Off Center
 
“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.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

4) Kick agents out of the call center. Other than threatening agents with serious physical violence if they quit, giving agents the opportunity and the freedom to work from home is the best way to retain them. In fact, in a study on call centers with home agents in place that I conducted this past spring, nearly every participant (93%) reported that the use of home agents has had a “very positive” or “positive” impact on agent retention. If you think I’ve been drinking and am just making this up, check out the key findings from the report – or better yet, purchase/download a copy of it – by clicking here: 
http://goo.gl/6hfQt

5) Invest in agent wellness. I blogged about this a few months ago (
http://goo.gl/L3VFk), but feel compelled to mention it again here after visiting several call centers recently and witnessing incidents of repetitive stress injuries, insanity and cannibalism among agents. Fact: If you show agents you care about them by providing things like fitness amenities, healthy food options, de-stress areas and wellness courses, they will not only stay healthy and perform better, they will feel highly valued by and committed to the organization. If, on the other hand, you make no effort to improve wellness in the call center, agents WILL eat one another, thus making it difficult to schedule enough staff during peak periods.

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

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


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