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5 Key People Challenges

October 2003
Originally appeared on

Call centres function with people and technology. When technology breaks, you can fix it. It’s not so simple with people. By John Carver

I was recently asked what I thought were the 5 key challenges, from a human resource or people management perspective, that Call Centers are facing today and, if there are specific needs regarding these challenges that are not being met. It took some time to complete the exercise, but I was happy to do so.
With all the various possibilities, choosing ‘five’ key challenges turned out to be good mental calisthenics and got me to thinking again of managing a call centre, something I enjoyed tremendously. I suggest the following issues, in no particular order, are common to most call centers.

Recruitment and retention
This is the positive flipside to turnover. There is much advice to be found, but it usually focuses on hiring practices e.g. creating "know how" and "discipline" in the new hire process. Hire the best the first time and reduce your turnover rate, etceteras.

"Most people appreciate the recognition at least as much as the reward."
Sound advice, however in my experience there is no replacement for taking care of your employees. There are many consultants who will help you determine and select appropriate technology for your centre, but too few who specialize in working with the management on the floor to improve daily management practices.
Have an independent expert conduct an employee opinion survey and work hard to make the improvements in people management practices that are subsequently recommended. This will help convince your employees to stay with the company for the longer haul.

Managing change
Change is a way of life in all call centres. In this case there are many good individuals and companies willing and able to provide assistance. If a need exists, it's usually an internal matter e.g. a lack of understanding of the importance of change management, poor change communication or both. Don’t just tell your agents of the change being implemented; inform them of the reasons and of your expectations.
Here’s a related thought. When costs need to be reduced, ‘training expense’ is usually one of the first reduction targets when it should be the last expense to be cut.

Recognition and reward
The usual expression ‘reward and recognition’ should be changed to ‘recognition and reward’ … for two reasons. One, we usually recognize a winner, someone who has accomplished something, before we reward that person. Second, in my experience most people appreciate the recognition at least as much as the reward, and in many cases more.
I spoke on the topic at a Contact Professionals Alliance meeting in Toronto. As evidenced by the high turnout and by the nature of the questions from the group, it's an issue that is recognized by local management, but not always by senior management. If not knowing how or what to do to meet employee expectations is one of your issues seek out advice from an expert. Again, some mistakenly believe that ‘R&R expense’ is a luxury to be cut in tough times. Resist that urge.

Performance measurement
This addresses the matter of how to maximize agent productivity while still maintaining high customer satisfaction ratings
. Call centres usually have all the performance data required to make good performance decisions. Unfortunately some don't know how to use the information productively.
Another issue I have come across is that some don't yet recognize, or admit that they do, the symptoms of high turnover, employee grievances, and poor morale being linked to inappropriate performance measurement. Accordingly, they don't acknowledge the importance of this challenge.
If you have a performance expectation, whether hard criteria (e.g. calls per hour, sales results, attendance, log-on-time, improvement suggestions etcetera) or soft criteria (e.g. attitude, coachability, receptivity to change etcetera) you must have a corresponding measure. Show your agents relative performance which is how they are doing relative to their peers, and precisely how their contribution affects compensation and performance assessments. When you do so, you will eliminate the worry of bias, prejudice and favouritism.

Creating job satisfaction
Every reasonably sized call centre recognizes the importance of having good morale. But as with recognition and reward, not everyone recognizes that the answer lies in creating long-term job satisfaction.
Some mistakenly think that the giving in to any and all employee requests will improve morale, but nothing could be further from the truth. Implement good management, motivation and measurement practices and you will simultaneously create job satisfaction and improve morale.
Arguably, there are other ‘people’ challenges just as important as the five mentioned above, but concentrate on and resolve these and you will be well on your way to achieving significant positive recognition from employees, customers and senior management alike.