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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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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The best managers realize a contact center cannot succeed without skilled, motivated and mostly sober agents manning the phones (and other contact channels). These managers work hard to develop and sustain hiring programs that ensure the front line is forever staffed with service stars who stick around for longer than the first pay period.

But I’m not here to talk about hiring success. When it comes to agent recruiting, assessment and selection, success is much less common than failure... and it's more fun to talk about the latter.

With that in mind, following are 15 signs your contact center’s hiring practices need work:

15) A common question among new-hires is whether their work schedule will interfere with their dog fighting competitions.

14) Your contact center recently underwent renovations to expand the exit interview room.

13) Candidates typically celebrate a job offer by firing off a few rounds of ammunition out back.

12) While playing hide-and-seek in your contact center, your eight year-old kid secretly answered several customer calls – and outperformed all your agents.

11) You’ve implemented a work-at-home agent program because most of your job candidates are under house arrest.  

10) Your average agent tenure is measured in minutes.

9) Your two most critical selection criteria when assessing agent candidates are “has a pulse” and “wears clothes.”

8) Your most effective recruiting method is begging.

7) Your best agent is your IVR system.

6) The final stage of your agent selection process involves a coin toss.

5) The top candidate from your last recruitment effort applied from federal prison.

4) You promoted the aforementioned candidate to supervisor his first week on the job.

3) Your most valuable applicant assessment tool is a drug-sniffing dog.

2) You hired the aforementioned dog as a team lead.

And the number one sign your contact center’s hiring practices need work is…

1) While reading each item on this list, you thought to yourself, “It’s funny because it’s true.”


For those of you looking for (slightly) more serious and insightful resources on agent recruiting and hiring, check out the following links to previous blog posts:

Active Agent Recruiting: Take Hiring by the Horns
Separate the Reps from the Replicas: Improving Your Pre-Hire Assessment Process
The First Key to Agent Retention? Your Hiring Program


There’s also an entire chapter dedicated to the topic of recruiting & hiring in my Full Contact book.





 
“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.

 
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.”


 
Managers today realize no contact center can succeed without highly skilled, engaged and (mostly) sober agents manning the frontline. In the best centers, the hiring program is handled less like an agent acquisition process and more like an agent retention tool. After all, taking the time to recruit and select the most qualified and committed candidates is one of the best ways to reduce costly negative attrition among the agent ranks. Rushing through the hiring process may enable you to quickly get bodies in seats to meet the center’s staffing requirements, but those bodies aren’t likely to stick around for long or perform well if you don’t first take the time to ensure that they are attached to heads that are filled with what it takes to succeed in a customer care environment.

I’ve worked with many contact center managers who boast about how their “positive corporate culture” and “powerful brand” results in job candidates lining up outside the door at all times. These managers don’t fear agent turnover too much because they know they have an endless supply of applicants itching to fill the void whenever a space opens up on the frontline. But what some of the managers fail to realize is that just because the line for jobs is long doesn’t mean it’s teeming with talent worthy of interacting with the organization’s valued customers.

Having a large pool of applicants to pick from provides an advantage only when the contact center has the tools in place to separate the real reps from the replicas. These tools include: a focused recruiting process that doesn’t miss alternative yet viable labor pools; proven screening and assessment techniques and technologies that identify which candidates possess the aptitude and attitude to succeed in the dynamic inbound contact center environment; and realistic job previews that show candidates exactly what the job entails so they can make an informed employment decision.  

In this economy, having swarms of a job applicants buzzing around at all times isn’t anything to brag about, and it certainly doesn’t indicate there’s anything special about your organization. If your agents are quitting despite the poor job market, then you definitely don’t have anything to brag about. And yes, agents will leave – regardless of the economic outlook – if they feel like they aren’t cut out for the job, can’t keep up with the persistent demands of customers, and/or discover that what the organization “sold” them during the recruiting and interviewing process isn’t at all reflective of the reality of the agent position.

What does give you bragging rights is having an entire team of agents who are committed to the mission and vision of the contact center and the larger enterprise, who are dedicated to resolving issues and delivering exceptional customer experiences, and who are eager to help bring others like them into the organization.

In my 18 years covering the contact center industry, I’ve seen those kinds of agent teams. I’ve seen them time and again, but only inside of organizations that view their hiring program as, first and foremost, a powerful retention tool.       

 
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.


 
Imagine a world in which customer service agents spoke their mind on every call. What if, instead of always trying to soothe angry and abusive customers with forced empathy, agents voiced how they really felt?

How interesting it would be if such scripted statements as “I understand your frustration” were replaced with such authentic ones as “It’s probably just karma.” How exciting things would get if, in place of “I’m going to do everything I can to rectify this problem,” agents instead said, “I make $7.50/hour, sit in a cubicle the size of a gym locker, and have worked the last 17 weekends in a row – go ahead, Mr. Johnson at 105 Elm St., I dare you to scream at me again.”

True, customer satisfaction and loyalty would likely take a vicious dip, but so would agent turnover. Several studies haves indicated that contact center employees who are encouraged to freely express themselves at work are more productive, more engaged and less likely to burn customers in effigy while chanting passages from the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Think about it, most of your agents currently do the “right” thing by offering empathy and understanding to irate callers, only to be berated and lambasted by the customer anyway. The end result? High employee burnout/attrition in addition to the already existent low customer satisfaction. By empowering agents to fire back at furious callers, you at least win one of the two battles.   

And just think of the entertainment value for those in your contact center who are tasked with evaluating calls for quality purposes. QA staff would get plenty of healthy, stress-reducing comic relief while listening to customer-agent interactions such as the one featured below:

Agent: Thank you for calling Narcissist Fitness Customer Care. My name doesn’t matter. How can I help you?

Caller: I’ve called you stupid people twice already asking you to cancel my membership. Why are you still charging my credit card!?

Agent: Could you please yell a bit louder, sir? That way the folks in Membership will hear you directly and I won’t have to go through the trouble of processing your request.

Caller: Are you getting smart with me?

Agent: Oh, no sir. I couldn’t even if I wanted to. You were right before  – we’re all quite stupid here.

Caller: I want to speak to your supervisor this instant!

Agent: No you don’t – he’s even dumber than I am.

Caller: Listen, cancel my membership once and for all! And stop sending me your annoying monthly fitness newsletter – it’s paper-wasters like you who are destroying all the forests.

Agent: Oh good, you’re concerned about the environment. In that case, you really shouldn’t cancel your membership. You wouldn’t believe all the paperwork involved.

Caller: I can’t believe this! I’ve never been treated like this in all my life!

Agent: Thanks.We’ve been getting a LOT of attention for our customer service lately.

Caller: If you don’t cancel my membership today, I’ll do everything I can so that you lose your job!

Agent: Good luck, sir. I’ve been doing everything I can to lose my job for months now, to no avail.

Caller: Knock it off! I’m not playing around here. You’d better cancel my…

Agent: Okay, okay. Let me bring up your account. Can I have the last four digits of your Social Security Number please?

Caller: 7322

Agent: Can you please confirm your last name?

Caller: Pierce

Agent: Thank you. Let’s see here – ah, there’s the problem.

Caller: What is it?

Agent: Your cancellation request was denied.

Caller: What are you talking about? How can you deny my cancellation request?

Agent: Well, when you signed up, I see you listed the following as your main goals: “Lose 50 lbs”, “increase muscular strength”, and “improve cardiovascular condition”.

Caller: Yeah, so?

Agent: Have you achieved those goals?

Caller: Um, not exactly.


Agent: Of course you haven’t – you’ve only been a member for two months. That’s why we aren’t letting you cancel your membership yet. We really want to see you succeed!

Caller:[click]


 
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.

Wrong!

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.