Want to Empower Call Center Agents to Delight Customers? Improve Your A.I.M.


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On a trip to Orlando two years ago, I arrived quite late to a Hilton hotel and visited the restaurant a few minutes before closing. The server took my order and disappeared… for just a few minutes too long.

I was starting to wonder if my order been forgotten, when the server came back, apologized for the delay and offered me a free drink. I still remember that experience because it wasn’t expected. The delay really wasn’t a big deal, and I had no intention of complaining.

It surprised and delighted me that my server was empathetic enough to realize that Hilton’s service was not quite up to par, without a complaint. So far as I know, I didn’t send any signals via my body language that I was unhappy. And, he didn’t have to ask permission to give me that drink.

That’s a simple but powerful example of an empowered employee. My server obviously had some latitude to make a decision on the spot to create a memorable experience. The fact that I’ve told this story many times in speeches the past two years, and now write about it here, speaks volumes for the real impact of that simple gesture.

Empowerment is one of those fuzzy words that can mean many different things. In my view, you need three elements to put the concept to work in customer service: authority, insights and motivation.

Authority to Make Decisions on Their Own

If employees can only do exactly what they’re told, they’re not empowered; they might as well be robots. And make no mistake about it, empowerment really matters to your customers.

A customer-centric research study by Dick Lee and David Mangen found employee empowerment an important factor in Customer Focus behaviors, which were “the most influential in driving purchase selection, and by a wide margin.” But the study also found that Customer Focus includes product quality, and concludes:

Customers are saying that product strength alone cannot cover up for customer indifference—and conversely, that customer-friendly behaviors alone can’t cover up for weak product.

The truth is that I wouldn’t go back to Hilton if they screwed up service routinely, even if employees were empowered to placate me with a free drink or another accommodation. That’s why it’s critical to establish a foundation of product/service quality, and meet it consistently.

Even so, “stuff” happens that can’t be anticipated, which is where employees that have authority to act can be a tremendous asset. At Southwest Airlines, for instance, leaders believe that employees should use their own good judgment handling passenger situations. And for the most part, they do. It’s one reason that Southwest has been leading the airline industry in customer loyalty for the past 18 years.

Empowerment means having the authority to make decisions with consequences.

Of course, sometimes employees won’t make good decisions. Southwest’s management took a lot of heat for poorly handled situations with an overweight Hollywood director and the skimpy attire of a young women. Despite blowback on social media, Southwest didn’t create a dress code or write more rules for employees to follow.

Empowerment means having the authority to make decisions with consequences. At Ritz Carlton, employee have latitude to spend up to $2,000 per incident to create an outstanding experience, not just to fix a problem. Notable examples of empowered employees, according to Simon Cooper, president of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, include:

  • hiring a carpenter to build a shoe tree for a guest,
  • flying from Puerto Rico to New York, twice, trying to get a stain out of a dress, and
  • building a wooden walkway to the beach for a disabled guest in Dubai.

Take a tip from Ritz Carlton and don’t reserve these acts of “lagniappe”—a creole word for doing a little something extra—for service recovery. Why not give agents the authority to do favors for valuable customers when they aren’t complaining?

Insights to Get the Job Done Quickly, on One Call

When I had problems with my DSL, I contacted my provider for help, starting with the “self-service” web site. Finding it too confusing, I decided to post a plea for help on Twitter. Partly because I hate calling for service and partly to see what would happen with “social” customer service.

Well, the good news is that my tweet got a quick response and helped me connect with an agent. More good news: the agent clearly had put me into a priority status. (Although it left me wondering how my incident would have been handled if I had used the normal support channels.)

That call still took a long time. I don’t know exactly what was going on, but I could hear keys clicking in the background interspersed with “we’re working on your problem” verbal updates.

Make sure agents don’t waste time getting the insights they need to help customers on one call

My guess is that my hard-working agent was experiencing some version of Alt-Tab Hell. Manually transitioning between 5+ applications is a fact of life for most service reps. Fortunately, there are solutions that can help bring insights more easily to the agent. For example:

  • Virtual contact centers can provide a more usable interface for agents to manage multiple interaction channels, including social media.
  • Knowledge management systems can help the agent find an answer quickly, searching multiple information sources while the customer is on the phone.
  • For complex problems, an agent can tap the company’s social network to find the right expertise and ask a question.

Of course, not all problems can be solved with one contact. That leads me to another customer annoyance—the company forgetting information the customer has previously provided. A 2010 Clickfox study found that the top customer frustration, cited by 41% of respondents, was “having to speak with multiple agents and starting over every time.”

Similarly, CustomerThink’s consumer research found that consumers who had to interact with companies suffering from this “touchpoint amnesia” were 50% less likely to recommend that company. To make matters worse, it also wastes agent time when they can’t “see” customer information already provided on a self-service interaction. The solution, once again, requires taking an integrated view of interactions across channels, and making this information easily available to reps when the customer calls.

Of course, the ultimate solution is no service. Figure out why customers are calling and fix the root cause! But until that happy day arrives, make sure agents don’t waste time getting the insights they need to help customers on one call.

Motivation to Delight Customers

To paraphrase Einstein, insanity is expecting employees to do one thing while rewarding them to do something else. A classic example: Executive proclamations to delight customers, while continuing to measure and reward agents who get customers off the phone as quickly as possible. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of one of those calls, you know it’s anything but “delightful.”

Not screwing up is hardly a memorable experience—unless poor service is the norm in your industry.

Still, there’s some debate about whether “delight” is the right strategy. A study by the Customer Contact Council concluded that it’s better to focus on reducing customer effort. I disagreed because, while low-effort customer service is certainly important to decrease dissatisfaction, it’s generally not sufficient to build an emotional bond.

Said more bluntly, not screwing up is hardly a memorable experience—unless poor service is the norm in your industry. And placating customers with over-the-top service recovery measures is not the only or even the best way to delight customers.

If delight is part of your company’s strategy, then your “rewards system” is absolutely essential to reinforce the right behaviors. The theory is straightforward: people tend to select behaviors that lead to a more desirable outcome. Incentives matter. In practice, it’s tricky to figure out what to measure to avoid unwanted “gaming” behavior—like being pressured by car sales rep to give a “10” on a satisfaction survey.

Although companies have talked about customer satisfaction and loyalty for as long as I can remember, their measurements and rewards systems have lagged behind the rhetoric.

  • An ICMI study in 2006 raised a concern that “only one in five centers surveyed base agent incentives and recognition on the critical metric of first-contact resolution (FCR).” Quality measures more commonly used were quality monitoring scores (83%), customer feedback (60.5%) and coworker feedback (33.8%).
  • A 2007 CustomerThink study of loyalty management practices found that in 42% of companies, customer loyalty did not “affect employee rewards of any kind.” A year later, another survey revealed that just 14% of companies “fully” used “performance measures and rewards to encourage employees to treat customers well.”
  • In 2008, an ICMI study found that 51.2% of respondents reported FCR being used their center measures FCR for live agent phone calls.

Contact centers have been slowly making the shift from productivity measures like Average Handle Time (AHT). By 2011, an ICMI poll reported about two out of three contact center tracking FCR—the percentage of customers getting a problem solved on the first call/contact. Bruce Belfiore, CEO of BenchmarkPortal, says using FCR can have a positive impact on both cost (productivity) and quality (customer satisfaction). Belfiore argues that customer feedback, via a post-call survey, is the best way to calculate FCR. The customer’s perception matters most!

Internal measures can also be used. However, assumptions can dramatically change FCR, as call center expert Bill Price writes:

Over the years it has proven hard to measure FCR, with efforts to estimate FCR (e.g. “if the customer doesn’t call back in 7 days we will declare the earlier contact to be resolved”) shown to be imprecise. Some customers/issues need more than 7 days to sort out, and other customers might contact the company for other reasons within 7 days, and many dissatisfied customers might not place another contact at all.

Still, once you’ve developed an operational metric linked to customer loyalty, the key is create employee rewards and recognition programs to encourage improvement based on that metric. At AMEX, for example, agents are motivated to deliver a great customer experience through rewards and recognition tied to RTF—would the customer they served Recommend To a Friend. Tammy Weinbaum, Senior V.P. and General Manager for the American Express service centers in Arizona and Utah, said they “found that this was really the best metric to hold people accountable for the work that they’re doing.”

Zappos, the quintessential example of a company striving for delight in call center experiences, uses Net Promoter Score (NPS), but that’s not all. In February 2010, according to an insightful post by customer service expert Greg Levin, Zappos ditched a traditional quality monitoring program and replaced it with Full Circle Feedback (FCF) which was developed collaboratively with call center staff. FCF has five components including self evaluations, observations from team leads, “calibration checks” to ensure some consistency, sharing and learning from “above and beyond” calls, and NPS feedback from customer surveys.

Culture, the Glue for Customer-Centric Behavior

One last point—don’t overlook culture. Metrics and rewards are important, but they can be taken to extremes, making people feel like Pavlov’s dog. I remember interviewing an Amica Insurance employee many years ago, and asking how management rewarded them for providing great customer service. The answer: nothing. The company’s culture expected great service, so delighting customers made employees feel good about their jobs, which was reward enough. Must be working, because Amica continues to rack up awards for customer and employee satisfaction.

So that’s it. Three practical ways to empower agents. Give them the Authority, Insights and Motivation needed to delight your customers. Good luck improving your AIM.

Further reading:

This article is an edited and greatly expanded version of guest blog post originally published on Coveo Insights.


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