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Dial 'M' for Success

By John Carver

September 10, 2002
Originally appeared on

What Senior Management expect from their call center is clear and simple, Exceptional Service and a good Return on Investment. And that is as it should be. The focus is on results.

I’ve had some success in managing a contact center, yet Service and ROI are not what come to mind when I think back to the daily issues and fires to be extinguished. Why was that? Shouldn’t the CC Manager and his Management Team have the same priorities as Senior Management? Yes and no.

As the person responsible for the contact center operation, you, the Manager and your team, are accountable for the results. However, I submit that you will have more success when you focus on the strategies and tactics than on the desired outcomes. Liken it to a runner who is obsessed with the thought of winning … so much so that he cannot concentrate on the fundamentals required, his strength, his endurance and his training. Think of the trip rather than the destination and there will not be any unfortunate surprises when you arrive.

Our Executive Vice President had a habit of dropping by unannounced and asking the question "what’s keeping you awake at night, John?" I would tell him the issue of the day (week or month) that was causing me concern. After being asked several times I came to realize that many of the issues that received my attention during the day and consumed my thoughts at night (Management, Motivation, Measurement and Morale) had something in common, hence the title of this article, Dial ‘M’ for Success. There are other issues on the CC floor that need addressing and solutions, but you will find that most, if not all, will fit nicely into one of these four major categories. In fact, when you think on these for a while you will come to think of the first three as shells protecting the inner core, morale.

"Good management" encompasses so much that you may be thinking "easy to say but not so easy to accomplish". You will find that it isn’t so overwhelming when you break it down into small bites. My advice is to address your personal "management" involvement to those areas that you deem critical to the smooth running of your CC, and to concentrate on the tactics that will ensure your success. Four examples follow:

1. Manage your hiring practices by establishing a solid foundation. Yes, leave the hiring decisions to your Team Managers but ensure that they have templates to follow … that they all understand and can clearly articulate the role of the customer service officer … that they are consistent in the behaviour focused questions they ask applicants, and finally, that, prior to making a decision, they are confident enough to discuss the merits and shortcomings of an applicant with you and/or their peers. This last action will minimize the likelihood of "poor choices" and will reduce unnecessary turnover.

2. Manage your training and coaching practices by getting involved. As cumbersome as this may sound, review your new hire and existing agent classroom training materials. Give new agents weeks of classroom training before they take a live call. Occasionally show up and sit through an hour or two of a training session. Empower your training group to be creative in the design and delivery of programs. When expenses need to be reduced, make training the last expense on your list to be cut. Have informal discussions with your on-the-floor coaches to learn of their issues and how these are being handled.

3. Manage your IT and Marketing Departments as you would partners with a common goal. It‘s sometimes tempting to think of these people as the enemy. It’s also wrong. They are your partners and you will discover how similar your goals are when you take the time to learn and understand each other’s priorities. Give them credit when it is deserved. Include them in your celebrations. Invite them to occasionally drop by and listen in on customer calls. Inform them of your plans, strategies and tactics. In short, make them feel that they are an important part of your team. When they do, you’ll never again hear of a new initiative from a customer on the other end of the line, and your IT people will run to your rescue when you call with a problem.

4. Manage your Team Leaders, as you would best friends. You wouldn’t think of leaving your best friend out on a limb when you have an opportunity to help. Be the same with your Team Leaders. They are critical to the success of your center. Mentor them at every opportunity. Encourage and empower them to make those on-the-spot decisions that are part and parcel of life on a contact center floor. As critical as your team leaders are to your success, the agents are to theirs. Invest in their development so they become true people-management professionals. Give them the tools to recognize the varying levels of agent performance, the knowledge to increase agent contribution where possible, and the wisdom to help some agents come to the decision to leave with their pride and dignity intact.

Ask for one suggestion on "Motivation" from each of your employees and you will receive as many ideas as you have employees. The job of the Contact Center Manager is to get quality work, efficiently completed through employees. The successful manager understands that the trick is to motivate employees to fulfill both of these requirements while enjoying the experience of doing the work. I have learned that task-focused motivation (for example, specific reward programs) will not sustain permanent gains. These approaches are inevitably short lived when compared to results achieved through the creation of ongoing employee job satisfaction. The degree to which you can create employee job satisfaction will determine the willingness of your work force to apply itself to the job over the longer haul.

My approach toward motivation is quite simple, and it works. Simply stated, support all stages of employee development and encourage a culture of mutual respect and team spirit. Have your training department report directly to the Contact Center, and not to your company’s Human Resource area. Whenever possible, hire training facilitators who understand your business, that is, people who have been agents or coaches. Ensure your coaches have formalized sessions (at least monthly) with each of the agents under their tutorage. The coach should make the agent feel comfortable to discuss anything that will help with his/her development … strengths, areas requiring improvement, career planning, resume preparation etceteras. Celebrate at every opportunity, whether personal (birthdays, anniversaries etc) or business related successes (achievement of a target, advancement to other jobs etc.) Recognize an individual’s achievements openly, so that the whole team participates in the celebration. Allow employees the opportunity to share the expectations they have of their managers. Employee feedback is the most effective way to know how you are doing and how to improve your contact center.

Measurement … the third 'M' to be accomplished. I am an enthusiastic believer in the adage "you get what you measure". With Senior Management insisting on Exceptional Service and a good ROI, you must have measures in place to address both expectations. I have yet to encounter a CC that does not recognize the importance of putting into place those measures that are synonymous with good customer care … service level, speed of answer, quality, first contact resolution etceteras. These, together with an independent customer service survey, will keep you well informed on your progress to achieving the goal of providing exceptional service.

With regards to ROI, salary expenses are unquestionably the largest controllable expense in a Contact Center. Good management and motivational practices as described above will establish a climate where employees can succeed. Good measurements will ensure that they do. If the role of the agent is to serve customers, serve them well, and make a sale where it is appropriate to do so, it follows that you need to measure each agent’s productivity, quality and sales results. If you have a performance expectation, whether hard criteria (e.g. attendance, log-on-time, improvement suggestions etceteras) or soft criteria (e.g., attitude, coachability) you must have a corresponding measure. Show your agents relative performance, that is, how they are doing relative to their peers, and precisely how their contribution affects compensation and performance assessments. I can tell you from my personal experience in a Contact Center environment, when you eliminate the worry of bias, prejudice and favouritism, agents love it. Most importantly, it will spur them on to higher levels of performance thereby ensuring maximum return on investment.

Morale, the contact center’s inner core. By now you may have come to the realization as I have, that good morale is a positive byproduct of good management, good measurement and good motivation. With these accomplished, you will not need to create specific action plans to address poor morale because you won’t have a morale problem. That’s a promise.

In conclusion, concentrate on tactics and strategies. Get personally involved in those areas you deem to be critical. Empower your management team and your agents but always be there to teach, guide and assist. Work hard at maintaining frequent open communication. Create a culture of respect and a climate where others can succeed. Set clear, realistic performance expectations and measure every one of them. Let your agents know exactly how their contribution will be measured and how it affects their compensation package, bonuses and performance reviews. No single activity (management, motivation or measurement) stands alone. It is the cumulative effect of continuous effort that produces results and good morale.