• February 26, 2004
  • By David Myron, Editorial Director, CRM and Speech Technology magazines and SmartCustomerService.com

The Top 5 Ways to Keep Agents

Despite a showroom full of call center technology, the soft skills required to maintain quality agents remains a top concern for attendees of the ICCM Conference and Exposition. So important is the topic of agent attrition that attendees gathered in droves to hear the keynote speech, called "Positive Culture Change: The Cornerstone of Effective Customer Service," by Dr. Fred Johnson, CEO of InitiativeOne. After querying the audience for suggestions to improve customer service, audience members bellowed out such strategies as "streamlining workflow," "training," "monitoring," "soft skills training," and "incentives." "All these responses are very typical, but not one time did we hear about changing behavior," Johnson said. "If you want to get deep, profound, sustained results, you've got to deal with the issue of your culture. We've shied away from that in corporate America for years, because culture change is hard. "You can have all the talent in the world, strategic and management processes, and incentive plans at a 10, but if your culture is at a three, guess how much of your business plan gets implemented? No more than 30 percent. Your culture will set the limits of how far your company will go." He added there are two kinds of human needs: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic needs are things like money and incentive programs, but what many organizations lack is the ability to satisfy an agent's intrinsic need, such as appreciation, meaning in their jobs, and safety in the workplace. Johnson, a therapist for more than 20 years, said call center agents are subjected to what therapists call spatial dissidence, which, he said, empowers people to act any way they want when they are not confronting someone face to face. An example of spatial dissidence might be someone expressing hostility toward another driver. Many people react in a hostile way, knowing they will never face the offensive driver, he said. "You experience the same thing with your customers. It is unique to your industry, more than any other industry." Drawing on feedback from his son's, experience as a call center rep making outbound calls, he said his son told him, "'I never knew there were so many variations of the F word!'" This hostility, he added, is why agent turnover for some companies reaches as high as 300 percent. To lower attrition rates, Johnson offers five suggestions that companies can make to affect each agent's intrinsic needs: 1. Appreciation. "Every one of us wants to be affirmed," he said. Johnson added that people leave their jobs because of burnout, unfair treatment, bad management, poor opportunities, but the number one reason for leaving is people feel their immediate superior does not appreciate them. 2. People have a need for meaning in their jobs. "Everyone has a need to say 'I have made an impact some way in my small world.' The greatest of leaders are those who are able to find some sense of meaning in what they do." 3. Safety in the workplace. "Every person has a need to feel safe in the way we give and receive information." He added employees will not address sensitive issues if they are afraid of offending colleagues. Another issue of safety is an agreeable culture that employees can share with their children. It's difficult to assume a cutthroat personality at the office and another personality at home, he argued. 4. Money. Johnson argues employees would be willing to forgo a pay raise if they worked for a company with a desirable culture. 5. Participation. "You need to create a culture of positive accountability where your people have input into goals and direction of the organization. If they don't have their mark on it, they won't put their hearts in it." In his closing remarks, he said, "I've never seen a company that had a healthy culture and a poor quality of service. They follow each other."
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