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Call center leadership drives service for Canada's digital highway

The 407 Express Toll Route (ETR) highway in Canada woos drivers with its absence of toll booths and collectors. The company developed leaders in the call center to help improve customer service.

For the world's first all-electronic open-access toll highway, a top-notch call center was imperative for success as a technology innovator. Designed to reduce traffic congestion in Toronto, the 407 Express Toll Route (ETR) highway operates with no toll booths or collectors. More than 3,000 drivers travel the highway every day, driving at a constant speed and avoiding the delays they would face waiting in line for a toll collector or dispensing change in a tool booth bin.

"[Toronto] has traffic issues like any other city," Beth Carver, a former customer service executive at the 407 ETR, said during a presentation at the International Call Center Management conference in Canada last week. "The 407 ETR is a key part of [reducing] traffic congestion."

The toll program for the 407 is similar to the E-ZPass system used on toll roads throughout the eastern United States from Virginia to Maine. The toll rate is calculated by a radio antenna that detects when a vehicle with a transponder has entered and exited the highway. For vehicles without a transponder, an automatic number-plate recognition system is used. Monthly statements are then mailed to users.

The call center for 407 ETR -- which typically takes calls regarding the purchase or repair of transponders, information about the program, and billing questions -- was struggling five years ago when Carver joined the company. Managers lacked the strong leadership skills that are a trademark of a successful call center, she said. Performance was marred by persistent team conflict and low morale. Call center agents were not empowered to make decisions, and there was no system to keep call center managers accountable for their results. There was also very little time dedicated to coaching agents. As a result, the customer experience was poor.

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Carver and her colleagues felt that a leadership program would make managers more accountable and help call center agents develop. The company already had a corporate review process and a bonus program, but there was little leadership development beyond random training and coaching throughout the year.

"Most [companies] don't have a clear definition of leadership," Carver said in her presentation. "It is a nebulous question. We wondered how to do more leadership development in the call center [and] how to turn subjective opinion into legitimate performance assessment."

Last year, the 407 ETR selected a leadership performance program from SwitchGear Consulting, a Toronto-based firm that specializes in call centers. The program measures business metrics and five categories of leadership attributes. Under the program, 407 saw a 47% reduction in the rate of calls, Carver said.

Winston Siegel, a partner at SwitchGear Consulting, said that the first step in developing leadership in call center agents is to articulate the definition of leadership and clearly define expectations for growth in this area.

"How many leaders know what's expected of them in terms of soft skills and leadership?" Siegel asked.

Siegel also touted the importance of getting agents on board at the beginning of the process and rewarding success through monetary incentives. At 407 ETR, the company defined leadership, then accelerated managers' goals by attaching them to the bonus program, which they increased from annual to quarterly. For call center agents, they created a $100 monthly bonus for the top performers. Attaching money to the process gives priority to evaluations, Siegel said, and demonstrates that senior management is committed to the process.

The company also moved to an "at-risk compensation program" that based bonuses more on quarterly metrics and leadership evaluations, eliminating annual bonuses. The bottom line stayed the same, Siegel said, because the bonuses were simply distributed in a different way.

At 407 ETR, call center evaluations stressed how leaders could help agents meet their goals and improve performance in the coming quarter. Siegel emphasized that leaders should avoid terms like "right/wrong" or "good/bad" and focus instead on positive comments while making it clear where the agent is falling short of expectations. Evaluations should use such terms as "I will coach you" or "Here's how I'm going to make you successful," Siegel suggested.

Within the first six months of using the program designed by SwitchGear, the 407 saw marked performance improvement from three of its call center leaders. The program also weeded out less capable leaders, as some agents left the company following the implementation. Carver was happy to see improved time management, improved processes, more new ideas, and more side-by-side coaching for agents.

"The pilot was a warm start but [after that] we saw front-line leaders step up immediately," Carver said. "There was less negative conflict, [fewer] missed deadlines, and fewer delays in dealing with weak performers in the call center."

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