Improving motivation in a call center environment
Call centers can be stressful environments. Agents are constantly monitored in every aspect of their workday. If their average time per call is 690 seconds and the center’s standard is 678 seconds, they will be informed they are not meeting the standard expected. If their labor efficiency (meaning the percentage of time they are on the clock that is spent actually taking phone calls) falls below 93%, they will hear about it. They feel like management is watching every single thing they do. They are correct.
A typical call center will have standards for schedule adherence, labor efficiency, average handle time, average hold time, average time for after-call work, quality assurance scores, invalid warranty returns, and invalid or unnecessary transfers. In that environment, it can almost seem like the only time your immediate supervisor (called a production team lead or coach) speaks to you at all is when he or she is informing you of some area where you have fallen short recently. This discussion will hopefully include some specific steps the agent can take to improve, but that is not always the case. Sometimes it is basically just a notice that performance in a specific area needs to improve. This notice always come with the threat, sometimes specifically stated but more often present as an underlying assumption, that failure to improve will result in disciplinary action and may ultimately lead to termination.
What that process does to an agent is implant the idea that every time he or she is summoned away from the phone for a meeting with their supervisor, the end result of that meeting may be that they get fired. The job can be stressful in itself. Add to that the always present fear of losing their job, and it is little wonder that agents can become despondent and believe there is no hope of keeping their job.
In order to motivate agents to improve, supervisors must tell them how. It is not likely that performance will be enhanced simply by giving the order: Do better. The agents need to know what they should do to improve, and the instruction and advice they are given must be specific.
However, the single biggest cause for agents to be disillusioned with a call center job is not the constant threat of termination that is always lurking, nor is the pressure to take calls back to back and deal with difficult, irate customers. The most common problem, and surprisingly the easiest to fix, is lack of recognition. Coaches often have so much work piled on them that they tend to focus their attention on trying to help poor performers. The ones who are doing well are often skipped with regard to weekly development meetings. A coach may be loaded with a team of thirty agents, and there are not enough hours in the week to give equal time to every one of them.
Contests can be created, with small prizes for the winners. Some agents seem to like these, but many agents ignore them completely. Contests seem to act a motivator for managers but do not have much effect on agents. Cash bonuses can be given, with specific awards linked to specific achievements. Like contests, cash bonuses do not seem to work very well. As an example, if you offer a bonus for perfect schedule adherence, it is probable that the only people who will collect the bonus will be the ones who show up for work every day anyway.
The most effective tool managers have for motivating call center agents is the one item that is most frequently mentioned as missing when agents are surveyed. That tool is recognition. Agents should be recognized when they do something very well, of course, but it is not just a matter of acknowledging top performers. Every agent should be recognized in some way every working day. Simply greeting the agent by name and asking how they are doing works wonders to make agents feel wanted. Teams are shuffled frequently in call centers (sometimes every week) and it is much too common for a coach to have an agent assigned to his or her team and then reassigned to another without the coach and the agent ever meeting face-to-face.
One of the major reports that is usually run every half hour in a call center is called BIS. That stands for “butts in seats” and that is what many agents feel they are. They believe they are regarded solely as a collection of numbers, and that nobody knows or cares who they are. The major focus for motivation in a call center is usually punishment or the threat of punishment. It does not work very well in terms of motivating agents, but that is what the managers know how to do and often that is all they have time to do. That is part of the cause of the high turnover rate, which in turn entails steep costs for hiring and training. It is a lot cheaper to bring an agent you already have up to the required standards than it is to hire and train a new one, but that is not how it is done.