Empowered Agents are Successful Agents

There is a true story about a business traveler, returning home after a long and difficult trip, who tweeted Morton’s Steakhouse with a request to meet him at the Newark Airport with a porterhouse. It was a fantasy that he thought would be good for a few laughs at the restaurant.

So imagine his surprise when Morton’s actually sent one of its waiters to the terminal to greet this weary traveler with the steak he ordered, plus all the trimmings. As gestures to engender customer loyalty go, this was as effective as it gets. 

What does this have to do with contact centers? The goal, just as in a restaurant, is satisfied customers. Getting there involves creating a set of guidelines for employees to follow intended to achieve that goal. It also means that sometimes employees should be able to break those rules and go above and beyond to make a customer happy, even if it doesn’t always conform to company policy. 

Zappo’s, the online shoe store, has become famous for this. One woman ordered several pair of shoes for her mother, who had undergone a medical procedure that left her feet numb and sensitive to pressure. However, none of the shoes ordered helped with her condition. The woman explained this to a Zappo’s call center agent. 

A good company would have gladly accepted the return. Zappo’s went further – they sent the woman’s mother a bouquet of flowers with a note saying they hope she felt better soon. Then they upgraded both the mother and daughter to VIP status, so they would receive free shipping on all future orders. 

Result? Two new loyal customers, great publicity, and a happy Zappo’s employee who felt free to bring this idea up to management, and represent the company in a positive way. 

The Empowered Agent

Special moments like this can only happen when agents feel empowered to “go outside the box,” come up with creative solutions, and implement them without fear of being fired. 

Of course most customer-agent communications won’t require such grand gestures. But sometimes even smaller exceptions are not greeted warmly by supervisors. There are contact center environments where rules are enforced with military precision, and these are not the most comfortable places for agents to work. Rules are necessary, but the key to building a successful team of agents is to provide not just training, but confidence; not just correction, but encouragement; not just guidance, but support. 

Here are some suggestions for how to empower your contact center agents. 

The GROW Method

GROW is an acronym for Goal, Reality, Options and Will. It refers to a method of coaching that has proven successful at improving agent performance and encouraging agents to solve problems through their own creativity. 

Goal: Specify the goal of each coaching session, as well as the goals that the agent wants to achieve.

Reality: What is the current situation like at the contact center, and what aspects of that reality are getting in the way of achieving these goals? 

Options: What needs to change to make these goals a reality? Is there a business policy standing in the way? Or does the agent have to change his or her behavior or approach? Does management need to provide something different? 

Will: Include the agent in the decision on the best option to get to the desired goal. Better yet, let the agent actually make the decision, assuming it is viable (“We can get there if you double my salary” would not be acceptable). When agents devise the solutions they become more empowered, and they also have fewer excuses for not getting the job done. 

Avoid Sandwich Feedback

What’s the best way to deliver constructive criticism? “Sandwich feedback” suggests positioning that criticism between two instances of praise. Others believe this is a lazy option used in place of a properly structured coaching session. We think sandwiches are for lunch – there are more productive options available. 

Ask Questions

Perhaps the shortest distance to correction is simply for a coach or manager to tell an agent what is not being done right and how to fix the problem. But it’s worth the investment of extra time, and perhaps even a short trial and error process, to instead ask the agent how an issue can be resolved. This encourages the habit of solving problems without guidance, which will carry over into conversations with customers. 

Make Decisions as a Team

When decisions have to be made at the management level, it’s still a good idea to include agents in that process. Gather their input even if it is not ultimately accepted when the final choices are made. Just knowing their opinions matter can be empowering, while also boosting agent loyalty and hopefully cutting down on attrition.  

Use Mistakes as a Teaching Moment

Mistakes are unavoidable. Still, we all try to evade them as much as possible. But empowering agents sometimes means letting them make mistakes so they figure out what went wrong and why, and then learn from the experience. For reasons best left to medical professionals, our mistakes seem to stand out in our memories more than our triumphs. That creates fuel for change, and is the best incentive against making the same error again. 

Conclusion

If an employee is happy to come to work, he or she is far more likely to do a better job. This can be more of a challenge given the repetitious nature of contact center work, and having to deal with angry and impatient callers. But morale can be maintained through open communication between agents and managers, employee empowerment, and plenty of positive feedback. 

Managers set customer service policy, but agents put that plan into action. Make sure they have the capability to solve customer problems quickly. 

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