What Are We Pretending Not to Know About Our People?

How often do we see an advocacy question in the annual people survey? You know the one, something along the lines of “how likely are you to recommend our company’s product to potential customers”? And how often is the score considerably lower for your front-line advisors than for HQ or support people? If you are not sure – go and check your score – you may be surprised!

The reason is straightforward – HQ staff understand the intellectual benefits of the products and services, they believe the story, they have no first-hand reasons to question the PR. Our front-line, however, are so much better connected in every way – they don’t have to listen to the PR, they hear the customers, their problems and share their emotions every day; they have a perspective that is not obscured by an intranet of spin and corporate bullshit. And they take it personally and get frustrated if they can’t help “their” customers!

And don’t think for a second about disregarding this as the woolly stuff! If your advisors are feeling that kind of frustration it will come through in the usual people statistics – absence, productivity, turnover - which all come with a cost but, even more importantly, your customers will FEEL it even if they don’t consciously hear it.

  • Towers Watson found that only about 33% of Canadian employees were “fully engaged”. But in those companies with high engagement scores profit margins were three times higher than in low scoring companies.
  • An even more enlightening statistic comes from Wright Management – 70% of engaged employees indicate they have a good understanding of how to meet customer needs; only 17% of non-engaged employees say the same.
  • And Gallup found that 18% of disengaged employees actually undermine their colleagues success.

It is easy to see how someone can quickly become disengaged in a contact centre environment – your first impressions are of a glitzy recruitment event and a sexy induction with free stuff! Training isn’t so hot because some of the PCs don’t work and you have to navigate a spiders-web of systems that don’t really talk to each other. You then buddy up with someone who has been there a long time and is pretty down – but they do know all the best ways to avoid taking a call – because “talking to angry customers is a nightmare, you know, and no-one has trained us how to deal with them!”. You meet your new manager for the first time who gives you a warm welcome and reminds you all of the reasons that he can fire you or “send you to HR”. Then you go live, already a bit cynical, already a bit broken by “the system”. You find obvious stuff that is going wrong for customers, it feels easy to fix, but no-one really wants to know about it – you feel very alone and exposed when speaking to customers who have been let down. No-one talks to you much any more about developing your people skills but lots of people are interested when you are sick, and if you take a bit longer than scheduled in the toilet. You will probably try to avoid calls and you really don’t want to talk to angry customers if you don’t have to.

Often, unfortunately, the role of the contact centre is service recovery – something has gone wrong and the customer needs help. All the research says that a company’s recovery from it’s mistake has a major impact on customer perceptions and on future purchases. Effective recovery needs an advisor to engage with, and to do the right thing, for each individual customer such as this Southwest Airlines example. A front-line advisor who is cheesed off for being managed by a rulebook of do’s and don’ts simply won’t do this. But your business needs them to.

Without a doubt, it pays back in buckets to engage our people!

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So, where to start?  I really love this diagram by S&P Data which distills all of the things that are really important to the only people in your business that your customers actually talk to.  It also reminds me of an expression by the conductor Benjamin Zander that I paraphrase “As a leader, who am I being that their eyes aren’t shining?”  If someone is recruited well, they don’t just “go wrong”, they respond and grow to fit their environment - so the responsibility for good, engaged people in the contact centre rests solely with the leader.

And the other thing that I love about this diagram is that money, which is often assumed to be the key motivator for contact centre employees, is not even on there.  If we assume that we have been transparent and open during the recruitment process and that we have recruited the right person for the role – then that shouldn’t be a factor.  Money rarely scores as a major issue in people surveys, except when linked with another factor – poorly structured incentives, for example, which I am sure will be a blog for another day.

How can we as leaders engage what is going on within the agent’s mind?  From my experience I have a 5 point plan.

  1. Ask them.  As a leader I have found that co-creation is the most powerful thing that I have in my toolbox.  In my own opinion, I am incredibly good at pontificating solutions in a boardroom, or on my own, over a large coffee or a sparkling water.  But those solutions don’t really count for anything - the ones that really stick and impact the culture of an organisation have the DNA of my team all over them. 
  2. Share accountability.  Early in my career I sheltered my team – I provided “air cover” and it is still my natural response.  However, most people thrive when given some responsibility as long as it is well defined, and bumps in the road are treated as a positive learning experience.  This principle of accountability equally extends to celebrating success.
  3. Be consistent.  Consistency of culture and behaviour is essential to trust and willingness to engage.  If “doing the right thing” is good one day but not the next, then why should anyone trust you or follow you?
  4. Accept that our perspective is limited.  We live different lives, have different experiences and different frames of reference from our contact centre advisors – unless I am prepared to do their training and do their job unsupported I will patronise them by presuming to be an expert in their world.
  5. Do your advisors’ jobs.  And share your learnings with them and others without any filters.  Be prepared to act on what you discover.

So, what are we pretending not to know about our contact centre staff? 

Well, in essence, for me it is recognising that getting the best out of them, to deliver a fantastic experience for your customers is not necessarily about money, or incentives, or promotion, or balloons and free food in the contact centres – it is about whatever is important to them.  Our people need to feel:

  • that their job is worthwhile,
  • that they are fulfilling a valuable role; and
  • that they can make a difference for every customer. 

Sometimes, we just conspire to make it really difficult for them to do that.

That is how I try to keep my contact centre team engaged.  What works for you?