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Re-Thinking How to Incentivize Top Service Talent in the Call Center

Published: April 18, 2013 | By: Flavio Martins

Customer service in the call center today is a rapidly changing landscape. More and more companies are figuring out that it’s no longer effective to hire just anyone off the street, stuff them in a large room with hundreds of other random people, tell them follow a script, and expect customer service to happen with positive results. This type of service isn’t real customer service; it’s really customer dis-service.

The effective, customer-centric, thriving call center of today requires a completely different approach to hiring, incentivizing, and training customer professionals who work in the call center. Attracting the best talent in the call center and incentivizing the right results from call center agents once they’re trained and working efficiently is one of the primary challenges to any contact center manager. Unfortunately, our performance measurement and review systems today are contributing to the negative atmosphere in customer service and creating the very customer frustrations we dread as call center managers.

Connect incentives with the desired results

A professional visiting a big city for the first time recounted having to take the bus from his hotel to a client location across the city. He asked for instructions to the location and was told where to go and which bus to take, it should be a relatively simple process. Upon arriving at the bus stop, he waited only to see a bus approach, but pass the stop without stopping to pick up passengers. Frustrated at the fact that no bus would stop to pick him up, he eventually got a taxicab to the client’s location. When he arrived, he recounted the story and his frustration with the busses that never stopped. The client explained that in the city, the bus drivers’ bonus is dependent on reaching the destination on time, so during heavy traffic times, if drivers are behind schedule, they simply skip stops and don’t pick up passengers. This is the epitome of an incentive system, though based on the right intentions, disconnected from the right results. At the time that customers need the service the most, the incentive system keeps them from receiving the service that they need.

One major challenge in the call center today is that while we aspire to some great goals, behaviors, and actions that are customer-centric, we base contact center agent performance and incentives on a completely different set of standards. So while we, as an organization, desire to deliver a premier customer service experience, we then turn around and judge our call center agents on performance standards that really have nothing to do with actual customer service deliverables. So while we want exceptional customer satisfaction with your organization, contact center agents are incentivized on actions that are associated with service, but not directly tied to the service experience.

Take for example, the metric of average handle time, or the average time from the start of a customer interaction to the completion of tasks associated with that interaction. It’s a very common performance standard for call centers and a hot metric with customer service managers. Contact center managers naturally want low handle times so that call center agents can take more customer calls, thus keeping staff levels low. However, simply measuring and pushing for lower handle times often creates a negative impact on the service experience as agents then are pressured to hurry customer interactions, or in some instances, just end them without resolving customer concerns. Frequent disconnected phone calls, excessive transferring between departments, and rushed service are all common complaints from customers interacting with customer service, and why does it happen? It’s because we’re measuring the wrong deliverables.

Incentivizing the right results

My local credit union bank is known for its fantastic customer service. The lobby of the bank has a children’s play area where my kids can play while I take care of my banking needs, candy is always offered and my children can’t wait to go to the bank with dad. But beyond that, I’ve noticed that the moment I walk in the door, someone at the branch welcomes me. If more than two people are in line at the teller, someone from one of the other offices will come out and help customers in line. When you are refinancing or working with an investment specialist, they will travel to your local branch of choice to work with you. You can’t help but come away feeling that they care about you. Service is more than just a talking point and a line in the mission statement. It’s part of their culture.

Working in customer service, I’m always interested in how they create this culture of customer service. I recently asked about their approach to service and how they are incentivized to deliver great customer service, the answer was simple. Tie compensation to actual customer service. The credit union uses it’s customer satisfaction scores as the basis for the overall pool for employee compensation. Yearly bonuses, for example, are set aside for the organization in general, but the percentage of the total amount that managers can actually use for compensation is directly tied to the customer service satisfaction scores. So if the organization achieved only a 50% customer satisfaction rating with their customers, only 50% of the total pool would be available for employee compensation. Suddenly, a few points change in customer satisfaction scores mean a whole lot more to employees than it did before. It’s on everyone’s interest to ensure that 1) front-line employees deliver an exceptional customer service experience and 2) back-end employees do everything they can to help and support the front-line customer experience.

Customer-focused organizational culture

By re-thinking performance measurement and compensation being tied directly to the right performance results, organizations really can execute on the mission of delivering exceptional service experiences. No organization sets out to deliver bad service. No organization has a mission statement that includes delivering bad customer service or ensuring terrible customer experiences (even though you can probably name a few companies that do). The problem is that we often become disconnected between our organizational aspirations and the tools that we have at our disposal to implement and evaluate our actions in carrying out that mission statement. This level of disconnect breeds the service atmosphere that we have today. Re-thinking how we approach compensation in the contact center and connecting the right results to performance appraisals gets us back on track.


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