Motivate Your Agents without Breaking the Bank

By James Long, Ph.D.

One of the toughest challenges for call center managers is keeping morale at a high level. Agents’ morale has the potential to make a significant impact on the call center’s profitability. If your employees are miserable, low productivity and high attrition can be the net result. Therefore, it is essential to help your employees enjoy their jobs and the people they work with.

Being a call center representative can be an extremely stressful job. They are continually expected to act professional and courteous, even when the callers are not. So, how you keep your representatives happy?  Many centers have attempted to buy happiness with only short-term success. Raises and bonuses have a way of becoming entitlements, losing their power to motivate frontline employees.

Yet, there are ways of motivating call center employees without investing large amounts of money. Although it can be a lot easier to motivate with money, managers may find that the alternative motivational tools below are much longer lasting and can help transform their organization.

Motivator 1 – Be Quick With Your Kudos. Why is it that many managers and supervisors find it so hard to compliment their workers when something is done well? Most monitoring procedures are so slanted towards the negative that it is no wonder why call centers have to perpetually run expensive help-wanted ads in the local newspaper. As managers, one of our most important responsibilities is to say “good job” and recognize excellent performance when it happens. Not only will Kudos motivate the employee, but it will also establish thresholds for excellent performance within your company. Take this challenge today. Seek out an act of excellence within your center and positively react to it. Say something like, “Nancy, you really made that customer’s day.” Then, watch Nancy’s face light up. Dispensing Kudos is not something you should be doing; it is something you have to do in order to retain your valuable employees.

Motivator 2 – Recognize Excellence. One of the reasons that many recognition programs do not work is because they fail to tap into what motivates the workforce. It is not enough to have an “Employee of the Month.”  One point that is consistent in every call center is that only the top percentile of your workers will be motivated with this generalized top employee title. Obviously, this recognition program will motivate a small portion of your workforce. What about the bottom 70 percent of your workers?  As a center manager, you must determine what drives your representatives. Find a way to motivate these “average” workers with recognition programs. A good example of a program that will motivate the typical worker is “Most Improved Representative.” This is a recognition program that every employee is capable of winning. Certainly, the “Most Improved Representative” should be used in conjunction with “Employee of the Month,” since using both these programs will help drive the entire call center and not just the top performers.

Motivator 3 – Hand Over the Reins. A great way to recognize excellent performance is to give representatives an opportunity to supervise. This supervision can be handled in a general capacity or in more of a mentor/mentee function. Rewarding your employees by letting them be in charge of a selected unit will also indicate to new employees who the leaders within your organization are. Call center managers can also use this recognition program as a way to determine the potential strengths and limitations of these employees when a supervisory position becomes available. In essence, these employees will have already auditioned for the position.

Motivator 4 – Food, Food, Food. Rewarding your representatives with food isn’t free, but it is certainly less expensive than an across the board pay increase. Unbelievably, food can really motivate a group of workers. Something as simple as root beer floats in the break room or a pizza party for the top ten representatives can unequivocally demonstrate that acts of excellence do not go unnoticed. Forge partnerships with local vendors. You will be astounded how willing they may be to offer discounts when you represent hundreds of employees.

Motivator 5 – Increase Levels Within Your Representatives’ Career Paths. Have you ever noticed that some representatives become “stale” after a great start? These are the agents who prematurely surpass all expectations and just when you think they are going to take the next step, their production falls off or they quit. The problem for many of them is that they require a higher billet in accordance with the effort they have invested in the company. Although we would like to offer additional challenges, the fact is, there may be nothing to offer them other than the position they already have. Many call centers only have one level of representatives. Break these levels up. Up to 10 levels can be effectively managed relative to the position of telephone representative. Make promotion to the next level challenging and attainable. Also, ensure that promotion on the higher levels rely on factors important to your organization. These factors include production, attendance, quality, and attitude. Ensure that these factors are quantitatively measured when possible and post group results for all to see.

Motivator 6 – Reward With Increased Collaboration. Reward acts of excellence with frequent and random collaboration. For instance, if an employee receives a customer compliment, say something like, “June, you are always so good with the callers, how do you think we should increase client satisfaction?”  June will feel valued and begin formulating ways to increase customer satisfaction. Just remember, if you ask for input you need to be prepared to use it. If you continually ask employees what they think and never follow up on their suggestions, they will begin to feel used and unappreciated. One word of caution: many call centers use quality circles and representative discussion groups to reward acts of excellence. However, be aware that these groups may cross some important regulatory lines. Did you know that groups of employees have been able to form unions because discussions held within quality circles were found by the courts to equate to collective bargaining?  If you use these groups, consult an attorney regarding collective bargaining law and quality circles.

In today’s competitive market, you simply must keep your employees happy in order to maximize your organization’s return on investment. Monetarily-based employee incentive programs can be ineffective, expensive, and be misinterpreted as entitlements by your staff. Try using incentive programs based on recognition, collaboration, and motivation to reduce attrition, increase morale, and maximize call center production.

James Long, Ph.D., is management consultant and speaker specializing in leadership and attrition reduction. He is a former outsource call center manager who cut his center’s attrition by half, saving the center more than $1.4 million per year.

[From Connection Magazine April 2005]

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