Agent Rewards and Recognition: What Works

No single tactic can ensure that a contact center will achieve low levels of burnout and turnover. But the absence of one tactic—a strategic rewards and recognition program—can ensure that a call center won’t achieve those goals.

While high retention and performance rates rely on a number of factors and practices—focused recruiting/hiring, a competitive salary, effective training, opportunities for advancement—contact center experts agree that those efforts will be wasted if agents don’t feel that they are valued and appreciated on a regular basis.

“The money spent on recruitment, the time to interview, and training time can cost upward of $10,000 by the time you’re done,” says Kim Vey of Right on Queue, a consulting firm based in Innsifil, Ontario, Canada. “You can’t afford to waste that investment by not paying close attention to [employee recognition and motivation] in your call center. …Reward and recognition are the key elements required to achieve a good retention rate.”

Susan Heathfield, an independent management consultant specializing in human-resources issues, echoes that sentiment: “Prioritize recognition for people, and you can ensure a positive, productive, and innovative organizational climate. People who feel appreciated are more positive about themselves and their ability to contribute…and are potentially your best employees.”

While most managers believe that employee recognition and incentives are important, Heathfield adds, many don’t put that belief into practice, or do so poorly. “In my experience, recognition is scarce because of a combination of factors,” she says. “Time is an often-stated reason, and admittedly, recognition does take time. Another reason is that [some managers] don’t know how to provide it effectively, so they have bad experiences when they do.” Many managers erroneously assume that “one size fits all” when they provide recognition and rewards, or they use a “scatter approach” where they “put a lot out there and hope that some efforts will stick and create the results they want.”

The key ingredients
Of course, not all contact centers have failed in the recognition arena. Many have implemented strategic, well-rounded programs— programs that result in happier, high-performing agents whose commitment and effort help strengthen valuable customer relationships. These programs, while varying significantly in the fine details, share certain common attributes that have contributed to their success. Here’s a look at the key ingredients that top contact centers have mixed into their agent rewards/recognition efforts:

* The program features a healthy blend of individual and team recognition. Successful contact centers have found that rewarding the few and the many is the best way to improve staff morale and retention centerwide. These centers have implemented not only “top achiever” awards that recognize strong performances by individual agents, but also team-based awards that help to foster camaraderie and common objectives among large groups of agents. For instance, at executive sedan service Boston Coach, agents earn points (which can later be converted to cash) not only for things like individual attendance and adherence to schedule but also for improvements in the number of service failures for the center as a whole.

The more blending of individual and team awards, the better, according to Leslie Hansen Harps, author of “Motivating Customer Service Employees.” “All-individual programs, which single out one or a handful of winners, can result in excessive competition among agents that can be harmful in a team setting,” says Harps. “On the other hand, all-team programs. where everyone’s contribution is recognized, may demotivate high performers who may feel their individual accomplishments are not appreciated.”

* Rewards and recognition are based on strategic productivity and quality objectives. Successful contact centers avoid the “numbers” trap when implementing and maintaining a rewards/recognition program. While straight productivity metrics such as talk time, calls per hour, and number of sales made often play a part in these centers’ programs, they are not the be-all and end-all in determining who (or what team) receives recognition. Top centers have effectively worked strategic quality metrics into the rewards and recognition mix as well, thus ensuring that agents focus on providing both efficient and effective service.

For example, Independent Blue Cross (IBC) in Philadelphia not only considers productivity metrics such as staff time and after-call work when rewarding agents, it also places a heavy emphasis on such areas as accuracy, professionalism, attendance and punctuality.

Disregard quality metrics in your recognition program, and your center is doomed, says Harps. “If you are committed to delivering top-notch service, your incentive programs must include a balance of quality and quantity components. Overemphasizing ‘the numbers’–i.e., number of calls handled per shift–can negatively affect quality and service.”

* The program features a mixture of monetary and nonmonetary rewards. “Just give me money” may be what the Beatles were shouting, but agents are singing a slightly different tune. Numerous studies—including one by the American Management Association—have revealed that while contact center staff certainly appreciate cash rewards, they may be more motivated by nonmonetary ones. Many centers have heeded such study findings, as well as their own agents’ suggestions, and implemented rewards/recognition programs that feature both financial gifts as well as things like paid days off, gift certificates, merchandise, achievement awards, and luncheons.

According to American Express Incentive Services (AEIS), “When companies try to motivate employees with an extra paycheck, the award dollars typically go toward the necessities: laundry detergent, diapers, car payments. But noncash awards… leave participants with tangible reminders or fond memories of their hard work.” AEIS cites a three-to-one return on investment in noncash rewards compared with cash rewards.

* Agents themselves actively participate in the maintenance of the program. Of course, the best way to know what will best motivate agents on the job and earn their gratitude is simply to ask them. The vast majority of contact centers with effective rewards/recognition programs regularly seek feedback from their staff to cull new ideas and to ensure that agents are satisfied with how the program is being run. This is typically done via surveys and/or discussions during team meetings.

Contact centers have started giving staff more control—creating agent-led incentives task forces/ committees that empower members with substantial planning and decision- making authority. At Mountain America Credit Union in Salt Lake City, UT, for example, a Morale Team develops and implements events and activities intended to inject fun into the atmosphere while keeping fellow agents focused on customer service goals.

* The program values employee diversity. Contact centers feature very eclectic employee bases, with agents ranging in age from 18 to over 70. Differences in race, cultural, and educational background, religion, and general interests are also common among agent colleagues. The most successful centers have learned the importance of factoring such employee diversity into their rewards and recognition programs.

“We have people who have worked here for 20 years, and their incentive needs are different from those of an agent who is 24 years old. You have to consider the differences and needs of individuals,” says Charlotte Baptie, field market service manager for Gordon Food Service in Ontario. To ensure that no agents feel alienated by the center’s rewards/recognition practices, Baptie strives to keep the programs varied and fresh, implementing a wide range of small monthly awards, prizes, and recognition efforts rather than focusing on a couple of big contests.

At JP Morgan Chase and Co. Cardmember Services, agent diversity isn’t taken into consideration only when planning incentives; it is the very basis of the company’s most important employee recognition effort. Each year the company’s four call centers (in Tampa, FL; San Antonio, TX; Tempe, AZ; and Hicksville, NY) pay homage to the rich diversity of their staff via a series of eight month-long celebrations: Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Disability Awareness Month, Gay/Lesbian Pride Month, Asian-Pacific Heritage Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Multicultural Month, and Native American Heritage Month. Each center features its own diversity steering committee that organizes each month’s activities, which include cultural awareness discussions led by guest speakers as well as professional musical and dance performances,

Keep the circle spinning
Of course, not all contact centers have the budget for such extensive celebrations. The good news is that you don’t have to for your rewards and recognition programs to work.

Many managers have learned to be creative in stretching tight budgets to ensure that staff stay inspired and feel appreciated. Gordon Food Service’s Baptie, for instance, often rewards deserving agents with food certificates and merchandise donated by corporate sponsors. Another simple, cost-effective, and popular approach Baptie frequently employs is to post kudos on office bulletin boards whenever an individual or team of agents goes beyond the call of duty. As she explains, “Even the smallest recognition is important.”

Consultant Heathfield agrees, adding that companies that are lazy in terms of their rewards and recognition efforts risk losing not only agents, but customers as well. “Make recognition a common practice–not a scarce resource–in your organization,” she advises. “Motivated employees do a better job of serving customers well. Happy customers buy more products and are committed to use your services. More customers buying more increases your profitability and success. It’s an endless circle; hop on the employee recognition bandwagon to keep the circle spinning.”

Greg Levin is the Creative Projects Specialist for ICMI (www.icmi.com). He is the former editor of Call Center Management Review.

Copyright 2006 ICMI, a division of ICMI of CMP Media. Reprinted with permission

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