A collection of articles written by Customer 1st

Recruiting and Developing Call Centre Employees with the Right Attitude and Behaviour

20th May 2011

Around the world, call centres continue to expand as countries become more service-focused. In 2002, a Journal of Management article on call centres stated, "More than three percent of the US working population and almost two percent of the European working population were employed in call centres in 2002."

Traditionally, call centres were owned and managed by the same organisation that ran the front office. Now, more call centres are outsourced to providers who specialise in sales and customer support. Originally, call centres were located in the country in which the service was provided, but more recently, organisations have moved call centres overseas. Managing these geographically dispersed networks has remained a challenge to service leaders.

For any organisation, its people are important to its success, especially in the service sector, and particularly true in a call centre. Call centre agents are frontline employees. They require a unique set of skills to perform their job effectively; they need to provide personalised services without having the opportunity to interact with the customer in a face-to-face context.

Contact centre agents directly interact with the customer and are often expected to act as ambassadors for the company. To maintain operational efficiency and customer satisfaction, it is imperative that agents have the right mix of knowledge, skills, and professionalism to achieve high levels of customer satisfaction. A further requirement is an ability to adjust to the needs of various customers. Call centre agents are urged to be polite, friendly, and helpful, even if the customer is rude. This imposes further demands, as call centre agents must control and manage their own emotions. Recruiting staff with the right attitude and training them to develop the requisite knowledge, skills, and competencies is key to the success of any call centre.

We must not forget that call centre jobs can be very stressful because of abusive customers. A 2004 study, "The customer is not always right: Customer aggression and emotion regulation of service employees" in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, found a strong relationship between burnout and absenteeism among call centre agents. Symptoms of burnout include apathy, cynicism, and emotional exhaustion. Individuals who are burned out respond by withdrawing from the workforce, either temporarily or permanently.

Burnout can be very expensive for the organisation, and so there needs to be a shift towards developing strategies to help agents cope with these demands. Although technical skills are a prerequisite for high performance, a view now exists among call centre employers that company-specific, IT skills can be taught after selection and that the critical skills to recruit for are the soft and customer service skills. I wonder whether this actually happening now—and are call centres retaining more of their staff?

Call centre agents need expertise on company-specific products, procedures, software, and know-how to retrieve information, but they also need a deep understanding of the organisation's products, markets, and industrial trends, so they can understand customers' concerns. Having this broad knowledge also provides agents with confidence when dealing with customer problems.

Having identified that call centre staff require a unique set of skills, can we create a requirements checklist? Let's consider some of the important characteristics for call centre handlers identified by the Institute of Customer Service in "Listen Up! Skills that Call Centre Employees Need to be Successful."

Communication

A common theme in the academic and practitioner literature is that effective communication skills are paramount for call centre agent performance. Effective communication, including rapport-building techniques, the timely use of humour, and a positive attitude led to higher performance. The managers interviewed asserted that it is not sufficient for a call centre agent to have "personality"; they must have the ability to communicate their personality with the right mix of tone, fluency, pitch and energy. Call centre agents also emphasised the importance of emotional control in communicating with difficult customers.

Active Listening

An additional skill that may increase call centre agent performance is active listening: taking an active role in the communication process by paraphrasing the other person's message, summarising important points, and responding to emotions.

Specific techniques include removing distractions, demonstrating attentiveness, clarifying the customer's need, and emphasising the main points in a dialogue.

Customer Role Orientation

The ability to put yourself in the customer's shoes, or to take the perspective of the customer, is important if customers' needs are to be understood and the service adapted to suit their needs. Perspective taking and empathy lead to improved interpersonal relations, which are critical skills for call centre employees.

Teamwork Orientation

Teamwork is an essential aspect in the service industry. It structures the role and encourages socialisation, which can build team solidarity. Call centre employees interact with their co-workers to learn new information about customer services, technology, and ways to solve enquiries. A service champion in each team has the ability to motivate all team members.

Identification with the Organisation

Organisational identification refers to employees' psychological attachment to their employer. One study, "Emotions in call center work: a test of the basic assumptions of Affective Events theory," in the British Journal of Management, found that employees who were more attached to their organisation were more satisfied with their jobs and less likely to have intentions to leave their organisation. Further, call centre agents who identified with their organisation reported fewer health complaints and less burnout.

Motivation

Motivation is one of the most important concepts both for business managers. The same study proposed that behaviour can be intrinsically or extrinsically motivated. Intrinsic motivation refers to behaviour enacted because the person derives pleasure and satisfaction from engaging in the act. Intrinsic rewards are inherent in the job itself and can include job characteristics such as skill variety, autonomy and feedback, participation in decision making, and training opportunities. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, pertains to a wide variety of behaviours. For example, a call centre agent who comes to work for a paycheck or who is motivated by his or her manager's approval is extrinsically motivated.

In my work with Customer 1st International, we trained 2000 call centre staff who work for Africa's largest telecommunications provider over an 18-month period. The training was delivered online and led to a qualification in customer service. Our online tutors experienced both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated employees. Many course participants displayed intrinsic motivation, exhibited by a hunger to absorb new knowledge and skills, particularly around improving service to their customers. Also, these highly motivated participants displayed extrinsic motivation by valuing their employer for giving them the opportunity to develop themselves into customer service professionals.

The online training project made me think that individuals who know how the various elements of their job roles fit together are better poised to empathise with customers, thus helping to retain customer loyalty. Call centre agents who have an integrated understanding of their workplace and are able to walk in the customers' shoes are by far the best people to enhance a brand and build a reputation for service excellence.