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:


The REAL Way to Motivate Customer Service Employees

Employee motivation has been a hot topic in customer service for as long as anyone can remember.

In the old days, the threat of punishment was used to motivate customer service employees. The message was clear — do a good job or be fired. 

That approach didn’t work because employees would do just enough to avoid getting fired.

In more recent history, rewards and incentives became an import facet of management philosophy. The idea was you could get employees to do something they’d normally find distasteful by incentivizing them with cash and prizes. 

That approach didn’t work because employees would do just enough to win a prize.

The current management thinking revolves around gamification. Think of it as rewards on steroids. A perfect attendance prize gets a lot more exciting if you can win points, badges, and work your way up the team leader board.

Unfortunately, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that gamification doesn’t play well with customer service employees.

So, what does work?

engaged.jpg

Intrinsic Motivation - The REAL Motivator

In his book, Drive, author Daniel Pink examines reams of evidence on employee motivation and comes to a clear conclusion:

The carrot and stick approach doesn’t motivate knowledge workers to do a better job. In fact, it’s counterproductive and often results in poorer performance.

Pink discovered that knowledge workers, such as customer service employees, are intrinsically motivated. He found three specific factors that motivate employees to do a better job. Unfortunately, these factors are sorely lacking in many customer service environments:

  1. Purpose
  2. Mastery
  3. Autonomy

 

Purpose

People want to belong to something and know their work has meaning.

In customer service, this means creating a customer service vision. This is a clear definition of outstanding customer service that is shared by all employees. It serves as a compass to point everyone in the same direction.

Most customer service teams don’t have a clear purpose. My own research revealed that only 62 percent of companies have clearly defined outstanding service. Of those companies, only a few can honestly say their employees can give a consistent answer to two critical questions:

  1. What is our customer service vision?
  2. How do I personally contribute to the customer service vision?

If you want to know why customer service at In-N-Out Burger is so much better than McDonald’s, look no further than purpose. Both started with the same core values, but only In-N-Out has made them a real part of their culture.

 

Mastery

People love developing their skills. It feels good to be good at something.

Many customer service teams are anti-mastery. Companies keep salaries low by hiring low skilled employees. They skimp on training. Leaders find themselves with very little time to give coaching and feedback unless something goes wrong.

Amazing things can happen when you give employees the opportunity to grow and be their best. Not in a superficial, here’s your “Knowledge Badge” and ten experience points sort of way. True mastery is that process where people become increasingly better at their jobs.

Earlier this year, I wrote about Jesse, a new employee at a bagel shop. She was awkward and lacked confidence because she hadn’t been properly trained.

Jesse underwent a complete transformation over the course of a few weeks. She stuck with it and figured out how to do her job. She asked questions and learned from her experiences. Now, Jesse engaged customers with confidence and personality because she had mastered her basic responsibilities.

 

Autonomy

Ask customer service employees what they dislike most about their jobs and many will tell you it’s a lack of autonomy.

  • They don’t like scripts, because it feels like they aren’t trusted to say the right thing.
  • They don’t like rules, because it seems like they aren’t trusted to do the right thing.
  • They don’t like data, because it appears to be a tool for micromanagement.

Engaged employees are given the autonomy to do what’s right.

They have a clear purpose they believe in and are trusted to work towards that purpose. They are given opportunities to learn and grow so they can master their ability to contribute to the purpose.

Creating a clear purpose, helping employees develop mastery, and giving employees autonomy can be time-consuming. Many managers fall back on the carrot and stick approach because it seems easier. In the long run, any time savings is lost in lower productivity, lower morale, and higher turnover.

If you’d like to see more, check out this amazing ten minute video that summarizes Pink’s research on employee motivation: