Off Center
 
Sometimes the best coaching in the contact center comes from folks who don’t even work there.

As experienced and proficient as your supervisors and team leads might be at providing feedback on how agents can improve, it’s your customers’ direct comments that often have the biggest impact on agent development.

This is not to suggest that agents don’t require and value feedback from their superiors as well as from experienced peers, but there’s something about hearing things straight from the customer’s mouth that causes agents to really stand up and take notice. (Just make sure they don’t stand up for too long – they might end up out of adherence.) Having your supervisor tell you that you need to work on your empathy doesn’t hit you quite the same way as reading “The agent I spoke to had all the charm of a morgue attendant” on a survey completed by a customer you recently interacted with. Where agents may occasionally feel a supervisor’s or QA specialist’s take on their performance is subjective and unfair, there’s no arguing with the “voice of the customer”.

Some contact centers have modeled their entire quality program around the “customer as coach” concept. The North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) is one such center. The NTTA uses a VOC/performance management tool that enables the contact center to efficiently capture agent-specific customer feedback across all contact channels. Supervisors then share this feedback with agents to identify behaviors and skills that need improvement as well as those worthy of positive recognition. The center’s agents can access the system themselves whenever they want to view direct customer feedback on recently handled contacts. As much as 50% of the feedback received by agents following a monitoring session and during annual reviews comes directly from customers.

The NTTA’s agents wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Agents love the initiative,” says John Bannerman, Assistant Director of the NTTA’s Contact Center. “They get far more positive feedback from customers than a supervisor would have time to provide for their entire team on a daily basis. This provides encouragement and motivation for agents to continue doing things well, and makes them more willing to accept suggestions for improvement.”

Whether you share customer comments taken from post-contact surveys, emails/letters sent from customers, customer’s direct conversations with supervisors/managers (following an escalated call, etc.), or from gas station bathroom walls, those words can do a whole lot to engage (or wake up) agents and drive them to overcome challenging performance barriers.

Your customers are much more than just potential revenue sources lined up in a virtual queue; they are viable contact center coaches. It doesn’t matter if they know this or not – what matters is that you do.



 
Last week in Part 1 of this post, I cited several quality monitoring practices commonly embraced by the world’s best contact centers, then stopped midway through in a desperate attempt to make you come back to my website this week.

Here we go with Part 2. I hope the wild anticipation didn’t cause you to lose too much sleep.
 
Incorporate customer satisfaction ratings and feedback into monitoring scores. Here is where quality monitoring is really changing. This shift in quality monitoring procedure is so important, it’s underlined here – and just missed getting typed out in ALL CAPS.

Quality is no longer viewed as a purely internal measure. Many contact centers have started incorporating a “Voice of the Customer” component into their quality monitoring programs – tying direct customer feedback from post-contact surveys into agents’ overall monitoring scores. The center’s internal QA staff rate agents only on the most objective call criteria and requirements – like whether or not the agent used the correct greeting, provided accurate product information, and didn’t call the customer a putz. That internal score typically accounts for anywhere from 40%-60% of the agent’s quality score, with the remaining points based on how badly the customer said they wanted to punch the agent following the interaction.


Add a self-monitoring component to the mix. The best contact centers usually give an agent the opportunity to express how much he or she stinks before the center goes and does it for them. Self-evaluation in monitoring is highly therapeutic and empowering. When you ask agents to rate their own performance before they are rated by a quality specialist (and the customer), it shows agents that the company values their input and experience, and it helps to soothe the sting of second- or third-party feedback, especially in instances when a call was truly flubbed.

Agents are typically quite critical of their own performance, often pointing out mistakes they made that QA staff might have otherwise overlooked. Of course, the intent of self-monitoring sessions is not to sit and watch as agents eviscerate themselves – as much fun as that can be – but rather to ensure that they understand their true strengths and where they might improve, as well as to make sure they and your quality personnel are on the same page. Self-evaluations should cease if agents begin to slap themselves during the process, unless it is an agent you yourself had been thinking about slapping anyway.


Provide positive coaching soon after the evaluated contact. Even if you incorporate all of the above tactics into your monitoring program, it will have little impact on overall quality, agent performance or the customer experience if agents don’t receive timely and positive coaching on what they did well and where they need to improve. Notice I said “timely” AND “positive” – this is no either/or scenario: Giving agents immediate feedback is great, but not if that feedback comes in the form of verbal abuse and a kick to the shin; by the same token, positive praise and constructive comments are wonderful, but not if the praise and comments refer to an agent-customer interaction that took place during the previous President’s administration.

At the end of each coaching session during which a key area for improvement is identified, the best centers typically have the coach and the agents work together to come up with a clear and concise action plan aimed at getting the agent up to speed. The action plan may call for the agent to receive additional one-on-one coaching/training offline, complete one or more e-learning modules, work with a peer mentor, and/or undergo a lobotomy.


Reward and recognize agents who consistently deliver high quality service.  While positive coaching is certainly critical, high-performing agents want more than just a couple pats on the back for consistently kicking butt on calls. Top contact centers realize they must reward quality to receive quality, thus most have some form of rewards and recognition tied directly to quality monitoring results. Agents in these centers can earn extra cash, gift certificates, preferred shifts and plenty of public recognition for achieving high ratings on all their monitored calls during a set month or quarter. In some centers, if an agent nails there quality score during an even longer period (six months or a year), they may earn a spot on the center’s “Wall of Fame”, and perhaps even the opportunity to serve as a quality coach who can boss around their inferior peers.

To foster a strong sense of teamwork and to motivate more than just a select few agents, many centers have built team rewards/recognition into the fold. Entire groups of agents – not just the center’s stars – can earn cash and kudos for consistently meeting and exceeding the team’s quality objective over a set period of time. Such collective, team-friendly incentives not only help drive high quality center-wide, they help protect the center’s elite agents from being bludgeoned with their own “#1 in Quality” trophy by co-workers.


If you have some other key quality monitoring practices you’d like to share, please do so in the comment box below. If you’d like to take serious issue with the practices I’ve highlighted, get your own blog.


 
Just because your call center surveys customers and occasionally even looks at the feedback they provide doesn’t mean you have a “Voice of the Customer” initiative in place. A true VOC program entails continuously and carefully analyzing customer ratings and sentiment, identifying trouble spots and trends, and taking decisive action before your customer base starts to hate you as much as your agents do.

If your call center is as serious about the customer experience as it is about low wages and bad lighting, then you need to make sure that your VOC initiative includes the following special components:   

Tools that report whether the customer was using their “inside voice” or their “outside voice.” Naturally, you want to pay attention to any customer who provides negative comments about a recent interaction, but for prioritization purposes it’s important to distinguish between customers who are merely a little frustrated and those who are considering hiring a hit man. By investing in speech analytics tools that detect customers’ emotion/volume levels during calls and survey responses, it becomes easier to determine which customers to ignore, which ones to call back within the week, and which ones to kidnap immediately before they ruin your brand via Twitter.
  
“Fist of the Customer” (FOC) software. Sometimes customers don’t verbalize exactly what they are feeling, thus it’s important to have tools in place that can dig deeper and uncover hidden sentiment. While still very much in the testing phase, FOC technology measures how forcefully frustrated customers throw their phones or punch their computers when interacting with an agent or IVR. Equipped with special motion-detection software that I’m too stupid to understand or explain, a typical FOC solution can be programmed to send an instant alert to the call center’s recovery team whenever a customer’s punch reaches a “Mike Tyson” or “Jerry Springer guest” level of force.

A “Last Word” option for agents.  To avoid having your customers’ negative and abusive comments adversely affect agent retention and morale, it’s important to incorporate a VOA (Voice of the Agent) component into your VOC program. After receiving a scathing rating or comment from a customer, agents will likely want to retaliate and get the last word in after they stop crying. Let them do so by providing them with what they think is the customer’s phone number but is really the number to a crisis hotline where operators are used to enduring profanity-laden diatribes from complete strangers.   


NOTE: If you found Greg’s “Voice of the Customer” recommendations to be insightful and valuable, you should consider seeking help from a licensed mental health professional. Contact Greg for referrals.



 
Back in November I posted an “Ask the ‘Expert’” piece in which I answered the pressing questions of several call center professionals. While I have no proof whatsoever, I’m quite certain that my responses changed these managers’ lives and careers forever, and may have even altered the universal face of customer care as we know it.

But now that the damage has been contained, I think it’s safe for me to try again.    

     

Q: Our call center just recently started monitoring popular social media sites. What should we be responding to, and how?

A: I’m very pleased to see that your center has heeded the warnings made by social media experts that 100% of all call centers will soon be 100% Twitter-based. That’s an important step.

Social customer care is a lot like attending a cocktail party – there’s a whole lot of chitter-chatter going on but you really don’t need to stop drinking and listen unless somebody is talking about you. What your call center needs to pay particularly close attention to is strong negative comments about your company in general, your products, your customer service, or your SAT scores. It’s best to post an initial public response empathetically acknowledging the issue (as that shows everybody that your company is “listening” and cares), and then invite the person to discuss the problem in more detail privately via phone or chat, or face-to-face behind the trash dumpsters outside Wal-Mart.    

Don’t become so obsessed over putting out fires that you overlook the positive comments that customers post on social sites. Such unsolicited public praise and compliments are what foster widespread brand advocacy and help to keep your agents from drinking bleach on their break. Be sure to thank anybody and everybody for their kind remarks, even if you know that most are coming from your own Marketing department.


Q: We are struggling to gain agent buy-in to our quality monitoring program. Any advice on how to change agents’ opinion of monitoring and improve results?

A: Over my long career posing as a call center expert, I’ve answered that question numerous times. The fact that I’ve never heard back from anybody regarding my response to them leaves me to believe that my suggestions solved all their monitoring problems. Hopefully I can do the same for you.

First off, you need to view things from your agents’ perspective. They don’t like you or anybody else on the management team very much and don’t want any of you listening to their conversations. To help overcome their disdain for you, try loosening their ankle shackles and removing the barbed wire that lines their cubicles. Also, the next time they go over the center’s strict Average Handle Time objective for the day, flog them with a little less force than usual, or at least use a smaller club.

Once you’ve gained agents’ favor and trust, sit down with them and explain that you hate monitoring, too, but that it must be done to help protect against customers showing up in person with automatic weapons. When agents sense your empathy and see that quality monitoring is actually intended to help them, they are much more likely to accept it before they take another job two weeks later.

To really get agents to embrace quality monitoring and strive to continuously improve, you need to add a “voice of the customer” (VOC) component to your program. This entails incorporating customer satisfaction survey scores and feedback into agents' internal monitoring scores and post-contact coaching. Having a VOC-based quality program enables you to go to agents and say, “See, it’s not just me who thinks you’re incompetent.” THAT’S the type of 360-degree feedback that turns poor performers into highly mediocre ones, which is really all you can ask for considering what you pay your staff.    


Note: The views and recommendations that Greg has shared with you today are his own and are not necessarily representative of his views and recommendations tomorrow. He is very moody and unpredictable. Also, it’s weird that he’s referring to himself in the third person here.