Leadership's Mindset is Key!

I was recently chatting about ESat and employee engagement with a Sales Director for a Fortune 500 insurance company. Among her responsibilities, the performance of a 400 rep contact center. After making some suggestions for improving her ESat challenges, she said all of that would be great, but "I cannot get buy in from Senior leadership. They regularly say that a trained monkey could do the reps' job so if they are not happy, get new reps."  Yes, she said that to me and I could tell she was telling the truth.  Wait...What? It was a dagger in my heart to think that this mindset still exists in 2017. I cannot think of a more destructive way to view your front line, or a more telling insight into how you feel about your customers.  I'm willing to bet money that those same executives think of and say things just as horrific about their customers. I told her I would give anything for 30 minutes with those executives, short of that I felt compelled to share some facts that she might want to use to turn them around. With so many (obvious) reasons that mindset is ridiculous, I am not sure where to start,  however here are the top five (seriously basic) things those execs need to realize:

  1. First of all, come on! Even if you cannot bring yourself to look at employees as anything but a number, look at the correct numbers and get smart about how those "numbers" can increase your bottom line and harness that resource.
  2. The tangible costs of recruiting, staff time for interviewing and hiring, the training process and resources, onboarding new reps has been proven to potentially cost anywhere from two to three times their actual salaries. Depending on industry, size of company and other factors, it can be even more costly to bring a new rep to the floor. If bottom line and dollar data is all that speaks to them, this should be all they need to know.  
  3. There are intangible costs as well, and they can be even more pricey! Morale suffers tremendously in an environment that views agents in such a light. They see so many coming and going that it instinctively causes stress and a lack of job security does not foster the best performance. If you don't care if they leave, they will. There is a learning curve for new agents on the floor and every KPI will suffer during that period of time. Add in the inevitable loss of customer trust, satisfaction and revenue from dealing with less seasoned or overly stressed employees and you are senselessly shooting yourself in the foot...or P&L as the case may be. 
  4. The benefits of proprietary knowledge from a seasoned agent is a priceless resource. If you have any mindset other than that, you are missing an advantage that is right under your nose. With every interaction an agent has with your customers, their knowledge of your company, product and customers increases creating a knowledge base that can tell you more than any survey. Spend time finding a way to tap into and use the information they can share. The more you make them part of the company's mission and vision, the more loyalty and better their performance will be. 
  5. You do not need a psychology degree to grasp the fact that when you treat people well, and are sincere about it, they will perform better. In turn, when people who are treated well and given some freedom are the front facing team for your customers, your customers will organically be treated well and be more satisfied. This is not rocket science! 

I don't know if leadership with that "anyone can do it" mindset can be reformed. I firmly believe that rather than wait for that generation to fade away, we should be trying to educate them. It can be a scary undertaking, speaking up on behalf of your staff and trying to change the way they are viewed from the corner office. It may be potential career suicide to even address this with them. I was faced with that situation once. Facing execs who didn't want to see the light and needing to speak up, fearing I may lose my job or end any career path with the company. I spoke up anyway, took the chance and put the needs of the many ahead of my needs. In the end, I never got senior leadership to admit that I had a point, however I was given more autonomy to create a better environment and at least improve things for my reps. Since actions speak louder than words, I counted this as a win. I didn't win the war but winning that small battle went a long way to improving a less than perfect situation. I want to encourage anyone who faces upper management that looks down on your contact center staff as less than or easily replaced, find a way to address it respectfully and try to make a change.  If the only thing they understand is data, ROI and dollars, you can easily frame it that way. It all boils down to the simple Golden Rule and sometimes even the smartest business people just need to be reminded. 

Finally, after this conversation, I did some research. While I will not name this company, I will leave you with a little comparison to another company in their industry that I have enormous respect for and have written about in the past. Aetna has been on the front lines of Mindfulness in the workplace and pioneered many policies and initiatives that have revolutionized not only their own ESat but that of many companies that follow their lead. In comparing Aetna to this other company, I'll call XYZ, I found some very interesting and telling facts.  Aetna was founded in 1853, XYZ in 1854. Aetna has 49,000 employees, XYZ has 12,000. Yearly revenue? Aetna at more than 63 billion, XYZ at 24 billion. I could go on an on comparing these two companies in the same industry, founded at the same time, but I'll save us all the time and let you know that the company that puts employees and their wellness first, invests in their employees and appreciates the work that they do, is undeniably more successful than the one who looks at their employees as trained monkeys. Is this a coincidence? Is mindset and treatment of employees a factor in the overall success of your company? It all seems awfully obvious to me.

The Surprising Ways Mindfulness Can Improve Your Contact Center*

*It was my pleasure and honor to write a guest article for ICMI.com

Copyright © 2017-ICMI. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from ICMI

Serving customers and solving their problems is hard work. It may not be physically labor intensive or break your back, but it is mentally taxing and it can break one’s spirit. Helping customer service professionals navigate the potential for emotional wear and tear can revolutionize a contact center. As leaders, we spend so much of our time making sure that our agents have the right tools to do their jobs. Well, there is a new tool in town that everyone needs to consider.

Mindfulness has been fashionable for some time now and it was only a matter of time before it found its way into the corporate world. Companies like Ford, Target, Aetna and Google have adopted mindfulness programs for their employees and the results are overwhelmingly positive from every perspective.

The concept of mindfulness in the workplace was first introduced for leadership teams, and has been widely accepted for a while now. A Harvard Business Review study of leaders practicing mindfulness concluded that they were impacted positively in a number of ways. Full disclosure: the study proved that without a doubt, the degree to which mindfulness can improve performance and quality of life is directly proportionate to how involved the subject is. You’ve gotta play to win, if you will.

 

A few of the key successes in the HBR study are universal and impact performance we would all love to see improve in our customer service staff. Proven benefits from this study include:

  1. Becoming less reactive and more responsive - How many times have you tried to train agents to “listen to understand”? Core to that skill is the curbing of our natural instinct to react, especially when someone is presenting us with a problem. The benefit of being able to regulate emotions and focus clearly on the problem at hand enhances the ability to empathize as well.
  2. Increased resiliency - We have all seen agents have one bad call that throws them off for the rest of the day. Not being able to shake off a tough call can taint any number of subsequent ones. Ideally, we want agents to “reset” after a challenging call and carry over little or no effect from the previous call. Mindful breathing is a tool that can help them achieve just that.
  3. Focus - Recent studies show that call center agents are maneuvering through as many as six or seven different software programs to find answers and solutions for your customers. Solving an issue for a customer can be likened to spinning plates in a circus act. That balancing act can breed frustration that agents may try to mask, but regardless, it is felt by your customers. When they are able to clear their minds and create pinpoint focus, many of the KPIs you are watching will improve. Traversing the how, when and where to access the right information becomes more fluid. Naturally, the plate spinning frustration will decrease.

The techniques used in a mindfulness practice are not just for your leadership team anymore. The benefits, especially in a high pressure setting like a call center, are endless. I have found some surprising benefits. Early in 2016 I did case study with a marketing firm in Indiana. They had a small OB call center tasked with setting appointments for their outside sales team. Within 48 hours of the first workshop, after simply learning mindful breathing techniques, we saw an increase in productivity. By the end of week one, productivity increased by 17% and they have maintained that standard. I didn’t realize at the time how dramatically their retention rate would be affected. Their previous retention was dismal at just over 34% for the classes brought in in 2015 and 2016. Only one out of three agents hired didn’t last. Many didn’t make it through training or get to the six month mark on the floor. Coincidentally, a new class completed training and joined the group just when the mindfulness workshop began. That class, eight months later has a retention rate over 60%. In addition to being able to handle the stresses of the job, these agents and their colleagues feel appreciated just because the workshop was even provided at all. They not only do they feel validated, but also their contribution is affirmed and they see its importance. More than half of the team reported using the techniques at home and benefiting there as well.

There are many spokes in the wheel when creating a positive culture to address issues like retention, burnout and poor performance. Introducing mindfulness techniques is one spoke in that wheel. There are a few things to remember if you are deciding to introduce the concept in your call center:

  1. Not all agents will take to it. Some will flat out not participate, and that is ok. Remember that agents are people, and people respond in different ways to different things. If only half of the team takes the tools and uses them, then that is still a win. Keep exploring ideas to reach the others.
  2. At face value, it may seem counterproductive. The thought of giving agents any time off the phone can seem blasphemous! Mindfulness can be incorporated into their day without much or any additional down time. And the truth is that when you study the big picture, the rewards and payback can outweigh any drawbacks. Higher retention rates, shorter call times, increased first time resolution and overall happier customers and employees are priceless. Perhaps start with how agents can incorporate the practice into their daily schedules as they are. You don’t have to provide additional DND time if you are not inclined to do so.
  3. Even the simplest, smallest efforts will have a positive impact. There is no need to convert everyone to Buddhism or meditate on a mountain in Tibet for a year; success is not reserved for only those who make major changes. The beauty of mindfulness is that any and all strides you make will have a positive impact. If the only thing you introduce is mindful breathing, that’s great! And there is no downside. Everyone can benefit from this simple technique and the more they practice, the more they get out of it.
  4. Seek buy in from all leadership. It will be important for them to not only be on board but promoting the tools to the agents. They should be reminding agents to take a few minutes before they come back from a break, helping them remember that they can control their emotions after a tough call or even incorporating exercises into team meetings and training. If your leadership team isn’t willing to support it, then you may not even want to put it out there for agents. Like anything, they are looking to us as an example.
  5. Be ready to support and encourage agents to expand their practices on their own. Inspire them to form groups and help one another learn more. Provide them a safe space, like a conference room to get together and discuss what they are learning and discovering, or a quiet room if they would like to meet to practice meditation. If someone expresses the desire to lead a group and take charge, you should encourage, support and recognize them for that effort.

My advice to companies looking to introduce mindfulness techniques in their contact center culture is simple: start small but cultivate it and tend to it so it grows. A simple breathing workshop that includes tips for assimilating it into their day is a good start. One small step for your contact center, one giant leap for your entire company!

Originally published January 24, 2017  Click here to read original article.