Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Using Customer Reach Article for Training Call Center Agents

Just received a note from one of the subscribers to Customer Reach, with Sam's Club that liked one of our articles so much that they want to use it as a part of the contact center agent training.

While I would like to take all of the credit for this achievement the credit belongs to Deborah Chaddock Brown who wrote the "Will you use your powers for Good" article. check out the article and newsletter at

Monday, April 20, 2009

Motivating Without Money…Doing More with None

Motivating Without Money…Doing More with None

Motivating agents in a contact center is a perennial challenge for virtually every contact center manager. Just how can we motivate staff to excel? We know that engaged and motivated staff perform better and create and support a healthy culture within the call or contact center.

Traditionally money has been the primary and in some centers the only answer to this question. Money always seems to be the right size and colour to address motivational issues. But is money the best or only solution to a motivated workforce? And if we are going to employ financial compensation as a motivational tool how can we best manage this to get the maximum ‘bang for our buck’?

Lets look at how most contact centers employ money as a motivational tool: often they will establish specific targets or thresholds: calls/hour, orders per day, AHT, quality scores etc. and then associate a dollar value on reaching these thresholds. This approach is tried and true; it has been employed in centers for decades and does improve motivation; at least for some agents.

Not all agents have the skills or the experience to reach the thresholds or to achieve them consistently. I have seen some centers where overall performance and motivation actually decline or are eroded through some ‘incentive’ programs. Ask the agents in these centers and they will quickly tell you why: “the same handful of agents will get all of the incentive comp”; “I can’t win so why should I try”. As you can see this type of program can actual act as a disincentive and de-motivate staff. This clearly is not the outcome we are seeking.

Of course monetary programs can be tweaked to expand there scope an application, basing opportunity incentives not on achieving fixed thresholds, but based upon percentage improvement for example. However even this approach can back fire, are we incenting and rewarded staff who do as little as possible to keep their jobs each day, but work harder when there is cash on line, over staff that work hard every day and on the whole are much more valuable staff.

So monetary rewards are less than perfect and in today’s economy more and more contact centers have moved from ‘doing more with less’ and are now being asked to ‘do more with nothing’. Non monetary motivational tools and tactics are increasingly the only options open to many centers. As a result a number of Contact Center Managers are now in unfamiliar territory as they have only ever employed money or ‘stand ins’ for money (movie passes, restaurant certificates and gift cards etc.).

What guidance and advice can we provide these managers to help them navigate these difficult waters? First, the manager needs to understand that they while non-monetary tools can be effective, they generally require more planning and structure than cash incentives do. Most cash based motivational or incentive programs are either: Tactical or Ongoing.

Tactical programs are a short term incentive to improve performance opposite a specific KPI, goal or objective, i.e. increase revenues by 5%, reduce handle time to 300 seconds, achieve quality scores of 95% or better, etc. Ongoing programs tend to revolve around commission sales structures.

Similarly non monetary incentives can also be tactical or structural. Tactical non monetary motivation is not ongoing, though may be term based: Employee of the Month, Most Improved Agent etc. are both examples (which could include a monetary aspect) of term based motivational programs. Other engagement programs that can deliver positive motivation would include point program and/or shift swapping.

Point based programs are modelled after frequent flyer or loyalty programs allowing agents to earn points through various activities and/or achievements: one point for perfect attendance, 10 points for a quality score above the target, 25 points for a kudos letter form a customer etc. Such point programs then allow agents to redeem their points for preferred shifts, days off, preferred parking, gift certificates etc.

Your agents are adults, or we hope they are, so treat them as adults. Let them schedule themselves and swap shifts when required based upon the rules set down. These rules may include program or technical knowledge tenure or points accumulated through a point based incentive program.

Structural non cash motivation should actually be woven into the structure and culture of the center itself. There can be success with tactical applications of non-cash motivation. Centers, however, achieve superior and more sustained results from a holistic integration of non cash motivational elements into the underlying contact center operational structure.

At this point I am often interrupted as a manager will then suggest that they already employ Recognition within their center. The conclusion that one draws here is that recognition is the only non cash way to motivate staff. Of course recognition is a valuable tool and can motivate staff. Recognition is not just recognizing the agent with perfect attendance or a well handled call that should be acknowledged. Recognition should be a fundamental tenant of the contact center operating strategy. Research (The Neuroscience of Leadership by David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz) has shown that engagement is a key driver of staff motivation and recognizing and celebrating a job well done is a great way to engage with your staff.

Often effective contact center employ monetary program (tactical and/or on going), but they also employ recognition programs that value their agents contribution. The best practice contact centers layer these motivational initiatives on top of a structure that supports employee engagement and motivation. We are not just speaking of a manager trying to motivate their staff, but of a contact center environment and culture where the agents are motivated themselves and motivate those around them.

Creating a structure that supports this type of culture requires that each aspect and element that relates and impacts on the agents employment within the contact center is aligned to create motivated and engaged and effective agents.

If we look at the agents experience of the contact center from their moment of being hired and then chart that experience through to being a productive and engaged member of the contact center team we can see a number of opportunities to create a motivational culture within the center and to create and hire agents that support and grow the culture.

The environment that staff are hired into has an impact on how engaged the staff feels and how effective and motivated they are to perform. The first element on a career progression is the recruitment or hiring phase.

Hiring staff that possess the skills, competencies and attributes to perform well in a contact center environment results in staff that function better in the center. They are more motivated to perform. Still today far too many a center relies on previous call center or customer service experience as a stand in for demonstrated real skills and competencies. Then they wonder why their center is dysfunctional and the staff unmotivated.

When we look at the skills we desire in staff no two centers are the same. On top of keyboarding skills, attention to detail, sense of ownership and responsibility which are common to most skill & competency maps created, some centers add stress testing and resilience, or interest in yoga or meditation. Some seek those who will fight for the customer at all costs. Perhaps most famously, Zappos asks all applicants to demonstrate how they are ‘a little weird’.

You must look at the type of culture you wish to create and the type of performance you seek. Mirror these in the hiring and recruitment processes. Of course these attributes must be testable. You will need to verify that those who claim these attributes and skills actually have them.
Pre employment testing should include: typing, spelling, attention to detail, logic exercises which may include personality tests to determine if the person is a high ‘I’, a peacock or a tiger. The name of the game is to hire staff that can succeed and by succeeding improve to centers performance and reinforce the culture you have set out to create.

Job descriptions should set out exactly what is expected of an agent in terms of KPI’s. Staff can motivate themselves to achieve and exceed these goals once they know what you expect of them and how they will be measured or assessed.

It is critically important in this economy and in this ‘age of entitlement’ that staff understand that they are primarily responsible for their own career. By telling them what is expected of them and by telling them you only hire those who can succeed you establish a good basis for motivation and engagement.

By extending this through a vision of their career path you cement the goals and hurdles that agents need to meet before they can proceed within the center. One model employed is the ACM model or Adequacy, Competency and Mastery. This model recognizes that when an agent is hired and trained they are Adequate. That is to say that there is no reason to fire them. Over time with experience coaching and learning they will proceed to the second stage in their agent career: competent. Now they are valuable members of the agent pool, they can perform most desired tasks and can regularly meet the desired performance metrics and KPI’s. The next stage along the way is mastery, here the agent have become the ‘go to’ person for knowledge, help and assistance. They are likely subject matter experts within the centre and they likely coach and mentor other staff. These staff are poised to move in a supervisory or specialist role and will likely have completed special projects or worked on various teams.

By defining and publishing what skills, competencies, achievements and performance criteria are required to move ahead in the center and in their career, agents self motivate and self identify. A self motivated and engaged agent is the ideal to be sought in any center. Of course any career progression with defined performance criteria requires commensurate increases in compensation. Ideally the pay ranges should also be published. They should include an element of re-earnable incentive compensation in addition to a base salary. By requiring agents re-certify their performance annually it ensures that they stay engaged and motivated and prevents them from becoming lackadaisical or ‘resting on their laurels’.

Into this career progression adding peer feedback is valuable. In a center with an engaged and motivated culture agents want and seek input and feedback from those around them. Peer quality reviews as a component or in addition to your formal Quality program creates this feedback. Let the staff review each others calls, provide kudos and feedback to the agents, select the best calls, the most improved agents etc. This empowerment motivates not only those recognized, but also those involved in the selection process.

Money is and has been the easy answer to staff motivation in the past and while money alone can improve performance building a culture of engaged and motivated agents will produce results long after the money has run out.