A recent New York Times article unveiled a grueling culture at Amazon that chews up workers who cannot suffer the retailer’s long hours and rigorous demands to meet “unreasonably high” standards. Whatever the conditions, they have clearly worked for the online giant, but it isn’t the type of environment that most who run call centers are trying to imitate.
While the popular perception of a contact center may be a rat cage of robotic workers, many companies strive to be the opposite. They want to offer a better climate for employees and train supervisors to have empathy for those on the phones, rejecting the Amazon model and instead cultivating a happier, caring workplace that is proving great for workers and the bottom line.
Building Core Values and Culture
Listen Up Español has a 550-seat call center in Hermosillo, the capital of the Mexican state of Sonora, and two smaller locations in Mexico City and Belize. Formerly an industry consulting firm, CEO and co-founder Craig Handley decided a decade ago that they could run centers themselves and he was validated when the company reached $15 million in annual revenue within three years. Now they have a multitude of offerings, as the Hermosillo site runs sales and customer service campaigns that target the Spanish-speaking market in the United States, Belize does the English work, and Mexico City handles the Mexican market.
Handley attributes the success to something he learned by joining an entrepreneurs’ group that got him face time with Virgin billionaire Richard Branson and other mavens. “The one thing people said to us over and over again is, if they could do anything in their lives earlier than they did, it would be building their core values and their culture,” he said.
He took this to heart, establishing measurable values and tying call-center processes to these principles. One depends on giving back through charity, and while this isn’t something many would view as capable of improving performance, Handley thinks the $100,000 per year the company pledged to give each year has been invaluable.
As evidence, he cites a 45-question survey into general employee happiness that the company commissioned Forrester Research to conduct. Some people thought the bathrooms could be cleaner, others wanted more security. They then offered workers a 50-cent pay raise for calls that resulted in up-sales to try to improve satisfaction. Conversions improved by 17%, but a follow-up happiness study showed no change.
“We actually proved that giving money to charity is profitable for our business.” – Craig Handley, Listen Up Español
The next attempt to boost morale was to tell people that the company would donate $1 to charity for each up-sale. “Happiness scores went through the roof,” said Handley. Up-sells across the board went up, talk times also dropped and the initial close rate on sales went up enough to lift the bottom line. “We actually proved that giving money to charity is profitable for our business,” said Handley. Knowing that people who believe their company is doing good in the world will be more productive, Listen Up Español also funds workers who want to volunteer in Haiti, local animal protections groups, and after-school education programs.
Promoting Health and Well Being
Some issues are inherent to the work. Studies show sitting at a desk eight hours a day, five days a week is unhealthy. But for a phone rep, that is the job — fielding calls in a chair. Still, encouraging breaks and offering common areas for stand-up chats makes a difference. Before employee well being was valued, managers saw those hanging out at the water cooler as lazy. Now, most good bosses acknowledge that a worker who walks around to stretch his legs every 90 minutes will be more productive than someone who never leaves the chair.
It’s all about understanding the ultimate goal — great customer service — as opposed to laying down draconian laws. “You don’t want to make employees feel like they are bound and superglued to their chair with their hands stapled to their keyboard,” said Justin Miller, customer service manager at 911 Restoration.
His company goes beyond encouraging breaks to hosting nature walks, hikes, and healthy food events. Even in the office, they regularly have team-building physical games. One gathers everyone in a circle to pass tennis balls throughout the group. Then they keep introducing more balls to see how many they can add without dropping any. It’s a bit silly and some on the outside could view this as corny, but those in the center have fun and it adds to a culture that values activity and fun.
Michael Mills, senior vice president of call center solutions at CGS, also knows that extras can be more motivational than money alone. “We pride ourselves on offering incentives beyond a paycheck,” he said. Regular team-building and fun employee events are a big part of this, as are community perks, flexible schedules, and opportunities for advancement. From the day the agent starts at the company, these things “all play a part in inspiring and incentivizing our call center teams,” he said.
Focused Hiring and Training
Lance Paglierani, account director at Information Services Group, thinks crafting a positive culture starts with hiring process. “Many times a contact center agent going through the recruiting process doesn’t really have good understanding of what the job entails until he gets in that seat and starts taking calls,” said Paglierani. “And then if he doesn’t like it he quits.”
The cost to replace and re-train someone else to fill that seat is naturally expensive and wasteful. But this also hurts the culture. When there is a revolving door, it’s hard for the long-tenured workers to feel like they are really working on a team towards a common goal. It also chips away at the feeling that the office is a place for career development and long-term growth. That, as much as anything, can be key to keeping employees happy and productive. “Sometimes, because of cost,” said Paglierani, “companies do not invest in learning and development like they should. And investing in your people shows them that you care and you are supporting them.”
Ronaldo Araki, service delivery vice president for Latin America at Unisys, also says that agents not understanding the expectations of the campaign can be the biggest source of stress for employees. That’s why the company spends up to 120 days training agents, focusing heavily on what the client expects. They know exactly how long calls are supposed to take, for example, and can decide whether or not a sales call should be escalated quickly or they can take the time to probe the caller for more information before sending the problem up the ladder. This clearly defined process flow empowers the agents to take ownership of the call and provide a peace of mind that Araki didn’t see when he was managing call centers earlier in his career at Nokia, Dell, or Compaq.
It works. When fully equipped with all the facts and an understanding of when to escalate issues, reps spend less time worrying about negative feedback and more time making the client happy. “Today, if you visit one of our contact centers, you will be surprised to see the low level of stress there is in the environment,” said Araki.
Dan Campbell, president of Hire Dynamics, agrees that attrition has a huge impact on workers. “Turnover is a leading culture killer,” he said. In his view, agents don’t leave their call center job — they leave their direct supervisor. So how a manager communicates is the biggest factor in team success and keeping the overall attrition down. An effective manager must encourage a candid dialogue, accept constructive feedback, and build trust. Above all, they must learn to lead by promoting the core company values. “Staff success is directly related to the success of the supervisor,” said Campbell, adding that “strategic supervisor training will improve and sustain a positive call center culture.”
“Investing in your people shows them that you care and you are supporting them.” – Lance Paglierani, Information Services Group
In addition to investing in the community through charity, another core value of Listen Up Español is investing in employee development. To align with its “growing brain cells” motto, the company built a library of business and self-help books, and set up an intranet with access to general development tools like Ted Talks and specific goals like testing around the products they sell. This last aspect allows agents to improve during phone calls. Ambitious individuals could become more qualified to take more calls and work on higher-paying campaigns — something they were encouraged to do from the very start.
Each worker had created a vision board early on in their tenure full of vacations they wanted to take, things they wanted to buy, and dreams they hoped to achieve. And the company showed them a concrete path of how to earn more money by improving. The financial incentives are naturally enticing, but the key is that employee’s truly see that the firm can see things from their perspective and is trying to do do the right thing for workers. “All these little things, when you put them together, makes us an environment and a culture that really transcends just coming in and being a phone agent,” said Handley.