Take a minute, sit with me and walk back in time to remember … that project. Surely you’ve experienced one of those. Most of us have. Don’t be embarrassed. Life is too short. And it seemed like such a good idea at the time.
Remember the high hopes you started off with? It would be memorable! Life transforming! And beautiful, did I mention beautiful?
And then it was over, and maybe you were left crestfallen, a little poorer and perhaps just a bit more cynical.
Don’t feel alone – you just joined ranks with the rest of us who introduced high-flying, inspirational programs, meant to engage, enthrall and change the behavior of our employees. Our company vision! Our values! Our brand! But when the day was over, we find that not much has changed.
What went wrong? I can’t speak to what happened to you, but I can definitely share some hard-learned lessons of my own.
Doing it wrong
I had a Midwestern client who was in the process of refreshing their brand. This was a company that had been through its fair share of hard times, and employees were demoralized. Our job: reinvigorate employees through pride in the company and its brand.
We jumped right into the project, really excited about the possibilities. The new brand focused on how fantastic the company was, dedicated to exceeding customer satisfaction and providing the best, safest product in the industry. Unfortunately, when we dug beneath the surface, what we found were empty promises.
None of the troubling safety issues had been addressed, and no changes to how customers were managed were made. We warned our client that proceeding with a big splashy campaign would result in employee cynicism, not re-engagement and positive energy. This was one of the worst cases of trying to sell a big, beautifully wrapped package with nothing inside, and expecting that employees would jump on the band wagon, never noticing the empty promises.
I can’t brag about the results, because the client insisted on going ahead. Employees were not fooled.
Two years later, teetering on bankruptcy, the client’s company was sold and ultimately dismantled.
Doing it right
Years ago, I worked with a large insurance company whose reputation had taken a beating from disgruntled customers. This company had a long list of issues but the one I was asked to tackle was perceptions of their call center. The complaints included long wait times, transfers to non-existent extensions, and perhaps my favorite, being disconnected because it was now 5 pm ET and the center was closed.
I was challenged by a client who was positive that, if only his company had thought to get the use of Snoopy (as their rival MetLife had done), all of his problems would be solved.
Which pretty much misses the point. Is Snoopy friendly and adorable? Yes! Does it follow that because Snoopy is lovable that you can have a call center that is anything but? No! MetLife had figured this out; my client had not.
To turn the situation around, we couldn’t afford to put the cart in front of the horse. Before introducing slogans and graphics, we needed to roll up our sleeves and figure out what was going on.
Interviews with customers, call center employees and management quickly spelled out some of the underlying causes. Problem #1? Call center supervisors were rewarded for how fast a call could be completed, and by how short the wait times were. Problem #2? Supervisors had no tools or training to actually help operators be more efficient. Problem #3? Call center operators were demoralized, angry and disengaged.
A day of observation in a call center showed what this resulted in. On the wall was a monitor showing how many calls were in queue. When the number reached a certain point, the supervisor would come rushing out of her office and start yelling, “Faster! Get the next call! Right now!”
Which embattled employees would do – by transferring their current call to somebody (anybody) else, “accidentally” hanging up on the customer, or providing brusque, impatient counsel to their current caller.
No wonder customers were unhappy.
We tackled the issues by looking at three key issues:
- Defined what success for the call center truly looked like
- Analyzed what was needed for success
- Examined performance and compensation factors that support that goal
Success, as it turned out, definitely included call length and queue management. But it also needed to include caller satisfaction – was the problem solved in one phone call? Was the customer treated courteously? Was the agent competent?
To achieve success, we needed to rethink how call center employees were being treated. Were we treating them as what they were – the face of the company to our customers? Or were we treating them as minimum wage hacks, whose feedback was predominantly negative?
Hearts and minds first
If you want to change employee behavior, the first question to ask yourself is, do you really care about them as people? Please don’t tell me that “employees are our most important asset” unless you actually act on that belief. That means, don’t blame employees when things don’t go your way. Take a deep look inside to see what your role is in this situation.
In the case of the call center, supervisors needed to learn different management techniques, linked with different goals. Employees needed to be given encouragement, updated technology and tools to change their behavior. Sharing metrics and providing anecdotes about how the call center affected customers started to shift attitudes. New technology, better trained supervisors and operators, and team problem-solving started to shift behavior.
Is that enlightened management? Or just common sense?
Very few people change because you give them new information. For example, I’ve worked with a variety of clients who wanted to introduce wellness programs, and we’ve all learned the hard way that facts do not translate into lifestyle change.
Please note that this does not mean that senior management cannot be swayed by hard facts. Just the opposite. Show your management team the escalated costs of premature births, heart disease and strokes from smoking, and loss of productivity due to back problems and you’ll light a fire under them to do something differently. But to get employees to behaving differently requires more.
Hearts, minds and hands
I’m not a huge metrics maven but I do make sure I know what success looks like before I set out. For me, that means I need to know my goals and how difficult they will be to accomplish:
- What each audience needs to know
Is the information being presented controversial, upsetting, complicated or is it uplifting, positive, clear?
- How each audience needs to feel
How far from desired feelings is each audience? Are we shifting the culture, asking them to form new loyalties, moving them from a long-standing mindset to a new one? Or is the main challenge overcoming indifference?
- What each audience needs to do differently
What are we actually asking our audiences to do? Do they need to modify how they interact with customers? Do they need to use a different process to accomplish their job? Do they need to go get educated and then make a decision?
Common mistake: Spending 99% of the money and time on need to know while ignoring desired attitudes and actions.
Strategy aimed at desired results
Here are some tactics we rejected:
- Plastic pyramid paperweights with motivational sayings etched on them
- Posters talking about how customers are #1 and employees are highly valued
- Recognition based solely on how quickly customer calls were handled
In this case, giveaways, posters and misguided recognition would do nothing to get us closer to our goal. In fact, they could hurt us.
Here are the tactics we embraced:
- Supervisor training on management, quality control
- Introduction of decision trees that would help supervisors quickly figure out how to deal with common problems
- Call center employee retraining and orientation, emphasizing the behaviors we were after
- Re-crafting of incentive programs to reward achievement of customer satisfaction quickly
After the hard work or realigning training and rewards, we did have a fun campaign. While we didn’t have plastic pyramids, we did create colorful, eye-catching material with the right messages to help engage the agents and supervisors.
The result? This health care company’s customer satisfaction rose 8 points. Pretty good result for six months of work.
There’s more to life than tinsel and ribbons
As communicators, we love beautifully designed campaigns, striking imagery and finely honed messages. The trick is to not let our love for fun campaigns get in the way of meeting serious business needs. Sometimes, you have to dig down a bit deeper to really get the changes you need.