Why do prisoners have more freedom than contact center employees?
The following is an actual quote from a contact center rep that was posted on employment site Glassdoor about a local contact center: “It’s like jail. Homeless drug addicts have more freedom than contact center reps.” Read it for yourself and you will find that it was a fairly balanced review of a fairly standard contact center operation (bit.ly/1TeMK3u ). I conducted an informal survey of contact center leaders and I was hard-pressed to find anyone who wanted their children to work as a contact center agent.
If you’re a frontline agent, some of your best places to work are those that won’t make you use a script, but will still tell you when you can use the bathroom. The truth is that the stories contact center employees and some managers tell reveal some all-too-ugly truths about how otherwise good companies treat customer-facing staff.
There’s the constant monitoring, for one thing. In a 1975 interview with The New York Times, French philosopher Michel Foucault readily articulated his well-researched observation that prisons are not unique in a surveillance culture. He predicted that the world of business would look more and more like prisons. Contact center employees are living his prophecy, given that the resources of an entire industry are committed to monitoring technology and techniques that they claim will aid in delivering optimal customer experience. They deliver metrics, but not an engaged staff.
Dead French philosophers don’t work in your contact center (although you may find a few live ones there, if you asked them what they think). But constantly being watched while trying in vain to meet unrealistic performance targets isn’t the only problem. In fact, the first challenge is getting corporate leadership to understand that contact center agent well-being is an expensive and quantifiable problem that impacts customer loyalty, employee turnover and brand reputation.
For decades, social science and business literature have looked at the bottomline impacts of the environmental conditions in the contact center, such as the use of scripts and the stress of the job, but somehow the idea that prioritizing the needs of employees remains elusive. One study (bit.ly/1TDBwFn ), conducted more than a decade ago, is worth revisiting because it explores contact center operations and concludes empowerment is the key to success.
In the United States, contact centers is an $18 billion industry and employs about 5 million Americans. That is millions of people who are seeking meaning in their work lives, and who are doing it in an environment perceived by many—with some reason—to be soul-sucking and abusive, with chaotic scheduling and low pay that fails to compensate for the ordeal.
At one call center, I remember an employee reduced to tears by the profane tirade of a customer with a documented history of being so abusive that we initially looked to end the customer relationship. After reviewing the size of the account, we rationalized, sold out the employee and chose the customer instead (bit.ly/1WztOm3").
Are these the trade-offs we need to make even if it comes at the expense of real people entrusted to help grow the company? Every senior leader talks about contact center employees being the most important people in the company, but the decisions we make telegraph to our telestaff that their jobs don’t really have any meaning. Empowering them with a measure of autonomy to solve problems for customers is obvious; employees, and especially millennials, want to feel as though their work creates positive change, even if that’s in the smallest of contributions.
Sometimes the equally small policy change is what makes a difference. When Bank of America chose data-driven analytics to understand their high turnover rate, they discovered a cultural problem that was easy to fix. They found that changing break times—originally structured to discourage employees from connecting with one another—resulted in a $15 million savings and employees who handled contacts 23% faster (read.bi/1rN9Gjx).
When the Manchester School of Management researched the contact center experience and previous studies on the ingredients of empowerment that sense of meaning was like oxygen to employees—but so was competence. In customer service operations that rely on scripted conversations and automated tasks, it’s hard for employees to feel any mastery or skill-based achievement. That’s made harder still by clients who insult them and assume they don’t know what they’re doing, and by managers who treat them as if there are no aspirations in their work.
Managers face their own pressures, and they’re focused on meeting expectations in a marketplace driven by the customer and influenced by the experience that the client shares with friends, family and in online reviews or social media. As often as not, they’re trying to meet their targets in a unit that far too many businesses still see as a cost center—and an easy place for cutting those costs.
The investment in an agent who wants a sense of competence doesn’t seem like a priority until there’s a problem in morale, absenteeism and the retention of a dedicated employee. When employees function in a surreal environment that fails to value competence at all, that competence is irrelevant. This was recently the case at HubSpot, where writer Dan Lyons (Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble) noted that “treating workers as if they are widgets to be used up and discarded is a central part of the revised relationship.”
Smart contact center policies that place trust in customer-facing employees put companies ahead of the curve in a competitive environment where customer experience is the primary growth driver. Training your staff and giving them the authority to make more decisions, without appealing to a supervisor for even the most common-sense course of action helps to create real competence rather than the illusion of it.
Contact center agents who are smart enough to make decisions for customers without needing permission have to wonder, though, why they can’t make decisions for themselves. If there’s any scenario in which the contact center is like a prison, it’s this one. Some of those decisions—like when a fully sentient adult person decides that he or she needs to take a bathroom break—are ridiculous at best.
Work-life balance, and control over that balance, is an integral piece of employee well-being—and that inherently means that the contact center staff is free to make some scheduling choices that make sense as they care for families, go to school, or decide that they really can’t miss another anniversary dinner or Little League game that matters.
Consider the technology that allows for a virtual contact center, so that employees can self-schedule and “work” anywhere they can access a system browser. If that’s not reality, and there are good reasons for why that’s not ideal for employer and employee alike, then consider the flexibility of some self-scheduling software options that allow for meaningful choice. That’s true for vacation options, too.
If more employee autonomy makes you uneasy, try the policies anyway—but expect to be delighted in the same way your customers are! Giving your employees control will give you more control. Creating that new agent experience will result in improved efficiency and productivity, reduced attrition and better service from happier employees that your customers will notice.
Here’s the part where enhancing your customer service staff experience is inseparable from your expectations about strategies to optimize customer satisfaction—and how you’re measuring that.
In a stressful environment that is harming health and well-being, and sometimes literally killing our employees, it is the lack of empowerment that is the culprit. The helplessness that people feel when they don’t have scheduling choices, the dead-end frustrations they feel over lack of achievement or any foreseeable opportunities for it, all express themselves in lost opportunities and lost revenues.
Even the best solutions have the seeds of new conflict within them. For example, providing agents with access to real-time metrics may work as an incentive to improve performance. On the other hand, if an agent who wants to provide top-notch service feels that they can’t begin to do so in the allotted time—a constraint they’re keenly aware of precisely because of all that real-time monitoring—then it’s hard to argue that you’re providing any sort of incentive to your people. Not to mention how patronizing some of these approaches are to employees who know perfectly well that there’s a fine line between technology that empowers them, and tools that imprison them.
Having said that, it’s important to remember that the technology itself is value-neutral and meant to support the customer service mission. When managers take data and apply it in ways that create meaning for their teams—that shows them the impact of their hard work in problems solved and money saved, and that underscores how mission-critical their work is to a grateful enterprise—then their employees have a chance to see the impact of their work. They know it really matters. Better still is an environment that illustrates its impact and creates incentives for department teams!
Freeing the Contact Center From Its Own Prison First
Finally, one necessary step in creating the new agent experience is to raise the profile of the contact and customer operations as a unit—in other words, communicating its value across the enterprise, and its reputation to stakeholders in marketing and public relations, logistics and the C-level suites. It may seem like a tall order in organizational cultures where the contact center suffers from terminally low esteem, its own or otherwise, but if you want to free the prisoners, you have to free the prison.
There’s never been a better time to advocate this. The marketplace is driven by smart, connected customers who expect the same personal experience from every other business unit in the company that they always have from the contact center. Companies who are immersed in realigning their business models and processes, who understand that their entire value proposition is now rooted in creating a relationship and demonstrating responsiveness in an experience that defines the brand, are just now waking up to what the contact center already knows. If nothing else that should give the inmates a good laugh as they watch the walls falling down—but far better is to leverage the moment on behalf of the quality contact center employees who deserve to be treated as real customer experience leaders.
For every change management consultant now helping the executive team to capture customers on the basis of community, of a curated experience and communication, there is a contact center employee whose entire career is about that. There’s no reason to equip the contact center with state-of-the-art technology and then shackle the customer-facing staff to the same old outdated and unproductive rules that diminish them—and there’s every reason for them to escape from that prison.