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Ways of empowering agents – what worked & didn’t work, and why

Engage Customer Service Staff, Understanding Workforce Planning

empowering agentsTo provide excellent customer-service experiences, agents have to be properly empowered so they’re motivated to give that little extra and go beyond just the call of duty. It has been proven time and time again that that properly empowered agents are the main catalyst for transforming organizations.

At a recent user forum, Teleopti led a panel discussion about employee empowerment and engagement practices. As a source of inspiration, I would like to share some of the practices that panelists shared they are currently employing.  In response to asking what various call-center organizations are doing, here are some of their key practices:

Feedback and skills development encourages improvement

One organization developed programs where some of their top-performing call-center agents were trained in leadership skills to manage certain processes. They were then assigned to head certain tasks as well as oversee “super bees” that were assigned to work on those tasks. “Being empowered by developing those leadership qualities, it all came full circle for them, and it paid off for everyone,” said the panel member.

Another panelist shared that agents felt they were not being heard nor listened to: “We wanted to show them that what they had to say mattered to management. We’re situated all over the globe so we provided them with feedback portals. Teams, even while working with customers, could express directly and instantly what was not working. The feedback, once summarized, became the basis of what to work on. Agents choose to have their voice heard and we choose to make improvements, based on that feedback.”

The contact center of another company had a similar experience. So, brainstorming sessions were set up on a regular basis and it was seen to it that their suggestions and ideas would reach the right people – with some being acted upon. This panelist also confessed being obsessed with the employee life cycle-  in a positive way, it turned out. “Mapping it out and providing agents with the lifecycle, broken up in three-month periods, made it easier for them to adjust to and get over the bumps more easily by anticipating the lows and highs ahead.”

Mobile WFM gives flexibility and agent satisfaction

The enablement of Chromebook for business continuity was what another organization implemented: “We don’t have a work-at-home program but when, for example there was a big snowstorm on the way, we let our employees know that they were not expected to come in, and that they could work from home. This made them feel that we really care about them. This is a big winner for all of us. We also allowed, for the first time, a top performer to move from Nebraska to Florida and work from home. We tried it out and her performance has been outstanding.”

A banking operation had not intended on implementing the mobile capabilities of Teleopti WFM (Teleopti MyTime)* for their agents: “However, agents caught wind of it somehow. Since it was so easy and intuitive to use, they caught on quickly and wanted this to be made available to them as well – right at their fingertips. So, we did and they’re loving it! We’ve also given agents more and better digital tools, as well as virtual training – bringing in consultants on how to lead a team virtually –  on how to make best use of those digital tools, such as multi-screens.”

Another panelist voiced their agreement. “Half of our workforce now has Teleopti MyTime. They love being able to do swaps, sign up for extra time and what they especially love is getting approved time off quickly! We’re still working out some security issues and the other half, now knowing it exists, is very impatient to get it!”

One contact-center employing mostly students, were struggling with high attrition. Once Teleopti MyTime was implemented – so students could list their schedule availability and preferences, and make schedule swaps with instant confirmation –  attrition declined dramatically. Everyone was happy. Students were able to work and go to school. The organization was able to make best use of the workforce – when they needed it; not when they thought they needed it the most.”

Yet another organization agreed that the automation of asking for time off has saved them hundreds of e-mails going back and forth for just this request alone and that their agents were all the happier for it – also that the process no longer took so long.

Interestingly enough, two panel members recalled that their call-center agents were initially not at all interested in doing shift trading digitally via their smart phones. One panelist elaborated: “But once they understood they were owners of the process themselves, and after incremental training – with three, instead of just one touchpoints – their attitude changed radically, but it does take time to get used to a major change in process.”

Another organization had a similar experience: “Once our agents started with it and got the hang of it, they loved it.” The contributing panelist also mentioned that automated WFM has streamlined their PTO (Paid Time Off) processes. “Thanks to auto-approval, problems here have diminished greatly, as it has the pressure placed on both managers and agents.”

Statistics for the good of the agent

Automated WFM allows agents to pull their own statistical report prior to an annual development talk. One panelist said: “It makes them feel empowered, seeing their successes and failures, and their strengths and weaknesses spelled out in front of them, and then knowing what they’re going to discuss in advance. What I found amazing is that they’re often tougher on themselves. It’s actually kind of a nice turn of events.”

Yet another panel member shared that he posts agents statistics on the wall – schedule adherence, handle time, and the like: “Agents were talking to one another and comparing their ranking. After three months of this, they were coming up to me, asking when the next batch of statistics was due to be posted! It has resulted in healthy competition and performance improvement.”

Along the same lines, another panel member said: “In our organization, agents have performance-metrics visibility and it has brought about major improvements in adherence. We encourage them to keep checking the numbers during the day and they love it. They can evaluate themselves, and they know what the one-on-one performance conversation will look like beforehand, which is hugely reassuring to them.”

Incentives for both customers and employees

Another organization encourages its agents to be truly transactional with customers and engage in small talk: “If a hardship comes up, agents can send a gift card or pick out flowers and send them. You won’t believe how successful our ‘Surprise and Delight program” is –  from both the perspective of agents and customers! We got so many call backs from customers, thanking us and wanting to know where that particular agent was so they could express their gratitude personally!”

Another panelist cited the piloting of a “Be Well” program: “Agents could take off a certain number of hours in order to feel well.” That could take the form of going to the gym, going for a massage or pedicure – even meeting a financial advisor. It worked so well that we’ve now implemented it across the board.”

A similar measure was taken at a company where tenured employees were allowed to take breaks when they wanted: “This was empowering and gave them a sense of having control over their schedule.”

Yet another company built a hub spot in the office: a literal forum for sharing and collaborating. Even the supervisors sat there. The manager sharing, said: “Agents decorated it and felt they owned the spot. It’s not 1984. I don’t want to be looming over them. We actually went beyond just the company culture and worked on team culture; how to interact among each other and help each other out.”

Lessons learned

When I asked what hadn’t worked, one members piped up that at one point, self-service had gone too far: “We tracked things that didn’t need to be tracked. We kept adding and adding, and we didn’t stop to pause and evaluate if we were doing the right things. So, some measures had to be reined in.”

Two other members related that supervisors, accustomed to ‘block scheduling’ where everyone comes in at the same time – including they, themselves – were really struggling with the newness of flexible scheduling, and that it was taking much longer than expected. “They’re creatures of habits, so at the end of the day, we may need to hire different kinds of managers,” explained one of them.

Another panelist shared that the creation of a specialization program for just answering web inquiries became seen as elitist. “Everyone wanted to work on the web team. We had to dial it back.”

Finally, a male panelist shared that he had pushed an extremely talented agent way too much and too quickly on the fast track. “She got burned out and we had to reel it back and take remedial action. Luckily, it all worked out.”

To summarize, lesson taken away from this panel discussion: Don’t treat employees like robots or children, but like humans, capable of much more when given the chance. The work, per se, is not that stimulating so they need stimulation and motivation to grow or advance in some capacity.

Give them your trust and some freedom. Let them have a say about their schedules and provide them with a forum where their ideas are heard and acted upon. Such measure will make them feel that they matter, and they do! Remember, they are the frontline of your organization. Poor experiences get bad-mouthed multiple times. By the same token, customer loyalty is maintained through providing great customer-service experiences.

* Teleopti WFM brings to the table a contact-center solution that empowers agents from a technology perspective, allowing them to enter scheduling preferences, time off, swap shifts, etc.  via their smart devices. Teleopti WFM also provides gamification, boosting performance through natural, healthy competition. It also provides agent performance metrics.

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