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6 Ways to Fully Engage Your Contact Center Agents

Published: August 5, 2014 | By: Greg Levin

Up until relatively recently, many managers and executives considered the topic of employee engagement to be “soft.”

Those that still feel that way today are finding that keeping employees and customers around is HARD.

Consider some of the organizations known for obsessing over agent engagement in their contact centers. Organizations like Zappos, Disney, USAA, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, and J. Crew, to name just a few. Then take a look at these organizations’ incredible employee retention rates, C-Sat rates, and annual growth. Afterward, let me know if you still think employee engagement is “soft.”

While talking about engagement is important, achieving engagement is what you really should be after – unless you are about to retire and couldn’t care less if your agents torch the place. For those of you who still do care, following are six proven ways to keep contact center staff fully engaged and customers from wanting to physically harm you.

1) Turn on-boarding into long-boarding. To help ease rookie agents into the challenging and dynamic customer care environment without the use of mood-altering drugs, consider implementing an extended on-boarding initiative. Such initiatives spread the transitional phase out over several weeks or months to help foster a strong sense of preparedness and belonging among new staff, resulting in higher levels of engagement and fewer incidents of them vanishing into thin air.

Key components of a successful “long-boarding” initiative include: a comprehensive orientation program; transition training (a.k.a. “nesting” period); peer mentoring; onsite and offsite social events; and specialized satisfaction surveys for new(ish) agents.

2) Measure what really matters. Focusing too strongly on straight productivity metrics (e.g., Average Handle Time (AHT), Call Handled per Hour, etc.) strict performance targets destroys agents’ souls and compels them to do whatever is necessary to hit their quotas. This might entail rushing callers off the phones before their issues are resolved and speeding through after-call work and making costly mistakes.

Start emphasizing more customer-centric (and agent-centric) metrics like Contact Quality, Customer Satisfaction and First-Call Resolution, and you’ll be surprised how things like AHT and CPH end up falling in line anyway.

3) Provide dynamic and customized training and coaching. Committing fully to agent training & development not only helps agents perform at optimum levels, it ensures that they’ll actually want to. When agents see how much the organization has invested in and values their development, they become highly engaged and inspired to take care of customers, and usually even call off the violent coup they’ve been planning for months.

If you want such positive stuff to happen in your center, make training and coaching entertaining and intriguing with things like games, role-plays/simulations, e-learning, transition training, agent self-evaluations, and “ideal call” recordings. Also consider incorporating customer ratings and comments into agent feedback sessions, as agents would much rather a customer tell them they’re horrible at their job than have you do it.

4) Defend against “death by desktop.” All the training and coaching in the world won’t do much for the customer experience if your contact center’s CRMs, desktop tools and workflows make agents look like morons when interacting with customers. You need to place relevant customer data and other critical information and tools right at their fingertips to ensure that every interaction goes smoothly and makes customers swoon.

But such smoothness and swooning isn’t happening in most contact centers, and that’s because in most contact centers the agent desktop is a mess. Due to disparate and uncoordinated systems and applications, agents often spend more time fighting with their desktop than focused on the customer. More and more contact centers are fighting back by moving to a unified agent desktop – also referred to often as an ‘intelligent agent desktop’ or a ‘dynamic agent desktop’, or a ‘desktop agents don’t want to punch.’

5) Unleash agents on the phones and off. You can create a strong culture of engagement and ownership by giving agents a lot of authority on the phones, and a lot of influence off of them. Empower and trust agents to make on-the-spot decisions, offers and exceptions during interactions to make life easier for customers. And give agents ample opportunities offline to provide input on critical issues and to work on special projects and task forces to make life easier for everybody – the company, the customer and the agents themselves.

Empowering agents off the phones to help improve processes has been shown to have a hugely positive impact on agent turnover: A contact center study conducted by Cornell University found that centers that offer employees a chance to join a problem-solving group or team, had 50% fewer workers quit. …And yes, you should feel proud that you work in an industry that is now being studied by hoighty-toighty Ivy League schools like Cornell.

6) Reward and recognize outstanding performance and effort. Provide incentives and praise that really show agents how much the organization respects and values them and their critical role – and that inspire agents to keep doing the kinds of things that delight customers.

You can’t expect agents to continuously give it their all on calls if your rewards feature little more than balloons and cupcakes and pizza. All that agents get from those things are squeaky voices and Type II diabetes – neither of which typically contribute to good customer experiences. What agents do get inspired by and go the extra mile for include things like:

  • A Wall of Fame featuring agents in the center who have recently achieved excellence in key areas;
  • A points-for-performance program, where agents who kick butt in key areas receive points that they can then redeem for merchandise or for Xanax;
  • Peer recognition, where agents are empowered to give spot awards – like “You rock!” stickers or a shot of vodka – to peers who they witness going above and beyond on the job and with customers;
  • Recognition for the sake of it, like honoring agents during Customer Service Week, or giving them a plaque in appreciation of them not trying to kill any customers.

I kid around, but there’s nothing funny about failing to properly reward and recognize your agents. If you force agents to pat themselves on the back for a job well done, they might very well use that same back-patting hand to wave goodbye to your contact center – and don’t be surprised if they use one of the fingers on that hand to salute you as they are exiting.


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