A Call Center Holiday Story

Sometimes things happen that just make you feel good. Such is the case with Press One, an outbound call center in Fort Collins, Colorado. Press One was founded 10 years ago by my friend Andy Orr. Andy emigrated from Scotland as a child 40 years ago. He saw a business opportunity in the newspaper industry—newspapers and magazines needed assistance with subscriptions and re-enrollments. Some of his prominent customers are the New York Times and USA Today.

Working for Press One is not easy and rejection is far more common than success. Call center representative resilience and persistence are almost a necessity to be a successful call center employee. Yet through careful call center hiring and positive call center management practices, Andy has grown Press One from 25 call representatives 10 years ago to over 400 call center representatives today.

Many of the Press One call center representatives are from the edges of society; having a job there as an out-bound solicitor represents a major life accomplishment for them—a first job that pays real wages. For others, a job with Press One is a clear "step up" from previous life circumstances. In almost all cases, the Press One call center representatives have refused to accept an intolerable status quo and embraced an opportunity to better themselves.

'Tis the Season For Motivating the Call Center

Five years ago, Andy implemented a simple call center incentive system with his employees. He awarded the call center representatives points for such behaviors as good attendance, subscription renewals and a few other behaviors. It wasn’t a lot of money and at best represented 1 to 3 percent of an operators base pay. Andy worked out a plan with VISA wherein an employee could convert their points to a stored value card and redeem them at any merchant that accepted VISA.

I am a professor of Management at the University of Wyoming, and work-related programs like this interest me. I recognized an opportunity to gather data for an academic article based on "real-world" data. My friend Andy satisfied my curiosity and gave me access to his data base.

My hypothesis was that call center representatives at Press One were existing at the bottom (physiological level) of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and were completely consumed by instant self-gratification. (Click on diagram to enlarge.)

In other words, my assumption was that they would redeem their VISA card points for such things as food and gas as soon as they earned them. After all, $3 for a burger after work would be a big deal for most of these employees. Right?

So, I retrieved all the reward data for 2008 and plotted the number of redemptions versus the months. I expected to see a statistically non-significant flat line which would confirm my hypothesis that people at the bottom of the motivational pyramid. I was stunned when the data revealed the following results.

Holiday Spirit Throughout the Call Center

Of all redemptions, 39 percent were in the three months of October, November and December. Wow, my assumptions were wrong. These call center representatives were accumulating their points to redeem them for the holidays. If you accept the premise of the Maslow Pyramid (almost all behavioral scientists do), the Press One operators were existing at the love and belonging level of human motivational needs. To me, these results were an indication that in spite of difficult personal circumstances and a tough job, others still mattered.

Andy gave me permission to go "on the floor" and to talk to several of the operators about their redemptions. Most of them confirmed what the data showed. They were saving their points to redeem them for Christmas gifts. One story in particular really touched me deeply. It was a young female agent who told me she was recently released from a halfway shelter for young adult foster home constituents. Press One was her first full time job and she was learning to like it and was performing very well. "I need all I make here to barely make ends meet," she told me. "But," she went on, "I have been saving my incentive money for my sister. We have been in foster homes for 15 years and I never had any money to buy her a Christmas gift. Now, I have earned enough to take her to dinner next month. I can’t wait!"

I had to quickly turn my head to compose myself and hide my instantly wet eyes. Readers, you can’t imagine how much I wanted to pay for that meal. But I didn’t. I knew it meant more for this young lady to personally pay for her sister’s first Christmas gift.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Good Fishing!

First published on Customer Management IQ