Inside View: Delta Vacations’ Customer Engagement Center

FROM THE JUNE 2018 ISSUE

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Illustration by Nicolas Vicent
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Most companies—and contact centers—have traditionally operated on the principle that the rules of the workplace always outweigh the needs of employees. Few companies have managed to break away from that model, but those that do generally find that partnering with employees to meet business objectives leads to a much more satisfying work environment and greater business success.

Delta Vacations’ Customer Engagement Center is an example of one such operation whose leadership prioritizes listening to employees and incorporating their feedback into the center’s daily procedures. “Our No. 1 focus has always been our employees and making this a great place to work,” says Shelley Knight, vice president, Delta Vacations. “We know that if we take care of our employees, they will take care of our customers.”

Delta Vacations’ Customer Engagement Center took home nearly two dozen awards at the 2018 Stevie Awards for Sales and Customer Service.

Indeed, that philosophy appears to be working well. Delta Vacations swept the 2018 Stevie Awards for Sales and Customer Service, which recognizes the achievements of sales, customer service and call center professionals. The company took home nearly a dozen awards, including Contact Center of the Year (more than 100 seats)—Other Service Industries, and the Contact Center Leader of the Year award for Knight. As one of the companies receiving the most awards in 2018, Delta Vacations also was recognized with a Grand Stevie Award.

Trusting Agents to Add Value

Delta Vacations, the official vacation provider for Delta Air Lines, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Delta Air Lines. Its Customer Engagement Center (CEC) relocated to Minot, ND, in 1999. Today, it seats approximately 350 agents who handle sales and customer service for individual and group travel—both domestic and international—for B2B customers (travel agents) and consumers.

Employee tenure at the center is impressive. On average, agents stay more than seven years, and 22% of the staff has been with the company for more than 15 years. In fact, almost two decades after the Minot CEC’s opening, approximately 20% of the original team still works at the center, including Knight and several members of the management team.

What is it about the CEC’s culture that makes people want to stay? It’s one in which employees are treated like respected professionals with the trust that they will make responsible decisions for the business, their co-workers and themselves. According to Knight, there is less emphasis on creating policy for policy’s sake and more on determining what works to ensure that both employee and business needs are met.

The challenge for management is striking a balance between necessary policies to ensure smooth operation of the business and adding flexibility to give agents better work-life balance. “We try to be a little less formal with some programs to demonstrate to our employees that we care about their needs and to ensure that they don’t feel as though they’re just a number,” Knight notes.

For instance, instead of narrowly restricted shift start times, agents are allowed a grace period of 15 minutes before they are considered late. “We don’t want people running through red lights or racing through town to get to work on time,” she explains. “There is some flexibility—a window of time during which you can arrive, and then you can adjust your end time to ensure that you get your full eight hours.” She adds that the management team is currently looking into extending the window.

The management team also has put considerable effort into providing more scheduling flexibility so that agents can balance their work and personal lives better. Here’s how it works: Each employee who participates in a flexible scheduling arrangement has a certain amount of flexible hours built into his or her schedule. For example, in a given week, an agent might be scheduled for two eight-hour shifts that they have to work at a specific time. For the other three days, they can choose how to distribute the time, whether they prefer to work fewer long shifts so they can take a long weekend off, or shorter shifts distributed over more days so they can have a few afternoons free. There are a variety of possible combinations that agents can self-schedule.

“We don’t want our employees to have to come to us to say, ‘I have a doctor’s appointment, or my son has a baseball game; I need to leave at 2 o’clock.’ They can look at their schedule, see what’s available, adjust their schedule and make up the time later,” Knight says, adding that: “Our scheduling system has drastically improved our employees’ lives, and it has saved labor costs for the company because we can flex up and down. Anytime you can combine giving employees what they need to manage their lives with efficiently running the business, it’s a great success.”

Agents Are Actively Involved in Improving Culture

By focusing less on policy and procedure and more on making the CEC a great place to work, employees are inspired to get involved in improving the culture and the business, Knight says. “We want people to feel cared about, and not as though they’re just punching a clock, doing a job and then going home.”

CEC employees would agree. Ninety-one percent who participated in a recent internal employee survey indicated that they think Delta Vacations is a great place to work. And in May, these continued efforts resulted in Delta Vacations becoming Great Places to Work certified.

And, because Delta Vacations fosters an environment of open communication, employees are encouraged to share additional feedback and suggestions via the center’s Culture Connection program. Knight says that employee input has resulted in myriad workplace improvements—from changes to productivity and system tools to the type of soap provided in the bathrooms.

Employee recognition is another essential part of Delta Vacation’s employees-first culture. “We have found that recognition from your co-workers can be more meaningful than getting recognition from management,” says Knight. For instance, one program, called “Above and Beyond,” allows CEC staff to recognize their peers for helping them out in some way or providing outstanding internal service. Each year, all peer nominations are also considered for an annual award called, “Above and Beyond for Excellence in Customer Service.”

The CEC management team doesn’t simply pass the reins to employees to show each other appreciation. In addition to peer-to-peer recognition and other formal award programs, managers continually come up with different ways to thank agents for their hard work and infuse a bit of “surprise and delight” into the workday. For instance, during busy times there may be a “snack attack,” says Knight. “We’ll go around with carts and pass out snacks as people are working. Or on days that we find it’s particularly hectic, we’ll provide lunch to the center as a way to say thank you and alleviate stress.”

The management team also stages the occasional “popup event.” Employees will get an email that alerts them that a popup event is taking place for the next two hours, and invites them to drop by the break room for a few minutes to have some fun. “We think it’s important that people work hard, but they also need to get away from time to time to refresh their minds,” she says.

Leadership: There Is No Substitute for Caring

Knight describes the CEC’s culture as very caring and compassionate. “Our culture has developed over time, but we have always focused on being thoughtful and intentional in how we treat people,” she says. “We try to extend that to our community, as well. In addition to making Delta Vacations a great place to work, we want to make our community a great place to live, so our employees are offered paid time to take part in events that enhance the community.”

Having the opportunity to give back to their local community not only instills employees with a sense of pride in their company, it provides an additional layer of bonding and understanding on a personal level.

In a large contact center, it can be challenging for managers to connect with each person on an individual level, but Knight credits the CEC management team with going above and beyond to build direct relationships with their agents. “It’s not easy when you’re managing hundreds of people, but our management team approaches it with so much care and concern,” she says. “They’re here for the right reasons—they want to make this a great place to work. It’s incredibly important to us that people feel like they’re part of a family. We know how many times we interact with an employee in a given day and how many customers they talk to can equate to thousands of interactions with people. If we can make those positive interactions, then that emotion comes through when working with customers and in their lives outside of work.

“We’re incredibly proud of all of our Delta Vacations employees,” Knight adds. “The Contact Center of the Year award reflects their dedication and commitment—this is their award.”

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