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How to Motivate Contact Center Agents (Hint: It's Not About Pizza or Gift Cards)

What motivates contact center agents to do a good job? Is motivation innate, like the ability to sing on key or roll your tongue? Or does motivation come from the managers’ offer of the perfect incentive: a flexible schedule, a higher salary, or free pizza in the breakroom?

To answer these fundamental questions, I’m turning again to the treasure trove of feedback we’ve received to our #FreeToHelp survey, which is open to any and all frontline customer service agents. Less than six months ago, Jenny Dempsey (CustomerServiceLife.com blogger) and I started the #FreeToHelp movement. We bravely set out to discover how willing agents are to help customers and whether they feel their managers give them the tools and permission that enable great service. So far, about 300 agents have completed the survey. Many of them offered great insights into their own motivation and the ways their managers build (or kill) their motivation. I’ve synthesized their responses into tips you can follow in your own customer care organization. If you want to motivate your agents, read on!

Employee motivation

Motivated to do a good job: Some people are just born that way

When I read the survey comments of frontline agents who are born motivated, I was actually touched. We all have known these agents. Some of us are lucky enough to have them on our team or to have received customer service from them. Two such agents offered these comments on the #FreeToHelp survey:

  • Agent #1: I am here to help customers. I get paid to help customers. As long as I’m on the clock, I'm 100% available to help any customers who contact me.
  • Agent #2: Working here can be busy and overwhelming, but I think each person has the ability to decide whether to see obstacles or opportunities. I seek to find the opportunities.

Innately motivated people want to understand how everything works so they can provide better service

Self-driven agents want to know more so they can help more. They want to understand Engineering’s processes, Procurement’s rules, and Marketing’s promo code plans for the next 10 months. It’s not that they want to work in a different department; it’s that they want to understand the other departments, so they can answer customers’ questions authoritatively and accurately.

  • I’d like to know more about the credit side of things, so I can assist customers further with their accounts.
  • I wish I understood our contract with our freight carriers better. That way I could track shipments and give customers their status.

These highly motivated agents want managers to break down silos. They want to shadow people who work in other parts of the company, and they want to show others how customer service works, too.

Consistent support from Management is motivating; Random support is not

Agents appreciate and need support from their managers, but they’re not motivated by occasional bursts of support. They want to be able to rely on it.  Just contrast the comments from these three agents:

  • Agent #1: Every week, I document my concerns. My manager brings these lists to their weekly meeting for attention and review. That’s how they make changes and fix issues that are being reported.
  • Agent #2: I make requests to leadership to let me help my customers. Time and time again they let us have more freedom to help our customers by making the decisions on our own. This just makes more sense than to always have to get my manager’s approval each time I’m on the phone with a customer.
  • Agent #3: They'll listen to me and all, but I know nothing will ever be done unless it directly affects the manager personally. It’s just come and go. Impressive track record, that?”

Knowing your managers meet regularly to review and act upon your concerns is as comforting as seeing your parents hold hands. It’s good to know the people who care about you are working together for the health of the “family.” By contrast, intermittent support isn’t motivating at all. It’s heartbreaking for an agent to realize that their manager is capable of supporting them but not capable of doing it regularly. Such behavior on the manager’s part is sure to cause a “why bother?” attitude in the agent—the very opposite of motivation.

Motivated agents get a charge out of fixing problems

A theme emerged in the comments of the most motivated agents who completed the survey: they kinda like fixing customers’ problems. They see problems as a challenge, believe they’re empowered by their managers to fix the problems, and get a big happy head rush when they solve thorny issues.

One time I had to go through like three years of purchase history to solve the customer’s problem. Then I told my manager I wanted to give that customer a $2,000 credit. It was worth it. Even though that wasn’t the full purchase price, the customer was very happy, and I felt good about what I did. I was able to help her trust us and know that we are truly here to help. It felt really good :)

You can see how various aspects of motivation feed each other. Agents who believe they are empowered to make decisions view problems as just yet another way to help make customers happy. This attitude is the very essence of confidence and of motivation.

Join Leslie this May 21-24 at ICMI Contact Center Expo. She'll deliver a session called "How to Write Well in the World of SMS and Social Media."

Lack of creature comforts can destroy motivation

Some agents explained that bad food and broken furniture was hurting their motivation. If this is true in your organization, you should take steps to fix the situation now.

  • We need better chairs. Not kidding. My back is killing me at the end of every shift. In the morning, I don’t even want to come to work.
  • We need a real cafeteria. The company says it’s promoting a healthier lifestyle, but all we have is a vending machine filled with unhealthy food choices.

Customer service work can be stressful and repetitive. Staying motivated under those conditions is difficult by definition. So if your agents make any of these modest requests, do something! Get moving to fix the problems.

Obviously, being asked to lie to customers isn’t motivating

If it’s true that the truth will set you free, it’s also true that chronic lying or the “systematic sharing of half-truths” with customers will kill agents’ motivation. One agent commented:

We are encouraged to lie to customers constantly under the illusion of the word "should." As in, “Your package SHOULD be there by tomorrow,” when we know it will not. “Your order should go through next time,” even when we know it will not. “The part should be back in stock next week,” but…yeah.

We know this type of verbal run-around burns our relationship with customers. The comments on our survey show that it damages agent motivation, too.

Chronic problems are motivation killers

Agents seem to remain motivated when bad things happen once in a while, but when the same bad thing happens over and over, they start to lose hope and motivation (which is a kind of hope).

  • Agent #1: Why do we continually have system updates in the middle of the workday? I have brought this up numerous times and I’m not the only one. These updates can prevent me from placing orders for customers, being able to cancel orders, or setting up warranty replacements for the customers.
  • Agent #2: Everything is broken all the time, so trying to do your job is like pulling your nails off your fingers and getting cancer all at the same!

The lack of a fix conveys a “don’t care” attitude on the part of management, which is contagious to agents.

Lack of time to think and answer makes agents unmotivated

Some managers think that agents find pressure to close calls and chats or churn out emails motivating or at least challenging. But the survey responses should shut down that notion. Agents hate to be rushed. Truly motivated agents want to truly help customers, so being pressured to get off the phone or end the chat upsets them.

  • Agent #1: I had a call where a customer was not sure how to install his RAM. I couldn’t take the time to explain how to properly install it, and the customer felt really rushed. He decided to return the part and I was like, “Yeah, why do they even have me doing this job if I can’t have the time to do the job?”
  • Agent #2: I wish that I was given enough time (AHT) to explain more things to my customer.
  • Agent #3: Allow me some time with no phones to have a moment to really think and research a customer’s request.  Specifically, if we want to be a one-stop-shop, I need time to find these items for the customer.

Many managers believe that the lack of handle time requirements will allow agents to dawdle. I hope these comments will make those managers question those beliefs. What are the handle time requirements doing to agents’ abilities to help? What are they doing to agents’ motivation? Managers shouldn’t blindly assume handle time is improving either one.

Being cubicle-ized makes agents less motivated

I have to give all the props to the survey respondent who coined the word “cubicle-zed,” which is one of those words that should be in the language but wasn’t, until now. This agent wrote:

We're all so cubicle-ized, and due to the nature of our work, there really isn't much interaction with team members. It can get really lonely and boring.

Several agents reported feeling cut off from each other, which hurt their motivation. And while the annual holiday party or occasional happy hour can get people out of their cubicles, these one-off events don’t provide the ongoing motivation people need to build a sense of community at work.

When it comes to motivating agents, the #FreeToHelp survey feedback gives managers a few clear steps to follow:

  1. Learn to recognize innately motivated agents during the hiring process or when they’re on your team. Get out of their way.
  2. Establish practices that help moderately motivated agents become more motivated. For example, if you solicit their input, do so regularly and act upon what they tell you.
  3. Stop doing things that harm motivation. Stop measuring handle time? Buy comfortable chairs? Update computer systems at night?

Want to Join the #FreeToHelp Movement? Our movement is growing, and we want you in it! Visit http://freetohelp.com/ to learn more.