Contact Center Executive Outlook on Employee Engagement


Contact Center Executive Outlook on Employee Engagement
Illustration by Arthur Shlain for Pipeline

Employee engagement continues to top the lists of management challenges—and with good reason. It’s a complex issue that directly influences the business—positively or negatively—through staff retention, productivity, schedule adherence, workplace culture and morale, service delivery and customer experience.

Contact centers have learned a lot about employee engagement in recent years, most significantly that the foundation for strong engagement is understanding and valuing agents. Still, the majority of centers realize that there is much work to be done. In fact, improving employee engagement was listed as one of the top 5 priorities to focus on this year by respondents to our recent Contact Center Challenges & Priorities for 2018 survey.

In this feature panel, leading contact center executives discuss the impact that agent engagement has on their contact centers and businesses, and share their recommendations for improving it.

Create Fun and Meaningful Work

Customer Experience
EHS Sustainability

Everything begins with agent engagement. You can pay the most money, offer the most free food, and have the best office gym in town… if your agents are not authentically engaged, these things are meaningless. A few years ago, our support leadership made a significant shift to enhance the experience of every agent. The result has been a dramatically improved employee retention and customer satisfaction. The best part? We did this using techniques that are essentially free and available to anyone.

When people maintain a sense of excitement about their job, the quality of work skyrockets. They aren’t spending most of their day finding ways to do the bare minimum. They aren’t calling in “sick” every other Monday morning. Instead, they are generating new ideas on how to make the customer experience better. They are proactively looking for ways to serve even when the phone is not ringing. Think about the incredible amount of time you gain when agents stay in their roles for multiple years. Time spent hiring, training and coaching up to competence… all of this time can be spent on true development of your top people and investing back into customer relationships.

So how did we increase our agent engagement? There is no single magic bullet, but the most significant factor is creating fun and meaningful work. By increasing the positive motivators of play (excitement and curiosity for the work), purpose (work has meaning), and potential (work is contributing to major life goals) you are creating the type of environment agents stay for. See more in Primed to Perform, by Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor, one of my favorite employee engagement resources.

Every Interaction Is an Opportunity

Senior Manager,
Contact Center Operations
Penn Foster

Employee engagement is a cornerstone for any business, especially if the business has a contact center. The contact center is the pulse for input on customer experiences, product defects and ideas for new items or enhancements. When staff are engaged, they are more likely to share their knowledge and experiences on these critical items to drive a business forward.

A variety of best practices can be employed to ensure that you are always striving toward impactful engagement. Don’t just have meetings on staff performance. Think of every interaction as an opportunity engage in ways that are impactful, not just to the business but also to the staff member.

Crossfunctional focus groups, idea labs and lunch-and-learn sessions are great ways to get folks to share ideas on specific topics. There is a lot of research out there that correlates providing food during sessions to having a more engaged staff. To quote Henry Rollins, “Pizza makes us think anything is possible.”

Follow up and follow through post-group sessions. During the follow-through, be sure to involve the staff members who came up with the ideas throughout the entire change process.

Another item that strengthens staff engagement is a mentor program. Mentoring is a very powerful way to drive engagement for all levels within an organization. It’s incredible to see growth in staff when you can get a director mentoring an entry-level staff member.

The last piece of advice I can give is to ensure that your staff has used your product(s) or has experienced your service offering. You cannot be impactful to your customer experience if you have not experienced being your own customer. Immersing your staff in the business experience is the best way to drive engagement.

Apply a Cycle of Continuous Improvement

Managing Director Customer Care
Best Western® Hotels & Resorts

There is a tremendous upside to investing and committing to employee engagement. At Best Western’s Contact Center, over the past four years, we have applied a Cycle of Continuous Improvement to our engagement surveys and other various initiatives that gathered employee feedback like skip-level meetings and our online suggestion box. A Cycle of Continuous Improvement is the key to unlock your engagement potential.

We have implemented a significant number of employee-driven suggestions over the years that focus on career development, policy and procedure changes, dress code, performance-based incentives, employee recognition and workplace environment.

The results have been an outstanding 20% improvement in overall engagement. The largest gains have been around employee empowerment, which has increased by 37%.  We have also seen huge gains in other key performance indicators: net revenue per call has increased by 23%, and agent errors have decreased by 20%.

The Best Western Contact Center is driving overall culture change. The Phoenix Business Journal has recognized Best Western as a Top 5 Employer for the past two years. Recently, AZ Central recognized Best Western as a Top 125 Employer in the state of Arizona.

Employee Engagement—The Formula!

Manager Customer Contact,
Organizational Services
City of Gold Coast
Queensland, Australia

My approach to employee engagement ironically runs parallel with my approach and philosophy of giving customers what they want. The old adage of “Happy Staff = Happy Customers” remains as true in today’s (increasingly!) technologically advanced contact center as it did in the contact centers of the late 20th century. Some years ago, I became aware of research that had distilled the essence from the plethora of customer satisfaction studies conducted across the globe. The results are as applicable and relevant to employee satisfaction and engagement as to our customers.

The five key elements identified in the research represent a formula, which has become my personal mantra, both from a customer satisfaction and an employee engagement perspective (see the illustration below). They are:

  1. Know me
  2. Value me
  3. Give me what I need
  4. Do it reliably
  5. Keep me informed
Agent Engagement & Management Principles

I’ve applied these key principles as a basis for employee engagement strategies at a number of contact centers I’ve managed over my career, both in the private and public sectors. There are multiple actions that can be aligned with each key principle.

1. KNOW ME focuses on taking the time to get to know your team, their interests outside of work and career aspirations. Given one of the main causes of staff turnover is a poor relationship with their direct report, the small amount of effort required to get to know your team members will significantly improve that relationship. Sharing successes and accomplishments outside of work contribute to the personal well-being and engagement of each team member.

2. VALUE ME aligns well with what most contact centers already do well; i.e., both formal and informal reward and recognition. However, aside from more formal programs, demonstrations of how valued an employee is can also include less formal processes. I regularly ask my team for their suggestions for improving work processes and, where possible, acknowledge and take on board their feedback.

3. GIVE ME WHAT I NEED includes provision of systems that work, promoting an awareness of employee-assistance programs (EAPs), providing staff uniforms for customer-facing staff, onsite parking, clear succession planning and identifying career opportunities that align with the employees’ own aspirations.

4. DO IT RELIABLY whilst a somewhat obvious concept, is often challenging due to the often inconsistent nature of contact center workload, random call arrival etc. Often the first thing to get canceled during an unexpected call peak are coaching and performance one-on-ones with agents. I’ve always tried to minimize canceling these critical meetings unless absolutely necessary.

5. KEEP ME INFORMED: A small amount of time and effort here pays potentially big dividends. Staff naturally are inquisitive as to what’s happening in their working world and I try not to miss an opportunity to keep them “in the loop” via in house communications.

The role of the contact center agent is a tough one but I’ve found that the time and effort spent in applying the five key principles to consistently monitor, manage and explore ways to improve and maintain employee engagement has been a valuable and worthwhile investment.

Engagement Is Not a One-Size-Fits-All Initiative

Senior Vice President, Operations

Employee engagement is not just an important part of contact center operations… it’s the most important part. Customer service agents are a contact center’s most valuable resource—they are the face of the company, representing its interests and values to customers. I’ve seen firsthand that, when agents are engaged—when their goals, values and interests are in alignment with the company’s—they perform to a higher standard. Engaged team members take ownership over the work they do. They do the right thing when nobody is watching. They outpace position expectations by working late, mentoring new employees and seeking new responsibilities. They adapt more easily to change and face challenging situations with composure. As a result, our business is stronger and our customers are more satisfied.

The problem is that too many engagement programs in the contact center are siloed, disconnected from the day-to-day operations and the broader company culture. Engagement isn’t a one-size-fits-all initiative; rather, it has to be tailored for each employee and integrated into all phases of employment. My advice is for contact center leadership to be forthcoming with information about the company, its clients and its values. Provide opportunities for meaningful participation, and seek (and apply) the feedback from frontline agents. Ask employees about their motivations and career goals, then look for opportunities to leverage their skills in new and challenging ways. Celebrate individual and collective achievements publicly. And never stop providing a venue for agents to learn and grow.

Download a PDF of this article.