Communication – We have an obligation to communicate.
Respect – We treat others as we would like to be treated.
Integrity – We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly, and sincerely.
Excellence – We are satisfied with nothing less than the very best in everything we do.
Do these corporate values sound familiar to you? Given that some 89% of companies have core values of some kind, it’s likely that you’re accustomed to these types of statements, which many companies all over the world proudly align themselves to.
The difference with this list of values is that they’re pulled from the 2000 Annual Report of what would become one of the most unethical companies of all time – Enron. In the wake of Enron’s 2001 accounting scandal, it quickly became clear to shareholders and customers alike that these values meant nothing, in a corporate culture where greed reigned supreme.
While Enron is an extreme example of values fallen by the wayside, sadly it’s all too often that company value statements are pinned up on the wall and forgotten about, while lived culture brews all practices and tactics which make for disempowering, politically-charged or unethical working environments.
It’s a sad thing that the contact center is so often a place where these practices are often seen and publicized. From KPIs that cause role conflict and stress, to high-pressure sales tactics employed by desperate staff at the expense of vulnerable customers, there are companies everywhere who pay lip service to great culture while allowing awful business practices to impact on customers and agents alike.
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Corporate value statements are meant to prevent this, but they’re problematic for any professional who looks for results in any business initiative – and corporate values are as much of a business initiative as any other practice to fuel organizational change. How can values be measured? What even are we measuring here? While corporate values are often seen as too disputed or illusory to get to consensus on and measure, it can be done. Here are some of the things I’ve learned from helping contact centers to embed their corporate values.
Make Values Visible
Your values shouldn’t be hidden in a corporate handbook. Make it clear how much they influence your working culture by putting them front and center. Print them on coffee mugs, engrave them into meeting room windows, hang them on posters.
Making values visible is much more than physically marking their presence. Your leadership team have a huge role to play in setting the standard for values-driven business, too. To put it simply – if they’re not talking about values, your teams aren’t going to either.
Work Towards Shared Definitions
Some values are really difficult to define. Ask your average person what integrity is, for example, and you’ll likely get an answer along the lines of “Doing the right thing”. That’s all well and good, but Enron’s executives probably thought they were doing the right thing for their lifestyle and family the whole time they were secretly lining their pockets with the organization’s money. Vales mean different things to different people, so it’s essential to get your team agreed on what a particular value actually means in order for them to see how it can be applied to their work.
Get your teams thinking about what your corporate values really mean to them by way of a brainstorming session – and be prepared for some deep discussions that range into the realms of philosophy, ethics, psychology, and more. All of this makes for some seriously interesting debate that will help you understand your teams in new ways, as well as helping them towards a deeper understanding of what values really are, and how they apply within your organization.
Define What Values Look Like – And What They Don’t Look Like
Many of us would say we are principled people who act according to certain standards. You’d be hard-pressed to find a person who doesn’t say that they don’t take accountability for their actions, or that they don’t treat people with respect. But ask how values can be shown in an everyday working environment, and some might struggle to come up with some concrete examples of what certain values actually look like. What do accountable people actually do to show that? What behaviours do you need to show to demonstrate excellence?
What’s more, the nature of modern work often presents some interesting ethical dilemmas that value statements alone don’t resolve. Is it a violation of integrity to book a doctor’s appointment on work time when you’re not feeling well? Is Ken’s bordering-on-xenophobic nature to be expected given his upbringing and culture, or does that signify a problematic absence of respect? Identifying behaviors linked to value statements is a great way to give clarity to these moral grey areas.
Create some clear examples of specific behaviors to give your teams that clarity. Work with them to brainstorm what each value looks like, and also what acting with an absence of that value looks like. These behaviors should cover both interactions with customers, as well as interactions with each other. With some encouragement, many people can come up with some real-life behaviors that act as a solid guideline for value-driven working practices, and help make value statements more concrete than a list of well-meaning but vague phrases. Document them for future reference and be clear that your list should rightly be always up for debate.
Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is – Measure & Assess Values
It’s rare for organizations to measure and assess standards for behavior against corporate values, but turning values into a KPI sends a seriously strong message about how important values are to you as an organization. What’s more, when staff know there are expectations for value-driven conduct, values transform from being statements that are talked about on induction day and then forgotten, to becoming a reliable standard which defines how work occurs within your business.
You can implement a value-based KPI into your annual review process by asking staff to come prepared with examples of times they’ve shown behaviors that signify a particular value. You can decide how in-depth and granular you want this process to be – it might be enough for you to ask your teams to evidence one or two things that show they’ve acted with a certain value at each review, and give them a tick in the box that demonstrates they have thought and acted in accordance with that value. Or, you might choose a more lengthy process that incorporates coaching and 360-degree feedback to develop a rating. With sensitivity to the practicalities of this process, it’s possible to develop a new KPI that helps your corporate values to become truly lived.
Why Values Matter In The Contact Center
Few business areas have seen as much transformation in the last few decades as the contact center. Back in the 80s, as the telephone enabled the offshoring of customer communications, the call center was born as an opportunity for business cost reduction. The draw of call centers was the ability to cheaply process high-volume customer inquiries – inquiries which were often low quality, and the targets and practices within them tended to disadvantage agents and customers alike. Only in the last ten years has CX become a strategic priority, and now, our agents are much more than low-skill, scripted triage staff – they’re fully-fledged knowledge workers, with valuable and transferable professional skills, creating clear business advantage for the organizations they work within.
Despite this incredible change, contact centers still suffer from the image problems of the past – viewed as places where ‘professional’ work and ethics are often absent. Agents still try to minimize aspects of their role from their friends or relatives, who still commonly see contact centers as unskilled, low-value places to work. And many customers still dread contacting customer service, expecting to talk to agents with no ability or desire to truly help. These are big issues which affect the potential success of the work that we all do, as demonstrating the worth of our centers is especially hard against this backdrop.
With that in mind, it’s important for anyone who hopes to advance contact center working practices to reject the perceptions of the past, through ensuring that their centers are staffed by agents who aren’t disadvantaged by their jobs, and who serve customers who are treated fairly. Values can be a strong driver to set a clear standard for conduct, communication, and behavior in our centers so that this hope becomes more than just an aspiration.
The promotion of value-driven business practices, then, is essential to actually change the problematic perceptions of contact center work and to help us raise the bar of best practice throughout our industry. It’s on all of us to situate values strongly in our workplaces, helping us to create contact centers which are recognized as operating fairly, upholding exceptional standards of practice, and allowing for empowering work to take place – for agents, businesses and customers alike.