Nine Tips for Top-Notch Customer Service Leadership

Finding the Right Contact Center Leader Is Key in Order to Realize Success

By Brian Costanzo

Customer-centric companies make the customer-care function a strategic asset, both in terms of how they interact with customers and how they use data, insights, and feedback. Customer-centricity, however, does not just happen. In fact, for some firms customer focus is more of an aspirational slogan than a practical reality. Transforming routine contact center service into true customer advocacy takes strong executive leadership.

Leadership is easy to say but sometimes difficult to find. Luckily there are good indicators for picking contact center executives with the necessary leadership skills. Here are nine characteristics to keep in mind when making this critical selection:

1) Buys into and shares a company’s vision for customer-care delivery: Vision starts with the business owner or CEO, but the contact center leader must understand and embrace it. A great executive will walk away from opportunities where there is no “meeting of the minds” for how customers should be treated and how this treatment will evolve in the future.

2) Operates on both the strategic and tactical levels: Siobhan Tautkus, a principal at Manchester, New Hampshire-based Abbott Executive Search, confirms that the contact center executive needs to have both strategic and tactical skills. “What good is a vision if you can’t implement it?” she asks.

To Lisa Oswald, senior vice president of customer service at Travelzoo Inc., “A successful contact center executive is one who can master both strategy and execution, someone who can visualize the future and then build and operate an efficient system to deliver it.”

3) Solves problems and produces quantifiable results: Whether the issue is high turnover, inadequate staff development, lagging quality, or other potential contact center challenges, top executives will have a data-driven story to tell. “Anyone who puts their time and energy into their profession is absolutely going to measure the results of what they’ve done,” says Tautkus. “No employer can afford to hire someone who flies by the seat of their pants.”

4) Exudes confidence and will stand up for customer care: When it comes to selecting effective contact center leadership, high-energy candidates definitely have the edge. Part of this is a matter of interpersonal style. Leaders naturally attract attention for their bearing, presentation, and ability to be direct, straightforward, and articulate. They also must be willing to stand their ground.

According to Richard Shapiro, president of the Center for Client Retention, “Customer care is one of the most important departments in the company, and it is critical to have an advocate who will fight for staffing, training, and technology to support the department.”

Lisa Oswald at Travelzoo adds that great leaders are set apart by their ability to inspire, motivate, and communicate.

5) Takes business ownership of IT systems affecting customer care: The contact center executive need not be a techie per se, but reasonable technical acumen should be part of the package. The leader’s knowledge and skill, according to management consultant and author Scott Klososky, extends to creating tech strategy, picking vendors, overseeing technical projects, and utilizing data analytics. The contact center must proactively lead when moving to a next-generation technology platform. According to Klososky, “This is [the contact center’s] set of tools, and it must not be dictated or chosen by IT people or operations people.”

6) Has cross-functional and multi-industry experience: If delivery of customer care is a strategic differentiator for companies, customer-care experience should be a career differentiator, too. Executives should not be pigeonholed in a customer-care department. Rather, an executive’s experience in marketing, operations, or other business areas can contribute to a stronger customer-care program. The same goes for multi-industry experience.

According to Richard Shapiro, “I believe there is tremendous value in having a background in various industries. Service is service, and loyalty is loyalty; building stronger customer relationships should always be the goal in any industry.”

7) Matches channels to circumstances: In going multichannel, the right customer-care leader will be focused and selective. “A company’s multichannel strategy has everything to do with the product – what are you selling or servicing? – and the demographics of the audience,” says Lisa Oswald. “Consumer preferences – where and when your customers want to be serviced – should dictate channel strategy. For instance, the go-to-market service strategy for a new online game is likely to be very different from a luxury goods retailer.”

8) Never settles for good enough: Few companies have reached customer-care nirvana. There’s always room for quality improvement, and a great leader will never be satisfied with the status quo. As Siobhan Tautkus says, “The good person is constantly looking at the KPIs and saying, ‘We need to move the goalpost.’”

9) Makes demonstrable contributions to the bottom line: Customer care is not a profit center, but there are ways to show return on investment in customer-care programs. According to Shapiro, these include measuring whether loyalty or purchase intent have been impacted, reducing negative social media postings, and enhancing business reputation.

Consider these nine characteristics as you consider your next customer-care leader.

Brian Costanzo, CAE, is president and CEO of SOCAP International, the nation’s association of Fortune 1000 customer-care executives.

Your Contact Center Is Not Just a Contact Center

By Gopal Devanahalli

Some years ago, American Express upended their thinking about contact centers. They removed their standard script and asked their agents not to rush through calls. The strategy paid off. In a year when financial service companies dominated the list of customer service offenders, American Express made it to the 2012 Customer Service Hall of Fame.

If I had to choose a theme for contact centers in 2013, it would be customerization. It’s ironic how customer service channels, contact centers included, have survived by functioning as tools of efficiency or problem resolution, rather than as a medium of service delivery that creates customer delight. But we are unlikely to have this luxury for much longer.

Consumers are becoming increasingly demanding with respect to the products and services they consume, including after-sales service. With companies like American Express or UPS (which also made it onto the honors list) raising the bar – not only for service standards but also for the customer service experience itself – the same expectations will apply to other organizations. After all, how can a bank justify why customers cannot track the status of their loan application when they can monitor so many everyday services in real time, like a courier shipment in transit?

Enterprises must make three important revisions in their attitude towards the contact center.

1) Integrate Contact Centers with Other Channels: Today, multi-channel usage is normal, but the trend seems to have bypassed customer service at most organizations. Surveys show that having to narrate the same problem to multiple agents on the same or different channels is the biggest cause of customer frustration. Not surprisingly, agents are just as frustrated, spending a huge chunk of their workday attending to repeat calls and receiving customer ire when they aren’t to blame. At the average contact center, agents need to toggle between as many as a dozen applications to build a complete 360-degree picture of the customer, which is inefficient and time-consuming. That’s one of the reasons why problems aren’t resolved during the first call, with the prior ones being an inaccurate mapping of competency or wrongly directed escalation.

What enterprises need is a way to capture the history of every interaction on every channel – contact center, email, Web chat, and social media. Then, after integrating and sequencing the data, the information must be offered up to the contact center agent in a single view. This would eliminate the need to request the same information twice from customers. A dashboard unifying information from disparate sources (internal and external applications or channels) into a single view, with the capability to analyze it all to arrive at relevant, best-fit solutions, would bring down the average call handling time. Add to this a solution to route problem calls to the right expert based on skill, location, workload, and other business priorities, and then first call resolution will improve.

2) Enhance Self-Service Capability of Contact Centers: One way to improve the service experience for both customers and agents is to reduce workload and fast-track complaint resolution at the contact center by enabling self-service through online channels. While a majority of customers says that they are willing to take service issues to an online self-service channel (provided it works well), barely half of those same customers actually make the attempt, citing inaccuracy and incompleteness of such channels. Possibly they are waiting for the emergence of a reliable self-service channel that supports a single, online knowledge base.

This is a call-to-action for enterprises to enhance their contact centers, establishing a unified knowledge base, updated in real time, whenever an agent creates a new customer service scenario. The addition of social-media capabilities would enhance the quality of self-care even more by providing solutions recommended by peers and friends. But why restrict self-service to customers alone? Why not extend the features of this mechanism to create a diagnostics system that walks agents through a systematic process of issue resolution?

3) Use Contact Centers to Right-Sell: American Express says that rethinking customer service as investment rather than an expense is what triggered their eventual success. That kind of forward thinking has yet to percolate into most organizations, which still perceive the contact center as an expense item. These enterprises need to pause and consider industry data, which shows that every satisfied customer improves the cross-sales acceptance rate by 20 percent. It just takes some simple arithmetic to estimate the revenue potential. A customer service solution with a powerful analytics component can process the unified service, transaction history, and social preferences of customers into actionable product recommendations to improve cross-sell and up-sell rates. Moreover, these same recommendations can also be made available through the self-service window.

By transforming the contact center into a right-sell engine, enterprises can also shorten the payback period. With comprehensive customer data now at the disposal of the contact center agent, this no longer must remain only a pipedream. However, it’s important to determine the opportune moment to right-sell, because no one ever sold more to a dissatisfied customer seeking assistance.

Today, most enterprise contact centers suffer from delayed ROI realization and a prolonged implementation period. A business solution with the attributes of multi-channel information portability, true self-care capability, and revenue generation potential can significantly improve both metrics. Enterprises that have deployed emerging platforms in this space have significantly reduced the time to ROI and the duration to go live.

So where does that leave contact centers? With transforming customer contact centers into customer delight centers. Why not?

Gopal Devanahalli is VP – products, platforms, and solutions at Infosys.

[From Connection Magazine May 2013]

How to Develop a Customer-Focused Culture

By Matt Rocco

Companies succeed or fail based in large part on their customer’s perceptions, which manifest from their unique experiences. A strong and unwavering commitment to customer satisfaction is needed from all involved to ensure continued survival and growth. This requires having a customer focus – an attitude and practice that places customer and provider in a partnership to achieve positive results. Customer focus is not what is delivered but how it is delivered.

To develop a customer-focused culture, all that is needed is to get everyone on board with the concept that the customer’s needs come first and then to work together to make sure that you do what is needed every day, in every way. Sounds simple, right? So how do we get there?

Walk in Your Customer’s Shoes: Examine your products and services, call up your own company, visit your storefront, or simply go to your website and ask for help. What happens, how does it feel, and how can it be improved? This can often be an enlightening exercise. Listen regularly and closely to the “voice of the customer,” whether it comes to you via surveys, letters, comments, or direct interaction. If you really want to know, ask. Then listen closely to the answers. Many issues can be resolved before they ever come up simply by listening carefully to your customers and team. Have your frontline agents ask customers a simple question, “What can we do to improve your experience?” Ask your frontline agents the same question and pay attention to the responses. Ask yourself these questions: “How happy are our customers and clients? What percentage are unhappy and why? How do I know? What can I do to improve?” The answer to the last question is often found with your unhappy customers.

“Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” Bill Gates

Streamline Policies, Procedures, and Processes: Some of your policies, procedures, and processes might not be actually documented, but you can still find them quoted word for word as being “the way things must be done.” Ask your frontline agents about this – they will tell you the things they “must do,” “cannot do,” or “are not allowed to do” for the customer. Root out everything that interferes with good customer service, remove unnecessary red tape, and reduce levels of approval. You want your customers and frontline representatives to be able to get what they need without feeling as if they are fighting the system to make it happen.

Every single process you have in place does one of two things: It either helps or hinders your efforts to meet your customers’ needs. Find out from your frontline staff what needs to be done to improve their ability to take care of customers, and then make it happen. Streamline your processes to focus them on the desired result: a customer that says, “Wow!”

“Make your product easier to buy than your competition, or you will find your customers buying from them, not you.” Mark Cuban

Hire Good People and Train Them to Be Even Better: Make sure you know what you need in an employee in order to meet your customers’ expectations; tailor your recruiting and hiring process to that end. The wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time can create a disaster. Once hired, train your employees thoroughly in proper policy and procedure so they understand your expectations clearly. Then arm them with the product knowledge necessary to respond to your customers appropriately and with confidence.

Empower Your Highly Trained People: Get people thinking and talking about ways to improve the customer experience without having to work harder. Some solutions will always be better than others. Have your team weigh the pros and cons of each suggestion, so everyone involved understands why some are acted upon and others are not. Once you have a potential solution, implement it immediately, and perfect it later. Provide a small group of team members with the authority and resources needed, along with the accountability to track and report on results in a timely manner. Let them learn by failing as long as the risk-taking is small, fast, and cheap, with minimal and short-term impacts on the overall customer experience. Once it becomes a “best practice,” spread it throughout the organization.

Learn From the Champs and Share What You Learn: Seek out, recognize, and reward the people on your team that really make a positive impact on your customers. Watch and listen to what they do and how they do it, what they say and how they say it. Model and role-play it, then have them share their knowledge with others – and be sure you recognize their excellence publicly. Share the best practices they demonstrate with all aspects of your company.

“Listen to everyone in your company, especially the ones who actually talk to customers. They really know what’s going on out there.” Sam Walton

Get Your Coaches Coaching: Too many times, your managers and supervisors become so caught up in fighting fires that they feel there is no time for coaching. The reality is that coaching should be their main job. Coaches must be proactive, forward-thinking in order to prevent future problems through training, able to recognize best practices, and willing to share concepts with the group. Taking one simple idea at a time and applying it repeatedly will reinforce it for your team. Keep your focus on customer satisfaction and do not be distracted by the crisis of the day. The behavior of coaches should exemplify their commitment to your core values.

Be a Role Model: Remember, it’s not just what you do, it’s how you do it. Get out there and listen to your customers (both internal and external). Check for understanding and be responsive. If you must say, “I’ll have to get back to you on that,” be sure you do, and promptly. Walk in your customers’ shoes for a while. What you learn will be important – but more importantly, you will be seen learning. If your team members observe you modeling customer-focused behavior, they are much more likely to get on board with your approach. And if you have an “oops” moment, respond to it visibly, quickly, decisively, and in a positive way.

“There are no traffic jams along the extra mile.” – Roger Staubach

Conclusion: Make sure everyone involved understands your expectations for customer service. Have your leaders commit to exemplifying those expectations. Hire and train the right people for the job you need done. Give them the resources to be effective ambassadors to your customers. Empower team members to push the boundaries and find new solutions to recurring problems. Ensure that your service standards apply equally to internal and external customer satisfaction. Develop in-house continuous improvement as a principal component of all your processes. Listen to the “voice of the customer” and act on any feedback provided. Identify opportunities and respond to them quickly to better meet expectations. Plan ways to monitor and reward the agreed-upon behaviors of your frontline staff. Regularly recognize and reward team members for outstanding performance.

That is how to develop a customer-focused culture.

“You’ll never have a product or price advantage again. They can be easily duplicated, but a strong customer service culture can’t be copied.”Jerry Fritz

Matt Rocco is president and COO of Etech Global Services. Etech is a provider of intelligent sales and service solutions utilizing inbound and outbound voice and live chat. To learn more, contact info@etechgs.com.

[From Connection Magazine November 2012]

Corporate Social Responsibility in the Contact Center

By Marilyn Tyfting

Good pay, competitive benefits, and quality working environments are essential conditions for employment in today’s modern contact centers. However, these are not the only incentives managers can use to attract and keep employees engaged. A concept that has become increasingly popular among many top-tier customer service providers is the implementation of a comprehensive Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program. Today, many business leaders are seeing the positive human resources influences from these types of programs.

It is with this in mind that Telus International launched its CSR efforts four years ago to give where we live, work, and serve. As a global contact center provider, Telus International’s CSR efforts in Central America focus on children and education, supporting organizations such as United Way. In the Philippines, the focus is on community building and constructing homes for the homeless through our partnership with Gawad Kalinga (GK), a local charity for poverty reduction.

Employee Retention and Improved Morale: From an employer’s perspective, one of the biggest benefits of a robust CSR program is how it improves employee retention and morale. For call center agents, speaking on the phone to frustrated customers, sometimes in their second language, while simultaneously viewing multiple calling screens, can be both challenging and stressful. At the same time, in many areas of the world, such as India and the Philippines, call center employers saturate the market, competing aggressively for skilled agents.

While decent wages and benefits are common these days, CSR programs can be an important differentiator and can significantly help boost overall job contentment. In a call center in Central America, Telus International found that the implementation of a comprehensive CSR program helped lead to an 18 percent decline in attrition from 2008 to 2009 and an additional 12 percent from 2009 to 2010.

Build Brand: Another benefit of a robust CSR program is the reinforcement and development of a positive brand among employees and the community. Call centers are constantly looking to position themselves and their work environments as top-tier. Repeatedly, job candidates reveal that they were drawn to the organization because of the positive brand the company enjoys in the community. An employer brand can be based on many things: compensation, learning, development, and career progression, but it can also be significantly enhanced if the company gives back to the local community.

Discover Talent: A further benefit, and one perhaps not always considered initially, is a CSR program’s ability to challenge, energize, and help employees grow beyond the boundaries of their current position. Employees often come to their supervisors looking to move up the ladder. They desire experience in leading a team, organizing a project, and coming up with creative solutions to problems. However, based on their current position, it’s often difficult for them to demonstrate what they can do. CSR programs offer a nontraditional forum where employees can gain valuable skills. Agents can show that they have what it takes to lead by creating new, community-based projects outside of day-to-day operations.

Considerations When Implementing CSR: While the value of a comprehensive CSR program can’t be understated, there are a number of considerations that must be made before committing full force. To start, be sure to embark on CSR for the right reasons. Authenticity is essential, with all levels of management committed. While the bottom line can definitely benefit from CSR initiatives, the end goal needs to be the betterment of the community, not just the company. If the company benefits from CSR efforts, all the better, but return on investment can’t be the priority.

CSR programs also require commitment. Positive buzz generally takes years to cultivate. Since 2007, our partnership with Gawad Kalinga in the Philippines has seen almost 4,000 Telus volunteers commit 24,000 hours of service, building hundreds of homes in what is now known as the Telus GK village. Over successive years of service, we found that our employees became increasingly engaged in the project to the extent that many now volunteer in small teams on weekends. This type of commitment and dedication takes time.

It is also critical to be conscious of the costs involved. Organizations must realize that CSR, while volunteer-based, is not free. For a large call center, there will always be logistical issues in transporting employees, providing them with food and water, and supplying the materials needed to take part in the CSR activity. Furthermore, if you support a popular cause, you may get a greater turnout than expected – not just employees, but their families as well. Supporting the cause includes supporting the employees who take part in the activity. This requires resources in time, planning, and money.

A good way to facilitate a CSR program is to collaborate with a local organization or charity that shares your company’s values. Telus International has always been focused on nation building, community development, children, and education, so our CSR programs tend to reflect this. Other companies may target specific health issues or other issues of social change. Be sure to choose wisely and think about what resonates best with your employees and the overall company culture.

By developing a solid CSR plan with these considerations in mind, you’ll be well-positioned to realize the positive benefits that CSR can bring to both your business and your employees. Happy, engaged, and recognized employees are more likely to stay with a company they are proud of. The longer they stay, the better service they’ll be able to provide. Ultimately, a good CSR program isn’t just good for the community, it’s good for business as well.

Marilyn Tyfting is vice-president of human resources for Telus International, a provider of BPO and contact center solutions to global clients. Telus International is the global arm of Telus, a national telecommunications company in Canada, with $9.8 billion of annual revenue and 12.3 million customer connections. In 2010, Telus was named one of the most outstanding philanthropic corporations globally by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, becoming the first Canadian company to receive this prestigious international recognition. For more information, visit www.telusinternational.com.

[From Connection Magazine April 2011]

How to Retain Institutional Knowledge Despite Cutbacks

By Roland Murphy

Understanding and overcoming call center agent turnover has always been a challenge for supervisors and managers. You need to find good employees, train them well, and then, most importantly, keep them working for you.

The ongoing economic downturn has placed additional pressure on the already tenuous state of employee retention. Many call centers have been forced to cut staff when faced with decreases in sales or budget cuts. Organizations not only face the challenge of trying to do more with fewer employees; in many cases, they have also lost the valuable expertise those employees had developed over their tenure. Companies may have initially thought they were merely losing valued employees, a difficult enough proposition, but they no doubt also relinquished important institutional knowledge.

In today’s business environment, companies rely heavily on internal experts and specialists; this holds especially true when it comes to regulatory compliance. “Mike” may be your go-to authority for questions surrounding Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS) compliance. “Helen” may be the resident expert when it comes to healthcare information management (HIM) and Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act (HIPAA) compliance.

Institutional Knowledge Is Built Organically: Often, employees don’t join an organization with a high level of expertise on a given topic unless that was what they were specifically hired for. A more common scenario involves the employee being tasked with researching a topic to address a particular need at a particular moment. As more and more questions about that subject are generated over time, they are routed to that employee because they’ve dealt with it in the past. Their expertise develops organically.

This phenomenon can prove quite valuable – provided the employee stays with the company. In the face of voluntary and involuntary workforce upheaval, an organization can suddenly find itself operationally ignorant in an area of expertise on which it has built part of its reputation. In short, it has experienced a critical institutional knowledge loss.

Companies Retain Knowledge “Poorly or Not at All” When Workers Leave: According to a Knowledge Retention Survey conducted in 2008 by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) in conjunction with the Center for Effective Organizations and the Human Resource Planning Society, 30 percent of responding companies said they retain knowledge poorly or not at all when workers leave, while half (49 percent) think they’re doing only “okay” at preserving institutional know-how. Just two in ten think they are doing well or very well in knowledge retention.

Effective knowledge transfer and retention strategies can help to ensure that a single employee does not become the sole source of expertise in a particular area. Call recording technology is a viable component for supporting both these efforts.

Call Recordings Can Preserve Institutional Knowledge: Contact centers regularly use call recordings to review agent performance and as a highly effective training tool. When a team member experiences a particularly good sales or service call, it is often shared with other agents as an example of how to properly interact with a caller. This is a commonly used and well-known benefit of call recording technology in the contact center environment. However, call recordings are typically underutilized when it comes to supporting the creation of a critical-knowledge database.

Cross-Training via Call Recordings: In combat, Special Forces units adhere to an operational doctrine that every person on the team can perform someone else’s job should the need arise. In that way, should the unit lose its communications expert, for example, another soldier can carry out those duties. While each member of the team is a highly skilled specialist, cross-training increases the utility of each soldier under extraordinary conditions. Your contact center operations, when faced with workforce disruptions, should operate the same way.

As an example, let’s say “Mary” is a sales engineer providing sales support in your call center. Last year, she was tasked with developing a report detailing the basic rules and requirements of the PCI-DSS. She did the research, wrote the report, and you distributed it to your team.

Fast-forward a year later – there have been some changes to the regulations. One of your sales reps calls in with a PCI-related question, and Mary informs her of the change in the requirements. The rep thanks Mary and hangs up.

In most organizations, that would be the end of the exchange. However, in an organization that wants to promote knowledge sharing and enhance the longevity and scope of its institutional memory, the supervisor will share a recording of that call with the rest of the team. Mary is still your first line of expertise on PCI questions, but now she’s not the sole source of knowledge.

That cross-training opportunity depends on you knowing what Mary’s call was regarding. Searching for and retrieving a specific call recording on a particular topic can be challenging enough. It can be nearly impossible if you don’t even know it took place.

That’s where effective call recording archiving and organization helps support knowledge retention. Call recording solutions that offer additional input capabilities, allowing agents to capture supplemental information provided by callers, prove most valuable in this regard. If your recording solution enables the inclusion of this additional interaction metadata, you can begin to build an easily referenced library of calls relating to a designated topic.

Organize Recordings to Increase Knowledge Base: If your solution lets you organize recordings into named search folders or directories, your knowledge library will grow organically along with your agents’ expertise just by moving tagged calls into their corresponding folders.

Using this library approach, should Mary leave, take a different position, or if you wish to train another expert in PCI compliance, the history of real-world examples and interactions is at your fingertips.

This means of knowledge archiving also allows you to identify areas of change in your operations. If you notice an increase in calls relating to a specific area you have been tracking, you can proactively allocate additional resources to it. For example, if your call center is divided into a general medical and a Medicare-specific set of operations, and you notice an increase in calls marked “Appointment Rule,” you can potentially see that your Medicare Part B efforts are experiencing an uptick. You can then allocate more resources or enhance the training regimen for your staff in that area to better ensure compliance with Medicare’s regulations.

Used Effectively, Call Recordings Save Millions in Institutional Knowledge: Call recording technology has saved companies money by improving training, enhancing performance, providing a record of orders, and gathering facts to resolve disputes. Used effectively, it can also make daily interactions an integral part of your company’s knowledge base, minimizing the risk of productivity and institutional knowledge losses even in the face of workforce attrition.

Roland Murphy is marketing and communications manager for Oaisys, a provider of interaction management and voice documentation solutions. He has more than fifteen years’ experience in the communications technology sector and has served in varying capacities for telephone systems manufacturers, interactive voice response providers, and engineering document collaboration firms. He can be reached at roland_murphy@oaisys.com.

[From Connection Magazine Jan/Feb 2011]

Call Center Performance and Motivational Fit

By Dr. Ben Palmer and Dr. Gilles Gignac

Keeping staff motivated and engaged with their work is no easy task, particularly in call centers where the nature of the work can be repetitive and emotionally draining. Studies show the average tenure of a call center customer service representative (CSR) is six months, and the average annual turnover rate of call centers is 40 percent. Studies have also shown that the number one reason people leave call center work is other people – especially unfriendly coworkers and poor managers, such as those who tend to lead with an authoritarian style and use criticism more often than encouragement to get things done. These issues don’t just underlie turnover; new research reveals that they also affect the performance, engagement, and absenteeism of CSRs.

We recently correlated CSR performance, engagement, and absenteeism with the level of motivational alignment CSRs have with their job. A motivational alignment assessment tool examines the level of fit people have between: 1) their ideal role and the role they actually perform (role fit); 2) their ideal manager and the style of the manager they work for (manager fit); 3) their ideal team and the type of team they work in (team fit); and 4) their ideal organization and the type of organization they actually work for (organization fit). While all four of these fit areas were meaningfully correlated with CSR performance, engagement, and absenteeism, manager and team fit were the most highly correlated. Being led by an ideal manager and working with people described as being ideal to work with has the biggest positive impact on CSR performance, the number of days off taken per year, and how engaged CSRs are with their work.

Manger Fit: CSRs who reported high levels of manager fit (working for their ideal boss) were found to convert the most number of calls to appointments (for sales), answer the highest number of calls, and have higher utilization rates than those with low levels of manager fit. Management fit was also most strongly correlated with a CRS’s engagement. CSRs working for an ideal boss are more willing to work beyond what is expected of them, persist in the face of difficulty, and possess the least likeliness to quit their jobs.

Team Fit: Similarly, CSRs who reported high levels of team fit (working with ideal colleagues) put customers on hold for the shortest amount of time and had the highest percentage of talk time. Team fit was most strongly correlated with absenteeism. The correlation between team fit and the number of days off taken by CSRs in a year was .70, which means that around 50 percent of the reasons why CSRs take days off can be connected to how well they get along with their coworkers.

Strategic Response: The implication of this research is that strategies employed to retain CSRs should also work to improve their performance and engagement, as well as decrease absenteeism rates. Over the years, many strategies have been employed to retain CSRs. Some of the most widely used strategies have included:

  • Flexible working conditions
  • Job rotation to minimize boredom
  • Reward and recognition programs
  • Using psychometric assessments in recruitment to maximize the likelihood of finding agents well suited to the stressfulness and repetition of the work

Because these strategies are relatively easy to implement at minimal cost, they are widely used within the industry and therefore don’t typically provide a strategic advantage in the market. Strategies that are less widely used (because they are viewed as relatively difficult to implement with high costs) are those that tackle the people side of disengagement and turnover, including:

  • Dividing centers into teams and allowing each to devise its own name, symbol, and persona
  • Providing team performance incentives
  • Implementing team building programs to help team members better understand themselves and each other
  • Creating personal resiliency training around concepts like emotional intelligence to help CSRs and their managers better cope with the emotional labor and repetitiveness side of their work

We didn’t indentify any call centers that are running motivational fit initiatives to drive CSR performance. The results of the study, coupled with this latter notion, suggest that running motivational fit initiatives with CSRs might offer a significant strategic advantage.

Fit Initiatives: There are two types of motivational fit initiatives that call centers can implement to improve the performance, engagement, and absenteeism of CSRs: 1) finding fit initiatives, and 2) shaping fit initiatives. Finding fit initiatives involves the use of a motivational fit assessment in the recruitment of CSRs. Here, existing CSRs should fill out the assessment to create the actual profile – that is, to describe what the actual role, team, manager, and organization is like to work for. Candidates applying for CSR jobs should also complete the motivation assessment to describe their ideal role, team, manager, and organization. The profiles of candidates can then be matched to the actual profile, and candidates with the greatest level of fit should be considered more ideal candidates for the job (all other things being equal). Like other team building programs, shaping fit initiatives involves existing CSRs completing a motivational fit analysis and sharing their results with their colleagues and manager.

In shaping fit initiatives, it’s important that individual and common gaps between what is ideal and what is experienced should be discussed and addressed. For example, if people are commonly motivated by intellectual stimulation (a role fit motivational driver) yet not experiencing it, the team should consider what things they could do to increase the level of intellectual stimulation they receive in their work.

One company decided to run a Friday afternoon journal club where members of the team took turns presenting interesting industry trends and information to their colleagues. Not only did the performance of the team improve, the team identified things its call center wasn’t doing that its competitors were and was thus able to convince management to implement these things to improve efficiency in dealing with customer complaints. Often the greatest gains in performance occur from shaping fit initiatives when team leaders realize they aren’t leading their team in a way they find motivating and engaging. While this can be difficult news to receive, it can be empowering and helpful to mangers, particularly to those who are willing to lead with a more flexible style for performance and engagement increases.

This latest research offers new insights as well as new methods on how the performance, engagement, and absenteeism of CSRs might be improved. Motivational fit initiatives combined with other people strategies (recognition, team building, and hiring people appropriately matched to the team and manager) should result in performance and engagement gains and reductions in absenteeism and turnover costs.

A 25 percent annual turnover rate typically costs a center with 100 agents around $250,000 per year. This figure doesn’t account for the additional intangible costs associated with having inexperienced CSRs, such as a decrease in customer satisfaction. The fact that these costs are associated with turnover only highlights not only the tangible immediate benefits that might arise from motivational fit initiatives but also the longer term strategic advantage that may arise as well.

Dr. Ben Palmer is CEO and Dr. Gilles Gignac is director of research and development for Genos, an Australian motivation company. For a copy of the full research, contact info@genosinternational.com.

[From Connection Magazine December 2010]

Getting Your Team in the Zone

By Glenn Pasch

At one of the press conferences at the Masters Golf Tournament, Lee Westwood, the round two leader, was asked if he was worried because Phil Mickelson had caught up to him. He answered that he could only worry about the shots he hit. This got me thinking about two different types of call center agents: those that focus on what they can control and those that focus on what they cannot.

Have you ever worked with someone who always had a reason why they did not hit their production levels?  When you speak to them, they usually give you excuses for their lack of success, usually something like this:

  • “It was the list of people you gave me to call.”
  • “I’m getting the people who just want information.”
  • “No one listens.”
  • “It’s just not my day.”

Just as any great golfer tells you that they get in the “zone” (meaning that they focus on what they are doing and block out everyone else), you can help your employees get into their own “zone” and stay there.

So how do you change the focus of your employees? To improve the training and performance of any employee, whether it’s customer service training, sales training, or management training, you need to assist your employees to focus on what they can control instead of what they can’t so they will be more successful. Here is what your agents can control on the phones:

Tone of voice: Agents need to make sure that their tone is pleasant and clear and their volume matches that of the caller.

Attitude: Are your agents focused on the call they are taking and how best to serve this customer?  Or are they still focused on the call they took ten minutes ago, when the caller frustrated them? Carrying that attitude into the current call will kill any chance of delivering great service.

Focus: Where are your agents looking when speaking to a customer?  Are they focused on their screen, as if the person was sitting right across from them?  Or are they more concerned with what is happening next to them – or across the room? They may not realize it, but if an agent is looking across the room, a distracted tone will come across in their voice, and the customer will feel that the agent is not listening or giving them his or her full attention.

Listening skills:  Nothing frustrates customers more than having to repeat themselves. Make sure your team is taking the time to listen and ask the correct questions to make sure they get all of the information they need the first time.

Pace: It is easy to speak to someone over the phone at the same pace as you would face-to-face. The problem is that people understand a good deal of what you are saying by your body language. Over the phone, you do not have that benefit. I recommend having your agents speak at half speed. This will slow them down enough so those on the other end of the line can follow what’s being said.

Strive for understanding: Agents read their script repeatedly during the course of a day. Many of them begin to go into an “autopilot” mode, where they are not focused on making sure the caller fully understands what is being asked. Train your agents to take the time to repeat information back to the person or summarize it before ending the call.

Here are some things your agents cannot control on the phones:

  • The agent is the fifth person to call them today.
  • The person’s child just spilled their milk.
  • They just sat down to dinner.
  • They are just walking out the door.

As your agent’s coach/supervisor, you must listen in on their calls and give them your feedback, pointing out when they are focusing correctly. This will help to train them to monitor their own progress.

A Helpful Tip: To help my sales teams, I created and posted these five questions on the bottom of each agent’s terminal. To this day, some of my friends who used to work for me still remember using these to help their agents, and they have used the same idea when managing their own employees.

1. Did you open the call correctly?

2. Did you present the body of the script correctly?

3. Did you present the offer correctly or get the correct information needed?

4. Did you listen to the customer and offer the correct response?

5. Did you do everything you could on the call?

If my people said “yes” to these five questions, that call was as good as a sale. They did everything they could control. So many times we focus on results instead of the effort. It may take a lot of encouragement to convince employees that excellent effort will turn into sales, but the result will create a more productive and motivated workforce.

Glenn Pasch is the president of Improved Performance Solutions, a consulting firm that specializes in helping organizations improve their customer interaction. They provide the proper training to convert conversations into sales and positive customer service experiences.

[From Connection Magazine Jul/Aug 2010]

Responding to the Recession

By Steve Michaels

Over the past few months, I’ve been asking call center owners how the recession has affected them and what they are doing to combat this economic downturn. I’ve also surveyed call center owners around the country. Overall, everyone has been affected. The drop in call volume ranges from 8 to 38 percent, while the loss of clients is from 5 to 25 percent. Most of those losses were due to cutting expenses or going out of business. One call center wrote off $50,000 in accounts receivable from clients who went out of business.

One respondent shared with me that the economy in Vermont has not been affected as much due to banks being more careful in lending practices. In Washington State, one woman said that the recession was slow to hit, but when it did, she lost about a quarter of her business from clients who went out of business. In New York State, a telemessaging call center with 950 accounts lost about thirty-five of them due to clients who went out of business, and call volume dropped 5 to 10 percent. In California, with a 15 percent drop, one call center went from a staff of twenty-nine agents to twelve. Although scheduling was a bit tighter, all of this center’s current staff are secure in their employment and grateful for their jobs. However, a Kansas business owner said that some of his trade people had fired their secretaries and outsourced calls to him at $275 per month versus paying their secretaries $275 per week. He regained about eight trade clients as a result and is doing fine.

Intensifying the problem nationwide is a reluctance by many employers to hire again until they’re convinced the economy is on firm footing. One unemployed agent said she is concerned for her future and that of her eight-year-old son. She’s had to fight off discouragement. “You don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel,” says the twenty-year veteran, “and that can be very frightful at times.” She is among hundreds of call center agents who are looking for work.

This problem was confirmed by Jim Geary in Jackson, Tennessee, who stated that he has never received so many calls from “out-of-work” agents as he has in the last quarter of 2009. Jim has been dealing with two major problems: the first comes from clients who want their charges reduced – something that has never happened before from the well-established doctors who make up his client base. The second problem is the delay in payment, which has skyrocketed. There are some long-term healthcare clinics that used to be current and are now three to four months past due. Two reasons for this are delayed insurance reimbursements and people who can no longer afford to see a doctor.

To decrease his clients’ monthly bills, Jim has increased the use of call center automation, intentionally making it harder for patients to reach an agent. He changed the “speak to an agent button” from a zero to a double-digit number, requiring callers to actually listen to the client’s prerecorded announcement. In most cases, the announcement answers callers’ question without agent intervention. This simple adjustment has saved Jim approximately 15 percent in labor, thereby reducing his clients’ bills.

In Florida, Nick Koutrakos from Call-4-Health has lost some of his smaller doctors’ offices who have either gone internal or to a cell phone. Nick said that his doctors’ patients have been slow to pay or not to pay at all, affecting the doctors’ ability to pay him. Nick’s clients are also concerned about costs, so he proactively looks for ways to reduce their bill. One method he uses for smaller clients is increased automation or voicemail. He also offers some clients a “piecemeal” type of billing, billing them only for the services they use.

Mark Herlache of TelAssist in Chicago is also feeling the recession but is doing well because of his “First Level Helpdesk” program. This program, explains Mark, enables clients to offload their simple tasks to his outsourced agents, while freeing up their higher-paid tech people. One example is helping wireless subscribers set up their accounts. Mark believes that great opportunities and lessons can be learned from these trying times.

In Ohio, Basil Pinzone stated that he has lost a fair amount of accounts from people who went out of business or switched to a cell phone. He has even offered some clients a three-month courtesy service, but most still couldn’t make it because although they gained business as a result, oftentimes they wouldn’t be paid. To balance his finances, Basil initiated a rotating layoff for his part-time staff. One laid-off employee receives unemployment for twenty-six weeks, returns to work, and then someone else goes on unemployment. He said his employees have accepted this program because he provided them all with a fair share of work without having to permanently lose his longtime, valued staff. Like others, Basil lost some accounts of doctors who decided to retire because of Medicare and Medicaid price cuts and paperwork hassles. He believes businesses need to carefully control expenses to maintain their margins.

Jim Geary noted that potential business is being lost by call centers that do not respond quickly to inquiry calls. Jim takes sales calls on his cell phone 24/7. “You wouldn’t believe the calls I receive after hours from individuals [needing immediate help],” said Jim. “The best time to sell is when a customer is in a mood to buy – that’s why I am available 24/7.”

Companies that are able to persevere during poor economic cycles will always come out on top in the end. We need to become proactive rather than reactive. If you know that something is about to happen, then prepare. According to my surveys, this is exactly what the prudent businessperson is doing. By being proactive, you will create a rapport with your clients and establish a reputation as someone who really cares about their problems and their business. Here is what others are doing to stay viable in the marketplace:

  • Selling entry-level accounts with short-term contracts, making it easy for a potential client to test the service
  • Soliciting current clients for additional business
  • Networking
  • Tightening up agent schedules
  • Being selective about replacing departing employees
  • Diverting travel and convention budgets into sales and marketing efforts

The call center industry provides employment, as well as the services that clients need and want. Despite the threat of job losses and bankruptcies that serve as powerful reminders of a bad economy, the basic reality is that these call centers are still in business. Just knowing that you are not alone or stumbling blindly through this era is huge; 2010 will surely be a better year.

From my interviews, I found call center leaders are resetting their priorities and are eager to meet their own make-or-break challenges. “You have to be resolute and determined all of the time,” concluded Jim Geary. “You also have to be alert to any situation that may lower your bottom line. If your business is suffering, it is just a matter of looking inward and fixing or changing what doesn’t work, which ultimately results in one of the upsides of a bad economy – a more productive company.”

Steve Michaels is a business broker with TAS Marketing and can be contacted at 800-369-6126 or tas@tasmarketing.com.

[From Connection Magazine January 2010]

Effective Change Management

By Peter DeHaan

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineThere has been a great deal of change in the DeHaan household over the past year. Last summer Laura and Chris were married, with Laura moving out of state and looking for a new teaching job. Plus, they both started graduate school last fall. This spring, Dan and Kelli graduated from college and married the next weekend. In this short time, our family of four grew to become a family of six.

Although neither Laura nor Dan have really lived with us since they departed for college, there have had been brief intervals, such as the occasional weekend or school break, when they have returned to the nest. Additionally, on holidays they and their significant others often show up for welcomed visits. Even so, our nest has been effectively empty for quite some time. Notwithstanding, people have been inquiring about their perceived change in our status. Last week, a friend asked how my wife, Candy, and I were dealing with the empty-nest syndrome. “It doesn’t seem empty,” I remarked dryly. “Even though they’re gone, their stuff is still here!” In time, I hope that each child’s belongings can be consolidated into one room until the day they are ready to accept full possession of their possessions. Yes, things are changing, albeit good and normal changes.

Another change has been Candy’s work. Although her employment has remained intact, her company’s local office has been closed. She now makes an hour-long drive twice a week to a nearby city, working from home the other three days. She has accepted this change admirably – although it has not been so easy for me, since I also work from home.

I now realize that I had unintentionally developed a comfortable and functional routine, which dovetailed around Candy’s comings and goings. Now that her schedule has changed, mine has been affected as well. As a result, I am finding it more challenging to focus on work when I need to be working. I recognize that it is much easier to work at home when I am alone at home.

There are also many significant changes happening in the United States and globally. There is the credit crisis, the recession, the woes of the automotive industry, increased unemployment, companies laying off staff or shutting down, various state governments scrambling to accommodate lost revenue and prop up budget shortfalls, and various bailout plans that are increasingly challenging to track. The amount and degree of these changes is formidable and threatens to overwhelm us. Yes, as a nation and a world, we are experiencing a time of great change.

When considering change, there are three general truisms: change is opposed, change is loss, and change is mourned. These apply at home, for our nation and our world – and at work in the call center.

Change is opposed: Change represents a deviation from the status quo, from what can be expected, regardless if it is good or bad. Change represents moving from the known to the unknown. Therefore, it is normal that people will oppose change and resist it to whatever degree they can. This might mean clinging to the old ways, lobbying against the change, or rebelling by acting out, offering resistance, or passive-aggressive behavior.

Change is loss: All change means giving up something – even if it is something bad. Many people view change as a “zero-sum-game,” which implies that there are winners and losers. When things change, they assume that someone else must have won and therefore they have lost. This assumption is natural when the change that is taking place was not their idea.

Change is mourned: When something is lost, that loss is lamented and grieved. Sometimes the loss is perceived (it didn’t happen) or potential (it might happen), whereas other times it is real and tangible (it did happen). Regardless, the emotional reaction to that loss is mourning. Just as there are steps to grieving (be it five, seven, or ten), mourning the loss wrought by change will progressively proceed down a similar path.

However, it doesn’t need to be this way. Change can be accepted if it is understood, occurs in small increments, and is within the control of those affected by it. This trio of suggestions may not offer much relief when we’re confronted with global or national upheaval that is foisted upon us, because those situations are not within our control, nor do they generally occur in small doses – though we can seek to understand them. But this advice is helpful when responding to changes in our personal lives, like children marrying and moving on, or work situations, such as layoffs, job cuts, restructuring, office closings, and wage freezes or pay cuts. In these circumstances, we can make a reasonable and successful effort to accept and even embrace change.

Change that is understood: We can best accept and deal with change if we understand it. That doesn’t mean we need to agree with the reasons for the change, merely that we comprehend why the decision for change was made. In Candy’s situation, it was clearly communicated that cuts needed be made and pointed out that the physical location of her office was not germane to her organization’s success. Though the work being done there was important, it could just as easily be done from the main location.

Change in small increments: Change made over time and in small doses has a much better chance of acceptance and becomes more manageable. For Candy, the decision to close the local office was discussed over several months, thoughtfully planned, and a phased transition timetable was established. This gave time for the change to sink in and for Candy and her coworkers to adjust mentally and emotionally as the change transpired.

Change within control of those affected by it: Whenever people can experience some degree of control over a change, they are more likely to handle it positively. Although Candy did not have any input over the office being closed, she was afforded a great deal of control over the ramifications. She was given the option to work at home, she and her boss decided how many days a week she would work in the main office, and she has a great deal of discretion over which days those are and the number of hours she works on those days. Each of these has served to make the office closing more palatable.

A final consideration is directed at those who make decisions for change. Yes, it will be opposed, viewed as loss, and mourned, but you can take steps to greatly minimize those responses by communicating the reasons necessitating the change, making the change in small increments over time, and providing as much control as possible to those who will be most affected by it.

In the end, we might not escape change, but we can alleviate some of the negative reactions to change. That is successful change management.

Peter DeHaan PhD is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from peterdehaan.com.

[From Connection Magazine Jul/Aug 2009]

The Essentials of Great Leadership

By Ida Rowlands

What constitutes a great leader? For the most part, a proficient leader must be able to provide clear direction and limits, give backup and assistance to his or her team, and then, most importantly, step back and let them achieve what needs to be done.

The best leaders provide insight and information in order to allow their teams to exercise their own creative powers with independence and pride, while maintaining guideposts along the way to assist them in their quest for perfection.

Developing a democratic organizational structure can sometimes be a route prone to the fragility of the system itself. There is a thin line between allowing full freedom and maintaining accountability; yet the best leaders know that by establishing performance standards which can be readily monitored, evaluated, and – if necessary – corrected, they can provide the much-needed balance to get the job done efficiently and successfully.

Balance is essential to progressive leadership skills. In order to deter conflict and tension among the staff, a good leader realizes that organizational requirements must be coordinated with individual needs. Although ultimately the organization must maintain control at all times, effective leaders realize that cohesiveness and accountability between management and staff is crucial to the success or failure of any venture. Rather than control being based on individuals controlling others, effective leadership provides the framework that allows the organization to maintain control while providing incentive co-opted with accountability for its team members.

Creating an aura of support and morale within the team will ultimately result in increased productivity. The essence of progressive leadership relies on adherence to three basic tenets: reduction of ambiguity between team members, fair allocation of assignments, and providing and encouraging a positive attitude.

Reducing ambiguity essentially means providing clear and concise instructions. Far too often, team leaders fall into the convenient trap of assuming that all members of the team understand their ultimate goal. Therefore, a clear definition of goals and expectations must be readily identified at the onset of any project. Good leaders allow others to ask questions, and they must work diligently to provide astute answers to concerns they themselves may consider mundane. All team members may not be privy to every aspect of management proposals, so beginning with basics and progressing to advanced expectations can sometimes seem moot. However, this exercise can go a long way in clearing up any misunderstandings at the outset of a project.

Fairness must be exercised at every turn. There is always the tendency to allocate responsibility to the same people each time, but sometimes this can have an adverse effect. It can lead to other team members becoming unwilling to contribute one hundred percent to the project because they feel they may not receive recognition for their input. Effective leaders are willing to encourage all team members to present new and progressive ideas about any given project.

Maintaining and projecting a positive attitude is contagious, and the best leaders know that promoting affirmative, constructive behavior among every team member goes a long way on the road to success.

Providing much needed, critical feedback is an essential component of efficient leadership. Crucial, developmental analysis must be balanced with a modicum of praise. While most people do not relish receiving critical feedback, when it is tempered with a positive message they tend to be more willing to accept and consider another viewpoint.

Effective leaders promote positive performance. Good leaders have the fortitude to provide praise for positive input while putting negative performance in perspective. Great leaders tend to seamlessly combine both these attributes while maintaining control of the helm, which results in the consistent achievement of success in their endeavors.

Ida Rowlands is administrative assistant to the executive director of CAM-X (Canadian Call Management Association).  As a CAM-X team member, Ida has worked behind the scenes on various association projects including the Annual Call Centre Coaching Clinics, CSR and Supervisor Certifications, AOE and AOD awards programs, and the CAM-X Annual Convention and Trade Show. In her spare time, she likes to write short stories and has ghostwritten hundreds of articles for various online businesses.

[From Connection Magazine September 2008]