Create Safety or You’ll Never Get Performance

Create Safety in Your Contact Center
Illustration by Jorgen Bovolden

In his excellent 2018 book, “The Culture Code,” Daniel Coyle writes extensively about the concept of “safety” in company cultures. Coyle bifurcates all company cultures into two types—“creating” and “servicing”—and argues that the key similarity between successful cultures in these two types of businesses is in their ability to create safe environments for employees.

A “creating” environment is one in which people create new things as a part of their regular work (i.e., software development, writing a legal brief, etc.). A “servicing” environment is where people execute relatively similar tasks that are not new, but need to do it in high volume and consistently (i.e., restaurants, contact centers, retail environments, etc.).

The highest quality service environment Coyle profiles is the restaurant group Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG) run by visionary entrepreneur Danny Meyer. Meyer’s restaurants are legendary for their service, which he largely attributes to his success since he started his first restaurant in 1985.

His most bold experiment was the Shake Shack concept, born out of a humble hot dog stand in New York’s Madison Square park in 2001. Shake Shack eventually added over 130 stores in just 13 years, and in 2014 it went public. Shake Shack has consistently reported some of the highest grossing per-square foot restaurants in the world.

Meyer didn’t develop his ideas for executing a high-quality service environment at scale overnight. He talks about how, in the early days when he was running the Union Square Cafe, he was so obsessive about the details that he would blow up whenever mistakes were made by his servers. This was typically enfant terrible restaurateur behavior, but it’s what Meyer had witnessed over and over again, so it’s the behavior he modeled.

Yet he knew that there was a better way. Meyer attributes the ability of his employees to deliver exceptional service not just to how well-scripted the experiences are or how well-trained his staff is: Most important is allowing his employees to deviate from the script when something goes wrong or when they see an opportunity to deliver exceptional service—especially, and essentially, when these deviations cost the company money.

In many environments, employees are punished for costing the company money. Not so at USHG. Meyer knows that it is when money is on the line that you can earn a customer for life. But he says you’ll never be able to do that unless you promise to create safety for your employees.

That’s why USHG was able to grow so fast, and was able to spin off just one of its many restaurant concepts into a public company. One critical idea begat all of this success: Create safety for your employees.

Caring for Employees Is Rewarded in Higher Productivity

Meyer didn’t invent the concept of employee safety. That was invented two centuries before by a man named Robert Owen who owned the most successful textile mills in England at the beginning of the industrial revolution.

The core thing Owen did to ensure his employees’ safety was to combat the long working hours that were common in other textile mills. Owen’s most famous invention is how we all are supposed to run our daily lives—the eight-hour work day. Owen said that “eight hours of labor, eight hours of leisure, eight hours of rest” was the best formula for his workers.

Owen didn’t stop there. He actually installed safety devices and safety inspectors in his mills. Drunkenness on the job was common in the putrid environments of the textile mills of that time. Owen banned it and gained a much safer environment as a result, as you can imagine since workers were no longer stumbling into operating looms.

Owen’s innovation in caring for people when no one else would was rewarded. His mills were the most productive and profitable in England, even though his workers worked far fewer hours than in any other mill. Owen was richly rewarded for his efforts when he sold his mills in 1815, and became the first millionaire in England.

Obviously, working environments—both physical laboring and service environments—have gotten a lot safer in the two centuries since the beginning of the industrial revolution. If you’re American, most of us worked in environments converted by lots of laws and regulations, so the kind of personal safety (free from injury) that Owen had to promise and provide wasn’t really an issue.

Allowing Employees to Fail Is the Cornerstone of Innovation

So if Robert Owen was the boss that made his workers safe, and Danny Meyers is the boss that lets his employees make changes, then the third type completes the trifecta of safety that good call center management must create in order to be successful. The type of boss that allows their employees to fail.

Coyle points this out, too—that allowing employees to try and fail is the cornerstone of high performing “creative” company cultures. Coyle argues that these companies cannot exist without this essential feature; he points to Pixar, Google and, of course, Amazon.

Jeff Bezos runs a legendary hard-charging environment at Amazon—and the success speaks for itself. Bezos expects results, but he also expects his employees to try and to fail before big things happen. The Amazon Fire Phone, anyone? What about Amazon Destinations, Amazon Local or Amazon Wallet? Bezos expects to make mistakes on the way to market dominance. Just like Thomas Edison expected to try a thousand things before he invented the lightbulb.

Do you allow your employees to fail?

How to Apply Safety Concepts in Your Contact Center

Now that we understand how successful bosses have created cultures of safety, let’s briefly look at how you can tactically apply the three types of safety—personal safety, change safety and failure safety—in your call center environment.

PERSONAL SAFETY: Of all the types of safety, this one is probably the easiest to execute because of myriad laws that exist in the societies of the developing world to protect people. Or is it?

If you’re working in the developing world or working in the developed world but necessarily in an area of low-income or local economic depression, personal safety may be something you don’t think much about, because inside the doors of your contact center you know that your employees are safe. But do they feel safe when they are there?

If you run a large call center in one of these two environments, you may need to take a closer look at what’s really going on out there on the floor. Are there power dynamics created by cultural norms at play that are making your employees feel scared of other employees even when they’re at work? Are there cliques that have formed that may be quietly intimidating other employees? No work environment is perfect, and hopefully you don’t have daily drunkenness to contend with like Robert Owen did, but I’ve rarely met a work environment that couldn’t benefit from some change to create greater personal safety.

CHANGE SAFETY: I’ve been to several conferences recently where we talked about the killer service environment Zappos created. The story about a Zappos agent ordering pizza is legendary. You may think that’s a crazy example of the principle of “going above and beyond” that we’ve been reading about for at least two generations. I see it more as how Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos, created an environment of such personal safety for his agents that they would feel safe getting something for a customer—a pizza—that Zappos didn’t even sell! (Of course, the story is apocryphal because it was Hsieh himself that suggested to the person who made the call to order the pizza in order to demonstrate what his contact center environment was like.)

Talk about going off script.

FAILURE SAFETY: We all have QA departments working to ensure that our agents are executing our procedures, solving customers’ problems and hopefully generating value for our company through their work. I’m in no way saying that we should abolish our QA departments to see if repeated failure is better.

Instead, you should consider making your QA interactions non-sanctionable—if not overall then certainly in the beginning. This should extend to allowing periodic mistakes from our human employees, especially good performers who may be in some sort of slump or who have some type of external distraction or stress that they’re unable to leave at the door when they come to work.

Why? In service environments, unlike creative environments, the viability of the product we’re supporting already has been proven. Our job, for the most part, is dealing with customers who have already bought. So the failure that we may see is more likely attributed to the person, instead of the process or the product.

We need to be tolerant—up to a point. If a person knows that they can mess up a few small things and their job will be OK, then they’re more likely to strive for performance the rest of the time, which is the super-majority of the time. Over the long haul, you’ll get higher performance from allowing a few small failures that won’t doom the enterprise than if you blow up at any small failure.

(Note: I believe this extends only to a point—of course, if someone is unable to improve with coaching, then an accumulation of failures could cause sanctions or termination, and should.)

In summary, you can do a lot to improve your contact center if you start thinking about safety way more than you do already. Your agents must feel personally safe, must feel safe to change things when the situation warrants it, and must also feel safe to fail every once in a while.

Do these things and you’ll see a dramatic improvement in the way that your contact center performs.