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.

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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).

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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.

Three essential steps to improving employee performance

Are your employees maximizing their potential?

Are your employees maximizing their potential?

Most of us are trying to improve employee performance at some level. Individual contributors try to do their jobs better. Leaders try to elevate their teams. Executives try to guide their entire organizations towards success. 

Most of us go about it the wrong way.

The wrong approach is an impatient one. It starts and ends with solutions. We spot a problem, swiftly generate ideas to solve it, and then quickly move on to the next thing. 

The challenge here is the problems never seem to go away. They keep happening over and over again. Or worse, the solution generates a new set of unanticipated problems. Nothing truly gets better.

How many idea-generating discussions have you been a part of in the past month? Now, count how many discussions you’ve had during the same time to talk about the results that were achieved. 

For most of us, the ratio of ideas to results is disconcerting.

This post is about the right way to improve performance. It’s a proven methodology that works time and time again so long as you have the discipline to follow it. 

Step 1: Clearly define the desired performance

You can’t deliberately improve performance if you can’t describe what success looks like. 

This is a huge problem in my field, customer service. A whopping 38 percent of companies have no definition of what outstanding service looks like. Even among the companies that have taken the time to define outstanding service, the number of employees who are actually familiar with the definition is often quite low. 

How can we get better at something if we don’t know what “better” is?!

This isn’t just a customer service issue. The same holds true for many aspects of workplace performance. There’s an alarming lack of clarity around what we really mean when we discuss hot topics such as teamwork, employee engagement, and leadership.

One of my favorite performance improvement questions is “What does success look like?” 

You need to have a clear answer to this question if you want to improve performance. Better yet, find a way to put numbers to it and make it measurable. You’re welcome to use my SMART goal worksheet  to help you out. (They don’t call ‘em SMART goals for nothing!)

Having a SMART goal can change the conversation from a very wishy-washy, “We want to get better at customer service” to a much clearer “We want to achieve an 85 percent rating on the December customer satisfaction survey.”

Step 2: Identify current performance

Where are we right now? Surprisingly, a lot of people struggle with this question. 

Current performance isn’t documented, measured, or clearly articulated. We just know we want to do better.

Can you imagine using your car’s GPS system or your smart phone’s navigation feature if it couldn’t find your current location? Any direction it sent you would essentially be random.

That’s often how people try to improve performance. They stick to generic solutions that may or may not be appropriate.

Often, that generic solution involves some form of cookie-cutter training.

I’m a big fan of training. I absolutely love it. I’m certified in it. My company has been recognized as a Champion of Learning by the American Society for Training and Development for four consecutive years. My customer service training program is really, really good.

And, as much as I love training, I hate to waste it.

So, before you jump to a generic solution, try to pin down current performance.

  • If you want to improve productivity, what’s your productivity now?
  • If you want to improve service, what do your customers say now?
  • If you want to employees to be more engaged, how engaged are they now?

Step 3: Analyze the gap

If you are at A, and you want to be at B, what's holding you back?

This is an amazingly clarifying question. Sometimes, the answer is related to knowledge or skills which can be fixed with training. In other cases, there’s something else that’s getting in the way.

If you want to find the obstacles inhibiting performance, try taking a walk. In Lean, it’s called “Gemba” or “go and see.” It involves observing the performance to look for obvious barriers to success.

I recently had a client who wanted to improve the sales closing rate in their inbound call center. It was 33 percent and the client wanted to raise the bar to 40 percent. My client initially asked me to conduct some training, but after spending five minutes in their call center a new solution quickly emerged.

The call center reps received their highest volume of calls in the morning. They didn’t have enough staff to handle the volume, so customers sometimes had to hold for as long as 30 minutes. This made the reps anxious to quickly get through each call so customers weren’t kept waiting.

The simplest solution was adding staff to help their peak volume. Within 30 days of changing their staffing levels, the closing ratio was up to 45 percent. The additional sales more than made up for the cost of hiring more people.

It ain’t always easy

I’m a big fan of quick wins. It makes me look like a genius when I can spend five minutes with a client and show them how to increase their closing ratio from 33 percent to 45 percent. If only it were that easy.

Believe me, results may vary.

Most of my clients are really good at what they do already. They're trying to take things to the next level, which means the solutions are usually a bit less obvious.

There is one constant. I start with the same three steps whenever I help a client improve employee performance. You can do the same thing now that you know these steps too.

4 Ways Memorization Hurts Performance


Employees need to know a lot of stuff. 

They must know their company’s policies, procedures, products, service standards, customer preferences, and leadership prerogatives. They must keep up with training, meetings, phone calls, hallway conversations, emails, texts, chats, postings, and signs. Today’s correct answer is tomorrow’s outdated content as employees are deluged with an endless flow of updates, bulletins, and change of plans.

Keeping it all straight requires a lot of memorization.

Unfortunately, our memories aren’t the ideal location to store the large volumes of complex information needed to do our jobs. Here are four ways that memorization can actually hurt performance.


#1: Memorization takes time

Memorization is a time consuming process. In his book, Creative Training Techniques, training guru Bob Pike suggests that new information typically needs to be reinforced six times for it to be retained. Pike further elaborates that knowledge retention activities must require some form of learner interaction to truly be effective.

The time consuming nature of memorization leaves many managers with a dilemma. On one hand, they can take shortcuts in their communication with employees, but this often results in employees forgetting important information. On the other hand, they can devote the time necessary to help employees memorize and retain key knowledge, but today’s busy managers rarely have this kind of time.


#2: Our memories don't update easily

Information changes constantly. Even if you take the time and effort to memorize important facts, you will have to repeat the process all over again when those facts change. It gets even more complicated when a team of employees must memorize new information since some people may continue working with the old information.

Frequent travelers provide an excellent glimpse into what happens when you have to regularly replace old information with new information. Road warriors often rent similar looking cars. Is it the silver Cruze or the blue Impala this week? The key information (Which rental car am I driving?) changes so frequently that its hard to keep straight. 

It’s not uncommon for business travelers to get into the wrong vehicle when hotel valets deliver several cars at once on a busy morning. 


#3: Memories are unreliable

Our memories are notoriously unreliable. They may fail us completely, or worse, cause us to produce the wrong answer with absolute certainty. In one experiment, researchers found that 40 percent of subjects recalled viewing footage of a terrorist attack in London even though the footage didn’t exist.

Our unreliable memories can prevent employees from being on the same page. I remember once renting a car where I used a pre-paid voucher to cover the cost of the rental. The employee who processed the rental confidently told me that I needed to turn in the voucher when I returned the car. The employee who processed my return confidently told me I should have provided the voucher when I rented the car. One of these two obviously misremembered the correct procedure, but both were absolutely certain they were right.


#4: Memories are use it or lose it

Facts and figures require repetition to remain easily accessible. Information we use often is easily be recalled without effort.  Information we use infrequently or haven’t needed for a long time is difficult to recall. 

An example I like to give is the high school locker combination. Most of us had a PE or book locker in high school. Back then, opening the locker took just a few seconds. We opened the locker one or more times every day so the combination was easy to recall. Today, most of us wouldn’t be able to remember the combination at all. Why? Because it has been so long since we’ve needed that information that it’s no longer readily accessible.


What’s the solution?

Stay tuned for my next blog post where I’ll provide some simple solutions to overcome the memorization dilemma. However, I can give you one hint now.

Overcoming the memorization obstacle requires us to rethink our objective. 

We ask employees to memorize information so they can quickly apply information to their jobs. What if there was an alternative way for employees to rapidly access this information?

How do you decide when to cut your losses with a poor performer?

A colleague of mine in Washington D.C., Hallely Azulay, tweeted (@HalellyAzulay) a deceptively simple question this morning:

Sometimes U can reform a poor performer + sometimes U have 2 cut yr losses + start from scratch. How do *U* decide which way 2 go?

I've had the fortune (or misfortune) to come about my answer the hard way - through trial and error experience. Years ago, I was a training supervisor for two large call centers at Chadwick's of Boston. Our HR department was judged by how many people they hired, regardless of qualification, so we received lots of new hires who couldn't do the job. My department was judged by whether or not the people who graduated our new hire training program could do the job. I was the hatchet man who had to fire people who weren't going to make it. I hated that aspect of the job, so I learned how to ensure that the only time I fired someone was because it was the last resort and the right thing to do. 

I start by asking three questions:




Is the person aware of the desired performance? See next question. Make sure they know what is expected! It seems obvious, but until you confirm they know what is expected it's tough to hold someone accountable.
Is the person aware their performance needs to improve? See next question. Give them honest and direct feedback. I've seen a lot of passive aggressive managers try to dodge this one by dropping hints or venting about the person.
Is the person willing to perform at the desired level? See next question. Cut your losses. This isn't a good fit for you or them.


Now, it gets tricky. They know what to do, aren't doing it, but are willing to keep trying. Here's my general approach:

Step 1: The initial conversation.
Have a conversation with the person to strategize on to get their performance up to speed. The person ultimately has to take ownership, but make it clear you are there to help. Sometimes, the result of this conversation is the person decides the role isn't a good fit for them after all. It's a tough decision, but it's theirs.

Step 2: Let them fail.
If Step 1 doesn't work it's time to remove the safety net, the training wheels, or whatever else is propping up this person's performance. They need to be completely on their own and experience the struggle of trying to perform. Letting them fail generally results in the person deciding the role isn't right for them (again, their decision) or realizing what it truly takes to succeed. In rare cases, the person fails but doesn't have an epiphany, which means it's on to Step 3.

Step 3: Cut your losses.
This step is truly the hard part, but it needs to be done. You've given them every chance to succeed, but they've demonstrated they are not going to and are struggling to realize they can't. It's now time to make the decision for them and move them along.

Three performance myths, part 2: training equals performance

Tony Bingham, CEO of ASTD (the American Society for Training and Development), addressed a group of us yesterday at an informal luncheon. It was a 'town-hall' style meeting to discuss the role of training professionals in the current economy. One of the central themes was very enlightening: many executives and even training professionals are still looking at 'training' as an event-based activity that will magically produce better performance. When this inevitably doesn't happen, the credibility of the training program naturally comes into question.

There are three major problems with this approach, and it is up to us workplace learning and performance professional to engage senior leaders to fix it before these executives are forced to make budget cuts.

Problem #1: Measurement.  The goal of training programs is typically some level of increased performance. Unfortunately, training is still widely measured by number of participants, learner satisfaction, and cost. Training should be evaluated by it's ability to help increase performance, improved business results, and return on investment.

Problem #2: Commitment. Many managers are guilty of sending their employees off to training to 'be fixed'. They should be playing an active role in their employees' development, both before and after the training takes place.

Problem #3: Support. A training class can be equated to planting a seed in a garden. Without water, sun, and nutrients, that seed will never produce vegetables. Training is the same way. Learners need support, coaching, and opportunities to practice once they've attended a class to make learning stick.