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Agent Motivation That Works (Hint: Avoid Formulas)

The most successful contact centers have environments that are motivating, and fun to be part of. But how do they do it?

Let me begin with a cautionary note on incentives. I've seen many in use in contact centers, ranging from merit pay and bonuses, to gifts (theater tickets, dinner coupons, vouchers to the organization’s store), a wide range of awards (i.e., employee of the month, parking privileges, newsletter write-ups), and various contests.


In the right context, incentives can be fun, motivating and useful for emphasizing important performance objectives. But they often have short-term impact. And many agents will see through anything that hints at a gimmick to entice certain behaviors. I am not suggesting that all incentives are gimmicks, or that you shouldn’t incorporate them. But there are deeper principles at work in the most successful organizations, which have far more sustainable impact on culture and motivation. Here are ten that consistently stand out:

1. People respond to a clear, compelling mission. A prerequisite to creating a motivating environment is to address the whats and whys. Why do the organization and the contact center exist? What are we trying to achieve? What's in it for customers? For employees? Shareholders? Clear focus, consistently reinforced by the leadership team, is key to pulling people in, aligning objectives and driving action. (Tamara Irminger Underwood highlights how important meaningful work is to millennials—and I believe this is largely true for any generation.)

2. Actions speak louder than words. There are countless organizations that codify and post their values, but then encourage an entirely different set of behaviors through their policies and actions. For example, building customer relationships may be the stated objective, but lack of staffing resources, or standards that stress volume-oriented production over other objectives, may send conflicting messages. When it comes to influence, actions always win out over words.

3. Effective communication cultivates trust. Communication creates meaning and direction for people. When good communication is lacking, the symptoms are predictable: conflicting objectives, unclear values, misunderstandings, lack of coordination, confusion, low morale and employees doing the minimum required. Effective leaders are predisposed to keeping their people in the know.

4. Accurate resource planning is essential. Yes, in the time-driven contact center environment this matters a lot. We've got to have "the right people in the right place at the right times, doing the right things." When that doesn't happen, problems begin to surface: queues build, callers get unhappy, and occupancy goes through the roof. It's stressful. If chronic, it zaps motivation and drains the fun out of the environment.

5. People tend to live up to expectations. Think of your own development over the years. Those coaches, teachers or business mentors who expected the most probably weren't the easiest on you. And they may not have been the kind to win popularity contests. But they believed in you, and you reached a little deeper to live up to their expectations. (For insight on a related theme, see Patrick Russell’s piece on promoting from within.) 

6. Drive out “fear” that inhibits action and hampers motivation. Creating a high-performance culture in which effective communication thrives means driving out fear. This was a theme the late W. Edward Deming (who had such an enormous impact on the quality movement) spoke of passionately, especially in his later years, and is the subject of one of his famous "Fourteen Points." Of course, there are those things that we should be fearful of, such as the consequences of being dishonest, or grossly irresponsible. But it’s the wrong kind of fear—e.g., the fear of taking reasonable risks or the fear of constructive dissent—which we must work to eliminate.

7. Listening encourages buy-in and support. There is a common myth that great leaders create compelling visions from gifted perspectives or inner creativity that others don't possess. But those who have studied leadership point out that, in fact, the visions of some of history's greatest leaders often came from others. Further, when people have a stake in an idea, they tend to work much harder to bring about its success. The art of listening is part of any successful contact center’s DNA—and is one of the essential qualities we also look for in successful agents.

8. Conflict will happen; how it is channeled and addressed makes the difference. In any organization, conflict is inevitable. All of us need to feel free to express ourselves constructively, to share frustrations. Teaching basic conflict management principles can go a long way towards keeping things on track and building a motivating environment. By extension, these skills can go along way in helping agents handle the toughest calls—an issue Laura Sikorski covers in this recent article.

9. It’s True: Sincere recognition goes a long way. In study after study, participants say that personalized and sincere recognition from their managers—in other words, simply being recognized for doing a good job—is a powerful motivator. (Easier said than done, of course: You've got to really know what's going on from top to bottom to get it right ... but isn't that a part of leadership, anyway?)

10. As a leader, who you are as a person is more important than the techniques you use. The reality is, we trust and perform for leaders who are predictable on matters of principle, and who make their positions known.  Convictions, sense of fairness, consistency of behavior and stated values, belief in the capabilities of people—these things have much more impact than any motivational approach ever could.

Many programs in management training offer techniques for motivating people – e.g., provide positive reinforcement, celebrate success, create a "fun" environment, etc.  There's nothing inherently wrong with techniques, unless they become manipulative, used solely for the purpose of getting something from someone else. But in a leadership position, who you are as a person matters much more than the techniques you use.  

Be yourself. Be consistent and relentlessly focused on the values that matter and on achieving the contact center's mission. Encourage involvement and work hard to establish good channels of communication. Expect the best from people. Good things will follow.