Off Center
 
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.   

7/21/2011 10:34:15 pm

Great post, Greg. All of this seems like common sense, but, as you know, common sense ain't so common. Be good to your workforce and you're workforce will be good to you!

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7/21/2011 10:42:36 pm

Thanks, Rebecca. It isn't often I'm accused of exhibiting common sense. I hope I'm not losing my edge.

There's no question about the importance of "being good to your workforce"; I just wanted to share the specific tactics that I've seen work very well in the call center world.

Uncommonly yours,

Greg

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7/22/2011 02:34:57 am

Nice post! Very useful tips for every call centre/service desk manager. Thanks!

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7/22/2011 02:41:38 am

Glad that you found it so helpful. Nice to know that at least ONCE in a while OFF CENTER is on the mark.

Enjoy your weekend!

Regards,

Greg

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7/22/2011 07:01:39 pm

Great post. It's so logical that it's almost impossible to understand why so many companies are unable to follow these basic rules.

But then again: how many CEO's have actualy ever spoke to a customer? Or spent more than a day in a callcenter? If the top executives don't seem to care, how can you expect an agent to care?>

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7/23/2011 03:02:29 am

You bring up an excellent point, Peter. I can tell you that in all the world-class level call centers I have encountered, the company's senior managers -- including C-level leaders -- have a solid grasp of the inner workings and the impact of the call center. Many execs even plug in with agents in order to hear the "voice of the customer" directly.

Call center managers that don't have such support from the top can't just sit around and wait for execs to change. Rather they need to clearly communicate the call centers needs and value, which will help to DRIVE such change.

Thanks much for you comment and input. Best of luck!

Regards,

Greg

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8/25/2015 04:36:47 am

Pura vida.

We have invested in an employee game room at CCC. I wanted to share with all business owners and happy employees what can be done in an office environment to raise morale:



Telemarketers and customer service agents may burn out after a period of time. That is a fact. CCC has dropped the standard attrition rate dramatically. In addition, the attendance rate has remained at a relative high for industry call center standards just from the implementation of the game room.
Let off steam in a call center video game room. "All you can play" arcade machines for CCC Costa Rican call center employees.
Our rigorous bilingual telemarketing structure requires the same amount of down time focus for the agents in order to recharge the mind and body. The call center solution for a strong push on the phones is to incorporate a real retro arcade in Central America.
CCC is known in Costa Rica as offering the best employee arcade.
The international outsourcing industry has the best game room in Costa Rica.
Without question, CCC has the best gaming toys in a Latin American outsourced Telemarketing Company.
The proud owner of CCC, Richard Blank, firmly believes that the more an agent stays away from their virtual cell phone world; the more they will increase their interpersonal relationship building among other BPO employees.
Since 2007, our highly educated call center agents continue to grow as one unit by incorporating many challenging video games during scheduled breaks and lunch time.
CCC took a chance when most call centers do not utilize a common medium of arcade gaming.
The Costa Rican millennial generation that grew up playing video games at home did not share the same pleasure and stimulation as the early retro gamers that had an arcade on every corner and local mall in the United States.
CCC Human Resources Department was intent on a positive learning experience by combining fast momentum and a creative mind. Proving a solid ROI on a large internal expense for employee retro gaming recreation, the telemarketing staff has enjoyed a spike in morale, increased online labor support and a flattering local reputation in Costa Rica as a great call center environment run by generous owners.
Back in the 1980, anyone in Costa Rica who wanted to play the real video games was on a mission to find an arcade. Once you placed your 100 colones on the game marquee to hold your place, it didn't get any better when you had the chance to show your skills in front of dozen kids from San Jose. Each Tico was shooting for the high score on Asteroids or Pac Man and loved every minute of it. CCC wants to bring that excitement back into a call center environment and use it to grow past our 440 agent limit at our current location on Paseo Colon.
Today, CCC firmly stands behind having our call center employees experience the authentic arcade sounds, sights and real time retro competition.
Our new video arcade room has given CCC another strong gust of wind in our sails. Costa Rica's Call Center will continue to reward our amazing staff by a pace of 1 new arcade machine per 44 new telemarketing agents hired and hitting their monthly quota.
The employee friendly call center environment became more pleasurable immediately which can offset a demanding telemarketing career. Any BPO boss could only imagine and wish for laughter, smiles, spirited jokes and high energy at their Costa Rican office on a Monday morning before shift.
The reality today is that CCC has become the only call center to have gifted their entire staff a video arcade game room to have fun, period. All agents are given the option to arrive early to play the games or they may choose to stay inside and enjoy the machines during the evening while waiting for their ride to safely take them home.
A smart motivational technique used for CCC BPO agents is to compete on the machines in the game room.
One way in which a telemarketer's confidence could be made stronger or broken down is through an arcade experience during their work day. Costa Ricans have courage and can back up their swagger on the phone after dominating the video games during their scheduled breaks.
In the competitive offshore outsourcing call center arena, CCC has an advantage over the rest in Costa Rica by creating a strategic play environment.
High end arcade video games will reinforce a call center agent's focus, mind set to win and motor skills while off of the phones during their free time. The most important virtue is to show a solid habit of good sportsmanship regardless of the outcome of the games in the arcade.
More new friendships have blossomed in the game room at CCC call center Costa Rica.
Our entire staff has concluded that an immediate visual stimulation combined with a conditioned manual stimulation in gaming added a very special ingredient to our nuance at CCC. To date, Costa Rica's Call Center is the only BPO in Central America with a retro arcade game room, period.
The average age of our Costa

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