Q&A With Louise Anderson
Hiring an agent to work in your call center is one thing; having them stay is something else entirely. Louise Anderson sheds some light on how to make a call center less stressful and more manageable for call center agents, thus reducing turnover.
Call Center (CC): What are the best ways to motivate agents, given traditional industry-wide average turnover of between 30% and 100 percent?
Louise Anderson (LA):Two things: (1) Look at your range and turnover by manager because the manager may be doing things that are more successful and causing people to be more successful faster which can reduce turnover.(2) Turnover is at an acceptable rate or acceptable based on market stats. Then focus on ramping up your call center agents as soon as possible. The way you do that is by focusing on your best practices —what are your managers and employees doing that causes them to be more successful faster? Replicate those behaviors.
CC: Of the wide spectrum of available technologies for improving call center performance, which ones standout as “must-haves” and which ones are more “optional”?
LA: Use the technology that was chosen or is currently in place and then asking the customer appropriate open-ended. The rest is observation and coaching. While technology and process are important, people are what makes technology and process work.
CC: You’ve written widely about stress in the call center - are there any specific ways to improve the morale(and by extension, the performance)of a pool of call center agents?
LA: There are specific ways to reduce stress and improve morale. Celebrate success and reward for small amounts of improvement and then do random reward and recognition. Make it fun — this can be done as often as every day, every hour or every quarter hour.
CC: What kinds of career path trajectories can we reasonably put in place for call center agents? What kinds of expectations should we foster?
LA: Many call centers can share and develop the skills required for a supervisory position; however, if you don’t recognize these employees for their excellence in their job, you won’t keep them. There are only a small percentage of the employees that want to be managers. And only a small percentage is comprised of top performers. Good employees are not saying they have a career path. Career path trajectory should be clearly discussed and focused on the opportunities in their job.
What kinds of expectations should we foster? (a) Continue to recognize for excellence and performance in the job they are in; and (b) supply coaching and guidance in the new job they want to be in. It is their responsibility to fine tune and grow their skill base. Management will support their efforts as long as it supports the company’s strategy.
CC: Are there specific traits we should be looking for in the pre-hire period that indicate that a person is well- or ill-suited to call center work?
LA: Absolutely. These traits are based on the type of call center. Candidates can be profiled using your existing top performers’ traits along with other profile tools used in the hiring process.
CC: How do we measure customer “loyalty,” as opposed to “satisfaction”? Are we really measuring how “sticky” customers are? And which one, loyalty or satisfaction, best captures the value of a call center?
LA: That is a million dollar question. How do we measure loyalty? Customers continue to buy and buy more! When customers leave, it is already too late to do anything about it. The more products they buy, the more apt they are to stay. Early indicators are different from those of customer satisfaction. This is a massive job to undertake that will show the answer. Customer satisfaction is a result of the interaction with employees.
As to the whole aspect of customer satisfaction versus customer stickiness: it is important to identify where people are satisfied and where they aren’t and get to the root cause of it. Stickiness is based on the ability to continue to buy from you — not only the services they purchased in the past but additional services.
Banks, for example, know that the root of stickiness is in the cross sell. If customers are actually buying more products and services, they are less likely to leave. If the customers’ experience is positive and products are offered to them, they are likely to buy more. Do we care enough to talk to our customers to see if they have further needs?
CC: Which is more important for being an effective leader: focusing on the expectations of executives above me, or the performance of agents below me?
LA: Unfortunately, businesses are still top-down. Listen carefully to what the company needs and then be creative on how you create an amplifier with the specific deliverables to those people below you. And then recognize, celebrate, and role model those that are doing exactly what you want them to do. Leadership spends too much time on those who are not doing it versus celebrating, recognizing and role modeling those who are.
CC: Why are telecom or call-based metrics still so pervasive as performance measurements? Isn’t it more useful to try to quantify success on the basis of revenue or customer satisfaction than handle time or queue length?
LA: Most call centers got enamored with the technology that allows them to measure queue length, talk time, number of calls holding. The important thing about that technology is how it helps supervisors schedule the right load so customers can be serviced properly.
But somewhere along the line people lost focus on just what the real objectives of that technology metrics were all about. Yes, you can measure financial, revenue contribution— and every company does, but the real question is, how do you impact that? Do you monitor more closely the queue metrics? No. Do you monitor more closely what value (or revenue) is obtained in the call or the amount of time(cost) that is spent? Yes. Is the revenue greater than the cost? If the answer is “yes,” then proceed.
How do you do that? You know who is actually closing more sales. You know who actually has more products sold per call. You actually know who has higher levels of customer satisfaction in the calls they have handled, or which teams have higher levels of customer satisfaction. Use the metrics that point to happy customers that are actually purchasing more from your organization. And then copy what they are doing. Too many companies think they know the answer and they don’t even look inside their own organization; seek out where they are already getting the results. And if they could get those results across the organization, they would in some cases increase their revenues by 20, 30,40 and 50 percent.
CC: You’ve written about incentive metrics —including one called Revenue Per Incented Order (RPIO). Can you describe what this is and how it works? And what pieces of information need to be collected to effectively measure RPIO?
LA: In one particular company they didn’t actually incent for every order. Customers were calling for different reasons. In the account where RPIO is used, not all orders are incented. One example could be change orders — where agents are just changing the orders to another location — that is more administrative work and does not require a consultative selling skill. If the IVR is not able to route them to the right place when they come into the sales queue, you want to take care of that customer as swiftly as possible. The key is that it is an administrative order. And not all orders should be incented.
RPIO are those types of orders that you want to reward people for actually seeking out, listening to the customers’ needs, and being able to close or at least offer, if not close. The way this is measured is usually on your own system. You can see your sales and contracts, and you can see the skews that are in it. You can identify a query that those skews are in an order and that would qualify as an incented order. In general, you want to look at the question of whether revenue would be greater if your salesperson or call center representative is actually doing a better needs analysis because they will better position more products and services. That is what will increase the RPIO.
CC: Are there other good “hidden” metrics out there?
LA: Eventually, once your organization gets your salespeople, service, and/or call center reps doing what is right for your customer, you will want to look at other efficiencies. But those usually come naturally because call centers are overly focused on efficiencies, as opposed to customer care and revenue generation. The biggest hidden metric is, if you want to improve performance, look to your top performers, find out what they are doing and reward them for replicating their best practice behaviors.
CC: How do I balance the value of an upsell/cross-sell opportunity against the cost of keeping someone on the phone longer, and possibly irritating them with an offer that might be unwelcome?
LA: Companies that do that well — cross-sell and upsell — actually do it by asking questions. If you are just asking your reps to make an offer, you may annoy a few customers. But if you ask questions about what their needs are and you train your reps to listen for the cues from the customer (which is really what good service representatives do anyhow), while some customers may say I don’t have time, other customers might be intrigued to hear that somebody really wants to help them get the right phone service or get the right maintenance contract or get the right automobile. Observations are key to cross selling successfully. Quality assurance or the supervisors need to write training and collaboration to create a consistent focus resulting in improvement.
CC: Are there tricks to motivating agents to perform better in this mixed-use environment? Do the same sorts of incentives work for sales as do in a service-only center?
LA: The key with rewards is to just give them choice. If you have enough choice, there will be people the same age, the same psychographics, where one wants electronics and the other wants a gourmet kitchen. As far as service and sales, traditionally if you make your reward value correlate to your compensation, it is just the amount that will vary. So if your salespeople are paid more, they will probably need a greater reward earning opportunity just to get their focus.
CC: What should the role of incentives be in coaching? What works best, financial or non-financial incentives for agents?
LA: If you have an agent that is compensated for delivering results, keep that cash compensation on the end result. But if you want to improve significantly what call center agents can produce, you need your coach giving them meaningful feedback that will cause them to improve. So, again, copy the coach’s behaviors that are getting the greatest improvement and then reward the coach for completing potentially more observations and providing the feedback regardless of good or excellent ratings. And reward their agents for improving from average to good or from good to excellent so they will want to listen more and they want more coaching. So you see what we just did — we took typical marketing and created a push and a pull.
What works best? Non-financial works best, because once you get the improvement, you want to take it away or move it to a new activity or raise the performance level required to earn. Why continue rewarding for something that you already achieved?
CC: Do incentives and morale-boosting program shave any significant impact on turnover, or do they just reward those who are most likely to stay anyway?
LA: When you look at employee surveys, most people leave or are dissatisfied with the lack of recognition for the work that they do. If you design a reward and recognition program — non-cash— that rewards people for improvement and achievement, you will find people will stay longer. As a matter of fact, if you look into your own organization today and identify those managers that use rewards and recognition and coach for improvement, you may find their employees are staying longer than the average.
CC: Given the cost of hiring, training and then incenting agents, what tools are available to automate or improve the pre-hire assessment process to get the right person in the seat in the first place?
LA: There are many assessment tools out there today. And it still comes down to hiring the right characteristics and then providing the right coaching and support from the very beginning.
This may not be an appropriate answer to this question, but we have seen companies that hired and brought on new employees that performed almost 50 percent better than the ones that were in the seats already. However, within90 days, their performance went down to match those that had been in the centers. So don’t think that it is just hiring the right people. It is providing the right environment for improvement.
Louise Anderson is president of Anderson Performance Improvement Company.