Why You Should Stop Trying to Motivate Customer Service Employees

Nate Brown's conference session was packed.

People had crowded into the room to learn about gamification, the latest trend in employee motivation. The participants were customer service leaders attending ICMI's 2015 Contact Center Expo. In customer service, motivation is always a hot topic.

Brown was awesome. He led us in games and contests. People got involved. They were energized and loud. 

I felt bad for whatever session was going on in the room next door. I imagined them listening to someone drone on over a lame PowerPoint. Surely, those people heard the ruckus from our session and realized they had chosen poorly. 

Despite all the fun, I knew we'd be back here again next year. 

Perhaps gamification would be replaced by a new motivational fad. The scene would still be the same. People will crowd into the room in hopes of learning, once and for all, how to motivate their customer service employees.

They'd be wasting their time.

 

Why Motivation Isn't a Problem

Why do we try so hard to motivate customer service employees?

The easy answer is we want them to provide better service. OK, but why wouldn't they do that anyway?

That's really the million dollar question. 

We spend so much time on the how, as in "How do I motivate my employees." There's not nearly enough time spent thinking about the why, as in "What aren't my employees motivated?"

I've talked to thousands of employees over the years. They've consistently told me two things about motivation:

  1. They love making customers happy.
  2. They find it demotivating when they can't.

Compare these two statements with job satisfaction data from Benchmark Portal:

Job satisfaction begins to dip after three months. New hire training in most contact centers lasts 6 to 12 weeks. So, motivation declines right when training ends and the real work begins.

This suggests we don't have a motivation problem at all. Our problem is demotivation.

People start jobs with optimism. They're hopeful that the job will be fun and fulfilling. This is exactly what happens at companies with high-performance service cultures.

Employees in other companies quickly become disillusioned.

 

What's Demotivating Employees

ICMI discovered a shocking statistic in their report, Agent Apathy: The Root Cause of Poor Customer Service.

74% of contact center leaders acknowledge the fact that they prevent agents from providing the best experience possible.

This research suggests that most contact centers make it really difficult for employees to do what they want to do most - make customers happy.

Motivation would be much higher if we made it easier for customer service employees to serve their customers.

Research from the Temkin Group supports this. Look at the difference between employees who feel they're contributing and those who think they aren't:

People will go the extra mile when they feel like it means something. The fits nicely with research uncovered in Daniel Pink's book on motivation, Drive

I wrote a blog post about how this fits into customer service. Here's a short summary:

  • People are motivated by purpose (serving customers)
  • People desire mastery (the ability to do it)
  • People want autonomy (empowerment)

 

Making Customer Service Easy

Customer service isn't easy.

My book, Service Failure, explored the myriad of obstacles customer service employees face every day.

A good customer service leader obsesses about helping employees overcome these obstacles. Here are some resources to help you: