Off Center
There are few better times for call center professionals to over-indulge and act happily insane than during Customer Service Week (October 3-7). It’s our own special week of the year to shine and celebrate, and to punch people in Marketing without getting in much trouble. I personally spend the entire week hooked up to an IV that pumps Red Bull into my system 24 x 7 while I run around shouting “Customer service ROCKS” from the rooftops – unless I’m lucky enough to land a speaking gig that week, in which case I do the same thing from behind a podium.

The past few years, however, the struggling economy has put a serious damper on many companies’ Customer Service Week celebrations. Some forsake the week entirely, claiming they just don’t have the budget to throw CSW parties or provide staff with any special rewards or recognition.

That is such a crock. There are plenty of ways to embrace CSW and show your frontline employees just how valued and appreciated they are when they aren’t screwing up. Following are just a handful of ways to do CSW right – without having to bust open the piggy bank or search through agents’ pockets for loose change.

Remove agents’ ankle monitors. While having agents wear ankle monitors to ensure they never leave their workstation for any reason makes sense most of the time, it can be a little demoralizing during CSW. So why not free your agents of their electronic shackles as a gesture of appreciation? Doing so will let them know you value and trust them – at least for five days in October each year. And it won’t cost the call center a dime, unless of course your agents take advantage of their newfound freedom and abandon their shift during peak periods to catch a matinee at the mall.

Use candy to reward the non-abuse of customers. I once worked as an agent, so I know how challenging it can be to get through an entire call without swearing at or hanging up on the customer. Since CSW is the perfect time to reward and recognize notable achievements and to be nice to customers, consider giving candy to agents who somehow find the strength to not abuse callers for a day or two during the week. Such an incentive is a win-win: Customers won’t have to endure as much agent vitriol as usual; and agents – if successful in their attempts to not openly disgrace callers – will get to enjoy shorter shifts due to their sugar-induced coma.

Wield a softer whip during coaching. Another effective and affordable way to demonstrate your respect and admiration for agents during CSW is to strike them with less force when delivering post-call feedback. Since it can be difficult to train coaches and supervisors to snap their whips more softly than they’re accustomed to, it’s a good idea to replace the center’s normal chain whips with more agent-friendly leather ones.

While CSW is a time for joyous celebration, it’s important for agents to realize that the use of a softer whip is not a permanent change, but rather a special treat reserved for a special week. Make sure they understand that full-force floggings during coaching sessions will resume the second the clock strikes midnight on October 7, which is also when they’re ankle monitors should be re-attached.

SPECIAL CUSTOMER SERVICE WEEK OFFER:  Speaking of special treats, from now until the end of Customer Service Week (Friday, Oct. 7), I'm offering 30% off on all OFF CENTER goodies, including: the Full Contact ebook (; the State of Home Agent Staffing special report (; and all Contact Center Tunes ( To take advantage of this limited-time offer, be sure to enter the following discount code when purchasing any of the items mentioned: csw2011

Happy Customer Service Week!

Many of you probably read the title of this post and thought, “Oh great, another rant from some self-important rabble-rouser who feels he has to constantly question authority and shake things up.”

That was my intention, at least.

I know, I know, there’s enough negativity in the world as it is, what with the lagging economy and the cancellation of All My Children. But I feel that I must express my angry views on several irksome issues and trends that currently plague the call center industry – not just because I feel they are detracting from our collective success, but also because I crave attention.

Overly decorative terms for frontline staff.  There has never been a universally accepted term in our industry for the “folks on the phones”. Agent. Rep. CSR. Associate. I don’t really have an issue with this per se, but I do feel that some call centers have taken things too far – using such terms as “Customer Contact Engineer”, “Headset Hero” and “Service Level Soldier” to describe frontline staff.

Instead of trying to make agents feel important by giving them ostentatious monikers, try making them feel important by paying them what they are worth and installing a window or two in the call center.

I encourage creativity, just not in this instance. If I write an article on your call center and you ask me to change “agents” to “Customer Ambassadors” in the final draft, I might just have to take a swing at you.

Deceptive conference session (and webinar) titles. While attending an industry event a few months ago, I sat in on a session whose title caught my attention in the conference brochure: “10 Surefire Ways to Obliterate Agent Attrition”. Sounded pretty exciting, but when the speaker opened his presentation with a complex mathematical equation to calculate turnover and some motivational quotes from his high school guidance counselor, I knew he wasn’t going to deliver.

Using deceptive session titles to attract conference (and webinar) attendees is unfortunately becoming the norm in our industry. Therefore, I recommend we create a law that requires all sessions to have short, unappealing titles like, “Quality Monitoring: An Important Thing”, or “Agent Training: Why Not?”. This will help to lower attendees’ expectations and increase the chances that the speaker will make it back to his or her room without being flogged by fruit.

An unhealthy obsession with “best practices”. How do you get 100 call center professionals to jump off a cliff? Tell them it’s a best practice.

I must get 20 emails a week from managers and supervisors who want to know what’s “best practice” (or “industry standard”) for things like service level objective and call abandon rate. I used to try to explain to such people that industry-wide best practices don’t exist, but they threatened to harm me and my family if I didn’t help. So now I just make up answers to appease them and get back to my nap. My standard response is: “Every world-class call center I have ever encountered answers 108% of calls within three seconds and has negative 1.7% abandonment. They also require all agents to wear Lederhosen on Fridays.”   

My advice is for you to ignore so-called “best practices” and instead focus your attention on determining what is best for your specific center based on what your specific customers and agents want and expect. But if you don’t want to take my advice and choose instead to continue your mad quest to uncover as many best practices as possible, then purchase my ebook – it’s chock full of them:

Call centers are notorious for their less than inspiring (and often even damaging) facility design and aesthetics. Companies expect agents to efficiently provide exceptional customer experiences, yet house said staff in buildings that even maximum-security penitentiaries would deem drab and dangerous.

There has been so much focus in recent years on the evolution of call center technologies and channels, companies have failed to notice that their actual call center facilities are stuck in the Industrial Age. The poorly designed physical environment in which agents work often leads to chronic vision problems, back pain, wrist issues, and phalangeorbitosis – the uncontrollable urge to repeatedly poke oneself in the eye during calls and while on breaks.

Research shows that effective interior design, spatial dynamics and ergonomics result in employees who are committed to customers rather than to hospitals or asylums. Below are several examples of call center facility design innovation – based on interviews with several thought leaders in this area, as well as a few weird dreams I’ve had recently.

Strobe lighting. While traditional facility design experts say that indirect lighting is best in call centers (as it reduces glare and soothes nerves), the most progressive in the facility design community now believe that strobe lighting – with its rapid-fire flits and flashes – has the biggest impact on agent effectiveness and enthusiasm.

By creating an atmosphere more typical of a 1970s disco club or modern-day techno party than an office environment, strobe lighting shocks staff out of their workplace apathy and complacency and tricks them into thinking that there is excitement in their everyday lives. The result is a more vibrant frontline whose renewed energy can be felt by callers, thus enhancing customer satisfaction and loyalty. Sometimes agents will even bust out funky dance moves.

What about the long-term effect on agents’ nerves? Proponents acknowledge that strobe lighting will undoubtedly wreak havoc on your staffs’ frontal lobes and limbic systems, but so will listening to customers complain and swear all day, so you might as well create a fun party vibe to assuage the misery.

Stackable workstations. The traditional approach of grouping agent workstations in clusters, pods or simple rows is fine, but it takes up a lot of unnecessary space and provides little opportunity to reward deserving agents with prime seating. That’s why forward-thinking design specialists have started recommending stackable workstations for call centers. Following this innovative approach, the workstations of the center’s lowest performers are placed at ground level, the workstations of the moderate performers are stacked on top of them, and the workstations of the top performers are placed above everybody. A ladder can be used to gain access to the middle and upper levels, or, if you’d like to whip agents into shape, a climbing rope may be substituted.   

It all forms a sort of “who’s a star and who sucks” performance pyramid that occupies much fewer square feet than traditional phone floors (though may require much higher ceilings). And since nobody wants to endure the shame and disgrace of being on the bottom level for very long, all agents will strive to continually improve in hopes of climbing to a more respectable level. Further, centers that embrace the stackable workstation design will find that their best agents are rarely offline, as the risk of a fatal fall will keep them glued to their seat.

BREAK rooms. According to numerous studies, angrily breaking objects that have nothing to do with why you are angry is the number one way to keep from killing customers or coworkers. Such findings have inspired many call centers to replace such hokey stress relief tactics as squeezy balls and Xanax placebos with BREAK rooms – dedicated areas where agents can go and destroy everything in sight after handling a difficult call, enduring a harsh coaching session, or receiving their paycheck.  

A typical BREAK room should include lots of easily replaceable windows, plenty of old computer monitors, and paper mache replicas of every manager and supervisor.

I’d love to hear some of YOUR innovative facility design ideas. Feel free to share them in the form of a comment below. (Serious ideas only, though – this topic is nothing to joke about.)

There are those in our industry who shy away from answering the most pressing and challenging questions regarding call center management. Then there is myself, who probably should.

But it’s not going to happen today.

Below are three of the most common queries amongst today’s call center and customer care professionals, followed by my comprehensive responses. In composing said responses, I drew from years of call center research, case studies, expert presentations and conversations with industry leaders. But mostly I drew from a bottle of Shiraz.   

1) What are the most important metrics we should measure?  While every company and customer base is a bit different, there are a handful of critical metrics that all call center managers need to embrace. Service Level (SL), Contact Quality (CQ), Customer Satisfaction (C-Sat) and First-Call Resolution (FCR) are certainly among the most important. However, topping the list is probably Manager Sanity (MS), and the closely related Supervisor Sanity (SS).

The reason behind this is you cannot ensure that your call center is accessible and that reps are performing at peak levels if you have completely lost your mind. Studies have shown that all other key call center metrics take a hit whenever a manager or supervisor comes into the center wearing nothing but a propeller beanie and carrying a briefcase full of cheese.    

It’s important to continually gauge your MS/SS level by self-administering a Rorschach inkblot test twice daily. If you find that all the inkblots look like Gregory Peck or a man driving a giant turnip, you are a danger to yourself and others and should be removed or restrained immediately. If you find that all the inkblots look like customers coming at you with a pitchfork and torch, you are fine.     

2) What is the best way to reduce agent turnover? This may come as a surprise, but my thoughts on agent retention tend to go against conventional wisdom. Most experts will tell you that to hang on to staff you need to empower them, continually reward and recognize them for their efforts, and create a highly positive culture in your call center.


Many centers do all those things and still lose their best agents to the Marketing department or an outside company three weeks after training. The best way to reduce – nay, eliminate – agent turnover is through a combination of fear tactics and massive bureaucracy. The next time one of your agents gives you their two-week notice, show them a picture of a workstation with a giant grease stain on the carpet, and tell them: “This is what happened to the last rep who tried to leave.” If by chance, the threatening photo doesn’t shake them and they still insist on quitting, tell them all they need to do is fill out a 20-page “termination request” form in triplicate with their weak hand, in Sanskrit. Then inform them that the processing of such requests takes anywhere from 4-13 years.  

3) Just how big of an impact will social media have on call centers and customer service? Social media is set to have a huge impact on the future of call centers and customer service – unless we do something to stop the onslaught right now. It’s hard enough just trying to manage customer calls, emails, chats and self-service transactions; if we let social customer care plow on through, we will all perish.  

So, we must band together as an industry and “just say no” to social customer care. This includes not only refusing to monitor activity on or offer customer support via social sites, but also helping to kidnap the handful of call center leaders whose organizations are actively engaged in such activities, as they are raising customer expectations and demands for the rest of us.

In addition, we need to silence all the vendors who pedal and promote social customer care-related products/services, as well as stop all the trade pubs and analysts from publishing articles/reports about social customer care. To assist in this matter, I’m working on creating a pill that, when force-fed to a solutions provider, will make them think that they are living in 1998 – when relatively harmless CRM hype ruled the day. 

If we work together and do all of these things, we’ll be able to limit social media to what it was originally intended for: Tweeting about which Starbucks you just stopped at; bitching about the weather, and spreading the word about how my Off Center blog has changed your life.

NOTE: If you are interested in receiving an even higher level of customer care insight, you won’t have trouble finding it elsewhere.

When I came into this industry as an eager young journalist way back in 1994, the call center wasn’t sexy. It wore a frumpy dress, horned-rim glasses and sensible shoes. It was sturdy and reliable, but by and large was overlooked by the rest of the organization. Sure, there were some inbound centers that handled sales in addition to customer service, but few generated enough revenue to get invited to sit and eat at the popular kids’ table.

The call center helped plan the school prom, but rarely if ever got asked to go to it.

That was then. This is now. In today’s ultra-competitive business climate where there exists so much parity in available products and offerings, the differentiating factor is often the service and support the customer receives. Customers have tons of viable choices when it comes to which product to buy, what account to open, what policy to purchase, what airline to fly, and what hotel to sleep in. What typically tips the scales today and keeps these customers loyal for life is not what they see during a television ad, or read in a magazine, or hear on the radio; nor is price alone a determinant factor. No, what turns a potential or existing customer into a company advocate is what they experience when they contact your organization:

·      How long do they have to wait in queue when calling to reach a live agent?
·      How long do they have to wait to receive a response after sending an email or initiating a chat session -- or, gulp, firing off an angry tweet.
·      Once reached, how friendly, empathetic, engaged and knowledgeable is the agent, and how quickly is the agent able to provide the information needed?
·      How easy is it to use your IVR and web self-service apps (when self-service is what the customer chooses)?
·      How personalized is the overall experience when interacting with the agent/application in question?
·      How adept is your company at anticipating the customer’s needs?
·      How accountable is your company when it has made a mistake or fallen short of customer expectations?
·      How much does your company care about the customer?
·      How much does your company care about itself?

As you can see, the contact center – or the call center, or whatever you want to call this place where millions of customers interact with your company – not only has an impact on customer loyalty and overall business success; it has perhaps the biggest impact.

And let’s not forget the impact that the contact center has internally on the rest of the enterprise. No other area in the company has the capability to capture even a fraction of the data, expectations, desires and behavioral trends of customers – who are, in essence, the lifeblood of any organization. Once captured and shared within the enterprise, such invaluable information and insight makes Marketing, Sales, Research & Development and plenty of other departments a collective force to be reckoned with.

And the beauty of it all is that the contact center hasn’t let its increased power and popularity go to its head. It doesn’t strut around talking about its importance and value; rather it works very hard at demonstrating it. And it doesn’t ask for all the credit whenever lilting customer satisfaction is converted into lifetime customer loyalty, nor when revenue shoots through the roof due to highly consistent and positive customer experiences.

No, it doesn’t ask for such recognition; but unlike in years past, it’s starting to get plenty of it.

And deservedly so.

Note: This post was taken from the closing chapter of my book, Full Contact: Contact Center Practices & Strategies that Make an Impact. To learn more about Full Contact, check out the following link: