It’s all very well being able to talk to your agents — but what about giving
them the chance to talk too? The importance of hearing what your staff
have to say should never be underestimated, argues Graham Jarvis
> Customer-facing staff are a
company’s key asset, making
the difference between good
and poor customer service.
According to the Gallup
Organisation, companies with fully customerengaged
employees will grow two and a half
times faster than those that don’t.
Good managers realise the importance
of this correlation — they know it can
deliver greater staff and customer loyalty,
while generating greater profi tability over
a long-term period. After all, no company
can be profi table or exist without a skilled,
experienced and knowledgeable workforce. So
their customer and operational insight should
be highly valued by their managers.
The trouble is, life isn’t quite as simple as that.
Although there are some progressive companies
out there in the market, most fi rms still take a
very authoritarian view of management. You
can still fi nd, according to the experience and
research of people management and leadership
consultancy MC², a number of managers out
there in the market who either don’t ask staff
the right questions, or fail to ask at all. No one is perfect, and no one has the
answers to everything in life. Unfortunately,
managers are often expected to have all of
Some managers will avoid asking
questions if they feel intimidated, thinking
that their own staff know more than they do.
For example, have you ever asked someone a
number of questions, which might seem simple
to them, and been made to feel stupid? It can
make you feel vulnerable to lose credibility.
There’s a lot of pressure on managers to
use their own initiative, so a balance has to
be struck between having the ability to think
for oneself and inviting other managers and
team members to comment. Some face another
problem in that they don’t have the necessary
people skills to communicate and empathise
effectively with their subordinates. So they
become disengaged, leading to low team
morale and a loss of respect for managers.
Fully fledged customer-engagement delivers
satisfaction, which is a key driver for motivating
staff and customers. The buck starts with
managers and team leaders, because they need
to understand how to create a productive and
happy environment for their staff to work in. It’s
about fi nding ways to get the most out of people.
So, will authoritarian and egotistical styles
of leadership encourage employees to share
their ideas and insights with you? This kind of
manager is more concerned about his own selfinterests,
being the king pin, and is not open to
constructive feedback from his subordinates.
It’s unlikely that they will, because it’s about
control from the centre as managers.
Making it easier
Authoritarian management styles can lead to a
climate of apprehension, to de-motivation, fear
and loathing, of guarding one’s own wicket.
This discourages openness, making it harder
for managers to gain the help of their staff to
fix everyday customer and operational issues.
Even staff surveys and performance
evaluations will be tainted because of a
feeling that trouble could be ahead. Tough
business decision-making is part of being a
manager, but managers like this won’t realise
when things are going wrong and make the
right decisions unless they involve their staff
in the process. That means giving them the
opportunity and the ability to talk without fear
of being scorned or reprimanded.
The approach of encouraging open
dialogue on a regular basis, collaboration,
knowledge sharing and trusting staff
offers a more constructive approach. Part
of this equation requires managers to be
approachable, to become a mentor. Although
a stick and reprimands might be required
more than a carrot in some circumstances,
managers will benefi t from gaining staff
feedback about everything from business
processes that might be preventing them
from increasing their sales performance,
to customer needs and perceptions of the
company’s services and products.
“Customer-facing employees can provide you
with the top ten hot spots that need addressing,
and it is a quick and cheap way of conducting
customer research”, says John Curtis, managing director of MC2. More approachable
management styles like this lead to an increase
in teamwork across the business, particularly
if staff know that their feedback and ideas are
making a difference to their organisations and
their customers. So the conversation is two-way,
as managers have to prioritise the right issues
and regularly communicate the progress of the
By encouraging communication, managers
“can also identify good performers within
this process, and good contributors to reward
in the future,” Curtis explains. It then also
becomes possible to understand why an agent
might be underperforming, because as Egg’s
John Jennick, senior customer and people
experience manager says: “You can have a
good agent, and a process that doesn’t allow
the agent to be great.”
It’s the job of managers to facilitate and listen
to their agents. By doing so team and business
performance can be improved, as indeed can
their personal reputations as managers:
“If you have a great business, great people,
and great propositions you are likely to have
great customers, but it’s not just one or the other,
”says Jennick. It’s particularly crucial because
call centres agents are said to be the most
measured and monitored employees. They work
in an industry where high quality customer
service and experiences are becoming an
increasingly fundamental aspect of their jobs.
So, Egg involves staff in its tactical strategies,
encouraging and rewarding honest feedback.
Its teams participate in regular customeragent
forums. Customer and employee survey
data, generated using an online surveying
and reporting tool, and call monitoring are
also used to measure and improve team,
organisational and individual team member
performance. By comparing employee and
customer feedback from the surveys you
can fi nd the grey areas, creating a more
accurate picture of the issues affecting staff,
customers and the business. It’s also good for
agent confi dence too, particularly as they are
supported by a front line member of the team.
The process is used to enable their personal
development, helping staff to gain customer
skills and knowledge more quickly.
Some notable results have been attained
with its associates hitting ‘record highs’ with
90 per cent of the company’s ‘associates’
understanding how their work contributes to
the success of their department.
The majority of their staff, according to a
whitepaper, believe that their department is
committed to customer satisfaction. These
measures are then combined into a people
development matrix, which links them
with pay and the skills of each agent. This
encourages staff to constantly deliver a high
quality of customer service, knowing that they
will be rewarded for their efforts. One of the
key metrics is a fall in absenteeism. “Agents
work in partnership with customers, using
a carrot rather than a stick and as a result
absenteeism has decreased by 40 per cent,”
says Gary Schwartz, vp of product marketing
at surveying and reporting company Confi rmit.
Trust your staff
On the whole, people want to do a good job,
so managers need to create a culture from day
one that’s about trust and control. Not only
do they need to become good behavioural
role models, they also should encourage their
employees to use their initiative, and reward
them for any innovative ideas that improve
team or corporate performance.
That means releasing some control from
the centre, and giving them the ability to
make decisions when they are talking with
customers. It’s important to have staff that
can contribute to the knowledge pool, that
can think for themselves. This will reduce
absenteeism and staff turnover, preventing
drainage of skills and invaluable knowledge
walking out the door some day when staff have
had enough of a particular manager, or the way
things are run generally within the company.
It’s imperative to reward staff members who
go beyond the call of duty, and that may involve
fi xing their bonuses to individual performance.
It’s also possible to use incentive management
schemes, which might offer other kinds of
rewards that are relevant to them. For example,
would someone who doesn’t drink be pleased
to receive a bottle of whisky for a money-saving
idea? In effect there is a case for segmenting
employees in order to deliver incentives that are
meaningful to them. So these schemes need
to help the company to move staff towards the
primary purpose of the business.
These schemes can encourage them to
share their insights and views that will enable
innovation and increase the performance of
the business. Callidus Software has recently researched the impact of managing incentives
in this area, and it has published some
relevant papers such as ‘Shifting culture: clear
incentives infl uence behaviour’. The papers set
out to demonstrate how good use of incentive
management can help companies to achieve
business agility, culture and changes in values.
In effect, it suggests that employees can
benefi t from best practices in incentive
management even when financial
compensation packages are not relevant,
as might be the case in some service
environments or in the public sector.
Don’t ignore agents’ value
In today’s market, in which the downturn is
set to bite for months to come, there is more
to be gained by incentivising and encouraging
feedback, than ignoring the value of staff as
an asset to the company. This is why staff
should be perceived more often than they are
at present as partners to the business, with
incentives that demonstrate the value of each
individual employee, department and team in
a way that is meaningful to them.
This should encourage good behaviour
in such a way that staff are able to look not
just after their own personal interests within
the fi rm, but also those of their customers
and their colleagues. The result is the
development of better, more productive and
profi table relationships.
Good managers will know how to motivate
their staff, and which incentives work. They also
trust them to carry out their tasks to the best of
their abilities, and collaborate with them rather
than micro-manage every little detail.
While entrusting their staff, and giving
them more ownership of the role, good
managers also know that sometimes things
won’t work out well. But does this mean that
the stick rather than the carrot should come
into play? “The use of the stick is detrimental
to performance, reducing the will of staff to
deliver quality insight”, says John Jennick.
That’s particularly true when defi ning what is
good or bad behaviour. Sometimes it might just
be a case of a team or an individual in need of
more mentoring or training.
This illustrates why asking questions is
important. But what other questions should
managers ask their staff? The following
are suggested by MC² and others who’ve
participated in the research for this article:
■ Do we as a business deserve your loyalty
as an employee?
■ What’s good and what’s not good about
■ What is your vision for the organisation?
■ If this were your business what would you
■ What do our customers want?
■ What kind of experience would you
expect as a customer? If it was your mum
on the phone how would you react?
■ Which products are easy to sell and why?
■ How can the organisation deliver the
expected levels of long-term service
and benefits to its customers and key
■ What part can you volunteer to play in
■ How well do you think your management
team understands what our clients
need and how can you improve this
understanding and their response to it?
■ Which IT systems work well for you, and
how can they be enhanced?
■ How can your management/team leader
By asking questions like these it will be
possible to ensure that your employees are
fully engaged with your customers and with
your organisation. As suggested by the Gallup
Organization’s Human Sigma and Frederich
Reicheld’s virtuous circle offer, among
other similar approaches to managing staff
performance and customer management, a
more profi table approach to doing business.
With happy employees you will create happy
and long-term customer relationships; that is
providing you ask the right questions, in the
right way and at the right time. Staff will often
have many of the answers.