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Agent Engagement In Tight Times

The most critical time to focus on keeping call center agents up is when the economy is down. With rumors of imminent lay-offs wafting through the air and excessive pressure from management to do more with less, it’s common for frontline staff to become distracted, frightened and apathetic. And when your agents aren’t "present" and performing at their best, customers take notice – many may even take off.

So may some of your best agents. Many managers mistakenly assume that the call center is immune to losing its top performers during a recession since solid job openings are scarce. True, it is unlikely that employees will voluntarily leave in droves during these tight times, but talented individuals may be thinking defection. A recent Catalyst study of how employees have weathered the global recession over the past 18 months revealed that "high potential" employees aren’t afraid to strike out for greater opportunities despite the continuing recession. The report recommends that even during international economic instability, employee retention must remain a foremost concern for businesses.

"Businesses cannot afford to assume that the poor economy will keep these high potential women and men from actively seeking better opportunities," says Ilene H. Lang, president and CEO of Catalyst.

A recent study by customer service research and training firm AchieveGlobal backs Catalyst’s findings. The study showed that, in the United States, nearly one in four workers (23%) expects to leave existing positions within the next year.  

Don’t Let the Recession Wreck Your Reps

Keeping your agents fully engaged and in place during volatile economic times is challenging, but certainly not infeasible. Here are some proven practices and approaches to help make your front-line relatively recession-proof.

Be open and honest – but positive -- about the company’s financial health and future. Deceiving agents about economic realities may keep agents at bay in the short term, but if lay-offs and reduced hours end up following reports that "everything is fine", agent morale and trust is going to be decimated, and the customer experience compromised.

Smart companies are open and honest with employees, explaining that the business, like nearly all others, has been impacted by the recession, and taking time to field employees’ questions and concerns in a supportive manner.

"Communication is vital during periods of uncertainty," says Marlo Reveley, vice president of Performance and Support Services for specialty insurance provider Mondial Assistance (winner of ICMI’s Global Call Center of the Year award in 2008). "We began 2009 with a very conservative business forecast due to the decline we had experienced in Q4 of 2008. We made certain that we communicated this to our associates, as we were sure they were worried like everyone else, and they were used to fairly rapid growth in our company. We held town hall meetings where they could ask questions and get honest answers. We were very fortunate to have things turn around by the end of Q109, but we kept communicating on the state of the business throughout the changes in our expectations and results."

Communication during economic crises should serve not only to inform agents and garner trust, but also to inspire action. Don’t tell agents merely what is happening, tell them how they can make a difference, says Aaron Green, founder and president of Boston-based Professional Staffing Group and PSG Global Resources. "Communicate what each staff member can specifically do to keep the company successful and to take advantage of opportunities."

In addition to telling agents what they can do to help, successful call centers ask staff for their ideas on how to keep the company healthy. This can come in the form of informal discussions, but often involves more structured agent-led teams/task forces empowered to come up with ways to keep costs down and customer satisfaction up.

Offer meaningful – and affordable – rewards and recognition. There are countless ways to reward and recognize staff without breaking the call center bank; in fact, many of these cost the call center next to nothing and mean the most to agents, such as sincere praise and a formal "thank you" – preferably in public – for a job well done. Things like a "Wall of Fame" or a "Service Stars of the Week" bulletin/reader board can also go a long way toward inspiring agents and making them feel highly valued for their accomplishments.

"There are so many things you can do to reward people that are very inexpensive or absolutely free!" says Mondial’s Reveley. "Much of what we do in our company has to do with recognition for what we refer to as ‘Customer Delight’. That term is our mantra when it comes to service delivery, and we make sure that we give kudos to those who deliver it. Top performers are recognized at monthly ceremonies where a detailed account of their accomplishments is read aloud and applauded by their peers and management."

This is not to say that cash incentives and things like gift certificates need to be cut out entirely while battling a tough economy. Consistent top performers still expect – and deserve – a little extra compensation for their impressive efforts and results. With this in mind, Green says call centers must reallocate incentive pay to focus on rewarding the highest performing and highest potential agents, or else risk losing them.

"If talented employees have no chance at earning incentive dollars because of marketplace changes, it can have a negative effect on morale and retention. Broken incentive plans are a major problem right now, and many highly talented employees are looking for new jobs for this reason alone."

Involve agents in intriguing offline projects. Empowering agents to participate in important call center initiatives and projects is one of the most effective ways to raise engagement – in any economy. Not only is having talented staff serve on critical teams and task forces inspiring for agents and relatively free, it benefits the call center big time since it entails tapping the minds and experience of the people who are closest to the customer, often resulting in big improvements in processes and customer satisfaction.

One organization that gets the agent engagement through offline projects piece just right is Albridge Solutions (a PNC company), an enterprise wealth management services company based in Lawrenceville, N.J. When not handling customer contacts, Albridge agents are busy assisting with improvement projects, participating in internal focus groups, interacting with clients at conferences, attending one-on-one skip-level sessions with senior managers, or training and mentoring peers in areas in which they excel.

"Additional opportunities outside of their day-to-day responsibilities are given to our service professionals based on their interests and career goals," says Karen Greco, Albridge’s senior manager of Service Quality. "This helps to motivate them and allows them to grow."

With so many opportunities to participate in interesting off-phone projects and help make key decisions, it’s not surprising that Albridge has had virtually no turnover among its 20 agents over the past year.

For more examples of call centers that do an excellent job of engaging and retaining staff through intriguing off-phone projects and tasks, see the ICMI article True Tales of Call Center Agent Empowerment.

Keep your eyes on the KPI prize. Some centers, under extreme pressure from senior management to do more with less and keep operational costs down, fall into the common trap of focusing too strongly on straight productivity metrics. The problem is, beating agents over the head to reduce things like average handle time and call wrap-up invariably results in a frustrated, burned out frontline that isn’t focused on the customer experience. This, of course, leads to errors and incomplete transactions, which in turn beget callbacks and/or customer rants that drive up costs anyway.

Top call centers, while mindful of productivity metrics, place a far stronger focus on such customer-centric metrics as first-call resolution, customer satisfaction and quality. They realize that performing well in such areas, while always important, is particularly critical during tough economic times – when losing customers can be devastating.

At Mondial Assistance, Reveley and her management team have stayed committed to the customer-focused approach that has helped them achieve world-class status in the call center industry. The center’s Fair Share Goal is a fresh and innovative approach to performance measurement and management – one that fosters a strong sense of teamwork among staff, and that inspires them to do what is right by each other and by the customer.

"Rather than talking about productivity – a concept that has a negative connotation, and is rather uninspiring – we talk about each of us doing our fair share," explains Pam Dufour, Mondial’s senior vice president and chief service officer. "And we define what that means for each team member."

Get creative with staffing and scheduling. Economic crises can actually be beneficial to businesses, forcing them to rethink standard practices and operating procedures and come up with innovative approaches that enable the company to not only survive but to thrive during recession – and after.

Staffing and scheduling is one area in which call centers have to look beyond the obvious during tight times to keep customers happy and agents engaged. Faced with minimal resources and increasing pressure to perform, creativity is called for in order to ensure that the center has the right people in place at the right times – without breaking the bank. Following are some of the more innovative and effective staffing alternatives that call centers have embraced since the economy went south:

  • Create an "agent reserve" team. This involves "borrowing" former agents who have since moved on within the organization but who still have the skills and knowledge to help out on the phones or with email during heavy volume periods. Former agents not only help to cost-effectively manage dynamic call volumes and keep existing agents from burning out, they can serve as valuable mentors for less experienced staff. (An added bonus: Working with former agents from various departments can help enhance communication, understanding and working relationships between the call center and those departments.)

  • Form a staff-sharing alliance with another call center. Staff sharing refers to when two call centers with "counter-cyclical" busy seasons partner up to help each center cost-effectively handle its fluctuating workload. While, admittedly, only a handful of call centers have actually implemented a staff-sharing initiative, those that have report surprisingly positive results, including improved workforce management, decreased recruiting and training costs, and increased agent morale and commitment.
  • Offer work-at-home opportunities in exchange for a minor pay cut. This is a true win-win, as working from home is a dream for many agents, and work-at-home arrangements have consistently been shown to be highly beneficial to call centers in terms of increased productivity and operational flexibility. While the center stands to benefit financially by sending agents home even without pay cuts, offering work-at-home opportunities with a slight decrease in pay will have an even bigger impact from a cost perspective – without damaging agent engagement. "You may be surprised -- some [agents] won’t mind taking a pay cut in exchange for the opportunity to telecommute," says Green.

Focus on agent wellness. Crowded workspaces, high stress, and issues with ergonomics have always made call centers a potential breeding ground for employee illness and injury. Add to that the extra stress caused by a serious recession, and it’s easy to see why so many centers today aren’t exactly the picture of physical and mental health.

To reverse this costly trend, many forward-thinking call centers have created agent wellness initiatives featuring such things as an onsite fitness room/center, wellness courses (e.g., stress reduction, weight loss, smoking cessation, etc.), healthy food options in break rooms and the cafeteria, flu shots and ergonomics training. The result of such initiatives is that agents are not only physically able to come to work, they want to come to work.

"The focus on wellness promotes an environment that is less stressful and one of higher morale," says Bill Mann, call center manager for Duke Energy, which has had a formal employee wellness initiative in place for years. "Employee opinion survey feedback supports an environment focused on increasing wellness. …It has become a way of life for our entire company."

And while it’s true that many of the previously described wellness perks and programs require a small to moderate capital investment – a concern for any recession-minded manager – the costs are easily offset by a reduction in such things as Workers’ Compensation claims, agent absenteeism and hiring/training costs (associated with replacing agents who quit due to stress/burnout or who are incapacitated by injury).

Bring out the fun and funny in agents’ daily activities. Humor costs nothing, is a huge reliever of stress, enhances learning and can create a strong sense of camaraderie and belonging among employees – when used appropriately. There are infinite ways to inject a healthy dose of fun and comic relief into routine situations and activities in the call center: Humorous messages during meetings; funny role plays/exercises as part of coaching and training; personalized, good-natured gag awards for agents; silly dress-down days (e.g., funny hats, dress like your favorite celebrity, etc.). And what better time to start leveraging levity than when economic realities have so many people feeling down?

1-800-GOT-JUNK? is one call center that knows how to have good time. Few centers have created so many fun and creative games, contests and incentives to help elicit laughs while simultaneously boosting performance. For instance, the center’s recent Facebook contest featured a Facebook wall in the middle of the sales floor, where teams were awarded "friends" by obtaining the best results in conversions, cancellations, attendance and other metrics. Agents could "steal" friends from peers on other teams – again, based on their performance. After two weeks, the sales team with the most friends on the Facebook wall won a team adventure – a day of whitewater rafting.

"The 1-800-GOT-JUNK? call center atmosphere is like no other call center that myself or any of our agents have ever worked at," says Devin McNulty, sales coach in the center. The ‘work shouldn’t be work’ mantra is much more than mere rhetoric; it’s a philosophy that is mandated by senior management itself, says McNulty. "We have a powerful leader who wants the center to be a fun place to work."