How probing questions can shape workforce engagement and where technology fits in

“Know thyself” is a Greek aphorism, which turns up throughout literary history from Plato to Emerson to self-help blogs. It’s also great advice for call center leaders seeking to enhance employee engagement.

Early on, small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) often have a leg up in this regard, enjoying a tight-knit community of hand-selected, committed individuals. But as contact centers grow, it can be difficult to bring new people into the fold and, over time, a once cohesive, highly engaged group can fall prey to the “blahs.”

That’s why it’s important to keep probing the contact center’s identity—what makes it special and why should employees care? Who are we today and who do we want to become?

We’ve talked before about the importance of a shared mission, the authentic purpose behind the call center, but knowing thyself is also critical.

A Hacker’s Nightmare

It’s rather common for contact center leaders to hoist the “employee engagement project” on a manager or group of supervisors. And those tasked with delivering better survey results will usually turn to the internet in search of tips and tricks.

This research can get the ideas flowing but rapidly adopting #5 from some call center management post may not achieve much. After all, how do you know whether to use gamification tools or overhaul the hiring process if you haven’t first identified your barriers to workforce buy-in?

Unfortunately for all of us who love quick fixes (and why not, when they work?!), employee engagement is exceedingly resistant to “hacks.” And technology itself isn’t innovation.

It would be wonderful if purchasing a curated selection of products translated into greater workforce engagement, because then we could just budget for it! But it’s rarely so easy. Sometimes, a volunteer activity might do more to bring employees together than a slick new messaging system on their workstations.

High-tech and high-touch together are typically what it takes to get the innovative employee engagement.

Measure Twice, Cut Once

Remember working with a ruler and scissors in elementary school and being given the pearl of wisdom to “measure twice, cut once”? Not bad advice for the contact center.

Measuring employee engagement is the necessary starting place, and it should happen long before considering how to “cut and paste” other call centers’ techniques into your operations. A comprehensive examination of workforce engagement can help target initiatives and provide benchmarks against which to judge progress.

Here’s where technology can be an immediate asset. Some technology solutions can enable an entire workforce to share perceptions and feedback via their preferred communications channels. And it’s so easy to implement, contact center leaders can check in more than once per year!

Moreover, reporting features built into high-quality workforce management software can drive insights into the variables affecting employee performance. Contact center leaders might, for instance, identify a top-performing team whose manager stumbled onto an innovative employee engagement approach that should be shared company-wide.

When working to know thyself better, it’s vital to ensure decision-makers are really listening, too. Asking for input and ignoring it can destroy any existing engagement. So be open to the opinions offered, even if it means abandoning some entrenched ideas or promoting difficult change.

Tailored to You

Employee engagement demands a customized approach, measured to fit and cut to suit. For instance, some call center environments lack camaraderie. The fun activities typically recommended for workforce engagement can pay immediate dividends there, adding rewarding personal interactions into the average workweek.

Other teams are collegial but not particularly driven and unfortunately, creative event planning won’t solve that problem. Instead, contact center leaders will have to figure out how best to promote a sense of forward movement with career pathing, competitions and other approaches.

Applying the right solutions begins with asking the right questions. Do employees need a stronger voice? Then exciting digital tools to gauge attitude and energy level at varying intervals could make a difference. Would they like more skills-building? Then a training solution that empowers them to learn—and get paid—while providing continual feedback could be transformative.

Innovative employee engagement initiatives are created for an organization based on extensive self-examination. Designing a strategy is a complicated undertaking, but we’ve broken down the most important elements in our whitepaper, The Complete Contact Center Guide to Employee Engagement for SMBs.

Download it now for a walk-through of workforce engagement concepts, from beginning the data collection process to developing a feedback loop to evolve over time. Along the way, you’ll get to know your organization a little better so you can implement the right combination of tactics to drive engagement to new heights.

 

5 Basics Every Call Center Must Get Right

Employee engagement is a powerful force. An engaged workforce is associated with better customer retention, lower turnover, greater productivity and among publicly traded companies, even higher stock price.

Enticed by these benefits, some contact center leaders dive into employee engagement strategy with motivational speeches and recognition programs to fire up the team—only to find the initiatives don’t move the needle. Employees might give lip service to the mission or participate in “fun” events without energy.

Such issues frequently arise when workplace engagement is treated as an “add on” within a call center lacking an employee-centric purpose. The challenge is that engagement is all about meaning, which can only be built from the ground-up.

So what are the prerequisites for robust workforce engagement? Here are five basics you must get right.

#1 Hiring

The candidate recruitment process shapes new employees’ first impression of the contact center and the perception can be remarkably enduring. That’s why it’s vital to communicate the organization’s mission and advantages, in actions as well as words.

Consider whether a commitment to people is conveyed throughout screening. Do interviewers put candidates at ease so they can show their personality? Is the process respectful of the time and effort they expend to win the job? Are the hiring criteria fair and clearly explained so prospects know what’s expected?

It’s worth examining all aspects of recruitment, from job postings to onboarding functions, to set the right stage for employee engagement from Day 1.

#2 Compensation

The next question is whether the contact center is investing adequately in employees. Below-market compensation can harm morale and drive up turnover. A call center may feel like they’re saving money on staffing, when they’re actually spending more to continually refill the seats while losing the sense of community on which employee engagement rests.

Fortunately, it’s not just the hourly rate that matters. For some call centers, wage increases aren’t in the budget, and throwing money at employees is no panacea. 

So look at the package holistically. Could an extra personal day lower stress levels with minimal impact on operations? Would online sign-up for schedules enhance agents’ life balance, for the modest cost of some workforce management software? 

There are usually many options for offering employees meaningful rewards within any budget.

#3 Training

Imagine being called to a microphone to give a speech. You don’t know the topic and the audience is fidgeting impatiently. Your heart would be beating a mile a minute, right?

This isn’t so different from how an unprepared agent feels when taking their seat. They know they must answer questions, recommend products, resolve problems, operate technology systems and be “on” every moment. If they don’t have the skills and information they need to feel successful, every day can be full of discouragement.

This makes proper training an essential precursor to workforce engagement. When an employee feels like “I’ve got this,” they aren’t losing energy to panic and self-criticism. They’re comfortable, confident and ready for full engagement.

#4 Wellness

It’s tough for an agent to give their all if they’re sick, run-down, stressed out or slumped over in their chair on the verge of sleep. The contact center industry in general has become increasingly aware of how good physical and mental health contributes to employee performance and engagement and why a company health plan is only the beginning.

As a result, many contact centers are reexamining their sick day policies, building in active breaks to get people moving, offering a little more downtime during the day, ensuring leaders are inclined to provide support after a tough call or champion an agent who needs a boost. It’s called a wellness strategy, and every call center should have one.

#5 Promotions

Most people are motivated to achieve goals, make progress or enjoy a variety of experience—if not all three! As a final employee engagement point—contact centers can tap these instincts with opportunity.

When a company has a culture of promoting from within, agents sense the potential. And when there is a skills-building structure, they understand how to move forward. Encouraging agents to look toward the future can have a transformational impact on engagement, and call centers have the added advantage of creating the talent they need.

From hiring practices to training and promotion, treating people well is the ticket to engaging them. But if you have a strong foundation, what’s next?

We’ve developed an entire whitepaper on that! Download The Complete Contact Center Guide to Employee Engagement for SMBs to learn how to shape the environment, build community and innovate on workforce engagement. 

It’s a short read that’s long on impact.

 

With a WFM solution, responsive scheduling and service-level achievement can combine with ease

Many contact center leaders will often feel like Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde. Inhabiting one persona, managers strive to make employees happy, adapting to their needs and requests. But then operations feel out of control or metrics drop. In comes another persona, the one focused on Just Getting Things Done, Already!

The oscillation can seem endless. One moment you’re obsessing about workforce engagement, an hour later about service levels. Is this a case of “never the twain shall meet”?

It doesn’t have to be! The right tools can help unify the call center’s split personality and foster an environment that is both employee- and customer-centric.

The Scheduling Problem

Usually, the real issue in flexible workplace management boils down to scheduling. The employee-friendly manager accepts that agents have lives and, well, stuff happens. A spouse’s job changes. The kids get sick. Or an employee has an opportunity to take a master photography class they’ve always dreamed of, but only if they can switch Saturday with someone.

On the other hand, the metrics-focused manager is trying to do right by the business by maximizing schedule adherence. If this is the right group of agents to have on shift, the manager will try to enforce it. And if breaks are set for 15-minute increments starting at 2 PM, they’ll do their best to make it happen.

We know these two mindsets should reinforce each other. Every contact center wants happy employees who enjoy work/life balance and arrive refreshed each day. Only they can deliver the customer experience that will drive growth and success. A profitable enterprise can then, in turn, reinvest in those employees.

So why do these objectives usually seem to be in competition? Can you say spreadsheet?

The Role of WFM Software

Before we get too down on spreadsheets, let’s acknowledge that they are ideal for many purposes, as accountants will attest. But they’re not the best answer for schedules.

For a long time, contact centers didn’t have other scheduling options. They needed somewhere to do their ARIMA and TES forecasts (auto-regressive integrated moving average and triple exponential smoothing, if you want to flashback to the acronyms). And from those forecasts, schedules were built.

It’s just that spreadsheets aren’t particularly flexible. Use all the macros you want, but it’s still tough to change one agent’s shift and have the right adjustments instantly appear.

WFM software, in contrast, can handle the Murphy’s Law of the contact center. If something can happen, it will—an unforeseen training need will come to light, an employee will call off sick or a marketing email will be sent earlier than expected. With WFM software, though, it’s easy to deal with the unexpected.

With a few clicks, the new reality can be reflected in the system, and the WFM solution will then draw on historical data from the ACS and even CRM integrations (e.g., Salesforce) to create the best-fit, optimal response. New agent shifts, break times, etc., are automatically generated, and the harried on-the-floor manager is back in control.

Agent-Driven Scheduling

WFM software ratchets down managers’ stress levels, but it can also bring a greater sense of self-determination to agents. The best systems allow for managers to establish schedules and then empower employees to sign up for shifts that work for them. “Opting in,” even for something as simple a Friday on the job, can lead to higher morale.

Even if managers take a determinative role by scheduling individual agents, such systems can still help manage the endless array of adjustments. Agents can use the WFM tools to request shift changes, and managers can approve the swaps and revise the shift with minimal effort. The WFM software will perform detailed analysis to “re-optimize” based on agent skills, targeted metrics, and so on.

Suddenly, the challenging fluidity of the call center environment feels less like losing control and more like, well, the everyday.

Harness Flexibility with Engagement

High-quality workforce management software brings two competing interests—employees’ preferences and the company’s targets—into better balance. Still, most contact center leaders find that offering more job flexibility works best as part of an overarching employee engagement strategy. When agents feel a sense of commitment to their positions, in addition to their personal interests, they make more considerate use of expanded scheduling options.

For an in-depth look at how to improve workforce engagement, check out our white paper The Complete Contact Center Guide to Employee Engagement for SMBs. It offers pages full of ideas for fostering workforce engagement using flexible workplace management, any one of which is worth the time it takes to download.

A sense of purpose enhances retention and performance–but how can it be instilled in the workforce?

In the race to build a highly engaged workforce to deliver exceptional customer experiences, contact center leaders are asking some deep questions. That’s because employee engagement isn’t just that age-old survey topic: employee satisfaction.

Turns out, being okay with the cafeteria menu, while tangentially linked to overall engagement, is not equivalent to being emotionally committed to a job. And it’s the latter that truly drives excellence.

Employee engagement taps into a sense of purpose—and that’s why executives and managers are probing their organizations’ underlying missions. And no, we’re not talking about those once-popular mission statements, which all read alike.

What is a Contact Center Mission Anyway?

For some campaigns, defining the mission is easy. When employees are doing charitable fundraising, for example, agents naturally grasp the importance.

Most of the time, however, contact center employees are tasked with selling consumer products, booking vacation stays or handling customer complaints. In these situations, agents may not immediately see how their contributions matter within the bigger picture of their own lives, beliefs and interests.

This disconnect is where employee engagement often stutters, and it may be why only one-third of  U.S. workers reported being engaged with jobs in a recent study. Although it’s not possible to artificially engineer meaning, a meaningful call center mission isn’t as elusive as it may sound.

A Matter of Motivation

A shared call center mission is really about motivation. Managers might begin by asking themselves why they show up each day. Sure, there’s the paycheck. But what drew you to overseeing customer contacts rather than working in retail, accounting or any other specialty?

The picture will be similar for agents. A good hourly rate is nice, but alone it’s not enough to generate engagement. The “extra something” employees see in the job is what elicits loyalty and involvement.

Still stumped? How many times has a prospective agent said they’re interested in the position because they’re a “people person”? Start there. Many individuals entering this industry value communication and are looking to help others—and that’s what most contact center jobs are about!

Making the Connection

How can the contact center tap into that helping instinct? Here are some ideas.

Talk About the Customer

Beginning as early as the interview process, reference the customer. What is the purpose of the company’s products or services? Why do customers buy in the first place?

Managers can help paint a picture to evoke employees’ empathy. Something as simple as a collection of markers might be a customer’s ticket to self-expression. A mobile phone plan might be the tool that ensures the photos they capture of their children are safely stored in the cloud.

Seen through this lens, answering a customer’s questions or even resolving a complaint takes on larger meaning.

Get Personal

Employees have a vast trove of experience. Have them think about when a positive customer experience stood out.

For example, an employee may remember buying a faulty product and being concerned about losing their money, only to have a customer service representative handle the return with no fuss. Another might recall an agent making them laugh, adding a nice touch to their day.

These can be their models. Why not try to deliver the same positive impact?

Invoke the Team, Too

The focus on others needn’t be solely external. Agents’ colleagues count, too. When employees feel like “we’re all in this together,” the sense of belonging can boost engagement. From traditional team-building activities to breaks scheduled strategically to give employees downtime for interaction, there are many ways call center leaders can help create a sense of community.

“For the Audience, It’s the First Time”

No matter how empathetic an employee, a difficult call or a gray Wednesday can sap enthusiasm. Coaching can help counter the effects.

There is inspiration everywhere. For instance, career coaches will sometimes use the analogy of stage plays to help inspire workers. Actors say the same lines, sing the same songs and follow the same choreography night after night during a play’s run. The actors have to find a way for the audience to experience each line, song and dance as though it’s the first time the play has ever been performed. Because for the audience, it is the first time they’re seeing the show even if the actors are on their two hundred and twelfth performance. Agents can be encouraged to make each contact fresh for their audience.

But Engagement is More than Mission

The foundation of employee engagement is a shared mission, the purpose of the call center that will bring employees together. But there are numerous other elements.

Fortunately, we’ve delved deeply into this topic in our white paper The Complete Contact Center Guide to Employee Engagement for SMBs. From the basics to the environment to skills progression and beyond, we’ve got you covered. So grab your copy here

 

To blend or not to blend—that is the question for today’s call centers.

Blended agent assignments have been a staple of the contact center since the advent of automated call distribution (ACD) systems. Enabling outbound agents to fill in on inbound lines when call volumes spike, for example, has offered valuable options for enhancing call center metrics, like service levels and abandonment rates.

As the multi-channel contact center has blossomed the variety of contact types to manage has multiplied. In a blended environment, agents might respond to social media DMs between phone calls or handle chat and email simultaneously.

While some contact centers are experiencing success with this approach, others are questioning whether agents serving as “Jacks of all trades” really works for their customers or their employees.

Blending vs. Blocking

Using blended agent stations in today’s omnichannel contact center entails a high degree of complexity. Inbound customer service, outbound sales or follow-up calls, and various digital communications channels draw on different skill sets. Not all agents can blend across all channels with equal flexibility.

Blending also means agents are constantly switching gears. Too much multitasking can lead to a decline in performance and negative impacts on the customer experience and call center metrics. An agent bombarded all day with different types of contacts might rarely be in a state of full attention.

To ensure agents do not feel continually under fire from every direction, some multi-channel contact centers are exploring an alternative strategy—time blocking. In this model, reassignments from inbound calls to email to chat and other channels no longer happen on the fly. Instead, they are specifically scheduled for each agent within each shift.

Compared to blending, blocking can promote greater concentration by agents and facilitate skills-based assignments, scheduling employees for the contact types to which they are best suited. The reduction in multitasking can also help avoid burnout and reduce turnover.

But blocking has its downsides. Because plans are made in advance, it may be less responsive to volume spikes and other changes happening on the floor. This can result in less efficient staffing, unless blocking is carefully managed.

A Data-Driven Decision

Neither blending nor blocking is a panacea for every staffing challenge, so what is the forward-thinking omnichannel contact manager to do? Look at the data!

A high-quality workforce management solution (WFM) can help contact center leaders evaluate workforce metrics and navigate the difficult decisions related to staffing strategy. WFM software pulls data from the ACD and CRM systems and applies powerful analytics. Call center managers can then “slice and dice” the information in myriad ways.

This makes it easy to test different blending and blocking scenarios and compare the results. Managers can examine the total contacts per hour, determine the impact on average handle times (AHT), or check in with quality and customer survey responses.

Armed with this information, call center leaders can choose whether to blend all types of contacts, explore which types can be blended with the least impact on customer experience, or assess whether a particular blocking model might be the right answer.

The Best of Both Worlds

Workforce management for contact centers offers another key advantage, which can help alleviate the primary pain point associated with blocked scheduling—the potential for mismatch between the predetermined agent assignments and the actual needs in the production environment. A WFM solution that allows for real-time monitoring and point-and-click scheduling adjustments can make blocked scheduling nearly as responsive as blending.

With WFM software, time blocks for each agent needn’t be set in stone. Managers can, for example, detect a large influx of calls and reassign chat and email agents to protect against customer abandonment or other metrics degradation. Once the spike passes, agents can be given blocks of time to work through an email backlog that built up while it was “all hands on deck” for the inbound lines.

Time blocking won’t be the answer for every call center, but a powerful WFM solution will facilitate data-driven experimentation and help contact center managers arrive at the most efficient and effective staffing models.

Most important for omnichannel performance is keeping the metrics in mind. Be sure you’re checking everything you should while exploring potential staffing strategies. Download our comprehensive guide, to learn how to Grow Your Bottom Line with 5 Workforce Management Metrics.

 

Forecasts are never 100%, but real-time call center data analysis helps fill the gaps.

As we discussed here, contact center leaders spend significant time and energy creating detailed workforce management forecasts. In many cases, initial call center forecasts are made for the year and adjusted quarterly, monthly, and then weekly or daily as shifts are scheduled.

These are essential tasks. After all, bottom-line success demands that call center managers schedule the correct number of agents for each shift. Plan for too few and service levels degrade as agents become overwhelmed. Schedule too many and labor efficiency suffers along with the company’s profitability.

Forecasting can often feel like a no-win situation, but a powerful workforce management system (WFM) can enhance accuracy and flexibility to match agent scheduling with that ever-frustrating thing, reality.

Leveraging Historical Data

Call center workforce management software solutions are returning far greater forecasting accuracy than ever before. Innovative software gathers call history from the automatic call distributor (ACD) and customer data from any integrated customer relationship management (CRM) system, such as Salesforce. This enables managers to view workforce metrics over time to guide their scheduling efforts.

With a high-performance WFM system, call center managers can track average handle times, shrinkage, and other call center metrics throughout the year. Detailed analytics help determine how these factors change based on seasonality, time of day, new product introductions, marketing activity, training needs, and so on. 

Agents’ ability to handle different contact types and combinations can also be evaluated. 

The resulting information then serves as a baseline from which to forecast staffing needs in granular detail.

Adapting to Change in Real Time

WFM software has made call center forecasting on spreadsheets a thing of the past. But relying on historical data alone means contact center managers are only responding to yesterday’s news.

Reality has a way of defying expectations, especially in the rapidly evolving world of omnichannel communications. For example, last month’s customers may have shied away from chat only to embrace that channel with enthusiasm today. The contact center has no choice but to adapt.

This is where real-time data analysis and intraday shift management come into play. First of all, these capabilities within WFM software enable contact center managers to maximize adherence, because exerting all that effort making schedules is a total waste if no one actually follows them.

But real-time management is also about changing the schedule on the fly. If an agent becomes ill and must leave halfway through the shift, program leaders can adjust assignments to minimize the impact on service levels. 

If the lunchtime call rush lasts longer than usual, breaks can be backed up to ensure agents aren’t taken from their stations when they are needed most. 

And if email accounts are overflowing, additional agent time can be devoted to answering those inquiries.

Intuitive, visual scheduling capabilities in WFM software make it easy to implement adjustments as change occurs, and the powerful back-end processing continually optimizes the agent assignments by timing and skill set. The end result is an omnichannel-capable call center fluid enough to respond to customers’ rapidly evolving needs.

Bringing Forecasting Full Circle

The ability to adjust schedules on the fly should never prevent contact center leaders from attending to their workforce forecasting accuracy. To the contrary, using WFM software to evaluate the changes made necessary by forecasting inaccuracies is key to meeting service levels and exceeding customer expectations.

Just like compiling initial call center forecasts, assessing forecasting accuracy should take into account a full range of workforce metrics and variables. 

Evaluate service levels and times during the shift where the organization fell short and explore possible solutions. 

Look at average handle times, including when and why they increased. 

And consider unexpected business demands and process changes to enable better forecasts for the next marketing blitz or pre-holiday season training.

Performing such analysis will ensure the scenarios on which the next shift and the next annual forecast are built pull from the most recent and detailed information. Also, driving continual forecasting improvement will bring the contact center one step closer to achieving the impossible—a perfect shift where everything unfolds exactly as planned.

It’s all a matter of call center metrics. Are you monitoring the right information about your performance to drive the ROI you envision? Find out with our free white paper Workforce Management Metrics: Unlock the Secrets to Growing Your Bottom Line. Download it today.

 

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