Five ways to improve contact center agent engagement
Illustration by James Sierra

Universities, consultants, authors and experts all have a lot to say about employee engagement. The attention paid to this topic is encouraging, as it is a critical ingredient in a high-performing company. The best insight, though, does not come from the experts. It comes right from the source—the employees themselves.

Agents in contact centers have many words of wisdom to offer regarding engagement. In my role as a consultant, I get the opportunity to hear much of their (sometimes colorful!) input. Over time and across industries, common patterns have emerged on the topic. The content from these sessions is a valuable source of insight, but agents may not always have a forum to present these thoughts. That being the case, I am going to play “ghost writer” today. The words that follow have been provided by agents often during these meetings. I’ve summarized it here, broken out by the five most common threads.

1. Commit to Ongoing Training

“Things change constantly here. Products change, service options change, technology changes, performance standards change. Yet most of these changes are ‘handled’ by sending me an update via email. Occasionally, a training class is scheduled, but they are often canceled at the last minute due to ‘coverage concerns.’

“You said it would take three months for me to learn the job well enough that I could handle most interactions, and you were right about that. How could a job be so difficult it takes a long time to learn, but then require no refresher training at regular intervals? The lack of investment in my skills makes me question how dedicated we really are to serving the customer. And it is hard for me to feel engaged when the primary function of my role—serving the customer—is not valued.”

2. Allow Me Some Freedom to Satisfy Customers

“I understand that controls must be in place. You can’t have hundreds of agents throwing discounts at thousands of customers, or promising things that would be prohibitively expensive to deliver, or ignoring important compliance rules just to make a sale. I get all that, and while call monitoring is not my favorite thing in the world, I understand why you do it.

“What I don’t get is the complete inflexibility regarding the rules. Why can’t we have some guidelines on when fees could be waived? Why can’t we offer a free service here and there when we feel it will make a difference to the customer? You can track when we do that, so you will know if someone is abusing it. Without any tool like this, I can’t help a customer when he or she needs it most. It makes me feel like you don’t trust me with even a small amount of authority, and it’s hard to be engaged when you are not trusted.”

3. Provide Some Work-Life Balance

“This environment is soooo restrictive! I couldn’t believe it when I got here. I never before had a job where you are actually marked late for arriving two minutes after your start time. Or where you can’t bring your cell phone to your workstation. Or where you can’t go to lunch with your friends. Or where it is so hard to get time off!

“Now that I have been here a couple of years, I have gotten more used to these rules, and I can understand why some of them are in place. Like the restrictions on vacation days at the end of a three-day weekend. We really do get slammed with calls on the day after the holiday, so I can see where it would be hard to allow too many of us to tack on a vacation day and turn it into a four-day weekend.

“But what I don’t get is that there is never something to balance it on the other side. So OK, if we can’t extend a three-day weekend for another day, how about opening up some more vacation slots on the weekend before? Then more of us could have two three-day weekends in a row. Or when I come in a couple of minutes late one day, can’t that be canceled out by the days that I had to stay a few minutes late to close up a long call? The rules seem very one-sided, and it makes it hard to get the balance we need.”

4. Make It Easy for Me to Express My Ideas

“Putting up a suggestion box is nice, but it’s hardly enough to get me involved. I don’t even know if anyone has ever used it, since I’ve never heard of one suggestion that has come down that avenue. [Author’s note: At this point in the meeting, someone invariably says, ‘We have a suggestion box here?’]

“We are supposed to be ‘proactive’ with our customers—I wish management was proactive with us. We talk to the customers all day long and come up with some great ideas about how to improve service. But since there isn’t an easy way to express them, and no one goes out of their way to hear them, it winds up being easier to just let it go. I would love it if I, or a group of reps, could take a subject and just let us have at it. I know I am vocal about the problems with our CRM system. Honestly, I would rather be involved in a project to identify issues and propose solutions rather than bitching about it in the break room all the time. If I could be involved in making it better, it would feel more like I was involved in the system, rather than just having it dumped on me.”

5. Recognize Me Personally

“There are so many numbers here it sometimes feels a bit cold and impersonal, even when that’s not the intent. Don’t get me wrong—there are some recognition programs in place around here and I like them. I like getting a gift card when a customer voices a compliment about the service I provided. I like the incentive program we have in place. It’s not perfect, and even though it doesn’t generate much money for us, it gives me a little bump in the paycheck every quarter and I use that for something fun with my family. Good stuff.

“But does that make me more engaged? No. Those are just nice outcomes that come when I do my job in the way that I believe it should be done. I know some of the supervisors here think this is personal recognition, but it really isn’t. I like getting the little trinkets, but they don’t change how I do my job or how I feel about the company.

“There have been some times when I felt personally recognized, though. Like when the CMO sat with me and listened to calls. He later sent me a personal, handwritten note thanking me for my time, complimenting me on my skills, and telling me that the hour was one of the best learning experiences he ever had. I still have that letter tacked to my wall. Or when the school called about my son. It was the holiday rush, so I knew not to even ask to leave early. But my supervisor saw how upset I was, and she just jumped in my seat and finished out my shift for me. I freakin’ hugged her, I was so relieved. Those are the things that made me feel personally valued, and that what I have here is more than just a job.”

Engagement Is Critical for Top Performance

So there you have it, straight from the agents. There are certainly a lot of companies that have heard these comments before and have acted on them. And there are many approaches that can be taken to get people more engaged on the job, so there is no rulebook that must be followed step-by-step in order to have an engaged workforce.

The only absolute that I have learned about engagement in a contact center is this: If your agents aren’t engaged, you won’t be a top-performing center.