Off Center
When you are burdened with a mind as manic as mine, having your own blog can be dangerous. Fortunately, I’ve trained my internal editor to out-muscle my internal madman, thus ensuring the only posts of mine that make it to the public domain are those that are truly fit to print – at least in my eyes.

You’ve seen how quirky some of my previous Off Center pieces have been, so you can only imagine how unsettling and odd some of the posts that didn’t make the final cut were.

I have neither the space nor the gall to include the actual text of the aforementioned scrapped posts, and you haven’t the time or the stomach to read them. However, I thought you might be interested in knowing some of the titles.          

Blog Bits that Died on the Chopping Block

-Ensuring Effective Self-Service: When You Care Enough to Not Talk to Customers

-Three Tweets to the Wind: How Social Customer Care While Under the Influence Can Enliven Your Brand

-Whatever, YOU Are: Dealing with Abusive Callers

-Micromanagement Is the New Black

-The Art of Coercion in Agent Coaching

-I’m Okay, You’re Okay – the Problem Is Those Freaking Callers: How Customers Ruin Things for the Rest of Us

-Enhance Call Center Aesthetics by Letting Your Ugliest Agents Work from Home

-Agent Diapers: An Innovative Approach to Increasing Call Center Productivity  

-Rev-Up Employee Retention: Make Agent Attrition Grounds for Termination

-Laughing at Irate Callers: The Intrinsic Power of the Mute Button

-Best Practices in Best Practice Practices

-We’re All Going to Die Someday: Putting Low Service Levels into Perspective

-UFATEC: Using Fewer Acronyms to Enhance Communication

I’m always looking for blog topic suggestions from outside contributors that I can reject. Feel free to leave some of your more intriguing ideas for future posts in the comment box below.

If you stick a human being in a cramped cubical, tether them to a desk and pay them $9.50/hr to handle calls from demanding customers for 8-10 hours each day under fluorescent lighting…

…bad things are bound to happen. Bad things like burnout, poor performance, turnover, substance abuse, and most commonly of all – supervisor kidnappings.

Ever since the invention of the call center, companies have struggled mightily with keeping agents inspired and in place. What’s truly disconcerting is that, in many organizations, low agent retention and engagement is in some ways part of the plan. That is, they view burnout and turnover as the “nature of the beast” in the call center – accepting it as inevitable due to the repetitive, restrictive and stressful “nature” of call center work.

Of course, not everybody has such a defeatist attitude. In the best call centers, management strives to change (or at least tame) the nature of the beast. While they do acknowledge that frontline work is challenging and potentially monotonous, they also recognize that there are countless ways to counter that – to inspire agents not just to show up to work but to excel at it, and to relinquish any spray paint, drugs or weaponry in their possession before coming through the door.

I know this because I have seen it first hand, time and again – at leading customer care organizations during my nearly two decades sneaking into call centers and conferences.

So how exactly DO the best call centers achieve high levels of agent engagement and retention? Let me count the ways – seven of them, at least:

1) Put your metrics where your mouth is. When your company tells everybody in the world that it’s a highly customer-centric organization focused on quality and issue resolution, you can’t then tell your agents (whom you attract with such proclamations) that their main performance metrics are Average Handle Time and # of Calls Handled per Hour. Doing so will quickly sap staff of their enthusiasm and trust, thus resulting in high turnover, poor customer satisfaction and your head getting mounted on the CEO’s wall.

2) Provide meaningful rewards and recognition. When it comes to motivating agents, you don’t have to break the bank, but if you write off rewards and recognition entirely – or go at it half-assed – agents may break their computers, or your legs. There are plenty of fun, affordable and meaningful ways to reward/ recognize individuals and teams when they achieve key goals or come to work sober more than two days in a row. I talked about a few of these in a previous post:

3) Empower agents beyond the phones.  Your agents possess a wealth of skills, knowledge and experience – assuming your center’s hiring and training programs don’t blow. Empowering staff to use their expertise and experience to come up with better ideas and approaches than you can think of yourself is a great way to better the center while simultaneously making agents feel like they didn’t make a mistake by dropping out of high school. In addition to improving processes and employee morale and retention, having agents help out on committees, task forces and special projects frees you up to spend more time on things like coaching and online poker.      

4) Kick agents out of the call center. Other than threatening agents with serious physical violence if they quit, giving agents the opportunity and the freedom to work from home is the best way to retain them. In fact, in a study on call centers with home agents in place that I conducted this past spring, nearly every participant (93%) reported that the use of home agents has had a “very positive” or “positive” impact on agent retention. If you think I’ve been drinking and am just making this up, check out the key findings from the report – or better yet, purchase/download a copy of it – by clicking here:

5) Invest in agent wellness. I blogged about this a few months ago (, but feel compelled to mention it again here after visiting several call centers recently and witnessing incidents of repetitive stress injuries, insanity and cannibalism among agents. Fact: If you show agents you care about them by providing things like fitness amenities, healthy food options, de-stress areas and wellness courses, they will not only stay healthy and perform better, they will feel highly valued by and committed to the organization. If, on the other hand, you make no effort to improve wellness in the call center, agents WILL eat one another, thus making it difficult to schedule enough staff during peak periods.

6) Covet community service as much as customer service. People are inspired by and want to work for companies that care about all human beings – not just customers and employees. You are much more likely to hang on to talented staff if you can show them the reason their wages are so laughable is that half of what they should earn goes toward feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and rehabbing former child TV stars. Also, be sure to give agents a few paid days off each year to volunteer for their favorite charity/non-profit organization; the time off the phones will help to minimize their whining about back pain and Carpal Tunnel flare ups.      

7) Administer formal engagement surveys – and act on the findings. The very act of measuring agent engagement can help to increase it – but only if agents see that the 15 minutes of their life they wasted filling out the engagement survey actually leads to some positive changes. You can’t ask a child if he wants a piece of candy and then not give him a piece after he says “yes” – as tempting and fun as doing so might be. When gauging agent engagement, be sure to use a reputable third-party surveying specialist or, if you don’t have the funds, just use the Ultimate Agent Engagement Survey I created and shared in a blog post a few months ago:

Regardless of what my wife says, I DON’T think it’s “all about me.” I’d love to hear about some of YOUR ideas for increasing agent engagement/retention in the call center. (Use the comment box below.) Just don’t write too much – I refuse to be overshadowed.   

You can’t be a good contact center coach if you habitually tell the truth and speak your mind. As infuriating as it can be to witness agents repeatedly making blatant mistakes when serving customers, that aggravation must be converted into something positive, polite and constructive when it comes time to provide feedback.

Gone are the days when you could just hit an agent with your shoe or send a mild electric shock through their headset whenever they provided sub-par service. That is so 2007. These days if you want to foster continuous agent improvement and engagement, you have to keep your shoes on and provide a nurturing environment where praise flows freely and where friendly pointers – rather than sharp pokes – are provided regularly to help close performance gaps.

Some of you have already mastered the art of controlling your temper and your tongue during coaching via the use of relaxation exercises and prescription tranquilizers. Many others, however, still haven’t quite gotten the hang of how to express yourself to bonehead agents in ways that won’t get you fired or arrested.

I’m here to help. Below are some acceptable translations for what you really feel like saying to staff during coaching sessions.

What you feel like saying: “Your customer service skills make me want to learn how to box. Three callers this week have requested that we remove your larynx. Unfortunately, that would limit you to handling only email and chat, which isn’t really an option either since you don’t know how to spell or use punctuation.” 

Acceptable translation: “I see some areas where we could make you an even stronger rep. This will be good for you and for our customers. There might be a real opportunity for you to join our e-support team – we just need to focus on improving the order in which you place your letters and your breaks when typing responses.” 

What you feel like saying: “You are a horrible person.I’ve seen more tenderness and care demonstrated by lions eating a baby gazelle. Next time a customer calls crying, don’t complain that their sobbing is really bumming you out. Your job is to ease their concerns and let them know you understand how they must feel, NOT to ask them if they have any scotch nearby or to suggest they call back after your shift has ended.”      

Acceptable translation: “You could be among our top performers if you worked on your empathy skills just a little. Try to imagine that each caller is your mother or, if you happen to hate your mother, a frightened orphan. You have the power not only to solve sad and angry callers’ issues, but also to bring them comfort and make their day – even more than alcohol can.”

What you feel like saying: “You couldn’t sell a spray-tan to Paris Hilton. That last customer was practically asking to be up-sold, but you evidently are allergic to revenue. I think you may have a real future as a toll-booth operator, as you have a natural talent for sitting on your butt and idly watching customers pass by.”    

Acceptable translation: “You get high marks for friendliness and courtesy on the phones; now we just need to get you more comfortable with uncovering customer needs and helping our contact center be less poor. Effective selling is actually a part of customer service, as you are providing solutions that make the customer’s life easier. In doing so, you earn a little extra money and reduce the chances of suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning in a metal and glass box one day on some freeway.”  

What you feel like saying: “You are the rudest, most pretentious and self-centered employee I have ever had the misfortune of supervising.”

Acceptable translation: “Have you ever considered becoming VP of Marketing?”

Please let me know how helpful this blog post was, on a scale of 10 to 10.

A comprehensive transaction-based customer satisfaction (C-Sat) measurement process is essential for any organization hoping to keep its finger on the pulse of customer sentiment and its hand in the pocket containing the customer’s wallet. By “transaction-based” I mean the process involves a post-contact survey designed to captures customers’ ratings and feedback immediately following an interaction with the call center. And by “comprehensive” I mean that at least one of the call center’s managers has been hospitalized while trying to get the C-Sat survey design and measurement process just right.

Many organizations claim to effectively measure C-Sat, but merely go through the motions. For instance, rather than use a post-contact survey, it’s not uncommon for call centers to rely on internal quality monitoring to gauge customer sentiment and satisfaction. That’s sort of the equivalent of having a chef or waiter decide whether or not diners have enjoyed their meal.

Other centers may use a post-contact survey – even a well-designed one – but have made the C-Sat measurement process all about numbers/percentages rather than about analysis and action. Managers in these centers are completely content with their enviable 85%-90% C-Sat rate but haven’t a clue as to how such numbers relate to loyalty or revenue, or why the remaining 10%-15% of customers are itching to sucker-punch agents in the gut.

Here are several of the common practices I’ve seen in call centers that know how to focus on the “customer” and “action” in “customer satisfaction measurement.”

Timely and concise post-contact surveys. Leading call centers use one of three preferred C-Sat survey methods: 1) automated (IVR) phone survey; 2) live phone survey; and/or 3) email survey. Each method enables centers to receive customer feedback immediately or very soon after the customer/agent interaction in question occurs, thus ensuring that the feedback is accurate (assuming the customer didn’t start drinking heavily before/during the call).

All three are viable post-contact survey methods, though each does have its distinct advantage(s). For instance, automated phone surveys can be easily conducted before the caller disconnects, thus increasing survey participation rates and providing particularly timely feedback. While live phone surveys are typically more expensive and time-consuming, the live person conducting the questionnaire can ask customers to elaborate clearly on certain answers and  threaten customers with physical harm when they rate their experience too harshly.

As for how many questions C-Sat surveys should contain, top call centers typically ask no fewer than 4-5 questions, and no more than 7-8 questions. Make your survey too short and you fail to gather sufficient data for spotting key trends and uncovering customer needs/expectations. Make your survey too long and customers will abandon them like your agents did their dream of earning a living wage.

What types of questions should be included? The best post-contact C-Sat surveys ask customers to rate how satisfied they were with their overall service experience, the agent’s knowledge, and the agent’s professionalism/courtesy – as well as whether or not the customer’s issue was resolved. It’s not a bad idea to also include a Net Promoter Score (NPS) type of question, as NPS was first introduced in a Harvard Business Review article and thus must be important.

Real-time alerts to help recover highly dissatisfied customers. Smart call centers have designed their survey systems to provide immediate alerts whenever customers compare their service experience unfavorably to undergoing a root canal procedure without Novocain. Such alerts enable companies to attempt a service recovery callback in an effort to regain the customer’s loyalty and credit card number. Naturally, the sooner the recovery team is alerted and responds to an aggravated or infuriated customer, the better are the chances they will be able to “recover” the customer, or at least get him to drop his weapon and come down from the water tower.

Many customers will tell you that the mere act of being contacted personally regarding their recent dissatisfaction is often enough to make them forget how angry your company made them. Of course, sometimes more is required – such as a free offer or upgrade – to repair the damage and sustain a positive relationship with the customer, who may be considering seeing other call centers.

It’s not them. It’s you.  

Use of C-Sat data to provide better, more personalized service and offerings. When handled correctly, the wealth of customer feedback and data captured each day via C-Sat surveys drives continuous improvement and customer loyalty. Careful evaluation of survey results reveals what customers like, dislike and despise about your company, your products, your agents and, most importantly, your on-hold music. Root-cause analysis can help uncover common problems with processes, workflows and performance that can be easily fixed by firing everybody in your IT and Training departments.

In world-class call centers, the actual C-Sat score is far less important to management than is identifying opportunities to keep customers from going to the competition or going insane. That’s not to say that these managers aren’t proud of their high C-Sat average, or that such results don’t occasionally inspire them to do a jig in their office when nobody’s looking or to brag about their impressive rate when drunk at conferences. However, throughout all the jig-dancing and bragging, these managers never lose sight of the fact that C-Sat is not just some stat to be measured, but rather a sentiment to be understood – and acted upon.

Feel free to leave a comment, especially one that makes it look like I know what I'm talking about.