What exactly is employee engagement?

Employee engagement has been a hot business topic for many years. There is a pile of research that tells us:

  • Engaged employees are more productive.

  • There are too many disengaged employees.

  • Employee disengagement costs companies billions of dollars per year.

There's just one glaring problem: nobody agrees on what employee engagement actually means. 

This is a critical challenge. It's hard to improve something you can't define. Companies launch annual surveys without clarity about what’s being measured. Executive buy-in is often lukewarm, because the idea of engagement sounds good, but nobody’s really sure how it directly impacts the bottom line.

This post provides you with a clear definition along with some examples.

Notebook with the words “employee engagement” written on the front.

The Definition of Employee Engagement

Here's what it means to be engaged at work:

An engaged employee is deliberately contributing to organizational success.

Unpack that a bit and you'll see there are three things that need to happen if you want to engage your employees.

  1. Organizational success needs to be clearly defined.

  2. The employee needs to understand that definition.

  3. The employee needs to know how they can contribute.

Engaging employees requires organizations to have a single, clear definition of success, such as a customer service vision. Without this definition, it’s impossible for employees to be engaged no matter how enthusiastic or committed they might be.

There are a few factors that often correlate with engaged employees, but are not part of the definition:

  • Job satisfaction: How much do employees like their jobs?

  • Employee experience: What is it like to be an employee?

  • Emotional connection: Do employees feel proud of the organization?

It’s possible for an employee to feel very satisfied with their job, have a good employee experience, and feel proud of their company without being engaged. Here’s how:

  • There’s no clear definition of organizational success for the employee to work towards.

  • The employee isn’t aware of how the organization defines success.

  • The employee is aware of an over-arching goal, but isn’t sure how they contribute.

My very first job was like this. I worked for a retail clothing store in high school. I really liked my job, generally had a positive experience, and was proud to tell my friends where I worked. However, I had no idea how my store was doing, what the company strategy was, or how the company defined great customer service. So despite my enthusiasm for the job, it was impossible for me to ever be engaged.

It’s also possible for an employee to be unhappy in their job, yet be fully engaged. While this is usually unsustainable, there are times when all of us are tired and a little unhappy, but we work hard to overcome a big challenge because we’re still committed to making a positive contribution.

What are examples of employee engagement?

Companies with a highly engaged workforce make an effort to ensure every employee understands the big picture and how they contribute. People come to work each day with a purpose and feel they are empowered to make a difference.

One of my favorite examples of a company with engaged employees is the sporting goods retailer, REI. The company defines success through its mission statement: We inspire, educate and outfit for a lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship.

Here's how that looked on a recent visit my wife and I made to our local REI store. 

We wanted to buy a large tent so we could take our dog camping. The associates who helped us were clearly in-tune with REI's mission:

  • They were passionate about the outdoors (inspire)

  • They gave us great tips on camping with our dog (educate)

  • and they helped us select the right gear (outfit)

The best part was the associates weren't reading from a product manual or just following a script they learned in training. They were avid campers who relied on their own experience to enthusiastically try to help us enjoy our upcoming camping trip.

Another favorite example comes from In-N-Out Burger. The chain has attained a cult-like following for its tasty food, simplified menu, and incredible consistency.

In-N-Out defines success for its employees through three simple words: quality, service, and cleanliness. You'll see all three in action any time you visit one of the restaurants.

  • Quality is evident in fresh ingredients and careful preparation.

  • Service is consistently delivered with a smile and upbeat attitude.

  • Cleanliness is constantly a priority, even when its busy.

(Fun fact: McDonald's once used those same three words to define success. Here's the rest of that story.)

Finally, here’s one more example from the USS Midway Museum in San Diego. In a city that's built for tourism, the Midway is the top-rated tourist attraction in town!

The Midway is a retired U.S. Navy aircraft carrier. The museum uses its mission to define success for employees and volunteers: Preserve the historic USS Midway and the legacy of those who serve; Inspire and Educate future generations; and Entertain our museum guests.

People work and volunteer at the Midway because they care deeply about the ship, its history, and the armed forces in general. They are passionate about sharing the Midway's history and helping people understand what it was like to serve onboard. 

Whether it's a local with a membership, a visitor from out of town, or a group of school kids on a field trip, Midway employees consistently go out of their way to ensure visitors have a fun and educational experience. (You can read more about the Midway’s service culture here.)

Employee engagement resources

The starting point for any employee engagement initiative is to agree on what “employee engagement” means. I hope you'll use mine, but it's okay if you have another definition. What matters is that everyone in your organization agrees on what employee engagement means.

Once you clear that hurdle, here are some additional resources to help you:

You can also learn more from The Service Culture Handbook, which is a step-by-step guide to getting your employees obsessed with customer service.

How to Keep Your Virtual Team Engaged

Do you have employees who work from home or in a remote office?

This arrangement is increasingly common in customer service. There are many benefits for employees and employers alike, such as eliminated commute times, lower office expenses, and greater flexibility.

There's also a big challenge—keeping remote employees engaged.

By engaged, I mean they understand what makes the business or team successful, and they're committed to helping achieve it. 

The challenge faced by many virtual employees is they often miss out on critical updates, or don't get to participate in "water cooler" discussions around the office where important decisions are made. And it's easy to feel left out of the natural camaraderie that develops when people work together. That office potluck is a huge bummer if you’re eating cold cereal at home while everyone else is enjoying Victor’s famous lumpia.

The good news is you can overcome this challenge with a little planning. Here are some key insights from leaders with experience managing virtual teams.

An employee chats with a coworker on a video call.

Promote Face-to-Face Contact

If feasible, promoting periodic face-to-face contact works wonders. It strengthens relationships and many people find it easier to communicate via other channels, such as email, once they’ve met someone in person.

Michael, a client experience team lead, has one remote employee. She works in the office once every two weeks. "I intentionally try to schedule these days when there will be key times for her to connect and interact with the rest of the team," says Michael. "For example, last week, she came to the office on the day of our office Thanksgiving potluck."

Jeremy, a contact center manager, cautions leaders to be respectful of remote employees' time when asking them to come into the office. "We’ve historically had a tendency to try to force them into the office when they may not want that in the name of engagement and inclusion when really, we should be figuring out how to engage and include while at home rather than forcing a drive into the office they’ve likely been avoiding. Periodically coming into the office is fine if it’s mutually agreeable vs. company-sided."

Diana, a customer support team lead, suggests focusing in-person time on relationship-building. “That actual in-person time together should also be more for bonding than getting work done, so don’t plan meetups to be packed 10 hour work days with no down time.”

Meeting in-person isn’t always feasible, but video can still bring you face-to-face with your remote team. Chelsea, a client experience leader, has weekly video calls with each person on her team.

Establish Communication Channels

Using the right communication tools is critical to keeping everyone informed.

Holly, a marketing vice president, suggests virtual teams adopt effective communication tools and establish some team norms around using them. "Slack is such a great way for a quick chat and I love Zoom for longer or more complex conversations. Being able to see someone's face makes a HUGE difference in really connecting to them as a person rather than treating them like an email address."

Michael adds some similar ideas. "Our Team uses a chat page (similar to Slack) and we keep her in the loop on as much as possible. If any key conversations have occurred at the office, I'll send her a message to fill her in. We're messaging and/or speaking with her on the phone each and every day to make sure she feels plugged in to the Team."

Mario, a support manager, echoes the importance of keeping people in the loop. He cautions managers against assuming that remote employees will proactively search for information. “You’ve gotta show them and remind them. If there’s a demo, record it.”

Crystal, a client success manager, recommends getting the right tools to make communication easier. “We’ve invested in special microphones for our stand-ups, because our remote team couldn’t hear well if someone wasn’t speaking loudly enough. Investing in that hardware shows the remote team members that we really do care about their experience.”

One word of caution here is to be mindful of timezones. "Someone working remotely doesn't always work 9-5, might be in a different time zone, or could be a night owl," says Holly. "Talk with them from the beginning about what hours they will be working. If you need them to work certain hours, mention that."

Involve Your Remote Employees

Years ago, I attended a conference for contact center professionals. There was a day of site tours, so I took advantage and visited a Starbucks contact center. 

One of the things I saw on the tour was pretty amazing. We were all given a tutorial on how to taste coffee. The mini-training showed us how different brews produce different flavors and smells.

The most impressive part was the tasting was led by a remote employee!

Keeping your virtual team involved is a key responsibility for customer service leaders. The old saying "out of sight, out of mind," definitely applies here if you let it!

Jeremy suggests planning to include your remote employees in team meetings. "If a small percentage of the workforce is remote it’s easy to forget about them while presenting. They can’t see all the content, can’t hear questions being asked, etc. Plan on how they will participate in things like breakout sessions and ice breakers."

Holly suggests being intentional about creating places for fun. "We have a few minutes at the beginning of team meetings for talking about family, travel, and just life in general. We also have a Slack channel where we share photos of our children, food we cooked, restaurants we tried, sports games we went to, and so forth. It's our water cooler."

Kev, a customer support manager, holds all team meetings via Zoom. “Even where people are co-located, they join individually on their own computer. This ensures everyone in the meeting is present in the same capacity, and prevents remote employees feeling they are second class in the meetings.”

Celebrating big events doesn’t have to happen exclusively in the office. Camille, a former client success vice president, made a practice of sending treats to people when they hit major milestones. “Remote folks seemed to appreciate receiving tangible things.”

Take Action

Ultimately, keeping your virtual team engaged comes down to good management.

  • Make sure your employees know what's expected.

  • Communicate regularly to keep them on track.

  • Provide assistance when necessary.

  • Recognize good performance to let remote employees know they're appreciated.

  • Avoid micromanagement.

That last one is important.

Nobody likes a micromanager, but a micromanager can really be annoying in a remote situation. I know a remote employee whose boss used to email her at all hours, even late at night, and expect an immediate response. It was frustratingly annoying, and her engagement suffered.

Be thoughtful about the relationships you create with your virtual team, and engaging them should become much easier.

3 Questions That Get to the Heart of Employee Engagement

Advertising disclosure: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Nicky placed the couple's drink order in front of them. He was tending bar in a hotel where most of his guests are travelers, so he asked the classic icebreaker question: "What brings you into town?"

The couple was attending an event the next evening and had flown in the day before.

Nicky started chatting with them and soon learned they had no other plans. He asked a few more questions to learn about their interests and then made some suggestions for things the couple could do during the day. He even pulled out his phone and showed the couple some pictures of his favorite sights.

We’d all like to have an employee like Nicky, who goes beyond the basics and is enthusiastically bought-in to serving customers. An employee who takes pride in their job, and brings a bit of their personality to work.

So how do you do it?

Skip the 12 question surveys, year-long projects, and blue ribbon committees. Here are three questions that will quickly get to the heart of employee engagement.

A smiling hotel bartender pouring drinks.

Employee Engagement Defined

Let's start with a clear definition:

An engaged employee is deliberately contributing to organizational success.

Unpack that a bit and you'll see there are three things that need to happen if you want to engage your employees.

  1. Organizational success needs to be clearly defined.

  2. The employee needs to understand that definition.

  3. The employee needs to know how they can contribute.

Here's an example:

Donna worked in the customer service department for a medical device company. One day, she received a call from a hospital that was trying to locate a specific product for a patient that was scheduled for surgery in two days. Unfortunately, Donna didn't have that product in stock to ship out to the hospital.

Think about the difference between an engaged and disengaged employee in this situation.

A disengaged employee would be entirely transactional. They might be be polite when they say, "Sorry, we're out of stock," but that wouldn't be helpful. 

Donna was engaged. She understood her company defined success by positive patient outcomes, and not getting the right product to the hospital in time wasn't a good outcome. So she went out of her way to look for a solution and eventually found the right product at a competing hospital across town.

Three Questions to Assess Engagement

If you want engaged employees like Nicky or Donna, you'll need everyone to give consistent answers to three questions. These questions can be asked in discussions with individual employees or via open-text questions in a survey:

  1. What is our customer service vision?

  2. What does it mean?

  3. How do you personally contribute?

The results will give you immediate clarity on what you need to do to improve employee engagement.

Question 1: What is our customer service vision? A customer service vision is a shared definition of outstanding customer service. There's no way you can engage employees if your company (or department or team) hasn't clearly defined success. If you do have a vision, but employees don't consistently know it, your engagement initiative should start with an awareness campaign.

Question 2: What does it mean? Understanding the vision requires more than just memorizing a statement. Employees should be able to describe its meaning in their own words, and those descriptions should be consistent from employee to employee. If not, you'll need to create a plan to help employees better understand the vision.

Question 3: How do you personally contribute? Employees can't make a commitment if they don't know how, so this last question is essential. Every employee should clearly understand how they are contributing to the big picture. Think of it as the "Why?" behind what you ask employees to do. If employees struggle with this question, you'll need to help them connect the dots between their daily work and the vision.

Bonus Tip + Resources

Most employee engagement initiatives are focused on frontline employees. I'd recommend starting by asking your executive team to answer these three questions.


It's not uncommon for companies to have disagreement at the executive level over what the customer service vision means or how employees' roles are aligned with that vision. You'll need your executives to have a clear picture of engagement if you have any hope of engaging your employees.

Here are a few additional resources:

I recently facilitated this webinar with HDI, sharing five ways to quickly boost engagement. There's some overlap with this post, plus some additional insight.

This post is drawn from The Service Culture Handbook, which is a step-by-step guide to getting your employees obsessed with customer service.

Inside Gallup's New Employee Engagement Report

Employee engagement efforts are stuck in a rut.

That's the verdict from Gallup's 2017 State of the American Workplace Report. The latest study pegs employee engagement at just 33 percent among American workers. 

That's not much of a bump compared to Gallup's 2013 report:

Gallup's report also noted that the best organizations have an average employee engagement rate of 70 percent! 

So what do the results tell us? And, what actionable advice can we take away from Gallup's research? You can download the full report, or you can read the highlights below.


Defining Engagement

You'd expect Gallup to explicitly call out a definition early in the report, but it doesn't. In fact, I couldn't find a specific definition anywhere. 

You can't improve something if you can't define it.

Imagine you wanted to be a football player because all of your friends were playing football. You spent a summer lifting weights. You practiced blocking and tackling. You threw passes and ran routes. Then, on the first day of tryouts, you arrive at the field and realize that everyone meant soccer. 

Yeah, it's like that. So here's my definition of employee engagement:

Employee engagement is the extent to which an employee deliberately contributes to organizational success.

This means companies need to do two things to engage their employees:

  1. Make sure employees understand how the organization defines success.
  2. Secure employees' commitment to help.

Gallup's report does shed some light on a few issues that can help us improve.


Challenge #1: Culture

Jim Clifton, Gallup's Chairman and CEO, calls out culture as a primary culprit in the report's opening statement:

The very practice of management no longer works.

One of his top recommendations is to focus employees beyond just collecting a paycheck and build a culture of purpose.

I've spent the fast few years researching organizations with highly engaged employees for my new book, The Service Culture Handbook (April 4, 2017). Every single one I looked at had a clear, customer-focused purpose statement called a Customer Service Vision.

For example, Publix is one of the top-rated supermarkets in the country. Their customer service vision?

Where Shopping is a Pleasure

Think about the simplicity of that statement. Every Publix employee knows their job is to make shopping more enjoyable for their customers.

Once every employee commits to the same purpose, a culture is born. You can use this step-by-step guide to create your own customer service vision. 


Challenge #2: Ineffective Management

Only 21 percent of people who responded to Gallup's engagement survey agreed that their performance is well-managed.

My research clearly shows employees have a de-motivation problem. New employees start their jobs full of hope and promise until management sucks the spirit out of them by making it difficult for them to succeed.

Here are some top management challenges according to Gallup's report:

  • Unclear or misaligned expectations
  • Ineffective or infrequent feedback
  • Unfair evaluation practices

Let's go back to the definition of employee engagement. An engaged employee is committed to organizational success.

It's awfully tough to be committed if the definition of success is a moving target, your boss isn't giving you feedback on how to achieve it, or your boss isn't evaluating your performance based on your actual achievements.

Here are some more stunning findings:

  • Only 30 percent strongly agree their manager involves them in goal setting.
  • Just 44 percent strongly agree they can link their goals to organizational goals.
  • Only 41 percent strong agree their job description matches their actual work.



It's a damning report, but employee engagement doesn't need to be a huge mystery. Great managers make sure their employees can answer three questions:

  1. What is our customer service vision?
  2. What does it mean?
  3. How can I personally contribute?

I'm facilitating a half-day workshop at ICMI's Contact Center Expo & Conference on May 22 where I'll share a step-by-step guide to engaging employees. You can learn more here.

How Do You Smile When You Don't Feel Happy?

It's not easy to hide your feelings.

My friend Jenny Dempsey recently wrote a personal and poignant post about this on her blog. Her beloved dog, Miso, had recently died and she was finding it difficult to hide her grief at work. 

That's exactly what her job requires her to do.

Jenny is a customer care manager at DMV.org. Her legendarily warm and bubbly customer service inspires songs from customers. That's what makes her so good at her job, where displaying warmth and friendliness towards customers is expected.

Suddenly, this was very difficult.

What Jenny found herself doing is what millions of customer service professionals do at some level each day. It's called surface acting and it's an epidemic. It causes poor customer service, decreased job satisfaction, and burnout.

Here's what you need to know and what you can do about it.

Key Terms: Surface Acting and Emotional Labor

Let's start with a couple of definitions.

Surface acting is a technique where you display an emotion that you don't actually feel. For example, here are some emotional displays typically required of customer service employees:

  • Smiling

  • Warm tone of voice

  • Positive and open body language

Those are all easy when you actually feel happy. Surface acting is when you don't feel happy but force yourself to smile anyway. This gets increasingly harder the bigger the gap between how you feel and the emotions you put on display.

The effort required to engage in surface acting is called emotional labor. The term emotional labor was first coined by Arlie Hochschild in her book, The Managed Heart. Like any type of effort, exerting too much can be exhausting.


What Drives Emotional Labor?

A neighbor recently complained to me about poor customer service he experienced while dining with his niece in a restaurant. His server wasn't friendly and he and his niece came to the conclusion that the server should be fired.

My neighbor can be a bit surly, so I can only imagine what a gem he must have been as a restaurant guest. It's an incredible challenge to serve someone with a smile who regarded you with such disdain that they would callously suggest you should lose your job.

Unsympathetic, demanding customers are a big drain on emotional labor, especially when people like this test our natural fight or flight instinct. I have the luxury of politely ending the conversation with my neighbor when he gets too grumpy. A restaurant server must stick with it and act happy.

Customer service employees face other challenges too. They might be grieving, like my friend Jenny, or just be having a bad day. Perhaps they dislike their co-workers, boss, or even their customers. It could be that they're tired of defending a defective product or a dumb policy.

Working conditions for customer service employees aren't always great. While intellectual and physical skills are highly valued, studies show you don't make a lot of money for being good at taking crap from other people. 

Unpredictable schedules can also make outside of work difficult. This incredible New York Times article profiled a young single mother who tried to balance school and child care while dealing with a work schedule that could change from week-to-week or even day to day. 

It's no surprise that retailers are currently under investigation by several states for requiring employees to be on-call for work without getting paid.


The Impact on Service

There are many ways that surface acting and emotional labor impact service. 

The obvious one is employees simply get tired. Expending too much emotional labor is one of the biggest reasons why customer service employee struggle to be friendly

Researcher Alicia Grandey at Penn State University discovered a strong link between surface acting and low job satisfaction. She also found a clear link to emotional exhaustion.

This may explain why my own study found that 74 percent of contact center agents are at risk of burnout. 

The tangible impact of all of these problems is lower customer satisfaction, lower employee engagement, and higher turnover. 


What Can You Do About It?

On a personal level, it's up to each employee to find his or her own happiness. One exercise you can try is called the Attitude Anchor.

For customer service managers, the solution isn't another incentive program or some other short-term fix. It's also not an annual employee engagement survey, which is usually a waste of time. Your challenge is to create a work environment where employees can actually be happy.

You need a really plan. Try creating your own road map by using this simple assessment or use the New Year as an opportunity to opt for a comprehensive, full-service version.

Above all, give your employees something to smile about.

9 Ways to Promote Your Customer Service Vision to the Team

There's a common criticism about customer service visions.

The perception is you put a lot of work into writing one. Maybe you hire some expensive consultants to run a bunch of focus groups or spend a day on it at an executive retreat. And then... 


Employees forget it. Service quality remains unchanged. The vision gathers dust somewhere in an abandoned file. All that time, money, and effort wasted.

The promise of a customer service vision is still real. It's a shared definition of outstanding service. In theory, this is essential to getting everyone on the same page.

The challenge is you need a way to promote the vision to your team. Get them engaged and excited. And, keep it alive for years to come after that initial roll-out.

Here are nine ways you can do it.


9 Ways to Promote the Customer Service Vision


#1 Set SMART Goals

Many customer service teams use metrics to manage their performance. You can incorporate your vision into your daily work by setting a SMART goal for at least one of your metrics. 

SMART is an acronym:

  • Specific

  • Measurable

  • Attainable

  • Relevant <----- Here's where you connect your goal to your vision.

  • Time Bound

You can use this SMART goal worksheet as a guide.


#2 Hire With Your Vision in Mind

It will be much easier to get your team on-board if you hire people who can naturally identify with your customer service vision.

Here's how:

  1. Create an ideal candidate profile that incorporates your vision

  2. Develop tests to see if job candidates fit the profile

This short video from Shopify is a terrific example of an ideal candidate profile.

#3 Train the Vision

Training is the perfect time to introduce or reinforce the customer service vision. It's not just customer service training. Any training is a good opportunity.

Here are some examples:

  • New hire training

  • Customer service training (of course)

  • New system training

  • Policy or procedure training

  • Product training

I once had a client who insisted on incorporating their customer service vision into anti-harassment compliance training. Their thinking was that the way co-workers treated each other was a form of customer service, and that treatment would naturally extend to the way they treated customers.

This short video explains how you can incorporate culture into your new hire training.

#4 Empower Employees Through The Vision

Your customer service vision is meaningless if employees aren't empowered to fulfill it. 

Last year, I made a list of five reasons why managers don't empower their employees. One reason was employees don't realize what they're empowered to do to help their customers.

One way to overcome this barrier is to ask employees to contribute ideas on how they can fulfill the customer service vision with their customers.

You can use this guide to learn how to empower your employees.


#5 Have Leaders Talk About It

Employees tend to understand something's importance by how often leaders talk about it. 

That means if you want your employees to remember the customer service vision, you need to talk about it a lot. As in, every chance you get.

Fortunately, there are many opportunities:

  • Team meetings

  • Daily huddles (stand-ups, pre-shifts, tailgates, etc.)

  • One-on-one meetings

  • Casual conversations

  • After action discussions

  • Annual performance reviews


#6 Have Executives Talk About It

Customer service leaders aren't the only people who should promote the customer service vision. Executive leadership should promote the vision too.

At one company I know, the CEO kicks off quarterly all-employee meetings with a review of their customer service vision. He shares specific examples of results and behaviors that match the vision.

This helps employees understand that support for the vision goes all the way to the top.


#7 Create a Culture Page

Many companies create a culture page on their website to describe what it's like to work for them. It's a recruiting tool, but it's also a prime opportunity to promote your customer service vision.

JetBlue has led the airline industry on the American Customer Satisfaction Index for five straight years. Their customer service vision (also their mission) is to inspire humanity.

This is a screen shot from its culture page:

They've also created this short video that describes how they are different. Notice how their mission (a.k.a. customer service vision) plays a starring role.

#8 Involve Your Employees

A fun way to promote your customer service vision is to get your employees involved.

Here's an example from the Center for Sustainable Energy's Clean Vehicle Rebate Project. Their customer service vision is this:

Make it easy to join the clean vehicle movement.

One thing this team did to promote the vision was to ask employees to think of words that described how their co-workers supported the vision. The words were then arranged in a word cloud shaped like a car to showcase their many positive attributes:

Source: Clean Vehicle Reb

#9 Use it to Guide Decisions

There's nothing that can promote your customer service vision faster than using it to guide your decisions.

REI's amazing Opt Outside campaign is an outstanding example. In 2015, the outdoor gear retailer decided to close their stores on Black Friday. This included their online store!

The decision was a clear reflection of their customer service vision:

We inspire, educate and outfit for a lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship.

REI's President and CEO, Jerry Stritzke said, "Black Friday is the perfect time to remind ourselves of the essential truth that life is richer, more connected and complete when you choose to spend it outside. We’re closing our doors, paying our employees to get out there, and inviting America to OptOutside with us because we love great gear, but we are even more passionate about the experiences it unlocks."

Bonus Vision Resource

You can learn more about creating and sharing a customer service vision from The Service Culture Handbook.

Ten Ways to Fix Contact Center Turnover

Attrition is the biggest contact center challenge in 2016.

That's according to this research from Strategic Contact that outlined the top contact center challenges for 2016 . You could probably change the year and the result would be the same. High turnover is always a problem in contact centers.

This post outlines ten proven ways to improve contact center attrition rates. But first, check here to run your turnover numbers and see if you really have a problem. 

You should know the answer to three questions:

  • How much does turnover cost?
  • What's your annual bad turnover rate?
  • What's a reasonable target rate for bad turnover?

These numbers will tell you how much your contact center can gain from improving turnover. They're probably the first thing your CEO or CFO will look at if you want to invest in fixing this problem.

1. Conduct Stay Interviews

Don't wait until your best agents give notice. 

Schedule stay interviews with your top employees. Consider conducting stay interviews with a cross-section of other employees too. These are interviews designed to find out what keeps your employees from leaving. (Here's a great overview from Inc. Magazine.)

The goal is to learn exactly what factors prompt these agents to stick around so you can keep doing those things. You also want to learn what might cause them to leave.


2. Raise Wages

A client of mine was notoriously tight fisted when it came to employee wages. He quickly changed his mind when I showed him this chart:

It showed the $12 per hour average wage he was paying his contact center agents was at the bottom end of the pay scale compared to the range for similar jobs in the area. Paying at the bottom of the pay scale created two problems:

  • His company couldn't attract talented employees at that wage.
  • Any talented employees he developed quickly left for an easy raise.

In my client's case, raising wages to $14 per hour quickly paid for itself in three ways:

  • He recruited better employees who needed less training.
  • He recruited better employees who were more productive.
  • Employees stayed longer because they were more satisfied with their pay.


3. Hire For Culture Fit

Let's face it - not every person will love working for your contact center.

The trick is finding, and hiring, the people who will. This might be a problem if you tend to lose a lot of agents within their first six months. 

One tool that can help you do this is called an Ideal Candidate Profile. This describes both the skills and cultural attributes that an employee must have to fit in with your contact center.

You can use this worksheet to create your own Ideal Candidate Profile.


4. Improve Training

Great hiring won't help you keep employees if they don't get sufficient training. Poor training programs can create turnover in a number of ways:

  • Agents never get the confidence to do their jobs correctly.
  • Agents never get the skills to do their jobs correctly.
  • The training is so bad that agents quit before finishing.

Many contact centers can reduce their new hire training time by 20 - 50 percent while getting better results if they simply adopted more modern techniques.

Toister Performance Solutions helps clients design new hire training programs, but you can also make many improvements on your own. The starting point is setting good learning objectives.

You can also read my article, 5 Ways to Train Contact Center Agents Faster.


5. Create Career Ladders

Many contact center agents don't view their job as a career.

It's often seen as a stepping stone to something else, or perhaps a good way to earn some money for a short period of time.

A career ladder is a defined path that spells out ways for employees to grow within your organization. For example, many contact centers have different agent tiers. A new agent can earn progressive responsibility and pay by getting promoted into higher tiers.

In other companies, agents are actively recruited into other departments. 

Whatever the case may be in your organization, creating opportunities for your agents may entice your most talented people to stay longer.


6. Identify Toxic Leaders

Take a close look at your turnover rate by leader. Are agents quitting certain leaders or teams at a much faster rate than others?

An abnormally high turnover rate could signal a toxic leadership style. That individual leader may benefit from additional coaching or training. Or, they might not be cut out to lead people in your company.

The flip side is also helpful. Take time to study leaders whose agents rarely leave or frequently get promoted and see if you can identify what they do differently.


7. Focus on Short Commutes

The length of your employees' commutes might have an impact on how long they stay.

This fascinating post suggests that 30 minutes is the maximum time contact center employees are willing to commute. The post also cited research showing that employees with a commute of 10 minutes or less are 20 percent more likely to stay with your contact center six months or longer.

There seems to be a little more tolerance for longer commutes if employees are taking public transportation.

This data suggests that contact centers should employ a hyper-local recruiting strategy, embrace more work at home options, or both. 


8. Empower Your Agents

ICMI released a study last year revealing that 86 percent of contact centers don't fully empower their agents.

Empowerment is closely connected to attrition. One of the things agents consistently say they dislike about their jobs is the inability to do what's necessary to help their customers.

Employee empowerment isn't easy, but you can use this guide to get started.


9. Stop Demotivating Agents

Contact center leaders have focused on motivating their agents for as long as I can remember. 

They try incentives, slogans, and snazzy banners. Gamification is the latest agent motivation fad. None of it seems to really work.

That's because agents don't have a motivation problem. The issue is demotivation. Agents become steadily demotivated the longer they're on the job.

Take a look at this data from Benchmark Portal:

Good agents fundamentally want to help people. Make it easy for them to do that, and they're more likely to stay. Make it hard for them to help customers, and they'll probably quit.

Here's some more compelling data about why agents don't need to be motivated.


10. Do A Real Engagement Assessment

Many contact centers do an annual employee engagement survey. 

Contact centers do these surveys because they understand the link between employee engagement and retention. Unfortunately, most of those surveys are a waste of time

The way these surveys are designed, they rarely lead to actionable changes that can take a meaningful bite out of agent attrition.

I've had success with a counter-intuitive approach that doesn't rely on employee opinion. It instead takes a hard look at the underlying processes that drive engagement.

One client used this assessment to cut their turnover by 50 percent and save $150,000.

You can do the conversation starter assessment yourself. Or, let's talk about a more comprehensive version.


What About Culture?

You might be wondering why I didn't suggest improving your contact center's culture.

The trick with culture is it's a pretty squishy concept. However, if you look carefully at my recommendations, you'll see that they all contribute to a strong culture.

In other words, follow these suggestions and you'll be on your way towards building the type of culture that attracts and retains talented agents.

Five Common Assumptions About Employees That Are Totally Wrong

The restaurant manager approached the table. "How's everything?" he asked.

One of the guests told him she was disappointed her salad was soaked in heavy dressing. She didn't want it replaced because the rest of her party were already halfway through their meals.

The manager brought her a free dessert as a goodwill gesture. He assumed the dessert would be a welcome surprise. He overlooked the fact that the guest had ordered a salad in an effort to eat healthy. The dessert was completely wasted.

Assumptions can be dangerous.

In some ways it's natural. Our brains are wired to naturally jump to conclusions. An over-eagerness to please our customers makes this even worse. And, once we land on a verdict, something called confirmation bias makes it hard to change our minds.

This isn't just a problem with customers. Customer service leaders often make dangerous assumptions about their employees that turn out to be totally wrong. 

Here are five examples to avoid.

Assumption #1: They Know What You Want

Employees aren't mind readers. They don't know what you expect them to do unless you explain it clearly and confirm their understanding.

Many leaders assume their expectations are obvious. They don't spend enough time setting expectations or establishing a customer service vision because they assume their employees already know.

In some cases, leaders over-communicate. They create confusion by providing so much information that employees can't tell what's important and what's not. 

You can avoid this assumption by doing two things:

First, verify your employees understand your expectations. Quiz them, test them, or observe them. Just make sure they get it.

Second, make sure they agree. Have them tell you what they plan to do to achieve expectations. 

Assumption #2: They Need Incentives

Incentives create all sorts of problems.

There's a mountain of research to back this up. Outstanding books like Drive and Predictably Irrational chronicle study after study where incentives make performance worse, not better.

Yet, customer service leaders continue to assume that employees need incentives to give their best performance. This comes from a sense that employees require motivation.

My own research suggests the opposite is true. Employees are naturally motivated. The real problem is demotivation. Customer service managers should focus their energy on making sure demotivation doesn't happen.

Assumption #3: They Care

This one is the opposite of #2. Not every employee is fully committed.

Many customer service employees don't consider their job a career. Some people just end up in customer service. Others view their job as a convenient way to pay the bills while they go to school for something better.

These folks aren't highly motivated. They won't move mountains or leap over tall buildings to make customers happy. They'll do the minimum and that's it. 

Customer service leaders need to be careful not to assume every employee is gung-ho about service. If you want to these people to perform, you need to make it easy for them to deliver outstanding customer service.

Assumption #4: They Need Training

We all have our pet peeves. My pet peeve is that training is the solution to every performance problem.

Managers often assume that's all that's needed. They think that training will someone "fix" employees who aren't providing great service.

I really wish that were true. I love training. I've been doing it for more than twenty years. Heck, I even volunteer to train in my spare time. 

Sadly, training can only fix a small percentage of employee performance challenges. My own estimates show that training is only responsible for one percent of customer service.

What should you do instead of training? Check out my next level service action plan to get step-by-step instructions.

Assumption #5: They're Content

No complaints doesn't equal no problems.

Many customer service leaders are surprised when a talented employee suddenly leaves the organization. They had assumed the employee was happy because he or she had never complained.

Some companies do exit interviews to find out what went wrong. These only help prevent the same thing from happening in the future.

A better approach is to conduct stay interviews. Sit down with your best employees and find out what's keeping them. Take time to learn about their goals and ambitions. You might be able to use that information to help them stay.

Are There More Assumptions to Avoid?

These are just five common examples. What others would you add to the list?

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:

New Report: Contact Center Leaders Don’t Get Engagement

Happy agents lead to happy customers.

This pithy saying is a widely held belief among contact center leaders. The logic flows that if you engage your contact center agents, they’ll deliver outstanding service.

A new report from ICMI reveals a severe disconnect between this belief and what contact center leaders are actually doing.

The data suggests that most contact center leaders don’t get engagement.

This post examines the disconnect, uncovers some root causes, and makes a few suggestions for correcting the problem.

The Big Disconnect

It’s hard to find any disagreement that it’s important for contact center agents to be engaged. Here are two findings from ICMI’s study:

  • 99% of respondents believe that agent engagement drives performance
  • 88.8% believe that agent engagement is a priority in their organization

Now, here’s where the disconnect begins. Only 7 percent of contact center leaders said that agent engagement was a top priority. 

The disconnect is further revealed by what contact centers measure. Here are the top five agent metrics in contact centers today:

  1. Quality - 74%
  2. Average Handle Time - 73%
  3. Customer Satisfaction - 58%
  4. Adherence to Schedule - 58%
  5. First Contact Resolution - 43%

These metrics suggest that compliance and efficiency are the true priorities in today’s contact centers.

Justin Robbins, ICMI’s Senior Analyst, shared with me that only 19 percent of contact centers measure agent engagement.


Root Causes

A lack of clarity makes engagement hard to manage.

Many reports, like ICMI’s, omit a definition. The assumption is the term is clear so it doesn’t need to be defined.

Unfortunately, there’s a lack of consensus. There’s even disagreement among the top employee engagement consulting firms, like Gallup and BlessingWhite.

Here’s the definition I prefer:

Employee engagement is the extent to which an employee is deliberately contributing to organizational success.

This definition helps identify some additional root causes.

Engaged agents want to serve their customers at the highest level. Unfortunately, many contact centers make this difficult.

The ICMI report also looked at what would motivate contact centers to invest in giving agents better tools to serve their customers. Unsurprisingly, the top choice was cost.


Engagement Solutions

These issues always come down to dollars and cents.

That’s why employee engagement initiatives fail. They’re reduced to surveys on touchy-feely subjects like morale.

You’ll need to make a stronger business case if you really want to engage your agents.

Start by going back to the definition of employee engagement. There’s no soft stuff here. This is all about results:

Employee engagement is the extent to which an employee is deliberately contributing to organizational success.

Next, get out your calculator and add up the cost of making it hard for agents to do a great job. Here are just a few options to consider:

  • What’s the real cost of agent turnover?
  • How much could we save by improving first contact resolution?
  • Could we reduce customer churn through better service? If so, how much?

There’s real savings here. 

Even a 10 percent reduction in turnover, repeat contacts, or customer churn could add up quickly. Measure those items and you’ll be much more likely to find the budget you need to improve agent engagement.