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

[From Connection Magazine December 2010]

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