Executives' Guide to Call Center Excellence: Motivational Strategies--Just Desserts

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The contact center is more than just a source for building customer satisfaction. It can be a mighty strategic weapon in the battle to increase market share, penetrate new markets, boost sales, and raise profits. It can also become a quagmire of poor morale, stuttering performance, and high turnover. The key, experts agree, is in how you motivate, reward, and treat your call center agents.

All it takes is the ability to align corporate strategy with motivational tactics, commitment from the highest levels in the organization, and the realization that people require respect and recognition as much as they need monetary incentives. Sound difficult?

So is being a contact center agent. Working long hours at relatively low pay, agents often have to placate irate customers while meeting strict performance goals. Adding to agents' stress levels, supervisors continually monitor--and judge--how well agents handle each customer interaction. It doesn't take much to push the atmosphere from anxious to sweat shop. When that happens, no amount of incentives, contests, or parties will allow even the best-laid motivational tactics to deliver on their fullest potential. For this reason companies need a strategy, rather than a helter-skelter approach, for motivating and rewarding agents.

First Things First
Finding the right motivational strategy starts with choosing up to three corporate-level goals the contact center can deliver, for example, customer acquisition, customer retention, or cross-selling products. Next is to find the metrics--such as call duration, first-time problem resolution, or number of sales per hour--that will align the contact center with those company objectives. What's key, experts say, is for managers to revise these metrics every quarter or so to reflect a company's changing strategies. And because the goals are strategic to the company, the budget to support these motivational programs must be set at the controller or CFO level, at the very least.

Finally come the incentives themselves. Here, variety is the spice of life--with incentives delivered in a great bounty of forms (from cash payouts to gifts, trips, and public recognition), goals (short- and long-term), focus (individual, team, and supervisor) and frequency (spontaneous recognition mixed with weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual programs).

"Contests are best used for a short-term focus on things important inside the company, like warranting a new product line or increasing penetration in a new market," says Ted Briggs, a compensation expert with Sibson Consulting, a division of the Segal Company, in Los Angeles. "They're important, but not enough to build into your metrics for use day in, day out. Contests are intended for incremental results, and should never be used to reward something you already measure, such as decreasing average call time."

Mix It Up
Finding the right combination of incentive programs may take some trial and error, but companies usually find success by matching recognition and reward efforts to key strategic objectives.

With 33 call centers and more than 10,000 agents, Nashville-based ClientLogic is in the business of fine-tuning motivational programs that further the goals of its scores of customers. Every year a large retail customer promotes specific high-margin items for Christmas. And every year ClientLogic's agents must cross-sell and upsell these products when customers order other gifts from the retailer's catalog. For 2002 ClientLogic chose a simple, but effective, tactic: It gave top-selling agents the same gifts being promoted each day.

"It was a way for agents to complete their Christmas shopping while working," says Amit Shankardass, ClientLogic's solution planning officer. "Agents loved it, plus the cross-sell and upsell percentages on this campaign were 300 percent higher than last year."

There's also the spontaneous approach. At Home Shopping Network, in St. Petersburg, FL, supervisors can stop activity on the floor to give "on the spot" recognition to agents. Agents can be rewarded for "demonstrating excellent customer service," or performing well on a metric, or for a high number of sales that hour. But the recognition doesn't stop there. Agents have their photos posted on HSN's Wall of Fame for delivering quality interactions, receiving recognition in the company's two contact centers.

Then there's Spherion Outsourcing, an Atlanta-based competitor to ClientLogic. Like any good contact center company, Spherion also mixes short- and long-term incentive programs. But it prides itself on valuing and rewarding consistent quality from its agents. Devised by a committee of agents and supervisors, the program holds agents to a tough standard comprising such metrics as call resolution, wait time, and knowledge (tracked by captured keystrokes and monitored conversation). "We established levels of quality that reflect how long [each agent has] exceeded the baseline, rather than how much better one agent is than another," says Bill Parker, president of Spherion Outsourcing's Customer Development Solutions Group.

Agents who have met the criteria for three months in a row receive Spherion's bronze award. Six months earn a silver, and a year gets the gold. Winners' names are posted across all 11 contact centers every quarter. Gold winners receive a personal letter written by Spherion's chairman. This is public recognition in the grand style--topped off with prizes voluntarily chipped in by Spherion's customers, such as three nights deluxe lodging or 100 wireless minutes. "We are awarding consistent behavior, not spikes," Parker says. "You have to be consistent if you expect to keep morale at a certain level."

Accentuate the Positive
Let's make one thing clear: Improving morale is not the same thing as motivating agents to higher performance levels. Nor is it the contact center's business to make agents' jobs "fun." But without a decent baseline for morale, most attempts to improve agents' performance will fall short of their potential. "I've been in call centers where supervisors have pulled agents out of bathrooms--yelling at them because they weren't meeting performance goals," says Kimberly Croft, president of InterWeave, a Tampa, FL--based performance management consultancy for contact centers. "Contests can whip agents into a frenzy for today. Then tomorrow--when there is no contest--people are crumbling. That kind of emotional yo-yo just kills motivation." Which explains why Croft advises her customers to build morale to a consistent, baseline level as the first part of any motivational strategy.

It starts with the interaction between supervisors and agents. "You have to give six to eight incidents of positive feedback to neutralize the effect on one negative comment," Parker says.

At Spherion supervisors are not only trained to be coaches and mentors, they're expected to spend 50 percent of their time on coaching and training their agents. If an agent is underperforming, then that person is scheduled for coaching and counseling sessions. If the agent's behavior doesn't change, the company then looks at the other agents under that supervisor's wing to see if there's a pattern. Eventually, a supervisor's coaching effectiveness is linked back to the trainer who trained her. If need be, the whole chain will be retrained.

What's critical is the manner in which it's all handled: fairly, with constant communication, explanation, and feedback. Spherion, for example, uses technology from Witness Systems that captures keystrokes and records conversations to show agents what they did right and what they could have done better. Technology from Performix Technologies allows agents to call up a report at any time showing their quality standings and where they compare with other teams (not to other individuals).

In fact, if there's one universal consensus on the topic, it's that motivational programs require constant
communication. This means explaining corporate objectives--the rationale behind the metrics agents must achieve--and explaining how agents are faring relative to their incentive programs. It also means giving agents an outlet for conveying their own concerns. And every exchange must be geared to convincing agents that every incentive program is run fairly.

"You have to assume that people want to succeed," Parker says. "If an agent isn't doing well, then you've failed the agent."

13 Must-Do Motivational Strategies

  • Raise morale to acceptable baseline levels.
  • Make incentives a top-down decision to reflect current corporate-level strategies.
  • Survey agents to uncover the sorts of incentives they like.
  • Mix up incentives. Offer short-term goals (like dinner for two) with long-term, monetary incentives.
  • Reward frequently.
  • Make rewards a public affair--post photos on wall-of-fame; broadcast winners' names through email, newsletters, and over the intranet; present the awards at special dinners.
  • Track specific, tangible results and communicate them to everyone involved.
  • Be spontaneous by offering real-time
  • Vary the frequency, vary the programs, and vary the value of the incentives.
  • Articulate your reasons for the program and the metrics. Avoid ambiguity.
  • Pick two or three corporate-level strategies you want to further. Change them quarterly, because the goal for the quarter may have changed.
  • Never forget the importance of a simple pat on the back.
  • Allow agents to view their progress.

    Rochelle Garner is a San Carlos, CA--based freelance journalist

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