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Call center agents -- six simple steps to help motivation

Managers can keep agents motivated by starting off right with hiring, putting trust in agents and sharing budget concerns with call center workers.

At the International Contact Center Management (ICCM) conference in October, many presentations focused on the importance of motivating agents. Call center experts offered the following suggestions for keeping agents motivated and engaged. Many pointed out that these tricks only work over time, so motivation and training must happen frequently and consistently.

Hire the right people

Penny Reynolds of The Call Center School believes that previous call center experience isn't necessarily a sound recommendation for a customer service representative job.

"Simply having worked in another call center doesn't guarantee [a great agent]," Reynolds said. Look for attitude and professional behavior too, she advised. In a separate presentation, Nancy Tichbon, director of customer care at Virgin Mobile Canada, pointed out that you can't train agents to have the right attitude or drive.

Dru Phelps, vice president of certification at Benchmark Portal, an agency that partners with the Center for Customer-Driven Quality at Purdue University to offer call centers reports and certification, suggested that call centers offer a few days of training for interested candidates to see whether there is mutual interest. Then, hire only those who are interested after the training period. Or, in the job advertisement, Phelps said, ask applicants to leave a voicemail explaining why they want the job. That pre-screening method will quickly show an applicant's phone manner.

During her ICCM presentation, Phelps pointed to call center practices in Las Vegas, a burgeoning location for call centers. She mentioned that some companies are advertising their call center jobs in bingo parlors, targeting local retirees or semi-retirees with incentives such as part-time work, birthday celebrations for agents, and a bulletin board just for grandchild photos. She suggested thinking of creative ways to find agents and keeping an open mind about the skills and experience of applicants.

Empower agents

Virgin Mobile Canada recently gave call center agents more responsibility for the crediting process. Managers increased from $20 to $200 the amount that agents are allowed to credit to the bills of angry customers. Instead of more credit being applied to customer bills, Tichbon said, the amount has declined.

"Agents have given customers 130% less credit [following the change]," Tichbon said.

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Phelps also suggests using mentoring in a call center. "Have experienced agents monitor and score calls of newer agents," she said.

Start off right with training

Phelps recommended sending supervisors to business classes to develop their skills as effective trainers with a big-picture approach. During training, make sure to ask for feedback from trainees throughout, and refrain from using a lecture style, she said, adding that it's important to revisit curriculum frequently to ensure that the information is fresh. Also, make training separate from the work shift, and pay overtime for it.

Reynolds recommended regular refresher training, especially for call centers that do a lot of selling. How often do you need to retrain agents?

"That depends on how complex the material is," Reynolds said, "but maybe once a quarter or once every six months."

Foster self-development

An agent with a sense of ownership in the customer service process will be more invested in satisfying customers, Phelps said. During her workshop, she told the story of a call center agent she worked with at Pottery Barn who realized that many of her calls came from customers concerned about unexpected shipping charges. The agent now explains all shipping charges when talking to customers, Phelps said, and that self-development has also led to improved customer service.

Talk about money

Phelps and Tichbon both recommended that call center agents should be kept informed about financial information. Let agents know how performance can be quantified, Phelps suggested.

A few bad calls a day may seem minor, Phelps said, but show an agent the cost of a bad call by multiplying those few bad calls a day by the number of agents in the center. Or, she said, explain that the average cost per call might be $6, but if a customer's problem isn't solved, that second call back has now cost the company $12.

"[Show them how to] get it done the first time," Phelps said.

Tichbon said that reps at Virgin Mobile know all the budget stats. The center has developed a plan that allows an agent to take five minutes downtime after speaking with an irate caller. But managers made it clear how much that downtime would cost the center when an agent chooses to takes advantage of the rule.

Know when to embrace turnover

Reynolds said that weeding out the lowest-performing agents can be as easy as eliminating rewards.

"[Remove] rewards for the bottom percent," she said, "certainly the bottom 5% and maybe even the bottom 10%."

This kind of systematic "de-selection" makes the other agents understand the correlation between performance and employment, and hardworking agents will know that high standards are maintained, Reynolds said. Though this may work best in sales-oriented call centers, most managers can take a proactive approach to staffing turnover to maintain overall quality.

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