Quickly Fix Agent Performance on the Cheap

Contact center leaders are constantly trying to improve agent performance.

Some solutions are costly. Others are time consuming. Still others require support or expertise that's not readily available.

There are some solutions that are easy. You just need to know where to look.

I reached out to 11 contact center leaders and asked them to share a favorite technique they've used to improve agent performance in some way. The only caveat was the idea had to be implemented with very little time, money, and resources.

Here's what they shared.

Brad, Standing, cropped LOW res.jpg

Brad Cleveland. Author, speaker, consultant, Brad Cleveland Company, LLC. Twitter: @bradcleveland

Explain the “why” behind schedule adherence, the importance of being “in the right place at the right times.” The relationship between staff and service level is not linear – it’s exponential. Every person has a significant positive impact on wait times—a ripple effect far beyond the contacts they directly handle.


Greg Collins. Chief Customer Office, SalesLoft. Twitter: @greg_p_collins

Highlight an Agent for great service at your next team meeting, presenting them a funny trophy for their desk (think old bowling trophy from Goodwill). When presenting for the first time, establish the expectation that this is a weekly award, to be pasted by the current recipient to another team member in each subsequent team meeting.


Nate Brown. Director of Customer Experience, UL EHS Sustainability. Blog: Customer Centric Support. Twitter: @CustomerIsFirst

Top-down training is great, but there is a special magic that takes place when leadership, coaches, and agents are unified using a wonderful resource such as The Effortless Experience and dreaming about how to design a better Customer Experience.  While we’ve most recently utilized a “book club” format, our learning together has also taken the form of DiSC, Strengths Finder, and many more. 

Jeremy Watkin. Director of Customer Experience, FCR. Blog: Customer Service Life. Twitter: @jtwatkin

Regular, short one on one meetings with agents are useful for a couple reasons. First, they keep your connection with team members strong and are a terrific forum for investing in their continued personal and professional growth. Second, they are a great opportunity to quickly review job performance and regularly set and discuss goals and expectations.


Jenny Dempsey. Social Media and Customer Experience Manager, NumberBarn. Blog: Customer Service Life. Twitter: @jennysuedempsey

When you give CSRs the opportunity to show gratitude in ways other than just “thanks for calling”, it opens the doors to building unique relationships with your customers. It costs under $100 to create and set up a station in your office with thank you cards, markers, stickers, crayons, stamps and allow your agents to connect with customers on a whole new level.


Todd Hixson. Director of Workforce Management, VIPdesk Connect. Twitter: @Huskerhix

Schedule adherence is not meant to be perfection, rather trying to maximize opportunity to help customers. Going to break a few minutes early is better than trying to go exactly on time and getting caught on a call. Make a “break window” for your team that is 50% of your AHT helps ensure best chance at best capacity.


Mathew Patterson. Customer Service Evangelist, Help Scout. Twitter: @mrpatto

I struggled to get the team to consistently do a ‘review’ task that was important but never urgent. I had an engineer spend 15 minutes on a live ‘leaderboard’ that showed who had and had not done their weekly reviews. Making the tasks more visible and very mildly competitive was enough to change the behavior of the team almost immediately.


Jeremy Hyde. Customer Care Manager and Vendor Oversight, UCare. Twitter: @JeremyHyde_

I believe in finding ways to lead by example. Walk the talk. Example, if you are looking to improve the quality of your customer experiences find a way to demonstrate what that looks and sounds like. I’ve done this by having my team listen to and audit my calls or listen in on escalations that I took over.


Jacob Shields. Call Center Manager, CCI Systems. Twitter: @jacobshields20

Team leads listening to live calls while they work on other tasks. This allows them to pick-up on the tone of a call before it may become a concern or escalation. This allows them to coach an agent live, follow-up with them afterward on improvements, or let them know of their outstanding job!


Beth Gauthier-Jenkin. Vice President, Customer Care, Gopher Sport. Twitter: @GauthierBeth

Ensure people understand the Purpose, Process, and Payoff of missed performance standards. Learning improves when people understand why they are asked to do something (purpose). Performance improves when we show them how to do it (process). If we can demonstrate how strong performance serves customers and supports their individual success, motivation increases because they see value (payoff).

David+Bugs1_Portriat (1).jpg

David Perry. Customer Support Manager, Clio — Legal Practice Management. Twitter: @davidjp87

Empowered agents are engaged ones. We encourage our staff to seek out opportunities beyond their day jobs that help them grow. However, they must nail their day-jobs first and foremost. They are driven to maintain high standards of productivity, because they are rewarded with work that will develop them further. This drives performance and grows the organization.

Additional Resources

Download the Quick Fix Checklist to diagnose many common challenges.

You can find even more tips to quickly fix agent performance with this training video on LinkedIn Learning and Lynda.com.

You'll need either a LinkedIn Premium subscription or a Lynda account to view the full course. Here's a 30-day trial to Lynda if you don't already have one.

Contact Center Satisfaction Reaches Lowest Point in 9 Years

CFI Group has just released its 2016 Contact Center Satisfaction Index, and the results aren't pretty.

The report reveals that consumer satisfaction with contact centers has reached its lowest point since the Contact Center Satisfaction Index (CCSI) was created in 2007. 

The latest report covers the 2015 year and shows an overall score of 68 on a 100 point scale. That's down from 72 in 2014.

The main culprit?

Contact centers are making it hard for their agents to deliver outstanding customer service. This post dives into some of the specific reasons why and suggests some solutions.

CCSI Report Overview

Let's first take a look at the CCSI and how its compiled.

CFI Group surveyed more than 3,000 consumers who had interacted with a contact center in the past 30 days. The survey asked people to rate their overall satisfaction and also a series of follow-up questions designed to help identify the key drivers of those satisfaction ratings.

The process is modeled after the American Customer Satisfaction Index. You can download the entire report or keep reading this post for some highlights.


Top Dissatisfaction Drivers

Three dissatisfaction drivers jumped out immediately:

  • Contact Process
  • Policies & Procedures
  • IVR

Here's a little more detail on each one.


Contact Process

This was the biggest driver of customers' dissatisfaction with contact centers. One major issue was the time customers felt it took to resolve an issue.

Self-service plays a big role in the perception of time spent on an issue.

In theory, self-service is great because customers can help themselves faster than by contacting a live agent and companies can spend far less money per contact.

Unfortunately, self-service doesn't always work well. When it fails, customers now have to spend extra time moving to a second channel such as phone, email, or chat. Now, it feels like the issue is taking too long to resolve.

There's a stark difference in overall satisfaction between customers who are successful and unsuccessful when first attempting to use self-service.

Poor self-service and an annoying IVR (more on that later) can put customers in a sour mood when they reach a live a gent. A 2015 study by Mattersight concluded that 66 percent of customers who call a contact center are frustrated before then even speak to a customer service representative.

This means customer service agents often serve customers who are upset about two things - their original problem and the process required to solve it.

Action item: Test your self-service channels

  • Employ user testing to check for self-serve problems
  • Review the topics customers search for on your website (and the results they get)
  • Make self-serve options as convenient as possible


Policies & Procedures

Many customer service agents are hamstrung by ineffective policies. There was a large dip in consumer satisfaction in this category:

A 2015 research report from ICMI found that 74 percent of contact centers admit to hindering their agents from providing the best service possible.

Part of the challenge is contact center leaders don't know how to empower their agents. Many contact centers have tightly controlled systems that work for normal situations, but quickly unravel when there's an unusual situation.

Action Item: Expand Empowerment

Make a list of the top 10 issues that require an escalation. Identify the processes, procedures, and authority that agents need to resolve these without escalating the contact. You can use this empowerment guide to help you.



Consumers were least satisfied with IVR or Interactive Voice Response. IVR refers to those annoying phone menus that make it hard for a customer to reach a live person.

There are a few reasons for this.

One stems from a primary reason contact centers use IVR in the first place. The aim is often to encourage a customer who calls to solve their problem via self-service without routing the call to a more expensive live agent.

The problem here is customers are often calling because they've already tried self-service and failed. 

That 2015 Mattersight study I referenced earlier found that only 28 percent of customers use the phone as their primary channel. That means most people would rather solve their issue another way. They don't want to call.

The 2014 American Express Global Customer Service Barometer took a deeper look and discovered that the complexity of the issue influences a customer's decision to call. Not surprisingly, customers are more likely to call when an issue is more complex.

IVR is best suited for handling simple issues, the very type of issue customers least want to call to resolve.

So, the typical customer calls because he or she has a complex issue or has already tried and failed to use another channel. Then, they encounter IVR, which feels like a giant roadblock standing in the way of a successful resolution.

From the CCSI study:

  • 64 percent of callers encountered an IVR system
  • 1 in 5 tried to use the IVR, but it failed to solve their issue
  • The overall failure rate for IVR was 32 percent

That last figure should be eye opening: IVR fails 32 percent of the time. Can you imagine subjecting your customers to any other product that failed that frequently?!

Action item: Get rid of your IVR system.

Customers are calling because they want to talk to a human. Don't make that difficult. Invest your resources in building better self-service systems that will prevent more calls to begin with.



Customer-focused organizations make it easy for their agents to deliver exceptional customer service. Here are a few examples from this post highlighting the next wave of customer service stars.

  • REI's 100 percent satisfaction guarantee makes returns and exchanges easy.
  • Safelite Autoglass has a live person answer their customer service line (no IVR)!
  • Zendesk empowers robust customer communities to enable effective self-help.

Report: Most Contact Center Agents At Risk of Burnout

We've all seen the signs.

A contact center agent starts developing some bad habits. You can hear a negative tone of voice. Absenteeism increases. Productivity declines while errors go up. You may even see an alarming lack of caring.

The agent's spark has been extinguished. Your agent seems to be burned out.

You're not alone if you've seen this happen. A new study conducted by Toister Performance Solutions reveals that 74 percent of contact center agents are at risk of burnout. 

A whopping 30 percent of agents face a severe burnout risk. 

Bored contact center agent feeling burned out.


Burnout Problems

The U.S. National Library of Medicine provides this definition:

Burnout is a psychological term that refers to long-term exhaustion and diminished interest in work.

According to their website, symptoms include:

  • Emotional exhaustion

  • Alienation from job-related activities

  • Reduced performance

These are all potentially harmful issues. Emotional exhaustion can make it difficult to project friendliness and caring to customers. Alienation from job-related activities might mean an agent gives less effort and rarely goes the extra mile. The result of all that is reduced performance.

You may even seen a spike in absenteeism when an agent begins to burn out before they finally leave. Or worse, they stay, but as a shell of their former selves.


Study Results Revealed

The study results are now available in a new research report. Here are a few highlights:

  • 52% of agents who are at severe risk of burnout said their company is not customer-focused.

  • 41% of agents who are at severe risk of burnout said they don't feel empowered.

  • 36% of agents with a severe burnout risk think their co-workers don't provide outstanding service.

Survey: What Causes Contact Center Agent Burnout?

Burnout is a big issue in contact centers.

It can hurt customer service, decrease employee engagement, and increase turnover. Once burnout sets in, it can be hard to turn things around.

That's why I'm doing a survey to find out some of the leading causes. The survey is focused specifically on contact center agents, rather than burnout in general.

I'll be sharing some of the results here in July and at the Contact Center Demo & Conference in October.

If you work in a contact center, I'd like to entice you to participate. There are prizes (more on that in a moment) and an opportunity to benchmark your contact center against others.

What is Burnout?

There's a great definition from Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter on Psychology Today:

Burnout is a state of chronic stress that leads to:

  • Physical and emotional exhaustion
  • Cynicism and detachment
  • Feelings of ineffectiveness and a lack of accomplishment

Psychologist Shauna Geraghty gives a nice overview on the Talkdesk blog of some of the ways burnout can specifically impact contact center agents. Here are just a few:

  • Absenteeism
  • Decreased adherence
  • Drop in productivity


The Survey

It's open now through May 31, 2016. 

It consists of two parts. The first part is a fifteen question burnout self-assessment. The second part is a fifteen question inventory that seeks to identify the factors most closely related to burnout in contact centers.

Participants have the option of entering into a random drawing for one of three prizes:

  • First Prize: $100 Amazon E-Gift Card
  • Second Prize: $50 Amazon E-Gift Card
  • Third Prize: $25 Starbucks E-Gift Card

Benchmark your contact center! Contact center leaders -- I can benchmark your contact center against the rest of the study to see where you stack up. Please contact me for more information.

I've also created this webpage where you can access more information and resources about burnout.