From Transactions to Interactions

Workforce Strategies to Support Extraordinary Customer Experiences – Part 4

By Penny Reynolds

In the last few issues of The Connection, we introduced the concept of getting beyond the basics of a transaction to a more effective customer interaction and a more memorable, loyalty-inspiring experience. In these articles, we introduced five areas that must be addressed to give that “wow” brand of customer service:

  1. Hire the right people for the job.
  2. Train staff for the “interaction” as well as the
    “transaction” part of the customer contact.
  3. Coach regularly to fine-tune performance and
    reinforce desired behaviors.
  4. Develop individualized motivation programs that encourage each employee to excel.
  5. Assemble a system of quantitative and qualitative measures to ensure you’re getting the behaviors you want.

The last issue’s article addressed coaching issues. In this article, we’ll outline motivational strategies and metrics that matter.

Call Center Motivation Myths and Musts

Every fall, we hear the buzz as call centers prepare for Customer Service Week in October. Many devote special time and attention to showing appreciation to their frontline call center staff during this week and use this time to implement new motivation programs to keep staff fired up and performing at their best.

Unfortunately, many call centers only worry about this show of appreciation and attempt at motivation for this single week. And while there may be great results from some of the short-term programs rolled out during Customer Service Week, many centers lose the Customer Service excitement by the time November rolls around. Zig Ziglar once said, “Some people say motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing. That’s why you have to do it often.” Call centers should certainly know by now that keeping staff motivated to perform well on the phone is an ongoing strategy. You can’t expect a one-week promotion to encourage staff to perform at their peak for very long.

Motivation is something you want to do often and you want to do it right. Below are five ideas and thoughts about motivating staff to perform at their best in the call center.

  1. Forget about “one size fits all” motivation programs.

The hard thing about motivational promotions is that no matter how great or exciting the program is, it’s not going to motivate everybody. Creating a successful motivation program is not a “one size fits all” project. What excites Bob may actually irritate Sally. What makes Rachel want to give that extra effort may push Alex out the door. Everybody is motivated by something and it’s each supervisor’s job to figure out what the motivators are for each person.

There are generally six categories of motivators:

  1. Social bonds (guidance, support, time, attention, encouragement)
  2. Recognition (acknowledgement of desirable behaviors)
  3. Rewards (tangible rewards, trophies, cool stuff)
  4. Development opportunities (career advancement, training, new skills)
  5. Teamwork (feeling part of team, networking, social activities)
  6. Fun (pleasurable activities in the workplace)

Rachel may just need lots of handholding and supervisor attention and will treasure simple recognition for work well done. Alex may prefer not to spend so much time with the boss, but values actual monetary compensation or tangible reward programs. Bob may like learning and will like attending a training class to acquire a new skill better than a gift card. Sally may be the people person that wants to head up the party planning committee or organize the holiday giving program.

The most effective supervisors will spend time with each employee to determine what their biggest motivators are and will organize activities and plan recognition and rewards to fit the needs of each person.

  1. Model good listening behaviors.

One of the simplest things to do in motivating staff to perform is to demonstrate in an active way that you care about them. The best way to do this is to spend time with each person just listening. If your team members feel heard, understood, and valued, they will work harder to produce better results and make you proud.

One of the keys to providing great customer service is to listen carefully to what the customer needs. You can teach frontline staff how to do this by simply being a role model and a good listener yourself during your interactions with them. Be aware of common listening problems and take care you don’t make these common listening mistakes.

The Interrupter. This person finishes other people’s sentences or breaks in to share thoughts before the other person is finished. If you do this, your employees will lose patience with you and quit talking to you. You don’t want agents modeling this behavior with customers since it will not make the customers feel heard and valued.

The Defender. Defensive listeners also interrupt. You may be defending your opinion or standing on a topic. However, if you do this it may prevent you from hearing the ideas and thoughts of others. Customers view this communications as company-focused and not customer-focused.

The Transmitter. These people spend much more time talking than listening. A wise person said we were given two ears and one mouth for a reason – to spend more time listening than talking. Demonstrate this with your staff and you’ll see them do the same with your customers.

  1. Recognize good performance on a timely, consistent basis.

One-on-one feedback is critical to reinforce desirable behaviors being demonstrated by your staff. Employees need to know what to repeat and what not to do again and recognized behavior is repeated behavior. Try to catch them doing something right and recognize it as soon as possible since the more time that passes between the behavior and the recognition, the less effective the feedback.

If you’re waiting on perfect performance to recognize, you may be waiting a long time. Sometimes we need to recognize initiative as well as the final end result. Recognizing improvements along the way will help reinforce behaviors that you want to see repeated and the employee will make continual progress toward the ultimate goal.

Use different means to recognize. Always do one-on-one, but in addition provide the recognition in writing sometimes. And while one-on-one is nice to build the relationship between agent and supervisory, it’s also good to sometimes provide the recognition on a public basis. Announcing accomplishments in team meetings, forwarding customer praise messages via email to all team members and management, and using great calls as training examples for the team are all ways to provide recognition on a more public basis.

  1. Match rewards to employee values.

It’s important not just to recognize outstanding performance, but to reward it in a meaningful way to each employee. Rewards fall into the area of social reinforcement (the recognition discussed above) and tangible reinforcement. In call centers today, this tangible reinforcement takes the form of gift cards, movie tickets, trips, electronics, and many other items. The key to building an effective reward program is to have rewards that are viewed as desirable and valuable by each employee.

Reward programs are not “one size fits all” in terms of perceived value. While one person may be thrilled with tickets to a theatre or sporting event, another would much prefer housecleaning services or a catalog certificate. Some might perceive lunch with the company Vice President a powerful reward, while others may see this as an intimidating negative experience.

In selecting the reward options for your team members, careful consideration should be given to the “trophy value” of the reward. The effect of a reward will have more lasting value if there is visible evidence of it in the workplace, either on the wall or on the employee’s desk. The item can be an actual trophy or plaque or anything that serves as a visual sign that the employee has excelled in some way.

  1. Motivate by team as well as by individual.

When people are happy in their job, they’re going to perform better. One of the big factors in ensuring people are happy in their job is to create a work environment where they feel a part of a team and have a social network. One of the best ways to create this sense of belonging is to use a team structure in the call center.

Unfortunately, there are many work environment realities in the call center that limit team-building activities. The constant call demand prohibits everyone from stopping work at a certain time and joining in team activities or events. Team meetings are sometimes difficult to schedule on a planned basis, let alone on an impromptu basis as might be the case in other areas of the business.

While it’s always been challenging to figure out ways to motivate teams as a whole, today’s new (and likely to be ongoing) structure of most folks working from home have added another layer of challenge. It’s important to find ways to check in more often and to plan ways for the team to get together in this virtual environment to ensure everyone feels connected. Stay tuned in the next issue to hear about how centers have found ways to make these interactions happen.

Measuring What Matters for Improved Interactions

Some of the standard quotes related to measurements certainly apply in the call center world. These quotes lend some insight into a performance measurement and reporting process that encourages the right behaviors related to customer interactions and call center performance.

  1. If you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

Let’s start with, “If you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it” as the obvious first choice. Without data and numerical evidence of performance, it would be awfully hard to identify what to reinforce and reward and what needs work.

Many of the strategies discussed so far focus on people and processes and not technology. However, we do need ways to measure and ensure that these parts are working and that’s where technology plays an important role. Having tools that provide historical reporting and dashboard indicators of both individual and call center performance give us the evidence and information we need to more effectively monitor and shape performance of teams and individual agents.

  1. Just because you can measure it, doesn’t mean you should.

Many call centers today have gotten a little carried away with the numbers, so here’s another quote to live by – “Just because you can measure it, doesn’t mean you should.” With ACDs and reporting tools that enable hundreds of reports in every imaginable format, it’s easy to get information overload. It’s important to weed through all the possibilities and settle on some reports that give you actionable information from which to make changes and reinforce behaviors.

Just because you have 185 possible reports available from the technology doesn’t mean you need to use them all. Use them as signals to indicate performance problems or outstanding work and then go out on the floor to coach the specific behaviors that lead to the numbers you want to see.

  1. Just because you should measure it, it doesn’t mean you can.

The reverse of the previous statement is also true. We measure many things we don’t need just because reports are readily available, but unfortunately some of the things we most need to know in terms of reviewing the success of our customer interactions are not easily measurable.

The most obvious example of something we should measure but can’t – at least easily – is first call resolution (FCR). It’s the measure most closely correlated with customer satisfaction and loyalty, and yet it’s one of the hardest things to measure. There’s no single report that pops out this number and so it has to be pieced together from many sources. It’s a great number to know as a measure of customer satisfaction and also a measure of team and individual performance that points to relevant coaching opportunities, but it takes some work to get there.

  1. You can expect what you inspect.

Be careful which measures you choose and what gets fed back to the staff, because, “You can expect what you inspect.” The best example of this one is, of course, average handle time. If the numbers you’re feeding back to agents at the end of the month are their average handle time statistics with how they compare to the goal, the next time the staff are likely to give you a number that’s closer to expectations.

For example, if staff have been told that the handle time expectation is 300 seconds and you’ve been reporting numbers that show them at 330 seconds, then they’ll look for ways to shave off the 30 seconds, which could include rushing the customer or not doing proper listening and discovery questions to uncover sales possibilities. Coaching to the right behaviors, rather than showing them the numbers (like the coach pointing to the deficit on the scoreboard) will give better results than focusing on the numbers alone.

  1. If you torture the numbers long enough, they will admit to anything.

Finally, remember that “If you torture the numbers long enough, they will admit to anything.” Schedule adherence statistics illustrate this one best. Some centers adjust the numbers so much to reflect schedule exceptions that adherence numbers are meaningless. In an effort to meet adherence goals, the numbers are manipulated past the point of providing coachable information. So watch out that in your quest to hit performance numbers, you’re erasing the very information that can assist in actually making the performance better.


Getting a “wow” customer experience to happen requires two key ingredients – the transaction and the interaction. Much of the impression that is left after the call is molded by the “interaction” part of the exchange. Getting staff to deliver their end of great interactions requires that five essential elements be in place:

  1. Hire the right people for the job.
  2. Train staff for the “interaction” as well as the “transaction” part of the customer contact.
  3. Coach regularly to fine-tune performance and reinforce desired behaviors.
  4. Develop individualized motivation programs that encourage each employee to excel.
  5. Assemble a system of quantitative and qualitative measures to ensure you’re getting the behaviors you want.

However, the best of interactions can’t overcome a transaction that was handled poorly due to system or technology issues. Frontline staff giving their all won’t be able to erase customers’ transaction problems. Just as it’s important to get the right people in place, train them properly, coach for improved performance, and reward desired behaviors, it’s also critical to have the proper technology in place to support the transaction. Solutions that provide ease of use for both the customer and the agent are critical for seamless transactions where great interaction skills can shine through.