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Inside Outsourced: Lessons on Call Center Agent Evaluations

Episode 2 of “Outsourced” begins with one of the agents, Manmeet, on the phone with a customer. Rather than helping her with an order or trying to up-sell, he is flirting with her. Though it may initially seem like this was just a funny bit, we later find out it’s an ongoing problem.

Meanwhile, Todd’s boss in the U.S., Jerry, informs him that it’s time for agent evaluations. Upon hearing this, Rajiv excitedly picks up a box of tissues to hand out to everyone. Shocked at his eagerness to make people cry, Todd tells Rajiv that if they build another Death Star, there’ a captain’s chair with his name on it. Rajiv’s response:  “Is that a management position?”

During the evaluations, Todd tells the reserved Madhuri to be more assertive, explains to chatterbox Gupta that customers complain that he talks too much and congratulates Manmeet on having the highest level of customer satisfaction. After these relatively painless (though not to Gupta) evaluations, Todd reports back to his boss. Jerry tells Todd that the center’s sales aren’t what they should be and that he has to let someone go. Of course, Rajiv salivates at the thought.

Todd discusses the problem with Charlie, the American call center manager of a hunting goods supplier who works in the same building. He criticizes Todd for being too close to his employees and suggests he pick someone to fire at random. Todd decides to go with another approach. He figures if revenue improves, he won’t have to get rid of anyone. Thus, he wants to find the agent with the lowest sales and help that person improve. After crunching the numbers, Todd is shocked to discover that Manmeet is that agent.

Todd then listens in on Manmeet’s calls; in each one, he’s just flirting with the female customers rather than trying to sell to them. After a thought-provoking philosophical discussion about steak (“They kill the cow, then age the meat. Why not just let the cow live a little longer?”), Todd confronts the unmotivated Manmeet. He explains that if his sales don’t improve, he’ll have to be let go. Once he hears that his job is on the line, he just asks that he be allowed to call all of his lady friends to say goodbye.

We then see Manmeet make his calls, which includes this gem:  “Kelly, I’m afraid I have to put our romance on hold. Your estimated wait time is – forever.”  Since his list of love interests is longer than expected, the ever-resourceful Todd comes up with a brilliant plan. He has Manmeet suggest to his disappointed women that they buy one of the company’s novelties to help with their grief. By telling them they could buy a recordable singing teddy bear with his voice and other Mid America Novelties products, he manages to turn each call into a sale.

Now that his numbers have improved, Todd no longer has to fire anyone. This is good for him, good for Manmeet, and, since Manmeet is one of the show’s funnier characters, good for the audience as well.

This episode dealt with a lot of issues that can come up in any call center:  employee evaluations, misuse of phones, and, unfortunately, layoffs. Once again, to help shine some light on the lessons learned from the call center of Mid America Novelties, here is ICMI’s Executive Director of Consulting, Macklin Martin.

Q. Although Manmeet had the highest level of customer satisfaction, he had the lowest number of sales. Does this issue come up a lot?  And how can agents find the balance between keeping customers happy and engaged, while being mindful of the queue?

A. Our fictional outsourced call center is a mirror image of reality for many organizations. ICMI frequently encounters organizations that have had difficulty finding the link between customer satisfaction and tangible business performance. A number of outstanding studies have been conducted related to the question. The Contact Center Satisfaction Index, an annual study on contact center satisfaction, provides strong evidence of a relationship between customer satisfaction and business performance. However, there have been credible studies, such as the Customer Contact Council study published in the Harvard Business Review, that show that contact center satisfaction does not translate into to loyalty per se. Rather, failure of the contact center to meet the customers expectations will result in disloyalty.

I personally reconcile this disparity in the research with a third study conducted by researchers Dr. John H. Fleming and Jim Asplund at Gallop and profiled in the book "Human Sigma: Managing the Employee-Customer Encounter." This groundbreaking book cites that extremely satisfied customers consist of two distinct types:

"Emotionally-satisfied customers deliver enhanced value to a company, for example, by buying more products, spending more for those products, or returning more often to or staying longer with the business. Rationally satisfied customers, on the other hand, behave no differently than customers who are dissatisfied.
"To build the strong customer connections that produce enhanced financial benefits, a more complete view of customer requirements is needed, which incorporates an understanding of the emotional dimensions of customer commitment. Customers want more than transactions -- they want relationships.” (Human Sigma: Managing the Employee Customer Encounter)

Although I think Manmeet might argue whether or not his female customers were “emotionally satisfied” by their interactions with him, their lack of engagement would suggest otherwise.

Q. Before Todd gave the agent evaluations, Rajiv suggested that fear and shame are the best motivators. Fortunately, Todd disregarded this advice. But what advice would you give to a call center manager when performing evaluations?

A. Evaluations are tough to give. As managers, we often have as much, if not more, emotional angst as the employee. I’ve coached my managers to take stock of their own emotions going into the process. Like a good job interview, preparation is absolutely essential. My HR mentors have always encouraged me to maintain and/or enhance the employees’ self esteem in the process. This does not mean being insincere, but rather helping them understand how they add value to the service process. Lastly, good evaluations start with SMART goals.

Q. Charlie criticized Todd for being too close to his agents. He, on the other hand, took pride in not even knowing his employees’ names. What kind of relationship do you believe a manager should have with their agents?

A. The relationship has to be professional and effective. I do not think there is a single model that we should aspire to as leaders. Relationships are a human dynamic and, as such, each will be as unique as we are. The best relationships I’ve seen share a common respect for each individual’s contributions, provide opportunity for open transparent dialogue and feedback and give the employee a compass – in the form of leadership – to navigate the day-to-day requirements of the job.

Q. Though Todd was able to avoid firing anyone, this is unfortunately part of the job of running a call center. When layoffs are necessary, should the decision be based strictly on the revenue each agent brings in, or are there other factors that should be considered?

A. Often times, the economics of business dictate that organizations make tough decisions regarding employees. Contact centers are certainly not immune to this phenomenon. However, as people-, process- and technology-rich environments, they typically do have a lot of areas where they can make substantial performance gains and fend off staffing cuts.

It starts with getting intimate with your data, just like Todd did in this week’s episode. By focusing on improving performance, Todd averted a layoff. This is smart; rushing to layoff has its own hidden cost.

Today’s businesses need the flexibility to determine goals and performance measures that not only are attainable but also align with the overall organization key objectives. Frequently, employees will fall short of these goals. What is important is having a strong performance-management process in place that ensures that the organization properly invests in improving performance, which serves to mitigate the high costs associated with employee attrition.

Did you miss this episode of Outsourced?  You can watch it online right here.  As always, check back soon for our recap and analysis of each new episode!

Adam Mandelbaum is Associate Editor of icmi.com and Call Center Insider. [email protected]