Surprising Ways to Motivate Your Agents


Surprising ways to motivate your contact center agents
Illustration by Justin Putnam

I love movies. So, I was thrilled to win movie tickets as part of a contact center sales campaign back when I was an agent. However, the coworker sitting next to me hated movies and was not motivated at all by this contest.

Everyone is different. What motivates one person may demotivate another. I am all in favor of running call center contests and rotating prizes every week/month in an attempt to motivate people. However, people are driven by deeper motives than the opportunity to win a contest.

What motivates your agents? What makes them come to work every day and do a great job? If you answered, “money,” you are partially correct. Agents want to earn money for rent, car payments, school tuition and other items. Yet, money by itself will only motivate someone to a certain level of dedication. In fact, a recent Gallup poll showed that employees who received salaries in the top half of their profession were just as unhappy as employees in the bottom half of the pay scale.

So beyond a fair salary, what motivates people? In his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, author Daniel Pink argues that people are driven by internal motivations such as the need for autonomy, mastery and purpose. Let’s take a closer look at each of these components from a call center perspective.

The Need for Autonomy

At first glance, being a contact center agent may seem like the least autonomous job in the world. Every second of every call during every day is tracked and analyzed. Quality assurance programs monitor calls and emails, cataloging every comment and keystroke. Departmental rules dictate how to handle customer inquiries. That seems like the complete opposite of autonomy. The result can be demotivated agents who behave like robots and provide poor customer service.

On the other hand, being a contact center agent also means communicating one-on-one with customers. A knowledgeable, highly motivated agent can solve problems for customers. They create customer loyalty and ensure a great customer experience.

From a motivational standpoint, allow agents to make decisions within certain parameters. For example, one telecom company allows agents to credit up to $150 on a customer’s account, without having to escalate the call to a team manager. Initially, there were fears that agents would, “throw money at customers” to make them happy, instead of actually solving the customer’s problem. Instead, agents applied fewer credits than their supervisors did during the previous month. The key was training agents to use credits only as a last resort and to tie the credit to a loyalty proposition, such as: “We can waive the normal service charge, if you agree to extend your plan for another year.”

Coaching can also improve autonomy—and, therefore, motivation—by teaching agents to make better decisions. Listen to one of your agent’s calls. Then, discuss the agent’s decision-making process. Why did they suggest a certain solution? What else could they do next time to improve the situation? What factors should they weigh before selecting a particular course of action? Help agents to develop their decision-making skills so they can provide better service to your customers. Empower them to make decisions (within certain guidelines). Your agents will feel they can act with more autonomy. They will feel valued and respected. Motivation and morale will improve as a result.

The Need for Mastery

No one wants to look stupid in front of a customer. We would rather look smart by giving the right answers and solving a customer’s problem. One of the strongest internal motivations is the need to be good at something. Even if we are not great athletes or brilliant inventors, we can still say, “If you call me with a computer problem, I can tell you how to fix it.”

How does an agent achieve mastery? Start with a top-notch new-hire training program to teach the fundamentals of their position. Once they are on the floor, use daily huddles to reinforce key skills. Then, add a coaching program to help agents gain mastery. In addition, provide booster shots of new skills through continuous learning. For example, one of my clients had me conduct bimonthly mini-seminars with their management team so they could continuously improve their coaching skills. In addition, thoroughly train every agent on any new products, services or systems, so they can master those challenges, as well.

Another aspect of mastery is equipping agents with the tools they need to be successful. No agent—no matter how well trained and motivated—can succeed with a slow computer or a balky CRM system. For instance, when I was an agent, our department rolled out some “enhancements” to our CRM system that caused multi-second delays when changing screens. As a result every agent’s average handle time went through the roof. But, the biggest impact was upon morale. Veteran agents felt frustrated. They had mastered their jobs. But now a bad software update made them look incompetent in front of their customers. There are only so many times you can say, “I am waiting for the computer to bring up your account,” before you begin to get frustrated. So, an important part of being a contact center leader is giving your team the tools they need to be successful and gain mastery over their job.

The Need for Purpose

People want their work to have meaning. They want a sense of contribution. They need to feel their effort makes a difference in this world. One of the greatest things about being an agent is the ability to change people’s lives on every call. An agent can fix problems and cheer up someone’s day just by doing their job.

One of the best ways I found to motivate people is to ask them what they enjoy about their job. Get them to talk about why they got into the call center world in the first place. Ask them how they have helped people in the past… and then listen to their stories. Remind them of the difference they made in their customers’ lives. Another idea is to have agents share success stories during team huddles or meetings. Let them brag about how they made a difference. In addition, read out loud complimentary customer emails and letters during staff meetings so agents can hear how they made someone’s life a little bit better.

Reminding agents of their positive impact upon customers is one way to give them a sense of purpose. Another option is to tie their long-term career goals to their current role in the contact center. For example, imagine having an agent who is studying marketing in university and working part-time at the call center. Their main purpose in life right now is to graduate and get a job in marketing. They may view their call center job as being a means to an end—a way to make money and have flexible hours so they can attend school.

One way to increase their motivation is to show how call center skills are transferable skills. For instance, I might ask questions such as, “As a marketer, how valuable is it to hear about our products first-hand from our customers?” “What have you learned about marketing, from seeing how our company’s marketing department depends upon our call center to actually close those sales?” Or, “What have you learned about selling our products over the phone? How can you apply those skills to selling your own ideas over the phone to colleagues, suppliers and distributors when you are in marketing?” Most careers involve communication with other people. Being an agent provides a solid foundation in phone skills, dealing with different personality types and getting your ideas across effectively. Emphasize those transferable skills to create a sense of purpose in your agents.

Internal Motivation Is More Effective

As a manager, focus on increasing your agents’ feelings of autonomy, mastery and purpose. That will tap into each person’s internal motivation. It will also inspire them to do a better job because they feel empowered and supported. Providing constant coaching, getting to know your agents’ career goals and tapping into their sense of purpose require more effort than offering movie tickets or pizza lunches. But, it also provides a deeper level of motivation and a bigger boost to morale.