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Inside Outsourced: Misfortune Teller

We start off this week with Gupta and Manmeet walking down the street and finding Madhuri working at a fortune teller’s booth. Turns out she’s filling in for her palm reading aunt who’s on vacation. When Gupta asks for her to read his palm, she turns him down. She explains that she doesn’t want to tell friends their fortunes, in case she sees something bad in their future.

The next day, Madhuri walks into work and finds Gupta pigging out on cookies in the break room. Though she tells him that there are plenty of fruits and vegetables, he says he doesn’t eat them. Again, he again pleads with her to tell him his fortune – just so he’ll know when the ice cream truck will come by. Frustrated, Madhuri finally agrees to read his palm. In her consultation, she tells Gupta that his lifeline is short and that he should try to change his unhealthy ways.

Meanwhile, Todd comes to work all dressed up, as Tonya’s mother is back in India and wants to see where he works. Since he got arrested last time she was in town, he really wants to impress her this time. However, as soon as he walks into the call center, he realizes that the company’s adult-themed novelties are all around the office. Though he and Asha scramble to put everything away, Tonya and her mother walk in and find the two in an awkward situation.

After being introduced to the agents and learning that Madhuri is a palm reader, Tonya’s mother wants Tonya to have her fortune told. Though Madhuri sees a successful career, her love life isn’t looking so well. She senses that Todd will have an affair, and Tonya immediately assumes it will be Asha. And when Tonya finds Asha helping Todd pick out a traditional outfit to wear to Rajiv’s upcoming wedding, she gets even more suspicious.

Todd assures her that nothing’s going on between them and reminds her that Asha is engaged. But, just when he promises her that there aren’t any secrets, he finds out that his friend Charlie is intimately involved with Tonya’s mother. Not wanting Tonya to find out about this odd relationship, he keeps it to himself.

Meanwhile, after hearing that he doesn’t have much time to live, Gupta gets really depressed and eats even more. Manmeet tries to talk him out of it, reminding him that if he doesn’t take care of himself, he will be reincarnated into someone worse. This causes Gupta to do a complete reversal, and he shows up as a monk the next day. He gives away all of his worldly possessions, which include a hairbrush he stole from Asha and CDs of himself singing karaoke. At this point, Madhuri finally tells him the truth – she lied when she read his palm. She was worried about his eating habits and told him his lifeline was short to scare him into being healthy. Rather than being mad, Gupta finally gets the message.

As this is going on, Todd is heading over to a restaurant to meet up with Tonya and her mother. He stops by the bathroom only to find Charlie and Tonya’s mother there. Though they all try to keep the secret from Tonya, it eventually slips out during dinner. Tonya is pretty shocked by this, but she gets even more upset that Todd didn’t tell her sooner. With that, she realizes that she can’t trust him and breaks off the relationship.

Though this episode didn’t involve too much action inside the call center, there are some themes we can elaborate on. Here is ICMI's all-star panel of call center training experts to lend their thoughts.

Q. Everyone knows how trust is important for any relationship to work. What role does it play in the call center, either between management and agents or among agents themselves?

Linda Riggs: Trust, by its very definition (firm reliance on the integrity, ability or character of a person or thing), is critical to the success of any contact center. Whether it’s between management and agents, agents and customers, the customer and the company, etc…

Customers must be able to rely upon the integrity and character of the agent with whom they are speaking. The agent is the ambassador for the company, and most times, the main point of contact for the customer. By the same token, managers and supervisors are the main point of contact between the agent and upper management. Agents rely heavily on management to give them accurate information and direction in the day-to-day operations of the contact center. If the contact center’s culture is one of truthful accountability and reliability, it will saturate all relationships within the center. The inverse is also true. It’s important to establish and reestablish trust early and often within the company’s culture to ensure agent and customer satisfaction.

Rebecca Gibson: Everyone wants to trust their reports and their peers. But everyone has had bad experiences when others (in our mind, at least) didn’t uphold their end of the bargain. So we become distrustful, suspicious and jaded. This is an unresolvable position for contact center leaders. Tight budgets and increased workloads means less oversight. You have to trust others, because you don’t have the manpower to watch them every second. Maybe there is a middle ground. How about: Trust with Parameters. Yes, I trust you to do the right thing or to do what you say you’re going to do. But I also establish parameters within which I communicate to you what it means to do the right thing, in which we agree in writing what you say you’re going to do and in which the consequences of not being “trustworthy” are clearly defined. If trust is so important in your environment, then it’s worth your time to define it, to measure it, notice it and reward it.

Gina Szabo: People must be treated with respect at all times, and performance management is best when it’s a shared event that builds trust between a manager and his/her agents. It’s a continuous event - not a once-a-year review that confirms management’s interest in the well being and success of their agents. This means paying attention to what is important to agents, and physical environment, culture and technology can definitely be factors in building trust and encouraging agents to deliver their personal best performance. When we provide our agents with a clean, safe and ergonomically friendly environment, we’re saying “we care”. When we take the time to deal with issues that are really bothering our teams (vacation scheduling, system problems, process issues) we’re saying “we hear you and we’re doing something about it.” Bottom line – trust is developed and maintained when people in “our care” know that “we care."

Jean Bave-Kerwin: OK, this one is easy. There is nothing more important than trust in a relationship, whether it’s a personal one, such as Todd and Tonya have (or had) or a work relationship. Trust between employee and manager or supervisor allows both parties to act on the premise that the employee will do the best he or she can in their job and will always strive to improve. It also means that the manager or supervisor will provide the employee with the tools and support needed to do the job, protect the employee from unreasonable requirements, assure that employees have the authority to perform their jobs and give the employee due credit for good work and good ideas. A trustworthy manager always shares the credit and accepts the blame.

Trust is built over a long period of time; it can’t be assumed, and it has to be worked upon. It’s built up by doing what you say you’re going to do (for good or ill), saying what you mean, telling truth to power, and demonstrating that one is an honest broker in communication, transactions, and interactions.

Unfortunately, trust can also be destroyed in an instant over a fairly trivial issue as what happened with Tonya and Todd. It’s hard to overstate this principle…both parties need to behave as though they are worthy of the other’s trust!

Rose Polchin: What is trust? The formal definition is “reliance on the integrity and abilities of a person." This is a basic definition and it is often hard to put what trust is into words because trust involves faith, confidence and hope.

When you put your trust in others, you are sending a strong message that says, “I think you are trustworthy.” This tells people that you have faith in their ability and competence and you believe they’ve got what it takes to do the job. You are also willing to forgive an honest mistake. Trust is the pre-requisite for building confidence in people. Many managers say, “Well, my people know I trust them." But do they? How can we show them we trust them? We can show them by allowing them to think, ask questions and make decisions and most importantly remember, it’s not enough for you to trust your employees, they’ve got to trust you as well!

Cheryl Helm: Trust is the cornerstone for every relationship; the foundation on which lasting relationships are built – be they personal or professional. Trust in a work relationship lets one know that performance evaluations are done properly, they are fair and will add value for both the person being evaluated and the department/company. Trust allows employees/team leaders/managers and every level within the organization to speak openly about their ideas and opinions, though they may differ from others. Trust also allows for those differences in ideas and opinions to be shared without the fear of retribution or rebuke. Trust instills a work effort / ethic that fosters team building and team support. This is vital when the stress of a higher or unexpected workload comes and everyone must pitch in.

Ann Gray: Absolutely, trust is critical to any relationship. When we consider the impact trust has overall on our organization’s culture - employee satisfaction, commitment, and engagement, we realize just how critical it really is. We sometimes think that the responsibility of “trust building” lies completely with management. And, it is an important responsibility for management to set the tone, direction and alignment with guiding principles to build trust. However, employee commitment and engagement is greatly impacted by the relationships between coworkers. Without trust, a peer–to–peer relationship will be weak and limited. Which in turn impacts employee satisfaction.

Q. During his monk phase, Gupta tried to convince Rajiv that it was okay that he was late as it doesn’t matter in the long run. What affect does one agent’s lateness have on the center as a whole?

Brent Haferkamp: At the most basic level, this is simple Power of One, removing one person from a schedule that is based on real-time activity and that is tightly matched to forecasted volumes and handle times reduces Service Level and increases Occupancy (as the remaining staff is busier). The decrease in Service Level is greater than the increase would be if one additional person were added to an equivalent interval at some other time of the day, so it doesn’t balance out and can only be overcome with adding more staff for the day than would otherwise be necessary.

At a deeper level, this often times will go viral within a call center. Other agents see this activity and that is it is accepted. Then they begin doing the same thing, leading to larger service level failures and inconsistency (which will drive a good WFM team “nuts”) and can lead to morale issues if some agents are held accountable for schedule adherence, while others aren’t. If morale issues are grow large enough, they can completely destroy a company (call center or other).

Laura Grimes: Okay, dirty little secret – workforce managers attempt to plan appropriately for shrinkage. In well-funded call centers, with a strong adherence percentage, a little lateness by one agent may be part of the plan. But – and this is a big BUT, if shrinkage tends to be treated as a luxury and not a natural part of doing business, losing even a few minutes to lateness can have a huge ripple effect in the call center. First of all, not all calls that were planned to be answered are answered as quickly. Service level goes down and occupancy goes up. That means your agents on the phones work harder than you planned for them to work. Non-phone work gets pushed to the side until things calm down. The queue builds. At the end of the interval there are calls in queue that roll over to the next interval. Double trouble, now your forecast for the next interval is off – and the center will probably not make service level in the next interval. Have you ever wondered why the intra-day report indicates that your service level should be back on track and it isn’t after a couple of heavy intervals? BINGO – you just found your answer.

SO, it is important to communicate a consistent message of the importance of schedule adherence. Agents need to understand it. Supervisors need to understand it, and they need to consistently monitor adherence so that when a pattern is starting to emerge, they can address it before it becomes a problem.

Rebecca: I think, as leaders, most of us “get” the affect one agent’s lateness has on the contact center and on our customers. The bigger issue it how do we capture the agent’s attention around this issue and explain the impact in terms that resonate with them? If our only message is, “If you’re late, I’ll write you up” or even, “If you’re late, we’re more likely to miss service level”, that doesn’t do much to the catch agents’ attention.

To get real traction on this issue, you have to connect your agents to the purpose of the company and the contact center, and to the value of their individual contributions. Think of it like a PR campaign. Instead of selling a product, you’re selling “adherence to schedule.” All the regular rules of marketing apply - simple, clear messaging, WFM statements, consistency and repetition, and an emphasis on benefits. Consider the question above,“What affect does one agent’s lateness have on the contact center as a whole?” as part of your brand awareness campaign and see what type of response you get. That’s how you’ll know if agents’ understand their value.

Gina: There’s no better way to demonstrate this than to use the Power of One Erlang C example from ICMI's Essential Skills and Knowledge course. I usually walk through the deterioration that occurs when you go from 34 to 33 to 32 and finally down to 30 agents – stressing that if just 4 agents from this entire contact center are late coming into work, or leave early for a break or lunch, or come back late or don’t show up at all – look what happens to SL & ASA (customer experience) and Occupancy (agent experience).

Example: Agent experience @97% occupancy - 30 minute interval x 97% = 29.1 minutes that each agent who is in adherence is talking and wrapping. Hence, the agents left behind are getting less than one minute of “breathing time” in a 30 minute period because they are picking up the load caused by their peers who are out of adherence.

Jean: So if you want to be late, go be a monk? Just check out what happens if they miss their prayers or their meals or their work assignments! I’d say, if you want to be able to be late, forget about working in a contact center! Being there is half the price of success. That’s why we measure and report on presence (aka, being there) whether in the gross sense, as in attendance, or in the granular sense, as in schedule compliance or adherence.

If an agent isn’t able to log in (that is, if an agent is not at his workstation, wherever it is), he can’t answer the phones – and that is what you’ve hired the agent to do. If an agent is logged in but unavailable (other than for reasons of talking to a customer or handling after-call work), the agent isn’t doing his job. It’s hard to be more clear about it than that. We don’t hire people to goof off, take breaks, etc. We hire them to interact with customers. Of course, we want to have a work environment where they can interact with their fellow agents and supervisors and participate in work process improvement, morale-building activities, and so forth. But at the heart of it is the pure fact that in order to interact with customers, you have to be logged in and ready to take calls. Being there, therefore, is half of the job. The other half is taking care of the customers, but that’s not the subject of this post!

Rose: It is interesting, because the answer to the above question about trust really ties into this question as well. We “trust” our team members to hold themselves accountable – to keep their promises and commitments, and in this case, honor their commitment to be on time to work and follow their schedules. The impact of not being on time spans beyond just not meeting service level, it erodes trust: The trust other representatives have in that individual, that managers have in them, that the organization has in the center and of course and the trust our customers have that we are there when they need us.

It is easy, especially in larger centers, for one individual to think, “what difference does it make if I am a few minutes late to work, late coming back from break, etc.? There are “x” number of other folks out there.” This is where that trust factor becomes a critical part of the conversation.

Cheryl: Using the powerful pooling principle as an example, or better yet the analogy Brad Cleveland used: 15 people are carrying a grand piano – one steps away, the other 14 take on more weight, then another steps away, more weight for the others, and so on until the rest just collapse because there are not enough to carry the weight. It is important to note how you would feel if you were one of the members left carrying that piano. Again, trust means you are doing the right thing.

Ann: Ironically, employee lateness is also related to trust. Being able to trust your peers to keep their word and commitment is a an important component in building trust. Most centers realize the impact of lack of adherence to schedule (being late for work). Many of the centers have built that factor into their forecast and scheduling. But the bigger negative impact is on the peer-to-peer relationship.