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Unlock Innovation at the Contact Center

Concept of a light bulb plugging itself in.In my work as a consultant over the years, two things have always struck me about innovation in contact centers. One is the incredible ideas that so many employees have for how and where to innovate. The other is how few organizations are intentional in encouraging innovation among employees.

Some ideas are incremental—a modest redesign to fields on the desktop, which would allow better workflow; or slight rewording in customer communications that would avoid unnecessary confusion. Others are more dramatic—new products or revamped services that could dramatically impact the organization’s reach and success.

Your customers’ needs and expectations are evolving, and most organizations continue to face many uncertainties and challenges, so innovation is essential. But how do you innovate? How do you leverage the ideas your employees have—the result of working with your products, systems, processes and customers everyday?

The challenge is that many employees see innovation as risky. In some cases, it’s shot down subtly. Mention a new idea, and a manager might respond with a question: “Isn’t our service level under some pressure right now?” Or an unconvincing, “Sounds good, we’ll have to take a look.”

Innovation is a cool word and an appealing idea, but at its heart is change, so you have to be intentional about encouraging and enabling it. Your goal should be universal participation, as anyone can have the next great idea.

Here are five keys to making that happen.

Identify and remove barriers to innovation

Find and remove (as possible) barriers that are getting in the way of innovation. There are many ways to identify barriers. You can, for example, ask what barriers employees face on surveys, work it into informal conversations, or conduct focus groups with employees. Common barriers include a lack of time, being unsure about next steps, or that nothing happened with past ideas. You may hear things that are appalling—but the bigger the barriers, the larger the opportunity.

Ensure supervisors and managers see innovation and track it

The innovation learning curve is steep—and it’s common for managers, especially, to hold tightly to entrenched approaches and processes. You need an environment where new ideas are shared during team meetings, coaching sessions, and informal discussions. You’ll need managers to advocate for employees’ great ideas, and coach them through the process, rather than passing the idea up through the chain with a perfunctory “thanks.” The goal is to see innovation become an inherent part of the employee journey.

Establish an effective process for capturing, analyzing and implementing ideas

You’ll need a process for gathering, consolidating, evaluating, and tracking ideas. Without a thoughtful approach, ideas will get lost, become separated from the contributor, or blocked from going further. Should that happen, employees will for a time ask, “What happened to my idea?” They’ll then quickly give up. On the other hand, where employees see ideas firing everywhere, they understand innovation isn’t just a “program”; it’s a critical and expected part of the culture.

Tie recognition to strategic opportunities

If customer service innovation is a strategic focus, recognize employees who contribute ideas that impact service delivery. If new product innovation is the key to revising an aging product line, be sure to make that connection when acknowledging those contributions. Don’t limit the generation of ideas across any area, but instead concentrate brainpower in critical areas and communicate priorities through recognition.

Tie innovation contributions to the impact they have on customers

As you capture and tell stories, include the germination of ideas, details about the employees who developed them, and even examples of customers impacted by the idea. An insurance organization created life-size cut-outs of their quarterly innovation prize winners, along with a summary of the employee’s innovative idea or project. After being displayed in the lobby each quarter, they were moved to the main hallways, where they lined the walkways of the organization. This created a visual reminder of the company’s priorities.

Your employees notice whether products and services are fresh and evolving. They’ll look at practices and processes. They’ll pick up on what gets recognized at town halls and team meetings. Innovative organizations make innovation a priority.