferior. And isn’t that the real reason why most of you got into this business in the first place?

Accurately tracking new-hire training effectiveness is not as easy as it sounds, which is why I merely write about top call centers rather than manage one myself. However, in my time snooping around the industry, interviewing experts and analyzing training success, I have seen a host of organizations that do a spot-on job of measuring the impact that training has on immediate and long-term agent performance.

Here are several ways they go about it:

Written training tests. Top call centers develop written tests on training material and administer them… 
  • Before actual training is provided – to measure base-level proficiency prior to training.
  •  Just after training is provided – to measure training comprehension and initial skill/knowledge absorption.
  • Weeks or even months after the training has been provided – to measure the impact of daily headset shocks and customer insults on long-term memory.

On-the-job training assessments. These are focused performance evaluations designed to measure the application of specific skills and knowledge that agents totally ignored during training. As with written tests, many call centers first conduct such assessments (via role-play or simulation exercises) prior to delivering training to gauge skill level before instruction. Soon after training has been delivered, the real on-the-job assessments are carried out – sometimes via role-play/simulations, but usually while agents are panicking on actual calls.

Specific assessments are also conducted periodically well after training has been completed – not just to gauge how well agents have retained and are applying the skills/knowledge in question, but also because many supervisors are sadistic and like to see even their most experienced agents tremble.

Agent feedback. Measuring training success isn’t all about post-training tests and assessment scores. How agents themselves feel about the training received is critical, too – or at least you should make them think that. Soliciting agent feedback after training can shed ample light on why certain elements of training fail while others fail worse.

The best call centers ask agents about: Which training programs and delivery methods they found most impactful and engaging; which programs/methods they found superfluous; and which ones made them throw up a little in their own mouth. Agent input is captured and tracked to help spot common trends in training effectiveness and common problems that detract from agent development – mostly the latter. 

Customer feedback. Customers’ comments on post-call satisfaction surveys, along with their furious rants captured on call recordings, can also be helpful in highlighting training successes and shortcomings.

Sharp managers pay close attention to customer input in areas for which agents have recently received training. For example, if an agent who has just completed a special module on courteousness/professionalism receives numerous comments from customers about how rude and abrupt the agent was on the call, the manager/supervisor then knows that the training was highly ineffective. However, it could also simply be that the agent in question is a sociopath, in which case he or she should be moved into the IT department immediately.

With call centers and customer care evolving so rapidly, it’s only natural that new types of jobs should start to emerge. Back in the 1980s and early1990s – when call centers were dungeons where supervisors whipped reps whose AHT was higher than desired – nobody could have pictured that centers would one day have an entire team dedicated to quality and customer satisfaction, or that it would be illegal to line cubicles with electric fencing.

These are exciting times for call center professionals who are serious about carving out a career -- one that doesn’t involve day-trading and/or exotic dancing on the side to make ends meet. A whole slew of new and rewarding customer care opportunities are on the horizon. Let’s take a peek at some of them, and then get our resumes ready:   

Chief Customer Silencer. I’ve always been a big proponent of “Voice of the Customer” initiatives, but some customers just need a little assistance in shutting up. That’s where the Chief Customer Silencer comes in.

The person in this high-profile, low-patience position is responsible for monitoring all contact channels and community sites, identifying frustrated and problematic customers, and reminding those customers that their health could take a sudden and dramatic turn for the worse if their incessant public complaints about the company don’t cease.

Ever wonder whatever happened to that guy who made the viral video about how United Airlines broke his guitar? My guess is that United got smart and hired a Chief Customer Silencer.  

When selecting a CSS for your organization, look for somebody with ample knowledge of social media monitoring and service recovery techniques, and who lives in New Jersey, Chicago or Sicily.  

Virtual Agent Secret Agent. Home agent programs are currently all the rage. And while most call centers that have embraced the virtual agent model have a solid selection process in place, there is no guarantee that their remote staff is abiding by all the rules and haven’t at least tried removing their house arrest ankle bracelet. That’s where the Virtual Agent Secret Agent comes in (though you may not know they’ve come in – they’re stealthy).

The VASA’s main objective is to gracefully gain access to a home agent’s house and secretly watch their every move – with the exception of bathing, which few home agents do anyway. VASAs aren’t there to micro-manage performance; that’s the job of the agent’s supervisor. Instead, they take special note of such things as whether or not the agent has changed their pajamas in five days, how often they make their little brother take calls while they nap, and how much they earn daily from selling customer account information to neighbors.     

To be effective, VASAs should be small, agile and have the innate ability to go completely unnoticed in a room, thus the ideal candidate is a life insurance salesperson with a ninja or jockey background. Check craigslist. 

Textpert. With text quickly catching up to voice in terms of how customers interact with companies, call centers need to seriously panic. Centers that are not adept at panicking do have a second option, which involves accepting the aforementioned shift in communication preferences and doing something about it. That’s where the Textpert comes in.

The Textpert is tasked with responding quickly, accurately and courteously to all customer emails, chats, SMS messages, social media comments/inquiries, hate mail and ransom notes. Exemplary spelling, grammar, professionalism and eloquence are all key requirements for this position, which rules out all human beings of working age in the modern era.

Service Saboteur. Numerous studies have revealed what has come to be known as “The Service Recovery Paradox,” which basically states that an effective recovery process following a bad service experience often results in higher customer satisfaction ratings than if the bad experience had never occurred in the first place. In other words, first you have to screw up before you can really impact customer loyalty. That’s where the Service Saboteur comes in.

The person in this important position is responsible for intentionally and strategically providing poor customer service so that the center’s Recovery Team can then swoop in and sweep customers off their feet. It shouldn’t be difficult to find qualified Service Saboteur candidates from you existing staff. Just pick from among your rudest, most apathetic and most incompetent agents, give them a new business card, and instead of reprimanding them every time they alienate or offend a customer, give them a pat on the back and a slight raise in pay.