ICMI is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.


Expert's Angle: Don't Make Customer Service a Dead-End Job

We drove through several miles of low-rise public housing to reach our destination. A security guard studied us carefully from a watchtower when we arrived at a 20-foot high fence, complete with barbed wire.

It was a scene straight out of a spy movie: a covert government organization sets up a nondescript, secret, tactical operations center in the middle of an inconspicuous urban district. The outside was uninviting. But the hope was that cutting-edge technology was housed inside the facility.

The location was not Islamabad or Moscow. It was New Jersey. The interior of the building did not conceal state-of-the-art equipment. Rather, there was obvious graffiti and an inch of dust covering everything.

We were visiting a contact center operated by one of the largest telecommunications providers in the United States. The view from both outside and inside the building raised stark questions. Did this company care about its employees? Its customers?

The corporate headquarters was only 25 miles southeast but a world away, in a gleaming tower on the island of Manhattan. None of the people with whom we spoke had ever met anyone from the main office. The idea never entered their minds that they might someday work in the immaculate, professional environment occupied by their executives.

Once inside the dismal building, we were briefed on the volatility of the cantankerous labor relations. We learned of excess hold times and unresolved customer issues. As we listened to calls, we heard angry customer service representatives talking with angry customers.

A different example puts the spotlight on a health insurance provider with several call centers across the country. The structured system provided by this organization clearly defined a career progression. Agents could advance within customer service through multiple tier levels, an internal help desk and an offline research team. Or they could advance outside of customer service with roles in quality, training or workforce management.

Successfully navigating through the desired career path cast an optimistic light on an employment future that could lead to a management track. This scenario was a recipe for success. Attrition and absenteeism rates dropped. Quality and customer satisfaction metrics improved. Wait and handle times decreased.

Times Have Changed But the Problem Remains

A generation ago, it was customary for an employee to work with one company for their entire career. In light of this practice, companies created benefits that rewarded longevity. Employment packages included pensions and retirement health benefits with the promise that one company would take care of the worker for life.

Building upon the assumption that the employee would devote his/her entire career to the one organization, companies built elaborate advancement plans and expansive corporate training centers.

In the last 10 to 15 years, companies have all but abandoned this model. Pensions have been replaced with the 401(k) and employee longevity has dropped dramatically. Training is minimized. Many positions are staffed by poaching better-trained resources from other companies, rather than providing advancement opportunities.

As the employment relationship has migrated from indefinite to discrete, companies have struggled to adapt. On one extreme, there are organizations like Procter and Gamble, Nestle and General Electric. They continue to use the more antiquated model, which is very expensive and unrealistic for most companies.

On the other end are organizations that have failed to invest in training and career progression planning altogether. This approach saves money in the short-term but undermines long-term performance.

Possible Next Steps

In light of the long-term financial realities most companies face, coupled with the desire to cultivate strong performance from employees today, lies the requirement to cast a cost-conscious, yet favorable vision for tomorrow.

Below are a few things to consider:

1. Include higher education in the program. College students, by definition, amass skills and knowledge that may make them a valuable asset in the future. The company’s appreciation and flexibility to academic pursuits may increase the likelihood of retaining the employee down the road. Furthermore, motivated college students who cannot work an agreeable schedule will likely prioritize school. College graduates will likely leave after graduation if there aren’t opportunities for further growth.

2. Create a real career path. A clearly articulated career progression is essential for organizations interested in good customer service. An alternative view would conclude that everyone performs worse when there isn’t a blueprint for long-term success. It may be a simplistic concept, but many customer service organizations have no realistic path for advancement. Consider whether there is a meaningful career path for customer service representatives both inside and outside of the customer service field.

3. Create a solid management development program. According to an article written by Peter Cappelli in the March, 2008 Harvard Business Review, everyone performs better when there is a clear trajectory toward advancement. This is an unorthodox perception as it also applies to those workers who are not labeled as the top performers. Everyone puts their best foot forward when the organization makes a commitment to its workers. The same article goes on to explain that 25 percent of a company’s higher performers believe they will be working somewhere else in a year. The organization should create a plan enabling the best and the brightest to do something a little different.

4. Make sure the contact center is a pleasant work environment. Customer service is a difficult job and it is made more difficult when the workspace is poorly ventilated, dimly lit and not adequately cleaned. There are ways to both improve the work environment and maximize the number of workers per square foot. For example, one organization we worked with placed cubicles in a zigzag pattern, creating a more open feel while increasing the amount of space agents can effectively utilize.

5. Develop rewards and a system of recognizing agents. Consider what steps can be taken to create positive incentives for customer service representatives. Obvious examples include some sort of incentive-based compensation, however, there are also lower cost options. Many customer service agents are happy with an extra day off, a more appealing shift, a casual day or the opportunity to work on a special committee.

Andrew Studee is the Managing Director of Crescendio, LLC, a management consulting firm that partners with clients to provide superior customer experience and streamline business operations.