Team Empowerment in the Contact Center

Everyone can agree that it’s important to empower your workforce but developing best practices to boost retention and morale in the contact center space is critical. At InfoCision, we have decades of experience, which equates to a plethora of time-tested, valuable ideas.

With the holiday season in full swing, it’s a time like no other to evaluate how your management team offers appreciation and encouragement to everyone on your workforce, especially including your team on the phone. From gamification and e-cards built-in our screens each day, to holiday-themed grand prize giveaways, we motivate our agents to provide excellent customer service in every call. However, empowerment is more than just the stuff money can buy. It’s:

    • Building an environment where people genuinely want to come to work – a place that fosters self-esteem, builds confidence, and feels like family
    • Believing in the values of the organizations and brands we’re asking others to support
    • Having supervisors and managers who practice empathy and active-listening, remembering birthdays and asking about sick grandkids
    • Visiting the call center floor regularly with senior management who are invested in acquiring feedback from agents, in person, themselves
    • Focusing on finding solutions within an atmosphere of remarkable teamwork, not just debriefings venting about common challenges
    • Ensuring your team has the tools they need to offer an unmatched customer experience

     

  • Genuine job satisfaction comes from more than appreciative Christmas cards, offering team lunches, and coordinating cheesy holiday festivities. True empowerment is generated through a culture of operational excellence, in a commitment to the continual and sincere encouragement and inspiration of your workforce – not just during the holidays, but throughout the entire year.

Trust Your Frontline Staff to Deliver Outstanding Customer Service

Do you want to boost morale, productivity and engagement in your contact center? Then start trusting your frontline staff to do their jobs and deliver stellar customer service. Let go of the command and control approach so often applied in contact centers for one that truly focuses on customer service and trusts staff to deliver it.

While processes are purposeful and necessary, they’ll never make up for poorly motivated staff. In addition to setting overall direction, contact center managers should introduce practices that give customer care Communicators a sense of control over their work—and even add some fun to the mix. Some items to consider include gamification, real-time communication and Communicator empowerment. These elements can help to build trust and engagement.

To unleash the potential within your contact center for better business outcomes, consider the following recommendations:

Initiate Communicator focus groups: Who knows your customers better than your frontline staff? So, give them the opportunity to share feedback with you on a regular basis. Ask Communicators for their input on customer pain points and frustrations, ways to improve the service experience and even how to enhance your offerings. To ensure this practice remains fruitful, put a process in place that provides follow-up to staff on issues raised and recommendations made.

Make training a higher priority: You’ve hired the best people, so now inspire them to do their best for you through a comprehensive onboarding program. A variety of avenues exists for offering this to staff in ways that support their learning styles. Consider a mix of traditional in-classroom training and online interactive e-learning and e-coaching. Your efforts to enrich their knowledge and skills will let them know you value their contributions.

Establish and measure goals: Everyone on staff should have a clear understanding of business targets. Make sure KPIs and SLAs transparently and fairly reflect performance—and never single individuals out as poor examples. Instead, look for trends and group problems to address in a diplomatic and constructive way.

Schedule to reduce stress: Put the latest forecasting technology to work to right-size your contact center. Consider seasonal fluctuations in business, holidays and new marketing campaigns when predicting staffing needs. This will go a long way to reduce stress from overworking. Another important tool for work-life balance is flexible hours and working from home/remotely. Both are tools that exhibit trust in your workers. Recent innovations in self-service functions allow agents to trade shifts, request time off and voice other preferences—all of which can be automatically approved instead of waiting for a manager to respond.

Boost contact center status: A contact center staffed with well-trained, motivated and trusted individuals is a boon for business. Giving frontline staff a way to work with other departments to learn tips and tricks for delighting customers is another way to engage them more thoroughly in the business and develop trust. Managers should make it a point to promote the successes of their team to senior executives to continue the evolution of trust and respect for Communicators.

These strategies for the contact center, when deployed properly and consistently, will grow trust, improve productivity and increase customer satisfaction. It’s a win-win-win!

The Unexpected Value of Sharing Knowledge

We hear a lot these days about customer service that goes “above and beyond,” but what does that really mean? Customers themselves may not even know, but they know it when they see it. One way your Communicators can provide this level of service is to answer questions that customers didn’t even know they had when they called.

Think about the last time someone gave you an unexpected “tip.” Maybe it was at the paint store, where the clerk steered you—without your having to ask—to a ½-inch-nap lambswool roller, and let you in on the secret that it’s considered the perfect roller by pro painters (it holds plenty of paint without adding too much texture). Or maybe you were wandering around the plant nursery and a worker suggested a trick for opening closed flower buds quickly (put them in warm water first, then cold water). She had no idea you were buying them for company that very night.

If you think people are delighted when they get tips and tricks like these about a purchase, you’re right. Why? Everyone feels good when someone else takes time out of their day, even if it’s just a moment, to help them. Second, we appreciate the “inside” information that we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else simply because we didn’t know enough to ask in the first place.

Here’s where your Communicators can elevate the customer experience. As brand ambassadors, they are considered experts about a product or service. They’ve answered thousands of questions about it, had the same number of conversations about it, and are privy to a great deal of information that customers will likely never know. Taking a bit of extra time on the phone or typing one extra text message with a golden nugget of useful information could be just what the situation needs to turn an ordinary service interaction into an extraordinary one.

Critical Conversations in the Contact Center

Your brand voice, as well as the customer experience you deliver, can be either buoyed or destroyed for a customer by one poor interaction with a customer care Communicator. It all comes down to that single individual and how effectively he or she resolves the customer’s issue.

That’s a lot of pressure on Communicators—and their managers, who must ensure their front-line staff are prepared to deliver the best possible customer service. Toward this end, it’s critical that Communicators are equipped with the training and tools they need to meet customer expectations.

Those components determine the quality of the conversations between callers and Communicators. Training and tools need to be dispensed in line with contact center priorities and trends. For example, top customer service trends during the past year included omnichannel, mobile, self-help, social media and customer experience.

Start improving conversations by collecting and analyzing your contact center data. With the right tools, you’ll discover the journey your customers take before they call your facility. This will help you determine the level of service they’ll expect upon their arrival.

Contact center technology solutions also give managers the ability to understand how Communicator training/coaching and tool usage are impacting customer service—and, ultimately, the bottom line. While statistics, such as average handle time, tell part of the story, decision makers more and more are looking at metrics that indicate how the customer is being affected, such as level of satisfaction.

By truly understanding customer expectations and how best to meet those demands, as well as empowering Communicators with the appropriate tools and knowledge, contact centers will be primed to foster stellar conversations between employees and customers.

Using Gamification to Motivate Your Contact Center Staff

Are the rewards you offer your Communicators sufficiently motivating and engaging that they translate into benefits for your customers? That is, are rewards—from employee recognition to paid time off to wages—enough to overcome job stressors in the heightened customer service environment of today’s contact center?

Appropriate motivation becomes ever more relevant as Communicator responsibilities continue to extend beyond simply reading from a screen. Today, these customer care associates are expected to empathize with customers, use initiative to solve problems and remain focused on conveying a professional demeanor during each and every interaction.

The methods used by contact centers to motivate and engage Communicators to perform these duties were analyzed recently by ContactBabel, with results published in a new study, “The US Contact Center Decision Makers’ Guide 2016.”

The study shows that the 221 contact center managers and directors who responded to the ContactBabel questionnaire believe that their reward systems for Communicators are generally effective. Yet, ContactBabel found this to be true only when the reward was monetary, which approach was only used by 68 percent of respondents (compared to the 86 percent who use employee recognition).

In fact, cash bonuses were the least used reward.

For the most part then, contact center leaders think they are motivating and engaging Communicators in an appropriate and effective manner. Yet, by using attrition and absence rates, ContactBabel discovered a strong correlation between low salary levels and high staff attrition. The picture was a little different for absence rates, however, with those contact centers that ranked their reward programs “very effective” having fewer absences.

Overall, the findings present contact center leaders, who are not in a position to give significant wage increases to their customer care staff, with the need to find another reliable motivator. Enter gamification.

Gamification

Gamification is an approach for improving Communicator engagement, and aligning behaviors and characteristics with those of the contact center and wider enterprise. Basically, it involves turning work tasks into games. The opportunity for reward and recognition is presented at an individual level, with team-based successes also quantified. Achieving company-set goals is rewarded with points and badges.

Gamification increases Communicator engagement in a handful of ways:

  • Rewards those behaviors and characteristics that most closely align with contact center and company goals
  • Provides immediate feedback on performance to employees
  • Improves group performance through the pooling of knowledge and collaboration
  • Reduces ramp-up time for new Communicators, as it provides real-time feedback that encourages positive behaviors
  • Cuts down on time that managers must spend running incentive programs, and delivers them more objectively

Gamification requires company leaders to carefully set goals to avoid the risk of negative repercussions. For example, rewarding Communicators based on average handling time could cause them to drop difficult calls or not address customer concerns fully. Also, prepare for the novelty of the technique to wear off over time. This means that managers need to keep games fresh and goals relevant. It’s also quite possible that rewards will need to increase to maintain motivation levels.

How to Resolve the Top Three Most Frustrating Customer Service Experiences

Microsoft’s annual U.S. State of Multichannel Customer Service Report is filled with helpful insights about customer expectations for service and engagement, and it confirms something most of us already know: A full 98 percent of U.S. consumers say that customer service is very important or somewhat important in their choice of, or loyalty to, a brand.

There will always be challenges in achieving the highest level of customer service, though. Some of those issues were brought to light in the report, which asked consumers to name what they consider to be the most frustrating aspects of a customer service experience. Let’s take a look at the top three customer frustrations and consider how they might be addressed in any one of our contact centers. Who knows—maybe next year we can bump these off the list entirely (or at least move them to the bottom of the list!).

  1. Being passed between agents was cited by 22 percent of respondents as a frustration, topping the list as a whole. Interactive voice response (IVR) systems can go a long way toward resolving this frustration. While IVR is already widely in use in contact centers, it’s not always used to its full potential. IVR is great for automating simple, repetitive tasks, but it can also direct calls to specific individuals who are most qualified to help. Assignments are made based on selections chosen by the callers as they progress through the system. But don’t stop there—take customer surveys to get actionable feedback to improve your IVR. Continuous review and redesign of the system will ensure that customers reach the right party every time, with no bouncing around. If a Communicator is forced to transfer a call, be sure you have the technology available to pass customer information from one employee’s screen to the next.
  2. Having to contact a brand or organization multiple times for the same issue was cited by 21 percent of respondents as the second-greatest frustration. Before you fix anything else, be sure your Communicators aren’t being incentivized to wrap up calls quickly. If your performance metrics emphasize average handle time, you may be unwittingly cutting off calls before they come to a full resolution. Rather than get rid of the metric altogether, combine it with other metrics that focus on customer satisfaction. Some businesses are making a concerted effort to resolve problems on the first call by training Communicators to dig deep for answers—putting customers on hold while they contact other parties in an effort to find an answer. Still other businesses are providing Communicators with a robust knowledge base to serve as an information resource, which could be useful for solving a host of problems.
  3. IVR automation/not being able to reach a live person was cited by 18 percent of consumers as a major frustration. IVR is often cited as a customer pain point, but again, a more thoughtful implementation delivers better results. Some IVR systems don’t offer customers a way out, so make sure yours does. To keep the use of this “exit strategy” to a minimum, simplify your menu options. Providing four or five options is considered optimal, and prioritize them so the most commonly selected ones are stated first. Only include essential information, and incorporate a callback feature to prevent too-long holding times. Very often IVR is the beginning of the customer service journey, so it should be considered as important as any other channel in the contact center. If you dedicate the appropriate funds, time and effort into getting it right, you’ll reap the benefits in happier—and less frustrated—customers.

Click here for a brief summary of customer expectations around the globe as presented in the Microsoft report.

Offshore Contact Centers—Is Your Message Getting Lost at Sea?

As part of a cost-initiative movement during the mid-1990s, contact center companies took a leap across the pond and began transferring their centers offshore. In doing so, these businesses were able to keep their wallets a little bit fuller, but not without lowering their customer satisfaction scores. This unintended outcome eventually hastened a return to U.S. soil for a good number of these offshore adventurers.

Communications between Americans and representatives at offshore contact centers often suffer from language barriers such as accents and pronunciation, creating customer dissatisfaction. Besides actual anomalies in voice interactions, cultural differences can cause communication issues too—usually from problems in message transmission. Values, beliefs and expectations for behavior accompany all human interactions, and often these are significantly different between countries, leading to missed cues and even insults.

Any of these communication gaffs can cause callers to feel undervalued because they add time to inquiry resolution.

After all, one key to making customers feel appreciated is to respect their time. Think about restaurants that give their customers a small remote control so that they can easily notify the valet service to bring the car around so that it’s waiting when they exit. Or, consider a contact center’s time-saving option that provides a callback service to customers waiting in its IVR queue.

Conversely, when customers and Communicators must continually repeat themselves to be understood, quick questions can turn into aggravating time drains. Even the technology that supports contact center functions can inadvertently add to the call’s duration; bad phone service or a poor Internet connection can ruin a conversation before it gets off the ground.

Quality communications, or the lack thereof, go beyond just accents and cultural differences, of course. When you offshore customer service, you increase the likelihood that call scripts will be followed too closely—in order to avoid introducing vocabulary and cultural hiccups—making customers feel like they’re talking to robots and/or being given irrelevant information. Plus, canned responses slow down the whole customer service process.

Remember that customer service has become one of the most important aspects of a company’s business. In fact, research shows that 66 percent of consumers who switched brands did so because of poor service. More often than not, cutting costs means cutting corners—a decision that may be compromising to your brand.

 

Gearing Up Your Contact Center for the Holiday Rush

From early October through December, the contact center reflects both the uptick in holiday shopping and the push to hit the year’s projected numbers.  When you’re standing in a line waiting for the doors to open on some retailer’s one-day only seasonal sale, just imagine the hold queues forming in contact centers that didn’t prepare for the onslaught! Due to the rise of mobile shopping, and the phenomenon that is Cyber Monday, the holidays now represent one of the busiest times of the year for contact centers.

Most contact centers bring on extra Communicators for peak holiday business. Here at InfoCision, we bring on about 500 new employees, which represents one-eighth of our normal Communicator workforce.

To be a prepared contact center that continues to satisfy customers during holiday shopping periods, here are a few additional suggestions:

Use data to forecast the rush: Review historical data, industry projections and other intelligence to estimate how many extra hands you’ll need to meet customer demand at this time of the year. Beyond hiring Communicators, consider adding staff to handle monitoring of social media channels and other contact center functions. Consider whether extending service to 24/7 availability or enlisting an outsourced contact center would enhance the customer experience over the holidays.

Acclimate existing and new staff: Even experienced Communicators hired for the season need some time to acclimate to new surroundings, so don’t wait until the last minute. It’s also a good idea to team new hires with expert Communicators to teach them the ropes.  Also, prepare all staff to handle seasonal promotions by giving them written materials detailing how to upsell and cross-sell products, and provide additional training and scripts to help Communicators maximize revenue.

Support Communicators: Some contact centers have gone to extremes to keep their Communicators happy during the holiday rush—offering chair massages, for example. Others provide free coffee and cookies delivered to workstations and bring in complementary lunches. Still, others hold drawings for merchandise and gifts. To build team support, try an ugly Christmas sweater contest or offer a prize for best decorated cubicles.

Make sure your holiday shoppers—who may contact your business only at this time of year—have a great experience with your brand. When you’re well-prepared for the rush, you can build stronger relationships that will last all year.

 

Tactics for Hiring the Right Communicators for Your Contact Center

Only people uniquely qualified to fit an ideal contact center Communicator profile are going to stick around long enough to justify the investment made to hire and train them. After all, the turnover rate in the contact center industry is between 30 and 45 percent, compared to 15 percent overall for other U.S. industries. So, finding candidates with traits that match up with the job requirements should be a priority for contact centers that strive to provide stellar customer service.

After all, a contact center is only as good as its Communicators. So, how can you avoid wasting time, energy and money on Communicators who are ill-suited to the position?

First, realize the challenges you’re up against. The United States is host to approximately 5 million contact center jobs (with about 12 percent of those outsourced overseas). That makes the job of contact center Communicator one of the most common in the world, meaning that many businesses are competing for the same pool of workers.

The point is that contact center supervisors need to have high expectations when hiring Communicators despite these hurdles; elsewise, customer service and business as a whole will suffer. For instance, seek candidates with top-notch communication skills, speed and a willingness to go the extra mile for customers.

Beyond that, define your own ideal applicant. You can easily do this by assessing the qualifications possessed by your existing top Communicators and extrapolating those into your profile. Look for things like a capability for fast and efficient resolution of issues. According to the Avaya Preference Report, 41 percent of contact center users rate this skill as the most important factor influencing their perception of the interaction.

When interviewing candidates, how can you determine whether they possess these traits or any others you desire?

Asking the right questions will take you far. When assessing critical thinking, for instance, you might ask a candidate to describe his or her biggest challenge when interacting with customers, and how he or she resolves it when it comes up. This will give you insight into what a potential Communicator considers a challenge and how he or she works through a problem.

Here are some questions that’ll help you find the right hires for your contact center:

  1. What motivates you in the workplace? If they talk about wanting to help others overcome problems, you could have a good fit.
  2. How do you learn? It would be good to know that the candidate has an ability or technique for quickly absorbing new information. Customers have more confidence in Communicators who can answer their questions without pause (ostensibly, to look up information or ask a colleague).
  3. What does being a team player mean to you? Assertive and sociable Communicators can boost overall contact center performance and morale.

When you’re looking to make your next great hire, be sure to attract the right people, interview them thoroughly, and evaluate their skills accordingly—doing so may require more attention up front, but will undoubtedly save you time and money in the long run.

Tips for Offering Feedback in the Contact Center

As a contact center leader, you spend a great deal of time observing Communicators during customer interactions. In this way, you have become quite familiar with the individual strengths and weaknesses of your team members. Your job is to convey these observations to your Communicators on a regular basis and help them perform their best.

Understand, though, that what you say to your Communicators, and the way you say it, will go a long way in shaping the culture of your contact center. Regardless of your intent, constructive criticism can actually be very destructive if poorly communicated. It can undermine the working relationship of those involved, making it less likely that they will be able to collaborate well in the future. Harsh, or inept, criticism has also been found to increase the likelihood of future conflicts, as well as directly impair the ability of people to do the work for which they have been criticized.

So, rather than attempting to give Communicators constructive criticism, try approaching them with positive feedback and coaching support. By doing so, there will be no hurt pride or animosity in your contact center. Act as a mentor and emphasize the Communicator’s strengths. Granted, sometimes you have to deliver criticism—in which case, break your feedback down into three segments, the Praise-Improve-Praise technique.

Begin by highlighting your employees’ skills, and express your appreciation for their work. Then, transition into the improvement stage. Be clear, but considerate, on the areas that they can improve upon. Reiterate both the praise and the improvement, and conclude with a final praise—this is crucial to ensure that the Communicator feels appreciated and welcomed.

Communicators who feel appreciated are more likely to lengthen their tenure with your company, reducing turnover, which is expensive and bad for team morale. Plus, when Communicators do move on, they will be more likely to post positive employee reviews on employment websites, helping you to attract qualified workers in the future.

Use these guiding principles when delivering your Praise-Improve-Praise conversation to employees:

Offer feedback privately: Generally speaking, direct feedback is best given in private, even when it is positive in nature, to avoid embarrassing the Communicator in front of others.

Avoid accusations: Even if you are certain that a Communicator is in the wrong about something, don’t hurl accusations at him or her. Ease into the topic at hand, and give the person a chance to explain his or her reasoning for taking a particular course of action. Ask questions, and try to figure out the root cause of an issue.

Be genuine: Reinforce the fact that you are trying to help the Communicator improve. Tell a story about a time when you made a similar mistake. Then, explain what you learned from it. The Communicator will appreciate your honesty and willingness to share your story.

Explain your goals: After you coach your Communicator about the issue, explain how the conversation fits into his or her long-term future with the company. At the end of the conversation, lay out some small steps the employee can take to move closer to his or her ultimate goal.

Have the right mindset: Before you pull an employee aside to provide coaching or support, make sure you have the right attitude. The conversation will be smoother and more productive if you are feeling positive and non-confrontational.

Steve Brubaker began his career at InfoCision in 1985. In his current role as Chief of Staff and as a member of the Executive Team, he is responsible for HR, internal and external communications, and manages the company’s legal and compliance departments. Brubaker is a member of a number of professional organizations, including the DMA, SOCAP, and PACE. He also donates his time to serve on several university boards, including the Executive Advisory Board for The Taylor Institute for Direct Marketing at The University of Akron and The University of Akron Foundation Board. He is a frequent speaker for national events and has also been honored with a number of awards and recognitions for his contributions to the call center industry.