Engage Your Agents to Turn Around an Underperforming Contact Center

WRITTEN BY Vicki Brackett

Engage Your Agents to Turn Around an Underperforming Contact Center
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When the team is not performing at expected levels, the troops are gathered together, a rallying speech is given by the supervisor, and after cheerful, optimistic group chatter, everyone breaks and heads back to their assignments. Do those types of actions get enough traction to change the direction of your center’s performance? For some reason, there is a fallacy that leadership can “coach its way out” of poor performance. Unfortunately, this strategy doesn’t work long-term.

Frontline contact center leaders who have been instructed to “coach their way out” have most likely experienced the tug-of-war that ensues. Employees are momentarily rejuvenated, but that soon wears off and the contact center floor is once again filled with unhappy, unengaged employees delivering less than desirable performance. The executive team notices that the problem is not solved, turns to the frontline leadership for quick solutions and the cycle continues.

There is a direct relationship between employee engagement and performance. Getting employees engaged in the business (not just in their normal communication with customers) will reap huge rewards in turning around a low-performing center. Today, it takes a different approach than the traditional strategy of just “coaching your way out.”

Let’s look at the steps involved.

1. Responsible Leadership

Leadership must ask themselves these questions: Am I engaged? Am I just barking orders? Do I believe that the old ways will work? How is my leadership contributing to this problem? Somehow, leaders believe that because they are the leaders, they must know more than everyone else. But do they really? Leaders aren’t on the front lines handling one customer interaction after another. They are removed from the day-to-day ground level operations and need the insight of the people in those roles in order to be an effective leader. Which, raises the final question leaders must ask themselves: Am I willing to do things differently to get better results?

2. Getting People to Believe

Let’s face it, for most agents, handling one customer interaction after another is boring day after day, week after week, month after month. It doesn’t matter what the name of the organization is, where it’s located or what kind of perks are offered in the break room. Getting people to believe in an organization starts with having a vision of what the organization is going to accomplish. Then, every action can be inspired by that vision and everyone can help drive toward that big-picture goal.

The vision could be a number of things—being named one of the best places to work, ranking No. 1 in customer service satisfaction scores, winning a J.D. Power Award for customer satisfaction or achieving social responsibility by contributing more to a local charity. What matters is that the vision is in front of the team with every email, phone discussion, chat and interaction. The vision should be mentioned at the beginning and end of every conversation. Don’t think for a minute that the team will get tired of hearing it or that it will begin to sound boring. Using big-picture phrases in every interaction will make the team start to believe it. And it is believing in a cause bigger than they are that will inspire the team to do their normal job duties differently.

3. Let Agents Own the Process

When there is a crisis in the contact center, the normal reaction is for leadership to create a process that they think will solve the problem, and then that process is pushed out to the agents. The agents read it, roll their eyes and groan, “This won’t work.” Many contact centers have ineffective processes in place because they were created without input from the people on the front lines—the agents. But unless management encourages agents to provide feedback and advice, they are unlikely to offer it.

In a contact center that lacks engagement, agents can feel like their opinion does not matter. This breeds disrespect for management and the executive team, which fosters gossip and takes agents away from their jobs. The end result—productivity and performance trends in the wrong direction.

Agents have internal knowledge of what needs to be done to improve efficiency. The next time there is a crisis, leadership should ask the agents what should be done. Create a committee of five or six agents and other frontline employees from each department that the process touches. Invite a senior leader into the meeting for 10 minutes so the committee can run ideas past the leader and a solution can be identified.

Take involvement a step further and appoint an agent to keep the floor apprised of the development of the process with regular emails that are approved by a supervisor. Now everyone is engaged in the process. People respect management for asking their opinion and the agents have a stake in the outcome when the process is launched. The final stage is to have the entire floor identify any gaps once the new process is launched so they can quickly be plugged and fixed.

Utilizing committees to identify problems and create results will naturally drive performance upward. Agents will want to be identified as the top performers who are selected for the committee, and competition will lead to everyone striving to do a better job, have their voice heard, and benefit from the results.

4. Broadcast the Results

Results have to be measured when any change is implemented to ensure that it is working. Instead of having leadership measure the results of the new process that the frontline committee develops, or just letting the results live on a portal that employees have to log into to view, make measurement a team activity. Have a committee member share the KPIs that the new process is affecting. This way, the agents are measuring their own process! What could be more engaging?

To get a bigger bang and more people excited, post those results on a bulletin board or company intranet and then spread praise. Make a video recognizing the efforts of the committee with specific mentions of people’s names. Post the KPI improvement results in the break room with the stats circled, or just write a personal note to the team and post it on the board or company intranet.

5. Give Praise

Praising individual employees for a job well done does not need to take a lot of time, but it should be authentic. Determine whether it will be more beneficial to make the praise public or private based on the individual’s personality and your organization’s culture. For instance, a public approach might be to write a thank-you note and post it on the intranet or a bulletin board within the center. If a more private and personal approach makes more sense, make a brief “praise call” to each of the committee members to thank them for their contribution.

When a contact center is missing the mark on performance, turning things around will take time and organization. Success hinges on getting agents to help with the changes and getting them engaged. Leaders have the choice of spending the time upfront, planning, mentoring, driving strategy and doing it differently, or on the back end doing damage control.

Vicki Brackett is author of The Leadership Toolbox. Vicki has spent her entire career leading small, medium and Fortune 500 organizations through startup, turnaround and rapid-growth scenarios. Brackett speaks, trains, consults and mentors leadership inside companies to help them with strategic planning, employee engagement, process reengineering and moving key performance indicators in the right direction, all while increasing employee satisfaction.