Off Center
 
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When you spend 90% of your workday alone inside a cubicle tethered to a workstation handling an endless stream of calls, emails, chats and tweets from demanding customers, it’s tempting to start looking for the exit.

Isolation, immobility and stress are inherent aspects of the agent position. They come with the contact center territory. It’s not uncommon to hear agents cite one or more of these issues as their reason for quitting, or use them as an excuse for why they pulled all of their hair out and/or lit their workstation on fire.

That said, the contact center and the agent position certainly aren’t all gloom and doom. I’ve seen more than my share of centers where agents love what they do, wear authentic smiles on their face, and rarely if ever carry out acts of arson. And a big part of this is the fact that these centers – in addition to having good hiring and training as well as fair and feasible performance objectives in place – do a lot to instill a sense of camaraderie and team among staff.

Following are five tactics I’ve seen managers use to foster agent cohesion and fend off the burnout and attrition that runs rampant in our industry:         

1) Create clusters of comrades. No, I’m not talking about starting an underground communist cell in your contact center; I’m talking about sitting new agents next to or near others from their training class. Solid bonds form among staff during new-hire orientation and training, and keeping these agents physically close lets them start off their job on the phone floor with a high level of comfort and kinship. Naturally, you can’t sit every single agent from the same new-hire training class next to one another, but certainly you can manage to keep clusters of new colleagues close. Two or three over here on this team, two or three over there with that team – with at least one or two experienced agents right nearby to help out the rookies when they get overwhelmed (or to help pull them apart when they cling to one another during a scary spike in call volume).

2) Implement team and center-wide incentives. Many contact centers focus too much on individual achievement when it comes to their rewards & recognition initiatives. When awards are given only to top individual performers, feelings of frustration and even resentment often develop among those who worked hard and did well but didn’t win. Creating some team-based incentives for things like Contact Quality, FCR, Revenue, Attendance, etc., gets agents from the same team working together and rooting for one another rather than just gunning for an individual plaque or trophy. Include a few center-wide incentives as well – ones that get every agent in the contact center working together toward a common goal. For example, tell agents that if the center raises its C-Sat rate by the end of the month, everybody gets a lunch voucher. Or tell them that if they exceed the center’s Adherence to Schedule objective, the center will do away with its plans to install an electric fence around the phone floor.
  
3) Empower agents to reward and recognize peers. Yeah, I know I just got finished touting the importance of team-based incentives, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with individual rewards & recognition – especially when it's given to agents by agents. Peer recognition is a great way to engage and empower staff and build camaraderie. Agents notice their coworkers doing great things all the time – things that supervisors and managers don’t always see or hear. Not every award-worthy act is captured via quality monitoring or performance reports or hidden cameras. Give agents the authority to formally recognize peers whom they witness going above and beyond with customers or fellow agents. Let them present said peers with spot awards like gold stars, trophies, badges or Xanax pills. Your agents will love the feeling of empowerment, the extra attention, and one another. 

4) Form agent-led task forces and project committees. Agents like collaborating with colleagues almost as much as they like getting stuff from them. The best contact centers I’ve seen continuously strengthen agent bonds and the center’s processes by letting agents serve on key task forces and committees. These agents get to use their combined experience and insight to help the center improve hiring and training, reduce unnecessary calls, enhance desktop tools, and extinguish workstation fires. The time spent offline together and the collective sense of accomplishment (but mostly the time spend offline together) does wonders for increasing agent morale and camaraderie.          

5) Organize fun activities and social events. As much as they love working under florescent lighting while surrounded by flashing readerboards and corporate motivational posters, agents still like to get out of the contact center once in a while. Whether it’s an impromptu barbecue just outside your facility or a carefully planned night out, give your agents opportunities to interact socially – sans headset and away from their workstations. I know of many centers that arrange happy hours every Thursday or Friday for agents fortunate enough to have their shift end before the price of booze goes up. While you may not be able to organize a social activity or event that includes ALL agents, you can offer a variety of options at different times and on different days to make sure that everyone gets a chance to be gregarious. Some centers let agents themselves take charge of the social planning, thus adding an element of empowerment to the merrymaking and bond-building.

What kinds of things do YOU do in YOUR contact center to help foster agent camaraderie and keep staff from spontaneously combusting? Share you ideas and experiences in the "Comments" section below.

(This post originally appeared on the “Productivity Plus” blog put out by the very good people at Intradiem.)


 
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I grew up in a Jewish family, but have always welcomed and even embraced several Christmas traditions – particularly those that involve getting stuff. Even as a kid celebrating Hanukkah, part of my personal eight-day festival featured a stocking hung from the menorah with care. (Hanging a large fuzzy sock from a lit candelabra does require care.)

To this day, I still insist that my family fill my stocking with little goodies for each day of Hanukkah. As a result, I haven't been invited to my parents' home for the holidays since 1990.

It's not just me – everybody loves stocking stuffers. So why not carry the tradition over to your contact center? Just imagine the positive impact it could have on agent morale and retention; agents might even remain on the job through January. That said, agents shouldn’t be the only ones getting goodies. Consider implementing a center-wide stocking strategy, where everyone – agents, supervisors and managers – all get a stocking filled with stuff to help them do their job better.

Here are some stocking stuffing suggestions for the various roles in your contact center:
 
For Agents

Ibuprofen. These lovely anti-inflammatory pills will help each agent minimize the common aches and pains associated with sitting and typing for long periods, shaking one's head vehemently in disbelief, and jumping from atop one's workstation with neck in noose. The little plastic bottles the pills come in can double as mini-maracas, which agents can shake during slow periods to celebrate the brief reprieve from customers.

Headset Barbie. I believe that this version of the popular anorexic doll is set to hit the market any day now. In recent beta tests with agents, the talking doll got rave reviews, particularly for her ability to overcome rejection and to think outside the box. Your agents will have a blast playing with Headset Barbie between calls – picking up valuable tips on how to continue smiling through adversity and how to maintain a golden tan despite working nine-hour shifts in a room with no windows. Headset Barbie comes with several replaceable parts, including wrists, lower back and larynx.


For Supervisors

Coaching Ken. Headset Barbie's suave supervisor – complete with monitoring form, distressed facial expression, and a Kung Fu grip to assist in agent retention – is currently being piloted in a contact center in Malibu. He promises to be a hit with real supervisors, as well as with frustrated agents who are into voodoo. Additional accessories include a miniature helium dispenser for blowing up tiny morale-boosting balloons, an ugly Hawaiian print shirt for casual Fridays, and more tiny morale-boosting balloons.

Safety flares. The same little devices that alert fellow motorists of a roadside accident when visibility is poor are great tools for supervisors, who can use them in several ways. First, whenever call volumes spike, supervisors can light up a flare to alert agents who are on break or outside playing with their Headset Barbies to get their butts back to their workstations. Flares can also be used to publicly recognize staff for outstanding performance/commitment. For instance, supervisors can light one up next to an agent who just achieved a perfect quality monitoring score, or next to an agent who just surpassed the three-week period of consecutive employment. 


For Managers

Contact center camouflage. What manager wouldn't be thrilled to find in their stocking special materials that enable them to remain unseen? After all, to last as a true leader in the challenging contact center environment, one needs the courage and ability to hide at critical moments. Properly applied body paints and other camouflage material enable managers to remain unseen not only by brash executives seeking explanations for the center's exorbitant operating costs and lackluster performance stats, but also by pesky agents who feel they have a right to know why their standard cubicle has been replaced by a much smaller one constructed of styrofoam. The best contact center camouflage materials include clothes made entirely out of gray industrial carpet, hats with plastic ferns growing out of them, and blue or black paint, which blends in nicely with the morale of frontline staff and supervisors.
 
A pocket-sized Acronym-English/English-Acronym dictionary. Very few managers are fluent in Acronym, which can truly hinder their ability to know what the hell vendors, consultants and authors of white papers are talking about. Acronym is already the official language of contact center elitists, and several studies suggest that any manager serious about succeeding and/or looking cool in this industry will need to become highly proficient in this new language. An Acronym-English/English-Acronym dictionary, which can be found in the abbreviated language section of most major bookstores, makes for a perfect gift. Go for the pocket-sized version, as the standard version will never fit inside a manager's office let alone his or her stocking.


Feel free to share some of your ideas for contact center stocking stuffers in the comments section below. Oh, and one more thing...

                      HAPPY HOLIDAYS!



 
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While I usually cover contact center best practices and innovation in this blog, today, in keeping with Halloween, I’ve decided to highlight what scares the pants off of most customer care professionals (and what scares the pants back on those who work from home).

Forget about witches, ghosts and goblins – here are some things that are really scary if you manage a contact center:

Rampant agent turnover. It’s positively frightening to think that the average contact center has an annual turnover rate of nearly 40%, and that, according to the human capital management firm CallMe! (that really is their name), the average turnover cost per agent is upwards of $4,000. This means that in a typical 100-seat contact center, agent turnover costs roughly $160,000 – every year. Evidently many organizations are so paralyzed by fear of such exorbitant figures, they are physically unable to create the kind of positive culture that would cause said figures to plummet.

Disengaged agents interacting with your customers. Even scarier than agents leaving are agents who stick around – but who couldn’t care less about your company or its customers. Just because agents show up and sit at their workstations everyday doesn’t mean they are truly present, and THAT can cost you even more than actual turnover. When agents aren’t engaged, empowered and focused on the job, the unnecessary callbacks, long caller rants and customer defection could end up forcing your center to implement a 100% work-at-home initiative – because your company soon won’t be able to make rent.   

Managing Millennials. Millennials tend to be highly creative and tech-savvy multi-taskers who enjoy working in a collaborative manner. Nothing actually scary about that – unless you are a contact center manager or supervisor who only knows how to lead and develop people whose learning styles and communication preferences are just like yours. If that’s the case, your attempts to engage the typical Millennial will be a horror show featuring a lot of carnage – or at least a lot of burnout and attrition.

Social customer service. Just when you thought you had a handle on all the channels and that it was safe to go back into the contact center, social customer service entered the scene – bringing with it a new kind of terror. Now your center has to respond not only to customers who contact you directly (via phone, email and chat), but also to those who express their issue and mention your company name via Twitter or Facebook. And if you don’t respond to the latter customers – or if you respond in an unsatisfactory manner, everybody and their mother gets to see as the PR nightmare plays out. 

Big data. The vast amount of customer information today’s contact center is able to capture is amazing – and scary as all get-out if the center doesn’t have a way of structuring, analyzing and strategically acting on the data. If you thought finding time to monitor each agent a few times a month was hard, try finding time to make sense of the millions of pieces of customer intelligence flying around the contact center stratosphere. Fortunately, there have been real advances in interaction analytics and data-mining to help centers slay the big bad data monster, but many customer care organizations have yet to invest in or tap the full power of said technologies, and thus must continuously face the fear of being swallowed up whole.    

The power of the home agent model. This one may seem a bit out of place, but the power of the home agent model is scary. What else do you know of that, once implemented, has the power to vastly improve such critical things as: agent engagement and retention; agent performance and attendance; contact center staffing/scheduling flexibility; facility expenses; disaster recovery; and the environment? It’s natural to be in awe of such power, even a little frightened. But what’s REALLY scary is the fact that not every customer care organization has embraced the home agent model despite all the huge proven benefits. I guess they are deathly afraid of success – or of happy agents.


What scares YOU about customer care and working in a contact center? Share what makes you shudder and shiver in the ‘Comments’ box below.

Oh yeah, and HAPPY HALLOWEEN!



 
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Customer Service Week is once again upon us (starting Monday, Oct. 7), and contact centers everywhere – at least those that actually care about customer service and their agents – are getting ready to celebrate.

The key to an effective CSW celebration is to party just hard enough to show agents how appreciated and valued their work is, but not so hard that it interferes with the very service you are celebrating. Rewarding staff with tequila shots can greatly diminish service levels and cause agents to pass out during customer interactions before first-contact resolution is achieved.

Following are 20 fresh ideas that are almost but not quite guaranteed to make your Customer Service Week celebration a success:
 
1. Officially change the name of the contact center to “The Customer Love Hut”.

2. Give each agent a special comb that fixes ‘headset hair’.

3. Get rid of all the shackles, cattle prods and any other devices used to enforce agent adherence.

4. Replace “Dress-Down Friday” with “Undress Monday”.

5. Pay some actors to play your company’s executive team and have them visit the contact center to thank staff for their great work.  

6. Install a Xanax dispenser in the breakroom. And in the restrooms. And at agents’ workstations.

7. Offer agents free treatment for Xanax addiction. 

8. Walk up to each workstation and personally tell every agent how extremely important they are to the organization. If you have too many agents to do that, just tell your top performer.

9. Let agents work in their underwear or pajamas for the week to make up for senior management rejecting your proposal to implement a home agent initiative.

10. Remove the ‘Calls in Queue’ display board from all the bathroom stalls.

11. Give each agent one “Get Out of Call Free” card for use during an interaction with a highly annoying/abusive customer.

12. Permit agents to take one free swing at their supervisor during a coaching session.

13. Give out an “I’m Dedicated to Service” badge to any agent who has stuck with the job for more than 48 hours.

14. Install thick padding on all workstation desks, walls and computer monitors to protect agents against head injuries.

15. Wait till the week after CSW to tell everybody the center is being outsourced.

16. Give each agent a fresh new supply of the paper clips they use to cut themselves on paydays.

17. Instead of hanging pictures of your top-performers on the wall, hang your actual top performers on the wall to give them a well-deserved break from the phones. 

18. Give each agent three baseballs to throw at a senior manager perched in a dunk-tank. Better yet, forget the dunk-tank.

19. Present each agent with a commission check for all the revenue they’ve saved the company by not telling customers how they really feel.

20. Officially change agents’ title to “Customer Engagement Officer”. Tell your company’s actual CEO to deal with it.

I’d love to hear YOUR fresh ideas for celebrating Customer Service Week. Feel free to share them in the 'Comments' area below.
 
Special ‘Customer Service Week’ Offer from Off Center
In the name of all that is customer servicey, from now through Customer Service Week I’m offering a whopping 50% off the regular price of my Full Contact book on contact center best practices, as well as all of my ‘Contact Center Tunes’ song parodies. To receive your discount, be sure to type in the following code in the ‘Discount Code’ box provided when you are making your purchase: csw13

This offer will end at midnight ET on Sunday, October 13, so act soon! (Now would be good.)


 
The next time your contact center is in need of a consultant, look no further than your phone floor.

The best centers I have worked with in my 20 years in the industry don’t view their agents as merely ‘the folks on the phones’ but rather as highly insightful internal consultants – individuals who know better than anyone what processes, practices and improvements are needed to provide optimal customer experiences and increase operational efficiency.

Such contact centers get better and better – and retain agents and customers longer and longer – by empowering staff to serve as…   

Recruiting & Hiring consultants. Nobody knows what it takes to succeed on the contact center firing line better than the people who man it everyday. Smart centers solicit agent input to enhance recruiting and the applicant selection process. This may entail having them help develop ‘ideal agent’ profiles, provide suggestions for behavioral-based interview questions, interact with and evaluate candidates, and/or create job preview descriptions or videos (that give applicants a clear view into what the agent position is really like). It may also involve having agents sneak into neighboring contact centers to kidnap top talent.

Training & Development consultants. Agents know what skills and knowledge they need to create the kind of customer experience one usually only reads about in corporate mission statements or sees in dreams. Creating a training & development task force and including on it a few experienced agents – as well as a couple of not so experienced ones – is a great way to continuously close knowledge gaps and shorten learning curves. Agents will gladly tell you what’s wrong with and missing from new-hire training, ongoing training, one-on-one coaching and the center’s career path (assuming one even exists). Only by actively involving frontline staff in the training & development process can a contact center become a truly dynamic learning organization.

Quality Monitoring consultants. One of the best ways to keep agents from being afraid of or resistant to your quality monitoring program is to actively involve them in it. Agents will hate monitoring and you a lot less if you…
  • ask them to help develop/improve the center’s monitoring form and rating system
  • let them self-evaluate their performance prior to having a supervisor provide feedback/coaching
  • allow them to take part in a peer monitoring & coaching initiative
  • collaborate with them when creating development plans during coaching sessions
  • give them a chance to “coach the coach” by asking them to evaluate how effective their supervisor is at rating calls and providing feedback. 
 
Technology consultants. While you probably don’t want to have your agents designing the actual systems and software your center uses, you definitely do want to have your agents sharing their ideas and suggestions regarding what tools they need to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the service provided to customers. Agents’ two cents on desktop applications, knowledge bases, scripts and workflows can be invaluable for decreasing handle times and increasing first-contact resolution rates. In addition, agents often know what’s wrong with the center’s IVR system and web/mobile self-service applications (because customers constantly tell them), thus they can provide input that leads to a reduction in the number of unnecessary calls, emails, chats and death threats agents must contend with.

Rewards & Recognition consultants. Empowering agents to enhance the rewards and recognition they receive may be akin to letting your partner pick out her/his engagement ring, but hey, it’s all about making people happy and keeping them from running into the arms of another. I know of a lot of contact centers that ask agents for input on incentives and contests, individual and team awards, and how they’d like to be recognized. Many centers have even implemented peer recognition programs where agents themselves get to decide who is most deserving of special accolades and attention. Managers and supervisors still need to show plenty of their own initiative with regard to rewards and recognition, but collaborating with agents in this area goes a long way toward elevating engagement and performance.

Do you treat YOUR agents like consultants? Feel free to share some of your experiences and suggestions in the Comments section below.

(A slightly different version of this piece originally appeared as a guest post on the ‘Productivity Plus’ blog

put out by the very good people at Intradiem.)


 
“Why is morale so low?”
“Why can’t we hang on to our best agents?”
“Why do we lose so many new-hires during or right after initial training?”
“Why are some of our agents carrying around voodoo dolls, and why am I suddenly experiencing such sharp pains in my face and back?”

If you often find yourself asking one or more of the above questions, it’s likely due to one or more of the following issues:

1) The metrics you measure (and enforce) are killing agents' spirit and the customer experience. Your agents bought into the “customer-centric” culture you sold them during recruiting and came on board excited to serve, but then the center started slamming them over the head with rigid Average Handle Time (AHT) objectives and Calls Per Hour (CPH) quotas their first day on the phones.

Focusing too strongly on such straight productivity metrics – and punishing agents for not hitting strict targets – kills agents' service spirit and compels them to do whatever is necessary to keep calls short and to handle as many as possible. This includes rushing callers off the phones before their issues are resolved, speeding through after-call work and making costly mistakes, and even occasionally pressing “release” to send unsuspecting customers into oblivion. You need to start emphasizing metrics like Contact Quality, Customer Satisfaction, First-Call Resolution, and Adherence to Schedule (the latter is a productivity-based metric your agents actually have control over). Do so, and you’ll be surprised how things like AHT and CPH end up falling in line anyway. Oh, and better do it soon – before your agents AND your customers decide to leave your company in the dust.   


2) Your quality monitoring program emphasizes the “monitoring” much more than the “quality”. Your supervisors and/or QA team are too focused on your internal monitoring form and not enough on how customers actually feel about the quality of the interaction they recently had with your center and agent. All agents see are subjective scores and checkmarks on a form that is likely better suited for measuring compliance than quality.

To get agents to embrace the quality monitoring process, let them have some input on what the form should contain, and, even more importantly, start incorporating direct customer feedback/ratings (from post-transaction surveys) into agents’ overall quality scores. For some reason, agents prefer it when a customer – rather than a supervisor – tells them how much their service stunk. Who knows, some agents might even try to improve.


3) Your contact center doesn’t fully embrace a culture of empowerment. Your contact center has failed to recognize and/or act on the fact that agents possess a wealth of insight, and know your customers better than anyone. It’s time to start empowering agents to use that insight and knowledge to improve existing processes and come up with new ones. This is probably the best way to continuously better the center while simultaneously making agents feel respected and valued. You’ll be amazed by the positive impact their ideas and suggestions will have on operational efficiencies, revenue and customer satisfaction. And because empowerment greatly increases engagement, you should see a big reduction in agent attrition and arson attempts.   


4) Coaching & training continuously get buried beneath the queue. Agents are eager to continuously develop and add value, but your overworked supervisors can’t find the time to stay on top of coaching and ongoing training. Your center needs to begin exploring feasible and effective ways to fit coaching and training into the schedule, such as using “just in time” e-learning modules, creating a peer mentoring program, and empowering agents to take on some supervisory tasks – which will free supervisors up to conduct more coaching and training while still giving them time to go home and visit their families on occasion.  


5) Agent rewards & recognition programs are uninspired – or non-existent. You’re merely going through the motions in terms of motivating and recognizing staff – futilely hoping that such stale incentives as cookies, balloons and gold stars will get agents to raise the roof performance-wise. It's time to revamp your agent rewards & recognition programs with proven approaches like: a Wall of Fame that pays tribute to consistent high performers; opportunities to serve on important committees or task forces; nominations for external industry awards for agents; fun happy hours where agents get to socialize and receive public praise for their concerted effort; and inspired events and contests during Customer Service Week and National Kiss Your Agents on the Mouth Day.     


6) You're handing the wrong people a headset. Maybe you are actually doing all the positive things I’ve suggested thus far, and are STILL struggling with low agent engagement and retention. Well, then you may want to take a close look at your recruiting and hiring practices. Regardless of how well you train, empower and reward staff, if you are attracting and selecting sociopaths and others who aren’t cut out for contact center work or your company culture, you’ll never foster the level of agent commitment or performance that’s required to become as good a customer care organization as your customers demand and deserve.   


A slightly different version of this post originally appeared on the “Productivity Plus” blog put out by the very good people at Intradiem.

 
By guest blogger, Matt McConnell

If doing the same thing 50-75 times a day sounds intellectually stimulating, stop reading.

Still there? Since many of you may have begun your career as contact center agents, you probably know how monotonous the job can be. As a manager, there are many things you likely already schedule to break up the agent’s day periodically. Things like training and team meetings along with activities like special projects. (Whether they actually happen or not is a different story.) But what else can agents do in between calls that don’t have to occur at a specific time?


Consider putting together a list like the one below to build variety into your agents’ days. Happy agents make happy customers, so read on for ideas to end up with both:

1.    Development. How satisfied can you be if the customer knows more than you do by the time they make it through multiple channels before reaching you with a complex problem? Ensure your agents get the communications, training and coaching they need to do their jobs well.

2.    Social Media. Certify agents to support customers or even just interact on behalf of your brand via social media to liven up their day and take your service to where your customers are.

3.    Customer Community. If you have a customer community, send your agents to mingle and help. If agents participate in your customer community via an assigned task, not only would you alleviate boredom, you could end up turning idle time into call avoidance.

4.    Back Office. The customer experience involves the whole enterprise. Help alleviate back office backlog, elevate the customer experience and provide variety by delivering back-office tasks like application processing, fax communications, and processing returns to agents during call volume lulls.

5.    Welcome Calls. Give your agents the opportunity to take a customer call without a “problem” attached to it, and start your customer relationship off with warm fuzzies.

6.    Game Time. Games can keep agents engaged, especially Generation Y agents. If you’re planning to incorporate gamification into your center, make sure you give your agents time to earn their badges, kudos and bragging rights.

7.    Peer Awards. What if agents received reminders to nominate their peers for awards? Doing something nice for someone else can improve one's mood, and on the receiving end, recognition from one's peers can mean a lot.

8.    Fitness Breaks. Give agents a chance keep their body and mind healthy by giving them a fitness break. A walk around the grounds could be just what’s needed to break up the day and get a healthy boost of energy to bring to the next call.

Most call center leaders want to make the center a better place to work for their agents, but time is tight, and service levels rule the day. High attrition and low agent engagement don’t have to be the norm, however. You do have options if you’re willing to challenge some of the accepted methods and manual processes around intraday management. Even with all the maneuvers workforce management does when staffing and call volume don’t quite match up with your forecasts, 85% occupancy equates to 17 hours of idle time a month. Automating intraday management allows your workforce management team to re-purpose that time so that your agents can take a break from calls to improve your customer experience, your center productivity and your agent retention. 



About Matt McConnell: Matt is chairman, president and CEO of Intradiem. Matt co-founded Intradiem in 1995 with a vision of helping companies increase the level of customer service they deliver by improving the performance of their agents. Today, Intradiem is a leader in intraday management technology with more than 450,000 agents and managers around the world using Intradiem every day.


 
Contact Quality. C-Sat. First-Call Resolution. Adherence to Schedule. These are just a handful of the metrics the best contact centers fully embrace.

Here’s another one: Corporate Social Responsibility.

In our industry, “CSR” usually refers to the people handling customer contacts, not the social good the organization does. Nevertheless, if you want to raise the level of engagement among the former, it’s very wise to raise the level of commitment to the latter. You see, CSRs LOVE CSR.

If you don’t believe me, ask them. Studies and companies’ engagement surveys consistently show that agents want to work for an organization that cares just as much about the community as it does about the customer. They want to see that “Service Level” refers to more than just how accessible the center is to callers. And they want to play an active role in reducing not only complaints and handle times but also homelessness and hunger.

That’s exactly what companies like travel insurance provider Allianz Global Assistance have found.

“We have a comprehensive Corporate Social Responsibility program that provides opportunities for all [contact center] agents to become involved,” says Daniel Durazo, Director of Communications (USA) for Allianz. “Our CSR program is well liked by our agents, and the community recognizes us as a responsible corporate citizen.”

Among the CSR initiatives and activities that Allianz’s contact center agents, supervisors and managers participate in include assembling food kits to be sent to hungry families in developing nations, volunteering at Ronald McDonald house, painting houses for Elder Homes, and more. In addition, whenever an employee gives a donation to their favorite charity or non-profit organization, Allianz matches it.

Another customer care organization that views CSR as a key metric – and has seen the hugely positive impact on agents – is global contact center outsourcer TELUS International. (TELUS was recently recognized as the most philanthropic corporation in the world by the Association of Fundraising Professionals.) Since 2007, TELUS team members have volunteered thousands and thousands of hours of service to build sturdy and affordable homes in villages in The Philippines. In addition to helping with construction, team members regularly volunteer in the villages to help run livelihood programs, teach lifestyle skills and English, and host children’s recreational activities. TELUS team members’ volunteer efforts in Latin America are equally impressive, with the focus being namely on children and education (e.g., helping to construct schools).  

Certainly, the most important things to come out of such noble philanthropic efforts is the improved standard of living in the aforementioned impoverished communities, but in keeping with the topic of this article, I need to point out the positive impact of TELUS’ CSR efforts on CSRs. According to TELUS President Jeffrey Puritt, since the organization started fully embracing Corporate Social Responsibility, “attrition in all of our contact center programs has dropped, employee satisfaction indexes have increased, employee engagement scores have increased, and we are now considered a ‘Top Employer’ in both Latin America and the Philippines.”

Puritt acknowledges that TELUS’ CSR initiative isn’t solely responsible for all these improvements, but points out that it definitely has had a significant and direct impact.

“By opting to make CSR an important component of the contact center, we believe there are huge dividends for all involved,” says Puritt. “And although our daily focus needs to remain on the key metrics of our business, like C-SAT and FCR, there are many ways to inspire great performance. Corporate Social Responsibility efforts are truly a positive path to success.”


 
The big thing these days is to become the sort of company where job applicants would step on their best friend to get a foot in the door. There’s even a formal label for such organizations – "Employer of Choice®" – a label that can only be acquired by completing a grueling certification process established by Employer of Choice, Inc.

Don't worry, I'm not here to make you think that your contact center is inadequate because it isn’t EOC certified. After all, I'm sure that there are plenty of other reasons why you think your contact center is inadequate. I'm here to help you realize that attaining the official EOC stamp of approval isn't nearly as important as stealing the blueprints for success that the EOC's governing body created to enable organizations to continuously attract, acquire and retain the highest caliber employees.

Fortunately for you, I recently got my hands on said blueprints, and have summarized them below. Follow them, and your center will become just as attractive an employer as an official EOC organization. And with the money you'll be saving by forgoing the certification process, you'll be able to help bail me out of prison for copyright infringement.

1) Create the image that your company is well respected and forward-thinking.
While your contact center doesn't have total control over how the public perceives your company as a whole—there is one thing you as a manager or supervisor can do to promote your center’s and organization's strength and identity to capture the attention of applicants: Hire an outside advertising agency.

Be sure to contract with an ad agency that specializes in making corporations somehow seem hip and progressive. Specifically, you want to look for agencies with expertise in creating company mascots that ride a skateboard. This will help to attract youthful and exuberant Gen-Nexters and Gen-Yers, as well as emotionally stunted but possibly skilled Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers. Attracting and retaining agents is all about marketing.


2) Create and sustain a positive contact center environment.
Talented applicants seek employment in companies with a positive, healthy environment. Therefore, you have a ton of work to do. First, you will need to make sure that all current agents get along with one another, as any hints of dissension or division among the employee ranks will certainly frighten off prospective candidates. Top contact centers ensure employee harmony by creating strict policies prescribing mandatory group hugs and forbidding any agent to express his or her honest opinion about any peers or supervisors. Some of the more innovative centers also provide top-grade anti-depressants in each restroom.


3) Focus on effective leadership.
Studies have shown that employees want to work for leaders who are accessible, communicative and sensitive to factors influencing success; however, other studies have shown that studies about what employees want are worthless. What employees really want in a leader is just enough insanity to make the leader fun to be around and work for, but not so much insanity that he or she could be mistaken for an IT director.

Thus, in order to attract and retain the highest quality agents, have the contact center director do playfully crazy things like shave his/her head after staff meet a critical performance objective, or perform an impromptu rap about how he/she values the frontline nearly as much as his/her golf clubs.


4) Care for and nurture agents. Employees want to work for organizations that respect a healthy work/life balance, emphasize wellness for employees (and their families), and that have flexible policies regarding where, when and how people work. Thus, employees are in for a lot of disappointment.

It’s important to politely explain to agents that there is no way that your company could exhibit all those caring qualities and still make a huge profit. After you explain this, give each agent a lollipop and a hug and tell them everything is going to be okay, as long as they get back to their workstation immediately and start handling calls.


5) Show agents the meaning and value of their work.
Employees want not only to be cared for and nurtured; they also want to feel a strong sense of purpose in their jobs. Get creative to help show candidates and new-hires just how meaningful the agent position is. Point out that, without agents, headsets would merely sit on desks and acquire dust and possibly mold that could be dangerous to the environment. Also inform candidates that, if it weren’t for contact centers and agents, incidents of Carpal Tunnel syndrome would drop drastically and, thus, have a severely negative impact on the salaries of orthopedic surgeons and their ability to pay their kid’s boarding school tuition.


6) Provide opportunities for agent growth and development.
Employees want to know that there is ample room for advancement in their contact center career. That's why leading centers have made a concerted effort to create and publicize career and skill paths featuring numerous cool job titles that distract agents from the fact that they still must work in a cramped cubicle far from any windows or proper ventilation.

Top centers are experts at recognizing whenever an entry-level agent is burning out, and remedy this by changing his or her title to “Elite Customer Care Specialist Extraordinaire” and then featuring a photo of him or her wearing a suit and carrying a leather briefcase in the weekly newsletter.


7) Get creative with compensation. There isn't as much room for innovation in this area as there is in many of the others, but employers of choice find ways to get creative with compensating staff. These centers go beyond merely adhering to compensation benchmark studies and/or paying agents exactly what nearby and competing centers pay theirs. Instead, they give agents what they are worth to their particular organization – often paying a compelling premium for agents who:

·      Don’t report OSHA infractions, such as faulty headsets that administer electric shocks, or cubicles made out of asbestos.
·      Can handle all contact channels (phone, email, Web/chat, social media) with only minimal medication.
·      Are dedicated and flexible enough to work six weekends a month.

Of course, many centers are restricted by lean budgets, and thus can’t pay agents a very large premium for such special skills and attributes. The most forward-thinking among these organizations make up for this by making compensation itself fun. Some centers, for example, place agents’ paychecks at the bottom of a giant vat of melted chocolate, then have agents dive in and search for theirs. Other centers give agents the choice of either having their paycheck electronically deposited into their bank account or used to help pay for a case of domestic light beer.


8) Focus on making a difference.
Employees want to feel that they are a part of something much larger than themselves or their cubicles. Some of your employees may already find that being a contributing member of a successful customer care enterprise already fully satisfies that need, especially if your recruiting and hiring efforts target people who have recently banged their head.

Most employees seek to contribute to much more than just the organization’s bottom line or customer satisfaction rate; they want to work for organizations that strive to make a real difference in the local community and the world at large. A prime example is an employer of choice contact center I know of in Miami that donated money to a non-profit organization that provides clothes to underprivileged locals. Then, once the center realized that the underprivileged locals in Miami were way over-dressed, management decided to start donating the previously mentioned funds to an non-profit organization whose aim it is to take clothing away from underprivileged locals in Miami and give it to underprivileged people in Minsk.



 
The contact center industry has historically been plagued by high employee turnover. Particularly problematic (and expensive) is early agent attrition – new-hires quitting soon after the contact center has spent ample time and resources recruiting, assessing, training and greasing them up to fit inside their cubicle.

While some early attrition can be attributed to poor candidate selection, often rookie reps exit because they get rushed through orientation and initial training then thrown to the customer wolves. Or, in some cases, they receive plenty of coddling and coaching during orientation/training, and then wonder where all the love suddenly went once they’ve earned their headset.  

To help ease rookie agents into the challenging and dynamic customer care environment without the use of mood-altering drugs, many top contact centers have implemented an “extended on-boarding” initiative. Such initiatives spread the transitional phase out over several weeks or months to help foster a strong sense of preparedness and belonging among new staff, resulting in higher levels of engagement and fewer incidents of them vanishing into thin air.

Following are several key components of a successful “Extended On-Boarding” initiative:

“Transition” training. After their trainees complete a couple weeks (or more) of classroom training, many contact centers send them to a special phone bay (or “nesting area”) to take basic calls while being closely monitored and carefully coached by a supervisor (or multiple supervisors, if the training class is particularly large). After a week or so in the bay, trainees may head back to the classroom to enhance their skills and to learn how to ignore the urge to punch customers. Following another stint in the nesting area taking live calls, successful trainees are moved to the official phone floor while their less successful peers are moved to a mental institution.

“Transition” training, as it has come to be called, not only helps to shorten learning curves by providing plenty of practical experience, it works wonders in raising comfort levels among new hires, who love the extra care and attention they get before getting torn to shreds on a daily basis by customers with much more complex problems. 


Peer mentoring. Effective agent on-boarding doesn’t end with initial training. Top contact centers continue to show new-hires the love after “graduation” by pairing them up with an experienced agent trained to assist and inspire. Having a peer nearby to help rookies through tough calls, peak periods and panic attacks is a surefire way to fend against early attrition and help new-hires thrive in what can be an overwhelmingly fast-paced environment.

In addition to raising the retention and performance levels of new hires, peer mentoring has the added benefit of enhancing engagement among the center’s frontline veterans (which can be infectious), who enjoy sharing their knowledge, taking on more of a leadership role, and having somebody to fetch their coffee in the morning.

 
Social events. Even with peer mentoring in place, feelings of isolation and alienation are common among agents, who must spend most of their time tucked inside a cubicle handling (or waiting to handle) customer contacts. Smart contact centers recognize this, and thus organize frequent events and gatherings aimed at strengthening relationships, elevating morale, and getting agents drunk so that they'll accept weekend shifts. Examples of such practical social activities include team luncheons, bowling outings and barbeques. During these events, managers and supervisors should introduce and encourage interaction with the center’s newer team members, and inform the newer members if they have any food stuck in their teeth.


Specialized satisfaction surveys for new(ish) employees. Just because this isn’t a common practice doesn’t mean it’s not a good one. Administering an “on-boarding satisfaction” survey to agents after 60 or 90 days on the job enables the contact center to gauge the level of engagement among newbies and act quickly on feedback to help prevent early attrition and aggravated assault on supervisors. Agents’ input and suggestions also help the center to improve the overall on-boarding process to ensure high levels of retention and low rates of murder among the next group of new-hires that roll through.

Many managers say that the very act of soliciting such feedback from new-hires helps to increase morale and retention, as it shows them that the organization truly values their opinion and is committed to improving hiring, training, brainwashing and other processes aimed at setting them up for success.