Talking Shop: Strategies to boost morale and retention in call center environments

Make your call centers more efficient by making workers happier

Outsource call centers and some company help desk departments have been referred to as the new millennium sweatshops of corporate America.

"You can smell the lack of self-esteem when you walk through the door," said Kirk Weisler, a public speaker and authority on team building and creating positive corporate cultures. Weisler laments that too many employers don't see the connection between a motivated, happy staff, peak performance, and higher profits for their company.

"They'll pay for network certifications to get computers connected, but they won't pay to get people connected," he said. People who are happy and feel appreciated in the workplace are likely to pour more passion into their work and see their input as an investment. Those who do not are likely to produce lackluster results, he said.

In 1998, Weisler was hired by Sento Corporation to create a positive culture in their new call center. By the end of 2001, Sento's annual attrition rate decreased from 150 percent to 17 percent and productive employees were staying an average of two years, instead of a mere six months.

We interviewed Weisler about why call center work can be so challenging and how call center morale and retention can be raised. Weisler provided suggestions based on his tried and proven theories.

Problems in the call center
The problems at the outsource call centers resulted from a number of elements, starting with the way they got work and continuing with the way they expected employees to perform their jobs.

According to Weisler, outsource call centers are often used by companies, such as Gateway, IBM, and numerous other technology corporations, to handle customer service calls regarding computers, software, and other devices. Often, the lowest bidder gets the contract, which is sometimes based on a per call or per minute calculation. So an outsource center may bill a computer company $.13 a minute or $10.00 a call to answer questions or solve problems. Here, making a profit with high overhead and income that can be somewhat anemic without a massive number of calls becomes the first problem. Forget about real customer service, observed Weisler; answer the question and get on to the next call.

Obviously, if a company's bottom line is per call or based on the number of productive minutes, there's going to be someone ordering employees to "tote that barge and lift that bail."

"How would you feel if you get to your job and there are 100 calls waiting for you and the same number is still flashing at you when you leave?" Weisler asked. "How would you feel if the very customer you need to impress for raise and advancement consideration is the very one you must rush off the phone?"

You would feel unfulfilled and unappreciated because you are just another "butt in the seat," Weisler said. The second problem arises with the high attrition of good employees.

"Who with good esteem would work in these type environments? Many people who work call centers are doing something until they can find the job they really want."

Weisler said many call centers suffer 150 percent to 200 percent attrition. As an example, Weisler said consider a company that hires 7,500 people over the year to fill 2,000 seats.

"Do the math; something's wrong," he said.

The third problem, according to Weisler, is the tense culture or environment that develops when more stock is put into outcome over delivery and expectations over employee development. Weisler likened outsource call center environments to the intensity of testing centers where—without proper orientation—fear of failure or disappointment can be extreme.

Weisler said employees should feel and be told that they make a difference. They should be motivated to do well by working for a company that invests as much time in developing their personnel as they do boosting profits. Through research, he discovered these are the ways you keep good employees. He said the following strategies do not work:
  • Downsizing
  • Hiring Ms. Manners to teach employees how to "smile through the phone" and other etiquette strategies
  • Teaching employees how to exercise their fingers for greater flexibility and speed

None of these things work if the environment is sick with bad attitudes, Weisler said. Instead, the way to improve your call center's performance is by lifting your employees' morale and making them feel a part of something.

"Research shows that most good employees leave jobs because they have limited advancement opportunities or feel unappreciated," Weisler said. He believes changing the way you treat staff can reverse high attrition of good employees.

Personal growth and advancement
Get deliberate and articulate about personal growth. Help people meet their needs for a vision of their future. Sometimes employees don't recognize they need room to grow or opportunities for advancement, but when these things are available, they appreciate it. For example, Weisler started Sento University, a two-year training program that offered courses leading to A+, Novell Network, CISCO, and Microsoft certifications. He emphasized that course offerings should be based on the interests of employees, not employers.

Weisler found that, often, companies don't want to invest more into employees than they are willing to pay them hourly. However, employee feedback and the waiting list of people who wanted to work for Sento were proof that investing in employee growth not only retains quality staff; it attracts them too.

Build a foundation that focuses on teamwork
While at Sento, Weisler oriented new employees into the call center by focusing on them as individuals and as a team. New employees were treated to foundational activities that most organizations do as a "fix" for morale problems.

"We spent the entire day focusing on teamwork, community building, relationships, and creating connections," he said. "We played interview and get-to-know-you games to find out who each employee was and what their goals and dreams were."

Weisler used a team development strategy with the groups based on four phases:
  1. Form
  2. Storm
  3. Norm
  4. Perform

Groups are formed, and then they go through a "storming" process where they try to figure out how they fit in and [what each individual team member is] to one another, Weisler said. Everyone deals with insecurities, and, sometimes, the storm never goes away, Weisler said. This storm process is ongoing. At Sento, they did very deliberate things in the beginning to minimize the storm process, like getting to know one another's personality, goals, and dreams, he said.

When the storm does pass, the group begins to normalize, he said.

"Now everyone knows what's expected and how to work with the different personalities," Weisler explained. "Only after these three phases have occurred can they get into the performance stage."

Tactics for employee recognition and appreciation
Showing appreciation is simple but too seldom done in call centers, according to Weisler. Some of his suggestions for showing employees that you value them are as easy as making work areas comfortable and efficient. While at Sento in the late nineties, the company equipped each desk with two computers to reduce the frustrations of flipping from one window to another to locate customer information and research solutions.

Weisler went so far as to help employees locate second employment offers to emphasize the employee's self worth and value as professionals.

"I would tell them, I don't want you to work here because you have to; I want you to work here because you want to," he said.

Also, under Weisler's direction, employees received daily profitability statements that illustrated their performance in dollars and cents. The equation showed an individual employee's contribution to the company's daily gross income less their daily pay and allocated benefits. It worked well because: employees learned how they impact the success or failure of a business; and they could use their P & L (profit/loss) statements to estimate and suggest their own wage increases, Weisler said.

Tell stories for motivation and encouragement
Weisler suggested talking about former employees who stepped up to new, better positions because of their employment at your company. Motivational stories, too, are a way to help agents out of temporary ruts or impress corporate doctrines without sermons or threats from a supervisor.

An adage from a story Sento agents knew by heart was: Excuses don't change results. Weisler said the company doctrine was often shared between peers, making it unnecessary for a supervisor to get involved.

Changing culture to boost agents' morale and encourage peak performance may seem too simple to some, maybe even hokey to others. But, Weisler is so certain about his methods that he is somewhat of a self-acclaimed evangelist speaking up for call center agents and other hourly employees. He insists, "If you are excited and you sense the hope and possibilities, you'll start to radiate [that energy in what you do]."

Spreading the word
These days, Weisler has a mission to get his message out to greater numbers of managers and team leaders who not only affect the color of their bottom line but also the lives of the people who affect their company's performance. He is cowriting a book, tentatively titled The Value of Connection in the Workplace, with Dr. Jim Cain, who does seminars on team building for churches, community groups, and corporations. He also uses his self-acclaimed chief morale officer (CMO) title as a trainer and speaker for the Help Desk Institute (HDI), a professional association of about 20,000 help desk professionals in the United States and Canada. He also conducts independent professional seminars on making cultural changes for high morale and motivation.

IT Infrastructure Management Conference and Expo
On October 26, Weisler will advise people how to "Shake Off the Service Desk Blues" at the IT Infrastructure Management Conference and Expo in New Orleans.