Get Your Call Center Motivated

By Ozzie Fonseca

Working as a customer service representative can be a challenging position for many reasons. In an inbound operation, for example, employees often deal with a relentless stream of difficult customers, while having most of their actions monitored. Under such conditions, it is not rare to encounter low morale and a lack of enthusiasm for the job. However, dwindling motivation should not be considered as an inevitable attribute that all call center operations must share. It is possible for contact center supervisors and managers to create an environment where a culture of optimism can flourish. This can be accomplished through modeling desired behaviors, enforcing policies, and instituting appropriate reward systems.

Modeling desired behaviors: It is important for supervisors to make sure that their team members adhere to a standardized set of rules. It is even more important, as well as effective, for people in charge to consistently model the behaviors they wish to reinforce.

Call center representatives must follow strict policies regarding attendance, call handle time, and breaks, just to name a few. In contrast, people in management roles may have more lax requirements, which permit them to attend to duties such as coaching, meetings, and administrative tasks. The difference between the phone agent’s level of freedom and that of a supervisor can be grounds for discontent if not properly managed.

During periods of heavy queuing, representatives must handle dozens of calls without respite between interactions. If their supervisors can be seen taking extended breaks instead of helping with calls, morale will suffer. Moreover, the initial resentment that may begin with an isolated incident has the potential of achieving epidemic proportions as other examples of perceived unfairness are observed. That is why it is crucial for supervisors to follow the behavioral standards applicable to all employees.

In terms of attendance, supervisors must set an example by being punctual in all endeavors. Also, they must resist the temptation of breaking inconvenient rules in front of their subordinates. Answering a personal call while putting a customer on hold would illustrate such a situation.

Above all, supervisors must remain professional in all their interactions with callers. As the leaders of their teams, supervisors are tasked with handling calls where representatives and customers have encountered an impasse. In general, such calls require a great deal of diplomacy, poise, and eloquence on the part of supervisors in order to be successful. Following the actions of callers who have reached the end of their civility is a recipe for disaster.

Even more grievous than treating a caller poorly is having the interaction witnessed by phone representatives who can lose their jobs for displaying similar behaviors. Such paradoxes are always detrimental to employee motivation because they reinforce the notion that supervisors are paid more, but are held to a lower standard of conduct.

Enforcing policies: It is difficult to envision a successful call center operation without associating it with stringent requirements for call handle time, attendance, up-sell or cross-sell quotas, and quality scores. In addition, it is implausible for a call center to reach any level of consistent achievement without the presence of competent management.

A hallmark of proficient supervisors and managers is their consistent enforcement of the policies and guidelines established to ensure the smooth running of their businesses. Without this quality, a supervisor’s actions can undermine a key component of employee motivation: clear expectations.

Call center representatives who don’t have a clear understanding of what is expected of them cannot perform to their full potential. To illustrate the point, let’s look at a fictional character we’ll call John. Imagine that John is the type of agent that never misses a day of work. Although he has never received any recognition for his attendance record, John feels that being a reliable employee will eventually differentiate him from other representatives who may be in line for promotions. Now imagine what would happen to John’s attendance if he found out that his supervisor only enforced the attendance policy when it didn’t affect the best agents? Given John’s work ethic, he may not change his attendance habits, but he may begin working less diligently in order to restore equity.

One reason why supervisors may not enforce current policies is that they may want to be perceived as being on the agent’s side. However, such an approach would probably do more to foster mediocrity and lower morale than to benefit the team. People need to know the repercussions of their actions, both positive and negative, if they are to work to the best of their ability. As a call center representative, it would be difficult to remain positive about the daily challenges of the job while knowing that coworkers who don’t do their part are treated the same as those who do.

The result of not enforcing existing policies may best be highlighted by the remarks that agents make after being transferred to a new team. When new supervisors inherit these “trained poor performers,” they often encounter comments like “This was never a problem before,” or “My old supervisor said that QA scores didn’t matter as long as I met my quota.”

Instituting appropriate reward systems: A final tenet of call center motivation is the implementation of appropriate reward systems. While the definition of what is appropriate can vary from one call center to the next, the basic characteristics of a good reward system remain constant. In order to achieve their objective, rewards must appeal to various motivators, encourage only desired behaviors, and have incentives that are of value to the agents.

Successful reward systems begin by appealing to the various motivators that compel people to action. Employees may be motivated by money, recognition, job flexibility, and a sense of accomplishment, as well as other intrinsic and extrinsic factors. In addition, things that motivate some people to excel can just as easily discourage others. That is why it is important for call center managers to identify and consider the most prevalent motivators within their groups before finalizing any type of incentive program. Assuming that money is the best or only way to motivate call center representatives can prove to be a very expensive and counterproductive proposition.

Likewise, rewards must be based on behaviors that should be encouraged, while minimizing the possibility of abuse. Unless they are careful in the design of their incentive programs, call center managers can find themselves promoting the opposite of what they are trying to accomplish.

Let’s take a contest to reduce average handle time as an example of what can go wrong. In theory, encouraging representatives to reduce their handle time would induce them to work more effectively and efficiently, which in turn would promote faster resolution of caller issues. Unfortunately, the reality of such an undertaking would be very different unless strict controls are put in place. As an agent, the reward would look the same whether the contest is won by disconnecting as many calls as possible as it would by working conscientiously. Not taking into consideration such obvious pitfalls can turn almost any contest into a true customer satisfaction nightmare.

Even if a reward system is well thought out and managed, it must still offer incentives that are of interest to the agents involved. People can be motivated by money, but offering them $20 to do something that will prevent them from making $200 would probably fail as an incentive. Rewards must represent things that cannot be gained by sticking to the status quo or conflict with more attractive propositions.

Ozzie Fonseca is a veteran of the customer service industry turned cartoonist.

From Connection Magazine March 2007]