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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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.

 
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.