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Power to the People

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Power to the People

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Power to the People

Workforce issues need to be considered equally with customer service issues.

Every generation seems to have its own rallying cry. Back in the 1960s, it was “Power to the people!” Apparently, this was driven by a general feeling among members of the younger generation that they were being oppressed by the older generation. This rallying cry caught on around the world during the ’60s as it became a rallying cry in places like the Philippines and South Africa during turbulent political and social times. 

Always willing to co-opt something trendy for marketing purposes whether appropriate or not, advertisers adopted the slogan to help sell everything from breakfast cereal to auto insurance in the 1960s and up to as recently as 2009. Countless millions must have been motivated to reach for a box of Cap’n Crunch after hearing that inspirational slogan.

In 1971, John Lennon wrote and recorded a song called “Power to the People” with the Plastic Ono Band. He was inspired to write the song after spending the day with two political writers and activists of the Marxist newspaper Red Mole. The song actually charted in the U.K. and in the U.S. for nine weeks starting in March 1971, despite having somewhat innocuous lyrics and a less-than-inspirational chorus that went:

Power to the people, Power to the people, Power to the people, right on.

In the late 1970s, Lennon admitted that “Power to the People” probably wouldn’t rank up there with his best work. In fact, he referred to the song as being “rather embarrassing” and stated that it “didn’t really come off.” 

In the contact center industry of 2017, perhaps it’s time to resurrect “Power to the People” as a slogan. If a series of interviews I recently conducted with customer service professionals is any indication, 2017 will be the year of people power in the contact center.

As a regular part of my industry research, I usually spend the latter month or two of each year trying to determine what issues are on the minds of contact center managers and executives as they look toward the new year ahead. In 2016, replacing or upgrading older technology was at the top of the list of priorities for the year ahead. Occupying the middle space in the 2016 top five priorities was addressing agent turnover issues.

In 2017, resolving people issues seem to have shot to the top of the list for priorities in the year ahead. During December 2016, I conducted 20 interviews with members of the National Association of Call Centers (NACC). Interviewees knew ahead of the time that I would be asking them about their top contact center priorities going into 2017, so no one was caught off guard. They had time to think about their answers and all participants offered thoughtful insights into the state of today’s contact center industry.

All of the interview participants held the position of director or above, most in the executive ranks of their companies. Contact center descriptions ranged from a 30-seat not-for-profit expecting to double in size this year to an insurance company with well over 1,000 seats. There were third-party outsourcers using state-of-the-art cloud delivery for their solutions, and one participant dealing with a recent acquisition that left them with six contact centers running on two different phone systems, both of which have been end-of-lifed and are no longer supported by the vendors. I think the mix of participants represented the industry well, although my college and grad school statistics professors would probably remind me that by virtue of their willingness to participate, these interviewees would be considered more driven and achievement-oriented than an average contact center executive.

Of the 20 contact center executives I interviewed for this project, 12 said their greatest concern for 2017 was related to workforce turnover, while all but two mentioned some other aspect of personnel retention, motivation and management as a concern for the next year, even if it ranked below something else. Most executives recognize that something has to change in 2017 in order to create the workforce stability they seek.

 One interviewee talked about the amount of stress her agents are under and cited that as the primary cause of turnover. In order to combat the high-pressure environment, her managers created what she described as a “Serenity Room” where agents can go to unwind after a particularly stressful call. They are also looking at piloting an at-home agent program to see if that helps the agent burnout rate. Some of the overnight staff will be the first to participate in this program.

Among the interview subjects were two large outsourcers, both of whom pointed toward hiring and retention as their greatest challenge going into 2017. Interestingly, both of these executives (one a CEO and one a CFO) are looking toward gamification as a potential measure to address agent turnover. One of the companies already has a reward program in place with prizes going to top performers, but gamification opens the gate to reward and recognition to a much larger percentage of the workforce. At that contact center, peer recognition and company rewards are no longer relegated to only the top 10% of agents.

The potential impact of the millennial workforce also got considerable mention by the majority of interview subjects. Virtually every one of them had something to say about how millennials are influencing or will influence their agent workforce, but several are truly focused on the issue, including one interviewee who referred to the “culture clash” that is a result of recent millennial hires. 

New training measures for agents were mentioned several times by those seeking to improve job satisfaction among their workforce. Similarly, acquiring new tools such as knowledge management software for agents was mentioned by a number of interview participants.

Although my sample size was small, I’m confident that the concern for workforce issues ranks high among the issues and concerns keeping many contact center executives up at night in 2017. I believe the industry as a whole needs to refocus on solutions and strategies that will refine the hiring process in order to improve the chances for success among initial hires, and at the other end invest in tools that will improve the agents’ chances for job satisfaction and accomplishment. 

If I were a betting man, I’d bet that 2017 is the year that gamification finally takes hold in the industry if for no other reason than it enhances the employee experience and directly addresses the top concerns of so many customer service executives. Furthermore, it’s time to add voice of the employee strategies to the management mix. Employee feedback from surveys, emails and even analytics can provide companies with valuable insight into employee perceptions and sentiments, delivering the information required to address workforce problems before they lead to agent turnover or other undesirable outcomes. 

Perhaps “Power to the People” has come full circle, at least in the contact center industry. By investing in appropriate workforce enhancement solutions and keeping a finger on the pulse of agent sentiment, contact center executives have the opportunity to effectively address a problem that has plagued the industry since the beginning. In 2017, workforce issues will need to be considered equally with customer service issues. It’s time to focus on optimizing both the agent experience and the customer experience. 

Right on.

Paul Stockford

Paul Stockford

Paul Stockford is Chief Analyst at Saddletree Research, which specializes in contact centers & customer service.

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