Improve Agent Morale by Driving Results

Note: This post originally appeared on the ICMI blog.

There are two hot topics in the contact center that never seem to go away: improving morale and driving results.

The basic idea is we need to find a way to improve morale so we can drive better results. 

But, what if we have it in the wrong order?

What Demotivates Agents

A 2006 Harvard Management Update article  revealed that employee motivation is at it’s peak when employees begin a new job, but morale tends to decline sharply after the first six months.

This suggests that employees are naturally motivated. Something happens on the job that demotivates them.

For many contact center agents, it’s the inability to drive results. Agents consistently say they’re frustrated by obstacles that make it hard for them to do their job.

It could be a defective product, a broken process, or an unfriendly policy. Whatever the case, morale sinks when agents feel they can’t do something about it. Morale worsens further when they feel their ideas for improvement aren’t being heard.

Contact center leaders are consumed with motivating agents, but we should really focus on preventing demotivation by helping agents drive results.


Agents Love to Win

High performing teams thrive on achievement. Spirits soar when agents can solve problems and help their customers.

A terrific example comes from Rackspace, a provider of cloud management services.

A communications outage brought down their support center phone and chat systems. Customers were suddenly unable to get assistance.

Agents leapt into action. They reached out to upset customers on Twitter. Many used their personal cell phones to get customers on the phone and help them solve problems. 

Nobody in management told them to do this. Agents weren’t given incentives to go above and beyond. They were motivated to do it because they cared so deeply about serving their customers. 

Rackspace calls this Fanatical Support. It’s something their agents focus on every day, with every interaction.

Other contact centers see a similar connection between agent motivation and the ability to get results.

The customer service team at, a telephone service provider for small businesses, focuses on providing awesome service to every customer. They’ve enjoyed exceptionally low turnover because agents feel empowered to be awesome.

One agent said, “I love working here because it's so much less scripted than other contact centers. We’re able to just focus on helping our customers.”

Having a clear, results-focused purpose keeps agents energized.

Managers in these contact centers don’t see themselves as cheerleaders or motivators. They’re enablers who empower agents to overcome challenges and drive results. 


Helping Agents Drive Results

Here are just a few ways to sustain morale by helping your agents drive results:

  1. Hold survey review sessions. Gather the team and dig into your latest customer service survey. Ask for their input on solving the problems that generate the most negative feedback.
  2. Enlist your veterans. Let your experienced employees share their knowledge. Have them help train and mentor newer employees. Give them special projects like updating your product knowledge wiki.
  3. Share macro data. Contact centers are awash in handle time, service levels, and other micro stats. Show your agents how they can impact macro data such as CSAT scores, customer retention, and customer growth. 
  4. Remove obstacles. A contact center leader’s number one job should be to make it easy for agents to succeed. Find and remove obstacles that get in their way. Let your agents know you’re going to bat for them!
  5. Give feedback, not scores. Contact center agents are constantly measured, but many crave real, substantive feedback. Look past QA scores and have a conversation with agents about specific techniques they can work on to serve their customers at an even higher level.

These are just a few ideas. Whatever you try, the goal is to help agents achieve better results. 

If you can help them do great things, you’ll see their motivation soar.

How to Empower Employees (It's Harder Than You Think)

Empowering customer service employees is difficult.

If it were easy, more employees would be empowered. This clearly isn’t happening. A recent study by ICMI discovered that a whopping 86 percent of contact centers don’t empower their employees to provide outstanding customer service. 

An empowered employee has the resources and authority to make decisions about serving their customer. The benefits seem obvious:

  • Fast decision-making
  • Happier customers
  • Happier employees

Best of all, less work for the supervisor, right?!

Perhaps not. Empowerment takes a lot of work. Avoiding all that work is one of at least five reasons why customer service leaders don’t empower their employees.

Empowerment isn’t for meek managers. But, if you’re up to the challenge, here’s how to do it.

Step 1: Establish a Vision

The first step towards empowering your employees is to firmly establish a customer service vision

This is a shared definition of outstanding customer service that focuses on the customer. Employees must be able to answer two questions about this vision:

  1. What does it mean?
  2. How do I contribute?

An employee who understands the vision will actively look for opportunities to be empowered. Employees who don’t understand the vision may view their jobs as completing a series of tasks or enforcing rules.

In my book, Service Failure, I shared the story of Brett Dodson, who managed the parking enforcement team at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU). The customer service vision for Dodson’s department focused on improving access to OHSU’s campus. 

Embracing the customer service vision initially proved to be a challenge:

They relished the opportunity to issue a [parking] violation and viewed their role as catching people parking where they shouldn’t. A few of the enforcement officers would even watch for someone to park illegally and then wait until the driver left the vehicle so they could write a ticket rather than ask that person to park somewhere else.

Dodson wanted his enforcement officers to spend more time engaging in dialogue with drivers, explaining rules, and providing alternatives rather than catching people doing something wrong. 

Enforcement officers were empowered to do all that, but it took several months of coaching and feedback for the entire team to embrace this as their role. Dodson needed to change the team’s culture before they could fully empower themselves.

Eventually, the team achieved great results. The number of citations went way down, customer satisfaction went way up, and fewer people parked where they shouldn’t.

It was a great turnaround for the team. It also took a lot of time, effort, and commitment to get there.


Step 2: Identify Red Lines

The Ritz-Carlton hotel chain is famous for their exceptional service. One of their secrets is each associate is empowered to spend up to $2,000 to delight a guest.

You’re probably thinking, “There’s no way I’m going to let my employees just give away $2,000!” 

That’s understandable. Every situation is different. But, what the Ritz-Carlton is really doing with the $2,000 is establishing a red line.

A red line makes empowerment clear for employees. It tells them where the boundaries lie. 

Your red line could be any number of things:

  • It might be a dollar amount (you decide what makes sense).
  • It could be a policy that employees can waive.
  • It might be extra goodwill that an employee can provide, like a shipping upgrade or a free dessert in a restaurant.

There’s a second part to the red line. Employees must understand it’s the limit, not the only option.

Associates at the Ritz-Carlton don’t automatically spend all $2,000 in every situation. They’re expected to use their judgment to decide what’s best.

Anything less than the limit is a gray area. 


Step 3: Share Feedback

You should never punish an employee for making a gray area decision they felt was right.

Employees will shy away from empowerment if they feel every decision they make will be second-guessed and criticized. It's also confusing to be told "you are allowed to do this" and then be told "you shouldn't have done that."

You should, however, discuss empowerment decisions so you, the employee, and the rest of the team can learn from them.

Here’s an example:

A small contact center empowered its agents to get product samples from the warehouse so they could answer detailed questions from customers.

Employees were simply asked to follow an inventory control procedure that tracked these items since they weren’t in their normal location. Following the procedure was the red line.

A gray area was when an employee should get samples from the warehouse.

Should the employee immediately go to the warehouse whenever a question arose so the customer could receive a call back within just a few minutes? Or, should they make the customer wait until later in the day, when the employee had more time?

What if it was a busy time of day? In a small contact center, just one employee getting off the phone to do some research could extend wait times for other customers.

Should it matter if the customer wants to place a large order versus a small one? 

Should a customer with a large order history (i.e. VIP customer) get faster service than a new customer?

The challenge is you can’t just come up with a rigid policy that covers every situation. There’s always a new twist that you hadn’t anticipated.

A better solution is for the employee and manager to discuss these types of gray area situations. It’s an opportunity for the manager to listen to the employee’s perspective and to provide some feedback on the employee’s actions.

Valuable lessons learned inevitably come from these conversations. Lessons that can be shared with the rest of the team so that everyone eventually shares a similar philosophy.


Empowering employees isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of effort and commitment from the customer service leader.

In most cases, the payoffs make it worthwhile:

  • Your employees will be more engaged (nobody likes to feel controlled)
  • Your customers will be happier
  • You’ll eventually spend less time putting out fires

Five Reasons Why Managers Don't Empower Employees

The retail associate was stuck between a rock and a hard place.

I had come in and asked to return a paper shredder for either a refund or store credit. The shredder was new, had never been used, and was still in the box.

The obstacle was the store’s rigid “no shredder returns” policy.

It was clearly designed to prevent the store from accepting returns on shredders that had been used and couldn’t be resold. That wasn’t the case here. The associate recognized this. 

Unfortunately, he wasn’t empowered to do anything except say, “No.”

In my book, Service Failure, I refer to employees in this situation as double agents. Employees who aren't empowered must often choose between making the boss upset or making the customer upset.

It’s a no-win situation.

Empowerment seems like an obvious solution for so many customer service problems.

  • Employees are happy because they can solve more problems.
  • Customers are happy because problems get solved faster.
  • Bosses are happy because they aren’t constantly interrupted.

So, why aren’t more employees empowered to do the right thing for their customers? This post explores five reasons why.

#1 Fear

Managers are afraid that an empowered employee will make costly errors.

Let’s say that employees in the office supply store are empowered to determine whether to allow a shredder to be returned. What if the employee makes a bad decision?

Suddenly, the company is out the cost of the shredder since it can’t be resold. The costs can add up fast if employees make too many bad judgment calls. 

Managers feel safer creating a rigid policy so these bad calls don’t happen.


#2 Consistency

Empowerment gets tricky when you have more than one employee.

Different employees might make different decisions in the same situation. A great example is the airlines’ limits for carry-on bags.

Let’s say a gate agent allows Passenger A to board with three small bags, even though the limit is two. Another gate agent requires Passenger B to check one of her three bags. You can imagine how upset Passenger B might feel when she sees Passenger A boarding the plane with three bags.

That creates a fairness problem. Inconsistency can also lead to unreasonable expectations. 

Passenger A might expect to board every flight with three bags based on his initial experience. He might become quite upset if a different gate agent enforces the two-bag limit on another flight.

A manager might feel its easier to be consistent if employees are all expected to follow the same rules to the letter.


#3 Perception

Some managers believe that customers are constantly trying to take advantage of the company.

The math rarely proves this to be true, but managers perceive that it's a fact:

  • Customers will invent problems to get something for free.
  • Customers will make up a sad story to get you to bend the rules.
  • Customers will yell and scream until they get their way.

Creating rigid rules seems like a way to protect employees from these conniving customers. Employees can’t be bullied into giving away the store if they aren’t allowed to.


#4 Laziness

Some managers are too lazy to empower their employees.

This isn’t without good reason. Empowerment takes a lot of work.

  1. You must create clear guidelines.
  2. Employees must be fully trained.
  3. You must continuously monitor their decision-making and give them feedback.

It can seem like its more efficient to just create a rigid policy and avoid all the effort that empowerment requires.


#5 Role

Employees might not realize they’re empowered. 

Employees often see their role as something other than serving customers. The language they use when they describe their jobs can be very telling:

  • A cashier might say, “I ring up purchases.”
  • A hotel front desk agent might say, “I check people into their rooms.”
  • A contact center agent might say, “I respond to customer emails.”

Notice the emphasis on the transaction.

Employees who have a transactional view of their customer service jobs are less likely to empower themselves.

  • The cashier might not respond when the customer tells them there was something they couldn’t find.
  • The front desk agent might be at a loss when a guest arrives complaining that the airline lost his luggage.
  • A contact center agent plowing through emails might miss a chance to go the extra mile to solve a customer’s problem on the first contact.


So, how do you overcome these obstacles and empower your employees?

That will be the subject of my next post. You can subscribe via email so you don’t miss it. 

However, I can give you a preview. One of the first steps to empowering employees is letting go. An effective manager can’t control everything. You must be willing to trust your employees. If you can’t do that, you can’t empower them.

5 Ways to Customize Off-the-Shelf Training

Managers face a dilemma when they want to train employees.

Do you spend time and money on a customized training program, or do you skimp on customization to find an off-the-shelf program that fits your budget?

A customized program involves hiring an external consultant or dedicating an internal team to creating a course that focuses on your team’s unique needs. This training can be highly effective, but it can also cost an arm and a leg.

An off-the-shelf program could be a training video, public workshop, or a training class that’s sold in a kit (PowerPoint, workbooks, etc.). This option is much cheaper, but it’s also generic.

It seems like a tough choice. 

You want to help employees boost essential skills. The training needs to be geared to your team’s unique challenges. And, the total cost has to fit a limited budget.

This post will show you five ways to have your cake and eat it too. 

You can enjoy the benefits of an inexpensive off-the-shelf program that’s also customized to your team’s specific needs.

I’m going to use customer service training as an example, but these concepts will work for many other topics too.

#1 Pick and Choose Modules

Many off-the-shelf training programs are broken down into smaller learning modules. You can customize your training by only selecting the modules your team really needs.

For example, my Customer Service Fundamentals training video on has a run time of 1 hour and 57 minutes. However, each of the 35 individual movies are just 3 - 5 minutes long.

If you wanted your team to work on listening skills, you might have them watch the Active Listening and Overcoming Listening Barriers modules. At a total run time of 8 minutes and 51 seconds, you’ve just saved a lot of time by not taking the full course.


#2 Focus on the Big Picture

Let’s say you want to give your employees training on working with upset customers. Not just any upset customers. Your upset customers.

You can easily create a customized training program by incorporating an off-the-shelf training program into a bigger overall strategy. 

Here’s a sample approach:

  1. Prevention. Engage your employees in finding solutions to common problems.
  2. Training. Have employees take an off-the-shelf module on Diffusing Angry Customers.
  3. Recovery. Institute a service recovery program to follow-up with customers who have complaints and try to win back their business.

This holistic approach is bigger than just training. It focuses on achieving real results by embedding the off-the-shelf training into a hands-on action plan.


#3 Prepare the Team

You can customize an off-the-shelf training program by giving your employees something specific to look for.

I ask my clients to make sure all employees can answer these three questions before coming to one of my training classes:

  1. What is the class about? (They’d better read the course description!)
  2. How will it help me do my job?
  3. What are some situations where I can apply the skills I expect to learn?

Having your employees answer these questions allows them to customize their own learning. Throughout the training class, they’ll be thinking about specific ways to apply the content.


#4 Conduct Post Training Follow-up

Adding in a follow-up activity is an easy way to customize an off-the-shelf training program.

Let’s say you want to help your employees develop their rapport-building skills. You scan an off-the-shelf program and find a few modules that will help.

You can tailor those modules to your unique environment by holding a follow-up meeting with your employees. For example, they may have learned the Five Question Technique for developing really good ice breaker questions.

You can have a follow-up meeting to discuss the questions that each employee came up with. You can even hold a second follow-up meeting a few weeks later to compare notes on how the new rapport-building questions are working.


#5 Do the Application Exercises

Many off-the-shelf training programs include specific exercises and activities that are designed to help employees apply what they learn.

Many employees attend these programs, but skip the application exercises. Perhaps they’re too busy after the training. Maybe they’re just hoping to gain new skills via osmosis. 

You can remedy this by insisting your employees complete the application exercises.

For example, there’s a module on Managing Expectations in my customer service training video that has suggestions for helping customers to avoid unpleasant surprises. You could have your employees take this module and then try to implement some of the suggestions with their own customers.


People sometimes get hung up on the idea of customized training. My suggestion is to put your focus in a more productive place: customized outcomes. 

You don’t need a big budget or a lot of time to leverage off-the-shelf training tools to improve customer service results.