Five Tips to Encourage Employee Engagement
By Jay Minnucci

As with practically all improvement activities, an engaged staff starts with the right hires. Passion is a requirement, but it needs to be driven by the type of success that the contact center environment can support. Those with a passion for external rewards and working on their own schedule will not likely be as successful as those that get a charge out of quietly helping others. Yet even with the right staff, there are plenty of ways we need to shape the environment to turn a potentially good hire into an engaged and valued member of the team. The following are some ideas on building a contact center that promotes engagement.

1. Promote the Importance of the Job. Let's be honest: An agent's position is not generally considered to be glamorous. Glamour, though, is not a prerequisite for engagement. Instead, it is critical for agents to recognize that, while there is no red carpet, the work itself is important. Small but heroic efforts happen on a fairly regular basis, and they make a real difference in the lives of customers. Resolving a long-standing issue, finding the perfect product for a weary shopper, and taking the extra time needed to properly explain a situation are ways that we give customers a lift. Yes, we can (and often do) recognize the person for the extra effort, but we often do not promote these wins as a benefit of the job. This type of intrinsic reward should be front and center when describing the work to an applicant, when discussing job expectations with frontline staff, and when creating the mission statement for the organization.

2. Embrace Rotational Education. You probably have many different areas—training, quality assurance, workforce management, etc.—which support the center. Agent activities are to some extent directed by these areas, but the agents rarely know anything about these roles. Allowing them to spend some time in these areas, observing (and, if possible, doing) the work will provide greater insight into the organization. With a greater appreciation of the entire organization, it is easier for agents to understand how their role affects others. Greater vision translates to improved engagement.

3. Expect Collaboration. Your new employees want to collaborate, and you will be better off for it. Some opportunities are obvious. Today's knowledge management systems, for example, encourage input from users to improve content. Some of the best opportunities, though, are not so obvious. Scheduling is considered to be a very rigid discipline, but our zeal for adherence does not need to be at odds with collaboration. Rather than viewing schedules on an individual basis, we can take a team-based approach, and look to groups of employees to work together to meet team or department adherence goals. The beauty of this is that, in the end, the collaborative practice that improves engagement also delivers better performance results at the team level.

4. Whenever Possible, Get Agents Closer to the Customer. I once did a project for a transportation authority, and to a person, every agent on the phone said the single most valuable activity was being given days off the phone to ride the routes that customers use every day. It helped them better grasp the job and improve their understanding of the customer's perspective. If you have retail stores, agents should have a chance to work in them. If you have focus groups with customers, agents should get the opportunity to be involved (even if only observing). If you have a product or service that a consumer can use, every agent should get it for free (or at least at reduced cost). For the relatively minor expense of some time off the phone, the payback is more compassion, greater understanding, and a higher level of engagement.

5. Be Approachable. When people spend most of their day on the phone with customers, it is difficult to develop personal relationships with them. Even leaders who want to meet with staff often have a difficult time simply coordinating schedules to make these meetings happen. Informal meetings are most important in contact centers, and they just do not happen when leaders are holed up in offices or conference rooms. Block out time on your calendar where meetings are not scheduled, and spend that time making contact with the agents. Snake through cubicles when on your way in and out of the area, and strike up some conversation whenever possible. Positional authority matters, and when agents see that leaders care about their input, it is only natural to feel more connected to the organization.

Inside View: American Water

American Water is the nation's largest publicly traded water and wastewater utility company. It is committed to delivering the highest quality—in both the service and the product that it provides. As Vice President of Customer Service Meg Neafsey points out, "Water is the only utility service that is actually ingested by consumers. Therefore, quality is of the utmost importance to our customers and to our company, as well." Within the Customer Service Center, key operating values drive the main performance targets by which the frontline staff is measured, and which the management team models on a daily basis: communication, engagement, excellence, honesty and integrity, and teamwork. "These are the behaviors that we drive through constant communication and measurement, and which we focus on leading by example," Neafsey says. "We try to create the visibility and then live our values."
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