Is Everything You Know About Employee Engagement A Lie?


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When I ask customer service leaders about the topics of greatest interest to them, culture, morale, and engagement are often among the first things they mention. It makes sense, as research by ICMI and others enforce a belief that the climate in the contact center and customer service team has a direct impact on the customer experience.

Organizations are placing an increased focus on elevating the customer experience, so they recognize that to succeed with their customers they first must succeed with their employees. But, what if they're going about it the wrong way? What if they're not even satisfying their employees, let alone engaging them?

I've been fortunate enough to gain a vast amount of exposure to how companies define, measure, and address culture, satisfaction, and engagement. For the better part of my career, I've worked on customer service and contact center teams in roles ranging from the frontline to senior leadership. As part of those teams, I was an insider to what I consider some of the best (and worst) programs out there.

Over the past five years, however, my work and perspective shifted to that of an outsider, as I moved into a role that enables me to train, consult with, and analyze thousands of organizations around the world. It's amazing how differently you view these programs when you take the opportunity to step back and consider them from a new perspective. For me, I've put it all through the lens of what enables or prevents brands from keeping their promises

One of those promise-breaking discoveries was that many organizations confuse employee satisfaction with engagement.

Employee satisfaction is meeting their basic needs and expectations. Employees expect to get paid a fair wage. They need the right tools and training to do their jobs effectively. They expect a respectful workplace, etc. When we hire employees, we make a promise to meet those needs and expectations. Anyone can fulfill the basic requirements to satisfy their employees. Anyone can be completely satisfied with their job yet still not be engaged.

Employee engagement is having employees who are emotionally and psychologically committed to their job. Engaged employees exert discretionary effort to work on behalf of the organization's goals. Engaged employees act without prompting. They go above and beyond to selflessly serve others, and they contribute to the greater good of the cause. It's difficult, if not impossible, to sustain an engaged employee who is not first a satisfied employee. It takes an invested organization to satisfy employees. It takes a truly invested leader to cultivate and increase engagement within the team.

Getting these definitions right is critical, as you can't get to work fixing your problems or achieving your goals if you don't know what the desired outcome should be. It's for this reason that, despite their best efforts, many organizations have employee satisfaction or engagement programs that miss the mark and leave employees unsatisfied and disengaged.

Assuming you've appropriately defined employee engagement and satisfaction, your next step is to understand what within your realm of control has the greatest impact on both satisfaction and engagement. In interviewing contact center employees from hundreds of organizations, I uncovered the top two factors that affect engagement and satisfaction: leadership and tools. Employees who have strong leaders and the necessary tools to effectively perform in their positions report the highest levels of both satisfaction and engagement, assuming all other things are equal. Variables like compensation, environment, and corporate mission matter too, but not to the extent of leadership and tools.

In an environment that's notorious for promoting people into supervisory and management positions just because they were good agents, and one that is plagued by ineffective systems and process (92 percent of contact center leaders believe their agent-facing applications could be more effective), it's no wonder that so many contact centers struggle with both employee satisfaction and engagement. If you want to create employee engagement programs that work and improve employee satisfaction, then you should focus your efforts on developing great leaders and leveraging effective tools/technologies.

Don't miss this! There are and always will be other things demanding your time and attention, but if you do not have great leaders and effective technologies, all of your other efforts will be wasted. When you get this right you'll see lowered costs, improved customer satisfaction, faster response rates, improved first contact resolution, and overall enhancements to both employee and customer experiences.

There are two primary ways to develop great leaders in your contact center today. The first is to focus on those who are already in positions of authority (supervisors, coaches, managers, etc.), and implement a professional development plan that includes an emphasis on people management and the unique challenges and dynamics of the contact center. ICMI's research indicates that almost 60 percent of contact center supervisors were formerly agents, and many of them were promoted without any formal leadership training. It's critical for you to intentionally develop leadership and management skills. Just because someone was an excellent agent does not mean that they'll be an excellent manager.

The second way to develop great leaders in your contact center is to study and identify the attributes of a great contact center leader and begin developing agents who embody these attributes. That might not necessarily be your best agen,t and that is entirely OK. What's important here is to ensure that you're going to promote an individual who provides strengths that balance out the rest of your leadership team, is comfortable delivering effective coaching, and can successfully transition from someone's peer to advisor. Promoting some of your agents into supervisory positions is inevitable, so be sure to focus on who will be the best leader, not the best agent.

It's also important to remember that leadership development never ends. Developing and refining leaders is a continuous process that is necessary for their ongoing effectiveness and ability to impact their teams in relevant ways. Great leaders who want to foster and enable employee engagement make employees feel part of a team and that their role matters. Whenever possible, they share details on goals, challenges, and progress to date. They give employees a positive sense of the importance they play and emphasize the role of the employee in improving on the organization's goals. They also challenge teams to investigate ways to get better.

When it comes to leveraging effective tools and technologies, it's important to consider the rapid growth in automation and use of self-service channels. This increasingly means that the basic and easier-to-resolve activities are now completed via self-service. The result is an increased complexity of the agent-assisted contacts, requiring a greater skill set of the agent. By not advancing the agent-facing tools and technologies, employees experience unnecessary stress. That stress drives lower engagement and, subsequently, lower performance. In fact, ICMI research found that system and tool inefficiencies and difficulties are the #1 contributor to agent workday stress. (Seventy-one percent of agents cited it as their top stressor.)

There's no one right tool for everyone, but you should give employees the information, tools, and training necessary to do their jobs to the best of their abilities and to deliver on business objectives. Provide visibility into the employee's performance (dashboards) along with coaching, including real-time training nudges as needed. Enable employees through a simplified desktop to provide a unified workflow. Manage all customer interactions and give access to the knowledge needed to successfully complete each customer interaction. Gain employees' feedback on what tools and resources help them and what's still missing and then act on it.

Ready to get started on improving the satisfaction and engagement of your team? Take a big picture view of the role the front line plays in the organization's customer service strategy. Start first with the role of the agent, looking at how they are being used and what they need to successfully do their jobs. Then move to tools and resources that are in place or currently missing, including technology, ongoing monitoring of interactions for continuous improvement, and agent training or mentoring. End with your role as the leader, looking at what you need to do to encourage, coach, and inspire employees to foster their lifetime engagement?


Justin Robbins is a customer service expert and professional speaker who, over the past two decades, has coached and consulted thousands of individuals on contact center and customer experience best practices. He leads the content programs for HDI & ICMI and is a frequent author of research, articles, and best practice guides.