Published: June 17, 2016 | Comments
I was recently reminded of one of those dark secrets from my past as a customer service manager. Wow! I made that sound way too scandalous, didn’t I?
Back in the day, I was managing a small team and members of the team started complaining about a “ceiling” and their inability to move up. The truth was that in customer service, there wasn’t really a need for more leadership positions and the company hadn’t grown large enough for folks to move to other roles. In the same breath, we didn’t exactly want to part ways with a great group of talented customer service professionals. Hiring and training is expensive!
In an attempt to mitigate the ceiling feeling (yes that rhymes) we created a multi-tiered incentive program that factored in things like employee tenure, added responsibility, and external training. Our customer service representatives were incentivized for sticking around and gaining experience and education that would make them better at their job. We had five tiers to the program and each tier represented a pay increase along with the added responsibility.
As I think back on that program, there are valuable lessons to be learned from it. Let’s look briefly at the pros and cons.
Hung on to the good ones- Eliminating the “ceiling” that existed in our department allowed us to hang on to some very talented folks and avoid the challenge of the constant backfilling and training that comes with high turnover. In a growing start up, it also allowed us to hang on to future leaders (leads, supervisors, managers, engineers, HR, and programmers) as the company grew enough to create new positions for them. I take great pride in the good turnover that I was a part of, allowing people to blossom into roles inside and outside of customer service.
Initially improved morale on the team- Any time you can remove a “ceiling” and offer opportunities for growth and development, it can be a major boost to the team. Employees who increase their value to the company should be recognized and rewarded for it.
Hung on to some of the bad ones- I use the word “bad” loosely here. None of my truly bad hires (The guy who smoked way too much pot and the girl sleeping at her desk on her second day) came anywhere close to moving through the incentive program. When I say bad, I’m talking about those folks that met the requirements for a time but then seemingly didn’t apply the advanced skills they were supposed to have had.
Long term dip in morale- This caused a dip in team morale as high performers, who in some cases were earning less money, often had to pick up the slack for these folks. It didn’t help that everyone knew one another’s level in the program and therefore knew approximately what the other person’s salary was.
Created a sense of entitlement- By the end of its life, the program was a right for anyone who put in their time. For many it was too easy to get a raise but not continually earn that position with their performance. Awarding individuals for putting in their time is a difficult sell to upper management and owners who need to be convinced of the value.
The cons are really what stick with me to this day when I think about our incentive program. If I was going to do it all over again today, here are are few things I would do differently:
- Set a clear vision- I would step back a bit and think about our vision and the value that this provides to our customers and the organization. Jeff Toister has written extensively on this topic.
- Performance management- I would make sure my performance management aligned with this program. This means having job descriptions and goals up front that are reviewed regularly. It also includes having consistent KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) for the team and individuals to meet to ensure they continue to earn their position.
- Regular one on ones- I discovered the one on one way too late in my career. These are essential to the supervisor employee relationship. I think the “bad” ones I referred to earlier wouldn’t have been so bad if I had spent more time checking in with them and setting goals.
- Be consistent- I actually did many of the previous on this list for a time but for this to work, it cannot be the flavor of the month. It needs to be consistent.
In closing, I’d like to back up just a bit. I was a customer service manager for a small, growing company. I was learning on the job and many days my work resembled that of the folks I was managing. That included staying up late most night and weekends to clear out the never ending email queue. If this resonates with you, you are not alone. Seek out advice and hopefully my successes and failures can provide some insight and encouragement.
If you have experience with similar incentive programs, do share. I’d love to hear about some of your successes and failures.