Putting Humanity in Contact Centers


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You’ve tried numerous tactics to improve your agent performance and to put your attrition problem to rest. You’ve conducted surveys, created committees, put in recognition programs, and still you struggle. Perhaps you’re even feeling a little disgusted with yourself and your inability to make a bigger impact. You feel like no matter what you try, it’s not going to work. It’s just the nature of the contact center industry.

Is it really? Or is it time to put humanity into your contact center?

“It’s time to put humanity into your contact center.” Click to Tweet

If you were to look at the Contact Center Challenges and Priorities Report authored by Lori Bocklund of Strategic Contact, you’d see that attrition and agent performance are the top challenges and priorities in contact centers. And it seems like they always are.

Managing a contact center is fast paced and furious. It has always been. But now the entire economy has to adapt to rapid change and uncertainty. It’s making your life even more complex and stressful.

Continuing to do things the popular way in the contact center industry no longer works. It’s holding you back.

“Doing things the popular way in the contact centers no longer works.” Click to Tweet

Your people have more options

Competition for your problem-solving, caring-natured people is rising. The best contact center agents also are the best marketing people, sales people, finance people, and trainers.

In a study by Jobvite, 95% of recruiters say hiring will be as or more competitive in the coming year (2017).

Old-think contact center practices are pushing good candidates away. Unless changes are made, you and so many others will continue to report that attrition and agent performance are your top challenges and priority.

“Old-think contact center practices are pushing good candidates away.” Click to Tweet

And your viable candidate pool is going to continue to shrink. According to 65% of recruiters, a lack of skilled candidates in the market remains the largest obstacle to hiring.

Employer Reputation

In the past, it was easy for an employer to avoid the negative impact of having a contact center with an attrition problem.

But now, 59% of job seekers use social media to research the company culture of organizations they are interested in.

Today, job seekers have access to and will read reviews, news, and other resources about companies online before even submitting a resume. They are using the experiences of others to learn about companies for themselves. It’s more important than ever for contact centers to develop a positive online reputation.

Negative reputations, regardless if created by a scandal, bad senior executive behavior, poor business practices, or dissatisfied employees is causing serious problems for contact centers.

An employer’s negative online reputation leads to difficulty recruiting and retaining new employees, higher costs to hire, and failing to attract top talent. And in a market where talent differentiates brands, this is vital to growth and defending off competition.

Today and increasingly into the future, employees value companies with a great reputation, a noble purpose, and a track record of satisfied and engaged employees.

It’s certain that candidates will move away from opportunities with contact centers that are unable to maintain a positive reputation online.

Ownership over Accountability

When your focus is on how to hold people accountable, it takes your focus off an important question: “Why do we need to hold people accountable in the first place?”

This question comes from Susan Folwer, author of the book Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work . . . and What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging.

She states that if you believe people need to be held accountable, what is YOUR underlying belief? Is it that people cannot be trusted to do what you want them to do?

Is it that people fail to follow through on what they commit to doing? Why is that?

You need to look in the mirror when your people are not performing. Too often, holding people accountable is a kneejerk reaction based on the leader’s own fear of failure.

The Carrot and/or the Stick

Most leaders don’t understand the undermining and short-term effect of carrots (incentives, bonuses, tangible rewards), so when those bribes don’t work, leaders assume it is the individual’s fault and put accountability measures—the stick—in place.

The insidious thing about accountability is that it promotes the use of pressure to get people to do what they probably already want to do—succeed.


A sense of ownership is a required component to experience engagement. And as many studies have confirmed, engagement is directly correlated with higher levels of individual and organizational performance.  This results in higher profits, lower costs, higher customer retention and referrals.

An employee’s perception of control is significantly related to psychological ownership. (Pierce, O’Driscoll, Coghlan, 2004)

When control over employee performance is influenced by management implementing carrot and stick practices, employees are stripped of control. When the tactics used to affect performance are more aggressive, the more difficult it is for employees to feel they are in control of their performance and therefore are unable to feel a sense of ownership in the job or their performance.

Expectation Setting

Effective setting of employee expectations is a critical part of successfully leading and managing a team. When an employee fails or performs poorly, call center managers typically do not blame themselves or the system.

A Towers Watson survey, shows that only half of managers set effective employee goals. If individual goals aren’t clear and well-defined, how can employees hope to achieve them and managers hope to reach them?

The Power of Purpose

In the report Crunch Time: Why Purpose is Everything to the Modern Workforce by Calling Brands, Purpose is defined as being an ambition to make a difference in the world by a sincere desire to make a positive impact on society, and to offer a wider benefit to the community.

They share that Purpose is a key driver of recruitment preference, discretionary effort, and employee retention. The truth is, Purpose goes beyond a mission statement. 64% of the workforce feels more loyal towards businesses that claim to do more than simply create shareholder value.

In an interview on the Fast Leader Show, Brian MacNeice co-author of the book Powerhouse: Insider accounts into the world’s top high-performance organizations shares findings from his research of organizations such as the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, Doctors Without Borders, Mayo Clinic, Finnish State School Education System, Kirov Ballet, Tata Group in India, Southwest Airlines, US Marines Corps, New Zealand All Black Rugby, St. Louis Cardinals, The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and others.

Brian shares that Purpose is one of the 12 common attributes of all high-performing organizations. And when people are in alignment and have clarity in the Purpose of the organization, people give more of themselves.

Operational Alignment of Purpose

Purpose must be real and cannot be faked for it to be an organizational performance multiplier.

What do your people feel the purpose is of your contact center? Do they feel it aligns with what they feel is the purpose of the company?

Do your supervisors and agents know how they make a difference or impact the company purpose? Do your employees know how they are helping others to fulfill the purpose?

Purpose is a cornerstone in your contact center and organizational foundation. If it’s missing or misunderstood, trust will be hard to foster and all you attempt will be undermined.

Employee Development

The largest age group of contact centers agents are millennials. 87% of millennials rate “professional or career growth and development opportunities” as important to them in a job based on Gallup’s latest report, How Millennials Want to Work and Live.

Millennials care deeply about their development when looking for jobs and in their current roles.

The reasons behind millennials’ desire to enhance their skills and to further their careers is a great opportunity when a constructive process exists.

While millennials are most interested in opportunities to learn and grow, only 39% strongly agree that they learned something new in the past 30 days that they can use to do their jobs better. Slightly less than one in two millennials strongly agree that they have had opportunities to learn and grow in the past year.

The Emotional Impact

American sociologist and academic, Arlie Hochschild created the term ’emotional labor’ in 1983 to describe the things that service workers do that go beyond physical or mental duties.

Showing a genuine concern for customers’ needs, positive tone, and active listening are all critical to a customer’s perception of contact center service quality. These types of activities, when they’re essential to worker performance, are emotional labor.

Contact Centers are where you conduct emotional labor practices. Agents and supervisors are your emotional labor workforce.

When your contact center employees face angry customers, non-customers, or internal staff who are generally unpleasant, emotional labor can be particularly challenging. A large part of that challenge comes from the need to hide your real emotions and continue to ‘grin and bear it,’ even when receiving negative or critical feedback.

Managing Emotions

Agents and supervisors intuitively understand the impact that emotional labor has on their performance. However, it’s essential that contact centers build a strategy around this requirement, so they can find ways to provide support and develop their staff.

Contact center employees need to perform emotionally in a certain manner if they’re going to provide high quality service. This is usually defined by management, then strictly regulated and monitored though internal Quality Monitoring (iQM).

Customer Disruption

A successful brand is now determined by the customers’ experience and relationship. Consumers now exploit the opportunity to use information to their advantage. A study by Carpenter found that 70 percent of consumers read online reviews before purchase and 41 percent compare prices and products.

Consumers have more choice than ever before and one bad experience is enough to lower their perception for a lifetime and also be used to influence the decisions of others. Organizations must create performance management and employee development programs that use customer relationship metrics to drive their service delivery.

In the Early Years

The processes being used by most contact centers to manage their service delivery fall into the realm of the Quality Assurance (QA) program. And ‘quality’ is as old as the telephone.

While thought of primarily as a female profession, the first telephone operators who worked for the Bell Telephone Company (later known as American Telephone and Telegraph Company or AT&T) in the 1870s were young men.

Unfortunately, the boys frequently proved rude and unruly. So, being concerned about the quality of operator customer service delivery, women were hired instead.

The first female telephone operator was Emma McNutt, who was hired in New York City by a manager who happened to be a neighbor and who thought Emma was a “nice girl.” Emma established women as operators and the work became an exclusively female job until the 1960’s.

What you’ve been doing

The QA practices used today were built for a different time, much like replacing an entire gender was back in the late 1800’s. But the QA practices conducted today are weighted very heavily on internal criteria of quality. And these internal criteria are assumed to be correlated to the customer’s criteria of quality.

The QA practices most widely used today are best suited for efficiency and compliance which have been the focus that has ruled the contact center industry for the past several decades. They were built when customer retention and referrals were not seen as top-of-mind issues and when cost containment drove decisions.

And, the labor force did not consist of millennials that have a need to be part of a great purpose and who expect to be developed.

Get a Constructive Process

In addition to QA, we know that performance measurement and employee development are somewhat similar to the practices used several decades ago. While technology may have helped to automate these practices, the constructs are relatively the same. And it sets agents up to fail in a customer-centric world.

The evidence is overwhelming that people want to contribute, are willing to work hard, and feel better when they achieve agreed-upon goals. W. Edwards Deming, the father of the quality movement in the U.S. and Japan, believed that 80 percent of nonperformance was most likely due to system failures.

What to do now

Now, contact centers must implement a constructive process that focuses primarily on knowledge gained from customers, not from internal criteria assumed to create customer-centricity. The knowledge gained from customers must be the primary driver for your performance measurement and the employee development actions that take place.

Maintaining the practices of old and expecting your contact center staff to perform to customer expectations of today goes beyond ineffective, it’s inhumane.

Humanity in Quality Assurance

To get humans to connect better with humans, you need to primarily focus on the human to help them build their human-centric skills. You need to feed their emotional labor skill needs.

If customer relationships are your desired outcome, then you need to have a QA program that enables it. That probably means that your typical QA program needs to be disrupted and you need to manage performance differently.

Greater Human Impact in QA

For the last few years Customer Relationship Metrics has been helping clients implement a modern QA model called Impact Quality Assurance (iQA). The iQA model (Get the iQA tools) is for organizations that go beyond ‘talking’ about the customer experience. They understand that it’s the people which create value, not the organizations. They understand that people need to be invested in to experience long-term success. It is a human-centric model that develops maximum agent performance.

The iQA model consists of Four Pillars that help you to take action on Four Vital Questions that you must be able to answer. Its natural by-product is lower costs because you’re focusing on what delivers results and eliminating the waste that does not. The iQA model involves a paradigm shift from the traditional contact center QA approach.

The contact center industry is currently at a tipping point with their quality assurance programs. The tolerance level of these traditional QA practices amongst contact center employees and customers has run its course. Without a change, we’ll see a mass exodus of skilled talent from contact centers while companies lose to their competition.

Customers are the judge, jury, and executioner. They have the upper hand with quality assessments. So, your choice is to make a positive impact with iQA in your contact center or wait until customers make the choice for you.

Bring the Customer into QA

You need to bring the customer into your QA program and think about the customer grading the call (chat, email, etc). For this to happen your mindset must change.

Just like you grade the call internally, your customer should grade the call externally.

Think about it as external Quality Monitoring (eQM). Think about the evaluation, the calibration, and the coaching.

Incorporate the results into your training and development plans.

Since the customer is your primary focus, make their evaluation the most important. Anything less knocks the customer out of focus.

Humanity in External Quality Monitoring (eQM) – Voice of the Customer

Do you focus on cost or return on investment? If you put price before people, you’ll fail.

Too many contact centers have poorly or wrongly invested in their customer feedback, voice of the customer, customer satisfaction, or whatever you call it.

The gross negligence in most survey programs in contact centers is because of inadequacies in helping call center agents to focus on their emotional labor success factors for improvement. They are merely used as another way to catch agents in the act of performing poorly.

Most programs are inhumane and prohibit fair ownership and skill development.

Many of the things we see that causes agents to fail are:

  • Surveys that are too short
  • Surveys that “only” ask you to rate agent performance
  • Surveys that do not uncover repeat contact problems
  • Surveys that are too removed from the interaction
  • Surveys that only collect ratings (no customer comments)
  • Surveys that only measure “Likely to recommend”

There are several more, but these are the most common culprits. (Get the Launch Kit)

Trust and Fairness

When you think about being humane, trust and fairness come to mind. Trust and Fairness in a survey program allows contact center agents and all internal stakeholders to feel confident in ownership and actions taken based on the information generated.

But customers are human.

Think about this. A customer calls in and speaks to an agent that they perceive to be a little gruff who isn’t able to help them and transfers the customer to a second agent that is able to resolve their issue.

At the end of the call, the second agent transfers the customer to the post-call IVR survey. The customer gives low ratings of 1’s and 2’s and leaves a comment that Suzie (the second agent) was a tremendous help but Johnny who she spoke with at first was less than helpful and did nothing more than waste her time.

Clearly those low scores were meant for Johnny and not Suzie to whom they are currently assigned. During the Survey Calibration process, those survey results would be moved from Suzie to Johnny where they should be based on the customer’s comments. Without that, Suzie would be penalized for Johnny’s poor customer interaction.

Simply said, Survey Calibration is a process within any survey program where the data is sanitized to ensure accuracy. Don’t think data scrubbing; think data integrity. By conducting Survey Calibration you are ensuring that the survey is linked to the correct agent and that the comments validate the scores that the customer gave.

With Survey Calibration you can legally and confidently coach, promote, or terminate (let’s hope not) contact center agents based on the scores received because they are the ones who earned/deserves them.

This is humane.

Humanity in Internal Quality Monitoring – iQM

If your internal Quality Monitoring (iQM) process is like most, you have to conclude that most customers are extremely satisfied by the service they receive.

Scores naturally migrate to the upper part of the iQM scoring scale. If you have 100 points available, the majority of your scores are probably 92 or higher, or even 95 and higher – essentially you use the top 10 points on the scale.

Stop. It’s time to rethink iQM. The process used today was designed by many to be used as a tool to assess the customer experience. The criteria on an iQM form are graded by someone else, not the customer.

You versus the customer

Customer Relationship Metrics conducted a research project that revealed that iQM scores do not equal the callers’ evaluation of the service experience (eQM).

The iQM form tested included 17 items. Seven of which could be directly compared to the caller evaluations. Over a five-month period, iQM and eQM scores we’re compared.

As presented in the table above, there was virtually no relationship at all between the caller evaluation of the experience (eQM) and the iQM scores. The only statistically significant relationship was related to perceived interest in helping and tone, and this was not a strong relationship.

Decades of Wasted Money

The proof from the customers’ perspective reveals that what was measured on the iQM form did not help to answer, “Did the customer have a good experience? Was the good of the brand served?”

And the reality is that measuring these criteria internally has been going on for decades. Millions, if not Billions of dollars have been wasted in the contact center industry conducting a process that is grossly ineffective.

Show me the money

The original iQM process included measuring 17 items scored per call, 5 per month were conducted for 2000 agents. This equated to 170,000 scores given per month, with 4 completed per hour, taking 2,500 hours (not including the feedback time). To complete 2,500 hours of scoring, 17 FTE were used at $45,000 per year for a grand total of $765,000 (again, without feedback and coaching time).

With the results of this research, the iQM form was revamped to remove items the customer should be measuring. This cut the items measured down to eight items. This allowed six to be completed per hour, requiring 12 FTEs at $45,000 per year for a net personnel cost of $540,000

So, in just personnel alone the contact center saved $225,000. That will definitely pay for a more effective customer satisfaction program.

And agents were now not being measured by people internally for criteria that should be measured by the customer. This is more humane.

Humanity in Contact Center Metrics

The metrics you place on agent scorecards, and the number of metrics, should help them focus on what needs to be done to reach the desired outcome.

Too many contact centers stick to standard metrics. In more than twenty years of research into call center performance management, I’ve witnessed what Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) companies use to monitor and assess the performance of their agents.

The truth is that contact centers pretty much stick to standard metrics, such as number of calls, average call length, total average call handling time, holds, and transfers.

Think Like Your Customer

But to improve the customer experience, you must think in terms of the customer. Did the customer perceive the agent was efficient, competent, and treated them as valued? Without the customers’ feeling, it’s difficult to interpret any switch generated metric.

Contact centers are not just about efficiency of operations, they are about people – agents and customers. But as we know, relying on your iQM processes to allocate agents a quality score and to identify what coaching and training they require is not customer-centric, it’s company-centric. And most agent scorecards have the same problem.

By conducting root-cause analysis you can better understand why calls are occurring and why the outcomes are what they are. This will enable you to address these root causes, which is likely to have a far more dramatic impact on number of calls handled and average handling times than placing those KPIs on agents’ scorecards.

That is more humane.

Humanity in Empathy and Emotional Intelligence

Is your contact center in the business of building and enhancing relationships with customers? If you have customers, it most certainly is.

Your contact center agents are relationship ambassadors and must be good stewards of your brand. A connection with the customer, i.e., trust in your agents, is paramount to achieving your goal for customer retention and growth. And Empathy makes that happen.

It’s really important to reveal that Empathy is one of the 54 Emotional Intelligence (EQ) competencies, but it is one of the most popular. Especially in contact centers.

Because of this, contact centers must spend more effort and invest in ways to increase agent Empathy skills. Most have never considered investing in building employee empathy skills before. Now, they have no choice. They must do it because customer experience is now the main point of competitive differentiation. And Empathy is a core component in creating exceptional customer experiences.

But agents will have difficulty using their Empathy skills if they have to worry about adhering to strict Average Handling Time (AHT) targets when dealing with an emotional caller. And you can’t script Empathy and have it felt as genuine. Instead, the conversation should be led by the customer and with the knowing that it needs to “take as long as it takes”.

The customer has to be in control of assessing agent Empathy, because a connection with customers is a subjective trait and entirely dependent on your customers’ assessment. Not yours.

Humanity in Four Vital Questions

Quality Assurance Vital Questions In order to focus the four pillars of the iQA model in a customer-centric way, you incorporate the Four Vital Questions of Contact Center Quality developed by Dr. Cliff Hurst of Westminster College.

The four questions help you to focus and assign the proper resources and prescriptive actions for improvement. The Four Vital Questions that must be answered by any effective contact center quality assurance program are:

  1. How are we, as an organization, doing at representing our company to customers?
  2. What can we, as an organization, do to get better at representing our company to customers?
  3. How is this particular agent doing at representing our organization to customers?
  4. What can we, as managers, do to help this agent get better at representing our organization to customers?

Common contact center industry quality practices result in a nearly exclusive focus on Question #3: How is this agent doing? The insights used to answer this question most often are sourced exclusively from the iQM practices.

By properly applying the Four pillars of the iQA model you are able to better answer all four of the vital questions and generate an action plan that will accelerate your path to being more customer-centric.

Employee engagement is ultimately one of the most important aspects of any quality assurance program. When employees have positive feelings, and trust the quality assurance program, the road to being more customer-centric is accelerated. The Four Vital Questions help agents to feel supported and part of a greater purpose.

Currently, 80% of contact center agents are very dissatisfied or dissatisfied with quality assurance programs in contact centers. Because it’s inhumane.

The iQA model (Get the iQA tools) disrupts the traditional contact center quality assurance approach found in the vast majority of contact centers today. The contact center industry is currently at a tipping point with their quality assurance programs.

The tolerance level of these traditional quality assurance practices amongst contact center employees has run its course. Customers are finally in control as judge, jury, and executioner and have the upper hand. If your quality assurance program is not putting these people first, your fate is all but certain.

Your choice is to make a positive impact with quality assurance in your contact center or wait until customers make the choice for you.

Published from original with permission

Jim Rembach
Jim Rembach is recognized as a Top 50 Thought Leader and CX Influencer. He's a certified Emotional Intelligence practitioner and host of the Fast Leader Show podcast and president of Call Center Coach, the world's only virtual blended learning academy for contact center supervisors and emerging supervisors. He’s a founding member of the Customer Experience Professionals Association’s CX Expert Panel, Advisory Board Member for Customer Value Creation International (CVCI), and Advisory Board Member for CX University.


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